Understanding Unwanted Same-Sex Attraction:

A Context Specific Approach

Jeffrey W. Robinson Ph.D.

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If you struggle with unwanted feelings of same-sex attraction, I hope that what you are about to read will be of great interest to you. I wish that you and I were sitting down together to discuss these ideas. I wish that we could look each other in the eye and I could hear your story and respond to your questions. Since that is not possible right now I want to ask you to approach what you are about to read differently than many things you read.

I would suggest that you read this material slowly. The point of reading this material is not to get through it, but rather to consider it carefully. Also, as you read this material, ask yourself four questions: First, Is this logical? In other words, does it make sense? Second, does this fit my experience? Are the things that are being described here an accurate representation of things that I have experienced in my own life? Third, is this compatible with the spiritual and religious truths that have guided my life thus far? And finally, does this feel right? Does it ring true?

There are many different opinions on this topic. Each claims validity from different sources: expertise, credentials, science, personal experience and sometimes their own anger or pain. In this whirlwind of opinions, the validity I most seek is your experience as you read this. For better or worse, you must trust your logic, your experience, your beliefs and your heart. I believe that will be enough.

During the last twenty years I have had the opportunity to counsel with many individuals who have struggled with feelings of unwanted same-sex attraction. The great majority of these individuals have had a strong testimony of the gospel and a strong desire to live by its teachings. But many of them have become confused, discouraged and deeply frustrated as they have struggled to reconcile their deeply held religious beliefs and values with their sometimes overwhelming feelings of same-sex attraction. They have searched for reasons why such feelings were occurring in their lives and looked for solutions. Many have felt confused and disappointed when the gospel, which had always been the most important thing in their lives, did not seem to be sufficient to help them overcome this, their greatest challenge.

As I have sought to help these individuals my understanding of this issue has been transformed and my faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ has been greatly strengthened. I would like to share with you some of the things I have come to understand about this issue. I want to explain why I believe that the gospel, properly understood and applied, is the key to dealing with this issue and that it has the power to make "weak things become strong" (Ether 12:27) in the lives of these men.

Some years ago as a graduate student at Brigham Young University studying marriage and family therapy, I was troubled by an article written by a prominent Latter-day Saint psychiatrist which made, what seemed to be a convincing argument: that individuals struggling with unwanted feelings of same-sex attraction had no real possibility of changing or significantly diminishing those feelings. It struck me that if this were really true then there were many individuals, who through no fault of their own, lacked the ability to live one of the most critical parts of the gospel as I understood it. This observation presented a challenge to my own faith. I wondered, "How this could be? Would the Lord not prepare a way for them to accomplish the things which he had commanded them? (1 Nephi 3:7) Would he not offer help to those who sought him as diligently as many of these individuals had?" I worried that if the promises of the gospel were not true for these individuals then perhaps they were not true for me either.

At this time I was working as an intern in the campus clinic. My fellow graduate students and I had received no instruction on helping individuals who struggled with same-sex attraction. This very difficult issue had not been mentioned in any classroom discussion. While I was sitting in the intern's office one day, the intern who assigned cases walked in to the room. He held up an intake folder and said, "Anybody here want to talk to a guy who thinks he's gay?" Everyone seemed to look at the floor in an uncomfortable silence. Homosexuality seemed to be too far out of our range of experience for us to comfortably deal with it. The silence continued for a few moments until finally, I volunteered to talk to him because I had been troubled by some of the doctrinal and philosophical issues surrounding this difficult question.

On the day of the appointment, I sat down with this young man and listened to his story. It was a story similar to many I have heard since then. He described how early in his teenage years he began to recognize that, unlike the other young men around him, his feelings of physical attraction were not directed toward girls. He described the fear and confusion he felt. He talked about his inability to control or suppress the strong physical desires he felt toward men. Finally, with tears of frustration, he told me he was trying to decide whether to enter into therapy and try to overcome his same-sex attractions or to leave the state to pursue a homosexual lifestyle and never again contact his family or anyone he knew. He asked me, "Can you promise that if I enter into therapy and try to overcome this problem, I will never have any of these feelings again for the rest of my life?" I looked him in the eye and with more honesty than confidence I said, "I don't know." He didn't seem impressed. Sensing his deep anguish, however, I blurted out, "But I'll find out."

Following that session I went to the University library and started searching for information as quickly I could. I also talked to other people to find out anything I could about treating this problem. I found a doctoral dissertation that summarized many years of research on this topic that seemed to indicate that many men with same-sex attractions can be successful at significantly altering their sexual desires. I photocopied some pages out of this dissertation, took them to our second session, and showed them to him. I'm guessing it doesn't inspire a lot of faith when your therapist shows up in your session equipped only with information he found in the library the day before. As he looked over those photocopied pages I thought, "Well I won't be seeing him again; I've really blown this."

But to my surprise he made another appointment. During that week I worried that he wouldn't show up to his next appointment, but he did. He sat down across from me and said, "I have made up my mind that no matter how long it takes and no matter what I have to do, I am going to live the gospel of Jesus Christ, and I am going to overcome this problem." I was stunned. I knew that nothing I had said to him could have generated this kind of commitment.

In my life I have had a number of experiences in which I was confident that the Spirit was speaking to me. This was one of them. As I sat and looked at this individual the impression came to me that, "This young man's parents have been praying for him. That is why he has made this decision. You are to be part of the answer to their prayers. So you be careful." This impression came so strongly that it affected me deeply. After this experience we began working together and through his sincere efforts he made significant progress.

I soon began to work with a number of other men struggling with same-sex attraction, and I became increasingly interested in helping those dealing with this issue. Before long when individuals dealing with this issue came into the clinic, they were routinely referred to me.

As I counseled more individuals dealing with this issue, I decided that I would do my doctoral dissertation on the topic. I was particularly interested in whether or not men who struggle with same-sex attraction could truly change. It seemed that if it was really possible for these men to change, I should be able to find some who actually been successful in completing that change. I reasoned that if I couldn't find anyone who was successful at changing, it would be hard to make the argument that change is possible. Clearly, people would not be impressed if I sat down with them and said, "As far as I know no one's ever done this successfully, but I'm confident that you'll be the first one."

In completing this research I was able to interview a number of men who reported having successfully dealt with same-sex attraction. They reported that their feelings of physical and emotional attraction toward men had changed significantly enough that they were able to enter into and sustain successful heterosexual marriages. Each of them was interviewed in detail about what they meant when they said they had changed. I recorded and compiled their responses; then I took a careful look at what those responses had in common. I asked myself, "What are the common elements in each description of change?" One of the first things I noticed was that when you ask someone, "How have you changed?" the first thing they tell you is how things used to be. So, without intending to, I compiled a very rich description of how the challenge of same-sex attraction developed in their lives. Much of what follows comes directly from that doctoral dissertation. I believe their responses can help us better understand what many men experience.