Several months ago I was contacted by a journalist who introduced himself by saying he could never write about me because of my involvement in ex-gay ministry. He was polite, but blunt. He was afraid of the hate mail his readers would send him if he wrote about my book. More honestly, he said he could simply never do it in good conscience.
I get it. What Exodus stood for when I was involved in the mid-90s, and what it became after I left, was atrocious. It dehumanized millions of people and told them that there was something wrong with them; that they were unacceptable to God the way they were. It caused good people and their families’ unbearable pain. Some then, as now, have committed suicide over the message. Families have been ripped apart. There is no excuse.
But there is an explanation.
In the early ‘70s, fresh off of the charismatic Jesus Movement, came the idea that whatever an earnest Christian asked for, God would grant it. Homosexuality, it was believed then, as now in most fundamentalist circles, was a sin. Therefore, if a gay Christian simply prayed for God to remove it, it was done. Regardless of the feelings, he or she was considered “ex-gay.”
At first, the ex-gay message was only shared and believed among the few involved in the sanitized hippie population of the Jesus Movement. But more organizations began popping up around the United States, carried by the expanding charismatic crusade. Those organizations were eventually organized into what became Exodus International in 1976. For the next 20 years, through religious-political groups like Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, Family Research Council and Focus on the Family, the ex-gay movement became something it was never intended to be: political.
In the fundamentalist church, it was no longer a question of whether or not God could change someone from gay to straight, it was expected. The message of “freedom from homosexuality through Jesus Christ” was preached from pulpits, even though there was no understanding of how, or if, it worked. The churches didn’t know that most of the early founders of the ex-gay movement had abandoned, and even denounced the movement as ineffective and damaging, before it ever got off the ground.
Fundamentalism, just like the ex-gay movement, had taken on a life of its own. Those who didn’t measure up were simply tossed aside. Those who dissented, were metaphorically stamped with a scarlet letter as deceived, backsliders, or ungodly. The quickest way to both dehumanize someone and avoid having to examine one’s personal beliefs and motivations is to deflect the discussion and point to that person as the problem.
Many of us who were leaders, as well as ex-gay participants, came to the ministry with fundamentalist backgrounds. The Bible, we believed, was the inerrant Word of God. If anything was wrong, it was us, not the Bible. We learned to suppress our sexual orientations, talk like the culture in which we were a part, and believe that we were really changing. The ex-gay message was merely an extension of the Christian faith to which we so firmly clung.
The mental conflict, for many of us, took years to come to the surface. Away from the ex-gay ministry, and off the stage, we had to face real life. In spite of our feelings, we refused to believe that we were gay and that we were wrong about God and our message. To be wrong meant the very core of who we were was wrong. That meant our entire lives would change. For many of us, that’s exactly what happened.
Ex-gay ministry is an extension of the fundamentalist, evangelical church. The problem was, and always has been, systematic in nature. Teach the Church what homosexuality is really about, and ex-gay ministry goes away.
However, it’s not that simple. As I’ve written before, three things have to be present to change someone’s mind: cognitive dissonance, critical thinking, and experience. People can live their entire lives experiencing any one, or two of those things together, but their minds won’t be changed until they experience the third piece of the puzzle. Then, and only then, will they start to rethink their positions. Just like we former leaders had to do, these people will need to dismantle what they believe and rebuild it on a different platform. Without a significant reason to do so, it will never happen.
When reparative therapy, based on outdated and debunked theories, became part of the Exodus message, the door opened further for even more inhumane practices. This time it was under the guise of “professional counseling.” This, too, is all part of the same faulty thinking, at least as it relates to those who believe it further validates their fundamentalist world view. It all dehumanizes, oppresses and shames the LGBT community. Like other recovering ex-gays and fundamentalists, I am all to familiar with the pain, the shame, the anger and the suicidal thoughts that always seem to lie just under the surface of “normal.”
I realize there are those, like the journalist who contacted me, that would like us former leaders and founders to simply go away. The leadership of the new version of “Exodus” would like us to go away, too. The reason we were in the ministry in the first place is not because it was a way to gain publicity and make money. We truly loved the people to whom we ministered and believed that what we were doing was for their eternal good. We were wrong. As a former leader in ex-gay ministry, I cannot apologize enough for my involvement.
Few people know the internal workings of the ex-gay “regime” and right wing politics like we do. Even fewer people have relationships with political figures and influential pastors like we do. Some former ex-gay leaders were, or are, well-known public figures. When they speak, the media listens. Because of their involvement, reparative therapy for minors has been outlawed in four states and the District of Columbia. Currently, there is a federal policy on the table that may outlaw reparative therapy for youth around the country.
I know of no one who makes a living speaking strictly about his or her involvement with ex-gay ministry. We mostly self-publish our books to ensure our stories get told so that others can learn the truth about ex-gay ministries. Those books and occasional speaking engagements allow us to reach people who have either been personally affected by the church or reparative therapy, or who can relate to religious conflict we experienced. To quote Robin Robertson, “Our mess is our message.”
I cannot stress enough how important ex-gay survivor stories are, both for ending conversion therapy and for personal healing. Stories should be shared whenever and wherever possible. There are two sites available: Beyond Ex-gay, and ConversionTherapySurvivors.org. Still, because of the damage done by fundamentalism and the ex-gay message, many survivors cannot speak for themselves. They suffer tremendous shame and are simply unable to share their lives.
We, as former leaders have set up a website, Former Ex-gay Leaders Alliance (FELA), to work together and speak out as a group to put an end to ex-gay ministries around the world. While we cannot reverse the damage that has been done, we are working to keep it from continuing.
Photo – Flickr/^@^ina (Irina Patrascu Gheorghita )
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