The term “ex-gay” has become a political missile from right wing politics. What are they trying to say?
Missouri gubernatorial hopeful, Bob Dixon, came out as “ex-gay” last week. He cited a religious conversion for his sexual orientation change, and child abuse and confusion for the reason he was gay in the first place. Dixon is the first person to both admit child abuse and acknowledge that he is “formerly gay.”
His story is as old as the ex-gay movement itself. The fundamentalist belief that one cannot be a Christian and be gay causes a person to look for reasons why the same sex attraction occurred. The main theories, first introduced by Sigmund Freud, cite an over-bearing mother, distant father and sexual abuse. In his work, “The Sexual Aberrations,” Freud noted:
“…if the cases of allegedly innate inversion [homosexuality] were more closely examined, some experience of their early childhood would probably come to light which had a determining effect upon the direction taken by their libido. This experience would simply have passed out of the subject’s conscious recollection, but could be recalled to his memory under appropriate influence (Kindle, p 843).”
This theory – and it was only a theory – entered the mainstream thought of psychoanalysis throughout the beginning of the 20th century. By 1935, however, with more actual research, Freud told a worried mother about her son that homosexuality was:
“…nothing to be ashamed of, no vice, no degradation; it cannot be classified as an illness; we consider it to be a variation of the sexual function…” (Marshall, 2014)
But it was too late. Mainstream society had picked up and proliferated the idea that same sex attraction was an illness, despite the groundbreaking research by Evelyn Hooker in the 1950s that showed there was no difference in mental well being between gay and straight people, and homosexuality’s declassification as a mental illness in 1973 by the American Psychiatric Association (APA). Society, influenced by religion, determined that it was something that could, and should, be fixed.
In 1946, the Greek word arsenokoites was first translated in the Bible to mean homosexual. Until that time, it had been translated to mean “an abuser of mankind” or to “defile one’s self with mankind” in the King James Bible. There are a number of translations, which can be found for this word throughout the centuries, but homosexuality was not one of them. The word didn’t exist until the late 1800s. It’s also interesting to note, as author Kathy Baldock points out, the first recorded sermon on homosexuality didn’t happen until 1980.
Sexual orientation, like religious interpretation, is a social construct. Just as American Evangelical Christianity evolved and emerged from the 1730s, as noted by religious scholar David Bebbington, the concept of sexual orientation was a foreign idea. Heterosexuality, for example, in 1901 was defined as “erotic, excessive, and ‘an abnormal or perverted appetite toward the opposite sex.’” (Baldock, Walking the Bridgeless Canyon, 2014).
At the same time the APA removed homosexuality as a mental disorder from the Diagnostic and Statistics Manual (DSM III), ministries had begun popping up around the country, declaring “freedom from homosexuality through Jesus Christ.” It was the era of the Jesus Movement, a charismatic take on fundamentalist Christianity that simply declared a person was free from sin upon his or her confession of faith. If homosexuality was a sin, then by deduction, a Christian could not be gay. Thus, he or she was “ex-gay.” End of story.
However, over 50 years of vetted research has proven that sexual orientation is most certainly not determined by child abuse, sexual molestation, a distant parental figure, or other environmental factors. If it were, there would be a much higher rate of homosexuality (estimated between 2-5% of the U.S. population) since 18% of childhood abuse is sexual abuse. There is an estimated rate of 9.1 abused kids per thousand, according to statistics.
Ex-gay is a religious label for someone who does not identify as heterosexual, but who also does not identify as gay for religious and social reasons. What it doesn’t mean is that his or her sexual orientation has changed. Over 40 years of research, from reputable researchers, has proven that sexual orientation cannot be changed. It can be suppressed and it can expand (Diamond, 2013, Diamond, 2008), but it cannot be changed.
What’s most interesting about the idea of ex-gay among anti-gay religious groups, such as Family Research Council and Focus on the Family, is that ex-gays are seen as “a necessary evil,” in their “pro-family” perspective. Former policy analyst, Yvette Cantu Schneider, who worked for the Family Research Council pointed out in a recent interview with me (for the documentary Project Change) that these ministries expect self-proclaimed ex-gays to “fall off the wagon” and get caught at some point. This is something that is seen again and again, throughout the ex-gay movement.
Michael Bussee, one of the founders of Exodus International who left the organization in 1979, just three years after he helped start it, noticed that it wasn’t working. When he saw a ministry participant self-mutilate his genitals because he couldn’t be straight, he began to seriously doubt the efficacy of the ministry and the message it was sending.
The term ex-gay has become another buzzword for anti-LGBT politics. Its purpose is to emphasize the legitimacy of a theocratic (e.g. fundamentalist Christian) government. There is no reason, it expresses, to support LGBT individuals or policies, which protect them when, “obviously,” someone can simply choose to not be gay. In 1991, the Advocate reports, Senator Dixon spoke before the Springfield City Council to oppose a hate crimes ordinance. He was there to let them know that while he was gay in his teen years, he had changed through a religious conversion. Rather than pass a needless ordinance to protect gay people from hate crimes, gay people simply need to ask Jesus into their hearts so they will just stop being gay.
My friend and colleague, author Bill Prickett, outlines seven questions to ask an ex-gay person in his article, How to Listen to an Ex-gay Testimony. Bill says, “One of my chief problems…with these testimonies is they rely solely on self-reporting, and therefore are unverifiable. While I appreciate the motivation to share the Good News of God’s work in their life, there’s still the issue of proof.”
As I outlined in a recent article, those who identify as “ex-gay” or “former homosexuals” simply change the definition of change. For them, it is not about being completely attracted to someone of the opposite sex, but about reconciling their incompatible religious beliefs and sexual orientations. In the book Then & Now How My Sexual Attractions Have Changed (People Can Change, 2015), the writers redefine change, stating, “For most people who seek change, heterosexuality is not actually the ultimate goal—happiness and peace are.” That is as close to honesty as the reader will get to their mission from the rest of the book.
I, and many other former ex-gay leaders, have stated time and again, choosing to not act on same-sex attractions for religious reasons is a personal choice. Like monks, priests and others who have made commitments throughout the centuries, that type of devotion is commendable. However, to presume that one’s interpretation of the Bible and God is the only correct one and everyone else should follow suit is arrogant and irresponsible.
Photo – Flickr/ MoBikeFed