Ex-gay is an identity for LGBTQ people who have renounced homosexuality, most often in response to personal religious belief that declares homosexuality a sin. It is also a movement founded by homosexual Christians to cope with a sexual orientation at odds with their religious beliefs, thus falls into the category of Gay-related folklife.
In addition to the ex-gay movement, there are resistance movements that condemn the ex-gay movement as unethical. Ex-gays are also a source for humorous material in which the earnestness of its proponents is rendered into performance of camp.
With the rise of the Christian Right in the late 1970s and 1980s, ex-gay ministries began to focus on homosexuality as a sin, and to promote homosexual-to-heterosexual conversion therapies. However, many Christians continued to view ex-gays as homosexuals.
Many evangelical Christian ministries and some nominally secular therapists insist that change is possible. The largest, Exodus International in San Rafael, California, was an umbrella group that sets policy and makes referrals for a large network of churches that support ex-gay programs. The National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH) based in Encino, California featured ex-gay ministry directors on its board of officers. Ex-gay theories advocated by these ministries were discredited by the American Psychological Association and the American Medical Association.
Ex-gay groups traditionally employed coded phrases such as conversion therapy, reparative therapy, sexual identity therapy, and sexual reorientation therapy to describe their common tenet: homosexuality can and should be cured. Ample evidence, however, shows that such therapies (which may extend over the course of several years and cost thousands of dollars) are at best means by which a person can cope with same-sex attraction. At worst, they may be physically debilitating, mentally harmful, and lead the patient to suicide when orientation does not change. Nevertheless, sufficient clients are willing to pay for expensive treatments to keep reparative therapists in business.
Ex-gay ministries appeared across the globe, some visible and open about their methods, others more secretive about what they did and where they did it. Since all organizations claiming success in changing sexual orientation were operating with no scientifically verified basis or guidelines (although they made claims to the contrary), the faith-based premises of these groups can be applied across religions with fundamentalist homophobic teachings, or even non-religious ideologies as well. That being said, the most vocal of them are Christian (Mormon and Evangelical Protestant). Some American Evangelical organizations opened treatment centers in other countries, and there were accusations that these same organizations foment homophobic sentiment, even violence, which would logically bring more people in for therapy if for no other reason than personal safety.
Self-Identifying as Ex-Gay
Ex-gay identity depends on the idea that changing one’s sexual orientation from homosexual to heterosexual is possible and mandatory. Some ministries believe homosexuality itself does not exist. Rather, self-identified homosexuals are simply heterosexuals with unwanted homosexual tendencies. For homosexual men, their orientation is often connected with being raised by a distant or abusive father and a mother that is overprotective.The trope about abusive father/pampering mother can be found in testimonies by ex-gays, defenders of ex-gay ministries, and as a defense by politicians who get caught engaging in homoerotic activities.
Homosexual people undergo reparative therapy for a number of reasons. Although there are no reliable numbers, it appears that more men than women in Canada and the USA seek therapy, a notion supported by the predominantly male-masculine tone of ex-gay discourse and advertisements. Many join because homosexuality is counter to their religious beliefs, or because they are in heteronormal marriages and want to preserve their families. Some religious parents force their children into ex-gay therapy.
These ministries teach that declaring oneself to be ex-gay, even if one still feels same-sex attraction, is the first step in bringing about heterosexuality. In terms of the closet, it may be seen as a going-in process rather than coming-out. After renouncing homosexuality, the prospective heterosexual embarks on a course of reparative therapy lasting from weeks to years. The treatment is based on constant prayer, group therapy, and occasionally more extreme methods such as electroshock treatments, ice baths, drug-assisted aversion therapy, quasi-boot camp discipline, and exorcism. Once in treatment, however, a high percentage of people find it impossible to completely negate their homosexual desires. A person’s anxiety may be exacerbated by feeling his or her level of religious devotion is inadequate. Therapists’ insistence that their clients are not trying hard enough can discourage rather than support a patient’s motivation.
Lesbian Conversion Through Torture in Ecuador and Russia
Some countries have records of civil rights abuses connected to the ex-gay movement that include forced imprisonment and torture of adults, mostly women, as fundamentalist Christian parents seek to cure their daughters. In 2012, ex-gay clinics were raided in Ecuador after women who escaped from the clinics reported being confined against their will. These treatment centers (masquerading as substance abuse treatment centers) had predominantly female inmates whose treatment included harassment, being shackled, buckets of urine and cold water thrown on them, sexual abuse (labeled by LGBTQ and feminist activists as corrective rape), being forced to dress as prostitutes, and denied food and drinking water.
Women’s organizations joined LGBTQ activists to have these clinics shut down. Their efforts succeeded early that same year, when President Rafael Correa of Ecuador agreed not only to close down every clinic, but also appointed openly Lesbian Carina Vance Mafla (an activist who had sought to close the clinics) as the new Minister of Public Health.
Ecuador is not alone. In 1996, Alla Konstantinova Pitcherskaia sought asylum in the USA. She was subjected to arrest, imprisonment and involuntary psychiatric treatment for being a Lesbian who was politically active for LGBTQ rights in her native Russia. The US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) recommended she be returned to Russia. Their reasoning: it was not torture because Russian authorities were only trying to help her overcome what they saw was a defect.
When Alla’s case came before the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, judgment was rendered in her favor. Judge Betty Fletcher authored the court’s opinion: “Human rights laws cannot be sidestepped simply by couching torture in benevolent terms such as ‘curing’ or ‘treating’ the victim.” Judge Fletcher was referring specifically to aversion therapy, including electric shocks, to change Alla’s sexual orientation.
Ex-Gay, but not Straight
Few ex-gays consider themselves completely heterosexual with no homosexual desire. Many ex-gays consider celibacy a mark of their success, or simply the fact that they are trying. Others struggle daily to overcome their natural desires, even as they date and marry members of the opposite sex in accordance with their therapy. Some ex-gays have spoken out against reparative therapy as ex-ex-gays. Exodus International’s two founders, Michael Bussee and Gary Cooper, were both married to women and had children when they set up the ministry in 1976. Each struggled against attraction to the other. Three years later, Bussee and Cooper admitted they were in love, had a commitment ceremony, and renounced ex-gay therapy.
Wayne Besen, in his book Anything But Straight: Unmasking the Scandals and Lies Behind the Ex-Gay Myth, recounts his exposé of John Paulk, the formerly Gay man-turned-spokesperson of the ex-gay movement (he and his wife appeared on the cover of Newsweek in 1998 under the headline “Gay for Life?”). In 2000, Besen photographed Paulk leaving Mr. P’s, a Gay bar in Washington, DC. Paulk admitted he had flirted with men at the bar, but insisted he remained Straight and happily married.
Today there are online resources to help ex-ex-gay people recover from their negative experiences in the ex-gay ministries. Popular blogs include Ex-Gay Watch (www.exgaywatch.com), Beyond Ex-Gay (www.beyondexgay.com), and Box Turtle Bulletin (www.boxturtlebulletin.com). Truth Wins Out (www.truthwinsout.org), a non-profit think tank founded by Wayne Besen, attempts to counteract disinformation campaigns by ex-gay ministries.
The ex-gay movement in the USA has been moving from complete conversion to coping with same-sex desire. Alan Chambers, President of Exodus International, said the following in 2011:
The majority of people that I have met, and I would say the majority meaning 99.9% of them have not experienced a change in their orientation or have gotten to a place where they could say that they could never be tempted or are not tempted in some way or experience some level of same-sex attraction. I think there is a gender issue there, there are some women who have challenged me and said that my orientation or my attractions have changed completely. Those have been few and far between. The vast majority of people that I know will experience some level of same-sex attraction.
On June 19, 2013, Chambers posted a letter apologizing to all those he had hurt with his ex-gay ministry:
Please know that I am deeply sorry. I am sorry for the pain and hurt many of you have experienced. I am sorry that some of you spent years working through the shame and guilt you felt when your attractions didn’t change. I am sorry we promoted sexual orientation change efforts and reparative theories about sexual orientation that stigmatized parents. I am sorry that there were times I didn’t stand up to people publicly “on my side” who called you names like sodomite—or worse. I am sorry that I, knowing some of you so well, failed to share publicly that the gay and lesbian people I know were every bit as capable of being amazing parents as the straight people that I know. I am sorry that when I celebrated a person coming to Christ and surrendering their sexuality to Him that I callously celebrated the end of relationships that broke your heart. I am sorry that I have communicated that you and your families are less than me and mine. [For the entire letter, go to exodusinternational.org/2013/06/i-am-sorry]
Later that same day, Exodus International shut down permanently.
Besen, Wayne R. Anything but Straight: Unmasking the Scandals and Lies Behind the Ex-Gay Myth. New York: Harrington Park, 2003.
Erzen, Tanya. Straight to Jesus: Sexual and Christian Conversions in the Ex-Gay Movement. Berkeley: University of California, 2006.