The evangelical professor who turned against 'reparative therapy' for gays

Senior Political Correspondent
Yahoo News
“This is where a lot of blog posts get written,” said Warren Throckmorton, who has had an outsize impact on evangelicalism through his blog posts written in the local McDonald’s in Grove City, Pa. Twenty years ago, he became an influential advocate for the idea that LGBT people could change their orientation if they wanted to. Over the past decade, however, the psychology professor at a small Christian college in Western Pennsylvania has changed his mind about the effectiveness of so-called reparative therapy and is struggling with how to interpret the Bible’s teachings on sexuality. (Photo: Jon Ward/Yahoo News)
“This is where a lot of blog posts get written,” said Warren Throckmorton, who has had an outsize impact on evangelicalism through his blog posts written in the local McDonald’s in Grove City, Pa. Twenty years ago, he became an influential advocate for the idea that LGBT people could change their orientation if they wanted to. Over the past decade, however, the psychology professor at a small Christian college in Western Pennsylvania has changed his mind about the effectiveness of so-called reparative therapy and is struggling with how to interpret the Bible’s teachings on sexuality. (Photo: Jon Ward/Yahoo News)

This is second in a series of portraits of American evangelical Christians in the age of Donald Trump, examining the changes, tensions and challenges in this group through individual stories. The first installment, a profile of Jemar Tisby, is here.

GROVE CITY, Pa. — Twenty years ago, Warren Throckmorton, a psychologist and evangelical Christian, was a leading voice in the “sexual reorientation” movement, which sought to turn homosexuals straight.

Today he no longer promotes sexual reorientation in light of the scientific evidence that most gays are born that way. He has also emerged as a scourge of many on the Christian right, such as antigay activists who supported the movement in Uganda to criminalize homosexuality, as well as prominent authors like David Barton and Eric Metaxas.

Throckmorton’s ideological journey, which began a decade ago at Grove City College in western Pennsylvania, where he was and still is a professor of psychology, was shaped by scientific inquiry but sparked by concern about the harm being done to people undergoing reparative therapy.

“He is a person of real, deep and uncommon integrity,” said Jeff Sharlet, a journalist who has written about fundamentalist Christianity. Sharlet added that Throckmorton has allowed data and evidence to shape his views “in a way very few people of any ideological or political stripe would.”

Throckmorton is also symbolic of a shift occurring among some evangelicals who are wondering if their faith tradition has misinterpreted or overemphasized biblical texts about same-sex relationships for centuries.

The question of just how radically to reinterpret Christian Scripture is a matter of further debate. There is a group of evangelical authors and leaders who have said they believe there is no conflict in being a gay Christian. But that movement has been met by the more confrontational approach embodied in the recent Nashville Statement.  And there are those who take a centrist approach, like Preston Sprinkle president of the Center for Faith, Sexuality & Gender.

Throckmorton is unique because he has scientific credentials on the origins of sexual orientation, which conservative Christians regard as central.

Evangelicals have believed that homosexuality, like other sins, is a choice. The alternative is to accept that God would allow people to be born with natural, irrevocable desires for something forbidden.

And while many gays have been the victims of bigotry and hatred in the Christian church, many believers are sympathetic to the stories and struggles of individual gays and lesbians, but feel bound by the long-held view that the Bible clearly forbids homosexuality. That’s a debate that relies on textual interpretation and analysis more than many realize.

Traditionalists derive their position from their interpretation of the Bible’s overarching vision for sexual relations, as taking place between a man and a woman in a covenantal marriage, but they also rely on specific prohibitions against homosexuality in both the Old and New Testaments, for example, – Leviticus 18:22 (“You shall not lie with a male as with a woman. It is an abomination”) Romans 1:27 (“…men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust for one another, men with men committing what is shameful…”), First Corinthians 6:9 and First Timothy 1:10.

Supporters of same-sex marriage form a prayer circle during a protest in front of the Rowan County Courthouse, Sept. 4, 2015, in Morehead, Ky. (Photo: Ty Wright/Getty Images)
Supporters of same-sex marriage form a prayer circle during a protest in front of the Rowan County Courthouse, Sept. 4, 2015, in Morehead, Ky. (Photo: Ty Wright/Getty Images)

But the strain on conservatives has grown over the past decade as homosexuality has rapidly gained cultural acceptance. Scientific research has brought about a consensus that people do not choose their sexual orientation, and some of the most prominent groups that promoted the idea of changing from gay to straight have apologized and abandoned the practice.

In 2012, psychiatrist Robert Spitzer — who had led the fight in 1973 to remove homosexuality from the mental health profession’s official list of disorders — recanted a 2001 study he had conducted that found that highly motivated people could change their orientation. He was disturbed by the way that the study had been used to argue that people chose to be gay, and could be turned straight.

In addition, scientific evidence has accumulated for a genetic or innate predisposition for homosexuality, while studies that have been used to support the choice argument have been discredited.

Throckmorton has followed these developments closely, and has adjusted his views accordingly. But he still views the Bible as divinely inspired. He wrestles continually with this tension.

“That’s not actually vital … to believe a certain thing about human sexuality. There’s other ways to look at it, and you can still be orthodox,” he told me.

Throckmorton, 60, a married father of four, said he has been rethinking much more than just his view of sexuality.

“If someone said, gun to my head, ‘Here’s what you believe. Jesus is God,’ Yeah, I believe that. I’ve staked my life on it. I’ve kind of staked all my career on that whole thing,” he told me. “I teach at a place that promotes that. I teach that, but do you understand that there is actually decent evidence that may not be true? Yeah, I know that. And so, I think I’m more comfortable at this point in my life living with the tension that I believe something about which there is evidence to the contrary.”

To those on the left who would dismiss the Biblical texts about sexuality as irrelevant, Throckmorton would urge caution. “I have a lot of respect for my traditions and my background. I feel like before I make a move on the personal front, I want to let some time pass. I want to think about it. I want to reflect on it,” he said.

But to those on the right who have argued that homosexuality hurts people because it is sinful, Throckmorton would say that real-life experience often does not always bear that out.

“I know [gays] who are living a great life and they’re healthy and everything’s fine,” he said. “It just is. Gays just are.”

That said, Throckmorton wrote recently that if someone comes to him for counseling about their sexual desires, he would “work with her to pursue her goals in accord with the sexual identity therapy framework I developed along with Mark Yarhouse.”

The sexual identity therapy (SIT) framework was written about approvingly in a report issued in 2009 by a task force affiliated with the American Psychological Association.

Yarhouse, director of the Institute for the Study of Sexual Identity at Regent University, a Christian college founded by fundamentalist TV evangelist Pat Robertson, said in an email that the SIT framework is “an alternative to reparative therapy because it does not claim to change orientation.”

In other words, Throckmorton would work to help someone who wants to stop having gay sex, but would not try to turn a homosexual into a heterosexual.

Warren Throckmorton, a psychology professor at Grove City College, talks to students at the conservative Christian school about how to approach “apparent contradictions” between what the Bible teaches and what they experience in their lives. (Photo: Jon Ward/Yahoo News)
Warren Throckmorton, a psychology professor at Grove City College, talks to students at the conservative Christian school about how to approach “apparent contradictions” between what the Bible teaches and what they experience in their lives. (Photo: Jon Ward/Yahoo News)

I sat in on one of Throckmorton’s lectures early in the fall. As students filtered into the room, Throckmorton played a song from the two-man rock group the Black Keys. He loves music and plays electric guitar in a faculty band calledCrimson Floyd. Led Zeppelin was also on his playlist that day. Throckmorton referred to it as his “walk-up music,” like the songs that professional baseball players choose to hear as they walk from the dugout to the plate for an at bat.

Throckmorton usually has a battered Pittsburgh Pirates hat on his head. On this day, he had taken off the cap and wore a short-sleeve blue polo shirt (untucked) with light-colored khakis. He posted a slide on the wall that got to the heart of what he and many other Christians are struggling with.

“Two sources of truth — Revelation (Scripture) the world (Science/experience),” the slide said. He spoke softly as he addressed what some of his students might be thinking.

“Maybe some of you psych majors have had a little pushback, I don’t know, from someone in your life,” Throckmorton said. “I know I have over the years: ‘Why are you studying the devil’s science? It’s not something a Christian should be involved in.’ I’ve certainly been told that.”

Grove City College is a very conservative place, and it attracts very conservative students. It is one of the few accredited universities in the country that does not accept federal loans, which gives it more independence from the government. In 2015, a test prep and tutoring company ranked Grove City as the most unfriendly school for LGBT students in the country. They moved down to No. 9 on the list in 2016. (The top spot is currently occupied by College of the Ozarks in Missouri.)

In 2016, Throckmorton and some other faculty put a small rainbow sticker on the doors to their offices, to make LGBT students feel more welcome. “We have students at our school who are very accomplished, some of our best students, and they’re gay,” Throckmorton said. The small gesture prompted a backlash among conservative faculty members.

The school’s president, former deputy attorney general Paul McNulty, formed a commission to study the issue. “The conservatives are just itching for the school to come out and declare itself antigay,” Throckmorton told me recently. He does not have tenure, because Grove City does not grant it.

In Throckmorton’s class, he talked about the challenges in believing in two sources of truth. The students, who had asked lots of questions earlier, sat quietly listening.

“For sure the Bible wasn’t meant to be a textbook on human nature. The Bible may have authoritative things to say. However, the Bible doesn’t comment on everything,” he said. “There’s a lot about human nature and human functioning that we just can’t really know from reading the Scripture, so that’s a problem.”

He brought up the elephant in the room. “Some Christians believe that there is a prohibition on same-sex behavior. Other Christians believe there is no such prohibition. We have a difference of understanding. Psychology teaches us, and tells us, that coming out or being open about one’s sexuality is mentally more healthy than not doing that,” he said. “How do you handle it? Do you discount one just because it’s not consistent with your worldview? Or, do you hold those in some kind of tension?”

Throckmorton raised the possibility that sometimes there are “apparent contradictions” that may turn out not to be in conflict after all. And he emphasized resisting pressure to take a position prematurely, especially from the social group one is a part of.

“If something is real right in front of your face, if it’s true, don’t let a worldview tell you it’s not. Let the evidence tell you it’s not,” Throckmorton tells a class. (Photo: Jon Ward/Yahoo News)
“If something is real right in front of your face, if it’s true, don’t let a worldview tell you it’s not. Let the evidence tell you it’s not,” Throckmorton tells a class. (Photo: Jon Ward/Yahoo News)

“I don’t know for sure that I have interpreted either psychology or the Bible properly. So I may need to be willing to wait until more truth, more evidence becomes clear,” he said. “Sometimes I may have to suspend my worldview and acknowledge that there is evidence here in one side.”

He ended with the closest thing to a recommendation he would give the students: “If something is real right in front of your face, if it’s true, don’t let a worldview tell you it’s not. Let the evidence tell you it’s not,” he said.

That statement was derived from his own experience of the last two decades. Throckmorton has been motivated by a desire to atone for past mistakes that caused people pain, he told me.

“Part of my change was just butting my head against this reparative therapy wall. The more I did it, the more I realized this is silly. I mean, this is just not right. And I’ve probably contributed to people believing this might be true. I need to undo the damage I’ve done,” he said.

Throckmorton was born and raised in Portsmouth, Ohio, the only child of a schoolteacher father who was raised in a Mormon household and became an agnostic and a Goldwater Republican. His mother, a Democrat, occasionally took him to church, but after a high school girlfriend brought him to Temple Baptist Church, he became a believing Christian. (He married another girlfriend he met during his senior year.)

He attended Cedarville College, a Christian school, in part because his father didn’t want him to, and earned a master’s degree in clinical psychology from Central Michigan University, and a PhD In community counseling/counselor education from Ohio University. By the early ’90s, he was the owner of a group psychology practice in his hometown.

In 1993, Grove City College recruited him to set up a counseling center on its campus, and he’s been there ever since. He got involved in the issue of sexual orientation in 1997. Throckmorton was the president-elect of the American Mental Health Counselors Association, a division of the American Counseling Association (ACA), when a proposal was made inside the ACA to ban reorientation counseling.

“I really hadn’t seen that many gays in my practice, but the ones I had seen, primarily, were Christians who were disturbed by it and who were making efforts not to do gay things. And most of the time, they were able to succeed to some degree in that, and I felt like that was a reasonable goal for them, given their religious faith,” he said.

A man reaches out to a large rainbow flag which is placed in support of gay marriage in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, April 28, 2015. (Photo: Astrid Riecken For The Washington Post via Getty Images)
A man reaches out to a large rainbow flag which is placed in support of gay marriage in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, April 28, 2015. (Photo: Astrid Riecken For The Washington Post via Getty Images)

So Throckmorton researched the issue and did a literature review that went back to the ’30s, concluding that “efforts to assist homosexually oriented individuals who wish to modify their patterns of sexual arousal have been effective, can be conducted in an ethical manner, and should be available to those clients requesting such assistance.” It was published in the Journal of Mental Health Counseling, a peer-reviewed publication.

The paper caught the attention of Robert Spitzer, the renowned psychiatrist who was viewed as a hero by the LGBT community. Spitzer asked Throckmorton to debate the topic at the 1998 meeting of the American Psychiatric Association. “Bob’s kind of a provocateur, and he said, ‘Well, let’s get back into this. Let’s look at this. And just because it’s not a known, this doesn’t mean that people have to live that way if they don’t want to,’” Throckmorton said.

In 2001, Spitzer presented a paper that shocked the world of psychiatry. He interviewed 200 people who said they had changed their sexual orientation from gay to straight, and concluded that “there is evidence that change in sexual orientation following some form of reparative therapy does occur in some gay men and lesbians.”

“It was like an earthquake at the time. And mainly because of who Bob Spitzer was,” Throckmorton told me.

In 2004, Throckmorton interviewed Spitzer on camera for a documentary he was making that was favorable toward the “ex-gay” movement called “I Do Exist.”  Spitzer told Throckmorton that gay activists were “quite threatened” by his study.

“They have the feeling that in order to get their civil rights, it’s helpful to them if they can present the view that once you’re a homosexual, you can never change,” Spitzer said. “They may be right politically that it does help them, but it may not be scientifically correct.”

Screen grab of Noe Gutierrez, one of the main figures in Throckmorton’s film, “I Do Exist.” (Video still via YouTube)
Screen grab of Noe Gutierrez, one of the main figures in Throckmorton’s film, “I Do Exist.” (Video still via YouTube)

Spitzer’s study was seized on by “ex-gay” groups like Exodus International and the National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), who said it proved that reparative therapy was legitimate, despite complaints from many that they had suffered emotional and psychological distress from it.

Throckmorton released his documentary in 2004. “It was the kind of the go-to resource for about the next two years, shown all over the world, proof gays could change,” Throckmorton said. “And I was OK with it until Noe came out as gay again.”

Noe was Noe Gutierrez, one of the main figures in Throckmorton’s film, and in 2006 he told Throckmorton that he was still gay. “In our conversations it became clear to me that he had felt a social pressure to say he had completely changed. So had the rest of the people in the video. And so that’s what really pushed me back to reexamine the studies I had used to convince me that change is possible,” Throckmorton said.

Throckmorton began to reconsider his conclusions. “I went back and reread the criticisms of my work that I had mostly kind of shunted aside, and decided that I really needed — you know, this was serious — I needed to figure this out. And so, no matter what my wish was about how things were, that I needed to do more what I’m doing now, which is accepting reality as it is.”

He reread much of the scientific work on the subject and stopped selling his documentary. He lobbied NARTH and Focus on the Family to consider that the majority of the data “suggested more biological factors” were driving sexual orientation. He has since talked to a handful of participants from Spitzer’s study. One is still in a heterosexual relationship. Three others are in same-sex relationships, he said.

Ugandans take part in the third annual Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride celebrations in Entebbe, Uganda, on Aug. 9, 2014. (Photo: Rebecca Vassie/AP)
Ugandans take part in the third annual Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride celebrations in Entebbe, Uganda, on Aug. 9, 2014. (Photo: Rebecca Vassie/AP)

And Throckmorton came into contact with LGBT people who didn’t fit the caricature often promoted in conservative Christianity. A friend’s young teenage son came out of the closet, exploding the myth that bad or abusive parenting caused people to become gay. “I knew the guy and I knew that his parenting was fine,” Throckmorton said. “I knew his son, and I was like, ‘Wait, I’m not gonna go along with this dogma here when I see evidence right in front of me.’”

In 2007, Throckmorton engaged in a lengthy argument with researchers who said they had found evidence that gays died younger than straights by two or three decades. He called their methods “unscientific” and said their conclusions were unpersuasive.

And then in 2009, he became aware of an effort in Uganda to institute the death penalty for gays. For the next five years, Throckmorton blogged extensively about developments in the African country, and about connections between the Ugandan effort and American evangelical Christians.

He began to do original reporting, talking and corresponding directly with key players in Uganda and in the U.S. He co-authored a letter to Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni with prominent psychiatrist Jack Drescher. The letter stated that “sexual orientation is not a matter of choice.”

“The guy who is most essential to stopping the Uganda antihomosexual act, I think, is Warren,” said Sharlet, who reported and wrote extensively about the Ugandan legislation.

That process led Throckmorton to examine more closely the ways that evangelicals thought and talked about applying their faith to politics and government. “The justification the Ugandan supporters used was, ‘We are a Christian nation and so we should legislate Christianly.”

Eric Metaxas speaks during the 44th annual March for Life in Washington on Jan. 27, 2017. (Photo: Tasos Katopodis/AFP/Getty Images)
Eric Metaxas speaks during the 44th annual March for Life in Washington on Jan. 27, 2017. (Photo: Tasos Katopodis/AFP/Getty Images)

During that period, Throckmorton began to write about Christian fundamentalist David Barton. Barton is an influential fundamentalist figure who was an adviser to Sen. Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign. He claims that his historical research, which has been widely discredited, shows that America’s founding fathers were devout Christians, and that the United States was created as a Christian nation. In 2012, Throckmorton published a book refuting Barton’s book on Thomas Jefferson, which caused Barton’s publisher to withdraw his book.

“When I discovered these American enablers of the [Uganda] bill … I started thinking about religious freedom here and the meaning of the First Amendment. It actually came together that Barton was an enemy of the First Amendment, at least in a subtle way,” Throckmorton told me. “His teaching was meant to minimize protections for other religions. That could backfire if another religion got power. Wouldn’t we want to be treated differently?”

Throckmorton has also written extensively about evangelical pastor Mark Driscoll, a nationally known religious celebrity. Throckmorton was able to develop sources within Driscoll’s church in Seattle who passed him internal church documents showing questionable uses of the church’s finances; Throckmorton also was one of several writers who uncovered multiple examples of plagiarism by Driscoll.

And he has also highlighted examples of shoddy work by another evangelical luminary, Eric Metaxas, whose 2011 biography of German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a bestseller among evangelicals. The book has been harshly criticized by Bonhoeffer scholars for “numerous factual errors,” a lack of original research and as a  “badly flawed” attempt to “hijack” the anti-Nazi figure to bash religious and political liberals.

Throckmorton has done all this from an inauspicious location. I spent an hour talking with Throckmorton in the spot where he often goes to write before he heads over to campus. It was the local McDonalds. He sat in a booth by the bathrooms. “This is where a lot of blog posts get written,” he said.

This year, Throckmorton has written extensively about the conservative evangelical “Nashville Statement” on sexuality and gender. He offers his harshest criticism for the portion of the statement that says “it is sinful to approve of homosexual immorality or transgenderism and that such approval constitutes an essential departure from Christian faithfulness and witness.”

Throckmorton told me he found that assertion “ridiculous.” He has engaged recently with one of evangelicalism’s favorite spokespersons on LGBT issues, Rosaria Butterfield. Butterfield was a tenured English professor at Syracuse University in a lesbian relationship who converted to Christianity, renounced her sexual orientation and is now married to a man with whom she has had four children.

Butterfield recently wrote that “gay may be how someone feels, but it can never be who someone inherently is.”

Rosaria Butterfield, a professor who renounced her previous lesbian sex orientation, takes part in a discussion during the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission National Conference on Tuesday, Oct. 28, 2014, in Nashville. (Photo: Mark Humphrey/AP)
Rosaria Butterfield, a professor who renounced her previous lesbian sex orientation, takes part in a discussion during the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission National Conference on Tuesday, Oct. 28, 2014, in Nashville. (Photo: Mark Humphrey/AP)

Throckmorton responded: “After working with LGBT people for two decades, I believe some people are inherently gay. They have never been attracted to a member of the opposite sex, even while married to one. They have tried everything to change, but nothing changes. … Butterfield says there is one size because of the Bible. Even though that’s not exactly what the Bible says, that’s how she … interpret[s] it, so that’s how anyone she talks to has to be. I used to look at people that way. I won’t do that anymore.”

“[Butterfield] believes that God’s design for most people is normative for all people. No exceptions are allowed,” Throckmorton continued. “The fact is that some people are naturally different than the norm. No matter how strongly she feels that such exceptions shouldn’t exist, they do.”

When I spoke to Throckmorton, this language of exceptions was how he described what he thought LGBT people might be within the scope of Christian teaching.

“I think you can view heterosexuality as being the most common evolutionary outcome, God’s plan — however you want to say it — and still have the exception be OK.” He is “thinking about, ‘Well, what does the Bible really say about it, and have we read too much into it?’”

“I’m still going back and looking at the words, what they mean, the context in which they’re used, and it just seems grayer to me now than it ever has,” he said. “And given that the Bible’s been used to support some pretty awful things, I just don’t want to be a part of that. I don’t want to lend my support to treating people badly and then later find out that wasn’t even right.”

Throckmorton noted that he had just celebrated his 40th wedding anniversary. “Gay marriage is legal. Didn’t affect my marriage,” he said.

“I don’t know that the same rules apply to everybody. They certainly apply to me. I’m not an exception,” he said.

A rainbow sticker in support of LGBT students on Warren Throckmorton’s office window at Grove City College. (Photo: Jon Ward/Yahoo)
A rainbow sticker in support of LGBT students on Warren Throckmorton’s office window at Grove City College. (Photo: Jon Ward/Yahoo)

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