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LDS apostle Boyd K. Packer sparked protests and petition drives last month when he suggested that same-sex attraction can be changed. Advocates for the gay community said such claims are contrary to science and could harm youths struggling with their sexual orientation.
Was Packer expressing a perceived fringe viewpoint? Not in Utah.
More people in Utah agree with Packer than don't, according to a recent poll by The Salt Lake Tribune. In a random survey of 625 registered voters conducted Oct. 25-27, 44 percent said it is possible for those with same-sex attraction to change it, while 25 percent said they were unsure. Nearly a third said change isn't possible, an opinion consistent with most scientific research.
"The attractions don't change," said Lisa Diamond, a psychology professor and sexuality researcher at the University of Utah. "It is disheartening to me that there is such a discrepancy between what is not even an issue anymore in the scientific community and this obvious ambiguity in public opinion."
Last year, the American Psychological Association passed a resolution warning mental health professionals not to tell clients they can change their sexual orientation through therapy or other treatments. No solid evidence exists that such efforts work, the APA said after an extensive research review. And some studies suggest a potential for harm, including depression and suicidal tendencies.
But therapy can help people change their attitudes about their same-sex attractions or their behaviors, Diamond said.
It is "unfortunate," she said, that scientific questions about the nature of sexual orientation have become politically charged.
In fact, the Tribune poll, which has a margin of error of 4 percentage points, indicates a break in beliefs along party lines. Sixty-one percent of Republicans surveyed said same-sex attractions can be changed. Only 8 percent of Democrats agreed, while 77 percent of them said change isn't possible. Only 13 percent of Republicans said same-sex attractions cannot be changed.
"Science is best left to scientists," said state Sen. Ben McAdams, D-Salt Lake City, who supports anti-discrimination protections for gay and transgender people. "Policymakers don't need to settle the nature-versus-nurture debate in order to adopt policies that support equality, that support a person's right to a job and to have a roof over their head."
In a Tribune poll last year, 66 percent of Utahns backed passage of a statewide law to forbid housing and employment discrimination based on a person's sexual orientation or gender identity.
But far fewer about a third supported adoption rights or civil unions for gay and lesbian couples.
"When people don't accept the science, then there's a perpetuation of a mythology that is unfortunate because it leads to discriminatory personal attitudes and it leads to justification for social inequality," said Bill Bradshaw, a molecular biologist and professor emeritus at Brigham Young University.
A vast number of scientific studies in biology, biochemistry and neuroscience, he said, indicate that sexual orientation is biologically "programmed" in human beings.
"I'm convinced by these data that homosexuality is inborn. It is innate," said Bradshaw, a former LDS mission president and co-chairman of Family Fellowship, a support group for LDS parents of gay children. "It's true that there are those who dispute that conclusion. I think it's fair to say that, in the LDS community, the sentiment for a long time has been that gay and lesbian and bisexual and transgender persons should make an effort to change."
In the poll, 55 percent of LDS respondents said it's possible to change same-sex attractions, compared with 20 percent of non-LDS respondents. The LDS Church teaches that having same-sex attractions isn't sinful, but acting on those attractions is.
Cheryl Taylor, a 70-year-old Sandy resident, was among the 30 percent of LDS respondents who answered "unsure" on the question of change. She said she disapproves of gay relationships, but she knows men who have married and had children and later left their marriages to live openly gay lives.
"I am not sure if they can totally change," she said. "I know they can be gay and not act on it."
How people answer the question may depend on how they define "change," said Jeff Bennion, president of North Star International, a support group for Latter-day Saints who have same-sex attractions and want to live by church standards.
"I would certainly not want anybody to believe that anyone who has these feelings chose to have them," he said. "That's definitely not my experience."
Bennion, 40, spoke openly with his wife about his attraction for men before the couple married six years ago. But he doesn't see his heterosexual marriage as "proof of change" or a "cure." He still has some attraction to men, but those feelings have become "manageable," he said. He and his wife, who have one child together, also share a mutual attraction and love. He sought a wife and family, in part, for spiritual reasons.
"What's most important to me is change of heart," Bennion said. "That's something every Latter-day Saint no matter their sexual orientation needs. I don't want to change one form of lust for another."
Diamond said the nature of same-sex attraction is an "irrelevant question" when it comes to civil rights.
"Historically, those two things have gotten linked together in political discourse in a way that, frankly, doesn't make a lot of sense to me," she said. "Either we're a society that protects the rights of privacy completely and the right to form relationships, or we're not."