May 20, 2011

The Queer History of the Ex-Gay Movement

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Written by: Kristi

There is a long history of straight attempts to erase, eradicate, assimilate and ignore queer people – in a lot of awful, disturbing and creatively cruel ways. The most modern of which I believe is the ex-gay movement; an attempt of several religious organizations of the evangelical variety to spread the notion that gay people are making a choice and therefore can make an unchoice and “Pray away the Gay”.

Given that the movement is only half a century old, their tactics, motivations and goals have evolved rapidly as mainstream support for gay rights and culture has grown.

A bit of a history

In 1968, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual II was published. The DSM (currently in its 4th, soon to be 5th edition) is a manual published by the American Psychiatric Association that lists, defines and provides diagnostic tools for mental disorders. Though certainly not without controversy and detraction, the DSM generally defines what is considered normal and abnormal behaviour.

When the DSM-II was first printed, homosexuality was still listed as a mental disorder. It could be diagnosed, treated and individuals suffering from it were regularly institutionalized if their case was especially chronic and resistant to treatment. The DSM also generally affects the way North American governments treat people; for example, some governments will only provide funding for expensive pharmaceutical treatments for schizophrenia if you meet the diagnostic criteria as laid out in the current edition of the DSM.

After the Stonewall riots in 1969, pressures on the APA to accept homosexuality as a normal variant in human behaviour intensified, from both the scientific community and the public. When the seventh printing of the DSM-II was published, the APA caved and removed homosexuality, essentially publically accepting that it was not “abnormal”.

Of course many conservative (and even not-so-conservative) religious organizations at the time did not oppose homosexuality because it was psychologically “abnormal” but rather because their doctrine denounced it – something that isn’t as easily changed (although that’s not to say that changing general scientific discourse was particularly simple).

As they lost the support for their homophobia from scientists and politicians, religious leaders were faced with a problem. While GBLTQ people were facing fewer barriers to mainstream society, at least in terms of public policy, they still posed a problem to religious doctrine. If the doctrine said that homosexuality was an abomination, but homosexuality was something people came by naturally (and made in the image of a chosen deity) and not by choice, it called the ironcladness of that doctrine into question. So many evangelical religious leaders continued to spread the belief the homosexuality was a choice, and begain to set up organizations to support gay individuals to take back their sinful choice. In 1973 the first ex-gay org, Love in Action, was founded in California.

The “therapies”

The ex-gay movement was a subtype of several types of therapies used to correct sexual orientation, although ex-gay organizations have used many different types of therapies to ‘assist’ their followers. So-called “conversion” therapies have a longer history, dating back to the days of Sigmund Freud, who wrote several papers detailing his feelings about homosexuality in humans between 1905 and 1922. Therapies aimed at ‘curing’ homosexuality have varied in their cruelty, but maintained a consistently standard rate of failure. There are five main types:

Behavior Modification

Modifying the subject’s behaviour through basic learning theory methods. Aversion therapy is one, wherein the subject would be forced to watch a series of images or video clips and experience an induced aversion to any homosexual images. Some ‘aversion’ techniques involved self-induced or therapist-controlled electrical shocks to the genitals (sometimes permanently injuring the subject), administration of syrup of Ipecac and other sorts of horrid things.

Ex-gay “Pray out the Gay” Ministries

Attempting to use religious teachings and prayer to assist the subject to deny/ignore/eradicate homosexual inclinations and accept a ‘normal’ heterosexual role in the church.

Reparative Therapy and Psychoanalysis

Atempting to ‘cure’ the subject by curing their arrested sexual development (deeply rooted in Freudian psychoanalytical theories). RT usually involved the subject engaging in multiple ‘gender-typical’ activities to correct their dysfunction (Men would play more sports and chop wood; women would cook and clean). Psychoanalysis required the subject and the therapist to uncover the repressed childhood event that arrested sexual development.

Sex Therapy

Quite simply, teaching the queers to have ‘normal’ sex.

A lot of these therapies have fallen out of vogue with increasing support for GBLTQ rights in the public sphere, even with ex-gay organizations.

And because Rachel Maddow makes us here at the Gaily a little too happy, especially when she is stomping and ravaging homophobes on her show, here is an interview she did with Richard Cohen, a “sexual reorientation specialist”:




With less and less ability or interest in ignoring vast quantities of scientific research that supports the idea that sexual orientation is innate and not fluid, at least for most, many (not all) ex-gay organizations have turned away from radical methods of conversion and focused more on ‘assisting’ individuals unsatisfied with their sexual orientation in adapting to a heterosexual lifestyle while acknowledging that these individuals are likely to face a constant internal struggle.

For individuals afraid of their own gayness, the stigma attached, being shunned by friends, family and community, ex-gay offers, if nothing else, the most basic “therapy” teaches them how to blend in. Probably a simplification, but it seems to offer the homophobic religion AND the tormented gay faithful followers a compromise that allows them to live in a narrow, shakey harmony that relies on both parties participating in a mutual denial.

Ex-gay ministries and teachings fail to provide anything more than a very temporary and individual solution to the larger problem of theologically perpetuated homophobia. On the most objective level, these methods have no scientifically valid data proving success. And on a more subjective level, they do nothing to help the individual with depression, self-loathing and personal turmoil and suffering from an unwanted sexual orientation that just won’t go away.

Programs that teach and support the individual to accept their orientation as a fact of life at the very least are clearly more ethical and improve quality of life in a much more lasting way.

Oh the irony…

Currently there are hundreds of ex-gay ministries in the United States and Canada. One of the largest (and my favourite for it’s scandelous and telling beginnings) is Exodus International, founded in 1976. Exodus is big into reparative therapy, strengthening gender roles, abstinance, etc. It’s my favourite because even in it’s beginnings, Exodus clearly illustrated the hypocrisy of the ex-gay movement. Two of its co-founders, Michael Bussee and Gary Cooper, after years of working side-by-side to help others overcome the gay scourge, Bussee and Cooper found themselves deeply in love with each other, and quite happy being together as a Gay couple. They left the organization in 1979 and were married in 1982. They speak throughout the film One Nation Under God, a documentary from 1992 delving into the ex-gay movement.

To learn more about the current ex-gay movement, check out the following sources!

Abomination: Film about ex-gay movement (link is to The Hour interview with the filmmaker, a physician)

Cure For Love: a Film Board of Canada doc about a Gay man and Lesbian woman and their hetero marriage. Plus some other pretty cool Gay and ex-gay people.

Ex-gay Watch: a website that keeps tabs on new anti-gay and ex-gay developments

8: The Mormon Proposition: a great doc about Prop 8 and the Mormon Church opposition; includes a heartwrenching interview with a man who experienced excruciating conversion therapy at the hands of his Christian University.

But I’m a Cheerleader!: Looking for something a little more light-hearted? Film about a hilariously extreme reparative therapy ‘camp’ for gay teens (where boys wear blue, girls wear pink) starring Natasha Lyonne.

About the Author

|Sex & Relationships Writer| I am a 20-something straight divorcee with a dirty mind and a loud mouth. I work for a non-profit organization that can appreciate my mad writing and policy development skills despite my outrageous TMI outbursts. I'm a feminist, a mother, a techno-phile, an avid and shameless sex blogger. I'm most often seen having sex or hunched over a computer, writing about sex. Or eating...I like eating.



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One Comment

  1. Kris

    This was amazing. Don’t forget about the “Don’t Say Gay Bill” too as another method of erasing homosexuality. People amuse me. And by amuse I mean make me want to smash my face into a wall until it turns to goo.

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