So what are these programs? Are they havens for wounded people exiting a self-destructive lifestyle? Cruising grounds for self-hating, hypocritical predators? Places to heal from past hurts, or places where teens are indoctrinated into shame and despair?
From what I can tell, ex-gay ministries can be all of the above, to different people in different situations.
What they aren’t is what many conservative evangelicals seem to want them to be: the ultimate answer to the gay-rights movement. The groups’ problems are deeply embedded in their self-understanding.
Even some who consider themselves “ex-ex-gays” acknowledge that the programs help some people. Joe Riddle, who spent five years in the Mormon ex-gay group Evergreen, told me, “I definitely think the ex-gay choice is valid, and for some people it truly [works].” But, he added, “I think those people tend to drop out of the ex-gay groups and fly solo. The people who make it work are the people who do it on their own and depoliticize it.” And in his experience, such people were few: “I only met two people who shared convincing stories of [change of sexual orientation].”
The ex-gay movement attempts to bring psychoanalytic techniques into the service of Christian ministry. Many of the conference speakers — Joseph Nicolosi of the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality was the most insistent — proclaimed that there were several types of homosexuals, due to a small set of identifiable, fixable traumas. (I noted that I fit many of Nicolosi’s criteria for a “pre-homosexual” boy – imaginative, theatrical, lonely, quick to internalize criticism — but only a strained interpretation could fit me into any of his categories for lesbians.) This leads to easily-disproved statements like Nicolosi’s claim that gay men don’t remain friends after they stop being sexually interested in one another, because if they had strong, non-sexual male friendships it would “heal their homosexuality.” Some men with same-sex attractions find that Nicolosi’s categories and prescriptions fit them very well — I spoke with one man, who wished to be identified as “Frank,” who said he’d gained a lot of insight through work with a Nicolosi-inspired therapist. But he added that he had not yet experienced any change in his sexual orientation.
During the entire nine hours of the conference, none of the speakers I heard discussed how to live chastely while experiencing same-sex attractions. The focus was entirely on the goal of switching sexual orientations.
Mike Haley, the director of gender issues for Focus on the Family and probably the speaker at the conference with whom I disagreed least, told me afterward that one small-group session had discussed chastity. “We don’t want people to believe that change means you have to be married and have to have kids,” he said, and then added, “The opposite of homosexuality isn’t heterosexuality, the opposite of homosexuality is holiness. We’re not trying to create people from homosexual to heterosexual.” These statements don’t line up with what I heard at the conference; but it’s much easier to be nuanced in one-on-one conversations than in lectures to big audiences.
Haley argued that the “origin stories” of homosexuality offered by Nicolosi and others “almost always ring true. With 12 years of involvement in the gay community I never met a homosexual man who had a positive relationship with his father at the ages of 8, 9, or 10 years old. All I can go by is my experience with the hundreds and hundreds of men I come in contact with who say, ‘Oh, you just told my story.’”
Lance Carroll, who spent eight weeks at a Love in Action program last year (when he was 17), strongly disagreed: “I don’t fit their stereotypical homosexual background. …I had a good relationship with my father.” He described his experience with Love in Action as “horrendous,” recalling “group activities where one person was singled out and made to associate shame with something homosexual that they had done. This was done many times for each person, in an attempt to condition you to believe that being homosexual was shameful. Other ‘therapies’ included isolation, where you wouldn’t be allowed to make eye contact, much less talk, with any of the other participants; making the women wear skirts and makeup to help them become more feminine; and making the men play sports in an attempt to help them become more masculine.”
Peterson Toscano, creator of a performance piece (“Doing Time at the Homo No Mo’ Halfway House”) based on his experiences as a self-described “ex-gay survivor,” spent 17 years seeking to change his sexual orientation. Toscano recalled that in the ex-gay programs, “I felt very much cared for and comforted in my struggles. In the midst of it, it didn’t feel like something horrible was happening.”
Nonetheless, he said, “The vast majority, and I am not exaggerating, of the scores and scores of people I know through these organizations, are out now, accept themselves as gay, and look back on that time as very traumatic and difficult. …Many of them have walked away from God and any sort of faith tradition because they were so disappointed — they’d been lied to over and over again by people speaking in Jesus’ name.”
At Love in Action’s residential program, Toscano said, “You could not spend more than 15 minutes a day in the bathroom with the door closed — you had to break that time up as best as you could. You were not allowed to wear Calvin Klein [underwear]; they didn’t want us to have facial hair; you couldn’t wear aftershave. It was very controlling. If you were in the early phase of the program you couldn’t be by yourself. You couldn’t watch television, listen to anything but Christian music; you had very limited access to people in the outside world. …The rules were inconvenient; but what makes it worse was the moral stigma: ‘You cannot be trusted.’ It eats away at a person, it’s very detrimental.”
While he was in the program, one of his friends attempted suicide. “Miraculously, he survived,” Toscano said, “but he was ready to put himself out — he was so tired of failing.”
–Eve Tushnet is a writer in Washington, D.C. She blogs here.