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The "Dr. Phil" TV program & sexual orientation

Analysis of the "I'm gay, OK?"
episode of 2005-OCT-19

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The "I'm gay, OK?" episode:

This episode was broadcast on 2005-OCT-08. It included a great deal of information about sexual orientation that is of particular interest to lesbians, gays and bisexuals and their families and friends. 1 The show involved three segments. This essay will cover the first two. The third discusses parents' concern about a latent homosexual orientation in their 4 year-old son.

A conservative Christian family in conflict.

Anjela, 30, describes herself as a bisexual lesbian. From the age of 17, she has been: "...emotionally, intellectually, physically attracted to women more than men." The family is devoutly Christian. She, her mother Marty and sister Em experience a major conflict between their conservative Christian beliefs and Anjela's sexual orientation & behavior.

Angela worked with a number of counselors, seminars, support groups, and ex-gay ministries in an attempt to overcome her attraction to women, but found them all to be ineffective. She said that she had tried: "Really everything that I could do, that I felt was going to lead me down the path of righteousness. And none of which was working."

Later in the program Em, her sister, discounted her sister's effort to change her sexual orientation. Em said:

"I believe that if it were something that she wanted to overcome, if it were something that she strongly wanted to give over to God, that he could heal her from it. Now, if she doesn't want to overcome it, then she doesn't want to overcome it."

This makes a lot of sense from a conservative Christian perspective. God is considered omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent and omnibeneficient (all powerful, knowing, present and loving). He seen as hating homosexual behavior. Thus God would be expected to cure a bisexual of her same-sex attraction if she sincerely sought help. Since she remains a bisexual, then the most obvious explanation is that she doesn't sincerely want to change.

From a secular point of view, there is almost a complete absence of reliable data on the effectiveness of reparative therapy and programs by transformational ministries in helping a person change their sexual orientation. What little data is available seems to indicate that the failure rate is in excess of 99.5%, and the risk of adverse consequences such as severe depression and suicide ideation is high. Thus, Angela's experience with groups that failed to change her sexual orientation appears to be very common.

Anjela concluded:

"If it was really God's desire for us to not be gay, then why would it be such a struggle to overcome that?"
Her mother Marty said that:

"Anjela was not born gay; it's a choice she's made. I love her, but I would like to tell her to walk away [from same-sex sexual activity]. I feel my daughter's lifestyle is wrong. It's the promiscuity that's the problem. My daughter's attraction to women does not need to be acted on, and can be retrained.
Marty expressed some of the basic beliefs about homosexual orientation that is found among fundamentalist and other evangelical Christians, as well as other religious conservatives:
bullet That genes and hormones while in-utero have no influence in determining a person's sexual orientation as an adult.
bullet That same-sex attraction and sexual behavior is a choice that a person makes.
bullet That her daughter's bisexuality is a lifestyle. The term "lifestyle" generally refers to a item that a person chooses: whether to live in a city, suburbs, town or rural area; whether to work for a large company, small business, or be self-employed. etc. Most therapists, human sexuality researchers, and GLBs believe that sexual orientation is something that one discovers, not one that is chosen.
bullet That through reparative therapy or transformational ministries, a person can change their sexual orientation and become heterosexual.
As we list in our "two solitudes" essay, these beliefs are rare among GLB individuals, religious liberals, therapists, etc.

Em, her sister, is concerned: "... that Anjela will take the Bible and take pieces of what she wants to believe from the Bible and leave the rest out."

Bible has about six passages that deal with same-sex behavior. Bible scholars more or less agree on what these passages say. However, they have been unable to reach a consensus on what they mean:
bullet Most religious conservatives believe that all six passages condemn all forms of same-sex sexual behavior today, whether it is a one-night stand or a long-term, loving, committed relationship.
bullet Most religious liberals and secularists believe that these six passages condemn:
bullet Homosexual rape,
bullet Sex with same-sex temple prostitutes (2 passages in Leviticus),
bullet Men sexually abusing boys,
bullet Heterosexuals who go against their natural feelings and engage in same-sex orgies, and
bullet Men who engage in bestiality with male angels.

They conclude that the Bible is silent on sexual behavior within loving, committed same-sex relationships. although they sometimes wonder about Ruth & Naomi, David & Jonathan, and Daniel & Ashpenaz....

Em also said that: "... if she [Anjela] has accepted Jesus Christ as her savior, she is pure before the eyes of God. And that's all that matters to me."

A common belief among many conservative Christians is that one is saved by repenting of their sin and trusting Jesus as Lord and Savior. Many further believe that once a lesbian, gay, or bisexual person is saved, their same-sex attractions fade away. This is based on their interpretation of 1 Corinthians 6:11. We have never found any long-range studies that evaluate this belief.

An unstated concern in Anjela's family might be her fate after death. Most Christians believe that people go either to Heaven or Hell. But many, perhaps most, fundamentalists and other evangelical Christians believe that persons who have engaged in same-sex behavior will go to Hell. To believe that a family member will spend eternity being tortured in Hell with no hope of relief is an immense emotional load to handle.

Dr. Phil asked: "What do you have to do to find the common ground to say, 'Each is entitled to their position, and we're going to love each other around that' ?"

He suggested that the mother and sisters set boundaries and say:

"'Let's get together where we don't talk about our sexual orientation. We don't talk about our sex lives. We talk about kids.' You don't go there until you begin to get some foundation under yourselves as far as your relationship is concerned."

A debate between an ex-gay and a gay:

Debates between people who disagree about sexual orientation are rare. Sincere, open dialogue is almost non-existent.

The Dr. Phil program broadcast a debate between two persons, a priest who identified himself as an "ex-gay" and another male who identified himself as "gay."

bullet About David: He is the ex-gay. He apparently has a bisexual, not a homosexual, orientation. He engaged in same-sex behavior for ten years, including being a male prostitute for seven. About 1980, he went to seminary and immediately stopped his same-sex behavior. He said that he does not have a girlfriend or a wife because he was ordained a priest circa 1995. This was presumably in the Roman Catholic Church, which requires celibacy of its clergy, and has ordained few married men.

He said:

"Any homosexual who wants to change their orientation can do so with the help of God. ... What I was really looking for was my father's love. Homosexual confusion develops usually from trauma, whether it's abuse or neglect. My father was a very cold and severe and distant fellow. All of my attempts to bond with him were not met."

It is clear that David successfully changed his sexual behavior and became celibate. He said that he has been "...out of homosexuality for 25 years now and I haven't relapsed." What is not clear is whether he changed his sexual orientation as well.
bullet A person with a bisexual orientation can decide to not act on their feelings of same-sex attraction and thus describe themselves as being "out of homosexuality." However, they appear to always -- or almost always -- retain their attraction to both men and women.
bullet A person with a homosexual or bisexual orientation can decide to lead a celibate life even while retaining his or her orientation. He or she could also describe themselves as being "out of homosexuality"

All of the testimonies of ex-gays that we have read seem to indicate that the individual's original sexual orientation, whether bisexual or homosexual, has remained intact, even as they have decided to not engage in same-sex behavior. That is, they have changed in their behavior, but not their orientation.

bullet About Jusin: He is gay. While in college, he realized that he was attracted to men. In a desperate effort to change his orientation to heterosexual, he attended a number of ex-gay programs. He feels that they were ineffective. He said:

"It makes me furious to hear people tell me that I must have had a bad relationship with my father. I have always had a wonderful relationship with him. I was never sexually molested. I came to accept myself as gay. Through prayer and Bible study, I have a much, much better relationship with God now than when I was trying to become straight. I think that ministries like Dave's are harming more people than they're helping."

bullet David suggested: There are many possible reasons why the ex-gay programs that Justin's attended might have been unsuccessful. It:

"... may have been an ex-gay ministry that didn't know what they were doing. It may have been that he wasn't willing to do all of what it takes. It may have been that they were unable to discover all of the issues that needed to be healed."

When Dr. Phil asked David whether he believed that transformational ministries change behavior or sexual orientation/attraction, he seems to have dodged the question:

"They heal the underlying cause. Whether it is a failure to bond with your father-figure. A failure to bond with your mother, child abuse."

David appears to have admitted that, decades ago, he was a bisexual: he certainly had an attraction towards men. His attraction towards women was always present, but was "... just damaged and unformed."

bullet Sandy Williams spoke: She is a coordinator for the Gay-Straight Alliance Network for Southern California. 2GSANetwork's mission statement is to be:

"... a youth leadership organization that connects school-based Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) to each other and community resources. Through peer support, leadership development, and training, GSA Network supports young people in starting, strengthening, and sustaining GSAs and builds the capacity of GSAs to: 

1. create safe environments in schools for students to support each other and learn about homophobia and other oppressions, 

2. educate the school community about homophobia, gender identity, and sexual orientation issues, and 

3. fight discrimination, harassment, and violence in schools. 3

Sandy said:

"What I do with teenagers, is about helping people become comfortable with themselves, because that creates healthy people. The more in line a person is with who they are, and are accepting of who they are, that creates healthy adults. My concern with the 'conversion therapies' is that they do damage to that process."

That is, she does not try to change a youth's sexual orientation; she tries to make them comfortable and accepting with the sexual orientation that they have been given.

David responded:

"I'm aware of the criticisms, but they come from gay activists, usually. The idea that homosexuals cannot change is like saying I don't exist. We do exist. There are hundreds of thousands of us, if not millions of us, we have changed."

bullet Dr. Phil: He attempted to distinguish between conversion therapies changing behavior and changing orientation. He commented to Justin:

"You change the behavior -- I don't think anybody would disagree with that -- but what you're saying is, it shouldn't be counted as a success if somebody goes and lives a life that is not their authentic self, but yet doesn't practice a gay sexual relationship with somebody."

Justin responded:

"There is a lot of pressure in ex-gay ministries to say that you've completely changed, whether or not that's the case."

David commented:

"That is a complete misrepresentation of ex-gay ministries, in what we ask of people."

Justin responded:

"That's why I'm always very skeptical of simply accepting anyone saying, 'I used to be this, and now I am this'."

 David admits:

"It is a struggle. It takes many years for the orientation to change. And there are times when people fail. But it's just like alcoholism. It takes time, and you have to really want to change, or it's not going to happen."
bullet Beliefs of critics of ex-Gay ministries, etc.: They generally feel, like Justin, that the ministries sometimes succeed at changing behaviors, but that sexual orientations are always or almost always fixed. Thus, a person with a bisexual orientation who enters one of these groups is sexually attracted to both men and women. They may be convinced to confine their future sexual behavior to the opposite sex. Their behavior is changed and they try to not engage in sex with persons of the same sex. But their sexual orientation remains bisexual. They are still attracted to both men and women. A person with a homosexual orientation who enters one of these groups is sexually attracted only to persons of the same sex. They may be convinced to lead a celibate life. Thus, their behavior is changed and they try to not engage in sex with persons of the same sex. But their sexual orientation remains homosexual. They are still attracted to persons of the same sex.

Webmaster comments: [Bias alert]

These debate highlighted a difference of opinion over ex-gay groups, reparative therapy, transformational ministries, etc. that is often seen in the media:

Representatives of ex-gay ministries and reparative therapists strongly stress that they can help gays and lesbians change. They use that word a lot. But they are often vague about what it is precisely that they change. They certainly try to change behaviors and sometimes succeed. But whether they can actually succeed at changing a person's sexual orientation is controversial. There are lots of claims, but it seems that nobody has ever bothered to do a properly designed, long-term study.

David's comparison of sexual orientation with alcoholism is interesting. It might be interpreted that just as an alcoholic cannot suppress their hunger for alcohol, a person cannot suppress their sexual attraction to men and/or women. However, in both cases, they can try to control their behavior if that is their goal.


bullet Open debate being rare,
bullet Genuine dialogue being essentially non-existent,
bullet No high quality long range studies being made,

it seems obvious that this conflict will not be resolved soon.

Meanwhile, according to Dr. Phil, gay youth experience 4 times the normal suicide rate -- and even much higher than this if the relationship with their families is poor. The dead bodies are piling up.

References used:

  1. " 'I'm Gay, OK?'," Dr Phil episode, 2005-OCT-08, at:
  2. "Gay-Straight Alliance Network, home page, at:
  3. "About the Network," GSA Alliance, at:

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Copyright 2009 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2009-OCT-21
Latest update: 2009-OCT-21
Author: B.A. Robinson

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