The Functional Fallacies of "Ex-Gay" Programs

It’s not just that I disagree with the Core Tenet of these groups, I think there are numerous foundational issues with how these groups, ministries, program and individual operate that should cause us to question their credibility.

For the purpose of this examination, we’ll focus on FOUR tenuous factors:

1. Origin/Cause of Homosexuality
If you spend any time reading “ex-gay” materials (I don’t recommend it!) on the subject of precisely how a person becomes gay, you’ll become as confused as a lost drunk with vertigo on a Tilt-A-Whirl.  It’s everything from the cliché (and outdated) notion of an overbearing mother/absent mother, or childhood sexual abuse to the more extreme of demon possession. These conclusions are generally based on faulty or biased research, anecdotal corroboration (“many have said...”), self reporting (“my mother was over-bearing”) by those enrolled in the programs, by the theology of those who oversee the programs, or simple speculation by those who promote these groups.

It’s a fallacy to think these groups can provide a “cure” when they have no agreement on what causes a person to be gay or lesbian. The reality is that experts don’t know what causes a person to be gay, lesbian or bisexual. (Note: I’m omitting Transgender in this discussion, since it’s less about sexual orientation and more about gender identity.) There’s evidence sexual orientation could be genetic, hormonal, biological, environmental...or a combination of all of these. Regardless, it’s generally acknowledged by legitimate experts to be complex, innate and unchangeable.

2. Choice & Behavior versus Orientation
In the nomenclature of most conservative Christians, there’s the inherent idea that homosexual orientation—if they choose to acknowledge the existence—is about behavior or sexual activities. Unlike heterosexuality, which is about feelings, desire (even lust), affection, attraction and love, being gay is solely about having sex. And often, according to their exaggerated stories, sex always involves multitudes of different partners. There’s strong resistance to any concept that attraction is part of sexual identity, so they will opt for words like “lifestyle,” with numerous adjectives: gay lifestyle, homosexual lifestyle, sinful lifestyle, etc. 

Central to this belief is some point...we somehow choose to be gay, or to act on a temptation. Or something happened to us, and we became gay. Therefore, we can choose to be not gay, or we can do something to un-become gay. At the very least, we can suppress our gayness and commit our lives to denying our sexual urges as celibates, via religious discipline—prayer, meditation, Bible study, etc. The terminology may vary, but the essential message is unmistakable: gay is not part of who we are, and can (and should) be eradicated, or at least controlled.

However, as mentioned earlier, the actual HOW we choose to be/become gay can get murky and convoluted. Most will concede it’s more complex than the choice of what to watch on TV or what shirt to wear (i.e., we didn’t wake up one morning and make the sudden decision to be attracted to the same sex). There’s speculation that it could be rooted in factors possibly dating back to when were children. Or prenatal. Some would have us believe it could have been caused by sins committed by our great, great grandparents. (How that’s seen as our choice gets blurred at this point.)

3. Verifiable Success Statistics
When promoting their programs, not only do these groups promise change, they will tout the overwhelming “success” of their approach. But as I’ve studied these groups for many years, I can honestly say that their “success” reports should be viewed with scrutiny and suspicion for several reason:

Ambiguous numbers
It’s difficult to get actual result numbers from these groups; what we usually see are broad claims, but no specifics. (e.g., “millions of people” have been changed; “thousands” have enrolled in our program) Or we get statistics with little point of reference. (e.g., “Seventy-three percent of those who complete our workshop…”) These numbers should at least lead us to ask follow-up questions, such as:

Is completing the program the definitive evidence of “success?”
Do their numbers take into account those who left/quit the program?
Have they kept track of those who “completed” the treatment? Are they still “not gay?”

Vague Terminology
You will hear about all those who’ve “left the gay lifestyle,” “turned their back on or walked away from their homosexuality.” They will also talk in spiritual phrases, with words like “victorious over sin,” “overcoming temptation,” or “living out my spiritual values.”There might be talk of diminished same-sex attractions. (How is that measured?) In some cases, they will point to those who got married could as proof of success. (Yeah, ‘cause we know no gay man has ever married a woman!)

This imprecise vocabulary makes for a solid marketing tool, and gives these groups great latitude to talk about their success. However, it makes scrutiny of results difficult, if not impossible.

In many cases, what we have as the primary “evidence” of successful change is nothing more than personal testimony. “I was once gay, now I’m not.”

How do we verify such a subjective declaration? 

I know people who claim they're regularly visited by angels, and those who insist they have a psychic connection with their pet. I refuse to call them a liar, but there aren’t empirical tests to verify these assertions. In the same way, if an “ex-gay” ministry bases their success on individuals who say they’ve changed, there is no way to authenticate the numbers. These groups can proudly proclaim that people are being changed...because people claim to be changed! (Trust me, I once said that as well and I know many former “ex-gays,” including prominent leaders, who said it as well. We wanted it to be true...but time told a different story!)

It’s a fallacy to claim “success” when the statistics can’t be verified, and when the actual “cures” are nothing more than unprovable assertions (or wishful thinking). And I don’t think we should take such statements of change at face value. Therefore, in another section, I’ve put together some suggestions on how to listen to these “ex-gay” testimonies, as well as some possible explanations for those who claim to have changed their sexual orientation.

4. Dubious Methodology and Lack of Oversight
Here’s a shocking piece of information: in the same way there’s no agreement among “ex-gay” groups on how a person becomes gay, there’s no uniform consensus on how to “cure” homosexuality.
There’s no definitive manual on changing a person’s sexual orientation.
There is no accepted practice and no standardized methodology.

Most major professions have a corresponding organization/entity designed to look out for the interests of the industry as well as protect the clients. For example, the medical professional has the American Medical Association, attorneys have the American Bar Association and psychiatrists have the American Psychiatric Association. These organizations promote industry standards of practice and ethics. However, there is no professional oversight of those who claim they can help the homosexuals to change, or those who lead these groups. Those working in “ex-gay” programs answer to no one. They can do whatever they think is right, with no one to monitor them, correct them, or reign them in.

What are their credentials?
How did they get their training?
What are their qualifications?

If you examine many “ex-gay” leaders, you're likely to find theology degrees, or perhaps Pastoral Counseling certificates. Occasionally, there are counseling degrees from a Bible College, and/or corresponding credentials from a Christian organization. They don't typically have degrees in medicine, mental health or psychology. Usually though, it’s primarily a personal testimony of change, coupled with an assurance of “God’s calling” to help others who are struggling.

Clarification: Those who have professional licenses and state certifications are expected to follow the guidelines set by the governing entities. In other words, a Psychologist or a Psychiatrist should not be promoting or practicing “ex-gay” therapy because it’s a violation of professional ethics set by the industry. It doesn’t mean that some don’t, but they can be censured, or lose their licenses. (Churches and religious organizations don’t have such restrictions, so there’s no supervision or oversight, and there’s little protection for the client.)

That’s why we see such bizarre treatments as hug therapy, nude massages and genital touching. (Yes, there are documented cases of this kind of crap!) It’s why there have been cases of everything from the extreme (shock treatment and aversion therapy) to make-up classes (i.e., how to look pretty) for lesbians or butch classes for effeminate boys.

Side Note: Aversion therapy has been employed for years, especially in addiction, but its use for the treatment of homosexuality is a violation of the professional guidelines of both the American Psychological Association and American Psychiatric Association. Regardless, it’s a known fact that many ex-gay/reparative programs have used it for the (mis)treatment of homosexuals. I incorporate it into my novel, The Mind Set on the Flesh as an example of cure at all costs!

Many groups or ministries are also Person/Personality Based—they grew out of one person’s experience of “change.” That person became the leader of the organization—the “poster child” for the cure, as well as the personality and pattern for the program. If they were “delivered” from their homosexuality by having demons cast out, then exorcisms will be routine. If their “change” came from prayer and memorizing Scripture, that will be course of action for all who seek help. Add to this mix the theological beliefs of the leaders, and you’ll get even more variations. Those from a Pentecostal background will approach treatment much differently than someone who comes from a Fundamentalist Baptist background. Some ex-gay groups are very emotional; others are methodical. Bottom line: since there’s no agreement on the cause of homosexuality, there is disagreement on the cure.

It’s a fallacy to promote change when there is no means to determine the credentials or professional qualifications of those practicing these treatments, and no standardization of their approach or methodology.

Conclusion: Their methods lack scientific basis, are unproven, ineffective and the practice has been discredited. Their marketing promises are replete with contradictions and inaccuracies. Their message (e.g., eternal damnation) damages the faith and self-esteem of individuals who struggle with their sexual identity, often leading to drastic and tragic actions. Taken together, these elements paint a less-than-flattering image of “ex-gay” individuals, groups and ministries.