“Ex-Gays” and the Munchhausen Parallels

Hieronymus Carl Friedrich Baron von Münchhausen was an 18th-century German nobleman known for fabricating and embellishing stories about his experiences as a soldier and hunter. He liked to get attention. His name is now synonymous with telling preposterous, exaggerated stories—what my grandfather used to call “fish tales.” (What most people call “lying!”)

There is also a rare mental illness named after the Baron known as Munchausen by Proxy Syndrome (MBPS). It’s most often displayed in adult caregivers of children, where the caregiver with MBPS will manufacture (invent) illnesses or exaggerated symptoms in the child under their care.

According to Medical and Mental Health experts, there are several common characteristics of a MSBP caregiver:

  • They lie about the child's symptoms.
  • They alter test results to make a child appear to be ill. (e.g., contaminating a urine sample)
  • They physically harm the child (e.g., poisoning, starving, inflicting injury) to produce symptoms.
  • They don't see their actions as harmful or dangerous.
  • Even when confronted with facts, they continue the pretense, often questioning the competence of the medical specialists.
  • The caregiver inflicts this pain/harm on the child in order to elevate their own status in the eyes of others; they usually appear as loving can caring, extremely distraught over the child's illness or symptoms.

Health care providers are often unable to identify the specific cause of the child's illness due to conflicting symptoms—some counterfeit and others created artificially. In many cases, they don’t suspect the outwardly concerned caretaker of doing anything to harm the child.

Regrettably, children who are victims of MSBP caregivers can have lifelong physical and emotional problems, and may develop Munchausen Syndrome as adults—a disorder where they falsely report or exaggerate their own illnesses, similar to what’s commonly known as hypochondria.

In short, people with MSBP, who were harmed themselves, are caregivers to those who are hurt. They (knowingly or unknowingly) cause further pain and suffering as part of their own emotional need for attention, recognition and affirmation. In the process, they are creating lasting emotional damage and perpetuating the malady to those under their care.

As I researched this mental illness for a writing project, it occurred to me that a person with MSBP has some startling similarities to "ex-gay" ministries, particularly the leadership.
Here are the parallels that stuck out for me:

DISCLAIMER: I’m regularly accused of being too hard on these groups (not possible), or having a personal vendetta against them (That one’s true!), so I’ll admit this post is particularly blunt. Some would say, scathing. I acknowledge from the start that not each of these comparisons will be true of every leader, and there is no specific leader in mind as I write this. But I think enough are true to merit our consideration about the practice as a whole, so these points should not be ignored.

1. Damaged Caregiver
Most “ex-gay” ministries are formed, founded and led by individuals who have their own struggle with being gay. They see themselves through the lens imposed on them from culture, their faith communities, their family,  etc. They’ve been told (and believe) their sexual orientation is sinful, evil, wrong, an abnormality, an abomination to God, unacceptable, and will lead to eternal damnation. (Not a healthy self-image!)

These leaders probably tout some degree of “victory” in controlling their homosexual desires (or SSA—same-sex attraction—as they call it); some claim to be “healed” (i.e., heterosexual), while most admit they still have the attractions. But their "testimony" elevates them, putting them in a spotlight and draws others to seek their help.

The result: you have a struggling person who hasn’t overcome their own “sin,” helping others manage their sexual confusion.
Is it any wonder we have so many horrific accounts over the years of “ex-gay” leaders being caught in sexual misconduct?
These incidents should speak louder than a mere verbal testimony of someone proclaiming their success.

2. Outwardly Compassionate
If you meet an “ex-gay” leader, or hear them speak at your church, be assured they will present as loving, concerned and caring individuals. They are "healers," doing “God’s work.” They claim to only want what’s best for the “sinful, struggling and sick” gay person. Remember, a person with MSBP hurts the person in their care in order to be seen as the long-suffering, concerned one who suffers with the patient. They need to be needed, and enjoy the attention and the accolades.


3. Manufactured Malady & Exaggerated “Symptoms”
Being gay is not a disease, but the “ex-gay” industry would have you believe differently! They use words and phrases to convey there’s something inherently wrong with the gay person—from the subtle (“broken”) to the severe (“aberration”). Like the MSBP caregiver, they invent reasons why someone has this “sickness” that must be cured—rape, overbearing mother, absent father, brainwashing, pornography, indoctrination...whatever. They’ve invented a problem, and offer themselves as the solution. In fact, they’ve created a cottage industry for their services within the conservative religious community.

“Ex-gay” individuals, groups and those who promote these treatments are masters at aggrandizement. Whether it’s their own “triumph” over same-sex attraction, their assertions about the only way to interpret the Bible, methods to change the homosexual, theories on how a person “becomes” gay, the dangers of the “gay lifestyle,” the average number of sexual partners, or the result of those who’ve been successful at their programs, they will “embellish.” Or fabricate. (i.e., they will LIE!) And pardon the pun, they will do it with a straight face.

They have no science to back up their claims, but they continue to shout it with untethered passion, making people suspicious, ashamed, afraid or disgusted.

In my admittedly skewed opinion, it’s comparable to an exterminator releasing roaches in a house so the homeowner will need the services of the exterminator, and then bragging that they got rid of the roaches!

4. Rigid Denial of Contrary Evidence.
To quote an old TV show, "the truth is out there." However, those who lead "ex-gay" refuse to believe it. In fact, in most case, they will deny it IS truth, or they seek to discredit the source of the facts, or dismiss the person who's presenting the evidence. There's decades of evidence that "ex-gay" treatments do not work, there are numerous former leaders who will attest to the ineffectiveness of these therapies, and there are multitudes of medical and mental health experts who agree that sexual orientation cannot be changed, but those in "ex-gay" leadership will not hear it.

5. Inflicting Harm & Perpetuating the Cycle of Injury
The damage (intentional or not) done by this kind of “therapy” has been documented, particularly to young people subjected to these treatments. The harm is emotional, psychological, spiritual, and often physical. It's also enduring. Those who've been clients of "ex-gay" treatment programs can struggle with varying degrees of depression as well as severe self-image problems for many years. That’s why every major medical and mental health organization opposes so-called Conversion Therapy. And it’s the reason several states have outlawed it’s use for minors, and there is a push to ban it on a national level.

Moreover, what happens when there’s a damaged, deceptive caregiver giving “help” to hurting individuals? The cycle is often is repeated, and perpetuated. Sadly, many of today’s “ex-gay” leaders are products of the “treatment” they received in the past.

Mental Health professional have classified MBPS as a mental illness, and what the person with MBPS does to others is considered abuse. I believe the same designations needs to be applied to "ex-gay" groups and ministries.
They aren't merely misguided people who are only trying to help.
They aren't sincere Christians who just want to help.
They are abusers!

Rather than trying to needlessly "fix" or "heal" LGBT people, let’s turn our attention to these unhealthy practitioners and deceptive programs. We must expose them. They should not be allowed to continue inflicting hurt on others.

Click HERE to read more of my posts about "ex-gays.

Please read my apology for my participation in the "ex-gay" movement.