When the Ex-Gay Doesn’t Go Away

man sitting in church

My social feeds have been buzzing with discussions on ex-gay or conversion therapy lately. President Obama recently lent his voice to advocate for the ban of all LGBTQ+ conversion therapies for minors, which Alan Chambers, former President of Exodus International, praised and journalist Jonathan Merritt noted received little notice or protest from the Christian Right.

 

Speaking of Merritt, his recent piece does a brilliant job discussing the rise and fall of conversion therapy within Christian culture. The support for ex-gay therapy now remains mostly with fringe groups and seems to receive little credence among those interested in ministering to sexual minorities. Ex-gay therapy looks a lot like the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain. The curtain no longer conceals the secrets, failures, and self-deceit. We see the Wizard for who he is—just a man.

 

Out of the broken dreams and false promises of the ex-gay movement, we discover two increasingly popular narratives in mainstream Christian culture. Writers and speakers like Justin Lee and Matthew Vines discuss how these failed stories point to a need to reframe how we approach scriptural sexual ethics, re-envisioning new possibilities for gays and lesbians in light of what we now know about sexual orientation and its apparent immutability for most sexual minorities. Other writers and speakers like Wesley Hill maintain a traditional sexual ethic while seeking to be realistic about their situation as sexual minorities, often choosing celibacy while promoting friendship, communal living, celibate partnerships, and possibly mixed-orientation marriages.

 

While these two approaches rapidly gain ground within the church, I’m not positive either position could be called the dominant perspective, at least in the evangelical church where I grew up and continue to call home. Ex-gay therapy may be seeing it’s last days in mainstream culture, but the ex-gay movement seems alive and thriving in the subculture of the evangelical church. Rosaria Butterfield is an incredibly popular voice among evangelicals who lack nuance on sexual identity and reduce LGBTQ+ people to their sexual behavior. Butterfield’s conversion story (liberal, feminist, lesbian professor to a conservative home schooling mom and wife of a reformed Presbyterian minister) sets her, and those like her, on a pedestal in the evangelical community. We love Christian testimonies, especially if they remove the ickiness and tension of any residual sin struggles we don’t understand. Butterfield validates the church’s assumptions about homosexuality, and the church readily weaponizes stories like Butterfield’s against anyone who would dare offer a competing narrative. Even major Christian publications like World Magazine seem hesitant to abandon the ex-gay paradigm. World recently featured a story about Wheaton College’s openly gay and celibate employee Julie Rodgers. Most of the discussion featured not celibate voices like Julie’s or those sympathetic to her position, but ex-gay advocates who believed Julie had given up on her spiritual development by accepting a gay identity. Major evangelical organizations like The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) and popular blogs like The Gospel Coalition seem incredibly hesitant to feature sexual minority voices who openly identify as gay.

 

I recently noticed David Platt, a popular Christian writer and former pastor of one of my home state’s largest churches, sharing a post featuring a piece Denny Burk had written for the ERLC. Burk argues sexual orientation is sinful in and of itself—even if sexual minorities like myself refrain from extramarital sexual intercourse and lust. Sadly, I don’t think this is a marginal perspective in our churches. Many believe God’s original design for sexuality between one man and one woman establishes heterosexuality as the standard for all believers. In my experience, some evangelicals believe by becoming a Christian, a gay person simply shakes off the “gay lifestyle” and everything is dandy from that point. Many more Christians see sanctification as a process of becoming more whole, and thus “straighter,” as one develops a deeper relationship with Christ. Just keep fighting; just keep praying. Don’t give in.

 

As a Christian studying the field of psychology, I’m not all that surprised when Jonathan Merritt reports the Christian Right didn’t rise in outrage over President Obama’s call to end conversion therapy for minors. The evangelical church still harbors suspicions about the Christian counseling and psychological community, questioning the methods and philosophies used to produce healing and provide assistance. Many pastors are partial to Jay Adams’ biblical counseling approach, believing the Bible has all the answers we need to address mental health concerns. So what if therapy can’t cure someone of homosexuality? We already knew that. This is the job of God’s Spirit, not a therapist. Nothing really changes for the average evangelical church and the isolated LGBTQ Christian in need of help.

 

It’s at this point we’ve arrived at the heart of the issue. On one side we have conservative Christians standing with nothing but their scriptural understanding of homosexuality, divorced of any meaningful relationship with transparent sexual minorities—conservative Christians who fail to grasp the reality and nuance of our situation. Then there’s us, the folks who have tried the ex-gay programs, have spent years believing and praying and wanting change to happen, but nothing has changed, other than maybe a deeper faith or a faith that has become brittle, if it hasn’t already shattered into irreparable pieces.

 

Nothing really changes until the church is willing to listen. It won’t come through new laws, bullying, or name-calling. Change comes gradually through relationships and conversations, through tension and discomfort, through gracious and patient hearts. Change happens as we break down our language barriers and examine how sanctification really works. When we dialogue with curious and open hearts, we sometimes discover we need to adjust our assumptions and expectations.

 

The ex-gay movement is not an issue the government can ultimately fix or solve; it’s for us in the church to come together and address. And it’s time we put away the politics and discussed the needs of the sexual minorities in our pews.

 

So let’s talk.

Letter to a Bitter Celibate

girl watching camp fire

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You’ve never been here before. Celibacy. You dabbled with the idea, but it never really stuck. A life without a spouse seemed hollow, frightening, and desolate. Kinda like living in tomb separate from the land of the living. Celibacy felt like death and you desperately wanted to live.

 

But here you are at the end of all your exploring. You’ve arrived at where you started, and as T. S. Eliot wrote, you know the place for the first time. “Not known, because not looked for.” But now your eyes are open. You have bitten into forbidden fruit and now there’s no longer room for you in the garden.

 

You wanted this transition to be easy, effortless. No more panic attacks. No more rejections from the men you wanted to love. No more secrets. You pictured God with a frown when you prayed, mostly wondering if He even listened anymore.

 

Are you happy, God?

 

You’re attending more weddings as the years pass. Tears tend to well up in your eyes, but they aren’t tears of happiness for the bride and groom. The tears are for all your dreams crumbling before your eyes.

 

Church used to feel like a family. Everything felt right, every ritual routine. Hymns, prayers, a sermon, and a potluck lunch every Sunday. But now you’re sneaking in late, sitting in the back. You stare at the back of people’s heads and feel overwhelmed by the gulf between them and you. You’ve become a stranger and the awkwardness hangs thick in the air. You internally argue with the pastor; his every criticism feels aimed at you. You want church to work again, but you don’t know how.

 

You’re fairly convinced God is a tyrant and you’re like his battered wife. You love your husband when he’s gentle, but you never know when he’ll slap you across the face and strangle your neck until there’s no air to breathe. You resent him, but you stay. That’s another thing about abused wives. They can’t seem to visualize any other options. That’s what celibacy feels like. And that’s how twisted your reformed theology has become.

 

“Sometimes it is hard not to say ‘God forgive God,’” C. S. Lewis’ audacious declaration rings true to your tired, bitter heart. Some days you’re almost waiting for an apology from your Heavenly Father. But there’s only silence.

 

You don’t talk to people because they won’t get it. They’ll try to fix you because your pain makes them uncomfortable. They’ll probably tell you to get over it, repent, move on. Words. But words don’t help much. Lewis said it well, “Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.”

 

You’ve done what God and the church required. On one hand, you breathe a little easier without the guilt weighing you down. But that doesn’t make living any easier. You’ve traded anxiety for bitterness. You’ve submitted to what you believe is right, but you fear you’ve sacrificed any hope of a life worth living. But here you are, willingly choosing to embrace the pain like a man needing surgery without any available anesthesia. This will either heal or kill you; you can’t be certain of which yet.

 

You take your Bible off the shelf for the first time in a long time. Only one thing seems to take your mind off the chronic ache of your soul: the pain of others. You see suffering everywhere in scripture, in every character. You see it so strikingly in Christ until it sinks in. God seems so distant, so angry, so disappointed with you. But in Christ you feel his heart. The God of the universe humbled himself and became a suffering servant to reclaim you, to woo you, to make right what life had made so wrong. He knows misunderstanding, rejection, and isolation.

 

He gets you.

 

When you were a senior at Bryan College you wrote a thesis on C. S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed. You examined Lewis’ grief and anger over losing his wife and compared his agony to the process you perceived gay individuals suffer when they lose their sexual identity to become Christians. True, you were still a bit ex-gay back then and didn’t quite understand the complexity of the issue or the complexity of your own sexuality. But you learned something valuable from Lewis that would matter immensely years later when you cycled between depression, anger, and apathy.

 

This is a process of grief.

 

“I thought I could describe a state; make a map of sorrow. Sorrow, however, turns out to be not a state but a process. It needs not a map but a history, and if I don’t stop writing that history at some quite arbitrary point, there’s no reason why I should ever stop. There is something new to be chronicled every day. Grief is like a long valley, a winding valley where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape.”

 

People respond differently to grief; several of your gay friends gave up on celibacy while you were in the process of finding it. It wasn’t a matter of who had the stronger faith or who was the truer Christian. There’s no telling what really made the difference. But you’ve never thought less of your friends. You had your own path to take and your own convictions to uphold. The daily, costly act of obedience required more than you thought you could give, and you came with plenty of hesitation and doubt. You slowly began cleaning up your disheveled theology, gradually embracing celibacy not as an avoidance of Hell but an affirmation of God’s calling for your life. Slowly the bitterness diminished; the melancholia couldn’t last forever. You genuinely laughed again.

 

You are loved well. If you have a little grace and patience, people will begin to come around. They will slowly cease offering unsolicited, unhelpful advice and platitudes. They’ll probably never fully understand, but gradually they will listen. And when they listen well, they provide much better feedback and suggestions.

 

But here at the beginning of this long, winding valley of sorrow, I know no words will help. Words won’t assuage the pain. Yes, time will heal the ache, but it’s the agony of waiting for every second to pass. So I’m going to sit here with you. We don’t have to speak. You can cry or swear, break things or sit still. I won’t walk away or judge.

 

I’m here.

 

~         ~         ~

 

Related Blog Posts:

When I Fear God is Not Good

Giving Thanks for Celibacy?