(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.