Most people cannot quite rid themselves of the sense that controlling the sex of others, far from being unethical is where morality begins.
Ex-Gay Ministries are religiously-linked organisations that claim to be able to cure same-sex desires. For those members of the queer community who are hounded by their own perception of right and wrong and a fear of a stigmatised group that they simply cannot shake, a ‘cure’ might seem incredibly appealing. Unfortunately, these individuals are often the ones who most need to be embraced by the queer community. Confused and racked with guilt, they stumble into organisations that believe wholly in the standardising and normalising of an individual’s sexual identity.
In 2007, I attended Love In Action (now called Restoration Path) – an ex-gay ministry in Chicago. I was not misguided or confused, I was simply interested in how exactly an organisation might be able to alter sex and ones views of sex; essentially I went along and made up a pretence as to why I hated being homosexual. I decided to undertake the programme having read Wayne Besen’s book Anything But Straight, which widely discredits the ex-gay movement’s ‘success stories’. The programme consisted of a number of steps that are designed to help you overcome desire in general, rendering the individual sexless or part of the ‘third sex’.
Attending a meeting is much like going to Alcoholics Anonymous or Weight Watchers; you admit you have a problem, try and find the root of the problem and then abstain from the outcomes of that problem – drinking, eating, or in this case, same-sex desire.
Imagine the film But I’m a Cheerleader, take away the pink and blue set, the whimsical characters and the extreme parodies and that is what an ex-gay ministry is really like. The characters cite the various roots of their same-sex desires:
- my mother got married in pants,
- too many locker room showers with the varsity team,
- all girl boarding school,
- I was born in France,
- my mom let me play in her pumps,
- I like ball games.
The group focused on gender attributes like these as markers of sexuality; if a man is effeminate then he must do manly tasks and play sport, if a woman is masculine then she must learn to dress properly and apply make-up. The belief is that by abstaining from sex all together and acting ‘straight’ you might just transcend desire all together. Failing this, then at least heaven still awaits you.
Whilst there were humorous aspects to such a ludicrous experience, there was also an overwhelming sense of sadness. Many of the attendees of the group had gone through suicide attempts, used drugs and self-harmed. Wayne Besen recalls an encounter with one lesbian:
I prayed endlessly, I even fasted for days at a time. But this did not make me straight. It just made me a hungry lesbian. But when you were brought up in the church, you believe what you have been taught – no questions asked.
A former ex-gay and southern Baptist Minister, Jerry Stephenson said:
These people were in denial – like I was – because they have to be. They think God will hate them, the church will forsake them, and they will rot in hell. That’s a pretty big burden to carry and it almost drove me to suicide.
The movement began in 1973 when John Evans co-founded Love In Action in San Francisco, the world’s first ‘ex-gay’ ministry. From its founding, the Ministry has been plagued with scandal. Unable to change and in a moment of desperation, Evans best friend Jack McIntyre committed suicide which led Evans to publicly denounce the methods of ex-gay ministries as dangerous and fraudulent.
There are endless stories of the duplicitous nature of the ex-gay role models. Gary Cooper and Michael Bussee, Californian Ministers and founders of the original ex-gay conference and the global ex-gay group Exodus are now in a civil partnership and have apologised for the harm they caused in the 70s and 80s. Kent Philpott’s book The Third Sex, in which he cites six ‘cured’ ex-gays and their stories, has been discredited as the facts appear to have been falsified. John Paulk, poster child of the conservative right and the ex-gay movement, was caught soliciting sex in a gay bar in Washington DC in 2000. Michael Johnston, the star of the Truth in Love television campaign, stepped down after allegedly having sex with men he met on the Internet. He has since moved to a residential sex addiction facility in Kentucky.
A lot of these former ‘role models’ have gone on to form ex-ex-gay ministries which deal with the psychological effects of coming through the ex-gay system. Whilst conservative in stance, these groups try to teach people how to come to terms with their sexuality and lead fulfilling lives.
One might think that with such overwhelming evidence against the ability of any organisation or individual to change another’s sexual orientation, that ex-gay ministries would be a thing of the past. Unfortunately, to this day, Exodus has grown to 100 Ministries which have international branches. The ex-gay word has hit Ministries in the UK, inspiring groups like Core Issues - who were responsible for the ex-gay ad campaigns on buses in the last year. The ex-gay movement has now spread to Africa with groups like Homosexuals Anonymous holding meetings across the continent in an aim to ‘save the youth’ of Africa before they ‘fall victim’ to queers.
The continued interest in such groups is derived from the perpetuating shame and stigma that is still inflicted upon the queer community. The only response is to continue to present a positive view of LGBTQ lifestyles in the media and in public, so as to provide an alternative view to those who fear their own identity and stamp out homophobia and bigotry once and for all.