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British Columbia Controversial sexual-identity speaker sparks debate at B.C. university

Mark Yarhouse, an American psychology teacher at Regent University in Virginia, believes ‘sexual orientation may be changeable for some, and that the attempt to change sexual orientation is not harmful on average.’

Anthony Cece

A B.C. Christian university whose stance on same-sex relationships resulted in Charter litigation in three provinces has invited an American psychology professor who believes sexual orientation may be changeable to speak at the school.

Mark Yarhouse, a professor at Regent University in Virginia, will speak at Trinity Western University's Langley and Richmond campuses on Nov. 4 and 5. It is part of the university's Hearts & Minds speaker series, whose theme this year is "growing in the knowledge and love of God."

Dr. Yarhouse, who in 2004 launched the Institute for the Study of Sexual Identity, has published considerable literature on sexual identity, including a 2009 paper titled "Ex Gays? An extended longitudinal study of attempted religiously mediated change in sexual orientation."

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In that paper, which builds on their book of the same title, Dr. Yarhouse and co-author Stanton Jones write that, based on their own study, "sexual orientation may be changeable for some, and that the attempt to change sexual orientation is not harmful on average."

Their findings "do not speak directly to the issue of the effectiveness of professionally based psychotherapy interventions, what are commonly called reorientation or conversion therapies," the paper states.

"However, to the degree that the contemporary mental health field regards such conversion therapies as discredited on the presumptive basis that it is in fact impossible to change sexual orientation, these results may and perhaps should open the door for a reconsideration of the efficacy of such therapies."

The study was funded by Exodus International, which had been called the world's largest so-called "ex-gay" ministry before it shuttered in 2013.

Conversion therapy has been discredited by numerous psychiatric associations and banned in several American states. Ontario banned the controversial practice in June.

The American Psychiatric Association has said they reinforce stereotypes and contribute to a negative climate for the LGBTQ community.

Guy Saffold, special assistant to the president at Trinity Western, said that some students have voiced concerns over Dr. Yarhouse's visit. But he pointed to a 2014 letter signed by Dr. Yarhouse and many other health professionals, written in response to Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni's request for scientific information about homosexuality, that laid out some of the doctor's other viewpoints. He acknowledges sexual orientation is not a matter of choice, for example, and that homosexuality is not a mental illness.

Mr. Saffold encouraged the students to verify Dr. Yarhouse's positions themselves and to challenge him should they hear anything of concern.

"One of the things that we all hope at any university is that our students will learn to interact with challenging views and to have the intellectual strength to challenge back when something concerns them," he said. "We want our university campuses to be safe places, but we don't want to sanitize the intellectual environment so that there's only one view."

Dr. Yarhouse did not respond to an interview request.

In a prepared statement supplied to The Globe and Mail, Sheldon Loeppky, associate provost for student life at the university, said the school "does not shy away from difficult topics – particularly topics that are relevant to our students and staff."

Mr. Loeppky said Trinity Western invited Dr. Yarhouse because it felt he is a "well-respected scholar" who would help advance the conversation on gender and sexuality issues.

"TWU is aware that some of Yarhouse's work has been misunderstood and misrepresented," Mr. Loeppky said. "To help alleviate this, we are providing the TWU community with an opportunity to ask questions and dialogue with Dr. Yarhouse during an extended Q&A session on campus."

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Wayne Besen, executive director of Truth Wins Out, a Chicago-based non-profit organization that counters anti-gay messaging and has opposed Dr. Yarhouse for some time, believes his presence at Trinity Western could be harmful to some students.

"I think that Mark Yarhouse's presence is going to cause some people to feel worse about themselves, to be guilt-ridden and feel ashamed instead of feeling as if they are good people who deserve to be loved," he said.

Dr. Yarhouse, who co-authored a "sexual identity therapy framework" with Warren Throckmorton, another psychology professor, has emphasized that the therapy is intended to help clients find their own resolutions when their sexual and religious identities conflict.

It's an idea that Mr. Besen rejects.

"The answer is to have somebody find a religion that is accepting of them as a whole person – not to try and keep them in a religion that says there's something wrong with their sexual orientation," he said. "That just creates conflict, cognitive dissonance and a lot of pain and suffering."

Meanwhile, court challenges related to a proposed law school at Trinity Western continue. Early last year, the school's accreditation appeared assured because it has received the approval it required from three bodies: the Ministry of Education, the Law Society of B.C. and the Federation of Canadian Law societies.

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However, after outcry over a line in the university's community covenant requiring students, administrators and faculty to abstain from "sexual intimacy that violates the sacredness of marriage between a man and a woman," the ministry – as well as law societies in B.C., Ontario and Nova Scotia – opted not to approve the school after all. Without law society accreditation, graduates would not be able to practice law in that province. Various appeals are under way.

The university had been hoping to open the law school next fall.

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