The reason I started following the ex-gay movement is directly related to my involvement in the fight for LGBTQ political equality. Our movement differs from earlier civil rights struggles in that we have the extra burden to first prove that we even exist – that is, show people that we are indeed a naturally occurring unique subset of humanity, rather than heterosexuals who, as the result of some kind of damaging experience, engage in “abnormal” and “unnatural” sexual habits. As long as we don’t actually exist, so the thinking goes, we don’t need equal rights. Thus, the ex-gay movement is frequently touted by organizations actively working to deny the LGBTQ community civil equality.
After all, the logical conclusion of the ex-gay movement is that gay people will cease to exist, if only through the shameful force of the closet — a form of social genocide, so to speak.
In the past, organizations like Exodus International have been used by right wing powerhouses such as Focus on the Familyto oppose LGBTQ rights. Focus founded the ex-gay convention Love Won Out, before handing the reigns over to Exodus. We’ve noted in the past that Parents & Friends of Ex-Gays (PFOX) has gone so far as to lobby for the recognition of “ex-gay” as a separate sexual orientation so as to cause their ideology to gain greater legal footing. Not so long ago, ex-gays in Exodus’ stead aggressively lobbied against civil legislation such as hate crimes protections for victims perceived as gay. However, that has largely quieted down as Exodus half-heartedly seeks to remove itself from political affairs to focus on being a ministry. But the use of the ex-gay con as fodder for anti-equality legislation has remained a quiet part of right wing machinations.
But this quiet existence is becoming ever louder. In fact, when pushed, a great number of prominent anti-equality figures and organizations – from local “pro family” groups to prominent cable news pundits – will say that the queer community doesn’t deserve equality because we can “change.” One person in particular, Jeremy Hooper of Good As You, has done an especially stellar job documenting this.
CURRENT POLITICAL USE OF THE EX-GAY IDEOLOGY
At the state level, where there has been more and more political activity surrounding marriage equality, many “pro-family” advocates have expressed support for ex-gay therapy:
“Those who want to redefine marriage want us to believe that we show love and support for homosexual family members by encouraging them to remain in their sin. Christian people will remember than [sic] true love and support helps people overcome, not surrender.” – Bob Emrich, Stand for Marriage Maine, which pushed to pass Maine’s anti-equality Question 1, November 2011
“No replicated scientific study indicating that sexual preference is innate, and the existence of a large ex-gay community demonstrates that it can change. This is not a civil rights issue.” – New Jersey Family Policy Council, the largest group actively opposing marriage equality in New Jersey, March 2012
Some not only advocate for ex-gay therapy but treat the 1973 APA decision to remove homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) a political move with no scientific merit. Others imply that there is an insidious “gay agenda” afoot as described by a book called “After the Ball,” long touted by the right-wing as having provided the blueprint for same.
“I do not believe that homosexuality is genetic or inborn. All the ‘studies’ to date are solidly refuted. I believe there is a big difference between same-sex attraction and being a self identified homosexual. […] [L]et it be noted that at the time APA made its decision, it was a self-identified homosexual leading the charge. Ever heard of NARTH [National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality]? That’s the organization that was formed as a result of APA decision to stop offering help to those struggling with same-sex attraction. […]
Perhaps you should read ‘After the Ball’”
– Delaware Family Policy Council, March/April 2012
On a national level, the National Organization for Marriage (NOM), the most prominent anti-equality organization in America right now, at first kept up a strong veneer of simply opposing marriage equality (as opposed to being outright hostile to the benign existence of gay people). However, their support for the ex-gay industry has become more and more blatant:
“Even those who disagree with us about gay marriage (or Christian sexual ethics) should feel good about this this scientific verification of the possibility of free will triumphing over desire. We are all more than our instincts, sexual or otherwise.” – Brian Brown, President of NOM, September 2011
“What you won’t hear the [mainstream media] talk about: ‘Change happens: new evidence on sexual orientation’ [link provided to article touting ex-gay therapy]” – Thomas Peters, “American Papist” and Cultural Director for NOM, October 2011
“Groundbreaking research published this week shows successful change in religiously motivated men and women” – Headline of article touting the flawed Jones & Yarhouse ex-gay study from NOM’s Ruth Institute Blog, by Jennifer Roback Morse, October 2011
This shouldn’t come as a complete surprise. Before helping to found NOM, during the George W. Bush Administration, Maggie Gallagher publicly advocated for government funding for research into ex-gay therapy — likening homosexuality to a form of sexual dysfunction. But NOM’s biggest foray into the ex-gay world came this past week with Brian Brown’s participation in the World Congress of Families conference in Madrid, Spain.
Due to the spate of “outings” that the ex-gay industry has experienced in the U.S., the public has grown increasingly distrustful of it. As a result, proponents are increasingly exporting ex-gay ideology to an international market, especially (but not exclusively) to non-Western countries. In Madrid, Richard Cohen — a pariah even among the ex-gay set — can be given a platform of authority on which he can discuss “Solutions to Homosexual Behavior.” Hate group leader and ex-gay-supporter Peter LaBarbera, also at the fringe of the fringe, is given a partnership role. Don Feder, who once asked “when exactly did homosexuals become a division of humanity instead of a sorry collection of individuals (connected only by their carnal appetites) caught up in a perverted lifestyle?” will also take the stage. These are the people with whom Brian Brown shares the room at this conference.
NOM excitedly touted his appearance in this blog post.
Focus on the Family was once a much larger player in the ex-gay industry, but has downplayed this in recent years. However, 2 weeks ago they posted a slate of pro-ex-gay articles, including one entitled “Is Sexual Orientation Fixed at Birth?” Most of the article is spent quoting outdated studies, all of which are 15-20 years old:
“William Byne, a psychiatrist with a doctorate in biology, and Bruce Parsons (1993) carefully analyzed all the major biological studies of homosexuality. They found none that definitively supported a biological theory of causation” – Focus on the Family‘s CitizenLink Website
This particular Focus article demonstrates the clear blackout of scientific studies related to sexuality by conservative Christians. The past 10 years have brought a wave of new information about the biological and inborn factors that affect the development of sexual orientation, virtually all of which has been ignored or suppressed by conservative Christian publications. Christian professor and psychologist Warren Throckmorton, who himself identifies as conservative, has experienced this blackout personally and carefully documented the phenomenon on his blog.
In this CitizenLink report (CitizenLink is Focus’s news arm), Stuart Shepard and Carrie Gordon Earll muse about how since some gays are able to “change their orientation,” all gay people should logically be denied civil equality.
“Marriage was never designed to affirm same-sex relationships. … When you see people who have changed, you realize this is not an immutable or unchangeable characteristic. … Someone who identifies as gay is able to, some are, change their orientation. … I have friends who used to live homosexually, and now they do not.” – transcript from video produced by Focus on the Family‘s CitizenLink, May 2012
Focus’s Day of Dialogue, originally called Day of Truth, exists to counteract the anti-bullying, pro-equality Day of Silence. It claims to provide a way for students to have a dialogue about sexuality, implying that the DOS shuts conversation down. In reality, Ex-Gay-Watch has shown that the two days actually have very different motives and intentions.
The people running Day of Dialogue claim that, like DOS, it exists to oppose the bullying of gay kids. How does it intend to stop that bullying? By stopping kids from being gay in the first place:
“But the fact is that nobody knows how same-sex attractions develop—it appears to be a combination of factors (from biology to individual temperament to culture to environment). There is no proof that it is purely genetic. For more information, you can read Are People Really Born Gay? as well as other resources posted here.” – Day of Dialogue Website, May 2012
“For a speaker, consider inviting a local pastor or youth leader. Or you could invite someone who has experienced homosexuality and walked out of it to share their story. Exodus International is a good resource for finding possible speakers in your area.” – Day of Dialogue Website, May 2012
“As I listened to the teaching and discussion, I realized that homosexuality was not who I was. It did not define me at the core of my being. I also saw that I had focused a lot of time and energy on trying to not be gay, and that it might be better to focus on who I really was.” – Anonymous Author, Day of Dialogue Website, May 2012
For years, mainstream political opponents of LGBT civil equality have kept a relatively clean front; claiming to merely seek to defend tradition and watch out for the best interests of “The Children.” Of course, none of this has been able to stand up to scrutiny, scientific OR legal. And a tipping point of public opinion has definitely been reached – more and more of the “movable middle” have been moving to the side of equality. This has caused the anti-equality movement to take a much more shrill, nakedly anti-gay-community (as opposed to just anti-civil-equality) position.
PUBLIC DISTRUST OF THE EX-GAY WAY
But bringing out ex-gay therapy as a defense for opposition of civil equality is ultimately a losing strategy among the general public. The more the public finds out about this fraudulent practice, the greater the distaste it has for it. One example is the fiasco involving former U.S. Presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann’s husband, Marcus Bachmann. Mr. Bachmann runs a Christian-based psychotherapy center that, after having claimed it didn’t practice or advocate reparative (ex-gay) therapy, was exposed for doing just that.
More recently, Dr. Robert Spitzer has disavowed his popular and long-touted study supposedly proving that “highly-motivated religious people” can change their sexual orientation from gay to straight. Spitzer’s decision to retract the study in full was reported and praised by the New York Times, one of the U.S’s most widely-read and respected newspapers. Legislation has been drawn up in the state of California to hinder the practice of such unlicensed, non-scientific therapy. Dozens of professional organizations have come out against the ex-gay industry and its notion that sexual orientation can be changed, including every major medical organization in the U.S.; and recently, the World Health Organization of the UN.
Even five years ago, when marriage equality clearly still only had minority support in the polls, ex-gay “life coach” Richard Cohen caused such an embarrassment on national TV that it forced many ex-gay organizations to cut ties with him and disavow his methods outright.
Ex-gay therapy has always been a cottage industry, even during its hey-day when the Love Won Out conferences could draw 1,000 attendees. The last major publicity push it attempted was more than a decade ago, when former Love Won Out poster couple John and Anne Paulk graced the cover of Newsweek Magazine. Truth Wins Out founder Wayne Besen photographed Paulk exiting a Washington D.C. gay bar not long afterwards, effectively ending his ex-gay career. (The Paulks have since dropped from public view and live a quiet life on the west coast, and John Paulk has hinted at having a more flexible sexual identity.)
Today, in 2012, public and financial support for the ex-gay industry is at a very low point. Numerous prominent pundits and organizations tout the existence of ex-gays and ex-gay therapy as proof that LGBTQ civil equality is unnecessary. Many of these pundits and organizations are very well funded. And yet as much as they talk about their support for the ex-gay sector, money doesn’t seem to be going where their mouths are. Exodus International, the largest ex-gay organization in America, has apparently been in dire financial straights for at least a couple of years. They have been forced to cut their staff and benefits and just recently, cancel conferences due to lack of interest.
So it appears that while anti-gay groups are more than willing to use the ex-gay movement as a useful idiot of sorts in their actions against civil equality, they are less so willing to take steps to keep it alive and well.