Change for the homosexual is difficult, but still possible, researchers of a newly released study say.
"The Thomas Project: A Study of Religiously-Mediated Change in Exodus Group Participants" presents evidence that there are people who have successfully changed, or experienced "conversion," from homosexuality to heterosexuality.
The study, conducted by longtime Wheaton College professor of psychology and provost Stanton L. Jones and Regent University professor Mark Yarhouse, followed about 100 people entering ex-gay programs under the umbrella of Exodus International – the nation's largest Christian organization dealing with homosexuality issues – for over four years.
The researchers, who presented the results on Thursday in Nashville, found that not everyone experienced a successful change through the religious ministry.
"Not even a majority is successful," Jones pointed out to CitizenLink, a publication of Focus on the Family, "but a very substantial group of people report fairly dramatic change."
Results showed that 15 percent of the sample claimed to have successfully changed their sexual orientation, reporting substantial reduction in homosexual desire and addition of heterosexual attraction. These subjects were grouped as "Success: Conversion."
There were also a higher percentage of people (23 percent) who experienced satisfactory reductions in homosexual desire as they embraced the Christian discipline of chastity. This group is described as "Success: Chastity."
Together, 38 percent of the sample experienced significant change while another 29 percent experienced only modest change in the desired direction but expressed commitment to continue.
Additionally, 15 percent experienced no change and were conflicted about the future even though they had not given up; 4 percent reported no change, were confused and had given up but did not label themselves as gay; and 8 percent reported no change, no pursuit and had entered as gay – a group described as "Failure: Gay Identity."
Jones pointed out that change does not come easy even for the successful ones.
"It needs to be said that this process is not like a light switch that switches from one switch point to the other," the professor said, according to CitizenLink. "Life is still complicated for these people, and some still have some residuals of their homosexual attractions. However, they are people who report being able to function as heterosexuals, they're happy with their marriages and they feel that their lives have changed dramatically."
Jones and Yarhouse wrote in their upcoming book Ex-Gays?: A Continuing Study of Religiously Mediated Sexual Orientation Change in Exodus Participants that change was complex for most of the individuals who did report successful conversion to heterosexuality and that sexual orientation for those in the study may be considerably more complicated than commonly conceived.
"We believe the individuals who presented themselves as heterosexual success stories at Time 3 (end of the study period) are heterosexual in some meaningful but complicated sense of the term," they write.
Also addressing the highly disputed question of whether the attempt to change causes harm to the individual, Jones and Yarhouse found no change in their psychological distress over time and thus felt there is no evidence that the change attempt is harmful.
They did not hasten to conclude that anyone can change their sexual orientation or that no one has ever been harmed from the attempt to change. But Jones said the study results suggested that "the forceful way in which the secular mental-health community is saying change is impossible and harmful is just not well-advised."
"My response is that even some change with little evidence of harm is of great importance to people who are seeking great congruence with their values and beliefs," commented Dr. Warren Throckmorton, a noted expert in sexuality counseling.
Many professional organizations, including the American Psychiatric Association and the American Medical Association, are critical of what some call "reparative" or conversion therapies. The American Psychological Association is currently revising its 10-year-old policy on counseling homosexuals after years of pressure from pro-gay groups that say such therapy is harmful. Religious groups have expressed concern that the revised policy, due out next year, may ban all reparative therapies and have called psychologists to respect religious commitments and allow those who are seeking change out of same-sex desires to be offered the help.
Jones was prompted to conduct his research, which is said to be the most rigorous ever conducted on this subject, to address the "ever-increasing pessimism expressed in the profession world that sexual orientation cold ever be changed," he told CitizenLink.
"This was in contrast to the fact that I occasionally met individuals in Christian circles who claim to have experienced precisely such change," he added. "When the mental-health field actually began to say that change is impossible – that sexual orientation cannot be changed – it formed the perfect scientific hypothesis to be able to conduct a study."
Dousing doubts by gay activists and other skeptics of the study who believe the evangelical researchers were biased in their approach, Jones said he and his colleague set out to follow the data wherever it took them. Their methodology was both prospective and longitudinal, catching people right before they entered the changed process and following their over a period of time to see if any change that occurred is stable.
While the Jones-Yarhouse study is not expected to dramatically change the way the ex-gay movement is regarded, as Christianity Today put it, the researchers are just hoping the study would convince people to keep an open mind. Having presented evidence that change is possible particularly on the basis of religious values and that there is no harm, they hope professionals will not continue the movement toward banning attempts to change sexual orientation.
The researchers hope for respect for "the autonomy of individuals who, because of their personal values, religious or not, desire to seek change of their sexual orientation as well as those who desire to affirm and consolidate their sexual orientation."
"For an individual who feels they need to pursue change, particularly on a religious basis, our study encourages them to pursue that path," they said.