Ihave never been an ex-gay. I’ve never gone through an ex-gay ministry, or tried an ex-gay program, and never went into a live-in camp where gay men are taught to behave as straight men. Despite all of this, I can say without any hesitation that ex-gay ministries are no good whatsoever. In fact, they present a great deal of harm to LGBT people, especially LGBT Christians.
My lack of participation in an ex-gay camp wasn’t for a lack of desire. Quite the opposite, in fact. During my time of most intense struggle where I wrestled with being both gay and Christian, I lived here in Clarksville, TN. For most of that time, I struggled financially, and the research I did on the closest ex-gay ministry (Love in Action in Memphis) revealed that it would require a significant financial investment, which I could not afford.
I really wanted to do something about my unwanted same-sex attractions. I knew they were there. I just didn’t want them. Because of my fundamentalist belief system (that I held to at the time), I felt like I had to do something. I couldn’t pay for “proper” ex-gay treatment, and I certainly didn’t believe anyone around me had a clue about how to deal with same-sex attractions. In fact, my pastor at the time made that clear to me.
One thing I’ve learned in life is to find people who have gone through the process. Find out who’s done it before, in other words. The old adage rings true: never ask a pauper for financial advice. I knew my friends didn’t understand it. They were all busy chasing women… I mean…. ahem…. courting them. So what’s a financially strapped gay-struggling Christian to do?
Why, buy a few books, of course! That’s the American Christian Way!
I began to read a few books on how to overcome this unwanted same-sex attraction. I read material from Dennis Jernigan and Joe Dallas, specifically. These were men who were on the circuit who were “ex-gay.” They had “left the homosexual lifestyle.” I poked around a few other pieces, and began to notice something very interesting: None of the people who told their stories could say unequivocally that they were free of their same sex attractions. They were still “tempted.” or had to avoid certain situations.
While reading through these books, these stories, and these online testimonies, I began to notice a trend. The men who had all “left the homosexual lifestyle” as “ex-gay,” all had similar stories. When they were in the “homosexual lifestyle,” they were sluts. Big time. I’m surprised they didn’t have their penis fall off. Really. They all talked about their conquests or how many sexual partners they had. Anyone would be saddened by their sordid tales.
But it didn’t represent where I was. I wasn’t a slut. I hadn’t thrown myself at every walking penis I could find. Hell. I was a virgin at the time. None of this represented me, and I certainly didn’t think any of their testimonies had any relevance to my own life. I just wanted to not be gay!
By this time, I was still very much in what I call my “SuperChristian” mode, where I did anything and everything I could to avoid the “gay” thing. I didn’t want to even THINK about the “gay” thing. If I ever saw a hot man (and I was surrounded by good looking, young, Christian men at that time in my life), I would fight to not think about how beautiful they were and how I would have loved to have gotten to know them more, and wonder if they would understand my struggles.
To add insult to injury, I would have my friends ask me my thoughts about masturbation… and tell me how free they were to come to a point that they would just masturbate! That’s exactly what I needed. Struggling gay guy talking to a hot straight guy about masturbation. Can you say, “mental picture?” Yeah. Not a big help in my quest to not be gay.
This went on for a few years until I realized how very alone I was. I could have made the effort to try to work it through in some sort of “discipleship” program, but frankly, I didn’t want to talk about THAT all the time. I just wanted it to go away.
It didn’t go away. Not ever. No matter how hard I tried to ignore it. I came to a point where I had to seriously consider that what I needed was someone who not only understood what I was going through, but would help me to come to terms with who I am.
The one thing I did NOT want was to go through some sort of self-destructive cycle with sexual lunacy. You know the game. Bed anything with a penis and hope I don’t catch something. I’ve seen too many people destroy their lives with that crap, and I had enough self-respect to know that such behavior is not only sinful, but, well, it’s stupid.
I didn’t necessarily want sex. I wanted love. With a man. Sex would have been fun, too.
But I didn’t want to really look for it. I certainly didn’t want to be “gay.”
What I saw in the “ex-gay” circles through their websites and literature was that idea that I’m broken because I’m gay. I wasn’t broken. I was just different. I didn’t see it that way at the time, and the “broken” belief was deep in my spirit. It was a dark cloud that led me into a deep depression. I thought I was broken — and had no idea how to get UNbroken.
This is what the ex-gay legacy did for me. I was the collateral damage. Churches would expect me to go through programs I could not afford. The entire church culture was built around being “broken.” And then there’s the “causation” drumbeat. You know the drill. People are gay because they’re molested as children. People are gay because they have absent fathers. Or overbearing mothers. None of that relates to me.
I was never molested. My mother, while strong willed (what mom isn’t?), is certainly not overbearing. Okay, my dad and I have kind of a strained relationship. But let’s be real. He’s a former football player, a lawyer, and a judge. I’m a graphic designer and illustrator. He likes Garrison Keillor. I like science fiction. He’s a Rush Limbaugh Republican. I’m a Rachel Maddow Democrat. We have nothing to talk about. We have nothing in common. Of course we have a strained relationship. I love my dad. He loves me. We just — well — don’t talk. And that’s okay.
Ultimately, my desire to change was rooted in one simple solution: faith. I needed faith to change. Since my particular brand of faith at the time was within the charismatic community, faith wasn’t just a belief in God, it was a required belief that I would be “delivered.” I would be changed. And if I didn’t get changed, then I didn’t have enough faith. I needed more. More. More.
The fallacy of “more faith”
Once I saw that pattern start to emerge, I realized the fallacy of what it was all about. This is the exact same spiritual superiority that looked down upon me because I am STILL mostly deaf. Since birth. I’ve never been healed. I “didn’t have enough faith” for a miracle. I should have believed more. It’s my fault. I’m the one that’s inadequate. I’m the one who has to have more faith. Better faith.
It was my fault that I’m still deaf. It was my fault that I’m still gay. God can fix me. If I believe. If I have enough faith. You know, people still tell me this crap. “You just need to have faith.” Seriously. After a while, the false condemnation of “not having enough faith” becomes exposed for the manipulative lie that it is.
It’s nothing more than spiritual abuse and witchcraft, quite frankly. I rejected that garbage years ago, and I patently reject it today. There’s no such thing as “ex-gay;” it’s just self-deception. There is no “SSA;” it’s just gay. There is no such thing as “enough faith to change;” it’s just new and creative ways to lie to yourself and those around you.
In fact, the ex-gay “industry” is changing right before our eyes. Exodus itself is in the process of a major rebranding effort. Once Alan Chambers admitted last year that “99.9%” of all people cannot change their sexual orientation, the group went through an immediate upheaval. Leaders within the group began to divide themselves, with some of the more hardline people leaving to form a new group called the “Restored Hope Network.” Exodus, for its part, began to embrace the reality that gay Christians are indeed Christian. RHN, on the other hand, emphatically rejects such a notion as heretical. (Of course, I would counter that if there’s no hope as a gay person, and we know that gays cannot change their sexual orientation, where’s the “hope” they want to “restore?”)
The outright virility of RHN centers around the work of people like Dr. Robert Gagnon, who takes great pride as being the “foremost” expert on why homosexuality is a horrible thing, and the bitter rejection of gay Christians based on his theology. Gagnon was very public about his demand for Alan Chambers to resign. Chambers stayed. Gagnon left. But not without a stinging essay that concluded:
For Clark Whitten (and thus for Alan Chambers) you “get grace,” you understand it, when you can say to yourself that you are free to commit any sin without any consequences in terms of one’s relationship with God. That is what liberty is, he says. But 1 John repeatedly states that if you walk in darkness, keep on sinning as a defining feature of your life, are not keeping God’s commands, love “the world” with its lusts, as a way of life do not do what is right, or hate your brother, you have no partnership with Christ, his atoning blood does not continue to cleanse your sins, you are from the devil rather than from God, the truth is not in you, you do not remain in Christ and God, you are not in the light, the love of the Father is not in you, you have not come to know God, you remain in death and have not transferred to life, you do not love God, and you have no basis for reassuring your heart that you belong to Christ. You are, in short, a liar.
Frankly, the only word that I can think of that adequately describes Dr. Gagnon rhymes with “bass pole.” But I digress.
I don’t think the folks at Exodus are quite at the point of embracing gay Christians fully, but they’ve made quite a bit of progress in recent years. They have been distributing a flurry of clarifications and apologies to various groups, so it’s just a matter of time before the dust settles. I’m also convinced that the leadership — including Alan Chambers and Randy Thomas — are going through a journey of their own. They’re getting a lot of criticism from all sides right now, but they’re also engaging in a lot of conversations. I won’t speculate on where they’ll all end up, but the level of humility that I’ve seen recently is a very good indicator.
I’ve also had some wonderful conversations with Michael Bussee, who was one of the co-founders of Exodus. He and Gary Cooper left the organization after they realized they were in love with each other. Oops.
The rigidity of the RHN, though, is its own trap. These are people who have elevated their doctrines and theology over the people they believe they’re called to reach. As a result, they’re not going to reach anyone but equally-shortsighted parents who don’t want their children to be gay. The likelihood of spiritual abuse in these situations is almost a certainty. My prayer is that anyone impacted by this “network” will eventually find healing.
Being gay and Christian
It took me a few years to come to a point where I can embrace both my gay sexual orientation and my faith as a Christian. I’m thankful that the grace of God carried me through those dark years without the added torture of an ex-gay experience. Even touched by it as little as I was, I still felt the obligation to try. Thank God that He carried me to a place of perfect peace and unity.
One of the old slogans for Exodus is “freedom from homosexuality.” I have freedom. It’s freedom from the lie of self-condemnation. I am not broken. I am whole. I am gay. And I am Christian.
And it’s a wonderful thing.
DAVID W. SHELTON is a graphic designer, blogger, writer, activist, and author of The Rainbow Kingdom: Christianity & The Homosexual Reconciled. He lives in Clarksville, TN with his better half and their many, many pets.