Why Ex-Gay Therapy Doesn’t Work

Stephen Parelli. The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide. Volume 14, Issue 4. Jul/Aug 2007.

Tears coursed down my cheeks as I drove toward my destination. For the first time in my life I believed I had found someone who could help me with my same-sex attractions. I was right on time for the first of the three prerequisite sessions that would allow me to enter the gay/lesbian self-help group. At the close of the first session, however, the counselor waived the remaining two; I was in. For years I had been rigorously practicing all the spiritual disciplines that the group leader advocated. I wasn’t surprised that the counselor had found me more than spiritually qualified: I was a Baptist pastor in my early forties who had observed these principles all my life.

In addition to the regular ex-gay group meetings, I began weekly private phone sessions with therapist Ioseph Nicolosi (I was in New Iersey, and he was in California), which continued for nine months. Nicolosi is co-founder of the controversial National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality (narth). Upon his counsel, I became involved and was initiated into New Warriors, an international straight organization that mentors and brings men together into small groups while employing dynamic, therapeutic methods for healing woundedness. On two different occasions I attended the Exodus International northeastern regional ex-gay conference. On an almost daily basis I networked with an ex-gay leader and with ex-gay clients of Ioseph Nicolosi. I created new friendships with area clergy, opening up to three of them about my homosexual struggles. I worked out at the gym adjacent to my home, often twice daily, and took up tennis lessons. As if all this was not enough I read, meditated upon, and applied all the ex-gay material I could obtain.

“Some day you may be a poster boy for reparative therapy and ex-gay ministries,” my therapist told me. But instead, nine years later, I’m asking whether such a thing as an “ex-gay” person even exists. I know I’m not one. What follows is my personal report and evaluation of the evangelical ex-gay movement as I experienced it firsthand and have come to understand it today.

First, the ex-gay movement’s origins are rooted in traditional cultural norms rather than in serious Bible exegesis or science. Evangelical ex-gay ministries began in the mid-1970’s as a reaction to the burgeoning gay culture on the American scene. While most evangelicals simply denounced homosexuals outright, some decided to embark upon a rescue mission to save homosexuals. Rather than engage in sound exegesis to secure biblical support for their mission, and instead of consulting expert studies in the biological and social sciences, the ex-gay ministries focused on and popularized stereotypical myths about gay people.

Second, their use of psychology is selective and in fact inappropriate for a religious movement that otherwise rejects most of modem psychology’s findings on homosexuality. In stark contrast to their use of biblical texts like Gen. 19 to justify their existence, i.e. their homophobia, the ex-gay leaders shift to the language of psychology with words like “therapy” and “healing,” implying that there are scientific underpinnings to their practices. In point of fact, the entire psychiatric establishment has repudiated ex-gay therapies and renounced the notion that homosexuality is a disorder that should be treated or changed.

And while the movement promotes itself with a promise of “change” and “healing”- words that appear frequently on the cover of books, in newsletters, and on websites- its leaders readily admit that these changes are external and behavioral only, and a closer look at their own writings reveals nuances of meaning. These words refer to behavior and lifestyle, not to sexual orientation as such. “Coming out of homosexuality” is not the same as coming into heterosexuality. Instead, it is at best to enter into a sexual no man’s land. What’s more, as the movement’s leaders repeatedly stress in their writings and conferences, “change” is a lifelong process, so even in marriage the ex-gay person may still desire same-sex relationships.

Ex-gay testimonies of “change” by and large fall into one of two categories. Some ex-gay stories offer such a vague account of their subjects’ sexual desires before the change that it’s fair to say their orientation was probably somewhere on the mid-point of the Kinsey scale, even leaning toward the heterosexual end of the spectrum. The “change” experienced by these individuals is more a matter of suppressing their homosexual side in favor of their dominant heterosexual side. Others who claim to be ex-gay are talking about behavioral or lifestyle changes, not a change in sexual orientation.

Third, the movement maintains a strongly stereotypical view of gender roles and sees the cause of homosexuality as essentially the person’s failure to embrace his or her biological gender. In this account, the boy who fails to embrace accepted masculine traits and interests is rejecting his maleness and will by default fail to bond with his male peers and role models. Due to this lack of male connectedness in childhood, he will in adolescence begin to homoeroticize other males, which may in turn lead to homosexual acts. Thus the ex-gay movement assumes that homosexuality arises because of the boy’s rejection of masculinity and male gender roles. On the other hand, one could just as easily argue that society is rigid and unrelenting in its norms, holding its male and female gender roles as absolutes, so it is society that has rejected and marginalized the boy rather than the boy’s choice to be rejected and marginalized. The ex-gay movement fails to explore this alternate interpretation.

Fourth, honesty is often the missing ingredient among group members at ex-gay meetings. While attending the weekly meetings of an ex-gay group in New Jersey, I remember how surprised I was the first time it dawned on me that members were not being totally honest about their setbacks. I had arranged to meet up with a group member about an hour before the meeting to get a bite to eat and talk. He was twenty minutes late to our rendezvous, and the reason was that he’d been out cruising for men. Now he was racked by guilt, worried whether God could ever accept him. At the meeting that evening, when the leader specifically asked if anyone had had any setbacks during the past week, I was certain my friend would respond. But he said nothing. (By way of contrast, the first time I experienced real honesty among group members was at a meeting of out gay men with my partner-to-be José, who was attending a sex-related twelve-step group in Manhattan almost nightly in order to keep from acting out.)

Fifth, the ex-gay movement makes claims of success that go unsubstantiated. “Over the years, we have seen many lives turned around and have been greatly encouraged by so many individuals who have won the victory and gained a new freedom. We do believe that Jesus Christ is the healer and worker of miracles, and we have seen many of those miracles of change among us.” HOPE, the ex-gay support group of Calvary Baptist Church, Manhattan, makes this extraordinary claim on their website. Yet nothing there substantiates their claim. My domestic partner José and I attended this group’s meeting for eight months in 1997. Never once did the leader introduce or cite a former attendee as an example of “change among us.”

On the contrary, years later we ran into someone at a gay bar that we knew from HOPE who told us he had stopped attending ex-gay meetings. On another occasion, also at a gay bar, another HOPE alum told us he needed to be in the company of gay people. One married HOPE member stayed in touch long enough to inform us he was going through a divorce. Yet another attendee, someone we’ve kept in touch with by phone and in person, goes back and forth between accepting his homosexual orientation and thinking he might some day marry a woman as an answer to his loneliness.

About a decade ago I attended an Exodus northeastern regional conference in Massachusetts. The conference leaders announced a group photo op for all the ex-gays who had been “healed.” This photo would be submitted to leading U.S. newspapers to showcase individuals who had been “set free” from homosexuality. To be in the photo, it was announced, you had to meet one criterion: you had to have gone three years without any same-sex sexual activity. That was it. I wondered, why three years? And why, if it’s a change in one’s sexual orientation, should the measure of success be mere abstinence from same-sex contact? If one is truly “set free” from homosexuality, then shouldn’t one be actively heterosexual? Instead, abstinence was the test, as if having no sex for a three-year period took away one’s gayness.

Sixth, a “realignment of the will” and the regulation of prayer, Bible reading, church attendance, accountability, and so on are all essential tasks to be observed religiously in the unending process of overcoming. Upon learning in ex-gay group meetings that the basic answer to resolving one’s homosexual self was found in one’s personal day-to-day choices borne out of one’s moment-by-moment relationship with Jesus Christ, I had one critical thought: I’ve been wholeheartedly doing that for thirty years, and it isn’t working.

A personal walk with Jesus is, of course, essentially what evangelicalism is all about. And yet, no heterosexual evangelical Christian holds to a “life in Christ” doctrine that translates into universal celibacy for everyone, including all heterosexuals. So it is entirely illogical for ex-gay leaders to argue that a “life in Christ” is all a single homosexual will ever need to live a full and satisfying life. My thirty-year evangelical experience “in Christ” proved just the opposite to me.

Seventh, the ex-gay movement views nonsexual close male relationships as essential for “healing.” “Read this book!” said my friend, a fellow client of Joseph Nicolosi. “Even heterosexual men have ‘male hunger.’ So why is it we’re gay and they aren’t?” I read the book and learned that homosexuals do not have a corner on the market for male woundedness. What can be observed in homosexual adult men as unmet childhood needs for male bonding and intimacy can also be observed to the same extent in heterosexual men. Just as gay men may need healing from childhood wounds inflicted upon them by emotionally absent fathers, so do many heterosexuals. I asked my therapist why my heterosexual brother- only two years and five months younger than me- did not become a homosexual like me. “We’ve both experienced the same kind of wounds from our father,” I stated. I had anticipated his answer from my readings on recovery: “The difference is your brother did not emotionally internalize his wounds, whereas you did.” His answer kept his theory intact but failed to persuade.

By my mid-forties, I was experiencing a chronic need for appropriately affectionate male touch. It was so acute I could think of nothing else. Every cell of my body seemed relationally isolated and emotionally starved. Life was so completely and fatally ebbing out of my being that my internal life-saving system kicked in and put out a highalert call for help. I desperately needed to be held by loving, human, male arms.

My therapist understood my “male hunger.” He understood! I cannot express how much validation and hope I felt when my therapist not only affirmed me but expanded upon the parameters of my request. “Yes,” he said, “José can hold you all through Friday night, into Saturday night, and right through to Monday morning.” I had asked for a single night of holding. My therapist had granted me three days in a row. I reported to José. “I need to be held,” I said. “My therapist agrees it will be part of my healing. I want you to hold me.” José gave a response that I’ve never forgotten. “How much holding is enough?”

José did hold me. For nights at a time, so that my soul and spirit began to come alive again, yet by degrees so minute that one could have wondered at times if the healing process was even happening. But to answer the question, “How much holding is enough?” for me, it was all of five or six years. That’s how long it took! At last I was filled. So, do we still hold now? Yes, continuously, but for me it is more out of being happily coupled than out of childhood yearnings long unfulfilled.

Logically (according to the ex-gay movement’s logic), I should be heterosexual by now. That is, with all my male hunger needs satisfied, my sexual passions should be heterosexual. After all, I have more than eight years of male holding with José, my domestic partner since October, 1997. So now that my male hunger needs have been met, I should by all rights be rushing to find a woman who can satisfy those heterosexual longings that were supposedly there all along.

Human sexuality is a powerful force, and while domestic relationships are also built on understanding and meeting each other’s emotional needs—along with commitment and mutual support and whatever else a given couple might consider- sex is still an integral part of any intimate relationship. The ex-gay movement can talk all they want about the fulfillment of emotional needs, reconnecting with one’s father figure or one’s masculine self, and so on, but in the end they’re left with the stubborn fact of human sexuality, and the fact a person’s attraction to men or women isn’t going to change. At its core, the evangelical ex-gay movement is a countercultural movement that began in the mid- 1970’s in reaction to the sexual revolution and gay liberation.

I believe the church, over time, will regret the day they rode off to save homosexuals from themselves. Eventually, I’m sure the mainline denominations- and even evangelicals, upon a second and full consideration of Scripture—will value civil rights for all gay people without conflict of personal conscience. Mark Twain observed that “The world has corrected the Bible. The church never corrects it; and also never fails to drop in at the tail of the procession- and take the credit of the correction.” Three Christian leaders- Troy Perry (founder, Metropolitan Community Church, 1968), Ralph Blair (founder, Evangelicals Concerned, 1975), and John McNeill (Jesuit author of The Church and the Homosexual, 1976)—questioned the church’s position on homosexuality early on. They are the exception to Mark Twain’s observation. How long before the church at large will hear their own prophets and welcome their own gay and lesbian children?