The Lure of "Ex-Gay" Programs
I’ve never made it a secret that I’m adamantly opposed to the work of “ex-gay” groups, treatments and those who promote or defend them. (Describing them as deceptive, dangerous and destructive should have been clues!) I think the very purpose for their existence—that sexual orientation can and should be changed—is wrong. The best in scientific research has shown that “ex-gay” therapy doesn’t work, and it’s been proven to be harmful, especially to children. In my opinion, that makes them as outdated, needless and cruel as a lobotomy to treat depression or bloodletting to treat the flu.
But I still get the question: “If ex-gay programs are so bad, why do people go?”
I can’t pretend to guess the motivation of each person who decides they need to change their sexual orientation; it’s probably as individual as those who enroll in these spurious programs. To be honest, I don’t believe there’s one singular reason why someone goes the “ex-gay” route. In fact, it might not even be possible to give a list of reasons.
Author’s Note: The terms used to describe these programs and treatment vary. Back when I was involved, it was casually called “ex-gay” ministries or programs. Today, it’s often referred to as “Conversion” or “Reparative” Therapy. I’m choosing to stay with “ex-gay” because it's simple, and describes what it was we were trying to accomplish: We were gay, now we're...not. I also think it reinforces the actual goal in mind with these groups: changing a person's sexual orientation. These days, they often try to hide/mask that mission under other words, and we must not allow them that additional deception.
For the sake of this presentation, I’ve looked back on my own reasons for enrolling, as well as insights gleaned from those I counseled while executive director of an ex-gay ministry. I’ve drawn from the many people I’ve worked with in the decades since abandoning the “ex-gay” mentality. In addition, I’ll utilize extensive research on the subject—drawing from many others who were once involved in trying to changing their sexual orientation, but also abandoned the pointless pursuit and now (like me) write about their experience as they denounce these practices.
When all the data is extrapolated, it appears to me the decision is prompted and propelled by an entire mindset (or paradigm) created around those making this choice, then internalized. Sadly, therefore, the struggling person might even come to “own” or incorporate the external influences, insisting the decision to seek treatment was done of their own free will. (“I was unhappy being gay.” “I wanted to do this for myself.” “It was my choice.” “I didn’t want to be gay.”)
Side note: By the way, this could account for another question that I get regularly: What if someone is not happy with being gay and wants to change?”
To me, that question is intricately related to the one we're examining here. I would want to know why a person is not happy with their sexual orientation and why they feel it needs to be changed. I suspect the answer would be tied to some of the reasons we’ll outline here. Therefore, the focus of legitimate therapy should be the reason for their lack of happiness, not the assumption it’s caused by an “abnormal” sexual orientation that needs to be changed. I definitely think it imperative for counselors to examine this issue rather than propose these long-discredited practice.
Example: Just recently, I was chatting with a Christian man who went through an "ex-gay" ministry's treatment program. He admitted it didn't work, and he's now openly gay and in a long-term relationship. But he feels the program helped him to finally embrace his sexual orientation and admit he was gay. (I'm certain the "ex-gay" ministry will not be using that testimony in their marketing testimonies.) He thinks if a person wants to enroll, it's a noble choice. It's their decision, and it should be respected.
Obviously, I disagree. First, it doesn't take into consideration that while his experience turned out the way it did, that's not always the case. Many have endured significant and lasting trauma as a result of these treatments. Some have chosen to end their lives because of the shame and guilt imposed by these teachings. Second, it's needless, and the same results could be achieved in much more productive, proven methods. To me, it's comparable to admiring someone with severe body image issues, resulting in anorexia, going to a doctor for diet pills. That's not noble, and it's not going to address the real issue.
I’ve attempted to organize this into FOUR prevailing, permeating catalysts.
Individually, they exert a powerful influence on our life. But they're interconnected, forming a synergy that sometimes makes it difficult to delineate one from the other, much less discuss them as separate entities. (i.e., Which came first, the negative self-image about being gay, or the rigid religious indoctrination about the evils of homosexuality?)
To put it another way: Which is the cause and which is the result?
1. Societal Norm and Expectations.
The messages are everywhere around us. Some subtle, others blatant. They come at us from our family, our schools, our churches…our culture as a whole. They are broadcast to us on TV, in movies, music and advertising. We hear it plainly in hell-fire sermons of conservative preachers and the posturing of political speeches. It’s atmospheric; we “breathe it in” without giving it much thought. This constant diffusion of images tell a clear story: straight is normal. Clearly the only normal!
Boy and Girl.
Man and Woman.
Male and Female.
Adam and Eve.
And those concepts of “normal” come with expectations of conformity, whether defined or diffused. There are roles to be fulfilled (“boys will be boys” “a lady doesn’t do that”), relationships to be pursued and maintained, specific behavior that’s considered acceptable. Operating outside the parameters of what the world around (or the world where we exist) considers “normal” can be intimidating, stressful, or outright terrifying.
Why do people go to “ex-gay” programs?
It might seem a better option than being judged, ostracized or stigmatized.
Given a choice, who wouldn’t want to be...normal?
2. External Pressure.
Those who enter any treatment programs (drugs, alcohol, etc.) will usually say that someone suggested (Insisted? Demanded?) they get help. There could have even been an intervention involved. In the case of those who enroll in or just agree to attend an “ex-gay” program, the pressure can come from a variety of sources:
Some so-called Christian counselors might have little expertise, beyond their ministerial training. The credentialing/certification process for Christian counselors is different than those of licensed psychologists or psychiatrists. With a degree in theology, perhaps combined with extra coursework, a person could become a certified Christian counselor by a national association. (e.g., National Christian Counselors Association and the American Association of Christian Counselors)
Example: One counseling training program contrasts their certification with state licensing: “State licensed therapists typically must be willing to accept homosexuality as a perfectly normal lifestyle…[on the other hand] An ordination or commission from a church or religious institution holds you accountable to the organization that issues it... Each individual must decide if he or she wants to be an agent of the state or a servant of the Church. Biblical, Pastoral or Christian Counselors looking for certification, accreditation... please consider the following: If you have a Divine call on your life to counsel and minister to the hurting, then a state license may inhibit such ministry.”
Too often, the problem with these counselors is not their desire to help the client, but the fact they hold a prejudice about the cause (i.e., sin) and the possibility for “cure” and they’re unenlightened about the complex nature of sexual orientation. Their theology, rather than science (e.g., biology, psychology, human sexuality) or legitimate counseling methodology, informs...precedes...often precludes any facts that don’t align with their religious dogma.
Author’s Note: I don’t discount the work of Christian pastors and counselors; I served those functions for many years. My point has to do with going to a Christian counselor with a predisposition against homosexuality. Of course their recommendation will be directed at an “reparative” approach!
Those struggling with sexuality will often visit websites, where they find “success stories” of those who’ve completed the programs, along with over-hyped marketing (e.g., “we’ve helped thousands…”). These sites contain slanted research, spurious methodology and inflated promises…all designed to get the person to enroll. And pay the money!
(But there’s so much they don’t reveal!)
Most conservative faith communities make it clear that homosexuality is unacceptable. It’s no secret that conservative (fundamental) religious communities are the primary supporters of “ex-gay” programs. Those who practice this “behavior” are not allowed to be part of those communities. If faith is an important element to someone struggling with sexual orientation, they will seek to change. They know their relationship with their community could be severed if they don’t. They are led to believe their relationship with God is in jeopardy. They enroll to please God, to maintain their faith or to appease their church family.
Of course, parents exercise considerable pressure, particularly to young people. Many kids will seek change because they want to please their parents. Tragically, many young people are told that if they don’t change, they will not be allowed to remain in the home. Occasionally we hear of those cases when a young person is forced to attend a program, often in a way that looks more like kidnapping.
Why do people go to “ex-gay” programs?
I believe there’s significant pressure—imposed by others and often internalized—to be “normal.”
3. Internalized Homophobia.
I know there’s a tendency to overuse this word, and some utilize it when it’s not warranted. (e.g., Disagreement about what the Bible teaches is technically not homophobia.) But I’m using the word here in the literal sense here: the person is afraid of being a homosexual.
Through my research, I think many people enter “ex-gay” treatment out of fear. It doesn’t help that these programs are promoted using terms like “sexual brokenness,” “sexual confusion” or “perversion” when describing same-sex attractions. Additionally, those who oppose homosexuality are always presenting messages designed to create and increase fear: homosexuals recruiting young people, linking homosexuality with pedophilia, the depravity within the gay community, the lascivious “gay lifestyle,” the immorality of gay sex, the predatory nature of gays toward straights, etc.
When it comes to specifics, it’s not possible for me to know what exactly they’re afraid of; in all likelihood, the person who’s struggling may not be able to put their fear into words either. It’s probably tied to the general idea of not being “normal,” which links it back to what was shared earlier. It could also include the fear of rejection, divine retribution, disease, being alone, violence/bullying, or discrimination.
Why do people go to “ex-gay” programs?
It might be the simple fear of what it means to be gay in a society that has a strict (and limited) view of “normal.” This fear, and other negative emotions, can lead to an internal desire to change, to conform to the external pressures.
4. Misconceptions, Misinformation and Misrepresentation.
It could be those who discover they have homosexual feelings also have false impressions, distorted images and inaccurate information about what that means. These misconceptions can cause uncertainly, anxiety and fear, prompting a person to try and change (or at least deny) their orientation. In the same way, those around us might also be operating from misunderstandings, which causes them to be concerned, reticent or openly hostile.
Example: I remember a friend of mine telling me about his coming-out journey. Just as he was beginning to acknowledge his same-sex attractions, his parents hired an interior decorator for their living room. According to my friend, the man who showed up was swishy, flamboyant and very effeminate; he could have been sent from central casting, if they were looking for a stereotype. He saw the way his parents snickered behind this guy’s back, and heard the way they made fun of him. This was now his parents’ perception of what a gay person was, and he didn’t know how to tell them that he was gay, too. In his mind, it delayed his coming out for several years.
Those in conservative/Fundamental circles like to focus primarily on homosexual behavior. That’s essential to their foundational belief in change. Being gay is not part of who I am, it’s about sexual activities.
Those who persistently preach against homosexuality are notorious for disseminating exaggerated (mis)information about what it means to be gay. It’s a way to instill fear. I’ve seen ludicrous claim about everything from disturbing sexual activities (gerbils?) to the “average” number of sexual partners (Hundred? Thousands? Per year? Every month?).
They’ll use phrases like “gay lifestyle” to give a malevolent connotation. This term is inaccurate, dismissive and designed solely to vilify by characterizing all gay people in a negative light. Typically, those who use the term want to convey false images of debauchery, promiscuity, multiple sex partners, casual sexual encounters, etc. (There’s no such thing as a “gay lifestyle,” any more than there’s a black lifestyle, a Jewish lifestyle or a female lifestyle. To use this term is just another form of prejudice and perpetuates a deceptive image.)
So when a person begins to recognize these new desires, they might wonder how (or, if) they fit into this horrible “gay lifestyle.” They might deny, based on their own behavior. “I’m not gay. I’ve never had sex.” Or, they act on the desires and detach themselves. “Just because I have sex with other guys doesn’t mean I’m gay.”
Why do people go to “ex-gay” programs?
Quite possibly, they have inaccurate concepts of what it means to be gay. These misconceptions have been molded by society, culture and personal spheres of influence (parental, religious, etc.) and then internalized. Change seems important, even necessary.
For each person, the motivation to consider entering “ex-gay” treatment can vary.
But hopefully, these serve to summarize some of the issues involved.
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