In his newest book, activist and journalist Wayne Besen has produced a prodigious account of the American ex-gay movement since its inception, providing an illuminating survey of where its proponents have been, where they are now and where they’re headed.

Despite being a very easy read, Lies with a Straight Face: Exposing the Cranks and Cons Inside the “Ex-Gay” Industry is remarkably thorough and well-documented, tracing the movement’s 50-year history through key figures’ own statements, contemporaneous media and the reportage of sites such as his own Truth Wins Out, Ex-Gay Watch and others. As someone who covered the ex-gay beat here from 2006 to about 2012, even I was taken by surprise on being reminded of the twists and turns throughout the dying years of a movement that promised its vulnerable followers everything and delivered nothing.

Besen tells the story of a movement built on a fundamental dishonesty: The claim that, with the right prayer, therapeutic intervention or clinical approach, a gay sexual orientation can be changed. He sets the tale in the context of his own coming-of-age, as a barely teenaged boy who knew who he was, but longed to be able to fit in with the expectations of the straight, violently homophobic world around him. It is the same yearning that has led countless men and women to seek the change promised by such organizations as Exodus International, the umbrella under which the major Christian ex-gay ministries gathered from its founding in 1976 to its ignominious end in 2013.

From there, Besen presents the litany of failures that have given the lie to the ex-gay message from its genesis in the seventies, through its heyday in the nineties and into its current fragmented state. We’re (re)introduced to the late Joseph Nicolosi, the clinician and NARTH founder whose repackaging of an obscure British academic’s theories became the basis of reparative therapy, a supposedly scientific approach to curing gayness. We learn of Michael Bussee and Gary Cooper, the Exodus co-founders who went to a Christian conference to testify to their healing from homosexuality and instead publicly confessed they were just as gay as they had ever been .

We relive the tales of John Paulk, whose career as an ex-gay poster boy came crashing down when the author himself photographed him taking time out in a Washington DC gay bar; of Michael Johnston, held up internationally as an ex-gay success story, all the while ruining lives through a reckless “homosexual lifestyle” he claimed to have left behind; and of George Rekers, the Southern Baptist minister and psychologist caught paying a male escort to handle his luggage in ways both literal and figurative.

A particular strength of this account is Besen’s ability to set the story of the ex-gay movement in its social context: The early days of the gay liberation movement, the growth of the Christian Right and “family values,” the surge in positive portrayals of queer people in the mainstream media (Ellen, Will and Grace), the move towards marriage equality, the political (Bill Clinton, Larry Craig) and religious (Ted Haggard) scandals unfolding concurrently with the ex-gay movement at its various highs and lows, and the insidious meddling of American evangelicals in the Ugandan government’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill, a brutally homophobic legal measure rejected on a technicality in 2014 and successfully reintroduced in 2023.

These details help paint a broader picture of a movement with mixed motivations, from a sincere, if fatally misguided pastoral concern to help people in their pain, to a vicious, often-barely concealed attempt to suppress the dignity and rights of LGBTQ+ people.

Besen brings the story right up-to-date, showing that while the fallout from the Exodus International closure may have debilitated the movement, it did not kill it. Three decades of increasing embarrassment, scandal and destruction have driven many of its extremes underground, and attempts to rebrand the ex-gay message, rehabilitate the same discredited theories and treatments, and revive the age-old destructive prejudices and untruths continue in new forms. The final section of the book surveys the current lay of the land and warns that the fight for justice and equality is far from over.

“The most painful lesson that I have learned during my three decades of LGBTQ+ activism is that there is no Magic Finish Line,” he writes, telling us that while Martin Luther King, Jr, said that the moral arc “bends towards justice,” if it can bend, it is “flexible enough to go in either direction.”

This is a lesson many of us have learned in the last few years, as we have seen firsthand that there is nothing inevitable or irreversible about the tide of progress most of us grew up believing in. The sad fact that hard-won freedoms can always be taken away again by determined, regressive political forces gave me a timely reminder why, after almost a decade of dormancy, Ex-Gay Watch is back in business.

Lies with a Straight Face: Exposing the Cranks and Cons Inside the ‘Ex-Gay’ Industry was published on 11 October 2023 and is on sale here.

Categorized in: