You’d be hard pressed to find a venture drenched in more snake oil than conversion therapy. Attempts to change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity are opposed by virtually every leading medical association and are illegal in four states.
So why was a congregation at a Mormon-owned university planning an event promising that “people can and do overcome same-gender attraction” and encouraging attendees to “bring [their] friends” along?
On Sunday night, a flyer surfaced on Reddit for an event planned for Nov. 22 at Brigham Young University-Idaho (BYU-I), which is owned and operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons). The original poster noted that his friend had received the flyer in a sacrament meeting program, a leaflet distributed to Mormon congregants before weekly worship services.
“Confused about the confusion about same-gender attraction?” the header said. Same-gender attraction is a popular Mormon euphemism for homosexuality.
“People can and do overcome same-gender attraction and enjoy rich, full lives with marriage partners of the opposite-sex without regrets,” the flyer went on to promise.
The advertised event was supposed to be “an evening of discussion with a professional counselor who has helped many overcome same-gender attraction.”
Michael D. Williams, the Rexburg, Idaho-based counselor in question, told The Daily Beast “that I do not act on behalf of the [LDS Church], but as a member of the congregation who has taken a good look at much of the research regarding same-sex attraction [SSA], and who has assisted a number of young adults—male and female—to overcome unwanted SSA both here and in California.”
Williams did not immediately respond to further questions about the event, nor did he provide evidence of the supposed efficacy of his treatments. But a few hours later, he emailed to say, “Due to negative publicity the presentation has been called off.”
“I regret that the fears of some who’ve experienced repression and bigotry have resulted in others not being allowed to learn alternative viewpoints and options,” he said.
No media outlets had reported on the event at the time of cancellation but The Daily Beast had made press inquiries to BYU-I and the Mormon Church. A BYU-I spokesperson later told The Daily Beast that the event was planned and subsequently cancelled by a local student congregation, not the university itself.
On his professional blog, Williams has authored several anti-gay and anti-transgender posts. In one, he refers to Leelah Alcorn—a transgender girl who committed suicide in December 2014, prompting the Obama administration to officially oppose conversion therapy—as a “troubled young man” and repeatedly uses male pronouns to refer to her. Williams predictably opposed President Obama’s new stance on conversion therapy.
In another post, in which Williams predicts that the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Obergefell will have “dire consequences,” he claims that “[h]omes with same-sex ‘parents’ are remarkably unstable” and that the term “same-sex marriage” is “a misnomer and oxymoron.”
The flyer for Williams’ abruptly cancelled event, which was to be held on campus at BYU-I in a large lecture hall, encouraged attendees to visit his website and browse his resources on homosexuality to “help make more sense [of] a challenging issue.”
If Mormons follow through on that particular piece of bad advice, they will find themselves in a sea of misinformation.
Williams’s resource page directs readers to Family Structure Studies, a project of The Witherspoon Institute, a conservative think tank. The data used in this project, which suggests that children of same-sex couples are worse off than their peers, comes from an infamous 2012 study by sociology professor Mark Regnerus, which has been widely discredited by academic and medical associations. The study was later disavowed by the editorial board of the very journal in which it was published due to fundamental methodological errors and conflicts of interest among the study’s peer reviewers.
Only two of the study’s respondents, it turned out, were “actually raised in gay or lesbian households,” Darren Sherkat, a sociology professor who audited the publishing process, told the Southern Poverty Law Center. Regnerus had counted parents purported by their children to have had same-sex romantic relationships while under the age of 18 as gay fathers and lesbian mothers, a measure that Sherkat called “a farce.”
“[T]his study has absolutely nothing to say about gay parenting outcomes,” Sherkat said. “Indeed, because it is a non-random sample, this study has nothing to say about anything.”
This is the data that a Mormon congregation was encouraging its members to share and read in advance of the discussion.
Williams’s axed event comes just weeks after the Mormon Church changed its leadership handbook to deem same-sex marriage an act of “apostasy” and to prohibit a child living with gay parents from being baptized until he or she is 18 and “specifically disavows the practice of same-gender cohabitation and marriage.” The policy change—touted by the church as a response, in part, to the nationwide legalization of same-sex marriage—has triggered a wave of discontent within the faith, with over 1,000 people in attendance at a mass resignation event over the weekend.
Troublingly, the tone of the flyer for Williams’s event seemed to be at odds with the ambivalence of current Mormon positions on homosexuality.
In 1992, the Mormon Church issued a guidebook on homosexuality, which noted, in contrast to previous teachings, that “marriage should not be viewed as a way to resolve homosexual problems.” Church leaders, however, have left open the possibility that gay men could marry opposite-sex partners if they can prove “their ability to deal with these feelings or inclinations and put them in the background.” The church also “does not have a position” on the question of whether or not homosexuality is inborn, although past leaders have argued that it is not.
Whereas the Mormon Church seems careful to tiptoe a delicate line, then, the flyer for Williams’ event dove headfirst into controversial and possibly unsanctioned territory.
The flyer opened by deriding the notion that homosexuality is inborn: “You’ve heard it over and over again, that people are ‘born that way’ and simply have no choice or opportunity to enjoy the fullness of family life…”
“Are some people born gay?” the flyer asked. “If people are not born that way, why are those feelings so strong and how can they be changed?”
And although the Mormon Church no longer places an overt emphasis on opposite-sex marriage for members with “same-gender attraction,” the flyer for the event twice made reference to this possibility while making no mention of the risks now recognized by church leaders of pressuring gay members to marry within the faith.
Several studies have concluded that conversion therapy is ineffective and potentially damaging to participants. In 2007, a review by the American Psychological Association found that “efforts to change sexual orientation are unlikely to be successful and involve some risk of harm, contrary to the claims of [their] practitioners and advocates.”
The topic of conversion therapy is a particularly sore subject within the Mormon-owned university system because gay students on the Provo, Utah, campus of Brigham Young University were once recruited to participate in electroshock aversion therapy in the 1970s as part of a student’s dissertation—a fact that a BYU spokesperson confirmed to ABC News in 2011.
The church has since declared that it does not support aversive therapies, but its leaders have left the door open for conversion therapy of a milder sort.
When asked in 2006 about the possibility of undergoing therapy to address “same-gender attraction,” Mormon leader Lance B. Wickman said, “Certainly the Church doesn’t counsel against that kind of therapy.”
“Case studies I believe have shown that in some cases there has been progress made in helping someone to change that orientation; in others not,” he equivocated, in a sharp contrast to the BYU-I flyer’s claim that “social science” confirms the potential effectiveness of conversion therapy.
The flyer closed with the invitation to “enjoy refreshments afterwards.” Unfortunately for Mormon BYU-I students, there’s no non-alcoholic beverage powerful enough to wash away homophobic pseudoscience. Now that the event has been cancelled, they won’t have to try.
Update 11/16/15 5:00 PM: BYU-Idaho provided the following statement to The Daily Beast: “While this event was originally planned to use a campus classroom, it was not initiated by BYU-Idaho. For the Church’s position regarding this subject, visit mormonsandgays.org.”