5 min

Unmasking the lies

Book gives glimpse inside the ex-gay movement

Credit: Xtra West files

On a city bus several years ago, I viewed an attractive guy standing in the aisle, his hand clutching a pole for balance. He looked yummy, from tip to toe. Cravings emerged in my body while a spiritual battle between good and evil quickly ensued in my mind. Should I give in to the work of the devil by revelling in my lust? Or should I turn away and pray for God to heal me of my struggle with homosexuality?

Not happily, I forced myself to shift my gaze to the floor. My face was flushed with shame and guilt. I knew, however, that my ex-gay brothers and sisters would support me in my efforts to avoid the “homosexual lifestyle.” The leader of my ex-gay group would understand my struggle because everyone is tempted to engage in sin, but the choice can be made to resist it. Homosexuality was my cross to bear, I thought then, but I had faith that God would look favourably upon my pursuit of sexual wholeness.

That moment on the bus was typical of my life while I was a member of an ex-gay group at Burnaby Christian Fellowship, under the guidance of Frank Shears (who eventually came out as a gay man but has since passed away) and Marjorie Hopper (who continues to be involved in ex-gay ministries).

As silly and rhetorical as all of this might sound to self-assured homos, such are the beliefs of so-called ex-gays. In a new book entitled, Anything But Straight: Unmasking the Scandals and Lies Behind the Ex-gay Myth, Wayne R Besen illustrates the ways that ex-gay leaders ensnare self-loathing gays and lesbians into believing that being a homo is a choice made from spiritual deficit or emotional trauma, and that healing-that is, becoming a hetero-is available through the righteous path of Christianity.

It would be too easy to write off ex-gay ministries, most notoriously Exodus International, as spiritually extremist or kooky.

Ex-gay ministries have sprung up all over North America since the late 1970s in reaction to queer social visibility and the political gains of legislated equality. These ministries are funded by large and politically powerful rightwing organizations in the United States, such as Focus on the Family and the Christian Coalition. As Besen describes in detail, ex-gay ministries purport to have high “success” rates in changing queer orientation to straight, but consistently fail to produce reliable data to support these claims.

Ex-gay leaders, themselves, fail to demonstrate their claims of adhering to heterosexuality, in spite of testimonials to that effect and lifestyle choices such as hetero marriage. The scandal at the centre of Besen’s book is that of former ex-gay poster boy and former board chair of Exodus International, John Paulk, who enjoyed brief and minor national celebrity because he claimed to have “prayed away the gay.”

In 2000, however, Paulk was sighted and photographed in a gay bar in Washington, DC. Although this incident generated much press coverage and eventual disciplinary action against Paulk by Exodus, Besen describes such clandestine excursions as typical of ex-gay participants. Even the founders of Exodus International eventually came out publicly as lovers, even though each had previously been married and had extolled the virtues of heterosexual conversion.

The Paulk scandal, among others, begs the question: what does it mean to be “healed?” Does it mean that a person is entirely heterosexual in behaviour, fantasies, and desires? Probably not, as Besen points out. To subscribe to ex-gay beliefs is merely to change one’s behaviour, not one’s orientation.

Besen briefly gleans, but does not fully explore, the notion that ex-gay ministries focus on changing sexual orientation, but are more fundamentally concerned with fostering conformity to gender stereotypes of men and women, stereotypes that necessitate heterosexuality. Regardless, “healing” of a homosexual orientation is a red herring simply because there is nothing to “heal,” as any self-respecting homo knows.

Scandals aside, ex-gay leaders and their fundamentalist Christian supporters know that ex-gay testimonials and anecdotal evidence are not sufficient to support their “love the sinner, hate the sin” enterprise. Consequently, they rely upon more convincing, though highly flawed, scientific research that posits homosexuality as an illness that can be reversed. Although the American Psychological Association (APA) removed homosexuality as a category of mental illness from their inventory in 1973, a minority of psychologists continues to conduct research that endorses so-called “reparative therapy” for queers. These might include counselling to dredge up childhood traumas presumed to be the “cause” of homosexuality, and even aversion and electroshock therapies.

The APA has soundly and consistently discredited the methods and ethics of these psychologists. Nevertheless, organizations such as the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH) continue to disseminate bigotry in the guise of science. Anti-gay rightwing organizations circulate with enthusiasm these dubious and harmful research “findings” among fundamentalist Christian organizations and ex-gay ministries.

Anything But Straight is a thorough examination of the links between ex-gay ministries, research on reparative therapies, and conservative “family values” politics, including a detailed history of these movements. Even though his historical overview is male-centered, the result is that Besen successfully turns ex-gay logic inside out. Ex-gay ministries, he points out, purport to be based on scripture, yet consistently rely upon the pseudo-science of reparative therapy. Are ex-gay leaders suffering a crisis in faith? Yes, argues Besen. Answers and political clout are therefore sought through the “golden calf of pop psychology.” Apparently, faith and prayer of ex-gay enthusiasts are insufficient to change their sexual orientation.

Canadian readers might be tempted to believe that the nonsense of ex-gay ministries is solely an American phenomenon. Doing so would be a mistake. Although centered in the United States, ex-gay ministries thrive in Canada and are supported by conservative organizations.

Anti-gay activists presume that homosexuals should turn away from their alleged unhealthy lifestyles, for the betterment of society. This year in Toronto, David Mainse, long-time host of the Christian television program, 100 Huntley Street, resigned so that he could devote more time and energy to oppose same-sex marriage legislation in Canada. He believes that homosexuality can be changed through prayer and repentance.

Unlike these religious leaders, Besen predicates his analysis on the notion that one is born gay or lesbian, which is the implicit assumption of equality rights advocates. Such an argument has political clout but has yet to be scientifically established. The political message of organizations such as Exodus and NARTH is that gays and lesbians do not need equal rights because it’s possible for them to change their sexual orientation. Besen engages in and perpetuates the tired, worn-out nature-versus-nurture debate. Like many queers, he assumes that scientific validation will result in increased acceptance of homosexuality in society. Maybe so-but probably not. Members of visible minorities, for example, might argue that biology has not automatically fostered inclusion and acceptance for them in larger society. Besen’s fundamental assumption, then, is quite naïve.

Rather than perpetuate assumptions about biological or genetic determinism of sexual orientation, Besen might have presented a stronger argument against anti-gay activists who claim that homosexuality is a choice.

He might have said, So what? Even if one chooses to be queer, why should that necessarily result in social, political, and legal invisibility? Why does legal equality with heterosexuals pivot on biological and genetic determinism? Why is choice implicitly presented as somehow bad?

Though acknowledging that choice is a political football, Besen does not address the issue beyond the argumentative nature-nurture duality. Choice is much thornier issue than Besen acknowledges. I’m not arguing that queers are not born lesbian or gay; I’m stating that arguments about biology and genetics are unnecessary and unconvincing (not to mention male-biassed). I’m suggesting that choice is perfectly okay, unapologetic, and politically effective.

Though focussed on social movements and the politics of the US (especially concerning gay men) and built upon one-dimensional assumptions about choice, Anything But Straight is a significant and important commentary on the controversies, false-promises and scandals of ex-gay ministries.

* Author Besen will be reading at Little Sister’s on Mar 17 at 7pm.


Wayne R Besen.

Harrington Park Press.