The Promise of "Ex-Gay" Change

In 2009, The American Psychological Association released the results of a study that strongly refutes 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.

Every major medical and mental health professional association believes that sexual orientation is inherent and unchangeable, and opposes treatments designed to change it.

However, in spite of the experts, regardless of the overwhelming statistics about their ineffectiveness, and the mounting evidence of the damage these programs cause, “ex-gay” groups stubbornly hold to their dogma and plow forward with their crusade.

They insist that orientation can be changed.
Moreover, these programs promise that change!

Read the marketing materials.
Listen to “ex-gay” proponents, especially those who livelihood is dependent on promoting these programs.
Pay attention to the words of those who’ve been through these programs, who talk in before-and-term terms of “Once I was...Now I am...”

The conclusion is logical: enroll in our program, attend our seminar, go to our camp, come to our group to change your sexual orientation.

Granted, some these days will adamantly insist that’s not what they’re promising. Instead, they’ll use lofty sounding phrases, vague terminology, or established “ex-gay” clichés: “leaving the gay lifestyle,” “walking away from homosexuality,” “overcoming homosexuality,” or talk piously about “living consistently with one’s faith,” or “committing to holiness.”

When asked direct questions (i.e., Can your program change my sexual orientation?), they might hedge, or deflect with religious responses and verses from the Bible. They might offer disclaimers and qualifiers for their assertions. 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.

More surprising, we have those in the “ex-gay” world today 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.

So while they promise of “change,” I’m convinced when we look carefully at their process and those who come of the programs, the actual change they accomplish is not what they imply in their promises. At best, what we see involves:

1. A behavior.
Homosexuality is about what I do, not who I am. Built into their theology is the idea that homosexuality is sin, so it’s about acting on the temptation. If I control my actions, if I don’t have sex (e.g., celibacy), I am successful. So I don’t go to places or read materials that might trigger my temptations. 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. And the more I’m able to control my activities, the more successful I profess to be. I am “ex-gay” because I’m not doing those gay things any more.

2. A vocabulary.
While medical and mental health experts see homosexuality as an orientation (as well as unchangeable), those in the “ex-gay” world avoid that concept. After all, if it’s an orientation, that could imply it might be inherent. (And elicit those pesky questions about the need for change.)

Instead, they opt for such pseudo-clinical terms as “unwanted same-sex attraction (SSA).” Essentially, homosexuality is separate from who I am. It’s a sin to be confessed, a temptation to be resisted, a behavior to be avoided, a thought to be put away, a feeling to be ignored. So I’m taught not to talk about myself a gay.  I’m told not to identify who I am by my “sin.”

3. A identity.
These programs....this programming...will impact the way someone sees themselves. What I feel, what I desire, is something that happens to me, not something that’s part of me. Detachment and dichotomy becomes my goal. I am two people—one who is sinful, dirty, and rejected by God. The other is the higher self, the righteous new creation. One is Spirit, the other is Flesh. These two are in conflict within, and I must seek to live according to the Spirit, not give into the desires of the flesh. One should be embraced, the other must be rejected. I must make my choices, and make my confessions, according to the New Me...regardless of what I want or how I feel.

4. A expectation.
I think most go to an “ex-gay” program with the understand that “change” means, well...change. I will do the exercises, attend the support groups, read the books, memorize the Bible verses, repeat the mantra, etc. But at some point, I expect change will become evident.

But as I get more involved, a new reality settles in. There’s a war going on...inside me. It’s a never-ending battle. And this is my life! In other words, this is a life-long process. It’s not measured in a change in my desire for that cute guy next to me in the coffee shop, it’s based on my ability to drink my coffee and avoid thinking how cute he is. My options are a life of celibacy, or I can choose to marry, which might (at least) satisfy a basic sexual urge, though never my need for physical intimacy.

Conclusion: These “ex-gay” programs make promises to change sexual orientation, either unequivocally or implicitly. They entice people to live according to their faith. But at the most, the process is more accurately designed to inspire me to spend my entire life resisting what’s inside—to ignore and never act on the desires I have. It’s not a change so much as it’s a sentence to an unfulfilled life.