At the outset of this post, I want to say that the ex-gay movement is complete and total bullshit. There is no other way to say it. I haven’t talked a lot about my foray into ex-gay therapy except for some allusions here and there and the most obvious fact of all: it didn’t work.
I was referred to this article today by a former member of the therapy group I used to attend. His story was deeply moving prompting me to respond in the best way I know how: by writing and sharing my own perspective.
I’ll save the history for my book but suffice it to say that I’d had strong feelings for my gender from as young as I can remember. After coming out to my second wife in 2000, I was referred by our church’s pulpit minister and close family friend into a Christ-based ex-gay program called “Renew.” He’d heard about it through a colleague at Abilene Christian University. The report was that Chris Austin, whose practice was run out of a Church of Christ in Irving, was having good results.
I started very reluctantly the week of my 32ndbirthday. I was mad about it and very nervous. Over the next five years (I was in and out), the therapy included a mixture of
- one-on-one sessions with the therapist talking about my past and present, my sexual history, and on and on and on
- open dialogue with fellow “strugglers” (that’s what we were called for our “unwanted struggle with same sex attraction.)
- attempts to play team sports that included making us take off our shirts (I was mortified) in order to get comfortable with ourselves (there is nothing more pathetic than watching a group of gay men try to play football! But we had a lot of fun.)
- praise and worship time where we would lift up each other and spend a lot of time praying and for some of us, learning to pray a different way
- weekend retreats where we would learn to express our masculinity through finding nature and yelling and chanting in ceremonies around campfires (which still to this day seems so odd)
- touch therapy with the therapist where he would hold or cradle us, in his words, like Jesus would do. (For me this was always completely non-sexual; for others, I would later find out, this was not the case.)
- holding therapy with other men, based on the theory that if we got healthy male touch here, we wouldn’t want the “unhealthy” kind.
Years into it, my therapy would still include a strong emphasis on touch but would expand to a pursuit of finding the divine within and through ourselves by appealing to the higher power—in this context, God—through chanting, open worship, attempting “prophetic prayer,” and crying out. This narrow-minded church-of-christ boy had never even lifted up hands in a worship service much less experience anything like this.
I have to admit, it wasn’t all bad. I learned a lot about myself and my “condition.” I made a couple of lifelong friends. Toward the end of my final (4th?) re-entry into the idea of group therapy, I was joined by my best heterosexual male friend at the time. Introverted, deeply masculine, and loyal, he was the first straight man I’d ever shared my “struggle” with. (there was one other, but it was not I who outed myself, so I don’t really count that. Later, there would be three more close family friends I would tell—one who was a mentor of sorts and two who were like brothers. All four would abandon me after I gave up the “fight” to be straight.) My friend and I experienced this journey toward “spiritual awakening” together—each of us for completely different and deeply personal reasons. Though the experience did not “cure” me from homosexuality, it began to cure me from religion as I continued to understand the difference between the religion I was taught and the spiritual self I’d never really tapped into.
At some point in the process, my own therapy began to seem much less centered on me trying to be straight and more directly became more about me accepting myself. My therapist was highly intuitive, I’ll give him that, though anyone who really had the chance to get to know me knew that was my chief struggle. I simply did not like myself and, most of the time, hated myself.
I never contemplated actual suicide but I think if I’d stayed in denial much longer, I would have; the pressure for me was simply too great. Instead of feeling more accepted, more “normal,” I often felt worse, more different, more afraid, and less accepted and loved. My spirit—the one I was born with—was dying inside and I was becoming a shell of a human being. I was not being authentic to myself, to my family, or my friends. The lie I was living was reaching a tipping point and was about to consume me—one way or the other.
That’s my experience.
Just like the author of this piece, I too felt shame for being “gay.” I had an overbearing mother and an emotionally absent father. I wanted a daddy—a father who would love me and hold me and teach me how to shoot a basket andhit a baseball. I wanted to be as strong and virile as I perceived the other boys/men I would be around. (Funny thing: many of these men I’d imagined were so masculine were really weak and emotionally underdeveloped; I never envied or desired that facet of their “masculinity” preferring instead my bent toward the more sensitive and nurturing.) I desperately wanted to be liked and accepted by them. And yes, at some point in my life (much earlier than is explainable), that feeling—that desire—became sexualized.
While I believe that “miracles” (things we cannot explain) have occurred, I don’t believe that it is possible to change from gay to straight any more than it is possible to change from straight to gay. I believe many men and women live purposeful, willful lives of denial and purposefully choose a straight lifestyle—for a myriad of reasons. Reasons I myself could no longer justify or afford emotionally: for my wife, for my kids, for my professional appearance.
There can be beneficial outcomes of therapeutic experiences like mine, to be sure. Gaining enlightenment to find one’s true self, being taught ways to come to accept one’s self, enhancing areas of one’s life that used to create shame (i.e. being comfortable with sports, working on body image, etc.), and learning to overcome self-esteem issues, were all benefits I derived from my experience. I can tell you that while my therapist helped me enormously with accepting myself (in fact in my very last session with him, the morning after I came out to my wife in August 2006, his words to me were: “your issue is not whether or not to come out gay…it is whether or not to come out Todd.”), there were times I would leave therapy and group sessions more depressed than I ever had been. This was hard work, exhausting, and counter-intuitive to my nature. No wonder!
To try to make someone into something they’re not is damning, cruel, and dangerous! I’m not sure if they told me that this therapy would cure me, but I remember thinking—even daring to hope—that it might. One friend even told me that I didn’t really want the miracle of being cured or else I would be. But like the author I referenced, this was not enough; this was no cure:
Although I might never feel a spark of excitement when I saw a woman walking down the street, as I progressed in therapy, my homosexual attractions would diminish. I might have lingering thoughts about men, but they would no longer control me.
To this day, I have learned to claim my identity and my masculinity just as I am. I am comfortable with my body, the way I express myself, and my role in the world. I am confident with my sexual identity and my ability to experience love—emotionally and physically—with a member of my gender. I am a good provider. I am a nurturing father. I work hard. I claim the goodness life has to offer and I am giving. Long past the identity crisis I’d experienced late in life and though far from perfect and with much to learn and improve, I feel at peace with who I am as a homosexual, able to continue the journey toward self-improvement, wholeness, and claiming my potential in all the areas of my identity.
I know now that homosexuality is NOT a mental illness or an abomination to my Creator. Homosexuals are not any more broken or any less complete than their heterosexual counterparts. Society makes us feel this way. Religion seems hell-bent on damning us instead of loving us. And ignorant, bigoted people try to eliminate our emergence into and place in society by working against our acceptance and our equal rights as citizens of this country. Our masculinity may indeed be damaged (as I think about it, religion and society—not just overbearing mothers and absent fathers—are perhaps most to blame for this) but this is how we were created. It’s not the total sum of who we are but stifled, hidden way, masked—it can consume our entire being.
From my own experience in and out of ex-gay therapy over almost six years and six years later, I know of zero men who successfully changed their orientation. I know several men—one of them one of my most beloved (and missed, since I came out) friends—who are determinedly living a heterosexual lifestyle and I respect their decision. Many purposefully practice celibacy. But most of the men in the group I was a part of engaged in some type of sexual behavior contrary to the goals of the program. (I view this much as an alcoholic in an AA program sneaks a drink when no one is looking). I still run into men at gay bars I used to be in therapy with (some out, some pretending to be straight in their day-to-day life). Some have come out; others I believe are still “struggling” with this part of themselves and will likely do so until they die.
“Freedom” from unwanted sexual desire is often a driving factor behind why people want to change. Ultimately, this is not a realistic reason; it is a vain pursuit. To me, the goal should be to find freedom in being comfortable with and accepting of one’s true self. If parents truly would view the proverb
Train up a child in the way he should go, and he will not depart from it. (Proverbs 22:16)
with a real understanding of its meaning (based on my experience as an ex-gay survivor and as a parent), vis a vis
“the path especially belonging to, especially fitted for, the individual’s character…enjoining the closest possible study of each child’s temperament and the adaptation of ‘his way of life’ to that”
then a lot of little gay boys and girls would grow up a lot more whole and healthy. Absent self-loathing and armed with acceptance from their families and society, they might be better equipped to stand up against bullies and navigate their own journeys with far less pain. They might be less promiscuous, less likely to hurt others, and more open to a Creator who’s modeled initially after their own parents, who exists solely to love them.
To anyone who has a negative opinion of gays, has a gay friend/family member, or who thinks they don’t know one (trust me: you won’t have to look far into your sphere of immediate connections to find one), I say this:
- Christian peoples who really are concerned about someone’s soul should practice and stick to one thing and only one thing:
Love your neighbor as yourself.(Note the absence of any addition that says “as long as he is heterosexual” or “and try to help him be straight.”)Get the hell out of the business of trying to change people and practice loving people.Period.
- You really want to help someone you know who’s struggling with being gay? Then just love him or her. If you really, truly, care about him, want him to be happy and have a healthy life, then save your judgment for yourself when you look in the mirror.
- Pass on information that will encourage the person and keep him safe. If you have a young person in your life who’s struggling with his identity, find him a therapist who will teach him to, above all, love the creation that is himself (which is a very Biblical concept, as in “you are fearfully and wonderfully made”). Give him resources that will keep him safe—disease prevention, the importance of condoms, and how to avoid predators.
- Stand up with us against hate, bigotry, and attempts to make us second-class citizens.
Though not near as damaged from my experience with ex-gay therapy, I still maintain a modicum of bitterness because of the lies, the misinformation, and the false hope I was given. But overall, for me, I emerged stronger because ultimately, I did gain some skills and encouragement to accept myself.
And it saved my life.
Read my coming out story.