Participant Discredits the Original Ex-Gay Study

A participant in the first study to use the term “ex-gay” to describe gay-to-straight change has called the study into question.

In 1980, E. Mansell Pattison and his wife Myrna Loy Pattison introduced the term “ex-gay” to the psychological literature via an article published in the American Journal of Psychiatry.* In that study, they claimed that 11 men participating in a crisis hotline at the Melodyland Christian Center, pastored by Ralph Wilkinson in Anaheim, CA, had changed dramatically from gay to straight.

But in an interview, Michael Bussee, who had been a leader at Melodyland at the time of the study, told me, “We professed that we had been healed—past tense—because it was part of the theology to claim your healing in order to bring it about.” 

“Eager to Claim Our Healing”

Bussee said that Dr. Pattison had asked him to go through the ministry files and pull out some that described “significant change.” On that basis, he and Cooper selected 30 cases from the 300 files of those who had attended various functions of the ministry. Only 11 agreed to be interviewed by the Pattisons.

As Bussee explained, interview questions were about various aspects of sexual orientation:

“The questions had to do with ongoing attractions, intensity of desires, fantasies, etc. I think his wife [Myrna Pattison] interviewed me, if I remember correctly. As far as I know, no follow-up was done.”

Bussee said the Pattisons did not question the authenticity of the responses, saying, “They took it on faith that we were giving honest answers, but all of us were eager to ‘claim’ our healing.” Bussee noted that Melodyland was a Word of Faith church which urged members to name their healing, and then claim the reality of it by faith.

He added, “I think it’s very important to talk about the ‘faith’ context of the study. This was done at Melodyland at the height of the ‘charismatic renewal’. Healing and deliverance services were held every week and were packed by thousands of people.” In that environment, the participants believed they would be delivered from their same-sex attractions.

An Experiment of Nature

In the introduction to their journal article, the Pattisons described the impetus for their study of what they called, “religiously-mediated change in homosexuals.”

Recently, we came in contact with a religious hotline crisis program sponsored by a Pentecostal church that offers lay crisis services to homosexuals. This program claimed to involve a number of persons who were “ex-gay,” that is, these people had experienced a basic change in sexual orientation from exclusively homosexuality to exclusively heterosexuality. (p. 1553)

According to the Pattisons, the church ministry made two claims about sexual reorientation. First, they asserted that some participants had changed their sexual orientation—a claim that relates to desire. Then they report another aspect of the ministry, which is declaration of an ideological change.

The term “ex-gay” had been deliberately selected by them to denote an ideological position in opposition to “gay liberation.” This change was said to have occurred within the context of the church fellowship and without any psychotherapy or other professional intervention. The program seemed to offer an “experiment of nature” by which we could investigate this apparently spontaneous change from homosexuality. (p. 1553)

The term “ex-gay,” then, seemed to incorporate both a change of sexual attractions and a change of ideology. Of the two claims, the change of attractions has become the most controversial.

Along with several other ex-gay leaders, Bussee and his Melodyland colleague Gary Cooper helped found Exodus International, an evangelical ex-gay organization. However, they eventually came out of the closet, left their wives and became partners, thereby leaving ex-gay ministry in 1979. Cooper died in 1991 and Bussee has remained a critic of change efforts.

The Pattison study included a table describing their interview findings with the 11 subjects (from page 1555, see below). Bussee was subject number two and Cooper was number one.

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Both Bussee and Cooper were rated as Kinsey 6 (exclusively homosexual) before change and a 0 (exclusively heterosexual) after change. Since there was no follow-up, this study has been used to support the proposition that gays could change to straight via religious mediation. For instance, not knowing any of this background at the time, I referred to the Pattison study favorably in my 2000 American Psychological Association presentation about ex-gay outcomes. Then, in 2009, the National Association for the Research and Therapy of Homosexuality cited this study as an illustration of sexual reorientation, saying

Pattison and Pattison (1980) reported successful religiously mediated change for 11 homosexuals who participated in a Pentecostal fellowship. Researchers used both pre- and post-change surveys. On the post-change survey, 5 of the 11 participants reported no homosexual fantasies, behavior, or impulses (0 on the Kinsey scale). Three men reported a Kinsey rating of 1, and three other men reported a rating of 2. (NARTH, p. 29)

NARTH’s description is flawed in at least two ways. First, the Pattisons did not do pre- and post-change interviews. Instead, they did one interview with the 11 men asking them to reflect on the time when they identified as gay and then their experience in the present. Second, only three men reported no indications of homosexuality, subjects 3, 4, and 9. NARTH counted the Kinsey 0 ratings as indicating no homosexual thoughts or feelings, despite the fact that the Pattisons reported some kind of same-sex intrapsychic experience for two of the five men rated 0.

The chart contains another questionable rating as well. Subject 4 reported no same-sex dreams, fantasies, or impulses but was still rated a Kinsey 1. Perhaps he had recently engaged in same-sex behavior. However, out of the 11, there were only two men who reported no intrapsychic indicators of homosexuality and were rated a Kinsey 0. Even if the study could be trusted, only 1% of the original 300 cases were reported as categorical shifts from gay to straight.

For these and other reasons, the study was open to criticism even before Bussee’s disclosure. However, based on the experience of Bussee and Cooper, there is even more reason to question the study—as well as the objective of sexual reorientation in general.  

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*Pattison, E.M., & Pattison, M.L. (1980). “‘Ex-gays’: Religiously Mediated Change in Homosexuals.” American Journal of Psychiatry, 137, 1553-1562.

EWThrockmorton@gcc.edu'

Warren Throckmorton is Associate Professor of Psychology at Grove City College and Fellow for Psychology and Public Policy at the Center for Vision and Values which is a part of Grove City College. Read his blog here.