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Correcting a False Narrative: Responding to Falsehoods and Half-truths in the Mother Jones Feature on the Alliance

 

            On May 15, 2024, Mother Jones magazine published a feature story by Madison Pauly centered on the Alliance November, 2023, conference. Ms. Pauly had attended the conference and spoken with several attendees, though it was not clear until the end of the conference that she was essentially an activist writer masquerading as an objective journalist. As the publication of her story was nearing, Ms. Pauly reached out to several members of the Alliance Board with further questions with which she hoped they would engage. However, it had since been recognized that she was the author of a hit piece on the American College of Pediatricians in 2023 and that she was not operating under good faith principles of journalism or any pretense to accurately represent the Alliance viewpoint.

Consequently, board members Christopher Rosik, Ph.D., and Robert Vazzo, LMFT, penned responses to Ms. Pauly’s questions but decided the only way for their responses to be accurately represented was to publish them through the Alliance. Their responses provide a teachable example of how journalism can be hijacked by progressive ideology and a glimpse into some of the inaccuracies and distortions of the Mother Jones article. It is quintessential journalistic malpractice when writers address a topic through their own ideological lens with virtually no attempt to see the issues through the lens of those about whom they are writing.

 

Responses from Christopher Rosik, PhD

 

MP: My story defines “conversion therapy” as a colloquial term used to describe efforts to shift a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity, typically in modern days through verbal counseling. Is it fair to call you a conversion therapist, under this definition?

 

CR: “Conversion therapy” now functions primarily as a political term employed to smear clinicians who are merely willing to entertain a client’s freely determined decision to explore their potential to experience change in their sexuality, typically toward heterosexuality. I say this because “Conversion therapy” is nearly universally associated with heinous coercive and aversive practices that gay allied scholars confess have not been utilized by licensed therapists, including those affiliated with the Alliance, for over 40 years. The term should not be used by any reputable journalist to describe any mental health professional because it will evoke such false prejudicial associations in the minds of readers. It’s use betrays an unwillingness to understand how Alliance clinicians view their therapeutic work and rather suggests an intent to vilify and demonize these mental health professionals. Again, Mother Jones has participated in the worst variety of “gotcha” activism thinly veiled as pseudo journalism. It is sufficient to say that Alliance clinicians are psychiatrists, psychologists, marriage and family therapists, professional counselors, social workers and other mental health professionals who work with clients for whom same-sex attractions and gender incongruence do not feel fundamentally authentic to them and who wish to explore their potential for change on a continuum of change.

 

MP: During your presentation, you talked about how you had trouble getting a journal to publish a paper that used the “SAFE-T” acronym. Is it fair to say that that terminology has not caught on beyond the Alliance?

 

CR: Sexual attraction fluidity exploration in therapy (SAFE-T) is a more accurate term for describing Alliance clinicians’ therapeutic work as pertains to assisting the change efforts of clients. It is admittedly difficult to change the language around change efforts due to the strategic political and cultural advantage terms such as “Conversion therapy” and “Sexual orientation change efforts” (SOCE) confer to the sociopolitical left of center. This makes it currently very difficult to publish research and papers in secular journals, as SAFE-T is typically dismissed as a cover for “Conversion therapy”, which a nonpartisan assessment of these terms would characterize as a ludicrous equivalence. However, SAFE-T is being used with more regularity by those who engage in change-allowing therapeutic work and, within these circles around the world, SAFE-T is gaining some momentum as an apt descriptor.

 

MP: Do you believe that same-sex attraction and transness: Are abnormal? Are unhealthy? Are the result of trauma? Are a result of poor parenting? Are a kind of disorder? Are curable with treatment?

 

CR: Two responses here. First, what matters is not the therapist’s views on etiology but those of the client. The Alliance does not believe therapists nor mental health associations, politicians, or journalists should be dictating how clients with unwanted same-sex attractions or gender incongruence understand the origins of their condition. Clients who present for therapy to explore their potential for change overwhelmingly do not come using the psychiatric language of disorder or abnormal but rather they see their experience though a moral/religious lens of behavioral prohibition and experiential aspiration. The field of psychology has no more authority (and likely less) than a religious institution to dictate the moral choices that influence a client’s aspirational framework for their psychological care.

 

Second, in line with the American Psychological Association (APA), I believe that there are many factors that lead to the experience of same-sex attraction and gender incongruence which are weighted differently for different people. While there are some general patterns, the unique developmental history of each client must be understood on its own terms and as the client understands it. As the APA put it:

 

There is no consensus among scientists about the exact reasons that an individual develops a heterosexual, bisexual, gay, or lesbian orientation. Although much research has examined the possible genetic, hormonal, developmental, social, and cultural influences on sexual orientation, no findings have emerged that permit scientists to conclude that sexual orientation is determined by any particular factor or factors. Many think that nature and nurture both play complex roles.... (APA, 2008).

 

Within this possible variety of factors that lead to the experience of same-sex attractions or gender incongruity, the American Psychological Association’s APA Handbook of Sexuality and Psychology (Mustanski et al., 2014, chapter 19, pp. 609-610) has indicated that childhood sexual abuse has “associative and potentially causal links” to having same-sex partners for some, based on research that includes a 30-year controlled study of court documented cases of sexual abuse of children ages 0 to 11 years. Men who were victims in this study were 6.75 times more likely to have same-sex partners, and there was a statistical trend for women who were victims (Wilson & Widom, 2010). Some clients who feel their same-sex attraction or behavior was forced on them by perpetrators of childhood sexual abuse want to explore these links, heal, and recover what they feel is their authentic self.

 

In addition, psychoanalytic factors, or family relationships as the child experienced them, are also potential causal factors in same-sex sexuality, according to the APA’s Handbook, which states, “Psychoanalytic contingencies are evident as main effects or in interaction with biological factors” (Rosario & Schrimshaw, 2014, v. 1, chapter 18, p. 583). The Handbook considered research suggesting there may be pathological psychodynamic or family causes in transgender identity, concluding “research on the influence of family of origin dynamics has found some support for separation anxiety among gender-nonconforming boys and psychopathology among mothers….” (Bockting, 2014, in APA Handbook, v. 1, chapter 24, p. 743; see Bradley & Zucker, 1997).

 

Despite the author's ignorance, these are real considerations Mother Jones showed no interest in promulgating in its story.


MP: One of my impressions from the conference is that the recent political interest in the transgender community creates an opportunity for ATCSI to try to share its message (in support of professional SOGI change efforts) with a wider audience who are concerned about transgender youth. Is this a fair and accurate observation?

 

The transgender movement has garnered much cultural attention and people from traditional religious and culturally conservative backgrounds do want to understand what has led to this development and how to navigate it effectively. The Alliance is certainly one source of information in this debate. However, it would be inaccurate to assume that the Alliance is simply jumping on a cultural bandwagon for its own benefit, as the Mother Jones article seems to imply. What is true is that the transgender movement has simply brought into more stark relief the worldview clash that has existed all along, largely beneath the cultural radar, between the LGBT+ and Judeo-Christian understanding of what it means to be fully human and what leads to ultimate human and societal flourishing. 

 

For the LGBT+ identified community, authentic personhood is generally understood to reside in what one feels (one’s inner experience, particularly sexual feelings in the present context). This overrides consideration of the body when these sources of information conflict. The truth of sexual and gender authenticity is determined by one’s inner experience. This worldview has been labeled expressive individualism, where one’s authentic personhood needs to be expressed for it to be authentically lived (Trueman, 2020). This assumptive framework regarding human authenticity naturally leads to the view that any attempts by a person to explore change of unwanted attractions or gender identities in counseling constitutes discrimination and an effort to eradicate a core component of that person’s authentic self. Within this worldview, change toward heterosexuality or gender congruence and away from one’s presumed authentic sexual and gender self is not deemed to be beneficial. Philosophically, this is why very few LGBT-identified persons pursue change as they consider their experience of sexuality and gender to be their authentic personhood. Those organizations such as the Alliance which do not affirm many of the tenets of expressive individualism do however acknowledge the rights of these LGBT-identified individuals to pursue counseling that is consistent with their underlying worldview and to be free of any coercion in this pursuit.

 

However, the Mother Jones article is completely blind to the reality that not all sexual minorities have adopted a worldview characterized by expressive individualism. I have observed that sexual minorities who do not identify as LGBT are largely not so identified because of their traditional religious faith. Consistent with their traditional religious outlook, these individuals see the human body as a creation of God, with a design that has normative guidance for their sexual behavior (Pearcey, 2018; Pope John Paul II, 1997). This physically based teleology is typically seen within a Judeo-Christian worldview as providing the best basis for guiding sexual expression, leading to human and societal flourishing. This means that for these sexual minorities, sexual attractions and behaviors that do not align with this teleological design of the body are viewed not as being innate but simply as characteristics of their sexual experience that do not define their identity. As such, these feelings can be explored in counseling for their potential for change without this pursuit being experienced by these individuals as a threat to or violation of their authentic personhood (see Rosik et al., 2023). The truth of their sexual and gender authenticity is determined by their bodies as understood to be created and designed by God. Any counseling-assisted shifting of sexuality towards greater congruence with the design of the body would very much be experienced as a benefit by these sexual minorities. To be seen as more than just a mouthpiece of progressive activism, Mother Jones must acknowledge that other worldviews exist beyond their own, and that to coerce non-LGBT-identified sexual minorities into adopting a foreign assumptive framework for their counseling aspirations is, at heart, a form of ideological and cultural colonization.

 

MP: The work of the ATCSI, formerly NARTH, has been described as “junk science.” As a board member and editor of the Journal of Human Sexuality, do you have a comment on that characterization?

 

CR: I think any fair-minded person would not take the word of the hyper-partisan Southern Poverty Law Center as a reliable source of unbiased information, as the Mother Jones writer appears to have done here. While the Alliance’s journal does not have a high impact factor (which we hope to grow), we feature reputable scholars from academia and elsewhere who are looking for a place to publish perspectives that the current professional culture has come to either ignore or refuse to entertain. I would encourage interested readers to examine a recent issue of the journal to judge for themselves regarding the quality of our writers. 

 

MP: Last year, you published "Sexual orientation change efforts: Health associations, sexual identity labeling, and reports of change by engagement status" in the APA journal Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity. I want to make sure I am describing the study accurately. Is it correct to say that the paper looked at attempts to “reduce, change and/or eliminate” same-sex attractions, behavior, or orientation, either on one’s own or with a counselor, and found that 326 people currently undergoing such efforts had greater depression and less flourishing, compared to people who had stopped or never tried them”?

 

The focus of my recent article on self-initiated sexual orientation change efforts (SISOCE) compared three groups of participants: those who had never engaged in change efforts, those who had ended their change efforts, and those still engaged in change efforts. My colleagues and I did find that those still engaged in change efforts reported significantly more depression and less flourishing than participants in the two other groups. However, what will no doubt be underreported when this study is eventually published is that the levels of depression and flourishing for all three groups were in the same interpretive range for these scales. In other words, all three groups averaged scores in the mildly depressed and average flourishing ranges. This highlights the difference between statistical significance (which we found) and practical significance (which, it could be argued, we did not find). Certainly, results such as these do not justify therapy bans. To interpret these findings as a justification for such bans commits the high-low fallacy (Reyna, 2017), where significant differences between groups at one end (or interpretive range) of a scale are treated as if they represented conceptual differences between groups that are psychometrically represented as opposite ends (or different interpretive ranges) of the scale. I do not expect Mother Jones to have the sophistication to understand such nuances, not to mention the inclination to highlight them.

 

MP: Do you have any context you would like to share about this study’s retraction?

 

CR: There is absolutely a context for this unfortunate development that needs to be told. First and foremost, there was no ethical misconduct in the conducting of this research and none was ever alleged. After the article was published online by the APA journal, I discovered that the depression variable had been coded improperly by one of my coauthors, changing the interpretation of the results in that the groups were originally all falling within the moderately severe depression but in fact were actually all in the mildly depressed range. Similarly, I also found one table was not formatted accurately. When corrected, the findings indicated those in ongoing change efforts were more likely to report the development of enough other-sex attraction to enjoy other-sex sexual behavior than participants who had never engaged in change efforts. What should be noted is that both of these corrections led to findings more in line with the original paper’s hypothesis and more favorable to the notion that change efforts are beneficial for some and, overall, are not generally experienced as associated with severe depression or impaired flourishing in life.

 

These two problems, while genuine, should have resulted in the publication of a corrected version of the article. However, one of my colleagues apparently received so much blowback from his colleagues about the article during the 2023 APA convention that he insisted we also make changes that would emphasize the statistical group differences within a minority stress framework while deemphasizing interpretations that highlight the lack of differences among the groups in terms of their clinical or interpretive meaning. This necessitated a much larger scale overhaul of the text which in the end likely prompted the journal editor to request a retraction, with a request to start the entire submission process over again with a revised manuscript.  

 

We did just that, neutering many of the considerations that had been found to be ideologically onerous and potentially not reflecting current preferred narratives around change efforts. The editor invited only one of the three original reviewers to evaluate the new submission and added two new reviewers to the review process. Not surprisingly, and with some delay that I can only imagine involved some discussions about what in the heck to do about this paper, the reviews came back 2-1 against publishing the revised version, with the two new reviewers voting against. Perhaps most tellingly, the editor did not leave an option for further resubmission, although I think any genuinely scientific issues with the manuscript could have been overcome in a revision. Ideological concerns, it appears, were much harder to overcome. After nearly a two-year dance with this journal, I am now in the process of locating a new and hopefully more receptive outlet in which to publish this research.

 

References

 

American Psychological Association (2008). What causes a person to have a particular sexual orientation? In, Understanding sexual orientation and homosexuality. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. This is a “fact sheet” posted at https://www.apa.org/topics/lgbt/orientation.

 

Bradley, S.J. & Zucker, K.J. (1997). Gender identity disorder: a review of the past 10 years. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 36(7), 872-880. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9204664/. https://doi.org/10.1097/00004583- 199707000-00008

 

Bockting, W. (2014). Chapter 24: Transgender Identity Development. In Tolman, D., & Diamond, L., Co-Editors-in-Chief (2014). APA Handbook of Sexuality and Psychology. Volume 1. Person Based Approaches. Pp. 739-758. Washington D.C.: American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/pubs/books/4311512

 

Mustanski, B., Kuper, L., & Greene, G. (2014). Chapter 19: Development of sexual orientation and identity. In Tolman, D., & Diamond, L., Co-Editors-in-Chief (2014). APA Handbook of Sexuality and Psychology, Volume 1. Person Based Approaches. Pp. 597-628. Washington D.C.: American Psychological Association. (“Sexual Abuse”, pp. 609-610.) https://www.apa.org/pubs/books/4311512

 

Pearcey, N. R. (2018). Love thy body. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

 

Pope John Paul II (1997). The theology of the body: Human love in the divine plan. Pauline Books and Media.

 

Reyna, C. (2017). Scale creation, use and misuse: How politics undermines measurement. In J. Crawford & L. Jussim (Eds.), The Politics of Social Psychology (pp. 81-98). New York: Psychology Press. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315112619

 

Rosario, M. & Schrimshaw, E. (2014). Chapter 18: Theories and etiologies of sexual orientation. In Tolman, D., & Diamond, L., Co-Editors-in-Chief (2014). APA Handbook of Sexuality and Psychology, Volume 1. Person Based Approaches. Pp. 555-596. Washington D.C.: American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/pubs/books/4311512

 

Rosik, C. H., Lefevor, G. T., & Beckstead, A. L. (2023). Sexual minorities responding to sexual orientation distress: Examining 33 methods and the effects of sexual identity labeling and theological viewpoint. Spirituality in Clinical Practice, 10(3), 245–260. https://doi.org/10.1037/scp0000295

 

Trueman, C. (2020). The rise and triumph of the modern self. Crossway.

 

Wilson, H. W., & Widom, C. S. (2010). Does physical abuse, sexual abuse, or neglect in childhood increase the likelihood of same-sex sexual relationships and cohabitation? A prospective 30-year follow-up. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 39, 63-74. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19130206/. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-008-9449-3

 

Responses from Robert Vazzo

MP: This is Madison from Mother Jones, reaching out because I’m getting ready to publish an article that draws heavily from my experience attending the ATCSI conference where we met last November. My story is about therapeutic responses to gender-diverse youth, and the spread of gender orientation change efforts, a.k.a. conversion therapy, in the context of the current anti-trans political moment. I have some questions for you and some characterizations I’d like to give you the chance to respond to.

 

RV: Hi Madison,

 

I want to take the time to respond to your e-mail.  A great deal of it surprised me as you have made some grossly inaccurate comments about things that I purportedly said and clients that you believe that I had. 

 

You also keep using the term "conversion therapist."  A conversion therapist is a therapist who tries to convert clients from gay to straight or from "trans" to "not trans". I don't try to change anyone. My clients choose their own therapeutic goals, which is in line with the concept of free agency, and I develop treatment plans based on those goals. The term conversion therapist  is grossly simplistic and allows the user to develop straw man arguments. If you print anything, you should print that we do not try to "convert" clients.

 

MP: First of all, thank you for taking the time to talk with me at the conference about your practice. We discussed this at the conference, and I’d like to confirm my understanding. Do you believe that same-sex attraction and transness: [A] Are abnormal? [B] Are unhealthy? [C] Are the result of trauma? [D] Are a result of poor parenting? [F] Are a kind of disorder? [G] Are curable with treatment?

 

RV: While there are certainly genetic influences for SSA and transgenderism, I believe that SSA and transgenderism often are based in weak gender identity development, which can be the result of trauma and/or dysfunctional family dynamics throughout the developmental years.  However, there have been documented cases of teens saying that they are gay or transgender to get attention, to deal with peer pressure, to manage confusion, etc. So, my remarks should never be considered all encompassing.

 

As you notice, I don't use the terms you have used above because they are too simplistic for a discussion.  For example, in (D) above, the statement is the result of poor parenting is grossly simplistic because you must first define what poor parenting is. And in (G) above, you use term "curable."  To say that something is curable is to put it in the category of diseases. The profession as a whole has moved away from the disease model, so none of us use those terms.

 

MP: In our conversation, you described several clients whom you’ve counseled about their gender identity, including a young transfeminine client whom you tried to urge to connect with their inner masculinity by complimenting their biceps and trying to get them to be more assertive with their mother. You summed it up: “The bulk of our work is trying to get people to value who they really are.” At the time, I understood you to mean “who they really are” as cisgender, identifying with their birth sex. Is that what you meant?

 

RV: What!?!  I never had a client who wanted to be a woman and whose biceps I complimented, and I never used the term "inner masculinity." I had a teen who vacillated between wanting to be a girl and remain a boy.  Since he was going through puberty and growing, I complimented him on his growing masculine body, because ironically, he had started exercising, and he warmly received those remarks.  I did encourage the client to be more assertive with others, including his controlling mother.

 

Did you notice that you phrase things in such a way as to make me look stupid!?!  That is totally unprofessional!

 

I subscribe to biological definitions: If you have XX chromosomes and female genitalia, you are female and if you have XY chromosomes and male genitalia, you are male.   Whether you choose to identify with the biological reality is your choice, but the biological reality can never be changed. How you feel can change but the biological reality can not.  Living in reality is a tenet of good mental health.

 

MP: You also told me that since your lawsuit against the city of Tampa, you don’t write down your treatment plans any more. Can you explain why?

 

RV: Good heavens!  I never said that!  I said that I can now be free to treat minors in FL and develop treatment plans because I won the lawsuit. I may have said that before the resolution of the lawsuit, we could not have as treatment plans anything related to sexual orientation or gender identity change.

 

MP: You also told me that in states with conversion therapy bans, you only treat “family dynamics.” Is that accurate? Does that mean you only conduct family therapy in those states?

 

RV: That's correct. I obey all laws. I do that not because I am a conversion therapist, but because I could be accused of being one! Treating dysfunctional family dynamics is always helpful to assist the family in functioning better.

 

 

MP: My story defines “conversion therapy” as a colloquial term used to describe efforts to shift a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity, typically, in modern days, through verbal counseling. Under this definition, is it fair to call you a conversion therapist?

 

RV: No!  It's a term that does not do justice to what we really do. I am a therapist who uses numerous tools to treat trauma that has affected a person's personal and gender identity; in doing so, many clients experience change. Change is not guaranteed, but a sufficient number of our clients do experience real change. Essentially, I assist clients in reaching their therapeutic goals. In any case, the old days of conducting only talk therapy are long gone. We spend a lot of time implementing interventions, some of which were presented at the conference.

 

MP: One of my impressions from the conference is that the recent political interest in the transgender community creates an opportunity for ATCSI to try to share its message (in support of professional SOGI change efforts) with a wider audience who are concerned about transgender youth. Is this a fair and accurate observation?

 

RV: ATCSI is always looking for opportunities to share the message that change is often possible for those who are dissatisfied with feelings that don't align with their biological reality.

 

MP: The work of the ATCSI, formerly NARTH, has been described as “junk science” and “conversion therapy.” Do you have a comment on that characterization?

 

RV: It's a gross simplification of the work that we do. It would be the equivalent of calling breast augmentation surgery surgical breast mutilation or botox treatments narcissistic facial medicine.  People reserve the right to make choices about how they look, how they want to identify and whom they want to love.

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