EXCLUSIVE: Tom Christofferson on Conversion Therapy, LGBTQ+ Choices in the Church

via Advocate.com

Note from the Editor: A few days ago we received a comment from James, who, as a gay man, has left the Church. As we moderate negative comments, we have to decide which are constructive and can be responded to for our audience’s edification, and which will just add to negativity to our site. We often don’t approve negative comments. There are other locations online where grievances can be aired. Understandably, this makes some commenters angry, but since we are here to increase faith and commitment, this is our policy.

We have decided to share James’ comment in a new article with a personal response from Tom Christofferson, to whom we are grateful for his time, effort, and example. James’ comment was in response to our article by Amy Keim about conversion therapy and the Church’s stance on proposed policies.

Here is James’ comment:

The church’s alternative to conversion therapy is problematic.

Yes, the church opposes inhumane practices such as electrocution (.0001 points to the church for the sliver of human empathy required to take this bold stance). Yes, the unchanging church has, just recently, changed its stance with regard to the fact that sexual orientation can’t actually be “cured”.

That said, the church responds to questions on homosexuality by separating same-gender attraction from the expression thereof. When they complain about the language being “too broad”, this is probably the clarification they want. If the language of the ban were to make a distinction between attraction and expression, then the church could continue practicing something very similar to conversion therapy by attempting to “correct” any outward manifestation/expression of homosexuality. They would just have to stop short of telling a client, “you can be straight”.

If the church’s goal isn’t to change a person’s orientation, then what is the goal? According to the church, any outward expression of homosexuality is sin. Period. If that’s true (I bear testimony that it’s not, btw), then church doctrine can only offer two faith-based “solutions” (i.e. emotional internment camps). Those are 1) embrace life-long celibacy or 2) imitate a heterosexual relationship.

I believe the goal of this letter is to solidify loopholes that would allow the church to do things such as counsel LGBTQ youth that they can and should repress all expression of their sexual orientation indefinitely (not just until adulthood as one of the red herring examples in the letter suggest).

The church is justified to think that their counseling might be interpreted as conversion therapy. There’s not a big difference between telling a person they can reverse their sexual orientation vs telling them they can (and should) repress the expression their homosexuality and live like a heterosexual person. The latter is almost more discouraging because it replaces false hope with no hope at all. (Side note on “hope” here – a gay kid might not be so hopeful for change if the church would just stop implying that they’re broken in the first place!!!!!)

Regardless; whether the goal is complete conversion or complete repression, the underlying message is the same- “homosexuality is unnatural and its expression is sinful”. That message, when considered alongside the fact that sexual orientation can’t be changed, leaves a gay person feeling like “damaged goods” with a terminal and incurable demonic possession. It Inspires feelings of conflict, hopelessness, and diminished self-worth. PTSD-inducing torture methods aside, that messaging is part of what makes conversion therapy so toxic and the church wants to keep it in its therapeutic tool belt.

As long as they continue asking their gay members to lead a fragmented, unauthentic life under threat of eternal damnation, the firestorm of national criticism is well-deserved.

As a gay man who grew up passionately active in the church, served a faithful mission, and did all those things I was supposed to- I bare testimony that the way the church counsels it’s gay members is absolutely toxic. I am genuinely so much healthier and happier after rejecting the church’s authority and embracing an openly authentic life with regards to my sexual orientation. As a young man, hearing the church doctrine regarding homosexuality was so confusing and upsetting. I wasted years of my life trying to reconcile the reality of my situation with what the church expected from me- an impossible task. I am not alone. The church has ruined lives. The news that the church is attempting to shelter their “definitely-not-conversion” therapy practices from the ban is 100% worth freaking out over.

Ps – the majority of my comments have focused on sexual orientation. The letter suggests that the church would prefer to have gender expression/identity excluded from the protective ban entirely pending further research. The trans community and trans allies should definitely be “freaking out”.

Related: Church reiterates that it is against conversion therapy

And here is Tom’s reply:

First, I agree with James that we should have no part in excluding our transgender brothers and sisters from consideration in this regulation concerning the high professional standards required of those who serve them.

The New Jersey case, Ferguson v JONAH, demonstrated, “change” or “reparative” therapy constitutes consumer fraud: it simply doesn’t deliver on its promises — the defendant organization in that case failed to produce a single witness whose sexual orientation had changed.  So there is ample reason for a state regulator to act on behalf of under-age residents of that state seeking the services of its licensed practitioners.

Licensed mental health clinicians are obliged to follow the ethical standards of their professions and state licensure requirements.  The proposed regulation provides a clear provision for therapeutic interactions that help a client balance their religious, spiritual and moral belief with their sexual identity: “The terms “sexual orientation change efforts” and “gender identity change efforts” do not include methods, practices, procedures, or techniques that: (a) do not have the goal of changing an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity…”

James’ own experience highlights why psychologists and therapists understand their role to be assisting and supporting each client’s right to self-determination, and what objectives and goals they will pursue.  There are no easy choices for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer Latter-day Saints.  With regard to sexual identity, there are tangible costs, and benefits, whether one’s choice is to marry someone of the same sex, someone of the opposite sex or to remain celibate.

James has found health and happiness in his life after making such a choice, which is a wonderful outcome — for him.  There isn’t just one way to be gay, though.

Good therapeutic interactions, and indeed our own personal engagement with one another, must allow each individual to speak for realities of their lives as they experience it, to explore and weigh their own values, their hopes, and aspirations.  Each individual choice begins with acknowledging, in this case, sexual identity, and then considers the impact chosen behaviors have on the individual’s desired outcomes.

We demean the intellect and agency of LGBTQ individuals to suggest that their identity robs them of the ability to choose behavior.  I chose in my 20s to search for a loving, monogamous relationship with a man and, indeed, was fortunate enough to enjoy nineteen happy and fulfilling years with such a companion.

And in my 50s, I felt directed toward another path and now have a different kind of happiness and fulfillment as a celibate member of the Church.  Does that mean everyone has to make the same choices I have made, or that James has made, to be healthy and at peace?  Of course not!

Each individual, within themselves or with the assistance of trusted advisors including clinicians, has the right and responsibility to claim their autonomy and follow their internal guidance.  “Perfect love casteth out fear,” and good clinicians, as well as good friends, can help an individual act from love rather than fear as they choose the direction of their lives.

So, it is possible, both within the scope of the proposed regulation and within the parameters of professional practice, to support clients under the age of 18 who desire strategies to help them reduce the current conflict they feel without demonizing behavior itself and certainly without suggesting that sexual identity will change.