That's really the name you went with, guys?
Well, never mind. I've discussed what problems I at any rate had, and have, with ex-gay theory. But of course it's easy enough to reject something because of apparent theoretical problems, and then discover later, to one's embarrassment perhaps, that such problems had been foreseen and adjusted for. Even, sometimes, that there was more in the original theory than there had seemed at first or second glance. And I've admitted already that my involvement in the ex-gay world was minimal. Did this better-than-first-impressions thing prove to be the case with ex-gay theory?
The Short Answer
The Somewhat Longer Answer
It must be admitted that -- for some people and to some extent -- sexuality is fluid. This works both ways,* of course: people who spent decades with a predominantly gay disposition may find themselves attracted to someone of the opposite sex, but equally, a straight person may find themselves unexpectedly interested sexually in someone of the same sex. Attraction is complex, involving such a multitude of biological, psychological, and personal factors, that I suspect there are barely rules of thumb to it, and certainly not the essentialist categories or unwavering boundaries suggested by both some schools of queer advocacy and many versions of the ex-gay movement. (I'm happy to say, though, that recognition of sexual fluidity is now more "in" than it used to be.) David Morrison in Beyond Gay recounts a definite -- and unsought -- shift, if not into heterosexuality, at any rate into some degree of bisexuality, after his conversion to Catholicism, while conversely, I've spoken to a man who was married to a woman and had never been interested in other men until, in his late thirties, he fell in love with a male acquaintance. And there are also cases of what the Gay Christian Network terms "mixed orientation marriages," in which -- for any one of a variety of reasons, from dishonesty to wanting children to being in love with a quite unexpected person -- a queer person chooses to enter a heterosexual marriage; and sometimes those don't work, and sometimes they do (Melinda Selmys and Josh Weed, whose blogs are on the right, are good examples of people who are entirely honest about being lesbian or gay, but who happened to fall in love with a member of the opposite sex nevertheless). For this and other reasons, I'm hesitant to categorically deny that anybody has ever experienced any change in orientation while involved in an ex-gay group.
However. To say that sexuality is fluid is not the same thing as saying that it is alterable by effort on our part. This distinction may seem like a pedantic one, but it's not -- no more than the distinction between growing taller and trying to make yourself taller by pulling on the top of your head is a pedantic one. Even supposing that a person is telling the truth about their own change of orientation, it wouldn't follow automatically that the ex-gay ministry was the cause, because correlation does not equal causation.
Thank you to Randall Munroe, author of xkcd.
I would in any case have a hunch that something as profoundly intimate as sexuality is not very amenable to being changed from without by effort; many things about us have to change from within if they are going to change at all, and they may not be going to change in the first place. But it is in some ways easy to excuse someone who has confused natural sexual fluidity with the results of a deliberate effort to change one's sexual orientation.
The Hollow Horse
What is harder to excuse -- though it can be forgiven, which involves acknowledging the reality of the evil being forgiven -- is the complex and, seemingly, mendacious approach to orientation change that most if not all ex-gay groups have peddled, and, in the case of NARTH or the Restored Hope Network, continue to peddle.
The beginning of it, for me anyway, lies in the language. Nearly all ex-gay groups encourage their members to immediately desist from calling themselves gay, explaining that that isn't their identity. Well, we knew that already, actually, but yes, there can definitely be some over-emphasis on it (especially when someone first comes out -- not unlike the overzealous, naive, slightly embarrassing convert to Christianity that many of us have known), so okay. But many ex-gay groups also give the impression of regarding the "change" in question as being accomplished simply by this thinking differently about oneself, and that any continuing same-sex desires can be dismissed as "residual." Gayness is defined, not simply as feeling attraction to the same sex, but as acting on it. Which means that making an effort to stop, and mentally recategorizing oneself, are enough to qualify as an ex-gay.
Well, fine; think of yourself however you please. Truly. The thing is, what people are hearing is that their homoerotic feelings will go away and be replaced with opposite-sex attractions. Do ex-gay ministries not know that? It beggars belief. To insist that the term gay includes same-sex sexual activity is a qualifier that only Christians, and not all of them, insert into the meaning of the term; most people simply don't mean that. To use that more restricted definition of a common term, instead of, say, talking about learning to lead a chaste lifestyle -- language that is equally available -- is either horribly stupid or grossly disingenuous. (On the credit side, it did give us the agonizing first five and a half minutes of this.)**
A ten-year-old could probably have spotted the difficulty about getting a bunch of gay men together and telling them to be manly at each other instead of thinking about sex.*** Anybody at all can spot what did in fact happen next. Not every ministry and not every minister was fraudulent, of course; some people received help that they badly needed, as to a limited extent I did; and even of those figures in ex-gay ministries who fell down on the job, I tend to think that most of the time it was a response to a starved need for truthfulness, intimacy and support, rather than deliberate and malignant deceit and self-indulgence. Often, at least, and at first. But as Alan Chambers admitted in his mea culpa, good intentions don't mean much when people have been hurt. And people have been hurt.
Families have been hurt by the imposition of the reparative drive theory onto people whose personal histories simply didn't read that way. Men determined to be freed of their homoerotic desires have convinced themselves, whether it was true or not, that their fathers had been cold and distant and their mothers intrusive and smothering; and parents equally have been not only allowed but encouraged to blame themselves for their child's orientation. People have been hurt by being pressured into marriages that came to pieces when one or both parties discovered that getting married does not in itself produce the kind of bond that ought, rather, to lead to marriage, and that being attracted to people other than your spouse does not go away just because you have a sexual outlet -- especially if that sexual outlet is literally different in kind from what your appetites are tugging you towards. Adolescents just discovering homoerotic desires have been frightened and damaged, not only by being promised a change in orientation that the promisers had no power to deliver on, but by being, at times, subjected to cruel and barbaric attempts at "curing" them. At other times, the treatments were less tragic only by being more grotesquely comical; as when some ex-gay orgs would use "Balls Back," a (supposedly) therapeutic technique (recounted on Warren Throckmorton's blog), because there's nothing gay about breaking through a chain of men to grab symbolic testicles and suck the juice out of them, no sir.
Painful hilarity aside, the sometimes ghastly consequences of the movement are not even my fundamental reason for objecting to ex-gay therapies -- that fundamental reason, I intend to discuss in my next. But the consequences are, to put it mildly, grave, persistent, and conspicuous, and are a major source of scandal. Chambers, who is perhaps in a better position to know than anyone, said frankly that of all the LGBT people he knew or read of involved in Exodus, less than one percent experienced a substantial change in attraction. Gary Cooper and Michael Bussee had discovered the same thing three years after Exodus was founded, and left the program, and their wives, for one another. I'm sorry, but it doesn't take a Cassandra to see that that horse is full of Trojans.****
(Okay, so actually the horse was full of Greeks. But frankly, that only reinforces the point.)
*Feel free to insert your own bisexuality joke here.
**This is one of several reasons I have for insistently using the term gay to describe myself, rather than adopting the more PC-for-Catholics moniker same-sex attracted. There are other considerations at work, and of course gay is not a 100% satisfying word either. I don't think there is one, and I tend to doubt that there can be (though, for the celibate among us, Joshua Gonnerman's phrase "virgin queen" comes close). But gay is the closest thing to standard currency that our culture has, at present, and self-control -- even perfect self-control -- is not the same thing as an altered sexual orientation.
***Feel free to insert your own "Don't think about pink elephants" joke here.
****You wipe that smirk off your face right now, young man.