If you haven’t heard about Michael Johnston, you probably will soon. At least the gay activist organization, the Human Rights Campaign, hopes you will hear about him.
The gay-oriented web site SouthernVoice.com today broke the story that Johnston, former head of an ex-gay organization, Kerusso Ministries had a moral lapse and is now out of his ministry and in a restorative program.
Johnston was “outed” by Virginia lawyer Michael Hamar and Human Rights Campaign communications director Wayne Besen. These gentlemen wanted to make sure the world knew about the private pain of Mr. Johnston and those touched by his failings. However, Johnston’s fall from status as ex-gay leader does bring up some legitimate questions concerning the efficacy of ex-gay counseling.
Mr. Johnston went on television and claimed he had changed from gay to straight. If he doesn’t sustain that change, then can any claims of change be considered valid? Doesn’t Johnston’s fall prove that ex-gay counseling is a sham?
As tragic as Johnston’s personal story is, his situation is not the norm. There are thousands of men and women that have changed their sexual preferences from gay to straight and straight to gay or somewhere in between. Studies such as Columbia University’s Robert Spitzer demonstrates that lasting change occurs. Spitzer interviewed 200 self-identified ex-gays and as a result opined, “I thought that homosexual behavior could be resisted but that no one could really change their sexual orientation. I now believe that’s untrue — some people can and do change.”
If personal vignettes, such as Johnstons, are used to argue against the change position, then what are we to say about someone like Noe’ Gutierrez? Gutierrez was featured in the gay oriented video for schools, “It’s Elementary,” as a gay man. However, he no longer identifies as gay and supports the ex-gay position.
Or take the story of David Bianco. Bianco was the owner of Q Syndicate, which is one of the largest providers of gay oriented materials to the media. Selling his stake in the company, he recently decided that living as a gay man was inconsistent with his orthodox Jewish faith. He noted that while he identified as gay, he actively suppressed any heterosexual urges to defend his identity as a gay man. Now he is looking forward to marrying and starting a family. Strange this didn’t make the mainstream news.
Concerning the efficacy of ex-gay counseling, here is a little fact that you may not read anywhere else. In a 2000 interview, Johnston rejected ex-gay counseling, calling it “a misguided psychological approach.” No one can say Johnston’s problems demonstrate ex-gay counseling doesn’t work because he apparently never took advantage of it.
In research I recently conducted, I asked a group of 40 ex-gays what factors contributed to their change process. The top three were a belief system or rationale for pursuing change, social support from friends or a support group and counseling.
Despite his public profile as an ex-gay leader, Johnston apparently wasn’t using all of the resources at his disposal. So perhaps all we can say from his misfortune is that believing change is possible is not enough to make it so. From what we understand about sexuality, social factors play a strong role in the eventual identity people adopt. Apparently social factors play a role in the maintaining of identity change as well.
So does counseling help facilitate sexual identity change in those who seek it? Whatever your answer to that question, you cannot use Michael Johnston’s detour to provide evidence one way or the other.