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Culture clash on homosexuality

Published:Sunday | June 23, 2013 | 12:00 AM
Ian Boyne

Ian Boyne

Both Christians and gays will take to the streets today on the issue of Jamaica's buggery law, whose constitutionality will be challenged in the Supreme Court this week. The gays might not finally turn up for fear of their lives, which is a tragic commentary on our lack of respect for human rights, but the Christians certainly will. And will be cheered on by many.

But while gays in Jamaica are still fighting not to be thrown in jail or to be physically harmed, gays in a number of countries are steadily advancing towards marriage equality and are certainly losing the stigma once widely associated with homosexuality. In the war with gays, the Church has been losing ground, while gay activists are steadily marching towards progress.

The US Supreme Court is expected to make a landmark decision on gay rights this week, and just last week, a bombshell was dropped in the Evangelical world: After 37 years of being the leading beacon of hope for Christians who want to change their homosexual orientation, Exodus International announced it was closing its doors, with its president apologising for hurting people who tried desperately to change from homosexual to heterosexual.

The news was another in a series of bad-news episodes for the conservative Christian community, which has seen its position on homosexuality attacked from many angles - sociological, legal, scientific, political, philosophical, psychological and theological. Evangelical Christians around the world could point to testimonies given by Exodus International members who spoke of how Christ changed them from homosexual into heterosexual. Perplexed Christian parents would be referred to Exodus International ministry for helpful information on changing orientation.

But Exodus International's own president, Alan Chambers, in an interview with Atlantic magazine last year, said 99.9 per cent of Exodus members (former active gays) did not really change their same-sex attraction. He, himself a formerly active homosexual, admitted that after years of conversion, he still had homosexual desires and same-sex attraction, confessing that he had hidden this for years.

Closing down Exodus International last Wednesday, Chambers said: "Exodus is an institution in the conservative Christian world, but we've ceased to be a living, breathing organism." He himself issued a startling apology to members of the gay community and to gay Christians for the hurt caused by Exodus, which formerly practised reparative therapy, which seeks to change homosexuals into heterosexuals. Exodus had already renounced reparative therapy.

In his apology last week, Chambers spoke openly of "the trauma I have caused. There were several years that I conveniently omitted my ongoing same-sex attractions. I was afraid to share them as readily and as easily as I do today. They brought me tremendous shame and I hid them in the hopes they would go away."

Then he made this astonishing statement for an Evangelical: "Looking back, it seems so odd that I thought I could do something to make them stop. Today, however, I accept these feelings as parts of my life that will likely always be there. The days of feeling shame over being human in that way are long over, and I am simply accepting myself as my wife and family does. As my friends do. As God does."


Chambers was not over in shocking members of the conservative Christianity who had held up Exodus International as evidence that Christians battling with homosexuality could really change under the power of the Holy Spirit. "I am sorry that some of you spent years working through the shame and guilt you felt when your attractions didn't change. I am sorry we promoted sexual-orientation change efforts and reparative theories that stigmatised parents.

"I am sorry that I did not stand up to people publicly 'on my side' who called you names like sodomite - or worse. I am sorry that I, knowing some of you so well, failed to share publicly that the gay and lesbian people I know were every bit as capable of being amazing parents as straight people that I know."

And hear this from a member of the conservative Evangelical community: "I am sorry that when I celebrated a person coming to Christ and surrendering their sexuality to Him that I callously celebrated the end of relationships that broke your heart. I am sorry that I communicated that you and your families are less than me and mine." This was a drone attack that was precise and surgical - but one from inside the Christian army. It's not onward, but backward, Christian soldiers (no pun intended), some would say.

That's in theological circles. In scientific circles, conservative Christians were buoyed a few years ago when one of the giants of modern psychiatry and the man who succeeded in getting the American Psychiatric Association to drop homosexuality from its list of disorders in 1973, Professor Robert Spitzer, came out with research which purported to prove that homosexual orientation could change.


Spitzer had published his work in The Archives of Sexual Behavior (October 2003). And in 2009, the highly respected Scientific American Mind published the article Do Gays Have a Choice?, in which Spitzer's work was referenced. Robert Epstein, reporting on Spitzer's work, says: "To his (Spitzer's) surprise, most of his subjects not only reported living long-term (more than 10 years) as heterosexuals. They also declared that they had experienced changes in sexual attraction, fantasy, and desire consistent with heterosexuality. The changes were clear for both sexes."

Some Christian activists, who are not up to date with the research, have continued to quote Spitzer's work, not knowing that last year he recanted and apologised in the same Archives of Sexual Behavior (Vol. 41, Issue 4). In fairness, it must be pointed out that since his 2003 study, Spitzer came under the most virulent and bitter attack from the gay community. One cannot say his retraction has anything to do with this torrent of attacks, but the 80-year-old Spitzer did recant, saying his study was flawed.

"I believe I owe the gay community an apology for my study making unproven claims of the efficacy of reparative therapy. I also apologise to any gay person who wasted time and energy undergoing some form of reparative therapy because they believed that I had proven that reparative therapy works with some 'highly motivated' individuals." His retraction has been a setback for the Church in its advocacy of reparative therapy.

The World Health Organization and its affiliates have come out against reparative therapy, or what is also called conversion therapy. In fact, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) has recommended to governments, professional associations and all civil society that they inveigh against reparative therapies, saying clinics offering them should be "denounced and subject to adequate sanctions".

As former PAHO director Dr Mirta Roses Periago said on International Day Against Homophobia last year, "Since homosexuality is not a disorder or a disease, it does not require a cure. There is no medical indication for changing sexual orientation."


Yet the claims of some members of the gay community that homosexuality has a purely genetic basis is not scientifically proven. There is no proven gay gene. Even pro-gay advocate Patrick White (PhD, he would have you know) is right to say cautiously, "The emerging scientific view" is that people are born that way. There is no settled scientific view. The nature-nurture issue is more nuanced than that.

A few years ago, the American Academy of Pediatrics and eight other organisations said sexual orientation falls along a continuum and, therefore, rigid straight-gay classification does not capture all the complexities. Genes have to be considered along with socialisation and conditioning. We must not overreach with the evidence.

Neil and Briar Whitehead, in their 1999 book My Genes Made Me Do It: A Scientific Look at Sexual Orientation, say, "Science has not yet discovered any genetically dictated behaviour in humans, for genetically dictated behaviours of the one-gene-one-trait variety have been found only in simple organisms."

The Church is losing the culture war on homosexuality. Many things are stacked against it. Secularism is growing. People are becoming detached from institutions of all sorts. Technology is deepening atomisation and lessening dependence on community. Tradition is not respected as it used to. Authority is passé. Belief in infallible holy books is becoming more and more quaint, even laughable. Globalisation is exposing people to other cultures, other ways of living, other ways of seeing the world.

As people have retreated from meta-narratives and any Grand Story, and have embraced personal narratives and personal stories; as belief in any one grand universal truth has receded outside of the Islamic world, people are taken up more with an atomistic view of life. Sex has become bigger. Pleasure is our new deity. The sovereignty of desire is the new creed.


The issue of homosexuality is not an issue for science, but for philosophy. Gays will disagree, of course, because science is the new dogma, especially since the Enlightenment. But Christians will have to dig deep in philosophical reasoning - not sophistry - to contend with their gay interlocutors. First, this notion that because something is natural it is ethically good must be exposed for the philosophical fraud it is. It is elementary in philosophy that 'you can't derive ought from is'. Because something exists in nature says nothing of its ethical status.

There are any number of features of our nature which, as rational, thinking human beings we have to shed. Even evolutionary psychologists acknowledge this. We are not simply slaves to our instincts and drives. But why should anyone suppress anything as basic as his sexuality? Only meta-ethics can answer that; not science. In my view, Christians have to separate the political from the philosophical. I don't believe the Christian - or Muslim - majority should impose their will on minorities. I agree with Javed Jaghai that we should not seek to have the Bible as our constitution in a liberal democracy.

But Christians must engage in robust philosophical debate with naysayers who are usually strong rhetorically but pathetically weak philosophically. Quoting the Bible alone will not be enough in this warfare. I hope our Jamaican Christian zealots understand that.

Ian Boyne is a veteran journalist. Email feedback to and