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Spare Change

Jim Burroway

June 15th, 2006

This article appeared on the National Review’s web site today. Eve Tushnet reports on the June 10th “Love Won Out” conference, a gathering of evangelical ex-gay ministries, held in Washington D.C. These ministries are an important part of social conservatives’ ongoing efforts to oppose gay rights in the public square, especially in the areas of same-sex marriage, adoption, and anti-discrimination measures.

By framing homosexuality as a behavioral “choice” that can be changed with patience, persistence and prayer, these ministries seek to redefine the public’s understanding of homosexuality as an unchosen orientation. If homosexuality is chosen (goes the thinking) then there is no need to protect gay rights based on this chosen behavior. Many in the ex-gay movement even take this argument to its most extreme conclusion — that there’s no such thing as being gay.

So these “ex-gay” groups play an important role for social conservatives. However, Eve Tushnet observes:

What they (the ex-gay ministries) aren’t is what many conservative evangelicals seem to want them to be: the ultimate answer to the gay-rights movement. The groups’ problems are deeply embedded in their self-understanding.

What’s the problem? These ministries publicly proclaim that “change is possible” without the inconvenience of explaining what “change” means. It is assumed that through various therapeutic practices, a change in sexual orientation will take place. But when pressed, many ex-gay practitioners will admit that this isn’t realistic. According to Mike Haley of Focus on the Family:

“We don’t want people to believe that change means you have to be married and have to have kids,” he said, and then added, “The opposite of homosexuality isn’t heterosexuality, the opposite of homosexuality is holiness. We’re not trying to create people from homosexual to heterosexual.”

This message however is largely missing from the conference, and it’s also conspicuously absent from the slick brochures and billboards put up by Exodus International and other ex-gay ministries. The public face that these ministries provide is that they are offering therapeutic services for those who wish to change their sexual orientation. But on closer inspection, it becomes very clear that these ministries really aren’t offering a cure, but conversion. The same-sex sexual attractions remain. It is up to the individual to “resist temptation,” and when he or she fails (and most of them do), it becomes both a failure in faith and a failure in character. This sense of failing can be devastating, leading some to suicide and others to refusing to have anything more to do with Christianity.

Rita Price of the Columbus Dispatch reported similar findings among members of an ex-gay group in Ohio. One group member, speaking on the difficulty of trying to “change” commented that “This is my being. This is who I am. It’s like telling a black person to stop being black.”

So what does “change” mean? Is it a change in sexual attraction, or just a change in behavior? Ms. Price notes that for some participants, a change in behavior is enough. But for most, the internal schizm that must occur for sustainanble behavioral change is simply too much to handle.

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