By Bruce L. Gerig
A few years ago, a gay Eastern Orthodox priest friend of mine contacted Encourage, a Catholic group for parents and friends of "ex-gays" here in New York, just to see what they were offering. Later, he was astonished to receive in the mail 230 pages of ex-gay literature, including articles by psychiatrists calling gays "sick" and offering them "hope for healing," testimonials by numerous gays who described how God was changing them into heterosexuals, and lists of many ex-gay groups around the U.S. to contact (with names like Courage, Desert Stream Ministries, Exodus, LIFE, Love in Action, New Creation Ministries, New Directions, Regeneration, Set Free, and Transformation).
This was all such an eye-opener that I xeroxed a copy of the whole pile for myself. One page that caught my eye was titled "Myths Regarding Homosexuality." It described how (1) gays are not born that way, (2) the gay life is miserable, (3) homosexuality is not an option for the Christian, and (4) homosexuals can change. All of these statements sounded skewed to me. First, an increasing number of scientific studies suggest that prenatal (genetic and hormonal) factors may play a major role in forming sexual orientation. Second, the Lord has given me the assurance that he loves and accepts me as a gay person and my life has been blessed in the Lord; and I know many other similar gay Christians. Third, the view that the Bible condemns all homosexual behavior has been shown by modern scholarship to be an exaggerated and questionable interpretation (see "The Clobber Passages: Reexamined" on www.epistle.us – or request a booklet from the editor). Fourth, Ralph Blair (of Evangelicals Concerned) in an early report (1982) on the ex-gay ministries described in detail the many defections (including leaders) and closings of groups and descriptions of the heartbreak and despair of gays who went through the ex-gay experience but never saw any change.
new report on the ex-gay ministries has appeared, Anything but Straight:
Unmasking the Scandals and Lies Behind the Ex-Gay Myth (2003), written
by Wayne Besen of the Human Rights Campaign in Washington, DC. One of Besen's
responsibilities was to monitor the ex-gay ministries; and so during a four
year period, he visited different ex-gay groups undercover, attended national
conferences, interviewed many ex-gay leaders, and did other investigation.
In this both fascinating and important book, Besen describes how the ex-gay
ministries began and spread; how they were buttressed by old-school psychiatrists
and far-right Christian counselors; and then how they were hijacked in 1998
by Religious Right leaders who paid for full-page ads in major U.S. newspapers
that displayed smiling "ex-gays" and proclaimed that Jesus Christ
can change the homosexual. Fortunately, this campaign was stopped in its tracks
by Matthew Shepard's tragic death in October, 1998, after which the media
juxtaposed this cover story with hateful quotes from Pat Robertson, Gary Bauer,
Trent Lott, and other homophobes, showing the clear relationship between hate
speech and hate violence.
A look at the beginnings of the ex-gay movement is instructive. The first group, Love in Action (1973), was sponsored by Rev. Kent Philpott of the Church of the Open Door in Sausalito (across the bay from San Francisco). Although he believed that prayer could change homosexuals, insiders later pointed out that the six gays he trumpeted in his popular book The Third Sex? as having been converted into heterosexuals had actually only known the pastor for less than a month before he wrote his book; and, as it turned out, they were anything but changed. (Later, LA was transformed into a kind of deprogramming, live-in center for young gays in Memphis, where they attend prayer sessions and behavior modification classes, and live under constant surveillance.) At Melodyland Christian Center in Anaheim, CA, "former homosexual" counselors Michael Bussee and Gary Cooper helped found Exodus International (1976), which would become the umbrella organization for ex-gay groups (now numbering over a hundred). Bussee and Cooper did a lot of traveling, thrilling church audiences with their charisma and testimonies – until finally they realized that they could no longer deny their desire for each other; and so in 1982 they left EI to marry each other. The second largest ex-gay ministry, Homosexuals Anonymous, was founded by Colin Cook (1979), who convinced the Adventists that he had changed himself into a heterosexual by using a 14-step method modeled after Alcoholics Anonymous; so they gave him money to start an ex-gay ministry in Reading, PA. Soon, however, rumors began circulating that he was bear-hugging his initiates for up to ten minutes, rubbing his genitals against them, giving nude massages, and leading mutual masturbation sessions. His Adventist funding ceased; but undeterred, Cook resurfaced in Colorado, opening a new ex-gay ministry – until again his "unorthodox methods" (as he called them) were exposed by the Denver Post. Actually the problems seen in the early days (shoddy "research," dishonest reporting, "ex-gays" who aren’t, sloppy terminology [e.g. for "ex-gay" and "change" or "cure"], unqualified counselors, and questionable techniques) would continue to plague the ex-gay ministries.
Freud never believed that homosexuals should or could be "cured," but after the center of psychiatry moved from Vienna to New York after World War II, it took on the ultraconservative values of 1950s. A study by Irving Bieber in 1962 of his homosexual psychiatric patients popularized the idea that most gays had overbearing mothers and distant fathers and grew up as sissies, while Charles Socarides promoted the idea that the "happy homosexual" was a myth. (Socarides' son, Richard, who is gay, later “came out” and served as a liaison for the gay community in the Clinton White House.) The contemporary center for this view now is NARTH (National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality), founded in Encino, CA, in 1992 by Joseph Nicolosi, Socarides, and others. Their theory is called "reparative [from 'repair'] therapy." Nicolosi, a strict Roman Catholic and graduate of a storefront school of psychology near downtown Los Angeles, holds that everyone is born to be heterosexual, although heterosexuals can have a “homosexual problem.” The cause of homosexuality in men occurs when a small boy (between 2-1/2 and 3 years) reaches out to his father and feels rejected; he then gives up his natural masculine strivings, thinking “I’m not good enough to be male” and develops a “defensive detachment" (homosexual identity). Lesbianism, on the other hand, derives from (1) a poor mother-infant relationship, (2) over-identification with the father, or (3) male sexual abuse. Healing can come in psychotherapy and as the gay-identified person learns how to make emotional but non-sexual attachments with others of the same sex. Actually, parents should exaggerate with their children that being a guy is great and being a girl is not so great. More recently, Nicolosi has acknowledged that in most cases the homosexual attractions will rarely, if ever disappear – although he has also variously claimed a "cure" time averaging 2 years, 6.7 years, and "a long-term process." There are probably some grains of truth in reparative causation theory relating to some cases, but this theory does not account, for example, for twins who grow up in the same emotional and social environment, but one turns out to like guys and the other girls; nor does it account for athletes who are gay or for effeminate men who turn out heterosexual, and so on. Sex and gender are just so much more complicated. Also, the reparative therapists discount any prenatal influences, which clearly play a role in sexual development and orientation formation.
Various techniques employed in reparative therapy include Christian conversion, prayer for healing, prayer for demon-deliverance, Christian counseling, secular psychoanalysis, antimasturbation prayers (Let this creative energy flow not to the right hand nor to the left…), determined faith and will power, behavior modification (e.g., snapping a rubber band on your wrist when you start to have a sexual thought, to remind youself to stop), touch therapy (to learn how to touch persons of the same sex without sexual content), and aversion therapy (Tod LoRusso still remembers the horror he felt when his psychologist hooked his arms up to wires and his genitals to a penile plythysmograph, then was given electric shocks that made his arms jump while he looked through a nude-male magazine).
When one talks
to ex-gays or ex-ex-gays, one begins to doubt the effectiveness (and even
sanity) of reparative therapy. When Ralph Blair asked Roger Grindstaff, an
ex-gay who worked with Teen Challenge, if he knew of any homosexuals who were
becoming heterosexual through the ex-gay ministries, he became infuriated
and said, "of course not, I don't know of any." He went on to explain
how all the churches wanted to hear were tales of total reversal, and so that
was what he was going to give them. (Blair, p. 18) Brent Almond described
his years in the ex-gay ministries as "dispiriting." He said, "Everyone
seemed really unhappy," and people kept disappearing, falling "back
into the lifestyle." Scott Melendez was encouraged at Homosexuals Anonymous
in Tucson, AZ, because one leader said that he had become completely heterosexual;
however, later he learned that this man had left HA to live with another man.
"I didn't see any graduates," only people "still struggling,"
said Melendez. "Mike," after he became an ex-ex-gay, was surprised
one evening while cruising in a bathhouse to run into his old reparative therapist.
When Besen attended the Exodus 2001 annual conference, he was "hit on"
numerous times by other men, who wanted to become his "prayer partner"
– while homely men there couldn't find anyone. LoRusso, a long-time
patient of Nicolosi, noted that "Relationships went on outside the group
… whether it be friendships or some guys, you know, would fool around
a little bit [with] kissing, or some guy wanted to fondle the other guy or
like that." (Besen, pp. 35-39, 152)
Wiser and kinder counsel comes from Christian psychiatrist Ruth Tiffany Barnhouse, who wrote that most homosexuals who come for treatment cannot "be converted to the heterosexual adaptation." Moreover, ex-gays who cannot change should not be forced into celibacy, for this "is not possible for everyone without crippling themselves in other ways, and it is unreasonable and cruel to demand it." Those who cannot change or abstain should seek "to express their sexual nature in the most stable, responsible, and loving forms of which they are capable." (Barnhouse, p. 152; see Blair, p. 28) If one is still not convinced that all of this matters, one should remember the story of one gay man in New York City, who after hearing an anti-gay sermon on the radio wrote to the minister describing his loneliness and inability to live a celibate life. When he received back word that he must be content that God's "power and strength have been made available for your need [to abstain from this 'sin']," he went out and threw himself in front of an oncoming subway car, in total despair.
Barnhouse, Ruth Tiffany, Homosexuality: A Symbolic Confusion, 1977.
Besen, Wayne R., Anything but Straight, 2003.
Blair, Ralph, Ex-Gay, 1982.
Nicolosi, Joseph, Report on his presentation at a recent Focus on the Family conference on youth and homosexuality;
Packet of material on ex-gay ministries and reparative therapy, received from Encourage in July, 1998
© 2004 Bruce Gerig
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