Exiting Exodus: Narratives of Gay Christians

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Joined in 2011
January 7, 2011, 00:30

Exiting Exodus: Narratives of Gay Christians – 2010 Postgraduate Symposium

Rachel Goff is a postgraduate student at Monash University in Melbourne, Victoria. She is currently researching the tensions surrounding identity formation of individuals who have participated in ex-gay programs, yet maintain both their spiritual and gay identities. She has a background in counselling, religious and spirituality studies, and is proud to identify as a Gay Christian woman. The summary presentation was given at the 2010 Postgraduate Symposium, at Monash University, Melbourne. Rachel’s research in this area will be completed in May, 2012.

How can a person enter a gay healing program, and based on religious conversion, exit as ‘straight’? When one has been brought up in the culture of evangelical Christianity and identify as gay, this presents a problem for the individual’s religious conviction and spiritual growth in the setting of the institutional Church. In order to bring their so-called deviant sexual identity in line with their religious identity, some Christians choose to attend programs that seek to restore the gay person’s sexuality to the heterosexual norm, therefore adopting an ‘ex-gay’ identity, which resists affiliation to the binary hetero/homosexual definition, and is said to repress sexuality altogether. This is the aim of the organisation Exodus International. ___ This is called the ‘gay healing movement’, and there are few accounts of real success. However for those who cannot ‘change’ their homosexual identity, what comes next? My research project, ‘Exiting Exodus: Narratives of Gay Christians,’ focuses on the experiences of people who come out the other side.

Exodus International is the largest global ex-gay organisation, which claims to liberate Christians with same-sex attractions from this ‘chosen lifestyle’ (Exodus International, 2005). Exodus and all other gay healing programs believe that change is possible through self-motivation, self-determination and a strong desire to change (Exodus International, 2005). This must be based on a personal, transforming relationship with Jesus, and measured through the ability to reject temptation, ultimately through marriage or a ‘Godly’ single life (Exodus International, 2005). Such ‘Godly change’ is reinforced directly by what is known as reparative or ‘conversion’ therapy. A common joke surrounding ex-gay programs is that they aim to ‘pray the gay away’.

To gather the data for this paper, I conducted semi-structured interviews with seven participants, all male, between 34 and 59. Participants were recruited through responses to advertisements on online support groups, and through responding to an article outlining the research in an online newsletter. All participants attended ex-gay programs in Australia. At the time of interview, participants identified as both non-heterosexual and Christian; that is, they had passed through a gay healing program without success. In addition to this group, I also interviewed in a similar way, individuals who identified as both non-heterosexual and Christian, but who had not participated in an ex-gay program. Through an analysis of the differences between the groups, the aim is to compare reasons why some people choose to participate in an ex-gay program, and others not.

For the purposes of this symposium, however, I will be focusing on participant’s narratives of personal crisis of realising their so-called ‘deviant’ sexuality prior to entering an Exodus style program…

Some individuals, who live within a religious context and acknowledge their same-sex attraction, reach a point of crisis which suggests a dissonance between their sexuality and their religious identity, and is the catalyst for participation in an ex-gay program. The action of participating in a program such as this is usually culminated in recognising that a certain behaviour, that is, sexual behaviour or desire, was ‘wrong’ or forbidden by conservative forms of Christianity.

Most participants to whom I spoke prior to gay healing, were quite often unable to determine or define their sexuality, and through the inability to articulate their sexual desires, this aspect of their identity was manifested in behaviour rather than articulated through words, emotions or experiences.

I was fairly aware from a young age that I was gay, I kind of knew but didn’t have the words for it that early but I knew what it felt like, I knew that it was wrong and that it was going against what was getting taught, so I spent my whole time in high school being really worried about this thing, and thought I’d get fixed somehow, but I didn’t have anybody to talk to about it

Rupert, 34

Without self-definition, some participants recall that being ‘in the closet’ brought notions of sex and sexual thoughts to the front of the mind, and being all they could think about, to the point that their behaviour was self diagnosed as extreme or addictive, with their only saviour being Jesus, and gay healing. All participant’s believed these thoughts and desires to be negative and in some cases, demonising this inherent sense of sexuality. For example, Gary’s porn addiction and Bruce being caught at a beat catalysed their decisions to ‘seek help’:

To be honest it was, a lot of it had to do with the fact that I moved out of home, and as result of being on my own, my amount of time spent on the internet viewing gay pornography went through the roof… To the point that I was barely… functioning, because I would stay up half the night looking at stuff, and then I, when I moved into my own house, there was of course no one there to monitor me, and the cork went out of the bottle if you like! And, so, I got very out of control and quite quickly came to the conclusion that I needed some kind of help.

Gary, 35

Whilst I was at uni I played in an orchestra, and spent a lot of time on my own, and one night got really drunk and ended up in a park with this guy. And we were seen by some people who rang up the cops. This guy ran away and I sort of just didn’t care and just walked off down the street. And of course they chased me and said “was it you that was back up there?” and I was like “maybe” and I just didn’t know what was going on, I don’t think I even cared what was going on at that point, and ended up arresting me and charging me with offensive behaviour or something like that.

Bruce, 41

Having spent the bulk of their lifetimes interacting with the world from within a conservative religious framework, both Gary and Bruce perceived their behaviour and desires as sinful, and damaging to their religious identity. By engaging in such sinful behaviours, Gary and Bruce reached a point of crisis and felt that something about themselves was broken, and needed ‘fixing’.

Former ex-gay Christians interviewed for this research described a sense of shame and frustration about their sexuality, in contrast to their religiosity. A prevalent theme in the stories of my participants is an awareness of a threshold, or a crisis point. This may include the notion of not wanting to run anymore, and of not wanting to have their sexuality as a secret. For example,

I’d just believed what I’d heard: and that was it’s purely a choice, it’s purely, you know, my lot in life that God’s given me, unfortunately this dysfunction… But they sort of promised that this life, you could come out of at the other end, and it would be different… So yeah, I took part to change.

Alex, 35

I read a book by the now Archbishop, Peter Jensen, about true repentance, making up your mind, that you had to decide, you can’t be both, you had to be one or the other. He didn’t specifically mention homosexuality, I put that in my mind. But it was sin, so I had to decide between being this way or being straight, basically. So for me it was an actively living decision, at that point.

Bruce, 41

These stories indicate a hope that once reaching this crisis point, the participant’s decision to partake in an ex-gay program is with the intent of divorcing their ‘sinful’ sexual behaviour with their strict religious observance, which to them, often equates to authentic living. It is this seeking of authenticity which in fact, enables their departure from the ex-gay program, much further down the track.

However, the incongruence between respondent’s innate sexuality and religious identity can lead to other issues such as depression, suicide and isolation. As Rupert recalls,

Then I was about 20, I’d done a big trip to the UK and around Europe, it was the first time I’d ever been out of home, and when I came back I became very, very depressed, and I felt like it was mostly related to not having reconciled, not feeling comfortable at all in it…Yeah, so when I found this I thought this is it, this is the answer, this is how I’m gonna get fixed and be normal and happy and all this kind of thing, and that’s kind of how I got involved in it, really.

Rupert, 34

A major life crisis such as acknowledging your sexual identity, often results in a precarious emotional and mental state. In some, this may catalyse a point for moving forward, of making decisions about what to do with unwanted sexual desires. The belief that one had to make a choice between either their sexuality or their relationship with God, was a reality. And for these seven former ex-gay Christians, the hope of healing their broken sexuality outweighed the potential costs of re-negotiating their identity to encompass all aspects of themselves.

I was part of the church out there, and there was no way they could accept the concept of ‘gay’ and ‘Christian’, it was just one or the other. So I had to make a choice at that point.

Bruce, 41

Therefore, I would argue that gay Christians who have been through a gay healing program, to no effect, have a personal crisis of identity; but in particular, this crisis is of their sexual identity and their religious identity in collision with each other. This collision is justification for their participation in a gay healing program.

Why then, do some people choose to take partake in an ex-gay program, and others not? My initial observations, after interviewing a group of gay Christians who did not want to convert their sexuality to the heterosexual norm, (SLOW DOWN) is to do with the intrinsic level of involvement and interaction between one’s identity and religious observance and sense of spirituality, in the secular world. Participants who did not partake in gay healing were just as disenchanted and disillusioned when acknowledging their sexuality. However, the key difference was a level of engagement with the religious rhetoric and dogma, which they experienced as a mandate by the religious hierarchy, rather than the word of God. As explained by Simon,

For a long while, I really became terribly disenchanted and disillusioned with the organised church and organised religion, and even God per se. I went to church because I’d always been to church, I do things and wrote and I would attend meetings because it was expected of me, or I was leading them because I was in a position of responsibility or authority, but there was this deep lingering resentment to God and church, because other people couldn’t accept me into their world and couldn’t accept me for who I am.

Simon, 44

Of those in Group 2, the pattern of disengagement, or retreating from institutional participation all together, meant that they were ‘in the world’ enough to be aware of the negative impact of conversion therapy on some people.

It would seem that non-Exodus gay Christians also reach a threshold in which they desire authenticity, however it occurs through awareness within and of the self, rather than through religious mediation. For example, in Nina’s case, the experience of falling in love with another woman after 33 years of marriage was both a personal crisis, and a catalyst for self acceptance:

I had to make the decision whether the love I felt for her would override the trauma of coming out to my family. And in the end, I decided that there was more of the road behind me that there is ahead of me, and do I want to get to the edge of my grave and regret not going with the person that I fell in love with.


Therefore, the notion of a personal crisis to catalyse a renegotiation of identity is present within non-heterosexual Christians who partake in an ex-gay program. This crisis is personal, but quite different for the two groups; non-gay healing participants experience a crisis of identity. But for those who participated in gay healing, it is a little more complex: not only do they have a crisis of identity as a whole, but the collision of their sexual identity and their religious identity is dramatic enough for them to want to heal their self-perceived ‘brokenness’. They would literally do whatever it took to change.

Joined in 2010
January 8, 2011, 00:20

Anyone know how I can get in touch with Rachel?


Anthony Venn-Brown
Joined in 2005
January 8, 2011, 13:29

just sent her a message my friend.

Joined in 2010
January 8, 2011, 15:38

Thanks. Feel free to give her my details…

Joined in 2009
January 8, 2011, 19:27


Anyone who wishes to contact me can do so on [email protected]


Rachel 🙂

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