MANY in the LGBTI community who grew up in religious families learnt early on that being attracted to people of the same gender simply was not an option. As they reached adolescence, they realised their sexuality — a natural evolution, not a choice — was not understood by some of the most important people in their lives.
Coming out was not met with open arms and tears of compassion, but with fear and disdain. Many experienced a journey toward acceptance, others experienced complete rejection.
[showads ad=MREC]However, for much of the past 30 years, there’s been another way. It’s called ex-gay.
For most evangelicals, it’s become the primary way of engaging LGBTI people. The theory behind ex-gay claims that people are not born gay but experience harmful influences in their early life that cause them to develop same-sex attraction. Their journey of ex-gay is therefore a journey towards “healing” and heterosexuality.
Ex-gay is seductive for evangelical communities. It’s attractive to Christian parents who can’t deal with having same-sex attracted children. It’s also attractive to Christians who have such an austere view of the Bible that they can’t bring themselves to accept LGBTI people, even if deep in their heart they know their homophobia is causing pain.
It’s most attractive to young LGBTI people who are terrified of leaving their friends and family. The culture of fear around sexuality in some churches means they will conform in any way necessary, believing that homosexuality is an illness and a choice.
Here are 10 things you need to know about ex-gay.
1. Ex-gay is a movement — it’s not therapy
Organisations like Living Waters, Exodus and Liberty were the face of the ex-gay movement for many years. Most of these closed down as society has become more affirming. However, these groups were not the custodians of ex-gay — they were merely manifestations.
Ex-gay will continue to exist because it is first and foremost an ideology built on the premise that homosexuality is a sign of trauma or a disorder. It is a toxic air that LGBTI people breathe in some religious communities. The mental scars incurred by those who walk the ex-gay path are often irreparable.
In February, the Australian Psychological Society (APS) issued an updated position statement condemning ex-gay movements: “The APS strongly opposes any approach to psychological practice or research that treats lesbians, gay men, and bisexual people as disordered [or] attempts to change an individual’s sexual orientation.”
2. It’s not gone away — it’s gone underground
Countless websites, online resources, online support programs, conferences and even radio shows are still available to Australians that contain versions of the ex-gay message. Right now throughout Australia, on couches, in prayer groups, in churches and in counselling practices — often linked to religious organisations — LGBTI people of faith are still enduring sustained mental abuse.
Counsellors and pastoral staff justify this torture believing they are doing “God’s work”. The irony is that many of these so-called “professionals” are struggling to rectify their own homosexual sexual desires. With no regulatory body governing counsellors in Australia and with “pastoral care” circumventing guidelines adhered to by psychologists, it’s easy to see how the ex-gay movement can proliferate unencumbered.
Despite this, almost all former leaders of the world’s largest ex-gay institutions have come forward to renounce the movement or apologise to LGBTI people who have been victims of it. Many have also left opposite-sex marriages and are now in same-sex relationships.
There is no evidence that conversion therapy is successful at changing a person’s sexual orientation from homosexual to heterosexual, although the definitions of bisexuality, sexual orientation and sexual identity have caused much confusion and double-talk in ex-gay circles.
3. ”Haters gonna hate”
Religious groups are able to quickly mobilise and censure people who speak out. Clergy, faith leaders and lay preachers who affirm LGBTI people are marginalised within their own communities.
An example of this occurred following my recent interview with megachurch leader Nicole Conner, which elicited a long-winded response from evangelical group Saltshakers that criticised not just Nicole, but also her husband Mark.
There are six verses in the Bible consistently used to abominate homosexuality. Howerver, the beauty of selectively quoting scripture to reinforce a point is that one can avoid “eating the flesh of your sons and daughters” (Leviticus 26:29), also mentioned in at least six passages throughout the good book.
4. God loves gays
The last decade has seen a change in the language used by ex-gay organisations and churches. Previously denouncing homosexuality outright, the softer “God loves gays” phrase potentially damages more lives than it saves.
By pathologising the homosexual “act”, individuals become confused and conflicted. They experience mental anguish and are told to give their body to God, to be celibate.
Celibacy, enforced or inflicted, is a failed experiment. Just ask the 75 per cent of American priests who have anonymously admitted to having an active sex life.
5. Ex-gay creates carnage
LGBTI people of faith often experience homophobia from their families, churches, schools and/or communities. A hypersensitivity to homophobia leads to internalised fear, expressed through denial, deception, depression and even suicide. It is not just the duress of gay conversion therapy that drives self-harm, but rather the ideology of “gay = damaged” and community rejection.
Forced into leading double lives, people struggling to reconcile their faith and sexuality sometimes engage in sexual risk-taking and delay treatment for STIs. Relationships built on lies ultimately lead to shallow friendships, family breakdowns and crippling shame if outed within their communities.
6. Change is happening
An increasing number of Evangelical and Pentecostal leaders are stepping forward to denounce their churches’ positions and affirm LGBTI people. While these voices are often shouted down among their congregations, they are the change-makers with the power to halt the damage that continues to be inflicted by the ex-gay movement. Many large churches in Australia are currently in the heat of a culture war over this issue.
Governments locally and around the world are also realising the damage ex-gay ideology inflicts upon LGBTI people of faith. We are witnessing legislative and cultural change — both elements essential to the secular and spiritual wellbeing of LGBTI individuals. Sadly though, this change will come too late for lives lost so far.
7. Banning conversion therapy is important but insufficient
Many US states have passed legislation “banning” ex-gay therapy. However, the fine print indicates that these bans only apply to situations where children are exposed to ex-gay through registered therapists. Given the APS has already issued a directive on the matter, and as ex-gay is more common among adults engaging in private unregulated counselling, such legislation would merely be symbolic in Australia. Furthermore, it would not stop the disconnect some feel between their sexuality and faith — nor will it make them feel at home among their churches, at peace with their God and at one with themselves.
Legislation and regulation can encourage faith communities to realise the broader community does not accept their ill-formed position, but understanding and acceptance will only be achieved through a cultural change within the church.
The time is fast approaching for an apology from church leaders for the damage they have caused LGBTI individuals and their communities.
8. Ex-gay is fraudulent
In June, a New Jersey court found the Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing (JONAH) ex-gay organisation was guilty of consumer fraud, awarding plaintiffs over $74,000 in damages.
As part of JONAH’s program, one plaintiff was forced to watch a re-enactment of his childhood sexual abuse while another was forced to publicly undress. These strategies were deemed fraudulent because no evidence existed as to their effectiveness.
Recent legislation in Illinois has implemented these findings and combined a ban on conversion therapy to minors with provisions for civil fraud proceedings.
9. A multi-pronged strategy is required
Several political parties have announced policies to address ex-gay, including Labor and the Australian Equality Party. These focus on:
– Introducing provisions to classify the “gay = damaged” declaration as vilification.
– Investigating the regulation of the counselling industry. At the very least, introducing compulsory clauses in all tertiary counselling education that debunk the ex-gay movement.
– Tighter regulation for media so that independent third-party productions that feature ex-gay messaging won’t receive airtime or government grants.
10. You can help
LGBTI people comfortable in their own skin have a responsibility to ensure those who are not so comfortable are cared for, welcomed and embraced.
There is a need to encourage and support the emerging allies within faith communities. They often experience the discrimination and exclusion that LGBTI individuals experience and it is the battles they fight that ultimately benefit us all, especially those struggling to reconcile their faith and sexuality.
State and federal governments need to know the prevalence of damage that is caused by ex-gay methodologies and ideologies. They need to realise it is more than just a kooky therapy performed by fringe groups — it’s the air many LGBTI Christians breathe in their churches.
Ultimately, it is the leadership of elected representatives that will drive the change required to undo the damage of the past and ensure an inclusive future for all members of society, regardless of their religion, faith or spiritual belief.
**This article was first published in the October edition of the Star Observer, which is available to read in digital flip-book format. To obtain a physical copy, click here to find out where you can grab one in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide, Canberra and select regional/coastal areas.