Since its beginnings in the 1970s, the ex-gay movement has engaged gay advocates in a battle of testimonies. Transformed ex-gay leaders are the best argument for their movement. Likewise, those who've left the ex-gay movement in despair and disgust are the best counterargument. The debate continued this June, when Exodus International held its 32nd annual conference in Irvine, California, featuring dozens of speakers and seminar leaders who have quit homosexuality. Down the road outside the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center, a news conference featured three former Exodus leaders saying "ex-gay" is a delusion.
New research may change the terms of debate. Psychologists Stanton Jones of Wheaton College and Mark Yarhouse of Regent University released today a book detailing their findings from the first three years of an ongoing study. They are investigating participants in 16 different ex-gay programs associated with Exodus, the largest ex-gay ministry group.
The results show that some participants experienced significant change, though the change was usually partial, not complete. Furthermore, participants showed no additional mental or spiritual distress as a result of their involvement in the ex-gay program. This study is the first to use multiple interviews and questionnaires over a period of years, assessing participants from near the beginning of their involvement in an ex-gay program.
Jones and Yarhouse launched the study to try to resolve differences between their professional community, which warns that "reparative therapy" for homosexuals is both impossible and dangerous, and testimonies they have heard from those involved in ex-gay movements. Though critics of ex-gay movements sometimes cite research findings in warning against reparative therapy, Jones and Yarhouse found that published research did not actually bear out their claims. The existing research about homosexual change, though mostly dated, indicated some possibility of change. New research meeting contemporary research standards was needed.
Some of Jones and Yarhouse's key findings:
- By most measures, the average participant experienced statistically significant change in his or her sexual identity and sexual attractions.
- Such changes were generally modest, though, with decreasing homosexual attraction more significant than increasing heterosexual attraction.
- Exodus can describe 38 percent of its programs' participants as successes, changing to either a "meaningful but complicated" heterosexuality (15 percent) or a stable chastity (23 percent).
- Surprisingly, a "truly gay" subpopulation showed the clearest changes in sexual identity and attraction.
- No evidence of increased mental distress was found.
Jones and Yarhouse take pains to emphasize that their study does not clarify the likelihood of successful change for any particular individual. Participants were self-selected—a highly motivated, highly religious group working with Exodus. (For a more complete review of this research, see "The Best Research Yet.") Still, the study marks a crucial point in the ongoing maturation of the ex-gay movement. Once a small experiment, the movement has endured growing pains, learned from setbacks, and achieved a stable pattern of ministry.
Ex-Gay Comes of Age
The breadth of the ex-gay movement can be seen in PATH (Positive Alternatives to Homosexuality), which claims 13 groups from across the Judeo-Christian spectrum. PATH includes Courage (Roman Catholic, with an emphasis on chastity), Homosexuals Anonymous (modeled on aa as a confidential lay organization), JONAH (Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality), and NARTH (National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, a non-religious organization of mental health professionals). Largest of the groups is Exodus, a coalition comprising more than 100 local Christian ministries in the United States, linked to similar ministries overseas.
Exodus began in 1976. Frank Worthen, a San Francisco homosexual who found his life transformed by Christ in the early '70s, joined forces with Melodyland Church. The Southern California church had begun counseling homosexuals through two men in their early twenties, Michael Bussee and Jim Kaspar. Exodus was born at a weekend conference sponsored by the two groups. At a second conference a year later, Exodus attracted gay protestors. Within three years, Bussee had renounced the group's goals and recommenced a gay lifestyle, claiming that nobody ever really changes. Worthen, now in his seventies, has continued his ministry to homosexuals alongside his wife, Anita.
Exodus, at 31, has settled into adulthood. Its most prominent leaders—Alan Chambers, Joe Dallas, Sy Rogers, Andy Comiskey, and Alan Medinger, among others—have been out of homosexuality and engaged in ministry for decades. Most are married with grown children. Scandals among leaders are far less common than in the early days, probably due to increased organizational accountability and growing awareness that those ministering in their area of temptation are vulnerable.
Perhaps nothing has brought Exodus into the mainstream of evangelicalism more than its embrace by James Dobson's Focus on the Family. Alan Medinger, the semi-retired founder of Regeneration (a sexual freedom ministry in Baltimore), remembers calling on Focus early on and finding the door completely shut. "I still don't know why," Medinger says. "When they swung around and began the Love Won Out conferences, it made a huge difference. They're a tremendous support to us now."
Focus's endorsement is an important seal of approval for conservative churches. Focus sponsors regular conferences for church leaders, drawing pastors who might never attend an ex-gay event. Growing cultural acceptance of homosexuality has also, paradoxically, helped Exodus in its relations with churches. Joe Dallas, founder and director of Genesis Counseling, notes that ex-gay leaders help churches "articulate a response to pro-gay theology. … People in most denominations never thought they would have to address a biblical view of homosexuality, just as many parents never thought they would have to respond to a daughter who came home and said, 'I'm a lesbian.' " Not only that, but "the prevalence of Internet pornography has opened up an honest discussion [about many sexual issues] within the church," Dallas says. "More Christians are saying immorality is not just a cultural problem; we have a problem."
As churches and Christian colleges have opened their doors to ex-gay ministries, the ministries have in turn begun to rethink their approach. "We do need sexperts, counselors who can do things that small groups cannot," says Andy Comiskey of Desert Stream Ministries. "But for the church to say that help exists only outside our walls, that is not optimal. I think it has to be body life."
"If I were completely successful," says Exodus president Alan Chambers, "the church would take over. The traditional pattern within Exodus has been a stepping-stone or launching pad to leave the homosexual lifestyle or a life of secrecy, to find camaraderie with others facing the same struggles, and then to go on to embrace the church. What if a church was so dynamic that a Sunday school class could do the same thing? What if people in church could become transparent, and people in those Sunday school classes became comfortable to share their stuff as well?"
An older, wiser ex-gay movement is certainly clearer about what it has to offer. Early hopes for instant healing have given way to belief that transformation occurs through a lifetime of discipleship.
Tanya Erzen, a professor at Ohio State University, spent 18 months studying New Hope Ministry, a live-in program led by the Worthens in San Rafael, California. Though unsympathetic to ex-gay goals, Erzen came to empathize with the people she met. In Straight to Jesus: Sexual and Christian Conversions in the Ex-Gay Movement, she describes their view of change.
"Ex-gays undergo a conversion process that has no endpoint, and they acknowledge that change encompasses desires, behavior, and identities that do not always align neatly or remain fixed," she writes. "Ex-gay men and women are born-again religiously, and as part of that process, they consider themselves reconstituted sexually. … In the words of Curtis [one of the program's participants], 'Heterosexuality isn't the goal; giving our hearts and being obedient to God is the goal.' … Desires and attractions might linger for years, but they would emerge with new religious identities and the promise that faith and their relationships with one another and God would eventually transform them."
As Alan Chambers puts it, "In the early days [of ex-gay ministry], nobody knew what to expect. They were hoping for something, and some went back because what they were hoping for wasn't reality. Four decades into this ministry, people have a much better way to talk about change. I was once an immature person, and I responded immaturely. Now I've grown as a believer and as a mature man. It was inevitable that my feelings and outlook would change. When I set my goal not as being heterosexual but as being the best child of God I could be, accepting his grace, my identity changed."
Chambers is frank that change does not eradicate temptation. He wonders if change is ever 100 percent complete in this life. "One thing we can expect as Christians is a life of denial," he says. "I don't think we're afraid to tell people that they may have a lifetime of struggle. Freedom isn't the absence of struggle, but the life of struggle with joy in the process."
The ex-gay movement seeks to integrate the reality of same-sex attraction into a life of discipleship. In that lifelong journey, they expect many changes, including changes of feeling and attraction. But they emphasize that each person's experience is different, and that instant transformation is extremely rare.
Not surprisingly then, ex-gay ministries appeal almost exclusively to Christians. Most participants come from evangelical backgrounds and can't resolve their Christian faith with a gay identity. Jones and Yarhouse's research found that many tenaciously seek help and invest years in the process.
The ex-gay movement does not speak with one voice on the causes of homosexuality, but most believe that early childhood deficits are crucial—often a poor or nonexistent relationship with a father, prepubescent sexual experiences, or sexual abuse, especially for women. Many believe that homosexuality is fundamentally a crisis of masculinity or femininity—a subconscious attempt to meet legitimate emotional needs for relationship and affirmation through sexual means. Ex-gay groups are usually single-sex, because supportive friendships within your own gender are believed to be an important component of repairing damaged sexual identity.
Given the uncertainty and difficulty of change, some like the Roman Catholic group Courage prefer to emphasize chastity over change. Exodus leaders speak positively about Courage and its goals. Nevertheless, Exodus leaders are reluctant to limit their hopes to a life of chaste celibacy. Andy Comiskey writes, "We must renounce the unbelief prevalent in certain evangelical circles that resigns homosexual strugglers to little if any release from their tendencies. That perception of God is too small!"
On June 26, on the serene campus of Concordia University in Irvine, California, about 800 people gather for this year's Exodus conference. Mostly young, mostly white, two-thirds male, dressed in SoCal casual, they might be a crowd at an Angels game. "Revolution," as the conference is called, seems like any other Christian conference: hands raised for rock-and-roll worship, testimonies, prayer, speakers, seminars galore.
But this conference features little motivational hyperbole. Alan Chambers, the low-key opening-night speaker, emphasizes that there is no step-by-step formula for overcoming homosexuality. "Hear me loud and clear: You're not going to get cured this week. … We don't choose our feelings, but we do choose how we are going to live. I choose every day to deny what comes naturally to me. … I have to rely on Jesus Christ every day." In a hundred different ways, conference speakers and seminar leaders say that healing only comes through a life of obedience to Christ.
Cheers greet Sy Rogers, who speaks on the second day. Rogers is extremely entertaining, but his rapid-fire staccato delivery communicates a serious message of Christian discipleship. "God didn't say, 'Stop being gay.' He said, 'Walk with me.'" Rogers talks with searing frankness of the contempt he has endured his whole life. His delivery is confident, almost aggressive, but his vulnerability is startling. Painful as this stuff may be, he seems to say, it is nothing more than what God knows about me—God who loves me and gives me life.
Which sums up much of ex-gay ministry today. No hype. Limited faith in techniques. No gay bashing. No detectable triumphalism, religious or political. Just serious discipleship. This may be the only group in America that realizes all the way to the bottom that when you decide to follow Jesus, you don't always get to do what you want to do.
The ex-gay movement runs against the cultural tide. Given adverse public opinion, the ambivalent support of conservative churches, and the common assertion that ex-gays condemn themselves to a life of frustration, you would think the movement would shrivel. Yet Exodus affiliates have doubled in number over the last 18 years. Many of its leaders have been in the public eye for 20 to 30 years. They show every sign of stability.
They live by radical ideas about sexuality—that we are not, as our culture would have it, defined by our desires, heterosexual or homosexual. Rather, we are defined by our Creator and Savior. Our attractions, always disordered to some extent, must be submitted to Christ, who alone can redeem us. For those who feel strong same-sex attractions, that task is especially difficult. But it is the same basic struggle every Christian must face.
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This article appears with "The Best Research Yet" in our October issue.
Ex-Gays?: A Longitudinal Study of Religiously Mediated Change in Sexual Orientation is available from ChristianBook.com and other retailers.
InterVarsity Press held a press conference on the book today in Nashville.
Previous articles on ex-gays and reversing homosexuality are available in our special section.
Stanton Jones's articles and reviews for Christianity Today include:
Homosexual Healing | Review of Coming Out Of Homosexuality (August 15, 1994)
The Incredibly Shrinking Gay Gene | By Stanton L. Jones, provost at Wheaton College, and Mark A. Yarhouse, assistant professor of psychology at Regent University. (October 4, 1999)
The National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality published an interview with the authors about their previous work.
PATH (Positive Alternatives to Homosexuality) lists studies on reparative therapy and links to organizations, such as Exodus International, that work with people who have unwanted same-sex attractions.
ChristianBibleStudies.com has a Bible study on "Homosexuality and Gods Household."
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