Our Experiences of the Ex-Gay Movement

Not long ago, a reader emailed us to ask if we would be willing to share in greater detail about our experiences of the ex-gay movement and how it was harmful to us. We’ve referenced this vaguely in other posts because it’s an important part of both our stories, but it has taken us a few weeks to determine our readiness to discuss this topic more specifically. Even some people who know us very well have, up to this point, been unaware of our experiences in the ex-gay world. We’re a bit surprised that only one reader has asked about our histories with this issue because we’ve received a fair number of accusations that because we are celibate, we must be covertly ex-gay. This is absolutely untrue, and we would venture a guess that we’ve experienced just as much pain as a result of these “ministries” as have LGBT people who are sexually active. In the future, we will probably elect to write more on the topic of the ex-gay world. Today, we take our first step towards more open conversation on this matter. The purpose of this post is to initiate discussion on our blog about the detrimental effects of ex-gay ministries upon LGBT Christians.

We’ve decided to structure this post around three general subtopics, but before we get there, we’ll provide you with some background on our individual past involvement with ex-gay ministries. Lindsey joined an ex-gay ministry during college after becoming more aware of Lindsey’s sexuality. Lindsey sought support from ex-gay ministry because Lindsey wasn’t interested in being a cause of scandal for Lindsey’s Christian fellowship on campus. Despite living in a big city at the time, Lindsey couldn’t find many local resources that fit Lindsey’s situation so Lindsey participated in an online forum. The online forum provided a space for young adults to talk about their struggles with same-sex attraction, positing different mechanisms behind the struggles and the victories. In this community, the “opposite” of homosexuality was holiness and members worked very hard at overcoming any areas of sexual sin.

Sarah’s experience did not originate with the intention of participating in an ex-gay ministry. Instead, Sarah was seeking affordable eating disorder treatment resources. Sarah had run out of health insurance coverage and did not have the ability to pay for most professional services due to being a full-time student with limited income. Sarah stumbled accidentally upon a free Christian treatment provider, and was unaware that this provider viewed homosexuality, eating disorders, addictions, and all sorts of maladaptive means of coping with life as the results of demonic possession. When Sarah began receiving services from this provider, Sarah had no idea that “treatment” would focus on attempts to pray away all parts of Sarah’s life that a Christian counselor had deemed contrary to God’s will.

Years after our experiences in the ex-gay movement, we’ve been able to identify three major categories of harm that both of us experienced as a result of being involved with these “ministries.” The rest of this post will provide explanations and examples of those.

Emphasis on certain life experiences and problems as “causes” of homosexuality

According to ex-gay organizations, almost any life experience that deviates slightly from what leaders consider “normal” is a likely candidate for the cause of a person’s sexual orientation. For example, a person’s gender identity is especially suspect as LGB people do not have appropriate understandings of their “true” genders in Christ. Within this framework, a woman who has preferred short hair and jeans to long hair and dresses since childhood likely ended up a lesbian because she was never taught to live into her true feminine identity. The same goes for a man who likes the color pink and prefers dancing over football. Guys are encouraged to see themselves as men of God, embracing a strong masculine identity. When members of Lindsey’s ex-gay ministry got together, the guys would be encouraged to play sports while the girls would be encouraged to explore makeovers. Leaders of this ministry lived in the southern United States where various southern gender ideals were promoted aggressively. This organization’s framework postulated that same-sex desire grew from a perceived deficiency of gender where the same-sex attracted person sought out what he or she was missing from another person of the same sex. Lindsey’s rather ambiguous gender presentation was actively challenged. It was exceptionally hurtful for Lindsey to hear that Lindsey’s stable gender presentation was an active attempt to proclaim LGBT status rather than Lindsey’s natural self-expression.

In ex-gay ministries, a person who has experienced any sort of physical boundary violation at any point in life is said to be deficient in his or her understanding of God’s plan for marriage and sexuality. If a person was ever the victim of sexual violence, leaders of the ministry will insist that the incident was what led that person to “sexual deviance.” There is no consideration of the fact that a large percentage of heterosexual people also have histories of sexual abuse, assault, and rape. People who can’t remember ever having experienced a violation of physical boundaries are urged to try harder at remembering—there must be something that happened in one’s past because according to many ex-gay Christian counselors, “Every gay man or lesbian I’ve ever known has been sexually abused or raped.” For a person who has never had such an experience, repetition of these messages can lead to false memories. For a person who has had such an experience, it becomes impossible to discuss trauma, especially sexual trauma, in any meaningful way because the counselor will always tie it to one’s sexual orientation. Sarah experienced a significant amount of this conflation. Sarah sees Sarah’s own history of trauma as directly related to Sarah’s eating disorder. However, Sarah is confident that this trauma is in no way related to sexual orientation. No matter how much Sarah attempted to discuss trauma within the context of the eating disorder, it was unsuccessful because the counselor’s reply was always something like, “Your experience made you susceptible to demons. The Holy Spirit told me that the demon causing your bulimia will not leave unless you’re willing to let Jesus heal your evil sexual desires.” What usually followed was a spiritually abusive style of free-formed prayer that left Sarah cowering while the counselor commanded the “demons” to leave in Jesus’ name. Sarah’s participation in this unscientific form of treatment not only set Sarah back in terms of recovery, but also left Sarah feeling more stigmatized than ever regarding the trauma.

Manipulation, mind control, and questioning the motives of all actions

For both of us, ex-gay ministries were highly manipulative. Ex-gay ministries assume they know one’s story from the instant one first makes contact. While reportedly trying to help individuals cultivate healthy same-sex friendships, ex-gay ministries frequently insert theories of homosexuality that make friendships difficult. Cultivating appropriate emotional intimacy becomes hard as ministries tout claims of “emotional dependency” as what causes a “normal” same-sex friendship to turn in a necessarily sexual direction. According to this mindset, the only way to determine if one is moving towards “emotional dependency” is to examine one’s motives rigorously and ruthlessly. Lindsey had difficulty having conversations with both men and women as the ministry constantly argued that close opposite-sex friendships should be investigated for marriage potential and that close same-sex friendships needed to be interrogated lest sexual desire arise. Feeling constant pressure to question motives in all these friendships, Lindsey found it easier to remain isolated rather than attempt to build friendships even though isolation significantly fueled Lindsey’s depression. When Lindsey would try to push back on the accepted narrative, Lindsey would be sharply chastised. Eventually, Lindsey’s questioning the ministry’s interpretation of 1 Cor 6:9-11 lead to a rupture in the relationship.

At the time Sarah was receiving therapeutic services from the Christian treatment provider, Sarah frequently heard the message that all problems Sarah experienced in life were somehow related to sexuality. Whether the issue was a struggle to remain behavior-free, a difficult experience in grocery shopping, frustration about relationships with family, or a sense of being overwhelmed by academic work, the counselor found some reason to suggest that the problem would cease to exist (or at least, would not be as serious) if Sarah would only choose to “become straight.” The counselor created visions of an ideal life that Sarah could lead as a “sexually healed” person, complete with a husband, children, a fulfilling career, emotional peace, and financial security. Sarah never actually believed any of this, but because of how ill Sarah had become with the eating disorder before, Sarah felt desperate to find an affordable resource–any resource–that would provide some semblance of tools for wellness. That’s why Sarah continued receiving services from this organization, and despite the best of attempts at getting something useful out of therapy while ignoring harmful messages, Sarah began to feel manipulated and sense that this ministry was trying to gain control over Sarah. Regularly, the counselor would meet Sarah in the most vulnerable of moments with assumptive statements about Sarah’s sexual history, claiming the Holy Spirit had revealed to her that Sarah had engaged in immoral sexual activity just the night before. In reality, Sarah was single and sexually abstinent the entire time. However, that didn’t stop Sarah from beginning to scrutinize and obsess over all of Sarah’s actions. At one point, Sarah had a flashback to a therapy session while admiring the aesthetics of a lovely painting featuring full-figured Roman goddesses in the local art museum.

Spiritual and social consequences for questioning and leaving the organization

Ex-gay ministries do what they do because they portray themselves as committed to God’s work. People who leave these ministries to explore a different sense of their LGBT identities are equated with people who have left Christ, who have not fought the good fight, and who will not inherit the kingdom of God. Leavers are people who have been deceived by Satan and are unable to accept their true identities in Christ. Lindsey left the ex-gay ministry after violating a provision in the code of conduct that members were not to have any unmoderated contact with one another. It should have been a red flag that no amount of adherence to group expectations would have been enough to create an environment of trust. After Lindsey left one ex-gay ministry, Lindsey looked for other options in order to be permitted to continue volunteering at church. But without actively participating in an ex-gay ministry of some kind, Lindsey was unable to do anything in the church because church leaders felt uncomfortable with Lindsey’s involvement in the congregation.

It took a few months for Sarah to see that no possible benefit could be gleaned from continuing to receive counseling services from an organization with such strong ex-gay views. Sarah did not have any other treatment plan in place at the time, but was certain that leaving this resource was the only viable decision. When Sarah first informed the counselor of this, the manipulation intensified in attempt to get Sarah to remain affiliated and continue receiving services. The counselor told Sarah that leaving would bring profound spiritual danger and begged Sarah to pray with her for salvation and deliverance. When Sarah refused, the counselor reminded Sarah of an agreement for receiving a full six months of services that Sarah had signed only three months prior. Eventually when the counselor saw that Sarah would not budge on the decision, she resorted to playing upon Sarah’s worst fear: that leaving would mean giving up hope of ever recovering. “There’s not a treatment facility anywhere in the world that will be able to help you if you’re unwilling to surrender,” she asserted. Sarah did leave and never looked back, but it took a few years to get past the associations Sarah had formed amongst harmful behaviors, sexual orientation, and accusations of being untrue to Christ. Fortunately, Sarah began a relationship with a compassionate spiritual director within Sarah’s own Christian tradition less than a week after this incident. He was able to help Sarah deconstruct the poor theological and psychological claims made within the ex-gay world and encourage Sarah to spend time listening to God.

Our experiences of ex-gay ministry are radically different, yet eerily similar. Lindsey sought ex-gay ministry voluntarily, and Sarah stumbled unknowingly across a ministry with ex-gay ideals. We think it’s important to note that many Christian organizations that do not outwardly claim to be ex-gay have an implicit predisposition to try and force LGBT people towards cisgender, heterosexual norms. The tactics used are highly manipulative and become spiritually abusive far too easily. Under no circumstances do we approve of ministries seeking to help LGBT Christians become straight.

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15 thoughts on “Our Experiences of the Ex-Gay Movement

  1. This post left me angry and frustrated because I completely understand. Thank you for posting this and both of your experiences, Lindsey and Sarah. I use to receive counseling from a ministry (it now runs under a different name and doesn’t use ‘reparative therapy’ language). I was encouraged that once I found the ‘trigger point’ I would be ‘free’ from ‘same-sex attraction’. I did have memories of sexual abuse in my past (this happened outside of the counseling office), it rocked my world, and I began a process of working through it. While I do not throw out all that my counselor helped me work through (there very much was some very positive help), I often struggled with, after reconciling my past and forgiving my abuser, why I hadn’t ‘changed’. I felt like a failure when I started to begin the coming out process. I felt that coming out meant I had given up, or that I had failed. Even though this counselor and the people who suggested I go there didn’t use language like: “Do x+y+z and you will become straight,” this is still the message I received.

    I am still working through the ‘guilt’ of not being able to change. But as a friend of mine once said (he’s gay): “Holiness is not equal to ‘straightness’. We do not pursue ‘straightness’ for holiness, we pursue Christ for he makes us holy”. That thought has helped me continue to move forward and remember to seek Christ first.

    Blessed by your words.

    • Thanks so much for sharing your experience L. Sometimes, it’s great to have a voice who says, “Me too” when we’re trying to put difficult things in our live into words. We’re glad you’re reading.

  2. Explain to me how somebody ends up in one these ministries without knowing it, and if you see what it is and stay there isn’t it your own fault?

    • Kay, I’d be quick to argue that there’s a marked difference between an ex-gay ministry and a Christian ministry that incorporates ex-gay ideologies. When I went on the Exodus website, I was actively looking for an ex-gay ministry. Sarah found a Christian ministry that offered 6 months of free treatment for eating disorders. Sarah was looking for affordable eating disorder treatment. The ministry had a public presence saying they could provide 6 months of free treatment for eating disorders; they did not advertise themselves as trying to turn gay people straight.

      Looking at my own past, I’ve gone to many churches that have had ex-gay ideologies but I wouldn’t have known it looking at the church from the outside. They made no public statement about LGBT issues one way or the other. It wasn’t until I started to hear sermons on marriage and sexuality where it became clear that the church thought God could turn gay people straight.

      People can stay in spiritually hostile environments for all sorts of reasons. It takes a great deal of effort to craft exit strategies. Sarah did actively strategize how to leave this eating disorder treatment provider… it just took a couple of months before Sarah managed to leave.

    • Kay, it’s disturbing that you keep sending such hostile messages to Lindsey and Sarah after they have taken the time to write a thoughtful and vulnerable post. Also, it is not at all uncommon for people to stay in abusive relationships and environments because they feel they have no other option–especially when the abusive party keeps telling them they have no other option. It would really be nice if you could extend some compassion and empathy to Sarah and Lindsey, instead of constantly judging them. If every or most posts you read leave you with such hostile comments, it’s possible that it’s your paradigm that needs examining. At the very least, please consider how harmful blaming the victim can be.

      Peace,
      Olivia

  3. I can completely relate. I am actually in one right now. My support group. The only reason why I’m staying for the last couple of months cos I feel like that’s what God wants me to do. To share my stories with the new ones. Then I’m gone. Cos not all issues I have can be traced back to father/mother issues or sexual trauma in the past. Cos there simply isn’t any. Ah well. I might just start something similar to your blog but for face-to-face contact here in Singapore. 🙂

    • Hi Rachel! Thanks for your comment. It can be so hard to find any community willing to discuss the experiences of LGBT people in many places. We’re glad that you’re getting to share your story, and we hope that God continues to help you bloom where you’ve been planted for this season.

  4. While I have not been directly involved with any ex-gay ministry, nor really even in a spiritual environment that was ever vocal about ex-gay ideology, the echoes of ex-gay theories have nonetheless caused my family hurt as well. It breaks my heart to know that my dear parents, after my coming out, encountered the false notion that they caused my queerness – by raising me wrong, by being too close or too distant or too whatever. I don’t know how or if they are dealing with that very well. I try to let them know that my coming out at all – to myself, to them, to others – is actually a sign that their parenting has been good, that they instilled in me enough confidence in myself to be honest even when it is hard. I hate that parents and families are also subjected to these really damaging messages that can throw doubt on otherwise beautiful relationships.

    • Suzanne, you bring forward a great point about the collateral damage caused by ex-gay ideologies. Thanks for adding your perspective.

  5. Dear Lindsey and Sarah,

    Thank you for sharing your testimonies. I am appalled (albeit unsurprised) at such unprofessional and hurtful behaviour from those who purport to be Christian.

    I fully support the way you are living now, and believe you to be a living a full a Christian life as anyone else who seeks to be faithful.

    I do however have only one concern. The last line in your post states:

    ‘Under no circumstances do we approve of ministries seeking to help LGBT Christians become straight.’

    I tentatively agree because I do not think it is ever a matter of ‘becoming straight’, however I have good friends who have explored a process of ‘change’ and have been supported and helped and have not felt in any way judged including if no ‘change’ occurred.

    I am concerned that as it stands your joint position appears to be that those who had positive and nurturing experiences with either therapy or something similar are in some way to have their stories and experiences dismissed or ignored.

    Definitely I agree that ‘Ex-Gay’ ministries should not be supported if they circumvent safe therapeutic boundaries or follow deeply un-scientific methods, but for those who do want to explore the possibility it seems to me that they should feel they are supported if they feel it may be possible and appropriate, even if others genuinely see it is not possible or appropriate for them.

    Perhaps this was not your intention in your comment but it perhaps comes across that way.

    I look forward to your response,

    Ed

    • Hi there! It’s nice to hear from you. I’ll attempt to clarify. We are stridently opposed to ministries that claim to help people change their sexual orientations. In almost every case of which we are aware (including our own experiences and those of friends), these organizations make false promises to the people who seek them out. Then when those seeking their help do not successfully “change,” these organizations will subtly or directly blame the person for not praying hard enough/correctly/sincerely, caving in to temptations, not having enough faith, etc. Of course, this isn’t to say that all such organizations necessarily employ these tactics. If your friends have experienced something positive within an ex-gay organization, we do not want to deny their experiences. We’re opposed to the organizations, not the people who have interacted with them. We do know people who prefer to describe their own experiences of sexual orientation as “ex-gay” or “someone who struggles with/used to struggle with same-sex attraction.” We also know people who have remained within the ex-gay movement because of a few positive experiences and have advocated for changes to the movement’s approach. These folks all have stories, and they are just as important as everyone else’s stories. But they are not ours, and our own sense of aversion toward the ex-gay movement comes from our own experiences. We believe it’s possible to honor a specific person’s story as real, meaningful, and worthy of being told and heard while also stating firmly that we do not support the organizations with which that person has been affiliated. I can clarify more if you need, but I hope that answers your question. -Sarah

  6. Are there sort of “keywords” or behaviors to help people figure out which groups are “ex-gay” (I’m assuming at least some of them don’t use the word “ex-gay” in their name), which are advocacy, and which are focusing on pastoral/personal needs (such as Courage)?
    Also (if you don’t mind), do you see authentic masculinity/femininity as part of living out a celibate vocation? Not in the sense of how you dress or the (false) idea that masculine = sports and feminine = makeovers, but in the sense of gifts, talents, and temperaments that can be developed and seen as an integral part of living out one’s vocation, but that do vary between the sexes (nuns vs. monks, wives vs. husbands).

    • Hello, thanks for the questions.

      Generally speaking, ex-gay ministries tend to zoom in on what language members can use. It’s not uncommon for them to call for complete abstinence from using words like lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender. Ex-gay ministries generally consider gay as a synonym for sin. It’s not so much that ex-gay ministries are performing advocacy as much as they are advocating for a specific kind of pastoral care. Frequently they want to help people understand what caused their same-sex attractions, be able to submit the various causes to Christ, and mature towards adult relationships in the church that often include marriage. Many ministries tend to follow closely held scripts where it’s not acceptable to disagree with the spiritual direction being provided. That strikes us as an environment ripe for abuse.

      Your second question about authentic masculinity and femininity is a bit harder to answer given the way that our collective understanding of gender is influenced by the culture in which we live. Tying one’s gifts, talents, and temperaments tightly to one’s reproductive system seems dangerous and counter-intuitive, especially when considered against the backdrop of celibate vocations.

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