Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Summer 2000

The Ex-Gay Movement

by Brett Humphreys

The self-styled “ex-gay” movement is a set of individuals and organisations whose aim is to make lesbians and gay men heterosexual or, failing that, celibate. The movement is almost exclusively Christian. Its origins go back to the 1970s but its profile in the United States, where it is strongest, was significantly raised during the second half of 1998 by a major advertising campaign sponsored by a coalition of 15 of the country’s conservative Christian organisations, initially in the press and later on television.

The prolific websites of the ex-gay movement reveal a distinctive vocabulary: lesbians and gay men are regularly described as “addicted” or “broken”, attempts to make us heterosexual are “reparative therapy”, organisations administering the treatment are “ministries”, the people who undergo it are “strugglers”, those who fail to persevere with this Sisyphean task are “recidivists”, and so on. The names of the “ministries” tend to be cryptic biblical allusions that provide no clue to their actual purpose. Stone seems a strangely popular theme: Corduroy Stone, First Stone Ministries, Living Stones Fellowship, Solid Rock, The Standing Stone.

The movement is organised mainly under a number of umbrellas, the largest of which is the Protestant-oriented Exodus International founded in 1976. Three quarters of its 130-odd members are in the US. Nearly half of these have their own websites. Exodus International Europe, on the other hand, has only 16 members (three of them in South Africa and one in Israel!). The two main UK members are the Birkenhead-based True Freedom Trust, set up in 1977 and run by Martin Hallett, which promotes celibacy, and the Watford-based Courage, set up in 1988 and run by Jeremy Marks, which promotes conversion. The latter is not to be confused with the Roman Catholic ex-gay umbrella organisation Courage, whose UK branches are known as EnCourage.

Another ex-gay umbrella group operating mostly in the US is Homosexuals Anonymous, whose name and methods offensively treat homosexuality as comparable with alcoholism. Their website describes the group’s founding in 1980 but omits to mention that its leader during the early period was ousted in 1987 for having sex with his clients over several years.

The National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH) is the psychiatric wing of the movement. Founded in 1992 by Charles Socarides, Benjamin Kaufman and Joseph Nicolosi, it differs from the rest in playing down its religious associations. Nicolosi, a Roman Catholic, was its Executive Director until he recently succeeded Socarides as President. He has been credited with coining the term “reparative therapy”, which he writes about extensively. His California-based Thomas Aquinas Psychological Clinic houses NARTH’s headquarters. Both NARTH and the clinic are on the Exodus referral list, which requires endorsement of Exodus’s doctrinal and policy statements. One condition is a belief that the Bible is “the final authority for doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in right living”.

A common feature of ex-gay sites is their collections of personal histories, known in ex-gay-speak as “testimonies”. Struggle is the dominant theme of these often sorry tales, a struggle which is always perceived as being with the struggler’s sexuality, never with their religious beliefs or the conflict between the two. The Stonewall Revisited site contains a particularly fine set of testimonies, 77 of them including those of many of the movement’s leaders.

Don’t expect to find links from ex-gay sites to those of the American Psychological Association, the American Psychiatric Association, or any of the other professional bodies who have stated that “reparative therapy” has not been shown to be effective and is potentially harmful. The ex-gay movement has much in common with cults, and one example is not exposing people to information or viewpoints that might challenge the group’s belief system. By contrast, the Queer Resources Directory’s section on the Radical Religious Right provides links to sites promoting the ex-gay movement as well as those debunking it.

For some “testimonies” of a different kind, those of “ex-ex-gays” who have been through the ex-gay mill and come out of it, visit the Ray of Light Project set up by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the lesbian and gay lobbying group based in Washington DC, in response to the 1998 ex-gay advertising campaign. The project pages provide an excellent exposé of the ex-gay movement.

A series of articles worth reading is the Ex-Gay Series from Gay Today, whose Senior Editor, Jack Nichols, is author of the book The Gay Agenda: Talking Back to the Fundamentalists. The series consists of a number of news and viewpoint articles, many of them again dating from the weeks following the July 1998 launch of the ex-gay advertising campaign. One especially interesting item is the report Mission Impossible: Why Reparative Therapy and Ex-Gay Ministries Fail by Kim Mills, Education Director of HRC (also available on the HRC site). Another is The Other Side of the Rainbow by Natalie Davis, Online Editor of the Baltimore City Paper, based on her first-hand experience of some ex-gay ministries which she acquired by posing as a would-be ex-lesbian.

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Created : Sunday, 2000-07-23 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
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