Pathology of the Ex-Gay Movement

Mark E Pietrzyk. The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide. Volume 7, Issue 3. July, 2000.

It was two years ago, in July 1998, that the religious Right generated a flurry of media attention by placing full-page ads in major national newspapers touting the ability of homosexuals to “change.” The ad campaign, which cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, declared that its purpose was to promote “hope and healing for homosexuals,” and presented a number of leading “ex-gays” telling their stories of redemption.

The campaign was prompted by the controversy over anti-gay remarks made by pro-football player Reggie White and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott. Increasingly defensive about charges that they were promoting hatred and intolerance, religious Right leaders decided that it was time to strike back in the “cultural civil war” (as Pat Buchanan calls it)—but in a kinder, gentler manner. Rather than merely denounce the evils of homosexuality, they decided it was better to launch a positive message offering the possibility of transformation to a healthy heterosexuality.

Such was the promise. However, a closer examination of the ex-gay movement reveals that rumors of the demise of homosexual attraction among “ex-gays” have been greatly exaggerated.

Exodus International is the main umbrella organization for ex-gay groups around the world. It consists of over 100 chapters, though many of these are local ministries run by one person. Recent Exodus national conferences have attracted over 1,000 attendees. The religious orientation of these ex-gay groups is clear—they are all Christian, and for the most part they are all evangelical Protestant groups. Exodus International has announced in its main doctrinal statement, “We believe in the deity of our Lord Jesus Christ, fully man and fully God, only-begotten Son of the Father … Christ offers a healing alternative to those with homosexual tendencies.” For all their rhetoric about “Judeo-Christian values,” Jews who wish to become “ex-gays” while remaining Jewish will find no solace in Exodus.

In fact, there is even some tension between Exodus and its Catholic counterpart, a counseling group called Courage. While the former emphasizes the possibility of change, the latter merely asks its members to live chaste lives. According to the Courage Website:

Courage members are under no obligation to try to become heterosexual, because there is no guarantee that a person will always succeed in such an endeavor. The purpose of Courage is to help persons with same-sex attractions develop a life of interior chastity in union with Christ. If any of our members wish to seek heterosexual development, we will encourage them and stand by them, by helping them to keep the deepening of their Catholic faith and obedience to Christ as their first priority.

The evangelical groups that dominate Exodus stress the importance of faith in overcoming homosexuality, but they also recognize that faith is not enough in most cases to effect a transformation to heterosexuality. Psychotherapeutic counseling, group counseling, and behavior modification techniques are all touted by Exodus as means of changing sexual orientation.

The promise of psychotherapy for changing sexual orientation has been touted for over fifty years, but it has become considerably less popular among mainstream psychiatrists and psychologists in recent decades due to the dearth of verifiable success stories and the declassification of homosexuality as a mental illness. Those therapists who continue to advertise the benefits of therapy as a “cure” for homosexuality—such as Charles Socarides, Jeffrey Satinover, Richard Fitzgibbons, Joseph Nicolosi, and Elizabeth Moberly—have become increasingly allied with religious Right groups and alienated from their professional peers.

Contemporary “cure” therapists generally subscribe to the standard psychoanalytic model, which attributes homosexuality to a pathological family structure—a distant or hostile relationship with the same-sex parent and/or an excessively close relationship with the opposite-sex parent. From this there arises a “gender deficit” in the child such that he or she feels insecure in his or her own gender identity, and seeks out same-sex sexual partners to obtain what is lacking. Therapy is supposed to help the person recover his or her own proper gender identity and thereby shift his or her sexual orientation in the right (heterosexual) direction.

Unfortunately, the criteria for determining whether or not a patient has bonded properly with his or her parents are notoriously vague. It’s a theory that can’t be verified or falsified—which is apparently why the psychoanalytic model still endures. Consider, for example, Elizabeth Moberly’s list of factors which put a child at risk for future homosexuality:

  1. Illness, especially when it involves hospitalization or long-term separation from the parents.
  2. A parent’s illness, which may make the parent unable to care for the young child, which in turn may affect the child’s ability to bond with the parent.
  3. The birth of a sibling, especially when this involves the mother’s absence due to hospitalization, or a conspicuous lessening in the amount of care she gives to the child.
  4. The temporary, prolonged, or permanent absence of a parent.
  5. The separation or divorce of the parents.
  6. The death of a parent.
  7. Adoption, fostering, or living in an orphanage.
  8. Being brought up by a succession of nurses, governesses, etc., i.e., a constantly changing succession of “parental” figures.
  9. Abusive treatment by a parent.

From this, we can conclude that the sole child who’s safe from the specter of homosexuality is an only child who never gets sick, whose parents never get sick, and who receives without interruption the continual presence and affection of the parents. It is not surprising, therefore, that when homosexuals enter into therapy with an eye to a “cure,” they can always recall a time in their childhood when they were temporarily separated or alienated from a parent. This is then latched onto as the “source” of their homosexuality.

In addition to therapy, ex-gay groups employ behavior modification techniques designed to get male homosexuals to behave in a more masculine manner and lesbians to behave in a more feminine manner. The idea here is that making a person more secure in his or her gender will lead the person to develop heterosexual tendencies. For male homosexuals, this means getting involved in competitive sports, such as softball. Lesbians are encouraged to get makeovers to bring out their feminine side. Exodus International also teaches the proper methods of sitting, standing, and walking for males and females, with each gender having its own correct method of comportment.

It is noteworthy that, when asked about cure rates for ex-gay groups, even leading ex-gay spokespersons provide modest figures—figures that begin to look even more modest when we look closely at what constitutes a “cure.” John Paulk of Focus on the Family has estimated that one-third of gays who seek to change will be able to stay straight. Alan Medinger, founder of Regeneration, has admitted that the majority of those who seek a change in sexual orientation will not succeed.

Certain methodological problems in some studies suggest that even the one-third figure is an exaggeration. In the 1970’s, two psychiatrists approached Exodus International in an attempt to measure the success rate of the organization. In response, the leaders of Exodus combed through their files and, rather than select a random sample, pulled out thirty of their best candidates from over 400 on file. Of these thirty, eleven were found by the psychiatrists to have made significant progress in becoming heterosexual. Later, two of the leaders of Exodus, Michael Bussee and Gary Cooper, declared their love for one another and left Exodus. They were two of the eleven “success stories.” To this day, the 1970’s study on the Exodus ministry is cited as an example of how religion can change homosexuals, despite the fact that the actual “cure” rate, at best, was not eleven out of thirty but nine out of 400.

Estimates of the success of ex-gay groups are also confounded by vague and shifting definitions of what exactly constitutes an “ex-gay.” Sometimes it’s defined as anyone who’s no longer engaging in homosexual behavior, or one who has entered into an ex-gay program, even if the person has frequent homosexual thoughts. John Paulk has described the time he was in a live-in program for ex-gays, in which many of the live-ins, including Paulk, had great difficulty overcoming their homosexual feelings. A number of the counselees secretly had gay sex, and Paulk fell in love with one of the men. That did not stop him from participating in an advertising campaign for Exodus, posing for a picture with the caption, “Can homosexuals change? WE DID!” Anthony Falzarano of Parents and Friends Ministries once claimed to have “counseled over 600 former homosexuals.” However, when pressed, Falzarano admitted that this was the number he had provided counseling to—not the number who had actually changed to heterosexuality. In another interview, Falzarano admitted that only about one-third of his 600 counselees considered themselves to be no longer gay.

For many ex-gays, simply labeling themselves as heterosexual constitutes progress in the right direction, whether or not their sexual orientation has actually changed. The self-labeling is part of the leap of faith that they see as necessary to bring about a transformation. John Paulk has described the time he confessed his difficulty in changing his orientation to one of his counselors, an “ex-gay” named John Smid. According to Paulk, Smid told him, “There’s a verse in the Bible that says, `As a man thinks in his heart, so he is.’ Our self-image begins in the mind; that’s where changes really are born … So from now on, you’re not an ex-gay; you’re a man. And not just a man, but a heterosexual.” Consequently, Paulk decided to label himself a heterosexual. As part of this change of identity, he also decided to toss out his designer clothing and gain weight, on the theory that he would look “less and less gay.”

Some “ex-gay” leaders are frank about the immense obstacles to changing sexual orientation, and concentrate primarily on changing behavior. Michael Johnston of Kerusso Ministries, an “ex-gay” who was portrayed in one of the religious Right’s full-page ads in the Wall Street Journal, has dismissed many of the claims for “reparative therapy” made by others in the ex-gay movement, arguing that real change is not a matter of “rational thought or rational discussion” but of divine intervention. In an interview in The Village Voice, Johnston stated, “I don’t believe men and women can go into therapy and come out the other end heterosexual.” In response to the argument that ex-gays are simply repressing their homosexual orientation, Johnston has forthrightly replied, “There is a kernel of truth in what they say, that those of us who have chosen to follow Christ are repressing … What comes naturally to us is not righteousness, it is sin.”

What a “cure” boils down to, then, is simply a change of behavior, the adoption of a new label, or practicing self-control over unwanted thoughts. When one looks at the lives of the most prominent ex-gays, it’s easy to understand why they felt a need to change their lives and acquire the virtues of self-control. The background of many ex-gay leaders shows a consistent record of compulsive and self-destructive behavior patterns. Anthony Falzarano was a former prostitute and self-described “sex addict,” having had over 400 sexual partners. John Paulk was also a prostitute as well as a thief, who had serious problems with drugs and alcohol. Michael Johnston has described his own life as a “revolving door of drugs, alcohol, and sex.” For these ex-gay leaders, abandoning the “gay lifestyle” and acquiring a new life was equivalent to abandoning a compulsion, and they found comfort, purpose, and stability in ex-gay ministries.

Even several ex-gays who describe themselves as recovered admit that their actual preference has not changed. Alan Medinger of Regeneration has forthrightly admitted, “Years after I had left behind virtually all homosexual attractions, and years after a blessed and pleasurable sexual relationship in my marriage, one factor continued to disturb me. If an attractive man and an attractive woman enter a room, it is the man I will look at first.” Still, in the view of ex-gay groups, this does not present a major problem. According to a recent Exodus workshop, ex-gay men make excellent husbands, precisely because they don’t lust after other women. Call this “hope and healing” all you want!