Why Do People Go To "Ex-Gay" Programs?

Recently, my friend Michael Bussee, one of the original founders of Exodus International, spoke to a San Diego CBS news reporter about the history of “ex-gay” programs, as well as the damaged caused by so-called “conversion therapy.” The story was prompted when Restored Hope Network (RHN) announced they would be hosting a conference in the San Diego area.

Background: For many years, Exodus was the largest organization in the country dedicated to “conversion therapy,” promoted as a means to change a person’s sexual orientation. Restored Hope Network was formed when several extremely conservative leaders of Exodus International broke away, apparently for theological and methodological reasons. (The President of Exodus had acknowledged the validity of gay Christians, and confessed that the vast majority of those who enroll in “ex-gay” programs do not change.) Exodus eventually ceased operation, but RHN continues, a smaller, but more virulent, belligerent version organization that spawned them.

The news broadcast included San Diego-based psychologist Dr. Alisa Robinson, who stated clearly that scientific research does not suggest religious “reparative” therapy can truly alter someone's sexual orientation. "The medical community has come out saying that being gay is not a disease,” Dr. Robinson said. “It's a normal variant of the human condition. To try to force somebody or really coerce somebody to change something about themselves that cannot be changed really can put these people at greater risk for suicide or other mental health issues."

Anne Paulk, RHN executive director, repeatedly refused to be interviewed for the news segment, but did go on the defensive (as is her pattern) on Facebook, dodging the issue by focusing on the perceived claim that RHN “forces” people to change:

“We are also against the concept of forcing and coercion. Her comment is not relevant to our ministry whatsoever nor our summer conference in San Diego. In fact, we know that unless a person wants to leave homosexuality and is leaning into the Lord’s will for their life along with good counseling or pastoral care, their lives will likely not change much.”

I don’t know Anne personally. We’ve had a few brief online communications, but she’s always made it clear she’s not interested in interactions with those who oppose the work of RHN. Questions, challenges and dissenting views on Facebook are deleted, and often, the person is blocked from future engagement.

Author’s Note: I wanted to refer you to a blog post written by my dear friend, Randy Thomas, who was the Vice President of Exodus International when they shut down the organization. After Exodus closed, Randy came out as a Christian gay man, and has renounced the work of “ex-gay” groups. He wrote a wonderful response to Anne Paulk’s statement about people being “forced” or “coerced” into changing. I can’t add to what he’s said, so I hope you’ll check it out.

Whether Anne was deliberately lying when she denied people are forced/coerced, or merely seeking to minimize the impact of such a negative perception of their work (I have my suspicions which it is.), I’m convinced she’s wrong.

LGBTQ people are coerced into these program.
There is significant force exerted to change the LGBTQ orientation.

Obviously, I’m not envisioning people being physically captured and dragged, kicking and screaming, against their will into these programs. (Though I do think there are probably such incidents, especially with underage children.) But that’s not the only way to compel someone.

I can’t pretend to guess the motivation of each person who determines the need to change, and decides to enroll in an “ex-gay” program. But I can examine my own reasons, as well as glean insight from those I counseled while executive director of an “ex-gay” ministry. I can draw from the many people I’ve worked with in the 30+ years since I abandoned those teachings. In addition, I can utilize my extensive research and reading on the subject— drawing from people who were once involved and now (like me) write about their experience.
These include:

Religious Dogma: Church teachings that make such a decision compulsory for divine acceptance and personal holiness.

Family Pressure: The keen awareness that refusal to change will result in abandonment and rejection.

Marketing Promises: These groups practically guarantee that change will happen.

Internalized Homophobia: Shame, guilt and loathing based on a misinformation, stereotypes, lies and religious beliefs about what it means to be a homosexual.

Fear: Everything from rejection by a society that stigmatized LGBTQ people, to loss of job security, to the potential of disease, hardships, loneliness and unhappiness often intrinsically (falsely) connected to being LGBTQ.

Truthfully, I doubt there is one singular explanation for why someone tries to change their sexual orientation. In fact, these decisions seem prompted by a mindset that permeates their environment, like the air they breathe. To them, the decision feels necessary, even mandatory. In many cases, they even come to “own” or internalize the external influences and “own” the need to change. (“I didn’t want to be gay.” “I did this for myself.”)

Regardless of why someone decides to enroll in “ex-gay” treatment, I see it as a bad choice. First, these groups are deceptive in their promises. No matter how long and how hard you try, sexual orientation will not change. Second, the treatment they provide has been shown to be dangerous, with the potential for long-term and lasting damage. (That’s not in the marketing literature!)

On my website, as part of my Rainbow Resources, I go into greater detail on The Lure of “Ex-Gay” Programs, examining the appeal of these programs and offering a deeper analysis of FOUR primary reasons I think people go into an “ex-gay” program.

P.S. In that section, I also consider an alternate question I often hear: “What if someone is not happy with being gay and wants to change?”

I’ve written extensively in Brain Bubbles about this topic, including my own experiences.

I welcome your thoughts, comments and any questions you might have.
Also, if you have your own “ex-gay” story, feel free to share.