Respecting Ex-Gays

First published at on March 3, 2008

People often ask me what I think about ex-gay ministries. I have no objection to them in principle, but serious problems with them in practice.

I have no objection to them in principle because I believe we should give others the same respect that we ourselves demand. That includes giving people wide latitude about living their lives as they see fit. If you really believe that you’re heterosexual deep down, and you want to take steps to help realize that identity, far be it from me to insist otherwise. I’ll let you be the expert on what you feel deep down, as long as you show me the same courtesy.

In fact, many ex-gays do not show me the same courtesy. I’ve had several tell me, “C’mon—deep down you know that being gay is wrong.” I know no such thing, and I resent it when other people tell me what I know “deep down.” So let’s make a deal: you don’t tell me what I know deep down, and I won’t tell you what you know deep down.

I’m not denying that people are capable of deep self-deception; indeed, I know it firsthand. For years I insisted that I was “really” straight, even though (1) I had gay feelings, (2) I had no straight feelings, and (3) I knew that people with gay feelings but no straight feelings are gay. (This, from someone who would later teach elementary logic.) Somehow, by not letting my thoughts “touch,” I could avoid drawing the feared conclusions from them.

Maybe ex-gays are engaged in similar self-deception; maybe not. The point is that it’s their feelings, their life, their decision to make. So I won’t oppose their efforts in principle.

In practice, I have at least three serious problems with ex-gay ministries.

The first is their tendency to promote myths about the so-called “homosexual lifestyle” by generalizing from some people’s unfortunate personal experiences. Ex-gay spokespersons will often recount, in lurid detail, a life of promiscuity, sexual abuse, drug addiction, loneliness, depression, and so on. “That is what I left behind,” they tearfully announce, and who can blame them? But that experience is not my experience, and it’s by no means typical of the gay experience. To suggest otherwise is to spread lies about the reality of gay and lesbian people’s lives. (The best antidote for this is for the rest of us to tell our own stories openly and proudly.)

The second problem is the ex-gay ministries’ abuse of science. Many of its practitioners are engaged in “therapy” even though they are neither trained nor licensed to do so; some of that “therapy” can cause serious and lasting psychological damage. Ex-gay ministries tend to lean on discredited etiological theories—domineering mothers, absent fathers, and that sort of thing. They also tend to give false hope to those who seek such therapy. By all respectable accounts, only a tiny fraction of those who seek change achieve any lasting success. Even then it’s unclear whether feelings, or merely behaviors, have been changed. While we shouldn’t reject individuals’ reports of change out of hand, nor should we pretend that their experience is typical or likely.

The third and related problem is that many ex-gay ministries promote not merely a “change,” but a “cure.” “Cure” implies “disease,” which homosexuality is not. Insofar as ex-gay ministries promote the long-discredited notion that homosexuality is a psychological disorder, I oppose them. (“Spiritual” disorders are another matter, but then we’ve left the realm of science for that of religion. Ex-gay ministries have an unfortunate habit of conflating science, religion, and politics.)

I am not at all threatened by the notion that some people can change their sexual orientation, if indeed they can. In reality, it seems that at best only a small number can do so, and only with tremendous effort. But if they can, and that makes them happy, good for them. I’m confident enough in my own happiness that I need not doubt theirs.

Nor do I feel the need to insist that I was “born this way.” Maybe I was, maybe I wasn’t. What I can say with confidence is that these feelings are a deep and fulfilling part of who I am, and I see no reason to mess with them. Quite the contrary.

So when ex-gays announce, from billboards and magazine ads, that “Change is possible,” I say: Possible? Maybe. Likely? No. Desirable? Not for me, thanks.