This past week, Rev. Russell Moore, director of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, was reported by the Religious News Service as denouncing reparative therapy for gays. “The utopian idea if you come to Christ and if you go through our program, you’re going to be immediately set free from attraction or anything you’re struggling with, I don’t think that’s a Christian idea,” Moore said.
It’s an idea that originated in the early ‘70s with Love in Action and Exodus International, two of the world’s most renowned organizations that tried to change people from gay to straight. The problem is, after more than 40 years there is not a shred of peer-reviewed scientific evidence that proves anyone’s sexual orientation has changed. Researcher Lisa Diamond has most recently provided over a decade of groundbreaking research on sexual fluidity, but even then has stated in a personal interview that she has never seen a single person change from gay to straight.
Why were we trying to change someone’s orientation in the first place?
Changing someone’s sexual orientation is an antiquated idea from the earliest psychotherapists at the turn of the century. Many believed homosexuality stemmed from a poor parental relationship(s), or was the result of abuse or other trauma. The problem with what became a mainstream hypothesis about homosexuality is that no one bothered to research well-adjusted gay people until the 1950s. It was nearly 20 years after this research that homosexuality was finally removed as a mental illness diagnoses from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Illnesses. By that time, religious zealots had jumped in the parade of belief that same-sex attractions were nothing more than unbridled debauchery. One by one, science and the gay community is still trying to dismantle their floats.
“Tens of Thousands” of Ex-Gays
Anecdotal stories, such as the one told by Christian rapper Jackie Hill-Perry, don’t make the myth disappear any faster. “The Word of God itself, apart from Jackie Hill, testifies that people can change,” she was heard to say on a Christian Radio show. Other testimonies, such as that of Gospel artist Donnie McClurkin, and more “seasoned” ex-gays, such as Frank Worthen, David Kyle Foster and Stephen Black make the waters murkier for those who want to believe God will change someone’s sexual orientation as evidence of faith.
In 2013, after a failed attempt at providing a show of force in Washington DC, Ex-gay Pride Month’s organizer, Christopher Doyle, told American Family Radio’s Sandy Rios that “tens of thousands” existed but are “in the closet because of fear, shame and threats from gay activists.” According to Right Wing Watch, who shared the story, less than ten people showed up for the first (and last) Ex-gay March on Washington.
The “tens of thousands” number is a common phrase used in Christian media and quoted by faithful hopefuls in response to scientific claims that sexual orientation cannot be changed. The truth is they don’t exist. In fact, once Christian organizations latch on to an “ex-gay” individual, he or she is usually catapulted into Christian stardom, appearing frequently on the top-rated Christian media outlets, such as the 700 Club, Focus on the Family and Trinity Broadcasting Network. It’s generally the same person, or a small group of individuals that do the talking for the “tens of thousands.” The consequences become a problem of their own for that individual.
John Paulk, whose name is synonymous with the ex-gay movement, said in Politico Magazine this year, “More and more, when I’d have to get up and speak to crowds about my gay conversion, I felt like a wind-up toy. I’d go back to my hotel room, fall on the bed and start weeping.” He issued a statement of apology in 2013 for the pain he caused so many others by his deception, though his own change was something he, too, desperately wanted to believe.
So what about those who appear to have truly changed?
Sexual and gender researcher Dr. Lisa Diamond’s first book, Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women’s Love and Desire, focused on female sexual orientation, Women’s sexuality is more complex than men’s sexuality, or so it was thought, which allows some women to become romantically involved based on emotional attraction, rather than simply a physical one and regardless of gender. However, Dr. Diamond’s research found something much broader than we thought about human sexuality before. It is a vast and shifting phenomena for both sexes, not nearly as cut and dry, black and white, or as identifiable as previously thought.
Is it possible for someone who identifies as gay or lesbian to remain in a heterosexual relationship? Yes. One former ex-gay leader, who is still married and no longer believes in the ex-gay message, told me that they are 60% attracted to the opposite sex and 40% attracted to the same sex. They see no reason to leave their spouse or family simply because their beliefs have changed. Dr. Diamond also told me she has seen cases where someone was romantically attracted and attached to the gender of the opposite sex, though the person identified as homosexual. Religion does not play a factor in either of these cases, however religious obligation can and does play a factor in some situations.
I know many who once identified as ex-gay, but now have gone silent on the issue. They are not “in the closet because of fear, shame and threats from gay activists,” as Christopher Doyle suggests. In private conversations they have in fact realized they are still gay. Some have confessed extra-marital gay affairs or hookups throughout their years of marriage, gay porn, or inwardly long for a gay relationship. However, they have also maintained their faith, or told me they willingly chose to get married because they wanted a wife and kids. In spite of it all, they’ve said, they don’t have regrets about their choices to do so.
Those of us in the gay community, and former ex-gays, do not take issue with gay people who choose to remain celibate for their faith, or any other reason for that matter, or those who decide they simply want a traditional family. We take issue with unsubstantiated claims of sexual orientation change and the false hope it holds out to young people, their families, and their churches. The cold, hard reality is that not everyone can remain single, or celibate. Even the Apostle Paul was aware of this when he said that it is better to marry than burn with lust (1 Corinthians 7:9). Ironically, many Christians want to deny marriage to lesbians and gays, as well.
As Rev. Moore eluded at the Ethics and Religious Liberties meeting last week, the idea of “ex-gay” therapy has come and gone. Religion News Service writer, Sarah Pulliam Bailey even noted, “Earlier this year the 50,000-member American Association of Christian Counselors amended its code of ethics eliminating reparative therapy and encouraging celibacy instead.” Each of these steps brings us closer to ending the harmful practice of reparative therapy and allows people – all of us, not just the LGBT community – to live authentically, accepting ourselves and others, the way God intended.