APA Symposium’s Critical Flaw: What About The Ex-Gay Survivors?
This commentary is the opinion of the author and is not necessarily the opinion of other authors at Box Turtle Bulletin.
May 13th, 2008
Don’t you hate it when you know that people are talking about you and you’re not there? And don’t you hate it even more when they’re talking about something that’s directly relevant to your experience, and that the whole point of their conversation is to arrive at conclusions about how to deal with you in the future? And you’re not invited to be a part of the conversation?
I know I do. But the now-canceled American Psychiatric Association Symposium “Homosexuality and Therapy: The Religious Dimension” was about to do just that.
The symposium, as the title suggests, was intended to discuss the intersection of faith and therapy, with special consideration to issues surrounding homosexuality. One particular topic was likely to dominate the discussion: efforts to change sexual orientation through therapeutic means. After all, this panel’s formation came as a response to the APA’s decision to form a working group to review its stance on ex-gay therapy.
The panel was organized by Dr. David Scasta, past president of the APA’s Association of Gay and Lesbian Psychiatrists. Also participating would have been Dr. Warren Throckmorton, who defends sexual reorientation therapy for those who want it, while recognizing that some forms can be harmful. Together they were to have covered the “therapy” aspects of what might have been a interesting exchange (although it would have been grossly incomplete for reasons I’ll get into in a moment).
But the panel was doomed from the start with the participating of two starkly polarizing figures representing the “religious dimension” of the panel. Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Rev. Albert Mohler was to be one participant. He has been a stridently vocal advocate for sexual reorientation therapy, so much so that he even approved of prenatal therapy if such a thing were to exist — which, of course, it doesn’t. What contribution he might have had to a symposium which was supposed to bring “scientists and clinicians” together is very unclear.
Providing “balance” for the other side would have been Bishop Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Anglican community. He too is a very odd choice. Bishop Robinson may be famous for his groundbreaking position in the church, but there’s no indication that he has any background for speaking about sexual reorientation therapy. Against Dr. Throckmorton and Rev. Mohler (who often speaks in support of reorientation therapy), Rev. Robinson would have been very much out of his element. No wonder Focus On the Family was so excited to mischaracterize the event as a “debate” between Robinson and Mohler to validate their position on sexual reorientation therapy.
That would have left Dr. Scasta as the only one who would have had even a remote possibility of speaking knowledgeably about reorientation therapy as an LGBT-affirming advocate. But unlike Throckmorton, Scasta has not published anything himself concerning sexual reorientation therapy that I’m aware of. With his background as editor of the Journal of Gay and Lesbian Psychotherapy, he may have been able to hold his own just fine, but I’ve not been able to find anything which speaks to his knowledge on this particular subject.
We were about to hear a lot of people talking about people who tried to change their sexual orientation, but it wasn’t clear that we were going to hear a lot of informed people talking about them. And worse, in setting up the symposium they left out the most important perspective: ex-gay survivors. This seems to happen all too often. Christine Bakke, ex-gay survivor and a Beyond Ex-Gay organizer, put the problem this way:
What got lost was the actual people who were doing [the ex-gay ministries]. It’s like a kid in a custody battle.
Well they’re definitely not kids anymore. Over the past year, we’ve seen hundreds of former ex-gays come forward in something that is beginning to resemble a movement. Before now, we all knew they existed — we certainly talked about them a lot — but we are just now starting to hear from them directly in pretty significant numbers — as well as from former ex-gay leaders and spokespersons. The days when they were seen but not heard are clearly over. Their experiences in ex-gay therapy are far too compelling to ignore, and their rapidly growing numbers in just a few short years suggests that many more will follow.
But so far, their existence was been largely overlooked or, worse, dismissed as a stunt. When survivors organized their very first conference in Irvine, California, more than two hundred people showed up. But Exodus International president Alan Chambers responded with snide comments while Focus On the Family spread bold-faced lies about the gathering. Even Dr. Throckmorton cast doubts on the ex-gay survivors motives during their historic, first-ever meeting.
Clearly this new movement has touched a nerve. Before now, the ex-gay movement and their defenders have had a free hand in defining the parameters of debate with very little effective opposition. Beginning in the 1990’s they embarked on a massive television and billboard campaign to convince the world that “ex-gays do exist” and “change is possible.” Exodus International took out full-page ads in national newspapers, and ex-gay ministry leader Michael Johnston appeared in television commercials. This, of course, was before his downfall in 2003 when it was learned that he had been hosting orgies, taking drugs and practicing unsafe sex without disclosing his HIV status.
Dr. Throckmorton himself has contributed to this publicity effort. In 2004, he produced the video “I Do Exist,” which he encouraged churches and schools to show as a counter to National Coming Out Day. In it, he described studies which he claimed documented cases “of people who had changed from completely homosexual to completely heterosexual.” The video featured several ex-gays including Noé Gutierrez, Sarah Lipp, Joanne Highley, and Cheryl and Greg Quinlan. All of these were presented as though they were ordinary, run-of-the-mill ex-gays who had an interesting story to tell.
But Sarah Lipp certainly isn’t an ordinary humble ex-gay picked at random. Her segments were filmed in Chattanooga, where she happens to be the women’s ministry coordinator for the Harvest USA ex-gay ministry, having founded several ex-gay support groups throughout the mid-South. Joanne Highley also leads an ex-gay ministry in New York. She’s an especially interesting character. She describes her lesbian past as having been “under demonic oppression.” She has also said that she heard a voice telling her that she would be “ministering to homosexuals and Jews.” That, of course, is not on the video, where she instead appears as a nice, kindly, and perhaps even a timid older lady.
Also not on the video is Greg Quinlan’s exuberance for manufacturing public confrontations while representing PFOX. He does that when he’s not acting on behalf of his own Dayton-based Pro Family Network. He and his wife Cheryl were very active in promoting Ohio’s anti-marriage constitutional amendment, which is just one example of how ex-gay leaders routinely leverage their own marriages for political causes against LGBT citizens.
In fact, of the five ex-gays appearing in that video, four of them had a personal vocational stake in promoting ex-gay ministries. Not surprisingly, this fits a well-known pattern. In Spitzer’s famous 2003 ex-gay study of people who claimed to have changed, he reported that “the majority of participants (78 percent) had publicly spoken in favor of efforts to change homosexual orientation, often at their church,” and that “nineteen percent of the participants were mental health professionals or directors of ex-gay ministries.” Exodus president Alan Chambers and vice-president Randy Thomas were just two of those participants.
The only person featured in “I Do Exist” who was not an anti-gay activist was Noé Gutierrez. He proclaimed himself to be “entirely heterosexual” in the video, but after the video’s release he announced that he regretted that his story became a part of “the divisive message of the ex-gay movement.” In a later update to his web site, he described how quickly Exodus International banned him from their annual conferences after he expressed doubts about ex-gay ministries, and some of the harms that he experienced as a fallout from his participation in ex-gay ministries — harms that are remarkably familiar to many ex-gay survivors I’ve talked to over the past year.
Nevertheless, “I Do Exist” is still available for sale on Dr. Throckmorton’s web site.
So yeah, we’ve all heard a lot from ex-gays. They’ve had free reign for nearly two decades to use their lives as examples to argue against advancing the civil rights of their fellow LGBT citizens. And until now, they’ve enjoyed something of a monopoly on the public square. Sure, there have always been activists who argued against sexual reorientation therapy, but many of them — as well-intentioned as they may have been — were often demonstrably uninformed about the movement, and that has diminished both their credibility and their effectiveness.
But now we have real live former ex-gays who, in concordance with their faith, tried to change their lives to fit the only mold their faiths allowed them — only to find themselves outside the false promise of “change” and, worse for some of them, feeling as though they were beyond reconciliation with God. These are people who really tried to bring their lives into congruence with their faiths, and yet this is where their ex-gay experiences left them. Ex-gays and their supporters have been speaking for decades now; it is way past time now for survivors to have a place at the table.
Talking is good, but this forum would not have included the very people who most needed to be heard. Ex-gay survivors really do exist, to borrow a phrase. And until these survivors are invited to speak to those who would presume to speak about them, a critical part of the conversation will remain unheard. And that won’t do anyone any good.