The Ex-Gays: Anatomy of a Fraud

Surina Khan. The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide. Volume 7, Issue 3. July, 2000.

“I see the ex-gay movement rising as an answer to the calamity that has hit our nation. The ex-gay movement is a way out of this plague that has hit our families. It’s time to let faith take over … This is the Normandy landing in the larger cultural wars.” ~ Robert Knight, Family Research Council

The ex-gay movement is an international network that claims gay men and lesbians can be “converted” to heterosexuality through submission to Jesus Christ or through secular “reparative therapy.” Although the ex-gay movement is firmly rooted in the predominantly Protestant Christian Right, conservative Catholic ministries and secular organizations make important contributions to the movement and share its vision. Movement leaders assert that a gay man or lesbian can leave the gay life and become a “whole person again”—the person who existed before homosexual feelings appeared.

The most prominent organization in the movement is the Seattle-based Exodus International, an ex-gay referral network of ministries founded in 1976 that now claims more than 100 ministries in the US, Canada, and twenty other countries. Exodus states that its primary purpose is “to proclaim that freedom from homosexuality is possible through the power of Jesus Christ.” Exodus cites homosexual tendencies as one of the many social disorders in a world that has fallen from God’s grace. Choosing to act on these tendencies through homosexual behavior, taking on a homosexual identity, and becoming involved in a homosexual “lifestyle” are considered destructive and sinful, because these actions distort God’s intent for the individual.

Exodus attracted media attention in 1978 when two of its founders, Gary Cooper and Michael Busee, left the ministry after falling in love with each other. Together they went on the talk show circuit in the early 1990’s to tell their story. Busee and Cooper repeatedly called ex-gay ministries a fraud that promote homophobia and self-hatred. They told stories of people who went through the Exodus program and had emotional breakdowns or committed suicide. After interacting with hundreds of people, Busee and Cooper said they hadn’t met one person who successfully changed their sexual orientation from gay to straight.

The lead organization advocating secular reparative therapy is the National Association for the Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH). NARTH was founded in 1992 by Charles Socarides, Benjamin Kaufman, and Joseph Nicolosi in preparation for the 20th anniversary of the 1973 decision by the American Psychological Association to remove homosexuality from its diagnostic manual. NARTH’s statement of policy idealizes heterosexuality as the norm, and the organization clearly values social conformity above the needs of the individual:

Homosexuality distorts the natural bond of friendship that would naturally unite persons of the same sex. It works against society’s essential male / female design and family unit. Yet today children from kindergarten through college are being taught in school that homosexuality is nothing but a normal, healthy option. It is our policy as psychoanalytically-informed individuals to dispel the misinformation that surrounds the subject of homosexuality. Our task is to discuss issues misrepresented by social-activist groups who have portrayed sexual deviancy as a normal way of life. We seek to further the research and treatment of this disorder, while protecting the patient’s right to treatment.

In response to the aggressive marketing of reparative and conversion therapy to both the public and the psychotherapy profession, the American Psychological Association, in August 1997, reiterated its longstanding official position that homosexuality and bisexuality are not mental disorders and therefore do not require treatment.

The Christian Right’s Agenda

Throughout the 1990’s, the Right used ballot measures at the state level and legislation at the federal level in an attempt to deny civil rights legal protections to GLBT people, and to repeal existing laws granting those protections. In the early part of the decade, right-wing leaders vilified gay men and lesbians through their publications as well as through vehicles such as The Gay Agenda, a 20-minute video featuring sensational scenes from pride marches and interviews with homophobic doctors. The Gay Agenda was followed by Gay Rights, Special Rights, produced by the Traditional Values Coalition in conjunction with Jeremiah Films, an organization that specializes in producing videos promoting Christian orthodoxy, conspiracy theories, and apocalyptic warnings. Gay Rights, Special Rights had one explicit goal: to convince conservative people of color that gay men and lesbians were trying to co-opt the civil rights movement in order to secure “special rights.”

For years the Christian Right has used homophobic rhetoric to raise money and recruit followers. “We are at war in America today. … We don’t want our children taught that the sin of homosexuality is an acceptable lifestyle ‘choice,’” wrote Beverly LaHaye, former president and current chairman of Concerned Women for America in a 1992 fundraising appeal. “Young boys and girls must not be taught that for a man to love another man is as normal as the relationship between a man and a woman in marriage.” By picking on a group of people for whom the general public often shows little sympathy, organizers of the Christian Right found a profitable target, a poster child for the so-called liberal attack on the traditional family.

Christian Right organizations are increasingly using the ex-gay movement in their anti-gay campaigns, lending credibility and legitimacy as well as organizational and financial support to ex-gay organizations and leaders. There are several examples of ex-gay leaders and Christian Right leaders working together, often within each other’s organizations:

Focus on the Family hired ex-gay leader John Paulk, a former drag queen and current chairman of the board of Exodus International, to serve as its legislative and cultural affairs analyst.

Focus on the Family’s sister organization in Washington, DC, the Family Research Council (FRC), has provided organizational and financial support to Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays (P-FOX) and Transformation Ex-Gay Ministries in Washington.

Robert Knight, Cultural Director for FRC, sits on the board of P-FOX.

Michael Johnston, president of Kerusso Ministries, which sponsors the annual “National Coming Out of Homosexuality Day,” is also on the steering committee for the National Campaign to Protect Marriage, a Cincinnati-based coalition of approximately twenty organizations working to oppose same-sex marriage legislation.

Tony Marco, a key architect of Colorado’s anti-gay Amendment 2 and author of an influential 1992 paper titled “Special Class Protections for Gays: A Question of Behavior and Consequences,” is also a co-author of John Paulk’s 1998 book, Not Afraid to Change: The Remarkable Story of How One Man Overcame Homosexuality.

In addition, Exodus and other ex-gay organizations get referrals from and maintain close ties to many major Christian Right organizations, including the Family Research Council, Focus on the Family, Promise Keepers, Campus Crusade for Christ, Pat Robertson’s 700 Club, Rev. D. James Kennedy’s Center for Reclaiming America, Concerned Women for America, the American Family Association, Minirth-Meier Clinics, and Coral Ridge Ministries.

Support from high-profile Christian Right leaders has been an indispensable tool in bringing the ex-gay movement to prominence. Donald Wildmon, president of the American Family Association, summarized the importance of a partnership with the ex-gay movement in a press release:

The homosexual rights movement in America is bringing us to a very significant crossroads. Indifference or neutrality toward the homosexual rights movement will result in society’s destruction by allowing civil order to be redefined and by plummeting ourselves, our children and grandchildren into an age of godlessness. A national” `Coming Out of Homosexuality Day” provides us a means whereby to dispel the lies of the homosexual rights crowd who say they are born that way and cannot change.

Many Christian Right leaders advocate what they call “Christian nationalism,” an ideology that seeks to use government laws and regulations to impose fundamentalist Christian values on the entire nation. Rev. D. James Kennedy envisions the U.S. as a Christian nation. “I am sure that only a Christian-controlled country is going to be able to stand up to the impending threat and avert the approaching disaster that our nation is facing.”

Through their well-publicized proclamations on the subject, the leaders of the ex-gay ministries and their Christian Right partners have tried to create the impression that their abhorrence of homosexuality and their opposition to GLBT rights on religious grounds are widely shared by other Americans of faith. This, in fact, is not the case. Just as the ex-gay movement’s methodology and data are rejected by professional organizations of psychologists and psychiatrists, some of its key theological premises are rejected in mainstream religious communities. When the ex-gay movement operated outside the political arena, many religious leaders took a neutral stance. However, its recent marriage to the anti-gay political agenda of the Right brings it into sharp conflict with many religious leaders who publicly support equality under American law for people of all sexual orientations.

Christian ex-gay ministries start with the premise that heterosexuality is God’s creative intent for humanity. That premise is being widely debated among theologians today, and seriously challenged by a number of biblical scholars and religious leaders. Archbishop Desmond Tutu has said: “We make [homosexuals] doubt that they are the children of God, and this must be nearly the ultimate blasphemy.” In 1997 the U.S. Catholic Bishops wrote a public letter on the issue of homosexuality in which they stated, “God loves every person as a unique individual. Sexual identity helps us to define the unique persons we are. One component of our sexual identity is sexual orientation … God does not love someone any less simply because he or she is homosexual.”

In testimony before the U.S. Congress, the Rev. Dr. Herbert Valentine, Moderator of the 203rd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, notes that homosexuality is not a prominent biblical concern:

If you sat down to read what the Bible had to say about homosexuality, you would find it short reading … You have to really hunt for relevant passages. They are not mentioned in the Ten Commandments; … there is not a single statement in any of the four Gospels. Homosexuality is not a big biblical issue. If Jesus had an opinion in this matter, he didn’t express it.

Meanwhile, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations has also weighed in on the subject of homosexuality: “In accordance with the teaching of Reform Judaism that all human beings are created ‘Betselem elohim’ (in the divine image), Reform Judaism … stands in the vanguard of support for the full recognition of equality for lesbians and gays in society.”

Clearly, the premise that heterosexuality is God’s creative intent for humanity is controversial within the religious community. Even more controversial is the second premise of ex-gay ministries, namely that to have a “correct” relationship with God a person must choose a heterosexual orientation. That one’s sexual orientation is voluntary is a minority position among prominent theologians and within denominational bodies. In their 1997 letter, the U.S. Catholic Bishops noted that there seemed to be no single cause of a homosexual orientation and that, in fact, experts commonly believe that multiple factors are involved. “Generally, homosexual orientation is experienced as a given, not as something freely chosen. By itself, therefore, a homosexual orientation cannot be considered sinful, for morality presumes the freedom to choose.”

The linkage of ex-gay ministries with right-wing political groups leads to a third premise: that because sexual orientation can be changed, no civil rights should be accorded to those homosexual or bisexual people who do not become heterosexual. This premise is outright rejected by a majority of Christian and Jewish theologians, ministers, rabbis, and lay people, as well as denominational and interfaith bodies. Mainstream religious leaders overwhelmingly support legislation affirming the rights of GLBT people. Many mainstream churches and religious organizations—including the American Jewish Congress, the American Jewish Committee, the National Council of Churches, the United Church of Christ, and the United Methodist Church—have endorsed the proposed Employment Nondiscrimination Act, which would prohibit workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Opinion polls show that this opposition to discrimination is shared by the congregations. A “Faith and Fairness” poll conducted by the Human Rights Campaign reported:

By a margin of three to one, Christians believe that Americans should be protected from discrimination based on sexual orientation in the workplace. Evangelicals support protecting gays and lesbians from workplace discrimination by an impressive margin of nearly two to one … Most people of faith understand that sincere religious disagreements over the issue of sexual orientation are not grounds for discrimination, and that these deeply felt divisions ought to be checked at the workplace door—just as other religious differences already are.

HRC asked the question, “In general, do you think gays and lesbians should be protected from discrimination in the workplace?”

All Protestants Catholics

Yes 70% 65% 78%

No 23% 26% 16%

Support for equality for GLBT people is widespread within communities of faith. Intolerance also is widespread, but the commitment among the vast majority of people of faith to compassion and acceptance is exactly why political groups that use demonizing rhetoric, such as the Family Research Council, have needed to unite with softer, more pastorally-focused ex-gay ministries. They are looking for a way to push forward their political agenda without looking exclusive or non-compassionate.

Legal Implications

The ex-gay movement poses a significant new threat to efforts to secure civil rights legal protections for GLBT people. Potentially, it is the most damaging manifestation of an ongoing backlash against this community. This backlash has been spawned by heightened media visibility of GLBT people, increased coverage of same-sex marriage, the progress toward passage of the federal Employment Nondiscrimination Act, and the growing number of city and county ordinances outlawing anti-gay discrimination.

The Christian Right has mobilized against these gains with a renewed legal assault on GLBT rights. Their supporters in Congress won passage of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in 1996, which forbids states from granting legal recognition to same-sex marriages approved in another state. DOMA is an attempt to nullify the impact of a ruling in Hawaii, where a Circuit Court judge ruled that same-sex marriage partners are constitutionally entitled to the same legal recognition and rights accorded to heterosexual married partners. The state has filed an appeal to the Hawaii Supreme Court.

The ex-gay movement offers a vehicle for questioning the very reality of GLBT people’s sexual and social identity and, by extension, their claim to civil rights and legal protections. If lesbian and gay people need not be homosexuals, they argue, then civil rights for GLBT people are not required. This is a repackaging of the Right’s “no special rights” theme, which claims that GLBT people are out to get “more” rights than those guaranteed to everyone else, and that somehow these rights would come at the expense of others, notably people of color (whose civil rights are legitimately protected). The “special rights” theme relies on the argument that sexual orientation is not a basis for discrimination and that GLBT people simply want to win legitimacy for their deviant “lifestyle” by putting it on a par with immutable characteristics such as skin color.

The ex-gay movement puts a veneer of Christian caring and compassion onto the “no special rights” rationale, since it purports to offer hope to those who embrace Christ and mend their ways. This argument played a role in the Christian Right’s successful referendum campaign to repeal Maine’s anti-discrimination law in 1998. It was the first time an existing state law protecting lesbians and gay men from discrimination had been reversed. One TV commercial featured several men who said they were “former homosexuals who had been saved by Christ.” Anthony Falzarano of P-FOX led a “Truth Tour,” in which he and other ex-gays held themselves up as living examples of gays who had changed. Their message was clear: If people can leave homosexuality, why should they be protected legally? If they choose to be gay, so be it. In a press release from the Family Research Council heralding the victory, FRC president Gary Bauer paid tribute to organizations involved in the campaign, including P-FOX (Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays).

Meanwhile, at the federal level, the Christian Right has a new tool with which to win over the Republican Party, to wit, that gay men and lesbians don’t need legal protections because their homosexuality is a lifestyle choice, not an immutable trait. Propelled by the Christian Right’s Congressional allies, in 1998 the House voted to deny federal funds to municipalities that require city contractors to provide domestic partnership benefits to same-sex couples. This bill targeted San Francisco, which has such a law, and serves as a warning to other cities considering similar legislation.

The long-term goal of the Christian Right in using the ex-gay movement to convince people that lesbian, gay, and bisexual people can become heterosexual is to create a restrictive legal environment in which equal rights are only accorded to heterosexual men and women. Attacking rights in the legal arena is an important outgrowth of the partnership between the Christian Right and the ex-gay movement and, if unchallenged, could have serious ramifications for the civil rights of GLBT people in the United States.