AT WAR WITH DESIRE Straight to Jesus: Sexual and Christian Conversions in
the Ex-Gay Movement By Tanya Erzen Reviewed by Esther Kaplan
In December 2002, in the middle of George Bush’s first term in office, Julie Gerberding, head of the federal Centers for Disease Control, convened an invitation-only meeting for the purpose of rethinking federal HIV-prevention policy. The meeting was populated by heavyweights on the Christian right, representatives of such groups as Concerned Women for America and the Family Research Council. Over the course of the discussions, several of them came up with a modest proposal: eliminate all federal HIV-prevention funding and redirect it toward “reparative therapy” to cure gay men of their homosexuality.
Reparative therapy has been deployed, in recent years, to defend a sodomy statute in Louisiana and a ban on same-sex marriage in California; a decade ago, it was used in court to argue for barring gay men and lesbians from civil rights protections in the state of Colorado. It’s been useful as propaganda too, allowing evangelical conservatives to block marriage and adoption for gay couples, oppose gay participation in the military and the teaching profession, and associate homosexuality with everything from disease to pedophilia, while still offering up some credible semblance of Christian love. James Dobson’s group Focus on the Family, in response to protests following the Matthew Shepard murder, used its support for reparative therapy to claim, “We do not teach parents to reject their gay kids. We ask them to reject their homosexuality.”
It was of use, quite recently, to megachurch pastor Ted Haggard, who, after a years-long relationship with a male escort, went through three weeks of intensive therapy after which he was declared by his church elders to be “completely heterosexual.”
Some of the chief practitioners of reparative therapy, in particular Exodus International and the National Association for the Repair and Treatment of Homosexuality (NARTH), lend their support to these political aims. They show up in court to undermine gay civil rights by offering expert testimony that change is possible—in defiance of the professional opinion of every major psychological association—and stand side by side at press conferences with Dobson and other opponents of gay rights to burnish their image as compassionate conservatives. In this context, it’s difficult to think of the ex-gay movement as anything but a political tool of reactionaries, who proclaim love for the sinner while conducting well-financed campaigns that claim same-sex love will lead to the collapse of Western civilization.
Yet Tanya Erzen’s book allows you to do just that. She reveals the ex-gay project at its most authentic, through a dozen or so lives at New Hope, the oldest such residential ministry in the country, founded by and for gay men—or rather, as they’d prefer it, by men struggling with homosexual desire—in San Rafael, California, in 1973. (A parallel program for lesbians was short-lived.) Far from the press conferences, courtrooms, and legislative offices where the Christian right now does battle, the ex-gay movement was hardly the propaganda creation of some evangelical megachurch or lobby group. In fact, it was originally viewed as an embarrassment by Dobson and his ilk. New Hope’s founder, Frank Worthen, spent fruitless years seeking a hearing with Dobson, who didn’t embrace the idea that there was “hope for the homosexual” until the late 1980s. Only in the mid-1990s did Focus on the Family hire an ex-gay leader onto its staff, although by the decade’s end, even Jerry Falwell had endorsed “Coming Out of Homosexuality Day.”
The tale is fascinating and deeply American. The early ex-gay ministries grew out of the “Jesus movement” of the 1960s, with its individualistic idea that anyone could become a Christian through personal acceptance of Jesus—even a hippie; even an addict; even a homosexual. “We were high on God,” Worthen recalls. “We truly believed that God could do anything. He could change homosexuals to heterosexuals.” The ex-gay pioneers married an evangelical Christianity based on confession—the cultural sod that has since nurtured pop cultural icons from Sally Jesse and Oprah to the Real World—to the 12-step addiction-recovery program. The result of the union was a new model for overcoming both the sin and the disease of homosexuality. Worthen’s first workbook was called “Steps Out.”
Haggard-style miracle cures are foreign to the men of New Hope. Just as in the 12-step model, in which an addict must stay “in recovery” for life, New Hope residents remain in permanent “spiritual warfare” with their sexual desires. As one early ex-gay leader says, “The old hasn’t passed away.” They employ a grab bag of spiritual and psychological techniques: constant prayer, in which Christ is asked to “restore us at deep levels of shame and brokenness”; forging platonic friendships that will meet the need for same-sex love in nonerotic ways; and modeling “masculinity.” (At annual ex-gay conferences, women are likewise pushed to embrace their “femininity,” through such ridiculousness as workshops on how to put on makeup and wear high heels.) However flawed these approaches may appear, they share the advantage of taking the emphasis away from repression and denial and placing it instead on healing.
Erzen frames the embrace of ex-gay identity as a conversion experience. For many of these men, raised in rural or small-town Christian environments, the possibility of complete forgiveness for desires they’ve felt such shame about for most of their lives is intensely appealing. They view their gay desire as a sin, which implies divine judgment. But if their desires are sinful, they are sins like any others—ungodly temptations to resist, like gambling or infidelity. “How I see it,” says one participant, “is that basically God doesn’t want anybody to use their bodies for sex unless it’s within marriage.”
In a way, this is a deeply liberating formulation. The trouble is, if homosexuality is a sin, then you must be able to overcome it. For many of those on this path, a crisis of faith awaits. If change is the reward for obedience to God, and change never comes, then either you’ve failed God or God has failed you.
At New Hope, becoming an ex-gay is a bit like entering the priesthood—the start of a lifelong spiritual struggle to transcend the physical and sexual self and give oneself fully to God. The residents truly believe that if they enter into a sexual relationship with another man, they will sacrifice their relationship to God—and they’ve chosen God over sex. There’s something moving and even admirable about their quest, even though many of them are driven to it by homophobic trauma (one was outed and harassed on a military base; another was arrested for having sex in a public bathroom). You can’t escape the feeling that they’re doomed to abandon their efforts. One participant, during the course of Erzen’s year of research, is kicked out of the program for having sex in his room. Another, after suffering severe anxiety attacks, dies of heart failure.
These men may be in denial, but even that has the spiritual quality of a religious fast. “You bet I’m in denial,” one participant says. “The Bible says deny yourself, pick up your Cross, and follow me.” And they seem quite aware of the broad social and political context of their struggle. Most know from first-hand experience that the “Church hates people who are gay.” Drew, who does intake, refuses to send people applications to join the community unless the applicant—not, say, a coercive parent—requests it him- or herself. At one point, a few New Hope participants contribute their testimonies to an ex-gay ad campaign and become furious when their stories are manipulated to oppose AIDS research and gay civil rights.
In the end, Erzen’s account of what the participants have found at New Hope, after years of private agony, will be surprisingly familiar to anyone who has come out: after years of rejection and self-blame, they have found a community. Their sense of relief, of belonging, of finally discovering an authentic self, springs from their sudden experience of mutual recognition. They can be Christian in a place where they won’t “hear any of the stuff about you’re scum, you’re going to hell,” and where no one will try to exorcise or ostracize them. And for all the efforts to expunge gay culture from New Hope—there is literally a rule against “camping”—the community is undeniably gay. Erzen describes a very gay scene at the communal dinner table, a spat between two ex-lovers who are now both in the program. Hank, New Hope’s house leader, a sort of lumbering, ex-gay Big Lebowski, says at one point, “My closet was my coffin.” He may be working to overcome his gay desires, but he is no longer in the closet about them. This is a crucial distinction, and it explains why gay men and lesbians find affirmation in programs like this.
Swept up in Erzen’s effort to portray the ex-gay movement through the eyes of its participants, it is easy to forget the movement’s fundamentally reactionary aspect. The first ex-gay conference, after all, took place just seven years after the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York. The gay liberation movement, the very “lifestyle” these men are trying to avoid, cleared the space for them to struggle against their homosexuality openly and with dignity. But this debt is never remarked.
Ultimately, the ex-gay movement can’t be separated from the larger Christian right “ex” industry, with its “ex-feminists,” whom groups like Concerned Women for America wish to “liberate … from their bondage to the empty philosophies of humanism and feminism,” and its “abortion survivors,” who barnstorm “prolife” rallies testifying to their psychic damage. It’s never hard to find ex-gay spokespeople, such as Exodus International’s Joe Dallas, now on Dobson’s staff, who define homosexuality as child endangerment and oppose gay marriage.
As Erzen’s book closes, New Hope, where most of the earnest participants understand that success, for them, may mean a lifetime of being celibate and single, is closing its doors. At the same time, the slick, politically connected Exodus and Love in Action are exploding with funding and participants, selling the promise through hundreds of ministries worldwide of achieving heterosexuality in 30 to 90 days.
Esther Kaplan is a radio and print journalist based in Brooklyn. She is a senior editor at the Nation, host of Beyond the Pale on WBAI New York, and author of With God on Their Side: George W. Bush and the Christian Right.