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In a landmark speech Friday at the University of Virginia, Latter-day Saint apostle Dallin H. Oaks said he had recently “come to understand better the distress of persons” — including LGBTQ individuals — who feel that some religious believers invoke the U.S. Constitution to deny rights to others.
The address was hailed by some as a step toward empathy by Oaks, a top leader in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a former Utah Supreme Court justice and a former Brigham Young University president.
Yet, during a question-and-answer session earlier that day at the law school — a video of which has been circulating on social media — the first counselor in the faith’s governing First Presidency refused to discuss the impact of the church’s past mistreatment of its LGBTQ members.
Oaks categorically denied that BYU had used electroshock therapies on gay students during his tenure from 1971 to 1980.
“When I became president of BYU, that had been discontinued earlier,” Oaks said in answer to a question about those treatments, “and it never went on under my administration.”
According to researcher Gregory Prince and others, that statement is demonstrably false.
In his 2019 book, “Gay Rights and the Mormon Church: Intended Actions, Unintended Consequences,” Prince cites “university-approved” research in 1976 by then-BYU graduate student Max McBride with 14 gay subjects. The male subjects were hooked up to monitors that measured their arousal when shown photos of nude men or women.
If the subject “experienced sexual arousal from a photograph of a nude male, he would receive a shock in the bicep,” Prince reported about the McBride research. “A gradual increase of voltage upon repeated arousals was to serve as a negative feedback stimulus that would, according to the hypothesis, ‘reorient’ him from homosexual to heterosexual, whereupon photographs of nude females were supposed to elicit sexual arousal.”
Two weeks after these “treatments,” subjects offered their self-evaluations and said they were “significantly less homosexual than heterosexual,” McBride concluded. “This finding suggests that the type of behavior therapy used in the present study was highly effective in changing subjective evaluation of sexual orientation.”
One of the subjects, John Cameron, wrote a “harrowing, powerful play” titled “14,” The Salt Lake Tribune reported in 2008. “The title refers to the number of men included in the three-month study.”
At the time, Cameron hoped it would alter his same-sex attraction, the newspaper said. “Instead, the psychological and emotional wounds nearly crippled him.”
The Utah-based faith has since backed away from such therapies and other attempts to change a person’s sexual orientation.
Oaks declined to comment on the discrepancy between his memory and the research, church spokesperson Doug Andersen said Monday. The church representative then pointed to the faith’s 2016 public statement — reinforced several years later — about so-called conversion therapy.
“The church denounces any therapy, including conversion and reparative therapies,” it stated, “that subjects an individual to abusive practices, not only in Utah, but throughout the world.”
There are two ways to think about Oaks’ answer last week, said Chloe Fife, a third-year law student at Virginia who is from St. George and was present at the Q&A session.
“Either he didn’t know it was happening, which is disappointing,” Fife said Monday, “or what he said was untrue.”
She prefers to believe the former.
“My hope is that he didn’t know,” Fife said, “especially for the folks who were impacted by BYU’s history of conversion therapy.”
Still, she is skeptical about Oaks’ wider proposed balancing of LGBTQ rights and religious freedom.
If the Latter-day Saint leader “isn’t willing to consider past harms he has done to the LGBTQ community in the church and in Utah,” she said, “I don’t know how he can engage in conversations about compromise in the future.”