‘I had to make substantial changes’ — former reparative therapist comes out as gay, renounces past conversion efforts, hopes for shifts in his LDS faith

(Courtesy photo) David Matheson, Latter-day Saint therapist.

A prominent gay Latter-day Saint counselor — who once preached and practiced so-called “reparative therapy” to change a person’s sexual orientation and was married to a woman for more than 30 years — announced this week he is ready to date men.

“A year ago I realized I had to make substantial changes in my life,” David Matheson wrote on Facebook. “I realized I couldn’t stay in my marriage any longer. And I realized that it was time for me to affirm myself as gay.”

Matheson’s “coming-out” has roiled the LGBTQ community, especially among members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The Utah-based faith teaches that being gay is not a sin but acting on same-sex attraction is. Heterosexual marriage is taught as the highest goal for males and females, which leaves many of the faith’s LGBTQ members yearning to alter their orientation or somehow diminish their attractions.

Matheson has been a big player in the debate over these widely denounced change efforts, known variously as reparative or conversion therapy. He was executive director of now-defunct Evergreen International, which advocated such therapeutic interventions for Latter-day Saints who were feeling tensions between their attractions and their faith. That support group closed its doors in 2014 — just as same-sex marriage was legalized in Utah — and was replaced by North Star, which addressed the same audience but took no position on reparative therapy.

Most of Matheson’s clients at the Center for Gender Wholeness were Latter-day Saints — as were those who attended “Faith and Feelings” gatherings at the Joseph Smith Memorial Building in downtown Salt Lake City and in Utah County, along with the experiential weekend Journey Into Manhood (now Brothers Road).

Matheson’s declaration of his sexuality comes at a time when Utah is considering a move to outlaw “conversion” efforts for minors — a proposal he supports.

Today, Matheson “unequivocally renounces” reparative therapy, he said in a news release, which “presupposes that being LGBTQ is something that can and should be changed.”

He has not practiced that therapy for a number of years, Matheson said, and “strongly oppose[s] therapy for minors that is aimed at bringing about a change in sexual orientation. The potential for harm to young people is very high.”

Matheson should know — he tried to change his own orientation.

“I first noticed real feelings toward other boys in my early teens,” the counselor recalled on Thursday’s “Mormon Land” podcast. “But I didn’t want to. I was horrified by the idea of it.”

This was the 1970s, and gays were “brutally condemned by [the faith’s] highest leaders … as perverts, wicked, weaklings and evil” and homosexual relations as “a crime against nature.”

Matheson had “this deep, deep desire to learn to live as a quote unquote normal person.”

He internalized those stigmas and let them guide his work as he shifted from reparative efforts to therapies intended to reduce the “shame, anxiety and effects of trauma” experienced by LGBTQ individuals in society.

“I realize now that, alongside the very valuable work I did, I also perpetuated some judgments that had caused me shame … through some of the therapeutic practices that I now regret using,” Matheson said in the release. “ ... I am heartbroken at the thought that I may have brought pain to any of the men I was so diligently trying to help.”

Matheson is not “renouncing my faith or my past work,” nor is he condemning “marriages between same-sex attracted and a straight person,” he wrote on Facebook. He’s not “giving up or jumping ship.”

He believes he was not “faking it in the past,” and that not all of his work was damaging to his clients.

“My time in a straight marriage and in the ‘ex-gay’ world was genuine,” he wrote, “and a sincere and a rich blessing to me.” But he acknowledges his own role in “perpetuating homophobia,” Matheson said, and has removed his book, “Becoming a Whole Man,” from the virtual bookshelves “until I can review and remove content I no longer agree with.”

Kendall Wilcox, a gay Latter-day Saint who co-founded Mormons Building Bridges to connect church members and the LGBTQ community, applauds the move and hopes Matheson will follow up his words with actions.

“Dave was a major voice in LDS Family Services circles, teaching Mormon therapists how to respond to LGBTQ clients,” Wilcox wrote in an email. “It seems to me, for there to be true reconciliation of his past work and the harmful homophobia it perpetuated, there needs to be some effort on his part that is commensurate with the level of impact he had in his previous work. Otherwise... there is no real learning, growth, or healing.”

Joshua Weed, a Latter-day Saint therapist in Seattle, is even more skeptical.

"While I can, from personal experience, attest that [coming out as gay] will likely bring him great peace,” said Weed, who split from his wife last year to live as a gay man, “I am also disturbed by his multiple public statements regarding his clinical work.”

Weed said he himself was “harmed by reparative therapy in my youth,” so he has always “staunchly denounced [it] professionally.”

He has seen practitioners such as Matheson “claim to have ‘renounced’ reparative therapy by name, [yet] their work often continues to employ reparative therapy techniques that are very harmful to the most vulnerable of the LGBTQ population.”

North Star President Bennett Borden doesn’t know Matheson personally but wishes him “nothing but the best in his spiritual journey.”

As an institution, North Star rejects reparative therapy, Borden said. It follows the “best practices” set out in the document, “Resolving Distress Between Faith-Based Values and Sexual and Gender Diversity: A Guide for Mental Health Professionals.”

The group does not “prescribe a method of dealing with these issues,” the North Star leader said. “We do believe that someone’s sexual attractions do not define them. They can choose whatever path to peace they find most beneficial.”

For his part, Matheson no longer believes that intimacy between two people of the same sex is sin, but he still attends his Latter-day Saint ward in the Salt Lake Valley every week and believes top church leaders are “prophets, seers, and revelators.”

“I’m a person of many contradictions, and that’s one of them,” he said. “But I have to try to weave my two worlds together.”

Is Matheson hopeful about what the future holds for LGBTQ members in the faith? Yes, he said on the podcast, but it may take time.

It’s like being a little kid on a road trip with your parents, and you need to relieve yourself, he explained. You tell your father, “I’ve got to go. Dad, pull the car over. I’ve really got to go.”

Your father replies, “just hold it,” Matheson said. “We’ll be home in 30 years.”