Evergreen International, Inc. is a Mormon-run 501(c)(3) non-profit based in Utah that purports to be able to help gay and lesbian individuals change their sexual orientation. Click here for the Wikipedia article on the organization–and here for more information on conversion therapy. It is not part of the Mormon church, although the church reportedly supports it financially and church leaders have spoken with regularity at its events.
But first, let’s talk about the Wheel of Fortune (click here for a YouTube clip of one of the first episodes in 1979). It’s a game show that requires contestants to decipher a word or phrase based on incomplete information. I remember watching the show with my German grandmother (on my dad’s side). On one occasion, I remember her being convinced that she had solved the puzzle, even though only a few letters had been revealed.
“I’ve got it, I’ve got it, ” she yelled (and she really did yell; she was hard of hearing, but stubbornly refused to acknowledge the deficiency). I had to admit, her solution made sense. Then a contestant spun the wheel, picked another letter, and it became obvious that my grandmother’s solution couldn’t be correct. She promptly switched off the TV and announced it was time to do something else. “Hmph,” I heard her grumble on her way into the kitchen. “I still like my answer.”
Last week, Robert L. Spitzer, an important figure in modern psychiatry, renounced a landmark study he published in 2003 suggesting that therapy could be effective in helping gays and lesbians change their sexual orientation. Rob Lauer, an acquaintance, emailed Evergreen a few days later about Dr. Spitzer. Here is a transcript of the exchange that ensued.
Evergreen and my German grandmother have a lot in common. Although I love my grandmother, that’s not intended as a compliment.
There is a lot that could be said about this exchange–and reparative therapy in general (and Evergreen International in particular). I’m going to limit myself to just a few observations.
We should think of science as an attempt to solve a giant Wheel of Fortune puzzle. Given the letters that are visible, we do our best to come up with solutions that fit, and then we generally stick with them until further information forces us to rethink things. If a new letter complicates things, then we have to find another solution. We can’t ignore new data. That’s not how it works. On the other hand, just because a previous solution is called into question, we can’t discard previous letters. That’s not how it works, either. We’re obligated to come up with a solution that fits both the existing letters (or data) and the new letters (or data).
David C. Pruden, Evergreen’s executive director since 1995, responded to Mr. Lauer by mimicking Dr. Spitzer in the first person and then dismissing him as old (and irrelevant):
Gee, I thought their [sic] might be gravity. I did a study. There is gravity! I proved it with my scientific study.
Ten years of academic (gay) harassment pass. I am now 80, sick, and old. Never mind, I now suspect there is no gravity. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe none of those apples fell (people changed) but maybe they did. I didn’t ask them. Didn’t conduct new experiments. I just got tired and now I’ll say I was wrong.
Science doesn’t work that way. The study is important. Spitzer is not. The study stands on it’s [sic] own.
In addition to being condescending and unprofessional, Mr. Pruden makes three points: 1) The fact that individuals can change their sexual orientation is as obvious as gravity (thus the comparison of Spitzer’s groundbreaking study to the notion of “discovering” gravity, 2) Spitzer is now old and tired of being harassed (by other academics, who are pursuing a pro-gay agenda), and 3) Spitzer is now trying to take the study back (but what Spitzer says now is irrelevant).
This is the equivalent of my German grandma turning off the TV and muttering something about how she likes her answer better.
Although my grandma and Mr. Pruden don’t seem to think so, new data is useful. It forces us to adjust our view of the world in ways that might be painful now, but are beneficial in the long run. More data led to the recent demotion of Pluto (but it also led to a better understanding of our solar system). It’s ironic that Mr. Pruden brings up gravity. A Newtonian perspective on gravity, while useful, has been replaced by Einstein’s theories. We benefit from Einstein’s reconceptualization of gravity every time we use the GPS system. The system requires precise synchronization that would be impossible without an understanding of the relationship between gravity, velocity, and time. If we attempted to synchronize GPS satellites based on Mr. Pruden’s “I-did-a-study-there-is-gravity-I’m-done-thinking-about-it” approach to science, GPS navigation would be off by nearly six miles within twenty-four hours.
In Mr. Pruden’s response, he seems to imply that Dr. Spitzer is retracting the data he used in his study. It’s clear, however, that Dr. Spitzer isn’t dismissing his data–he’s reinterpreting it. And he’s reinterpreting it in light of nearly ten years of new research on sexual orientation.
So what is the emerging view of sexual orientation? Imagine a boat floating in a lake moored in position by its anchor. The position of the boat represents behavior. The anchor represents sexual orientation. For most people, there is some slack in the anchor line, and it’s possible, with a little paddling, to change sexual behavior. Individuals can learn to be celibate, for example, or homosexuals can shoe-horn themselves into heterosexual marriages. For most people, however, regardless of how much they paddle, it’s impossible to drag the anchor very far. The further individuals paddle their boats, the more tension there is in the line (and the more paddling is required to keep the boat from drifting back to its original position). This view of sexual orientation explains the data Dr. Spitzer’s reported in his original (click here for a brief summary and critique), as well as more recent research findings.
Groups like Evergreen International reinforce the notion that there is only one safe habor on the lake and that everyone, regardless of where moored, should paddle there. Their existence depends on framing homosexuality as a negative “condition” that requires “treatment”–a position that the American Psychiatric Association has condemned by reminding its members that “ethical practitioners refrain from attempts to change individuals’ sexual orientation, keeping in mind the medical dictum to first, do no harm.”
Groups like Evergreen International only practice science when it’s convenient. Like my grandma, when presented with contradictory evidence, they turn off the TV and insist their answer is better. They’ve already decided what the truth is, and the inertia of their faith requires them to cherry-pick data that supports their position. Because their position is based on theology, not science, they end up in a logical house of mirrors where gay people don’t exist (just individuals “suffering” from same-sex attraction).
These groups spend their time telling our most vulnerable–often young adults still fresh with endless possibility–that God expects them to change who they are in order to earn His love. These groups tell these people to keep paddling, because they have to, because God wants them to, and that if they paddle long enough, and hard enough, it’ll be enough.
For most individuals, this is a lie. It doesn’t matter how nicely Evergreen puts it, or how often they repeat it, this is the kind of lie that puts Evergreen in the same company as other infamous scammers and snake oil salesmen. Evergreen doesn’t have to go down that path, but judging from his response to Mr. Lauer, it appears that Mr. Pruden is intent on taking Evergreen to exactly that place.
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