Rooting out Reorientation Efforts

In the last few weeks the ministry has been approached by several documentary projects looking for people to share their stories of surviving conversion therapy. This traumatic phenomenon is in the spotlight as Hollywood weighs in with feature films like Boy Erased and The Miseducation of Cameron Post.  Campaigns like Born Perfect are hard at work to enact legislation banning the practice of conversion therapy.

When speaking with a producer from CBC, I indicated that the belief that LGBTQ+ people must try to change their orientation or identity through God’s intervention and spiritual discipline is still hurting vulnerable people but in ways that are hard to address or hold people accountable for. In the Canadian context, I don’t know of any programs that overtly promise to change anyone’s sexual attractions or transgender identity. In fact, most groups would explicitly say that they cannot promise this kind of change. When leaders, however, are married to an opposite sex spouse while giving testimony of having experienced same-sex attraction, it is still likely that vulnerable participants will hold the expectation that their orientation will change. If you feel like your only option to please God and to experience love and family is to change your orientation, that is what you will focus all your energy and resources on. And you will tend to view all critiques of this expectation as distractions at best or attacks from the enemy at worst. Despite the accessibility of stories of courageous ex-gay survivors, including ex-gay leaders who have come out to say they did not experience that kind of change themselves or see it in the people who went through their programs, vulnerable people will still focus on the hope of it happening for them. What they might not truly realize is how harmful it may be to them to try to eradicate such a deep and intrinsic part of themselves.

But if ministries addressing matters of sexuality have become more nuanced, realistic, or offer more space for personal agency and autonomy, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the local pastor has. What I mean is that I think there is incredible potential for harm when the well-meaning pastor, with limited experience in walking with LGBTQ+ people, who holds strong theological convictions about the sinfulness of same-sex sexual behaviour, assumes that God’s redemptive action will mean the removal of same-sex desire. Interpreting scriptural texts doesn’t automatically translate to wise pastoral care. I still encounter straight cis-gender pastors who believe that the individual can make choices about the focus, direction, and intensity of their sexual attractions. People can always make choices about what they will do with their attractions. All human beings need to cultivate capacity for restraint and self-discipline, and focus on keeping their commitments and loving in a mutually respectful way.  But that isn’t the same as having control over who you find attractive, or the ways that you are hard-wired to love. Pastors, who are respected as spiritual authorities, have significant power in pastoral care with vulnerable people. It is crucial that pastors become well educated about the trauma so many have experienced from trying to change their orientation so that they don’t inadvertently cause deep harm. This is true regardless of where they land on the question of committed same-sex relationships.

One survivor shared this with me:

“After years in the Generous Space community, I continue to experience visceral barriers to dating men. I still cringe when guys kiss each other in movies. Any effeminate affectations continue to cause deep revulsion in my heart and I now hate myself for my inability to get over my own homophobia.  I found a man that I could love because of our shared faith, humour, outlook … but this man’s effeminate affectations caused me to feel involuntary revulsion and the “come hither/go away” experience of the man I was dating caused me to end it.  I feel deeply alone and hopeless, fearing that I will not be able to love another man after 3 decades of hating the gay man I saw in the mirror every day. I can’t stop checking myself, my posture, my gesticulating, my tone of voice, the speed of my speech when I speak, how I sit … all of the rules of ex-gay ministry penetrated so deeply into my psyche that I notice myself noticing myself as a hangover from the constant self-vigilance of my formative years. I haven’t found a cure for this hangover.  I don’t like being with myself. I can’t befriend my worst enemy yet: the gay man that looks back at me from the mirror.”

And lest any well-meaning straight cisgender pastor attribute the revulsion my friend experiences to be the “wages of sin”, ask any qualified therapist and they will tell you that the experience described above is classic PTSD from the trauma of profoundly rejecting yourself.

Unfortunately, because the critique of reorientation efforts is often conflated with the goal of convincing people to affirm LGBTQ+ intimate relationships, many pastors are unwilling to learn from the ex-gay survivor story. Additionally, there continue to be testimonies of those who describe experiencing orientation change. Rosaria Butterfield’s books and a new release by Jackie Hill Perry called Gay Girl Good God can fan the flame of expectation of orientation change. Now let me be clear. Each person is entitled to tell their story as they experience it. Both Rosaria and Jackie share of their experience of God’s intervention in their lives when they were identifying as lesbians and I take them at their word for what they’ve personally experienced. Individuals stories, however, cannot be projected on every other LGBTQ+ person’s journey. Perhaps particularly when neither book really addresses the reality of bisexuality or sexual fluidity.

In the Generous Space community we intentionally cultivate an environment in which people are encouraged to, “Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.” (Phil. 2: 12, 13) In other words, we give space for people to own their own journey with God and embrace their carefully discerned interpretive conclusions on theological and ethical questions, even as we choose to invite interdependence in encouraging, supporting, and challenging one another to keep growing in Christ-likeness. We trust the Holy Spirit in each person’s life. So this post is not about someone’s personal convictions about same-sex relationships or about the personal commitments to live an abstinent life or enter an intimate relationship. Rather, I want to speak clearly about the danger of focusing on and expecting orientation change for LGBTQ+ people.

I am compelled to do so.

Over a decade ago I began the process of apologizing and repenting for the ways that the ministry I was serving had perpetuated the practice and expectation of orientation change. I say process because from then till now, the work of apologizing and repenting is not done. And it won’t be done – at least not in my lifetime.

At our Generous Space retreats, I take the opportunity to acknowledge the history of the ministry. When founded in 1985, it was an ex-gay ministry. And when I came on staff in 2002, it was still an ex-gay ministry. And while the people who served had the best of intentions for ministry participants, it doesn’t change the fact that people were traumatized, had their lives disrupted, and have often spent years trying to overcome the internalized homophobia/transphobia, shame, and self-loathing that reorientation efforts sowed deep within their being. People lost the capacity to feel, to have a healthy emotional life. People’s physical health deteriorated from the stress of constant vigilance and commonly developed a disdain or lack of care for their bodies. People poured financial resources into therapy – therapy that often hurt them more than it helped them in the long run. People experienced deep disruption in relationship with parents and family members as ex-gay philosophies levied blame at fathers and mothers. People often embraced a faith that was riddled with striving – making receptivity to grace a huge challenge. And many lost the capacity to believe in a loving God at all.

In the last decade, my awareness of the insidious effects of reorientation teaching has deepened. I have seen people who disentangled themselves from ex-gay efforts years ago get triggered, struggle with PTSD, and wrestle to truly know that they know that God sees them as beloved. I have seen the times old messages and mental tapes return to haunt them and steal their peace. I have seen people stuck in the unresolvable grief of years and opportunities lost. I have cried with those who worry that they will be old, alone, and unloved with no spouse or children to care for them. I have ached with those who long to be free of the bitterness and rage that still arise when memories assault them.

When a survivor read a first draft of this blog they told me, “The movies you mentioned always show people who didn’t really buy it. I bought the farm. There is redemption in the stories of the people who were too smart or too self-aware to dive in with both feet. My story is still too shameful to tell. People want happy and hopeful stories. The thing is, you can damage young people so thoroughly that they can’t change their mind and make it all better. This ex-gay story doesn’t get told. [Internalized] homophobia is too shameful to talk about in my new liberal community. “Get on with your life” is the mantra of a victory theology that consumes Evangelical story telling today.  It’s been 5 years. I’m past the point of people sitting with me in my pain. I continue to actively suppress that part of me that was damaged through my ex-gay and ignorant-but-well-intentioned-bible-informed pastors.   It’s too ugly to talk about. People want victory and resurrection, not a cross and suffering.”

This kind of courageous and vulnerable truth-telling has given me a deeper sense of God’s suffering on behalf of these beloved children. I have, in times of prayer and silence, experienced God’s broken heart that vulnerable ones believed that God’s love was conditional and that there was something deeply and intrinsically wrong with them.

Therefore, my apologies are without equivocation – regardless of the possibility that for some, reorientation efforts didn’t seem that damaging, or are self-professed to have been life-giving. I have seen enough trauma and pain to know that I cannot qualify my absolute repentance for ever having supported ministry programs that encouraged people to pursue reorientation. I was wrong. The ministry got it wrong. It doesn’t matter that we were doing the best we could with what we knew then. It doesn’t matter how good our intentions were. It doesn’t matter that I simply believed all the people who told me their compelling ex-gay testimonies. What matters is that in the name of Jesus, people were convinced that they needed to eradicate an intrinsic part of themselves to be pleasing to God – and it profoundly harmed them.

All human beings are loved by God and bear God’s image. Any message that qualifies that isn’t the truth – and it won’t set you free – it will enslave you to a gospel of good works that chases grace away.

I am, and for the rest of my life will be, sorry for my part and the ministry’s part in perpetuating a traumatic belief and expectation that wounded the very being of LGBTQ+ people. I commit to doing whatever I can to support ex-gay survivors in the pursuit of wholene