Over ten years ago when I was researching my book Straight to Jesus, I attended “National Coming out of Homosexuality Day” sponsored by the American Family Association. The idea was that the testimonies of ex-gay people would counter the prevailing notion that queer and GLBT people should come out of the closet. On an overcast day in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, reporters and protesters far outnumbered the ex-gay supporters in attendance. Jerry Falwell was scheduled to address the audience but at the last minute decided to appear via live telecast where his speech was drowned out by heckles and boos. Michael Johnston, an ex-gay who testified to a newfound heterosexuality after years of being homosexual, hurried out the side door after an activist hurled a coconut pie in his face. Thus went “coming out of homosexuality” day.
National Coming Out day elicits both despondency and outrage in the wake of the recent suicides of Tyler Clementi, Asher Brown, Seth Walsh, and Billy Lucas. Yet, the various laments against bullying in the media, and the video campaign by Dan Savage and others that “It Gets Better,” overlooks the question eloquently posed by Richard Kim in a recent article in The Nation about the “tougher, more uncertain work (of) creating a world that loves queer kids, that wants them to live and thrive.” Few of the commentaries about Clementi, Brown, Walsh, Lucas and others address the broader context of responsibility for their suicides. What did the family and religious lives of these teens tell them about sexuality and religion? What produced despair so profound that death seemed their only avenue of escape from bullying?
It’s obvious to condemn the anti-gay hatemongering of Westboro Baptist church (who recently protested at my university alleging that professors teach “the ubiquitous lie that ‘it’s OK to be gay”). More troubling is the subtle and pernicious rhetoric espoused by religious communities and organizations that advise young people to transform their sexuality from gay to straight. Exodus Youth, an entire branch of the Christian ex-gay movement targets those at the most vulnerable and precarious points in their lives, arguing that instead of being gay, they are merely experiencing what they call SSA or same-sex attraction; a temporary malady that can be fixed through ministry, counseling, and prayer.
On their Web site, Exodus Youth provides “resources to help you minister to struggling youth, understand the root causes and treatment of homosexuality, address homosexuality as a church, and confront the false pro-gay theology.” The premise of Exodus is that youth must change, and that their sexuality is merely a disorder, addiction, or false identity.
The most recent post on the Exodus Youth blog by Chris Stump “Tragic Losses: Enough is Enough!” exemplifies how anti-gay sentiment masquerades as love and compassion. Stump writes of the suicides of Clementi and others: “Let truth, kindness, compassion, and love surround the attacked, not condemnation, judgment, hate, and deception. We must be edifiers of the broken and abused. It’s my hope that we can step away from complacency and breathe life into those who are constantly beaten down. The harassed need encouragement, love, and friends who will stand up for them.” Below this post is Stump’s review of a prominent ex-gay text You Don’t Have to be Gay by Jeff Konrad, which he describes as an “insightful book for men who struggle with homosexuality.”
If you take Stump’s words on love and encouragement out of context, you might think he is not saying anything different from what Debra Haffner (executive director of the Religious Institute, a multifaith organization dedicated to sexual health and justice) wrote in the On Faith section of the Washington Post. She argues that churches need to rethink their response to gay teens. “Tell your teens and young adults that you love them, that God loves them, and that you will stand with them in the face of bullying, victimization, and harassment.” The difference is that Haffner believes the church must accept and welcome queer youth. Exodus Youth wants to help pastors and churches provide resources to keep young people from identifying as gay.
Haffner cites a study that showed that 6 out of 10 mainline churches support LGBT rights. While this is an encouraging sign, her article neglects to mention that within Christianity, conservative and nondenominational megachurches increasingly attract more young people than mainline groups, whose attendance has declined. Megachurches like Vineyard and Calvary often utilize the most damaging rhetoric about being queer or gender nonconformist while claiming that they love and support the young people in their congregations.
These churches’ ideas about homosexuality are a direct legacy of the ex-gay movement, which has always had the goal of reshaping how religious organizations more broadly respond to those who come out to them as gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, or queer. Love Won Out conferences, sponsored by Focus on the Family, are designed to reach conservative Christians in churches and political organizations who may have never considered the issue of homosexuality. Their aim is to establish referral networks between the churches and ex-gay ministries. When a young person divulges to a pastor or religious leader that she is queer, the church will immediately refer her to an ex-gay ministry and encourage her to change. I knew a man at a ministry who recalled coming out to his pastor at age sixteen as “someone who is gay and wants to change” because knew his religious community would never accept him. Now, there are also Jewish, Mormon, and Catholic versions of the ex-gay movement.
As Haffner notes, many mainline Christian churches and other religious organizations lack consistent policies and programs for dealing with LGBT youth. Meanwhile, Exodus and Focus on the Family have explicitly aimed their resources and materials toward youth as the next wave of ex-gay ministry for the past decade. Instead of “It Gets Better,” the idea is to use flashy media to tell questioning and confused youth that their same-sex feelings are not an identity but a condition. In a section exclusively for those in ministry the Exodus youth Web site asks, “What would you do if one of your students came to you and said, ‘I need to talk because I think I’m gay?’” It exhorts pastors to be a “person they can go to for help and advice.” And that accurate information will “breed a heart full of compassion.” Their ideal role for churches includes: “We are a safe place to be open about your struggle! Our vision is for the local church is to be the first place that a person thinks of when they need to experience Christ’s grace and redemptive power in the area of their sexuality.” Given the sophisticated efforts aimed at young people by the ex-gay movement and its supporters, Debra Haffner is correct is exhorting liberal churches and religious organizations to rethink how they respond to queer and gender nonconforming youth.
Randy Thomas, another ex-gay leader wrote in a post, “The two students that committed this atrocity of broadcasting Tyler’s private life to the world should receive earthly justice and punishment while we pray for God’s mercy to bring them both to repentance.” Thomas not only avoids responsibility for the potential damage of the ex-gay movement, but he argues for the increasing criminalization of youth. His logic is that if we just lock up the bullies, the problem will go away.
I knew a man who took his life after struggling to transform his sexuality in an ex-gay ministry for years. The ideas of “hope for healing” and “freedom from homosexuality” promulgated by Exodus Youth, religious organizations, families, and social communities are deeply entrenched and powerful. Even men and women I met in the course of my research who attended ex-gay ministries and later self-identified as LGBT still struggled. No matter how many years separated them from their experiences as young people in churches, the beliefs of their upbringing and their own same-sex desires still felt irreconcilable.
By focusing on bullying, Exodus Youth and its supporters avoid the truth that their organization endorses insidious forms of hatred cloaked in the language of compassion. Religious organizations need to carefully ask themselves what kind of compassion they promote toward the queer members of their communities. “I grieve for these young lives cut short. I grieve for the parents who love and stood by their teens, knowing what they faced at school daily,” Chris Stump writes. His grief rings hollow given that he works for Exodus. In Stump’s words, “Enough is Enough.”