News about 'conversion' therapies for gays? As usual, one side gets to offer its views

Several readers have written to ask me what I thought of the recent news stories linked to President Barack Obama's endorsement of government bans on so-called "conversion" therapies for various sexual orientation and behavior issues.

I guess I didn't write about these reports because I assumed, accurately, that the mainstream coverage would be rooted in the new journalism doctrines of "Kellerism," with few if any attempts to explore the views of advocates for secular and religious counselors who support the rights of people to seek out this kind of help.

You may have noticed that, even in these first few lines, I have described these counselors and their work in ways that many readers will consider sympathetic, because I included distinctions that represent the views of some of the people on that side of the issue. In other words, these are subtleties that rarely show up in the news, because mainstream stories rarely explore the views of people on both sides of this fight.

Consider, for example, the lede on the main Washington Post report:

The Obama administration late Wednesday called for a ban on so-called “conversion” therapies that promise to cure gay and transgender people.

What? They forgot to use the phrase "pray away the gay"? Meanwhile, the key words in that lede are "promise" and "cure." Hang on to that thought.

When it came time to represent the views of these counselors, the Post team used the increasingly familiar tactic of representing the "other side" with a quote from a print source. While this news story -- as it should, of course -- featured interviews with many experts and activists that backed Obama's action, the "other side" was granted this:

“There are many psychiatrists, psychologists, counselors and therapists who have reported success in treating clients for unwanted same-sex attractions,” Peter Sprigg of the Family Research Council wrote in a position paper last year.

Now, I have been covering issues related to the so-called "ex-gay" movement for several decades and its important for reporters to realize that this is a very complex group of people -- in terms of doctrine and counseling strategies -- and they often disagree with one another. Can you see that in the news coverage?

Here is some background from a post that I wrote on a related topic several years ago:

First of all, there are quite a few Christian groups that minister to gays and lesbians who voluntarily walk through their doors (as opposed to groups that, theoretically, would go out on the streets and kidnap people). ...
There are groups, especially among Pentecostals, who truly believe that, over time, God can heal each and every person who seeks healing from same-sex attraction. However, I have never heard of anyone claiming that all someone needs to do is say a prayer and that’s that. Not a single person. In fact, I don’t think I have ever heard anyone claim that they prayed and prayed and were completely delivered from same-sex temptations. That’s the thing about real temptations. They are real and they hang around.
Here’s the key: In several decades of coverage of these issues, I have never heard anyone say that it is possible to “pray away the gay.” I literally have never heard the phrase used, except by critics of these ministries.

I'll go further and say that I have rarely, if ever, heard people in this camp talk about "curing" people of being gay. What you do hear them say is that they believe that many people, but not all, seem to be able to change their behaviors and often weaken their temptations. While it is dangerous to oversimplify these arguments, many -- not all -- of these counselors believe that the orientation of significant numbers of people can best be described as bisexual, rather than exclusively gay (similar to views linked to the famous "Kinsey Scale" created by the controversial researcher Alfred Kinsey).

So, once again, the Post lede uses two key terms -- "promise" and "cure" -- that reporters will rarely hear if they talk to actual advocates of this type of counseling. In other words, the lede frames the issue using the viewpoint of the critics, alone.

What about The New York Times? As you would expect, the story overwhelmingly favored quotations from those who support government bans. As you would expect, key claims were framed in ways hostile to the counselors who believe that behavior change is often possible. As you would expect, a key passage offering "balance" came from a print source.

Therapists who advocate the use of the gender identity therapies promote them as a way of helping gay people change their sexual orientation. Those therapists reject claims that sexual orientation or identity is unchangeable and argue that gay or transgender identities should be reversed so that people can embrace their “authentic” heterosexual selves.
The Narth Institute, an organization that advocates the therapies, says on its website that “numerous examples exist of people who have successfully modified their sexual behavior, identity, and arousal or fantasies.”

However, to my surprise, this story ended with several paragraphs of material drawn from an interview with an expert on the "religious" side of the issue.

Note that the first thing the counselor is allowed to do is challenge the way Obama and gay-rights groups have framed the issue. Note that he does not use the word "cure" and, instead, compares his work to that of other therapists who strive to help people seek changes in their lives:

David Pickup, a licensed family therapist in California and Texas, said in an interview on Wednesday that the president and gay rights advocates were purposely misconstruing the work that he and others do. He said that minors should never be forced into therapy, but he insisted that being gay was often brought about by serious emotional problems or sexual abuse.
“We believe that change is still possible. People go to therapy because they can change, because it really does work,” Mr. Pickup said. “We help people grow into their authentic selves.”
Mr. Pickup said he and others were actively lobbying against the proposed state bans, and he urged Mr. Obama to “wake up and understand the rights of people who he doesn’t know anything about and need his help and need his compassion.”

So bravo to the Times for actually daring to talk to a real person on, from the doctrinal point of view of the newsroom, the wrong side of this sexy issue. If this quote had been placed higher in the story, if might have helped readers understand that there are some complex layers in this debate.

So what happens next? In the mainstream stories that I saw (please correct me if I missed something crucial out there), reporters never raised crucial issues linked to this story. Trust me, there are valid, important and very complex stories to be covered here.

For example, is this a government attempt to seriously limit the freedom of parents in raising their children? Is this yet another question that, should it reach major courts, will pivot on issues of religious liberty? Also, is this an early round in a battle to prevent religious counselors from receiving licenses and other forms of legal recognition from the state and official agencies? Would this quickly lead to disputes about health insurance benefits, with counselors who support centuries of religious teachings on sexual morality being forced into an unofficial, unlicensed, parallel world of counseling?

Those open to thinking about some of these issues should check out this Baptist Press report built on interviews with those opposed to the Obama call for government intervention in these personal, moral and religious questions. For example, consider these views from the Rev. Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission:

Reparative therapy, Moore said, often is used as an "umbrella term" that can mean anything from helping "someone walk through what does it mean to follow Christ" to a "psychotherapeutic model where the end goal is to see to it that the person is ... substantially free from same-sex attractions and is now 'straight.'"
The latter type of reparative therapy "can easily become a substitute for the Gospel, which never promises anybody freedom from temptation," Moore said. "What the Gospel promises us is the Holy Spirit to give us the power to walk through temptation faithfully."
Moore affirmed the ministry of Bible-believing counselors who help believers develop specific strategies for dealing with unwanted same-sex attraction, but he said dealing with same-sex attraction faithfully will not produce the same end result for all Christians who struggle in that area. Some may eventually enter a biblical marriage and be freed from same-sex attraction while others may remain celibate and battle same-sex temptations their entire lives, he said.

From this point of view, the real world is both glorious and fallen and is very, very complex. Reporters need to listen to the wide variety of voices in traditional religious groups on some of these issues.

Oh yes, it does help to actually talk to them -- a technique that old-school journalists used to call "interviewing" them.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Let me stress that those offering comments should focus on the journalism issues in this post linked to balance, fairness and accuracy -- as opposed to sounding off on the validity if these various forms of counseling. Journalism comments? Go for it.

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