Ex-Gay Survivor Survey Shows Harms, Lasting Impacts Of Sexual Orientation Change Efforts

Jim Burroway

May 30th, 2013

Beyond Ex-Gay, the online forum for former clients of ex-gay ministries and therapists, has released the results of a wide-ranging survey of the experiences reported by 417 ex-gay survivors. To date, there has been little effort to examine this particular group of people. Conducted by Jallen Rix, therapist, ex-gay survivor, and author of Ex-Gay No Way: Survival and Recovery from Religious Abuse, the survey is by no means definitive. Due to its convenience sampling techniques, is not capable of describing the experiences of all those who have participated in ex-gay programs and therapies. Nevertheless, it adds an important component to our overall understanding of those who have attempted to undergo a change in sexual orientation because the voices of those who have participated in these programs have mostly been absent in the debate. As Rix explain:

All too often, the public eye is drawn to the “squeaky wheel” in terms of the reparative therapy/ex-gay debate. Usually this means the people that make the craziest claims, and the most outlandish presumptions get most of the attention. Indeed, those who happen to be leading such “ministries” are often looked to as so-called “experts in the field” when they rarely have any real sexuality education or training. Unfortunately, those who have been damaged by these organizations are left as a footnote, or don’t get mentioned at all. This gives the public a skewed view of what’s really going on in the ex-gay movement.

Because of the nature of the convenience sample in this survey, the numerical results should be taken as illustrative rather than quantitative. But the picture that emerges is that the motivation for entering ex-gay programs is predominately religious. The top three results for why people tried to change their sexual orientation included “To be a better Christian,” “I believed it was what God wanted me to do,” and “I feared I would be condemned by God.” After that comes such responses as a general desire to fit in, cultural pressures to conform, and a desire to please family and friends. But beyond the numbers lie the written responses of survey participants which illustrates the huge variety of their experiences:

I so wanted to be “normal.” I didn’t believe that God could possibly accept me the way I was, given that I myself couldn’t. Conventionally “feminine” religious women who focused their entire lives around being a “good wife and mother” seemed to be happy and at peace (unlike me); they were respected and valued. I thought that if I could only be like them that everything would be fine.

Because I have a messed up childhood filled with emotional, mental and some physical (but no sexual) abuse, and I saw connections between my experiences and the experiences that the ex-gay community claims cause homosexuality.

I was a student at a Bible College and saw no ministry future if I was “tainted” by this situation. Some of my motivations were self and then it was forced by family and church.

After coming out and becoming a GLBT activist, the GLBT community bullied the living Hell out of me for seven years prompting me to re-enter ex-gay therapy.

I was told to be gay was sinful, and Exodus was promoting “are you gay and not happy” – check out Exodus Int. That it was my gay life style that was making me sad and depressed. That to label oneself as gay would mean a life of promiscuity, depression, drug and alcohol abuse, AIDS. I heard about Matthew Manning through the 700 Club, later to find out he was a fraud and was removed from the 700 Club website.

I was told I had demons, and even had someone “name” those demons who were “tormenting” me.

No one forced me, and even my pastor said that I didn’t need Exodus, that if I was in Christ I was a new creation, and all the rest was, is, and will be forgiven by God.

My pastor at the time implored me to deal with this. I had no desire to change my sexual orientation. This was upon his insistence.

It’s these written responses that I find to be more informative than the numbers. Question 8 asked why they quit the ex-gay movement. The top answer, by far, was that they failed to become straight. But one disturbing answer given by nearly a quarter of respondents was that they had had a nervous breakdown. Again, the written responses are more interesting:

I saw that NOBODY was being changed, and some of those other guys had a lot more faith than I did. The only ones I ever met who claimed to have been changed were the leadership. And one of them was always hitting on me.

I watched the movie Latter Days, and cried heavily as I saw how much I desired homosexual love, how repressed, self-loathing and judgmental I had become, and how much I may need to give up to live honestly.

found all the therapy didn’t work. I wasn’t changing my orientation. My desires did not change even into my forties. I started being sexually active and found the world did not come to and end.

Over time, I began to feel like the people involved in the ministry were on some level deceiving themselves. I appreciated their desire to draw nearer to God and resolve conflict from our past, however, beyond that, I felt like my local church community was far more effective in growing me spiritually – not to mention the fact that I wasn’t becoming ‘straight.’

I tried to kill myself

My “exorcism” scared me so much, I did everything to prove my “change” and get away from those people.

Contemplated suicide as a next logical step in measures to keep my gay feelings in check. At that point I realized I needed to change to make being gay a friend rather than an enemy.

Once I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to become straight, I started hoping that I would get in an accident or get a disease or something so I could die because I was so unhappy but didn’t want to go to hell for suicide. Eventually I didn’t care if I would go to hell and I was suicidal. I knew that something had to change.

Basically, the nagging pressure that my relationship with my dad made me gay, and because I was believing that, my actually good relationship with my dad started to fall apart because of it…. and also, the main reason, if it was so wrong, why didn’t God heal me?

I saw Brokeback mountain which showed exactly how bad it could be if a gay man married a woman.

Our denomination underwent a drastic reformation out of legalism; and, in accepting the reality of grace, discovered that I was still gay. Grace didn’t change my orientation. I had to admit my negative preconceptions about being gay and Christian were wrong. I realized I could be a gay Christian without regrets.

I was taken to a deliverance service by well meaning Christian relatives – and had what I can only describe as a true deliverance experience, on the other side of which I quit believing that changing my orientation was necessary.

I was in Love in Action and they told me my time in the program was up. It didn’t work and I finally gave up trying to change.

Only a relatively small minority of this particular sample, less than ten percent, say they weren’t harmed by their participation in the ex-gay movement. Nearly half said they were “harmed a lot” or “devastated” by the experience. Nearly half said that they were still effected “a lot” or “all the time” today by their experiences. The kinds of harms respondents described were all over the map:

I think the most damaging piece was the reinforcing of the sexual binging and purging. It has made it difficult in my current relationship at times. I continue to fight old patterns although that continues to lessen over time.

As an intersex bodied person I was constantly pressured into having “corrective” surgery on my genitalia so I could fit into a certain gender role as a heterosexual. I also developed an eating disorder.

Multiple suicide attempts, two psychiatric hospitalizations. Diagnosed severe type 2 Bipolar disorder and moderate PTSD by multiple doctors in two different states. Ex-gay therapist had told me the symptoms from these illnesses were caused by my “sexual confusion.” After ex-gay, I dealt with substance abuse, impulsive and dangerous behavior, and unsafe promiscuity. Entered several unhealthy relationships, including one physically abusive one.

I feel that the ex-gay movement caused me harm by screwing up my sense of love and intimacy completely. I became very promiscuous, because I felt that if I am going to be sinful, I might as well go all out. I also came to believe that there is no such thing as romantic love between men, only lust. In other words, it pushed the exact opposite values that should be placed on sex and love. To this day, I find it hard to have romantic relationships with guys that go beyond physical, let alone commitment! Lastly, I’m surprised you do not have substance/alcohol abuse on your list, because I did that as well because of my experiences.

I abandoned my faith b/c I could not find a way to live with being both gay and Christian

Not just harm to myself, but also harm to my husband who is asked (by his wife) to not undress in front of his wife, who is asked not to touch his wife sexually, who is asked not to be a heterosexual man and husband. I am not the only victim here. How about my husband and all the spouses of the “ex-gays”??? Exodus and others don’t want to address that…

Developed sexual addictions in a way to try to fit the mold of ex-gay “healings” Before ex-gay ministry, I didn’t have any sexual experiences at all.

Giving a moral inventory (sharing a very personal experience related to a sexual encounter) in front of all the parents at a friends and family weekend caused embarrassment and a look on my parents’ faces that I will never forget.

My situation is difficult to determine harm or reward. I suffered from low self-esteem before sexuality developed. I did have to withdraw from college because of Scientology experience, and I did attempt suicide twice – once directly because I feared my orientation would be discovered. I would add that Evergreen was somewhat helpful as a first step of coming to self acceptance.

The second-to-last response above hints at a possible participation in Love In Action’s “Friends and Family Weekend.” I can’t imaging undergoing the appalling shaming that went on at that event.

The last response above leads to another question I find interesting, and it’s one I’ve heard  asked at a couple of ex-gay survivor gatherings: “What good, if any, came out of your ex-gay experience”? About a fifth of respondents in this sample declined to give an answer, and another tenth answered that there was no benefit. But of the rest, most say that they are now better able to accept themselves, talk openly about sexuality (after all, that was a key component of the ex-gay experience), and they felt that they were part of a community of similar people:

Surprisingly, I was able to finally accept myself. I spent several months during therapy thinking of how much of a failure I was. Once I began to realize that all that it had been doing was making me hate myself, I said “Enough is enough. I refuse to spend anymore time like this.”

I suppose that I needed to see for myself that changing my sexual orientation was not possible, nor was it necessary. In other words, I had to try everything that I could find before I ‘gave up’ and admitted being gay, and ‘give in’ to living the “lifestyle” of a gay man.

I learned that I couldn’t pretend, I couldn’t “act” my way through the world 24 hours a day. I learned that there had to be somewhere that I could be real. I met a lot of really broken, but beautiful disasters. It was my first community and I liked living with others in intentional community. I have something of substance to say on this subject and actively participate in the ex-ex-gay movement.

Out of my ex-gay experience came motivation to further pursue a career in counseling and psychology to ensure other youth and young adults do not have to experience what I experienced.

I thought I was the only gay Christian, so when I found out about Exodus, I was relieved to not be so alone. I enjoyed many friendships!

Nothing- well, I did get married and have 2 wonderful children because of all of this- so I am very thankful for my children.

I witnessed first hand how privilege works in church and society. The more others believed I was a masculine heterosexual, the more valuable they treated me and the more doors opened socially, professionally, and religiously for me to serve and be a full fledged member of the group. Seeing this play out, helped me to get glimpses of similar oppression/reward systems for many group. I understand the world better because of the oppression I faced.

I learned valuable discipline. Not to mention that to keep it up, I had to dive into some pretty deep theological waters. It forced me to develop my intellectual faith.

For the first time, I met other GLBT Christians and we could talk about what it’s like to be Christians with same gender attractions.

My friend, trained in healing therapy, specifically through Living Waters and Andy Comisky himself, did help me identify problem areas in my life and places of brokenness that needed addressing. Contrary to what she taught me, however, the problems weren’t centered in my being gay.

I met some other guys who were also having the same issues I was, and it was nice to know I was not alone.

For the first time I was able to talk openly about my sexuality.

it helped me coming out of the closet and develop more mature friendships – growing spiritual intimacy with God

It provided my first contact to others who I knew certainly were also “gay”. Although they may not have been the best representations of what gay men should be, at least I didn’t feel alone. It also forced me to confront my sexuality (which I had really been avoiding) and come to terms with the issues between it, my faith, and my family.

It was the stepping stone that allowed me to come out to myself.

My group leader, was very understanding and accepting about other issues in my life, in ways that helped me *a lot*.

To a degree, it provided a sense of community, and diminished the sense of isolation.

Met other gay people and started dating in a safe space

Many of these responses illustrate what I’ve said before: they are us, and when you go to an ex-gay conference, you are attending one of the gayest events in that locality. For many of these people, being in an ex-gay ministry, ironically, is their first introduction to other gay people and the intentional community, as one respondent described it, that they formed. I think that this is what makes their stories so compelling to me. It’s not to say that their experiences weren’t all that bad after all. But the idea that ex-gay ministries can actually be a stepping stone for many toward their full acceptance of themselves as LGBT people can’t be a comforting thought to very many of those ex-gay leaders.

William Birch

May 30th, 2013

Fearing and suspecting that reparative drive theory was potentially harmful, I’ve been waiting, waiting, waiting for some information or a study toward that effect. In Jeff Chu’s recent book, I remember the story of one man who attended an ex-gay therapy group:

“The exhilaration gave way, over subsequent months, to exhaustion and exasperation, especially in the Tuesday evening group [an ‘ex-gay,’ sexual reorientation support group]. Many of the participants were seeing no decline in their same-sex attractions. Some were dropping out. Bussee says that one member, who had seemed to the leaders to be a success story, went crazy; he went home from church one Tuesday, took a razor blade to his penis, and poured Drano on the wounds.” (105)

Seriously: that sent me into depression for days. In my review of Chu’s wonderful book, I responded: “So, when NARTH insists that reparative therapy is not psychologically or emotionally damaging, one wonders just how many victims of the practice were included in their survey.”

Thank you for posting this!!!

Richard Rush

May 30th, 2013

Is there even one of these people whose suffering wasn’t caused by or intensified by religious poison?

Jonathan

May 30th, 2013

The first time I came out was at my Wednesday night church youth group. I was a sophomore in college.

I made it through six months of ex-gay counseling; I was the only one in my tiny town in South Georgia going through it, so there was no community for me.

I attended a campus youth for Christ rally at Duke where I had a spiritual awakening of the sort my pastor had not intended. I suddenly realized that I was just as I was meant to be, and the only change required was to GTFO of that church and that town ASAP.

Thanks for this post. I don’t run across many ex-ex-gays so I don’t think about that period of my life much. But it is nice to remember that moment when I realized that I was ok and my life was going to be ok, too.

Jallen Rix

May 30th, 2013

Thanks Jim for your excellent review of the survey. I hope people realize that the survey is still open. If more ex-gay survivors want to tell their story, it is there for them: http://www.beyondexgay.com/voice

Jonathan

May 30th, 2013

@jallen

Thanks for the link. I just took the survey.

Susan Montgomery

May 31st, 2013

I think my journey as an ex-gay/ex-trans was informed by the fact that I’m also an atheist. In the end it was just common sense. I eventually got tired of the hedonism of the gay lifestyle and confronted my feelings as to why I was what I was.

Timothy (TRiG)

June 2nd, 2013

The hedonism of which gay lifestyle, Susan? I’m single, and have no theoretical moral/ethical objection to casual sex, but that doesn’t mean I have a lot of it.

TRiG.

Timothy Kincaid

June 2nd, 2013

Susan,

I’m so sorry that you engaged in a hedonistic lifestyle.

If, indeed, your character was insufficient to avoid debauchery and debasing yourself, then it probably is best that you have decided to live as ex-gay and ex-trans.

The gay community has been assigned enough imagined stereotypes and we don’t need someone enforcing and giving validity to those beliefs. So thank you for no longer living in such a way as to bring shame on the rest of us.

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