Inside the Evangelical gay-conversion movement.
Tanya Erzen is an ethnographer who did her dissertation field work at New Hope Ministry, a California program devoted to “healing” gay men of their homosexuality. In other words, she plunged into the heart of the Christian Right and set up shop in a west-pointing temple of the sunrise. If you can stand it, her new book Straight to Jesus: Sexual and Christian Conversions in the Ex-Gay Movement is a crash course on the worldview of conservative Evangelicals.
New Hope runs a yearlong live-in total-immersion program that gay Christian men join voluntarily in hopes of becoming heterosexual. Partly because she was the only one who could consistently make the Internet connection work, Erzen was allowed to hang around the ministry office and follow the progress of one class of such men. She also contacted and interviewed men from previous years. It’s a fascinating journey. In recounting it, she does a good job of mixing personal observations of the men with commentary on the historical, political, and theological background of their quest.
The men come off as complex and sympathetic characters. I’m left with the impression that Erzen came to care deeply about some of them. She tells us very little about herself, but occasionally exposes a little of the guilt of a double agent from a le Carré novel. She quotes an anthropologist: “They told their subjects carefully who they were, but then did their best research when their subjects forgot.” The men of New Hope frequently seem to forget that Erzen is studying them.
Cutting to the chase, the program doesn’t work in any medically definable sense. In spite of a few widely publicized cases (some of whom backslid spectacularly later on), there is no evidence that any gay-conversion program changes a person’s sexual desires. Fifteen men start the New Hope program, several don’t finish, one dies in what may or may not have been a suicide, and all report continuing to feel attracted to men at the end of the year. Some continue struggling to overcome their homosexuality, while others end up embracing a gay identity. Several years later, one man from a previous New Hope class sends Erzen an invitation to his traditional male-female wedding.
And yet, many of the men who complete the program are glad they came, several stay on to take the leadership training, and the leaders of the program—ex-gay men themselves—continue to soldier on, waiting for the sun to rise in the west tomorrow.
Erzen resists the temptation to say these people are just nuts, and instead tries to understand how their worldview operates. The gist amounts to this: These men were raised with an Evangelical Christian worldview and believed strongly that being gay had separated them from God. Most came from small towns or rural environments that had no gay culture, and they simply accepted the right-wing Christian view that they had to choose between being gay and having any values in their lives that go deeper than sex.
What they really wanted was not heterosexuality per se, but to have a relationship with God again. New Hope provided that. In place of a godless gay identity, New Hope gave them an ex-gay identity, in which they and Jesus together are struggling against their flawed sexuality. As long as they struggle, as long as they confess their “falls” and re-pledge their loyalty to Jesus, they can be right with God.
Of course, the possibility that actively gay men can have a relationship with God, or can manifest deeper human values in their lives at all, doesn’t enter into this picture. At some points in the book this seems quite tragic. The men are wishing for relationships that go beyond casual sex, believing that such relationships are only possible with women in some distant heterosexual future—and they don’t seem to notice that the other gay men in the program are wishing for the same thing.
One of the most interesting chapters of the book is the sixth, which discusses the wider politics of the ex-gay ministry. Early in the movement’s history, Christian conservative leaders like James Dobson wanted nothing to do with ex-gay ministries. But in the late 1990s the Christian Right’s anti-gay campaign changed its tactics. As gays and lesbians became more visible in the culture and in the media, hateful gay-bashing was becoming counterproductive. By embracing the ex-gay movement the Right could put a more compassionate love-the-sinner veneer on its anti-gay agenda. They could continue to portray the gay lifestyle as godless, valueless, and corrosive to society, but could offer at least the pretense of an alternative: Through the healing power of Jesus, gays could turn away from this destructive lifestyle and choose to be normal heterosexuals.
The men at New Hope were deeply conflicted about Dobson’s appropriation of their ministry for political purposes. On the one hand, at last they were getting recognition and respect in the larger Evangelical community. At last their testimony was being welcomed at Christian conferences. But many, especially those who came for personal healing and not to be part of a movement, did not sympathize with an anti-gay agenda at all, and resented the fact that their testimonies were being used to promote one. They wanted gays to be protected against hate crimes and to have equal rights in employment and housing.
And they knew the program was being oversold. Brian (the man who later sends the wedding invitation) wrote to Erzen: “To be honest with you, I’ve never heard of one person who’s ever said that that [complete heterosexuality] is where they’ve come to. I don’t expect it to.”
Chapter Four describes the pseudo-science behind gay conversion. Again and again, human sexual pathologies are presented as if they were uniquely gay phenomena—like “emotional dependency,” which one theorist describes as “an all-consuming, even obsessive need to be with the love object.” I’d guess that half of Nickelback’s songs are about the heterosexual version of this phenomenon, but the theorists of gay conversion seem not to have radios.
Ultimately, Erzen comes to describe what happens at New Hope as a “queer conversion.” She builds this concept on the academic notion of “queer theory,” which denies “that sexuality is an essentialist category determined by biology or judged by eternal standards of morality and truth.” She writes:
Instead, queer theory argues for the idea that identities are culturally and historically determined rather than fixed; sexual practices and desires change over time and do not consistently line up with masculine or feminine gender expectations.
What New Hope and its related ministries have done, Erzen believes, is create the new sexual identity of ex-gay. It’s not heterosexual, not celibate, and yet it is different from any gay identity previously recognized in this culture. It has its own community and its own practices.
No doubt, the conservative Christian leaders of the ex-gay movement will bristle at this analysis, particularly at the absence of “eternal standards of morality and truth.” But I’d like to hear them offer a better explanation of what they’re doing. They know that the simplistic concept of “healing” doesn’t cover it.
I have barely scratched the surface of this book in these few paragraphs. Liberals should read this book, if for no other reason than to attach sympathetic characters to points of view that will probably continue to seem bizarre. Minds can only stretch so far.
Adapted from an essay originally published on the author's blog, "Free and Responsible Search," on December 5. see below for links related to this story.
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Doug Muder is a contributing editor and columnist for UU World. His articles have also appeared in Religious Humanism, The Humanist, and Public Eye. He blogs at The Weekly Sift and Free and Responsible Search, and is a member of First Parish in Bedford, Massachusetts.
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