The "Ex-Gay" Promise of Change

Even as far back as 2009, the American Psychological Association released the results of a study that strongly refuted the effectiveness of reparative (or “ex-gay”) therapy. They examined 83 studies on sexual orientation dating back to 1960 and found no substantial evidence that homosexuality can be changed through therapy or any other means. The APA report urged mental health professionals not to advise clients that they can become straight through therapy or other treatments. 

Since that historic study, additional research has corroborated those findings. There are many who've been through these programs (like me!) and now speak out about the ineffectiveness of the treatments. Former leaders and founders have left these organizations, and denounce the programs. Today, every major medical and mental health professional association believes that sexual orientation is inherent and unchangeable, and opposes treatments designed to change it.

Unsurprisingly, in spite of decades of overwhelming data about their ineffectiveness, regardless of the united voices of all those who can personally attest that it doesn't work, in the face of documented research about the inherent harm caused by these treatments and therapies, and contrary to the near-universal rejection of these treatments as spurious by medical and mental health experts, "ex-gay" groups defiantly refuse to listen. Their rigid dogma and indefensible doctrinal presuppositions deafen them to the possibility they could be wrong, and blind them to the reality of the harm they cause. They plow belligerently and blithely forward with their crusade of destruction. 

Each person or program continues to not only insist sexual orientation can (should) happen, they proudly proclaim they can help bring about that change!

Read their marketing materials.
Listen to “ex-gay” proponents and promoters—those who livelihood is dependent on promoting these programs.
Pay attention to the words of those trotted out as "success stories," who've been through these programs, who talk in before-and-term terms of “Once I was...Now I am...”

The conclusion is logical: “ex-gay” programs promise to change sexual orientation, either unequivocally or implicitly.
Want to change?
Enroll in our program, attend our seminar, pray this prayer, read this book, go to our camp, come to our group.

Granted, some groups these days will adamantly pretend that’s not what they’re promising. More surprising, we have those who attempt to re-write history, claiming they've never promised such change. (Fortunately, that kind of revisionism doesn't hold up to just some simple Internet research—the posters, billboards and materials are preserved for all to see.) Instead, they’ll use lofty sounding phrases, vague terminology, or pseudo-scientific-sounding jargon. Often, they will misrepresent legitimate research in their favor. However, when we cut through the gobbledygook, they have one primary purpose—their raison d’être: changing a person’s sexual orientation from homosexual to heterosexual.

I've spent more than 30 years monitoring these individuals and groups.
I read their marketing material.  
I listen carefully to the "testimonies" of those who've completed the programs.
And while I admit that "change" does occur, the actual change accomplished is not what was promised.
At best, what we see involves:

1. A behavior.
Built into "ex-gay" theology is the idea that homosexuality is sin. To overcome, I must resist homosexual temptation and control my actions. I don’t have sex, I don’t go to places or read materials that might trigger my desires, I don’t hang out with people who might be a bad influence on me, I don’t watch TV or movies that could entice me to indulge my sin.
The program teaches me to change how I behave, and that's touted as success.

I'm “ex-gay” because I’m not doing gay things.

Note: Granted, there are those with the mental fortitude and discipline to resist sexual desires. There are some who will be content with the absence of external activities, able to ignore (for a while) their internal feelings. And there will always be those furtive enough, or lucky enough, to hide their private actions, while presenting a different persona in public. But when all is said and done, behavior modification is not a change in sexual orientation. It's comparable to dying a person's red hair (change in behavior) versus changing why their hair is red (inherent attribute). It's like forcing someone to use their right hand so they won't be perceived a left-handed.

2. A vocabulary.
While medical and mental health experts see homosexuality as an orientation, those in the “ex-gay” world avoid that concept. After all, if it’s an orientation, that could imply it might be innate, and thereby elicit those pesky questions about the need and (GASP!) possibility for change. Worse, a few might agree that it's an orientation, but still insist it is not "normal" or God's best. (i.e., "Yes, God made you gay, but you can never act on it." Talk about cosmic cruelty!)

Instead of confronting matters like inherent orientation, they attach it to established theology, making it part of a "sinful nature," an after-effect of Adam and Eve's Garden of Eden rebellion, demonic influence or temptation of the flesh. They (erroneously) ascribe homosexuality to any number of "causes," again ignoring actual evidence. This includes such outdated concepts as absent father, sexual abuse or individual choice. They make up terms, such as “unwanted same-sex attraction (SSA)” or employ pedantic, dismissive words like "lifestyle." There's talk of “leaving the gay lifestyle,” “walking away from homosexuality,” “overcoming homosexuality,” "reducing same-sex attractions" or pious phrases such “living consistently with one’s faith,” or “committing to holiness.” 

Essentially, I’m taught a new way to speak about myself. 
I'm "ex-gay" because I continue to say I am.

3. A expectation.
I think most folks go to an “ex-gay” program with the understanding that the change being promoted means, well...change. If I do the exercises, attend the support groups, read the books, memorize the Bible verses, expel the demons, repeat the mantra, etc., at some point, I can expect the change in my sexual orientation will become evident. Some programs even suggest they can perform this miracle in a specific time frame (e.g., a weekend!), using a prescribed methodology (e.g., healing part trauma, or ) or via a secluded location, such as a Conversion Camp

Over time, a new reality settles in: this struggle...this war going on inside a never-ending battle. Not only is it a life-long process, it consumes my life. It is my life! Success is not measured in removing my desire for that cute red-headed guy in the coffee shop, but on my ability to drink my coffee and avoid looking at him, or thinking how cute he is, or (God forbid) fantasizing about betting him naked.

Those feelings, those desires, my attractions, my need for intimacy, will never be satisfied. So my options are (1) I can choose (as a display of my spiritual commitment) to be celibate, devoid of the intimacy most humans crave—you know, that need built into each of us when the Creator said "it is not good" for us to be alone! Or (2) I can make a different commitment, and marry someone of the opposite sex. That appeases the dogmatic expectations, and it might relieve some of my sexual needs. But trust me, it will never bring the level of intimacy that makes for a true connection, and it risks hurting many more people (spouse, children, family, etc.) down the road when I admit the program didn't work, or get caught "releasing" those pent-up feelings.

Note: When asked direct questions (i.e., Can your program change my sexual orientation?), the folks promoting these treatments might hedge, or deflect with religious responses or verses from the Bible. They might offer disclaimers and qualifiers for their assertions. They will almost definitely put the onus on the participant: "If you work hard enough..." "If you truly want to change..." "If you discipline yourself..." Therefore, if change in sexual orientation doesn't happen (and it won't!), the problem is never the program, never the premise, never the principles. It's the participant, who didn't pray enough, try hard enough, want it enough, etc. This leads to shame, guilt and a sense of failure. (If you were a "good Christian" you would have changed.)

I'm "ex-gay" because I keep trying.

4. A self-perception.
These programs....this programming...will impact the way I see myself. What I feel, what I desire, is something that happens to me, not something that’s part of me. Homosexuality is a sin to be confessed, a temptation to be resisted, a behavior to be avoided, a "spirit" to be expelled, a thought to be put away, a feeling to be ignored. But it is not me, but external from me.

Detachment and dichotomy becomes my goal. I am two people—one who's sinful, dirty, and rejected by God; the other is the higher self, the righteous new creation. One should be embraced, the other must be rejected. One is Spirit, the other is Flesh. These two are in eternal conflict within, and I must seek to live according to the Spirit, not give into the desires of the flesh. I must continue to make righteous choices, making confessions, according to the New Me...regardless of what I want or how I feel. 


I'm "ex-gay" because I should want to be!

Note: This kind of existence is so damaging to the soul/psyche. I can never truly love myself, because part of me is evil and disgusting. I can never be at peace, because I'm constantly at war, and it's a life-long process. At best, the most I can hope to achieve is a standoff between these two opposing factions within. (I've heard some use the analogy of the two wolves, pictured here. Not to demean the tradition of another culture, but what a horrible way to live!) 

If...when...I give in to these desire, I loathe myself. I see myself as...loathsome. This is why these programs are not merely deception in their promises, they are dangerous in their practices. 

Don't get me wrong. It's not that I don't value change. 
Each of us has areas that need change. 
I think we all can change. 

Moreover, I'm not dismissing the experience of people who've gone through one of these programs. Over the years, I've heard/read powerful "testimonies" of those whose life was a train wreck when they went in: drug addiction, destructive behavior, suicidal tendencies, turning tricks on the street as hustlers. I admire them, and won't discount their individual results.
But again, we must not lose sight of the "change" being promised/promoted by the groups. 

One of my biggest problems with these programs is they're essentially dishonest and deceptive about what they do. What they are able to do. They'll trot out folks with dramatic stories of their life before entering the program, as if that's proof for their methodology. I can applaud someone who kicks a drug habit but let's not equate getting clean with being straight! I know many happy and healthy openly gay people who've overcome addictions. 

Here's the reality: changing the way I act, changing the things I say about my feelings/attractions, or changing how I see myself is not the same as changing my sexual orientation! 

I'm an advocate and activist for change.
Though instead of trying to change who LGBTQ people are, I want to focus on change that makes the world a better place for LGBTQ people:

  • Change that permits each of us to embrace who we are—who God created us to be, without guilt and shame.
  • Change that allows parents to love and fully accept their LGBTQ children.
  • Change in churches, so they welcome and affirm the rainbow diversity of all God's creation.
  • Change in society that acknowledges the dignity of LGBTQ people.
  • Change in government that ensures the equality and protects the rights of LGBTQ people.

Yes, change is possible.
But contrary to their promise—whether stated, implied or assumed—it's not...never will be...a change in sexual orientation.