Ex-Gay Conversion Therapy: Choosing Religion Over Sex

Leonard was the first person that helped me see the value of ex-gay ministries in the lives of some homosexually-oriented Christians. We met in a library in a small midwestern town when I was researching my forthcoming book on ex-gay ministries and Christian weight loss programs. Thoughtful and honest, he told me about his 20-year experience in a fundamentalist church and the affair he had with another man the whole time. Frustrated with the church’s theological narrow-mindedness and the many contradictions of the relationship, he broke off from both to join an evangelical church with an ex-gay ministry.

The change was liberating. He could be honest about his beliefs, speak freely about his desires, and develop relationships with men that were close and deep while reflective of the conservative values he holds. While not a choice I would quickly endorse, it was evident to me the helpful space the ex-gay world can give people like Leonard to grapple with the contradictions between sexuality and religion.

Which is to say I can understand NPR ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos’ effort, in defense of Morning Edition’s recent story on “conversion therapy,” to acknowledge the seemingly simple truth that religious and sexual identities at times clash, that such clashes can cause suffering, and that not all people resolve that clash in favor of sexual identity.

But, after years of studying and writing about reparative therapy and the ex-gay movement, and after reading Rich Wyler’s own account of his sexual conversion, I found NPR’s story, and Schumacher-Matos’ defense of it, shallow and dispiriting.

Married with Children

There is much to criticize in the story, and much to attend to in the responses to it. Warren Throckmorton, Candace Chellew-Hodge, and Joanna Brooks have all raised important points here at RD about the piece’s shortcomings. But since Schumacher-Matos promises further investigation of this issue, I wanted to raise a point for NPR and others to take seriously when revisiting this topic: what ex-gay ministries talk about (and don’t talk about) when they talk about change.

What counts as change in the ex-gay context is broad and often looks quite different from what cultural outsiders might expect. The NPR story left out the fact that Wyler was married and had children at the time of his conversion therapy; not living as a single gay man in L.A. making a rational decision between gay life and religious and family life, as the story depicted. It is not surprising that a fourteen-year marriage would be a strong pull toward resolving an identity clash in favor of existing commitments—especially when those commitments are seen as reflections of God’s will.

And while a pull that strong still does not make heterosexual married life possible for many homosexually-oriented men, for those whom it does it is important to acknowledge that changing orientation and desire sufficiently to maintain one relationship with one person of the opposite sex is far lower a bar for successful change than wholesale shift in sexual desire. For some, preserving those relationships may be a good and worthy goal, and I spoke with a number of ex-gay men who spoke of the gifts that pursuing their heterosexual marital relationships gave. But this is not a change in sexual orientation; it is making one particular heterosexual relationship work.


The other element in Wyler’s story, one that is common in many ex-gay change narratives, is the centrality of male intimacy in the process of orientation change. Wyler speaks of the love (and the physical touch) he shared with his ex-gay therapist, the heterosexual male friend from church he called “at least weekly, sometimes several times a week, baring [his] soul,” the intensive male community he found in the New Warriors training and various support groups. “The irony,” he writes, is by the end of therapy, “I felt more bonded and connected to men and manhood than I had all of my life.”

It is tempting here to resort to salacious clichés about what must be going on behind the closed doors of ex-gay ministries. But even when sexual abstinence is achieved, the emphasis on homo-intimacy in ex-gay narratives—narratives that are written to support claims of change—needs to be interrogated. Ex-gay men may live without homosexual sex, but they need not live without homo-intimacy.* Indeed, the argument could be made that the kind of homo-intimacy achieved in ex-gay circles reflects the very heart of what homosexual desire is all about: intense emotional intimacy with members of the same sex.

For gay Christians caught between a religious world where homosexuality is unacceptable and sex in general is suspect and a gay world that can seem to celebrate shallow sexual conquest, the kind of deep intimacy between men the ex-gay world offers may well be sufficient for homo-oriented men. Trading sexual intimacy with men for its other variations may well be worth the deal. But, again, this is not a change in orientation; it is a different, religiously legitimated way of realizing it.

A False Equivalence

Finally, future reporting needs to include the social and political changes within which these reorientation stories are told. Many listeners rightly criticized NPR for creating the false impression of scientific and therapeutic equivalence between pro- and anti-conversion therapy camps. That impression was created in part because the story ignored the freighted history of sexual reorientation practices in American life.

The debates over this practice emerged in the early 1970s, a time when ineffective and dangerous psychiatric interventions into homosexuality were standard mental health practice and harmed many gay people. Having homosexuality declassified as a mental illness by the American Psychiatric Association and other mental health groups was a major victory for GLBT activists, making it possible for the first time to even imagine the audience Schumacher-Matos presumes; one that would know enough about these issues to know that homosexuality is not a disease, and orientation change is highly unlikely.

Overlooking this history makes it easy to depict this controversy as a simple disagreement and to be surprised by an outpouring from people who remember all too clearly the stakes of this debates in terms of gay politics and of human lives.

But the politics did not stop in 1973 and the political gains achieved at that time are by no means secure. Since declassification, supporters of reparative and conversion therapy have continually sought recognition by the APA, increasingly on the grounds of tolerance for differing opinions. Reporters aspiring toward fair-mindedness can fall prey to this appeal to tolerance without fully investigating how that rhetoric is strategically used to gain legitimization and advance political aims. Any reporter investigating these practices today needs to look at the organizational contexts within which they exist: a context with political goals regarding gay rights grounded in religious worldviews.

Schumacher-Matos writes that he assumed, based on Wyler’s statements, that “[Wyler] didn’t denounce being gay, or think it was wrong.” But people who want to change their sexual orientation because of their religious beliefs generally believe that it is outside of God’s will and therefore wrong. Organizations, like Wyler’s, that seek to legitimate these treatments in the APA and the mainstream media advocate that position also because they think it is wrong. They just have practice at crafting their message in a more palatable way. It is uninformed to believe otherwise and reporters should not accept appeals to tolerance uncritically.

Turning Up the Heat

I thought of Leonard when I first heard this story. He’s someone who had a real clash between religion and sexuality and chose in favor of the first. And I believe that his experience in his ex-gay ministry, like some other ex-gays I interviewed, was a positive one for him. But the difference between Leonard and Wyler is that Leonard was clear that his sexual orientation had not necessarily changed. His practices had, his life had, and his level of emotionally satisfying closeness with other men had—and all made his life feel more congruous with his religious beliefs. But he recognized that he was making a deliberate sacrifice, and criticized ex-gay organizations that insisted on full-scale orientation change as the arbiter of success.

What I initially wanted to say in response to this story is what I learned from Leonard, and what the NPR ombudsman’s response aims toward but ultimately fails at: that gay people should be secure enough in the social and political gains made in recent decades to not be threatened by the possibility that reparative therapy makes sense for some. That recognizing some value in ex-gay ministries needn’t undermine gay identity in the contemporary world. Surely, I thought with Mr. Schumacher-Matos, we can safely assume that much.

But then I noted the story’s neglect of the ugly history of reparative therapy and its relatively recent role in the social enforcement of heterosexuality. And its obfuscation of the theological condemnation that can make gay Christian life unthinkable and efforts at reorientation less a choice than an imperative. And its uncritical assumption that change means the same thing to NPR reporters, NPR audiences, and spokespersons for ex-gay ministries. And that the origin of this story was the practices of the spouse of an actual presidential candidate in the United States of America in 2011. And I think: keep those complaints coming.


* homo-intimacy in the ex-gay world is far more suspect among lesbians, for whom excessive emotional closeness is considered a sign of lesbianism even in the absence of a sexual relationship.