Published Xodus Magazine, Summer 2004
Coming out is a struggle gay men sometimes take to extremes. In out lowest moments, the ex-gay movement is standing by, ready and willing to help you erase your past.
I don’t want to be gay.
I can remember thinking that for most of my teenage life. I remember saying to myself, ‘I haven’t a clue why the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders are so attractive — but the Australian Olympic Men’s Swim Team on the other hand …
For many people, the turn around is simple. What starts as a wrestling match changes over time and experience into a positive and healthy assessment of yourself and in being gay.
But what happens when the thought of being gay is so revolting, you’ll do anything to change who you are? What happens when, because of religious reasons or family pressures, you try to get yourself “fixed” — when you try desperately to become “straight.”
Reparative Therapy, more commonly known as the Ex-Gay Movement, is a shining example of how far some people with go to change emotions. The various organizations and groups in the Ex-Gay movement tout the idea that you can go in gay and come out straight. Their claim has attracted tens if not hundreds of thousands of people over the last two decades – a best guess, as none of these groups are willing to disclose exactly how many people have passed through their doors.
“When I finally realized I was gay first quarter of freshman year I went into the most depressed state I’ve ever been in,” 23-year old Dan Gonzales explains. “For a few weeks I spent a considerable amount of my free time sitting alone in my dorm room doing three things: Looking at porn, wallowing into a journal I suddenly felt compelled to write in and scouring the internet for ex-gay information or any other source of hope.”
Like a lot people drawn to the Ex-Gay movement, Dan had found his sexual orientation in deep conflict with his religion.
“Things like my Baptist youth group really fucked with my head,” Dan says. “Really, my religious beliefs taught me two things. Being attracted to guys and repressing it is actually the right thing to do and being an unrepentant ‘practicing homosexual’ is a sin. I chose the ex-gay movement was because neither of those were acceptable options.”
Dante St. James, a 29-year-old writer from Darwin, Australia, had a similar experience. “I believed that, as a born-again Christian, living a life of a gay man, even if I didn’t act on the gay feelings, was not God’s ‘best’ for my life.”
The treatment itself can be anything from banal to barbaric. Some people describe their time spent reading and praying, others at participating in in-depth counseling to find out “what went wrong” with their “normal” development and in seeking out appropriate “alpha males” on which to pattern their new “manliness.” Some have wound up being told to have sex with women as a way of increasing their heterosexual desires.
In the most extreme cases, some programs utilize a penile plethysmograph, which measures arousal in the penis, to note attraction to erotic images of men flashed in front of the subject. When excitement is detected, electrical shocks are sent to various regions on the body, usually the penis.
Religion is often the key reason people get involved in reparative therapies and Ex-Gay ministries. Among the most widely known religious organizations that try to change gays are Homosexuals Anonymous, Courage, Love in Action and Exodus.
Those who bill themselves as secular (non-religious) psychologists believe being gay is a “mental disorder” and belong to an organization called NARTH, or the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality. (By and large though these psychologists and psychiatrists still have a strong, personal religious belief in the sinfulness of homosexuality.) Both types of groups promise that, through prayer or therapy, they can make a person straight.
But the majority of medical professionals and psychologists reject these theories.
Psychologists haven’t considered homosexuality a mental illness since 1973. Most mainline Christian churches, with some exceptions, regard gay people as being on-par with everyone else.
And when you take a closer look at the Ex-Gay Movement, something interesting happens — a string of scandals author Wayne Besen documented in his book Anything But Straight.
The founders of Exodus, Gary Cooper and Michael Bussee, left the movement after a number of years. Not to sell a book, make a movie or start a new organization. They left because they fell in love and couldn’t live a lie any longer.
John Evans, one of the creators of the Love In Action program, left after his best friend killed himself because the program, try as it did, couldn’t make him straight. The founder of Homosexuals Anonymous, the Rev. Colin Cook, was booted from his organization after it was disclosed that his personal therapy with clients included phone sex and naked massages.
John Paulk, poster child for the modern Ex-Gay Movement, former drag queen and proud husband to an “ex-lesbian,” was photographed in a Washington DC gay bar putting the moves on fellow patrons. He was suspended as Chairman of Exodus in 2000.
Dr. Charles Socaridies, the grandfather of many reparative therapy theories, has a gay son, begging the question: If homosexuality is as “preventable” as these people maintain, shouldn’t they be able to keep it out of their own families?
A recent reparative therapy study claimed to have conclusive evidence that people claiming they were born gay could be changed. Twenty percent of the participants were counselors or ministers in the ex-gay movement and nearly 80-percent had been actively lobbying on behalf of ex-gay causes for years. Because most of the participants had a vested interest in proving reparative therapy worked, the study was deemed inconclusive by most medical professionals.
And for all the countless people Reparative Therapists claim to have helped over the years, only 200 people participated in the study. Another study, published around the same time, found that the vast majority of people who went through reparative therapy — nearly 90-percent — didn’t change their orientation at all. Many claimed emotional and physical harm by the process.
Thankfully Dan and Dante both claim to have escaped unscathed. Dan lives in Long Beach, California and works as a designer at the fifth largest architecture firm in Los Angeles. Dante is creative fellow, happily partnered, with a great sense of humor and broader perspective on both his sexuality and his religion.
“A God who would force people to jump through ritualistic hoops in order to change them to what ‘they are supposed to be’ is not a God I am interested in,” Dante concludes. “Would I still like to change my sexuality? No. I am very happy with it, and I am quite proud of who I am.”