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.

Little Lion Man: A Bryan College Story

young man standing leaning against a ledge on a city rooftop

 

LGBTQ Christians have a variety of reasons why they ended up at Christian universities. Some were forced by controlling, concerned parents. Others burned with zeal to take part in the shifting evangelical landscape. Some craved an authentic community with open-minded Christians. However, those weren’t my reasons. I needed to survive, clinging to the shattered, irreparable pieces of my worldview. I didn’t want to be gay.

 

My parents expected I would transfer to a cheaper state school. That wasn’t happening. Atheist professors would probably brainwash me and I’d likely make dumb decisions with hot guys. That would be it. I’d be gay. No sir, we had to nip this in the bud. As a teenager, I had discovered the ex-gay movement as Mom daily listened to Focus on the Family. Finally someone was talking about my situation from a Christian perspective. I dug deeper and found The National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH) and Exodus International. They told me change was possible. Change. What an intoxicating thought. I could be normal and ordinary. I can fix this. I laid out my case for a Christian college to my parents, bought a thick book published by The Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, and then examined the possibilities. Bryan seemed like a good choice; it was conservative, close to home, and as I browsed through the chapels recordings, I discovered had recently invited an ex-gay speaker. Heck yes. This was it.

 

While waiting to transfer, I spent six months working with Adam, my therapist. I wanted every gay part of me expunged and forgotten. But therapy didn’t feel all that ex-gay (reconnecting with Adam this summer revealed I was right, thankfully). Adam kept coming back to my anxiety and the negative mental script playing on repeat in my head. Obviously he was missing the point. If I could just like girls then I wouldn’t hate myself. Somehow every flaw would fade away with the gay. Same-sex attraction, I assumed, barred me from living the life I wanted.

 

August eventually arrived. My heart pounded driving up to Tennessee. Could I keep my secret? Would I find a wife? How was I going to adjust away from home after home schooling and community college?

 

I latched onto my core friend group within my first week. Kyle, one of my roommates, Patrick, a guy in my orientation group, and Nathan, Patrick’s roommate. They became my people when I didn’t have the emotional strength to branch out to others. Much of my free time was spent alone in my dorm room, my place of security after all the day’s awkward failures and social growing pains. My friends often interfered with those attempts to hide; they drew me out, made me talk. They convinced me to do silly things like create dance-off videos and play hours of scum, a card game that probably wasn’t great for our self-esteem. On the weekends we often gathered late at night and worshipped in the chapel foyer; the building echoed with the strums of Patrick’s guitar and the sound of our voices.

 

Bryan was a tiny school; I’m sure many people knew of me, but I didn’t allow many people to know me. I didn’t think most people would take the truth well, so I kept my distance. It didn’t matter anyway, I told myself. My purpose was to learn everything psychology and theology could teach me about homosexuality and maybe, just maybe, I’d find the answer. I’d be straight–then I could fit in and belong. But my emotional longing to connect would often get the better of my defensive mechanisms. I couldn’t help blurting out the truth if someone told me about a gay family member or asked why I was so interested in gay people. I gave presentations, wrote research papers and short stories that often related to homosexuality. Let’s face it, for a guy trying to hide a secret, I was doing pretty lousy job.

 

And then there were the girls. As a male psychology major, I was a minority in a sea of women. Growing up, my friendships had always been with guys. My friends talked about the girls they liked and SEC Football, but they also peer-pressured me into reading and liking Jane Austen. I kinda had it good for a gay boy. In our tiny marriage-happy denomination, talking to girls implied things and we tended to segregate to our own sex, so I stuck with the guys. It was fine with me, I liked being a guy. But at Bryan it surprised me how easily I could talk to women. I would find myself sitting more and more often with them and feel completely comfortable, sometimes even animated in ways I wouldn’t be around men. That bothered me. How does this look to other people? If a particular friendship with a girl got a little too close, I’d start to panic. What if she gets the wrong impression? Sure, I eventually wanted a relationship and a wife… But. Not. Freaking. Right. Now.

 

The ex-gay narrative began to unravel my last year at Bryan. After years of pushing myself, I realized I was no more attracted to women than when I started. The research didn’t back it, and Christian psychologists couldn’t even guarantee absolute cessation of same-sex attraction for everyone who tried. All the anecdotal stories of “change” began to be outweighed by stories of failure and trauma, while Christians rebuked the latter for being too emotionally weak or just flat-out bad Christians. I felt like Linus in the pumpkin patch on Halloween, believing and awaiting the arrival of The Great Pumpkin year after year, only to be disappointed again. Just you wait, Charlie Brown. Just wait ‘til next year. But I was tired of waiting, tired of fighting a force that wouldn’t budge. I took a mock assessment in my abnormal psychology class that measured personality and psychopathology; my professor picked up on the depression and suicidal ideation that had resurfaced from my inner struggle. He encouraged me to see the college counselor. Everything seemed to be telling me to move on. But to what? I didn’t believe in same-sex marriage. And celibacy? Who the heck does that?

 

My last semester at Bryan I asked a girl if I could pursue her, being the I Kissed Dating Goodbye kinda guy I was at the time. I liked her. I didn’t feel infatuated, but I was happy around her. She always took the opportunity to affirm my existence. She was beautiful, ridiculously talented, and funny. I felt comfortable around her. Maybe it could work; maybe it was enough. So one day we talked and I told her what was on my heart (minus the same-sex attraction part, I figured we could get to that eventually). Thankfully, she turned me down (but with grace and compassion). It crushed me, even without the butterflies. I had never found the courage to ask a girl to consider a relationship, and what if I never found it again? What would happen to me then? I apologized for putting her in an awkward situation. “It doesn’t have to be awkward” she replied kindly as we continued walking. I avoided her afterwards, too mortified to keep pursuing her friendship. It’s one of those moments I wish could be redone. Rather than asking to court her, I could have shared a moment of authentic connection—an open door to an awesome friendship. But it is what it is, I guess.

 

But I did find rare moments of courage to open up. The first time I came out at Bryan was in my psychology advisor’s office. I was adjusting to the increased difficulty of my classes and failing the first half of his physiological psychology class. He intimidated me at the time, but for some reason I didn’t care that day. I broke down and told him why I wanted a future as a psychologist and my fear that I had made a terrible mistake. My advisor responded with kindness and openness, encouraging me to keep going and to work harder. Eventually I opened up to my other professor in the psychology program. While I hid from most of the campus, I spent hours in my professors’ offices talking about theology, psychology, and sexuality. They became my second fathers away from home, mentoring and challenging me to become the man God was calling me to be. My senior year, I finally found the courage to share the missing piece of my story with Kyle, Patrick, and Nathan. Each initial disclosure was like jumping off a cliff blindfolded–exhilarating and terrifying–no telling what would result once I landed. I have many defensive mechanisms to help me bear the loneliness and isolation, but even today I haven’t found a healthy way to cope with rejection. Well, other than time. To my relief, none of my close friends abandoned me. Some people have become distant through my emotional and spiritual growth (which may have nothing to do with my sexual orientation), but my buddies stuck with me through the years, no matter how many miles apart.

 

My story began with a falsehood. I can change my sexual orientation if I work hard enough. The ex-gay movement reduced the gospel into a pursuit of straightness. I wasn’t accepted unless I had a wife or was at least working towards that outcome. As I learned to let go, some Christians chastised me for giving up. Keep praying; homosexuality isn’t God’s intent for your life. But what kind of life is that? There’s kingdom work to be done, other people who need the love and grace of Christ. The ex-gay approach is terribly self-centered. Healing comes from without, out in the light and out in the open. Trying to change our sexual orientation shames us from embracing intimate, authentic community as we currently find ourselves. We desperately need the redemptive love of the church to touch our lives, but many gay Christians choose to suffocate in isolation because they can’t meet the unfair and callous demands of the evangelical church. The church needs to be clear: life is happening now, and abundant life is available to all who seek it. Life doesn’t wait for marriage, and isn’t limited to the heterosexual.

 

When I realized nothing was going to change, I thought mixed orientation was my only option, a marriage lacking sexual attraction. Gay men and women who hold a traditional sexual ethic can be happy and thrive in mixed-orientation marriages if transparency, honesty, and sacrificial love characterize the relationship. But when I became honest with myself I realized the truth: I just didn’t want it. Since I have a choice in the matter, I’d rather just have a woman’s friendship. I don’t think I’m a better or worse Christian for that. It took a couple of years vacillating between affirming theology and the traditional perspective, but celibacy is how I eventually and personally reconciled my convictions with the circumstances I found myself in.

 

My sexual orientation remains a part of me, a part I didn’t choose or even want. It’s kinda funny, I became the man I worked so hard not to become. I’m gay, and I’ve gained a broader perspective of what that means beyond sexual behavior and lust. I wish the old Seth could see the freedom it offers. My focus isn’t on my works, my ability to make myself straight. It’s not even a life waiting around for God to zap me with straightness so He and the church can accept me. I am acceptable as I am, covered in the blood of Christ. I am beloved because of my Heavenly Father’s unmerited favor and generous, steadfast love. No ignorant Christian can take away the rest and peace of the gospel from me.

 

/ / /

 

Bryan College has had more than its fair share of conflicts since I graduated. The controversial clarification statement on man’s origins and evolution has torn a community of students, faculty, administration, and alumni. I can imagine Bryan currently feels like a scary, uncertain place for its sexual minority students. When Christians tighten the leash on orthodoxy, the marginalized and misunderstood often feel the impact. People forget to acknowledge our humanity and reduce us to political issues. It’s isolating and dehumanizing. For all sexual minorities on Christian campuses, I’m so sorry you bear that burden on top of all the normal stresses of college. When I was a student at Bryan I thought I was alone, the only one like me. Blogging has revealed that wasn’t the case. I’ve connected with old acquaintances and found shared experiences and struggles. I suspect you aren’t the only one either. I also believe you’ll find safe allies among your fellow students and faculty. Allies who will gladly journey with you through your frustrations, sorrows, and loneliness. You aren’t meant to carry this alone, brothers and sisters, so please don’t.

 

Bryan was a crucial part of my spiritual growth. I’m not happy with many of the decisions my alma mater has made recently, but I’m thankful for the people who touched my life and continue to encourage me. Some of my closest friendships have developed after graduation when I reconnected and opened up. This blog has also helped me reestablish ties to many of my former acquaintances, and while I regret the opportunities lost, I’m thankful for the chance to build relationships from where we find ourselves now. We serve a God of second chances, a God who redeems our stories.