Joe Dallas: “The Condition of Male Homosexuality”

(These are going to be pretty random and scatterbrained, mostly just a roughly fleshed out version of the sketchy notes I took and my reactions to them.  If you’re looking for highlights…I’d say those will be my reactions to Melissa Fryrear, Dale Dick Carpenter, and the Mike Haley / Jeff Johnston Q+A.)  

 IF you HAD to have a talk putting forward the standard developmental/reparative theory of male homosexuality, I don’t think you could get a much better talk than the one Dallas gave.

That’s a huge if, of course, but I want to start there.  This post is going to be devoted to the distinctives of Joe Dallas’ presentation on this subject.  I will deal with the developmental theories themselves separately.  It makes sense to me to do it that way, in part because I feel awkward “blaming” Dallas and Fryrear for the theories, and in part I want to address them more systematically than I can in a series of disjointed notes and comments on the speakers I heard.

 Dallas laid a decent groundwork, carefully distinguishing attraction (he used the word “orientation”) from behavior from identity.  I was pleased by this because I assumed that it meant the stage would be set for precise and honest discussions of sexuality throughout the rest of the day.  I assumed wrong, as most of the other talks suffered from the usual murkiness and confusion (exactly what about you has changed?  in exactly which respects are you no longer homosexual?)  but I don’t see that as Dallas’ fault. 

His discussion of biological vs. developmental factors was far more cautious and reasonable than what one generally hears.  He emphasized that for Christians, whether or not homosexuality is inborn shouldn’t really matter to us in deterimining our moral views on the subject.  He didn’t attempt to dismiss or refute biological/genetic theories (he called them “inborn theories”) in any way, and in fact one got the feeling he might be perfectly willing to accept that they might be true.  He did point out that in general the relevant studies haven’t been successfully replicated, and therefore so far there’s no powerful evidence that should compel us to adopt the “inborn theories.”  Which I think (I’m not an expert here) is true. 

Unlike Nicolosi, who I understand is quite big on universal generalizations, Dallas emphasized that the developmental picture is simply what they’ve frequently seen in their ministries and counseling, rather than what Science has Proven.  In this respect he came across as much humbler and saner than the “no exceptions” crowd.  He just said that he had observed the father-son relationship to be “problematic in a majority of cases.”  Of course, it’s still, um, “problematic,” to leap from this observation to an embrace of the developmental theory, but I was pleased by the display of humility nonetheless.

That’s what I appreciated most about his particular version of this talk.  Many exgays and exgay advocates I have heard often sound either indifferent to or incapable of understanding the various criticisms that have been thrown at their position over the years, in a way that generally makes me want to go bang my head against a wall.   It was great to hear from a guy who seemed aware that you just can’t run around saying that science shows that homosexuality isn’t inborn but is instead caused by a poor relationship with the same-sex parent and that anyone who believes otherwise has simply been duped by gay activists.    

The funny thing is he went on from there to simply present the developmental theory, as if none of his cautions and qualifications mattered.  I found this puzzling, and there are more and less cynical interpretations that can be put on it, but all I will say is that I found it really hard to understand.  Once you recognize that the theory probably doesn’t apply to 100% of cases, why would you devote 100% of your remaining time to talking about it?  Does Love Won Out have anything to offer the person or family who can’t find themselves in the developmental picture?  Along somewhat similar lines, I was surprised that a talk entitled “The Condition of Male Homosexuality” was devoted solely to discussing the causes of male homosexuality. 

 His particular description of the developmental factors which supposedly cause homosexuality was quite mild–nothing like the more sensational “Everybody’s been molested!” account put forward by Melissa Fryrear.  There was the usual flawed-relationship-with-Dad stuff, but none of the drama and none of the sordid tales of victimization.  You could imagine a parent wishing they’d done things a little differently after Dallas’s talk, but it would be hard to imagine them overwhelmed with horror, shame, or guilt.  I didn’t notice any absolute statments, nor did I notice him saying anything appalling about male homosexuality or gay men.  Contrast that with this report of Nicolosi’s performance.  If I were a gay man, I might have felt that some aspects of the talk were dumb, but I don’t think I would have felt insulted.

In closing, I’ll just mention two more concerns I had, places where I think Dallas was headed in the right direction but didn’t go quite far enough:

 1.  As I said above, Dallas was careful to belabor the point that the studies which suggest at least a partial biological/genetic origin have certain defects, have not been replicated, etc.  Yet he pretty much completely ignored the question of scientific support (as opposed to anecdotal support) for the developmental view.  It seems odd to me to offer a criticism of an opposing view that applies equally if not more so to your own.  To the best of my knowledge, the developmental-theory fans don’t even have a flawed, unreplicated study supporting their view yet.  (If they do, why aren’t they mentioning it?)  They dwell on the failure of science to fully support strictly biological/genetic theories, as if that in itself were support for their own theories.  Which hardly follows–the developmental theory doesn’t get to win by default!  I personally think (and this is a completely unjustified, unwarranted, unscientific, speculative opinion) that is quite likely that both the strict “inborn” and the developmental views are false. 

2.  Although Dallas acknowledged that the exgay advocates’ support for the developmental theories was based on their work with people who come to them seeking change, rather than a rigorous study, I would have gone further and pointed out some possible reasons why the self-reported childhood histories of people in exgay ministries/counseling may very well not to be representative of same-sex attracted people generally.

For one thing, it’s a self-selected group of people who are choosing to participate in ministries/counseling which are known hold to the developmental theories. I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest that those who spend any time in exgay ministry or counseling are more likely to feel (or at least hope!) that developmental theories fit them.  After all, those who don’t feel they fit are likely to consider those approaches and the ministries that offer them a waste of time. For another thing, I would suggest that exgay ministries/counseling have a tendency to encourage a certain perception of one’s childhood experiences and parental relationships. Speaking personally, I know that I was coached to look at myself, my childhood, and my parents in a certain way by the exgay movement. Now, they might just be helping us to see what’s really there. Or they could be leading us to make a big deal out of all the ordinary imperfections of children and parents, and in some cases perhaps even something more unhelpful than that.  Anyway, my point is that there are excellent reasons for being skeptical of drawing conclusions about gays in general from observations of those who seek out and attend exgay ministries/counseling.  I think that being fully honest would require bringing this out clearly.

19 Responses to Joe Dallas: “The Condition of Male Homosexuality”

  1. Well said, DM. I cannot speak for Mr. Dallas presentation since I have not heard it. Knowing Joe, I am not surprised that it was a good talk; he is a gifted communicator.

    I do think you make good points regarding the appeal of developmental theories. People in distress want an explanation and will grab something that seems to fit some aspects of their experience. As I have talked to numerous people seeking congruence between evangelical faith and their sexuality, I am struck by how many people say they meet some criteria but not others. However, in their narratives, they highlight the parts that “fit” the developmental narrative and discount the rest.

  2. Karen K says:

    I’m not sure that people self-select ex-gay groups because of the developmental approach, and that those who don’t buy into developmental approach wouldn’t bother with going. For myself and many of the others I know who went to ex-gay groups, we were pretty clueless about etiology. The primary motive for showing up was that homosexuality contradicted Christian beliefs we held. At the time, I didn’t even know what an ex-gay group was or what they did–only that I was told to go there for support.

    It was after going to an ex-gay group that I really learned about all the theories–and in this regard–you are right that everything seems forced into the cookie cutter theory and anything that contradicts is usually thrown out. This is not to say there may not be truth to developmental factors (I think there are developmental aspects, along with other factors), but I do know folks who don’t fit the box and they struggled to force themselves to fit in hopes of finding healing.

  3. […] Mutability is at it again. Her second post on “Love Won Out” is as thoughtful as her […]

  4. LegolasTN says:

    Certainly sociologists and most cultural studies folks do not accept that there is “powerful evidence that should compel us to adopt the ‘inborn theories,'” but then we’ve got a vested interest in thinking otherwise. However, even prominent biologists in this area such as Dean Hamer I’ve heard speak on the topic at least give lip service to the idea of “a complex set of interactions” including things we label both nature and nurture.

    One study that potentially supports a developmental view of sexuality:
    Frish, Morten and Anders Hviid. 2006. “Childhood Family Correlates of Heterosexual and Homosexual Marriages: A National Cohort Study of Two Million Danes.” Archives of Sexual Behavior.

    Another that supports Daryl Bem’s “Exotic Becomes Erotic” theory, which is in part developmental (but also in part “inborn”):
    Dunne, Michael P., J. Michael Bailey, Katherine M. Kirk, and Nicholas G. Martin. 2000. “The Subtlety of Sex-Atypicality.” Archives of Sexual Behavior.

  5. mary says:

    It’s been my experience that what is true for some is not always true for others. And not everyone fits into the theories proposed for being gay. Myself – I’m a strong believer in the biologically predisposed to respond to one’s OWN environment (now if only everyone came with a map specifically for me – including myself) My shrink has her opinions, I have mine, and each individual should also go and find their own. The sexuality thing is far too complex to square up into one dimension of psychology or biology.

  6. LegolasTN- The studies you mention support a role for environmental factors but do not support the psychoanalytically derived developmental theory which used to dominate LWO.

  7. I actually do believe some sort of developmental factors are at least part of the picture (probably somewhat different ones for men and for women. But I’m still skeptical of the particular ones emphasized by ex-gay groups. Or at least skeptical that they apply as widely as sometimes claimed. Part of that is that I suspect ideology about gender roles contributes to the theories that are popular, and part of it is that my psych major (just undergrad, it’s not as if I’m an expert) training at Stanford taught me a certain suspicion of psychoanalytic theories (the Stanford psych department is heavily experimentally oriented, and a lot of psychoanalytic theories had, as of the time I studied there, not managed very well in terms of being supported by research).

    I do know that there are at least some family correlates (birth order, number of brothers). And I’d love to learn more about Daryl Bem’s “Exotic Becomes Erotic” theory (while my psych major time is far enough in the past that I don’t remember a lot about Bem, what I do remember is that his research was well regarded, and it was considered rather a loss for Stanford that he’d been lured away by another university).

  8. Yeah, so…I don’t think I should get my hands super dirty here, as there will be a real developmental theories post.

    But I should make clearer it that I’m not opposed to developmental theories in general. I’m pretty much completely agnostic so far. That’s something I was trying to say in the post but completely screwed up. I’m just averse to the way some of the very specific theories are used to cram people and their experiences into little boxes.

    Warren:

    Yes, that is what concerns me. Because people believe it is the only way to find hope, and/or because they trust the experts, they go to considerable lengths to make themselves fit. Mr. DM recovered my very first hard drive (1996-2000) and transferred the files for me a little while ago, and I was really shocked to read the sorts of things I wrote about myself in my early exgay years (’98-’00). For the most part, except for that one time a woman convinced me I had been sexually abused, I didn’t make stuff up out of thin air, but instead I focused obsessively on particular incidents that had never seemed very important to me before, while ignoring heaps and heaps of memories that didn’t fit the mold. I cringe with shame at how selective and irrational I was. And I feel bad for how quick I was to reduce my fallen-but-complicated parents to the convenient caricatures and stereotypes set before me.

    Karen K:

    You’re totally right. I was trying to throw out possible reasons for skepticism about the representativeness of those who attend exgay ministries, but I think I came out sounding far stronger than I meant to or should have. I didn’t mean that those who don’t feel they fit the developmental theories never darken the doorway of an Exodus group or an RT counselor, or that everyone who turns to an exgay ministry or counselor knows exactly what they’re getting into. I only meant that it seems to me that those who don’t fit the mold (and are unable/unwilling to reinterpret their experience to fit it) would be less likely to stick around. Speaking personally, I know I often got bored and stopped attending my group for long stretches, although the camaraderie and other wonderful aspects of the group kept me coming back from time to time.

    I’m guessing there’s been increasing awareness of what exgay ministries are all about over the years, but I could just be projecting. I did quite a bit of research before reluctantly getting involved myself.

    LegolasTN:

    Yeah, I’m not anti-developmental, just concerned about the use of specific theories which seem to me to help some people, hurt some people, and alienate everybody else. (I hear from quite a few people who tell me that they believe that homosexual sex is a sin and they are committed to living faithfully and they would like support but they don’t really feel they fit in with Exodus, and they aren’t sure what that means.) I will definitely check out the articles you mentioned.

    mary:

    I’m not sure, personally, that I’m entitled to an opinion beyond my current agnosticism. :)

    Lynn:

    Here is a link to the Bem paper. (ht: Gene Chase commenting at Box Turtle Bulletin).

  9. LegolasTN says:

    Warren – I never said they did. (Although, I’m not sure the first one totally rules out some of the dynamics, say, Dallas might see as of concern.) I was just demonstrating that there is more legitimate research out there than just supporting “inborn” theories, in response to DM’s implied question.

    DM – I didn’t take you to be anti-developmental. I was just providing specific information/ perspective in response to one particular statement that was to me raising an implied question of “is there any scientific evidence for a developmental viewpoint?.”

  10. Karen K says:

    This post is generating good discussion, and I am looking forward to reading more on how this can help reframe ministry approaches. This is something I have been pondering for awhile. For example, I think one of the things developmental theory does is create hope (even if it is false hope for some). It would make sense that LWO would focus more on developmental than biological–because what can you do about the biological? I think there is a need to feel that we can do something about it.

    Its good to have hope, and I think at least some hope prevents despair, but too much hope leads to disillusionment when healing doesn’t come, and I think that is the biggest problem with developmental theories. When some people find it doesn’t work for them, they are more likely to return to homosexuality. There doesn’t seem to be any other viable options discussed (in-depth) on how to deal with a life without healing.

    If someone had told me in my late teens/early 20’s that it was biological and I would never change and it was either be in a gay relationship or be celibate–that would have been too much to bear. Its a difficult thing–this tension between hope of healing and the realism to face the future without losing one’s faith if healing doesn’t come.

  11. LegolasTN: I got it now. :) Yes, you’re right, I did imply exactly that question. I should just shut up right now and go read. :)

  12. Karen K says:

    PS–just read your link “wonderful aspects of the group”– good stuff. So when is your book coming out?? :) You really should write one–there’s much thought on your blog that needs a wider audience.

  13. William says:

    “I am struck by how many people say they meet some criteria but not others. However, in their narratives, they highlight the parts that “fit” the developmental narrative and discount the rest.” – Warren Throckmorton

    Yes, it’s rather reminiscent of the messages that one gets from “clairvoyant” mediums at Spiritualist meetings. If you are picked out by the medium and given a message supposedly from the spirit world, there are usually some things in it which seem to apply to you, even if the rest is a load of codswallop; and if you listen to the messages that are given to others in the congregation, you will generally find that those also contain things that could be regarded as applicable to you. But if people tell you later about the wonderful things that the medium told them that were absolutely “spot on”, they forget about all the things that weren’t. As Francis Bacon wrote, “men mark when they hit, and never mark when they miss.”

  14. Thanks, DM, for the link.

    Karen K, yes, I think you’re right that there’s a tendency to focus on developmental theories because they offer more hope of change. And, really, I suspect that whatever the developmental vs. biological components, the actual probability of change is less than whatever the developmental component is. Sure, to the extent that you were born gay, you probably can’t change, but some of whatever comes from environment is probably fixed early and not so easy to change later. And not all of those environmental things could even be changed at the time if you knew.

    For instance, suppose Bem is right that gender non-conformity leads to attraction to your own sex, because you feel different from them. Does that mean you could prevent homosexuality by trying to get gender non-conforming kids to be more gender conforming? Not likely. Not only because at least some of the particular gender non-conforming kids you focus on will fail at the task you set them, and feel all the more awkwardly aware of their gender non-conformity and awkward around peers of their own sex. But also because it’s just inherently the case that some kids will always be less gender conforming than their peers, and know it. The goal posts for what’s considered gender non-conformity could move, and which kids fit in that category could shift, but any time you have social norms for what people of different sexes are supposed to be like, some people will fit the norms better than others, and so you’ll always have some people who fall in the gender non-conforming end of the curve.

    So, whatever developmental factor you find, if it is x% of the cause of homosexuality, your ability to actually prevent or change a homosexual orientation is going to be significantly less than x%.

  15. Kurmudge says:

    “Everything about LWO seemed to me to say that Homosexuality Is Special”

    I understand DM’s point, but I agree more with Karen, in that the basic problem is not that “homo”-sexuality is “special” in its treatment by the Christian (including Evangelical) church. It is that “any”-sexuality is handled awkwardly, secretively, and generally ignored whenever possible. Ben Witherington summarized it nicely, when he described the messages we give to our kids about it: “Sex is evil, sex is dirty, save it for the one you love.” So sexuality, of all varieties, is a mess in evangelical circles. It isn’t any easier for a terminal OSA person to deal with, 1 Corinthians 7, the non-existent text, notwithstanding.

    I’ve been in evangelical churches for (mmfph) decades, and I can tell you that I have heard exactly one decent, realistic, sermon on straight married Christian sex, let alone SSA, and that was in a small Midwest church back in 1965. I suspect that after the congregation got through being shocked, when the pastor bluntly said that sex wasn’t supposed to be purely some kind of spiritual sacrament, it was also fun, he learned never to bring the subject up again.

    It’s been 42 years now, and I’m waiting for the second good sermon. I’m not at all surprised that the LWO conferences can’t handle the subject very usefully either.

    And the developmental vs. nature models all flout everything we see around us, not only about the Kinsey Scale, but everything from tendencies toward chemical dependency to IQ (remember the Derek Bok vs. Charles Murray debate a few years ago? No one any longer pretends that IQ is all about nurture nor that nurture has no role).

    It seems that virtually every human trait is best described as following a complicated multivariate model along a continuum- Kinsey ran from 1 (or zero) to 6, not just 1 AND 6. So why should anyone assume that attraction is less analog than that? And thus, causation? Every other aspect of our physical and mental beings is characterized by complexity and physical-emotional-nature-nurture merging. LWO is totally messed up if they hit one end of the continuum, and their critics are totally wrong when they fixate on the other end. Every case is different.

  16. Brandon says:

    I think you bring up some very good points here DM. Interesting post.

  17. NNR says:

    Hey, how’s it going, pregnant lady? Your adoring public needs an update…

  18. CourageMan says:

    I realize I’m coming late to this, but let me ask …

    Why do at least two people think that the developmental theory should lead to greater optimism re change?

    After all, if a condition be decisively inborn and/or biological (I am obviously speaking generally and hypothetically) … that tells us exactly what the “cure” is. Reverse the effects, change the gene, alter the hormones in utero, etc.

    But if a condition be the result of a set of historic circumstances and one’s interactions thereto, neither the circumstances nor the adolescent soul doing the shaping can ever be recreated or “relived.” To put it simply and crudely (and I put it to my shrink this way) … you can only grow up once.

    “Bios” is dumb and so is easier to change than the self-conscious “psyche.”

  19. William DuBay says:

    Labeling theory is one explanation of gay identity that seems pretty well established. At least, it has been absorbed into a structuring perspective that has greatly influenced sociology the last 30 years. Much of social work and criminology is based on it.

    One reason labeling theory appeals to me is that it gives a good explanation of 1. the explosive change that comes with adopting the gay identity and 2. the new opportunities for social deviance. There is a certain elation that comes with coming out, but one steps into a new world of deviance that was totally unexpected. Young people wrap themselves in their new identity, often flee from home and family to a gay center, whey they attempt to live an all-gay life, organizing their life and personality around their sexual pleasures. The fast lanes of gay life are littered with the casualties of gay identity.

    In my 1987 book, Gay identity; The Self Under Ban, I show how people use gay identity as a defense against society’s disapproval: “I do these things because I am this way.’ With coming out, one goes from a closet of secrecy to one of identity. There are better strategies for dealing with the oppression. One is to learn to live as if the oppression did not exist, being proud and open about one’s relationships, but denying the label. It’s harder, because society wants to pigeonhole everyone.

    Of course, this opens up the possibility of slipping back to heterosexual relationships, but that’s all-right, too.

    For me, homosexuality is natural and pervasive. In human societies, it promotes social bonding and relationships. In traditional societies, not everyone was married. It was always important to limit reproduction. Marriage was considered very expensive and not open to all. Many people today whom we assign to gay bars and backrooms served in many societies as sacred judges and warriors, healers, teachers, shamans, chanters, athletes, artists, and tenders of women and children, all beneficial social roles supportive of family life.

    The gay movement got off to a wrong start defining homosexuality as a class of people to be protected against discrimination as defined in the statutes rather than as a natural emotion that can be enjoyed by anyone. The measure of success is not for people identified as gay or lesbian, but how much people are aware and accepting of their own gay feelings.

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