A British journalist has gone undercover to investigate the ex-gay movement.

Lucy Bannerman of The Times (London) spent a week at an Exodus retreat at the LifeWay Ridgecrest Conference Centre, North Carolina, an experience she dubbed “six days of evangelism psychotherapy.”

The report does not contain much of surprise to anyone familiar with the ex-gay movement, sticking safely to the most ubiquitous characterizations, some of which are unfortunately never substantiated in the piece itself. For example, the article is boldly titled, “The camp that ‘cures’ homosexuality,” and yet little in the text establishes that Exodus was out directly to “cure” participants. Likewise, the main body of the article begins, “Welcome to ex-gay boot camp,” but this comes across as a lazy cliche, out of step with the story that follows. Why “boot camp”? Why not “retreat”? Or “conference”? Perhaps it’s a fair description – but Bannerman never justifies it.

The author also throws up a number of tantalizing claims without providing direct quotes or context. For example, she writes that “We are told repeatedly that marriage is evidence of healing,” but this is vague. One speaker “manages to link her gay ex-husband’s death from an Aids-related illness to his father’s links with the “Serbian mafia”,” but again this is vague, with no sense of context. Since these are the most interesting claims made in the article, it would have been nice to see more substantiation.

The ex-gay conundrum

Nevertheless, the piece contains some fascinating quotes that echo the concerns of Exodus’s critics. For instance, here a participant sums up the ex-gay conundrum in a nutshell:

I’ve been through all the arguments, like ‘If it’s love, how can it be wrong?’ … And if I’m being honest, I’d love to be openly gay and have a completely satisfying relationship with God. But I don’t know how that can be done. All I know is that it makes more sense to listen to the God who created the Universe than to my puny human emotions.

What “ex-gay” really means

A leader expresses the reality of “freedom from homosexuality”:

“I still have same-sex attraction,” she sighs at one point, “but it’s like elevator music to me now. I just don’t pay attention to it.”

Other participants profess a similar experience, namely that homosexual orientation just doesn’t go away:

[Riccardo:] I used to think marriage was the ultimate goal but I’ve come to accept that I’ll struggle with SSA for the rest of my life.

“To focus on sex is missing the point,” [Michelle] says. “It’s not about gay or straight. It’s about holiness and my relationship with Christ.” She wants to marry but admits that she may never be attracted to men. “Then it means I’ve been called to singleness.” And lifelong celibacy? “I’m surrendering to God’s way.”

Hey, if people want to be celibate, fair enough – but in the face of such testimonies, why does Exodus still take advantage of the hazy, misleading terminology of “change”?

Being gay is not the problem

Elsewhere, the article reveals other classic traits of the ex-gay movement. This, for example –

Chatting before his “Breaking the Myth of Masculinity” class, Riccardo, a doctor from Illinois, explains that he has come here for “encouragement and moral support” after tiring of anonymous encounters with other men.

– only confirms that while ex-gays frequently blame their woes on the supposedly monolithic “gay lifestyle” or on homosexuality itself, the reality is their problems often go beyond simply being gay. The problem for Dr Riccardo, say, is not being gay; it’s chasing after anonymous, promiscuous sex.

We also find the utterly silly among the guidance on offer at the retreat:

“It’s about doing what’s uncomfortable,” [Joe from Miami] tells the class, describing how he forced himself to watch baseball with macho sportsmen at parties, and to wear looser shorts when walking his chihuahua.

(Joe wouldn’t be the first ex-gay to be advised to do “macho” activities in order to overcome gay desire. I can’t help but be reminded of Ben Kingsley’s performance as an Edwardian hypnotist in the film Maurice, advising his homosexually tormented client to “stroll around with a gun”.)

Chambers claim flawed study in support of “change”

After the conference, Bannerman interviewed Exodus President Alan Chambers, who invoked the Jones-Yarhouse study in support of the possibility orientation change:

[Chambers] pointed out that a 2007 US study indicated that sexual orientation change was possible for some individuals going through religiously mediated programmes such as Exodus, and did not cause psychological harm. He said that “these conclusions directly contradict the claims of critics … that change in sexual orientation is impossible and attempting to pursue this alternative is likely to cause depression, anxiety or self-destructive behaviour”.

In fact, the very limited study demonstrated only a negligible possibility of change, lacking convincing criteria by which to verify change.

I’d like to have seen Bannerman dig a little deeper. She confirms a lot of what we’ve seen before, but doesn’t reveal much new. I’d also like to see British journalists digging into the ex-gay movement in the UK, instead of trotting out the usual American suspects time and again. A substantial survey of what’s happening in Britain has yet to be written.

Meanwhile, ex-gays are displeased with the piece, including Mario BergnerLisa Guinness and Peter Ould.

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