Adventures in Ex-Gayland
Offering hope shouldn't require sacrificing truth
by Justin Lee
Growing up in a conservative Christian home, I was confident that being gay was both a sin and a choice. I spoke out about it, wanting to lovingly encourage gay people that, in Christ, they didn't have to be gay. I believed that with all my heart.
Even as I said these words, however, I was wrestling with my own same-sex attractions. For years I had told myself that they were merely a phase I'd grow out of. It wasn't until I was 18 that I finally recognized that they weren't going away and that there was a word for guys who are only attracted to other guys. That word was "gay." And it turned my world upside down.
I couldn't understand how this had happened. I had a strong and vibrant faith and a personal relationship with Jesus. I had wonderful, healthy relationships with both of my parents. I had never been sexually abused. How could a good Christian boy like me—nicknamed "God Boy" by a high school classmate—be gay? The word "gay" for me didn't represent a chosen identity; it was the diagnosis for the disease I had, the name for the attractions I desperately wanted to be rid of. I had no idea what had caused me to be gay, but I was sure of one thing: somehow I was going to become straight.
Or so I thought.
I poured myself into learning about groups known as "ex-gay ministries," Christian organizations that offered to help gay people become straight. Their websites promised "freedom from homosexuality" for all who wanted it.
"That could be me!" I thought.
How could a GOOD CHRISTIAN BOY like me—nicknamed "God Boy" by a high school classmate—be gay? The word "gay" for me DIDN'T REPRESENT A CHOSEN identity; it was the DIAGNOSIS FOR THE DISEASE I had.
But a local ex-gay group turned out to be a big disappointment, filled with middle-aged men desperate to feel attraction to their wives that they just didn't feel, even after years of therapy. Even so, I reminded myself, they were still in therapy. They weren't done yet. Perhaps the real success stories were the ones I had heard about on Christian radio and read about in Christian magazines, the ones who were now leading ex-gay groups instead of attending them. I had to find out.
I discovered another local ex-gay ministry and gave them a call. A kind-sounding man on the other end of the phone listened to my story before apologetically informing me that, no, there wasn't anything they could do for a 19-year-old with no sexual experience. Everyone in their group was much older and struggling with a lifetime of sexual addiction. Their focus was on changing those behaviors. They didn't have any resources for a teenage virgin who just didn't want to be gay.
Undeterred, I continued to research ex-gays through the internet and in books. I nervously came out to my parents, and once they recovered from the shock, they agreed to do whatever it took to help me in my quest to learn more and ultimately become straight. They made phone calls, wrote letters, and read even more books. They helped set up opportunities for me to meet with high-profile leaders in the ex-gay movement, and they offered to spare no expense to send me to any ex-gay conference I wanted to go to. One way or another, we were going to get this problem fixed and put it behind us. And with that attitude, we took our first bold steps into the ex-gay world—a world many Christians have heard of but few know the truth about.
A roomful of parents
My parents went with me to my first ex-gay conference. I was anxious. Spending a weekend discussing sexuality—particularly my sexuality—with my parents was not my idea of a good time! Even so, I knew it was important for me to go.
This particular conference was advertised for ex-gays and their parents. As it turned out, most of the attendees I met there were parents whose children were living openly gay lives. Their children hadn't come with them, but the parents were there to learn what they could do to help bring their children back to the Lord.
The conference opened with a praise and worship session. Here, in the midst of so many Christians singing their songs of praise to God together, I felt much more at ease. This—this—was what it was to be a Christian: broken, hurting, imperfect people, united in love and gratitude to God. I could have worshiped forever in that room. I felt peace.
Alas, it was not to last. The keynote address was more about controversial political issues of the day than about how to support Christians wrestling with their sexuality. The speaker charged his audience to fight against the "gay agenda," painting the world in simplistic "us vs. them" terms: We were the Christians. They were the gays. They must be stopped at all costs.
"I think," he said with a broad grin, "that ultimately our values are going to prevail."
His mostly straight audience cheered. I felt uneasy. More and more, I felt as if the gay people out there maybe weren't so different from me. I was still a Christian, and I still stood for Christian values, but I was also gay. This polarizing language didn't sit well with me. It didn't seem very much like Jesus.
I imagined a gay conference meeting at the same time, with a speaker saying those exact same words: "Ultimately our values are going to prevail." If this was to be a battle of gays vs. Christians, where did I fit in?
Other speakers followed, many of them self-professed ex-gays. The ex-gays spoke often about the childhood traumas they believed had caused them to become gay—nearly always sexual abuse, poor parenting, or some combination of both. Being gay, they insisted, was not something you were born with; it was something that happened to you as a child.
This theme permeated the conference. After one of the sessions, I picked up one of the ministry's brochures. Inside was a question-and-answer section. Among the questions, I saw this:
Q: Is homosexuality preventable in my child?
A: Absolutely. Show unconditional love for your child and ensure that he or she has positive and healthy doses of love from both parents. In other words, if your child is gay, then you must not have done your job right as a parent.
I wondered if that was really a healthy message to be sending at a conference full of parents who were already worried about their gay kids. I had never been sexually abused or experienced any trauma. I had wonderful parents. What would these people say if they heard my story?
When the time came for breakout sessions, my parents chose one geared toward parents, while I went to the intriguingly titled session "The Root Causes of Male Homosexuality." This session was being taught by two friendly, clean-cut young gentlemen. As the session started, one of them held up two books. In one hand, he held a Bible; in the other, he held Elizabeth Moberly's Homosexuality: A New Christian Ethic, which proposed that gays had poor parental relationships. "Everything we're going to tell you this afternoon is based on these two books," he said.
I hadn't yet read Moberly's book, but I had read about it on the internet, and I knew it didn't fit me. It made me uneasy that the speaker came across as equating that one unproven theory with the Bible.
Each of the men told his story. Both had distant fathers. Both had overbearing mothers. For 45 minutes, they explained the classic reparative drive theory in great detail, insisting that this distant father/overbearing mother paradigm explained every gay man in the world.
I squirmed in my seat, annoyed at the misinformation. I didn't have a distant father or an overbearing mother. I had wonderful, loving parents. How could they make claims about everyone based on their own limited experiences?
"Homosexuality," one of them said, "is an inability to relate to the same sex." He explained that gay men are gay because they're unable to properly relate to other men, leading them to "sexualize their emotional needs for male companionship."
Unable to properly relate to other men? I had always had plenty of close, healthy male friendships. I had more male friends than female friends, though I had plenty of each. I'd always had close guy friends and never felt unable to relate to them. Nothing about this sounded like me at all.
The fact that their theory didn't fit me was one thing, but what really bothered me was watching how this talk was affecting the parents in the room. A large percentage of the attendees were straight parents of gay sons, and according to these guys, it was their fault that their sons were gay. Judging from their faces, many of them were taking it pretty hard.
As I looked around, the parents' expressions seemed to be registering a mixture of hope and concern. On one hand, these men were offering them hope that their gay sons could still become straight with the right therapy. On the other hand, they were hearing that it was their own fault—and especially the fault of the fathers—that their sons were gay. One single mom had shared with me earlier that her gay son now had AIDs. I wondered how she was feeling right now, thinking that her only son's untimely death might be her fault for not providing a male role model. I had to say something. I couldn't watch these parents struggle with needless guilt. If I didn't reassure them, who would?
The presenters opened the floor for questions. I nervously raised my hand, and they called on me. I stood up and introduced myself. "The model you've described doesn't sound like my childhood at all," I said. "I'm attracted to the same sex, and I don't know why. But I do know that I always had a good relationship with both of my parents, and I always felt fully loved and accepted by them. And it just really bothers me to see all of these parents here feeling guilty and thinking that they didn't show their kids enough love and that it's their fault that their kids are gay. I mean, what if it's not that? What if it's something else? I don't know what, but something else. I just think we should consider that possibility. I hate for all these parents to blame themselves."
I suddenly realized that I was giving a speech more than asking a question. My face got hot and I sat down. The presenters seemed perturbed, but I had said what I needed to say. They dismissively agreed that parents shouldn't focus on self-blame, then quickly moved to another question.
I wondered if I had done the right thing. I hadn't meant to be confrontational or argumentative.
As if in answer to my silent question, a man in front of me turned around and spoke to me as the session ended. "I'm so glad you said what you did," he said. "If you hadn't, I was going to." He leaned in to tell me his story. "The stuff these guys were talking about, that fits my childhood to a T. My father was cold and distant. He was never there for me. I never felt loved by him. I didn't have a good male role model in my life. My mother was bossy and overprotective. Every little thing those guys talked about sounded exactly like how I grew up."
His eyes lit up as he arrived at the twist in his story. "I'm heterosexual," he said. "Never had a gay thought or feeling in my life. When I got married and had a son, I didn't want him to have the kind of childhood I did, so I made sure I was always there for him. Everything my father wasn't. My son and I have a terrific relationship. He says so, and I know so. A few years ago, I found out that he's gay. According to these guys, I should have been gay, not him!" He chuckled wistfully.
People were getting up to leave the room. A college-aged girl walked over and shook my hand. "Thank you," she said to me. "My brother is gay, and our parents aren't anything like those guys said. It's very good to know that there are other gay people who didn't have that kind of family either. I thought I was crazy, listening to them describe something that sounds nothing at all like my family." She introduced me to her mother, and the three of us had lunch together.
Later that day I ran into Jesse, one of the presenters of the "Root Causes" workshop. He recognized me and walked over, glancing at my name tag.
"Justin," he said, the slight edge to his voice belying his gentle smile, "I know you have your own beliefs, but during this weekend I think it would be helpful if you would just listen to what we teach."
His tone caught me off guard. I tried to be conciliatory. "Oh, gosh, I honestly didn't mean to sound confrontational this morning," I said. "I just didn't want all those parents to feel guilty, you know?"
"Well, the people you've been talking to may have told you things that are different from what we teach, but you're only here for three days, and I think it would be most worthwhile to you to just listen for the time you have left here."
The people I'd been talking to? "Wait a second," I said. "I didn't say that stuff because of anyone I've been talking to. This is coming from me. I don't fit the Moberly theory. That's just my life. I didn't have a distant father or any of that stuff."
"I didn't think I did either," he replied coolly, "until I got into therapy and started looking harder."
I didn't know what to say to that.
What kind of ministry takes a person who thinks he has a wonderful relationship with his father and convinces him that he actually has a bad one? This was feeling less and less like the work of God to me.
As I met more people at this conference and others, I discovered that I was far from alone. Many people told me similar stories of growing up happily, having healthy relationships with their parents, and then being pressured by ex-gay groups to find fault with their upbringing. But even as the evidence piled up that there were plenty of gay people without distant fathers and overbearing mothers, that paradigm remained far and away the most popular explanation these ministries had for our gay feelings. The people I kept meeting who didn't fit that pattern were largely ignored or shoehorned in, forced to revisit their childhood memories over and over until they found some sort of problem to blame everything on. Challenge that, and you just might be labeled a heretic.
As it was, I was losing my faith. Not in God but in ex-gays.
Down the rabbit hole
In one of my favorite scenes in Through the Looking-Glass, the second of Lewis Carroll's two Alice books, Alice meets Humpty Dumpty, who perplexes her by using the word "glory" to mean "a nice knock-down argument." When she protests the definition, he replies, "When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less."
In Wonderland, words mean whatever the characters choose for them to mean, regardless of their usual definitions. This results in much confusion for poor Alice, who has no way of seeing into their heads. In the real world, communication depends on a shared understanding of what a word means.
In Wonderland, words mean whatever the characters choose for them to mean, regardless of their USUAL DEFINITIONS. This results in much CONFUSION for poor Alice, who has no way of seeing into their heads. In the real world, communication depends on a SHARED UNDERSTANDING of what a word means.
Word meanings do change over time as our culture changes, but these are gradual shifts. Any meaning of a word must be widely understood before we can safely use that word to communicate. If I suddenly start using a word to mean something different from what most people mean by that word, I'll only confuse people at best. At worst, by choosing a definition that's more convenient for me, I could deliberately mislead them.
The word "gay" in our culture usually means "attracted to the same sex." In movies and on television, when characters say they're gay, we understand that that means they're attracted to their own sex. If a teenage boy says, "Mom, Dad, I think I'm gay," he's saying that he's attracted to his own sex.
So when I first heard the testimonies of people who said they "used to be gay" but weren't anymore, I interpreted that to mean that they used to be attracted to the same sex, and now they weren't. I thought that "ex- gays" were people who used to be gay but now were straight—attracted to the opposite sex.
That turned out not to be true.
Online and at ex-gay conferences, I did hear a number of testimonies of people who said they had been healed of their homosexuality—the "success stories" of the movement. I listened to them carefully, asking lots of questions when possible. But what I heard wasn't what I had expected. Most of the men's stories followed a predictable pattern. Like me, they had developed attractions to other guys at puberty, but unlike me, nearly all of them had decided to act on those feelings at some point. Many had sordid stories of promiscuous, anonymous sex and/or drug and alcohol abuse. In their minds, these addictive and risky behaviors represented what it meant to be gay, and they had found that lifestyle to be woefully unfulfilling. Somewhere along the way, they had become Christians or reignited their faith, prompting them to feel convicted that the lives they were leading were sinful. With the help of ex-gay groups, therapy, and prayer, they had walked away from their past behaviors.
The testimonies were powerful reminders of how God changes lives. It was largely faith in God that enabled them to overcome a history of sexual addiction and substance abuse. Their behaviors had completely changed, and they were happier for it.
But there was one thing missing in all of their testimonies. None of them seemed to be becoming straight. They had changed their behaviors, sometimes in dramatic ways. Some had not had any sexual contact in years. Others had gone so far as to date and marry a member of the opposite sex. But almost universally, when I asked, they confessed that they still had the same kind of same-sex attractions I did.
In ex-gay circles, I learned, the word "gay" didn't mean "attracted to the same sex." At ex-gay conferences, I often ran into ex-gay leaders who publicly testified that they were "no longer gay" even while privately confessing that they still had same-sex attractions. How was this possible? Were they just lying to everyone? No, not exactly. But like Humpty Dumpty, they had redefined their terms without explaining what they meant.
Instead of using "gay" to mean "attracted to the same sex," they redefined it to refer to sexual behaviors they were no longer engaging in or a loosely defined cultural "identity" they didn't accept. According to their new definitions, anyone who attended an ex-gay group could call themselves "no longer gay" without ever experiencing any change in their attractions. Even the ex-gays who sometimes slipped up and gave in to their temptations through occasional sexual trysts still considered themselves "not gay," because they didn't "identify that way."
I could understand that they didn't want to identify with their former way of life. In their minds, "gay" encompassed a whole sinful and self-destructive lifestyle. But by giving public testimony that they weren't "gay" anymore, they were leading millions of Christians to believe that they had become straight, when that wasn't true. And those misleading testimonies were getting a lot of attention on Christian radio, in Christian magazines, and in churches around the world.
Part of the problem was that neither these leaders, nor their audiences, were careful to distinguish between sexual behaviors and sexual attractions. When people like me said we were gay, it was because of our attractions. When the ex-gay leaders said they weren't gay, it was because of their behaviors.
When other Christians heard these testimonies of men who used to live promiscuous gay lives but had experienced "healing" and were now married to women, they naturally assumed that the men's attractions had changed as well and that they were now straight. That wasn't true, but no one seemed particularly interested in correcting the misconception.
The ex-gays knew, of course, that they were still attracted to the same sex, but many of them dismissed this as "residual temptations" resulting from a lifetime of behaving badly. "Those years of gay life will always have some effect on me," one ex-gay leader explained to me. "I will never be as if I didn't have that in my past." Another leader insisted that same-sex-attracted Christians like me who hadn't acted on their feelings would have a relatively easy time ridding themselves of those feelings and becoming completely straight. He didn't actually know anyone who had done it, but still…
Other ex-gays explained their continuing attractions as part of a "process" or "journey." Although they hadn't fully changed their attractions yet, they were sure that they were in the process of changing and that these attractions didn't have quite as much of a hold on them as they had in the past.
In one sense, I have no doubt this was true. In the past, many of them had experienced their attractions as something like an addiction or compulsion. With therapy and prayer, they had broken the stranglehold their sex drives had once had on their behavior. They were in control now, not their sex drives, and that was a freeing and healthy experience. In addition, many of these men were getting older, and their libidos no longer felt as urgent as they had in their teenage years. But if a heterosexual woman overcomes a life of sexual addiction, that doesn't mean she is becoming less heterosexual, and if a heterosexual man finds that the urgency of his sex drive toward women isn't as strong at age 68 as it was at 18, that doesn't mean his orientation has changed. It's just a natural part of life.
If a heterosexual woman overcomes a life of sexual addiction, that doesn't mean she is BECOMING LESS HETEROSEXUAL, and if a heterosexual man finds that the urgency of his sex drive toward women isn't as strong at age 68 as it was at 18, that DOESN'T MEAN HIS ORIENTATION has changed. It's just a natural PART OF LIFE.
For all the ex-gay talk of this journey toward becoming straight, no one ever seemed to actually get there.
That wasn't the message the Christians back home heard, though. They heard that thousands upon thousands of people were "leaving homosexuality" and that those ex-gays' lives provided proof that there was hope for their gay loved ones to become straight too.
Christians really are a compassionate bunch, even though the cultural reputation we have right now doesn't reflect that. Because so many Christians—especially evangelical Christians like me—believed that gay relationships were sinful, they also wanted to believe that there was some way that gay people could become straight so that they could legitimately enjoy all the benefits of romance and marriage. The ex-gays, too, wanted to believe this and to provide hope to others. Unfortunately, sometimes that desire for hope got in the way of being completely honest.
I wasn't immune to this. In 1996, shortly after realizing I was gay, I read a column by advice columnist ann landers in which parents of a gay son asked about counseling to help him become straight. "A 20-year-old male who has romantic fantasies about other males is unquestionably homosexual," Landers wrote in response. "Counseling will not 'straighten him around.' Nor is there any medication that will perform that magic."
At the time, I was convinced Landers was wrong. I worried about all the struggling teens out there like me, and I knew I needed to set the record straight (so to speak) and tell them that change was possible. I wrote a letter identifying myself as a gay teen who was becoming straight, urging others to trust God and have hope that they, too, could become straight like me. My life was proof.
The letter sat on my desk for days. I couldn't quite bring myself to mail it. At the time, I believed with all my heart that I was going to become straight and that I was in the process already. But in the letter I had exaggerated the amount of "change" I was actually experiencing. I hadn't lied, but I hadn't been completely honest either. The trouble was, if I was honest about the lack of attraction change I had experienced so far, I knew no one would take my story seriously. They would write me off as deceiving myself. If I waited until after my feelings had changed before writing, I'd be too late to respond to this column. I had to respond right away, and I was so certain that I was in the process of becoming straight that it didn't feel like a lie to lead people to believe that I was further along in the process than was actually true.
In the end, I couldn't send the letter. It felt too much like deception, and as a Christian I believed it was wrong to lie, even for what I was sure was a good cause.
The PICTURE THEY PAINTED of gay-to-straight change WASN'T QUITE REALITY. I'm sure their intentions were good. But THE DECEPTION, even if unintentional, HAD DISASTROUS CONSEQUENCES.
I thought back to that letter when I later noticed the differences between some ex-gay men's public testimonies and the real-life struggles they shared in private. I'm convinced that many of them, like me, didn't really want to be deceptive; they just wanted to provide hope, and sometimes that meant not quite telling people everything. They'd minimize the amount of same-sex attraction they still felt, for instance, and focus on their commitment to their wives without mentioning their lack of sexual attraction to the female form or the related impact on their marriages. It seemed justified. Who would expect them to reveal such intimate struggles? And yet the end result was that the picture they painted of gay-to-straight change wasn't quite the reality. I'm sure their intentions were good. But the deception, even if unintentional, had disastrous consequences.
Truth in advertising
To this day, many ex-gay organizations continue to promote a mixed message when it comes to orientation change. Some leaders within these ministries have been pushing for years for more openness and honesty about the reality that therapy can't make gay people straight and that what's typically happening is behavior change, not orientation (that is, attraction) change. They've argued for more "truth in advertising," urging their organizations to stop leading people to believe they can become straight and to focus instead on helping people overcome sexual addictions and improve their relationship with God.
Unfortunately those people have been frequently outnumbered by those who find the "anyone can change" message to be too appealing to resist.
The Christians who continue to recommend ex-gay ministries to people do so with the best of intentions. They've heard testimonies by ex-gay leaders or seen ads promising "hope for change," and they've believed it.
Every time I see one of those ads, I think of the companies who market diet "miracle pills" promising to melt away the unwanted pounds. Less reputable companies have been known to pay fit models to temporarily gain weight for a "before" picture, then return to their normal exercise and eating habits, leaving them looking muscular and trim for an "after" picture that in reality has little if anything to do with the drug. The ad crows about how many pounds they lost in only a few weeks, while fine print at the bottom warns "Results not typical."
If they were being completely honest, ex-gay organizations would put "results not typical" at the bottom of their published testimonies as well. Like the diet ads, those testimonies often don't tell the whole story, and even if they did, they don't represent what happens to most people who go through these ministries. If Christians were truly aware of what does happen, they'd abandon the ex-gay approach and never recommend these ministries again.
Justin Lee is the founder and executive director of the Gay Christian Network, a nonprofit, interdenominational organization serving LGBT Christians and those who care about them. Focusing on building bridges between those who disagree, Lee has been featured in numerous national print, radio, and television venues. This article was adapted from Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate, © 2012 by Justin Lee, from Jericho Books. It appears here by kind permission of the publisher. All rights reserved. Learn more and follow Lee's weblog at TornBook.com.