Monday, July 09, 2007

Surviving ex-gay ministries

Two Saturdays ago, June 30th, I attended the Ex-Gay Survivor Conference which met at the UC Irvine campus over the weekend. It was the first conference for people who had been through ex-gay ministries and survived, as they put it, who had joined with soaring hopes and left without having experienced the promised change in their sexual orientation. After listening to people's stories all day and then spending a week reflecting upon what I learned, I came away with a picture of what many of these people's ex-gay experiences were like.

If you've ever been involved with a local church, denomination, or parachurch ministry where you met impressive, committed, caring people who seemed to have cornered the market on godly living, whom you ached to be a part of because you wanted your life to look just like theirs, then you can understand why people who are desperate to change their sexual orientation would sign up in droves for ex-gay ministries, turning control of their lives over to "experts" who promise to work a miracle.

A great deal hinges upon the dream of becoming heterosexual. Maybe you are trying to save your marriage. You tried to change on your own by marrying an opposite sex partner, but it's been 15 years and nothing's happened. Your spouse is threatening a divorce if you don't go through reparative therapy, and a divorce means you'll never see your kids again. Your spouse will see to that, unless you can become hetero.

Maybe Dad and Mom would allow you to set foot in their home again. Or maybe you can save Dad from the guilt he feels for "causing" your homosexuality (as the NARTH theory goes) because he was an "emotionally distant" father.

Your church would accept you again. Perhaps they are threatening to discipline you unless you change your orientation. Or maybe you never told anyone about being homosexual and you hope you never have to, if you can change.

So along comes the ex-gay ministry, ready to receive you with open arms. In a world where your straight family and friends reject you for being gay, and your gay friends scoff at you for being Christian, you've never felt more welcome, more hopeful about the future. The leaders give glowing testimonies, although they are a little sketchy when it comes to the critical part about having actually changed from homosexual to heterosexual. Mostly people attest to some measure of changed feelings, and some have turned their life around from addiction and promiscuity. Some even have a smiling spouse and beautiful kids to show for it. Everyone seems so sincere and genuine, everyone claims to be making strides toward the goal, and there's no reason to doubt what they say. Plus you're making all sorts of friends with other gay Christians who are in the same boat as you, sharing the same goals and high hopes.

With all the godly prayers, encouraging Christian fellowship, and claims of the Holy Spirit's healing power all around you, there isn't much incentive to be completely honest about how little progress you are actually making as the months and years go by. There was already a lot at stake when you first started the program. But now in addition to all that, you risk being marked as a failure amidst the only group of Christians that ever loved and accepted you, if you admit you aren't changing.

So you keep silent. Your friends do too, fellow members you bonded with during the program. Eventually one person leaves, another abandons her faith, someone else commits suicide. Each is spoken of by the group as a sad anomaly who didn't try hard enough, pray hard enough, believe completely enough, or maybe wasn't even saved in the first place. There is a sense of relief, too, since the allegedly less-committed ones were threatening to weigh the rest of the group down. No one wants to bear that shame, so everyone hunkers down, puts away their doubts and keeps quiet about the extent of their ongoing struggles with homosexual thoughts and desires. Until something gives.

Hearing these stories, what I came to see was the crushing pain of people being forced to come out of a second closet, and experience a second, more devastating rejection. It was bad enough the first time to have to admit to themselves, and perhaps to others, that they were homosexual. But then after they were deep into the ex-gay ministry, where they were supposed to find hope and work toward a "cure," they had to go through another hellish maze of self-examination where they were at last forced to admit that reparative therapy had not made them straight. And in the ex-gay, support-group atmosphere where everyone is so emotionally invested in the hope of their own orientation change, such a disturbing admission often led to swift and severe repercussions. The person who was once rejected by straight family and friends, then by non-Christian gay friends, now finds himself cut off and ostracized by his ex-gay friends. It is the final humiliation, and some simply don't survive it.

Those who do survive it, well, they call themselves survivors. Ex-gay survivors. And now you know what this conference was all about.