Here is Neils research paper for those who are interested.
Homosexuality and Ex-gay Therapy: An Ex-gay Survivors’ Perspective
Table of Contents
1. Introduction 2
2. Literature Review 3
3. Methodology 5
4. Findings 6
(a) Outline of Participants 6
(b) The Shame of Homosexuality 7
(c) The Road to Self-Acceptance 8
5. Conclusion 10
6. Reference List 12
Abstract: Two semi-structured interviews and some autobiographical blog entries are analysed to explore the perspective of “ex-gay therapy” – therapy aimed at stopping a homosexual person from being homosexual – from those who have gone through it unsuccessfully and since given up the attempt. The importance of shame is considered in participants’ negative initial self-perception of their same-sex attractions, and the use of shame as a means of coercing individuals into changing their sexuality is explored. Unsuccessfully attempting ex-gay therapy is determined to be a source of further shame for the former participants of the therapy, above and beyond the shame felt about their homosexuality. The rethinking of religious beliefs and understandings of sexuality that allow these “ex-gay survivors” to overcome their shame, and accept and embrace their homosexuality, is then illustrated.
Guard my life and rescue me;
let me not be put to shame,
for I take refuge in you.
– Psalm 25:20
In the past decade or so, there has been an increased social prominence of religiously-motivated organisations and therapists who practice what is called variously “ex-gay therapy” or “reparative therapy”: therapy that is specifically aimed at stopping a homosexual person from being homosexual (Palazzolo 2005). This therapy, and the existence of “former homosexuals” (also known as “ex-gays”) who claim to have undergone it with successful results, has prompted controversy over a number of issues concerning homosexuality. Public debate has occurred over the need or desirability of ex-gay therapy, whether or not it is effective, and whether or not it is harmful. Related debates concerning how sexuality should best be understood – choice or innate, behaviour or identity – along with the relationship, and conflict, between religious viewpoints and viewpoints on sexuality have also received prominence in debates surrounding ex-gay therapy.
A complete picture of the issues concerning these debates is not possible without an informed look at the perspective of a group that has so far been woefully under-represented in what existing academic study there has been on ex-gay therapy: those who have undergone ex-gay therapy and found that it did not work for them. Variously referring to themselves as “ex-ex-gays”, “former ex-gays” or, in the case of those who feel harmed by the treatment, “ex-gay survivors”, these individuals have been slowly coming forward in public in an effort to make their voices heard and their experiences known (BeyondExgay.com 2008)
This study is a small step towards presenting their perspective. Its aim is to explore the experiences and attitudes of former participants of ex-gay therapy and search for any unique understandings that this population could bring to the issues involved. Specific areas of understanding that were thought to be of particular interest were:
• their understanding of the experience of participating in ex-gay therapy unsuccessfully
• their understanding of sexuality and of same-sex attraction
• their understanding of how their social world has reacted to same-sex attracted individuals
• Any other understandings that could be discovered that would be of significance
A further concern was whether or not these participants had been harmed by their unsuccessful participation in ex-gay therapy.
Although most major mental health organisations recommend against the practice of ex-gay therapy (Cates 2007, p372) a minority view advocates that it should be considered in cases where an individual is experiencing same-sex attractions that are unwanted (Rosik 2003). Those in favour of this point to studies that are believed to indicate that sexual reorientation is possible through therapy in at least some cases (quoted in Rosik 2003, pp16-18), and appeal to the right of clients to determine the nature of their own therapy (Rosik 2003, p19), including ex-gay therapy if so desired. Counter-arguers question the true extent to which change has occurred in the studies presented (Green 2003, p33), and point to anecdotal evidence present that suggests unsuccessful attempts can actually cause harm to clients’ well-being (Shidlo & Shroder quoted in Green 2003, p34).
Regardless of these concerns, religiously-oriented organisations and individuals who offer ex-gay therapy services currently exist across the world, including in Australia (Erzen 2006, p42), and same-sex-attracted individuals exist who will want to change their sexual orientation at least at some point in their lives (Cates 2007, p372).
Qualitative study of ex-gay therapy problematises a number of issues in the debate. Erzen (2006, p71) notes that the ex-gay ministry she studied placed its main emphasis on cultivating an improved relationship with God as a means of sexual and religious identity conversion, rather than behavioural conversion: the ministry leader bluntly told new participants that anyone expecting to be converted from homosexual to heterosexual would probably be disappointed, and that “struggling” with same-sex attraction would probably be a lifetime experience. People who undergo ex-gay therapy often report feeling rejected not only by anti-gay conservative Christian groups, but also by existing LGBT social groups and institutions (Case 2007, p372). Actual participants of ex-gay therapy are frequently much more tolerant towards gay-affirming individuals and political positions than the anti-gay groups that use the existence of ex-gay therapy for anti-gay political purposes (Erzen 2006, pp187-190), but the tendency found by Erzen (2006, p89) at the ex-gay ministry of New Hope Ministries was nevertheless to characterise the “gay lifestyle” as “inherently harmful, empty, promiscuous, and dangerous”. The participants of Erzen’s ethnographic study felt for their part that Erzen had downplayed the importance of why people initially sought to stop being homosexual, despite claims by others that she was too sympathetic to them (Erzen 2006, p20).
There is a paucity of literature available on the perspective of those participants of ex-gay therapy who find it unsuccessful and who abandon their attempt, despite claims that dropping out is a frequent occurrence (Wolkomir 2006, p125). Wolkomir (2006, pp125-126) notes only briefly that such cases exist, and that some potential participants are put off by the requirements for participation. Erzen (2006, pp76-81) notes the existence of gay-affirming religious institutions who “relish the defection of ex-gays to their organizations”. Two participants who dropped out while she was studying New Hope Ministries are presented as still struggling to reconcile their evangelical Christian beliefs with the reality of their same-sex attractions.
The specific areas of exploration that were undertaken in this study were suggested by this existing research. Questions concerning the effectiveness of what ex-gay therapies can do must also take into consideration the experience of those who undergo it unsuccessfully. Concerns about harm raise ethical issues in any context. The meaning and understanding of sexuality, and its relationship to the broader social context, appeared to be for participants of ex-gay therapy to any existing category of individuals that concern themselves with those issues. It was thought that the understandings of former participants would be unique.
Data collection was performed mostly by semi-structured interviews of former participants. It was believed that individual interviews were appropriate given the intensely personal and subjective nature of the understandings being sought. Semi-structured interviews allowed for flexibility in data collection, enabling issues that were not considered by the researcher to be raised by the participants.
The original plan for recruitment of participants was to recruit at least 4 participants by advertising on Internet sites on which former ex-gay therapy participants were known or believed to congregate, and then seek commonalities and points of comparison between them. If this advertising was insufficient, advertising on more general-purpose GLBT websites would be done.
Unfortunately this did not go according to plan, in part due to a limited number of people living locally who volunteered to be interviewed, and in part due to time constraints. Given the private nature of the data being sought, lack of desire to participate was entirely understandable, but data collection was sparser than intended as a result, as it was possible to interview rather fewer people than desired.
Ultimately only two people were interviewed, one gay man (“Anthony”) and one gay woman (“Dannii”) for times approximating 40 minutes and 50 minutes each. To help supplement this data, a secondary source was used, in the form of a set of blog entries by a Sydney-based individual (“Luke”) in which he wrote about his previous experiences with ex-gay therapy. There was some ethical concern about using these entries without explicit permission, even though they were publicly accessible. It was decided that to protect Luke’s privacy, no direct quotes would be used from the entries, and care would be taken in the analysis so as not to inadvertently expose Luke’s blog to unwanted scrutiny.
The data was coded using the basic method outlined by Ezzy (2002): the meaning of the diverse data was initially sought via open coding, axial coding was then used to relate and conceptually marry the data together, and selective coding was then used to build an overall theoretical framework in which to interpret and analyse the data.
Outline of Participants
The three individuals ranged in age from the early twenties to middle-aged. All three were active members of Pentecostal or Charismatic Christian churches. Curiously, all three were not raised in that tradition, converting later on in life. Dannii spent some time as an out lesbian before converting to Christianity and then seeking to become straight, while Luke and Anthony were never out gay men: both wanted to be straight as soon as they realised that they were gay. All three are now out and accepting of their homosexuality.
Prior to that acceptance, each individual had tried numerous methods of attempting to change their sexuality. Besides the ex-gay therapy, the methods common to all were praying to God to intercede, and undergoing exorcisms in an effort to get rid of demonic spirits.
The forms of ex-gay therapy attempted and the time spent in them varied, ranging from one to two years in a live-in environment, a course of mentorship under someone who had also undergone an ex-gay therapy program, or one-on-one counselling sessions. The factors that were common to all of them was that homosexuality was considered as immoral, and that homosexuality was viewed as something that was not innate, but was something that developed in a person as a result of some sort of life experience.
The shame of homosexuality
In talking about their understandings, one emotion dominated the individuals’ discussion: shame. For all the individuals at the time of their therapy, the fact of their homosexuality was described as something which made them feel ashamed of who they were:
“I did feel a lot of shame at having lived the life, what I thought was the life at the time as being wrong. And I suppose that shame followed me right through till quite a few years ago.” – Dannii
Barbalet (1998, pp104) describes shame as a social activity: it is the “supposition of another’s regard for self, of taking the view of another”. In other words, it is a form of making judgements about yourself based on what you imagine others think of you.
Shame about the individuals’ homosexuality stemmed from two areas in which they supposed a negative opinion held by an “other” towards them. The first is supposition of what they believed God thought of a gay person like themself. God’s presumed attitude is summed up by Anthony: “My belief was that you could be straight and go to heaven, or you’d be gay and go to hell”.
The second is supposition of how they believed that they were perceived by other individuals in their social world. It was commonly expected that people would hate them if they knew the truth. Dannii described her guilty need to confess her homosexuality “like I was a murderer or a thief”. In many cases this expectation was justified: the perception of some people that Dannii told about her sexuality was that she was “evil”, and Anthony, after publicly confessing his homosexuality, found that his former social contacts severed all contact with him.
Barbalet also says that shame can act as an internalised form of social control. It acts as an unconscious mechanism through which a person evaluates themselves and compares it to what they believe others expect of them, with the feeling of shame a motivating force for the person to try and change themselves to conform to that expectation (Barbalet 1998, p115).
Dannii and Luke both describe an expectation from their church that they should try to become straight if they were to be part of the church. Some of Dannii’s friends also made their friendship conditional on the expectation that she would try to become straight. There was no indication that the intention was to shame them into changing their sexuality, but that may nevertheless have been an unintended consequence.
In the case of Luke’s and Anthony’s actual experience in ex-gay therapy, the attempt to shame them into changing was quite explicit. Luke’s therapy involved shame-inducing public confessions of sins. Part of Anthony’s therapy involved public humiliations in front of the other participants intended, according to the people who ran it, “to get rid of my ego and selfishness”.
But perhaps the most worrisome shame was that instilled in the individuals when their attempts to change were unsuccessful. In each case, the individual blamed themselves for their own failure. In each case, it was explicitly spelled out to them by their religious peers, and in Luke’s case by the people who ran the ex-gay program he attended, that this was entirely correct, and that their failure to change was proof that they had moral shortcomings, above and beyond the “moral shortcoming” of their homosexuality. “You’re told you haven’t got enough faith”, according to Dannii. Anthony characterises the beliefs going through the head of someone who fails to change as “there must be something wrong with me”, and “I must be in love with my sin”.
The Road to Self-Acceptance
In all three cases, the individuals reached a point where they concluded that changing their sexuality simply wasn’t possible. For both Anthony and Luke, admitting to that drove their thoughts towards contemplation of suicide. Anthony reluctantly planned to live as a gay man for a time and then kill himself at 50, while Luke made an actual attempt on his own life not long after he accepted that he could not change. Dannii, having already lived as an out lesbian for a time, was perhaps not so disconcerted at the possibility, and gave no indication of suicidal thoughts.
A positive resolution was possible for them by renegotiating their spiritual identity, and reconsidering much of what they were told about homosexuality before and during ex-gay therapy. None of the individuals are ashamed of their homosexuality anymore; all have accepted and embraced a homosexual identity, such that Anthony said in his interview: “I love being gay, and if science developed a pill to take [to turn me straight] I wouldn’t take it”.
As part of the process of acceptance, gay-affirming understandings of God and spirituality were re-framed in much more personal and experiential terms. Dannii describes her interpretation of scripture as “not just written experience. They’re writing what they experienced”. Scripture was seen not as the literal meaning of the words, not just a story, but a recording of someone’s experience, that was then intended to be passed on. Anthony described Jesus’ message as “a very real spirituality”, upon which organised religion and the Christian church have built up and over creating something “so far removed from what originally it was all about”. Existing Christian scriptures allegedly condemning homosexuality were reconsidered as misinterpretations that are being incorrectly applied outside of their original historical context.
Homosexuality itself was re-considered as a “sexual orientation”. As Anthony put it, orientation “is about love, it’s about wanting to partner with somebody, and the emotion attached to that”. In contrast Anthony said that ex-gay programs “don’t see it [homosexuality] as an orientation; they see it as a behaviour”. There was no apparent existence in the discourse used in ex-gay programs of any concept of romantic and personal feelings felt by homosexuals towards someone of the same sex, equivalent to those felt by heterosexuals towards members of the opposite sex.
Instead, according to Dannii, homosexuality was treated as a learned habitual behaviour, similar to drug or alcohol abuse, and “you’re misinterpreting it to have emotions with it”. This “behaviour” was also confused with other behaviour such that in the discourse of ex-gay programs, it was not possible to express a difference between homosexuality and other sexual behaviours such as sex addiction or sexual abuse. Anthony described the testimony of an ex-gay man recounting his problem with “homosexuality” as actually “all about his sexual addiction, not about his orientation, about his sexual addiction problem”. This was viewed by the individuals as an obstacle to a person’s true understanding and acceptance of their homosexuality.
Homosexuality was also re-considered as “innate” rather than learned. It was accepted by the individuals that they were “born gay”, and that God had planned them to be that way. The contrast with the view of ex-gay programs, which according to Dannii insist that “something must have made you that way”, was likewise seen as an obstacle to understanding and acceptance.
This reframing enabled the individuals to understand their homosexuality as a positive thing, something that was morally acceptable, not possible to change, and a part of their own true nature, regardless of what anyone else thought. In this way, they were able to stop feeling ashamed of who they are. Anthony advocates that this is a far better path to follow, and one that saves same-sex attracted Christians from a lot of harm:
Anthony: “If I had been told at eighteen, that I could be a happy, fulfilled gay man, gay person, and have a sense of morality, and have a faith, it would have saved me twenty-two years of hell.”
The small number of individuals interviewed and considered in this study makes generalisation of the data presented here almost impossible. More and broader study is required to better understand the perspectives of these “ex-gay survivors” and the contribution they have to ongoing debates over sexuality and attempts to change it.
What can be gathered from the analysis of the three individuals here is this:
• their initial attitude towards their own sexuality was that it was a reason to be ashamed of themselves
• this shame stemmed in part from the belief that their same-sex attractions meant that they were destined for hell
• it also stemmed from the belief that other people would hate them if their homosexuality was discovered, a belief that was often justified
• it is this feeling of shame that may have motivated them to seek out and undergo ex-gay therapy
• when it was unsuccessful, the ex-gay therapy heightened their sense of shame
• this shame at their failure was further heightened when those around them agreed that their failure was shameful, on top of agreeing that their continuing homosexuality was also shameful
• ending this feeling of shame, and accepting and embracing their homosexuality, required changing their understanding of religion, and changing their understanding of homosexuality
• this change included religious understanding becoming more personal and geared towards living spiritual experience rather than written scripture
• it also included reconsidering homosexuality as an innate orientation rather than a learned behavioural habit
• this entailed accepting the idea that homosexual orientation was about love and intimacy towards someone of the same sex, a concept whose existence cannot be comprehended in the worldview of those who see homosexuality as a behaviour
• their previous understandings of homosexuality and their religious beliefs were now seen as an obstacle to a person’s true understanding and acceptance of themselves, and a source of considerable pain.
Further research is urgently required.
Barbalet, J.M., 1998. Emotion, social theory, and social structure: a macrosociological approach, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge NY,
BeyondExGay.com, Beyond Ex-Gay, viewed Nov 2 2008, < http://www.beyondexgay.com>
Cates, J., 2007. ‘Identity in Crisis: Spirituality and Homosexuality in Adolescence’, Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, vol 24, issue 4, 369-383
Erzen, T. 2006 Straight to Jesus: Sexual and Christian Conversions in the Ex-Gay Movement, University of California Press Ltd, Los Angeles
Ezzy, D. 2002, ‘Coding data and interpreting text: Methods of analysis’ in Qualitative analysis: Practice and innovation, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, NSW, pp. 80-111
Green, R., 2003. ‘When Therapists do not Want their Clients to be Homosexual: a Response To Rosik’s Article’, Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, vol 29, issue 1, pp29-38.
Palazzolo, R., 2005, ”Ex-gay’ Camps, Therapy Programs Attract Controversy’, ABC News America, July 28, viewed Nov 2008, < http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/Health/Story?id=983209&page=1>
Rosik, C.H., 2003. ‘Motivational, Ethical, and Epistemological Foundations in the Treatment of Unwanted Homoerotic Attraction’, Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, vol 29, issue 1, 13-28.
Wolkomir, M. 2006, Be Not Deceived: The Sacred and Sexual Struggles of Gay and Ex-Gay Christian men, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick NJ