Friday, November 11, 2011

Knowing, Doubting and Supporting in a Mormon-themed Forum

One aspect of most online groups with Mormon themes that discourages and frustrates me is the continued use of the language of certitude we are taught as Mormons. Mormons “know” everything rather than think it or believe it or hope for it or have an opinion about it. Mormons tend to overuse and misuse the word “know” and sometimes phrase statements with absoluteness in ways that put up barriers to effective communication.

I try to state my beliefs and opinions and thoughts by showing how and why I’ve reached a certain point of view. Sometimes I fall flat in doing so. Sometimes, there’s emotion mixed in that may interfere with what would otherwise be a clear statement.

When I read or hear something from someone else that seems to rely on absolutes, I have a hard time not feeling defensive because I grew up hearing people in the church be so certain about things that simply can’t be supported with verifiable facts. My response is to feel disrespected because my doubt and skepticism seems to be viewed as a deficiency, a problem to be fixed, a disorder to be set right.

People who claim to be prophets, seers and revelators, along with other leaders and members who were supposed to have keys and responsibility to answer my deepest questions about myself and life turned out to be wrong on so many points that they crossed into untrustworthy territory for me. I was all-in when I was active in the church. I wanted to contribute and do my small part in making things better for individuals, the church and the world. I served in positions of trust, including as a bishop, and tried to make a positive difference. I hope I did.

It was my experience with a general authority officially representing the First Presidency in a personal meeting with me that pounded the final nail in the coffin of my official association with the LDS church. He said things so deeply offensive and hurtful and ecclesiastically abusive directly to me in his official capacity that it was clear that my doubts about the church and its leaders were well-founded, and that the church was unsafe and unhealthy for me. I tried to attend for a few months following that episode, but there was no healing or reconciliation. Once I realized it wasn’t me that was broken or at fault for that, I ended my affiliation with the church. I can tell you that as an eighth-generation Mormon, that was a big fucking deal.

So, when I hear definitive pronouncements about where things are headed for the LDS church or hear “know” statements applied to groups of people, the church in general or society at large, I cringe. It feels condescending and disrespectful of the validity of alternative viewpoints. It brings up feelings of dehumanization and abandonment. I’ve mostly worked through those feelings when it comes to the church. Mostly, not completely. I don’t like visiting those emotional spaces. And yet, I continue to participate in this forum and that forum where those emotions are dredged up. I haven’t figured out whether that’s part of my healing process or I’m a glutton for punishment.

I speak only for myself here. I wonder if the tent is really big enough to have a support community that includes people who believe in and defend the LDS church at all costs and people whose experience tells them that the LDS church broken at its very foundation. We can discuss issues. But can we support each other---even on a purely emotional level---when we are so far apart in our approaches to life? I don't know. This is a set of open questions. I'm not assuming any answers.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Physician, Heal Thyself

Dr. A. Dean Byrd, of NARTH and Evergreen International fame, has garnered a bit of attention recently in some corners of online Mormondom for a 2009 book he co-authored titled “Encouraging Heterosexuality: Helping Children Develop a Traditional Sexual Orientation.” Here is a sampling of some of the statements by Byrd and his co-author, Douglas A. Abbott, in this book marketed toward LDS parents:

  • “We believe that the widespread acceptance and legal recognition of homosexual behavior will lead to the exploitation of children by adults. As homosexuality is integrated into our society, adult-child sex will become more common.”
  • “There intersection of common ground between the gay rights agenda and efforts of some gays and lesbians to decriminalize sex between adults and adolescents.”
  • “Homosexual culture commonly promotes sex with children...and targets children both for their own sexual pleasure and to enlarge the homosexual movement.”
  • “Gays yearn for any-and-all sexual behavior to be permissible.”
  • “Gay men will publicly claim that the molestation of boys is not part of the homosexual lifestyle, but on the other hand they are quietly establishing the legal parameters exempting the molestation of boys from prosecution.”
The book offers “Warning Signs that May Require Intervention” (manifest in children as young as two years old) requiring vigilance by parents:

  1. Repeatedly stated desire to be the other sex.
  2. Preference for cross-dressing.
  3. Strong and persistent preference for cross-sexual roles in make-believe play.
  4. Intense desire to participate in stereotypical games and pastimes of the other sex.
  5. Strong preference for playmates of the other sex.
In addition, the book gives “Seven Suggestions for Fostering Heterosexuality” in children:

  1. Build healthy parent-child relationships. (Byrd and Abbott claim: “fathers may want to help sons become at least minimally proficient in one physical activity,” “a constructive, warmly supportive father precludes the possibility of a homosexual son,” and “fathers must give special attention to a sensitive son” among other things.)
  2. Create a happy marriage. (Byrd and Abbott claim: “the influence of a loving and affectionate married couple...will help insulate any child from the forces of promiscuity and from a desire to experiment with homosexual behavior.”)
  3. Encourage healthy same-sex friendships in childhood. (Byrd and Abbott claim: “the child's peers help to direct him or her into traditional gender identity and gender roles.”)
  4. Guard your children from sexualization by the media.
  5. Remediate sexual abuse. (Byrd and Abbott claim: "Sexual abuse derails the normal development of a heterosexual preference.)
  6. Provide value-based sex education at home. (Byrd and Abbott advocate: “teach the meaning and value of heterosexuality.”)
  7. Teach personal responsibility. (Byrd and Abbott claim: “sexual thoughts and behaviors are choices.”)
This is junk science in the extreme.

The record shows that Dean Byrd has convinced himself that he's sincerely trying to help people achieve their full potential. In reality, he's making money and gathering accolades based on fear and magical thinking. He also seems to have a bit of a prideful (to borrow a Mormon term) view of his own “expertise.” Whether this is his intent, I have no idea. But the reality is that he benefits financially and enhances his reputation among LDS leadership by advancing the ideas found in this book.

Byrd has a significant credibility problem, at least among thinking people. He also is seeking to further advance his following among Mormons whose only test of credibility for a person is that Deseret Book is willing to publish their incendiary, unsupportable drivel. When a person publishes the statements quoted above, he or she is accountable in civilized society to back up his or her claims. If they can't that person loses credibility. That person is also accountable for the rejection, vilification and hate of groups when people rely on that person’s words.

This isn't maligning. It is the truth. It may be that Byrd helped some of his clients gain personal insight, but he's too stuck in dogma to be a therapist a gay person (however they self-identify) should stay with for very long if that person is looking to enhance their emotional health.

Byrd is a public figure. He has chosen that path. Like anyone who thrusts themselves into the spotlight or who accepts a “calling” to advocate a particular position, he must weather criticism and questions about his motives. I'm sure those who know Boyd Packer personally are horrified at most of the criticisms against him. Those people would probably cite to the many personal kindnesses Packer has shown to them. But those personal gestures do not erase the pain Packer has inflicted against so many people, intentionally or unintentionally. The same is true for Dr. Byrd. People who make public claims are subject to scrutiny. If he is not up to the scrutiny, he always has the choice of stepping out of the spotlight.

Yes, Byrd believes he is saving souls. It is his right to believe so. It is our right to be skeptical of what drives him to do so. I doubt he is becoming wealthy from his therapy practice or peddling a few pseudo-scientific books. But he is making money from stirring up fear. That is wrong, whether his doing so is conscious or not. That he is a warm and kind person in private or that he has helped people during difficult personal times does not negate the horrible impacts his public persona and his writings continue to have. I would hope that an intelligent man like Byrd would reflect on what seems to be some significant disconnect.

Most active LDS parents are terrified that their children might be gay. This fear has been fostered over many decades in the larger American culture, and continues to be systematically fostered by LDS leadership at every level, with only a few exceptions. Having counseled likely hundreds of people working through sexual identity issues, Byrd must understand the fear of those parents and the fears gay people face. For him to tap into those fears as he does in this book is unconscionable.

I feel compassion for Byrd as he faces a severe physical illness in his life right now. I hope he will recover, or at least receive the best treatment available. But I can simultaneously feel outraged and disgusted that someone who is supposed to be helping people to heal is continuing to willingly join the out-of-tune chorus in a decades-long crusade that harms millions of people. Just as Byrd and those who agree with his claims have a right to speak and write about their beliefs, all of us have the right to speak up and declare reality.

The American Psychological Association Ethical Principles and Code of Conduct are noteworthy when it comes to Byrd and other psychologists who make similar claims. I'm no expert on the ground-level application of APA's Principles and Code, but I'm glad I looked into what the APA expects from its membership. This isn't so much about homosexuality, nor is it limited to Dean Byrd. It's about maintaining the integrity of the scientific and therapeutic processes and holding charlatans accountable---even those who may be nice people in some areas of their lives. 

The fact is, there isn't sufficient support for the claims of people like Byrd to make them reliable as proper parenting advice, much less to form a basis for effective therapeutic models or sound social policy. Byrd offers no credible, peer-reviewed proof for his claims. Instead, he marches on in a reckless crusade that is more about fear than faith, and one that drives wedge upon wedge between parents and their gay children. 

NOTE: Below are the most relevant provisions of the APA's Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct:

Principle A: Beneficence and Nonmalfeasance
Psychologists strive to benefit those with whom they work and take care to do no harm....

Principle C: Integrity
Psychologists seek to promote accuracy, honesty, and truthfulness in the science, teaching, and practice of psychology. In these activities psychologists do not steal, cheat, or engage in fraud, subterfuge, or intentional misrepresentation of fact....

Principle E: Respect for People's Rights and Dignity
Psychologists respect the dignity and worth of all people, and the rights of individuals to privacy, confidentiality, and self-determination. Psychologists are aware that special safeguards may be necessary to protect the rights and welfare of persons or communities whose vulnerabilities impair autonomous decision making. Psychologists are aware of and respect cultural, individual, and role differences, including those based on age, gender, gender identity, race, ethnicity, culture, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, disability, language, and socioeconomic status and consider these factors when working with members of such groups. Psychologists try to eliminate the effect on their work of biases based on those factors, and they do not knowingly participate in or condone activities of others based upon such prejudices.

5.01 Avoidance of False or Deceptive Statements
(a) Public statements include but are not limited to paid or unpaid advertising, product endorsements, grant applications, licensing applications, other credentialing applications, brochures, printed matter, directory listings, personal resumes or curricula vitae, or comments for use in media such as print or electronic transmission, statements in legal proceedings, lectures and public oral presentations, and published materials. Psychologists do not knowingly make public statements that are false, deceptive, or fraudulent concerning their research, practice, or other work activities or those of persons or organizations with which they are affiliated.

8.07 Deception in Research
(a) Psychologists do not conduct a study involving deception unless they have determined that the use of deceptive techniques is justified by the study's significant prospective scientific, educational, or applied value and that effective nondeceptive alternative procedures are not feasible.
(b) Psychologists do not deceive prospective participants about research that is reasonably expected to cause physical pain or severe emotional distress.