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Gender Studied      January-February 2017

‘Ex-Gay’ Survivors Go On-line

 

OVER THE PAST EIGHT YEARS, new voices have entered the public discourse over anti-gay ideologies. One of the loudest and most hostile toward us is the “ex-gay” movement, which attempts to de-homosexualize homosexuals under the pretext of saving souls in the name of Jesus. On the Internet and in the press, we are increasingly hearing the stories of ex-gay survivors, people who attempted and failed to alter their sexual orientation through programs such as Exodus. Although these survivors have been around pretty much from the moment the faith-based movement launched itself in the early 1970’s, it is through the Internet that these former consumers of ex-gay theories and treatments have been able to connect with each other and speak out. In so doing, they have rerouted the media and refocused the ex-gay debate.

As early as 1997, a group of individuals, both pro-gay and pro-ex-gay, attempted to engage in civil discussion through an on-line forum known as Bridges Across the Divide (bridges-across.org). Blogging since 1996, Steve Schalchlin (bonusround.com) took part in the on-line experiment. Explains Schalchlin: “Our hope was to provide neutral territory where people of good faith on both sides could rationally discuss the politics and the theology of homosexuality in an atmosphere of non-violent respect so that we could suss out the truth among the untruths.” But Bridges quickly devolved into something other than an evenhanded search for understanding, Schalchlin discloses: “Unfortunately, conservative Christianity has a compulsion to convert. Once the most ‘powerful’ ex-gay leaders realized that they were interacting with spiritually, morally and intellectually healthy GLBT persons (who, according to their theology, don’t exist), they left to retreat back to their own echo chamber.”

In the late 1990’s, funded by Focus on the Family and other conservative Christian groups, Exodus International—the world’s largest ex-gay ministry—took out full-page ads in major U.S. newspapers proclaiming their contention: “Change Is Possible!” In 1998, Focus on the Family launched a traveling ex-gay road show called “Love Won Out,” which preys on parents of gay children and youth pastors. At around the same time, ex-gay spokespeople appeared on the covers of national magazines, on TV, and in local churches.

Alarmed by the expansion of these anti-gay organizations, Wayne Besen, working for the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) in 2000, compiled a report titled “Finally Free: How Love and Acceptance Saved Us From the Ex-Gay Ministries,” which he posted on the HRC website (hrc.org/issues/religion/7107.html) and included many poignant stories from people who had not been converted and had in fact been harmed by ex-gay treatments. These accounts provided an alternative to the growing number of on-line testimonies by ex-gay alumni who claimed that they had been changed by these programs—and you can be too! Besen continued his research, and after photographing ex-gay leader John Paulk in a gay bar, published Anything But Straight—Unmasking the Scandals and Lies in the Ex-Gay Movement (2003). On his book tour, Besen connected with scores of ex-gay survivors and later launched two important websites, WayneBesen.com and TruthWinsOut.org.

Although Bridges Across the Divide floundered, it spawned a number of offshoots, such as Ex-Gay Watch, which tried to uphold the concept of mutual respect. Ex-Gay Watch (exgaywatch.com), a blog created by Bridges Across participant and computer programmer Mike Airhart, began publishing in 2003. Airhart used both his Internet and writing savvy to create a cyber watchdog to monitor and analyze the ex-gay movement’s every move.

In 2003, I also began to share the details of my own failed ex-gay odyssey, including the two years I endured at the Love in Action residential program in Memphis, Tennessee. Early that year, I returned to Memphis to premiere my one-person comedy, Doin’ Time in the Homo No Mo Halfway House—How I Survived the Ex-Gay Movement! (archived at homonomo.com). I learned to use satire to dissect my ex-gay experiences and to serve as an eyewitness to programs that can destroy people’s lives. My stage work and compulsive blogging (petersontoscano.wordpress.com) helped me unearth essential questions: why does someone choose to reject their homosexuality and seek to change? what happens in an ex-gay program? what harm can some people experience? how does someone recover from this form of psychological abuse? Via the Blogosphere, I have connected with hundreds of people that I would never have met otherwise. We’ve been able to share our stories and exchange life-saving compassion and understanding with one another. What’s more, these communications have inspired others to become activists in their own right by speaking out against the ex-gay movement’s harmful methods.

In the past decade, the Internet has exploded with social networking opportunities for countless groups of ex-gay survivors, who communicate through various blog sites (first LiveJournal and later Blogger and WordPress), the Gay Christian Network or GCN (gaychristian.net), and most recently Facebook. In often heartbreaking and raw entries, they have shared their narratives. They have validated the experiences of people who have not been able to live as “recovered” homosexuals but haven’t been able to jump into mainstream GLBT culture either, often finding this community to be hostile to their faith. These forums have also given people outside of the ex-gay community a chance to peek into the ex-gay movement and the travails of those recovering from its deceptions.

Through GCN, I met Christine Bakke, a blogger and former ex-lesbian living in Colorado (risingupwhole.blogspot.com). Like many who recently surfaced from the ex-gay underground, Christine was a woman without a community other than those few people who knew her by an anonymous screen name. In spring 2005 she came to my Homo No Mo play in Denver, and in an e-mail and LiveJournal entry she wrote that the show “made me see how much being in the ex-gay world both helped and harmed me. I saw before that there were ways in which it helped me, but what I didn’t realize until just this week was how much shame I’ve taken on from that whole world, and how I feel like I lost my sense of who I am.”

In the summer of 2005 the Internet erupted with the story of a sixteen-year-old boy, Zach, who spoke out through his MySpace page about how his parents were forcing him to attend Love in Action’s Refuge program for teens, a summer ex-gay boot camp. Although quickly cut off from the Internet, Zach’s words reverberated around the Blogosphere and then in the broadcast media. Protests began on-line and in the real world at the “Love in Action” compound. Young activists used MySpace and blogs to connect, organize, and alert the public about the plight of those forced into ex-gay programs. They exposed the growing trend among anti-gay Christian organizations to target young people.

Christine Bakke and I began to talk about the need for ex-gay survivors to connect with each other and to publicly share their experiences. After months of preparation, we launched Beyond Ex-Gay (beyondexgay.com) in April of 2007, an on-line resource for ex-gay survivors. In June 2007, we partnered with Soulforce (soulforce.org) to organize the first ever ex-gay survivor conference in Irvine, California (conveniently down the street from Exodus’ annual ex-gay conference). With only three months to prepare, we used on-line social networking sites to gather about 200 people from all over the U.S. and as far away as England and Australia. People who had known each other only through the Internet, in some cases for years, met for the first time in person and continued the deep conversations they had begun on-line. We have since held gatherings in Memphis, Nashville, Denver, and Barcelona.

In addition, three former ex-gay leaders, Jeremy Marks (former head of Exodus Europe), Darlene Bogle (a former program leader and once an active Exodus spokesperson), and Michael Bussee (a founder of Exodus), have come forward to issue a public apology for their role in promoting and providing ex-gay treatment. Through YouTube videos, blogs, and the press, their apologies were heard around the world, resulting in apologies from three lesbians in Australia who had at one time led ex-gay programs.

During our conference, we screened the trailer of This is What Love in Action Looks Like, a film directed by Morgan Jon Fox, one of the leaders of the 2005 Memphis protests. In it, Morgan announced that the Love in Action Refuge youth program had officially shut down. The room of ex-gay survivors and allies broke into cheers and tears. We witnessed the fruit of careful and sustained action, both on-line and in public. Morgan posted his trailer on YouTube, providing a model for how GLBT people and our allies can use the Internet to make a difference against anti-gay Christian organizations with their large budgets and expansive media penetration. YouTube has extended our reach to tell our stories in our own words, in a forum where we strip away our anonymity. This openness about our true identity is an important step for many of us who lived in the closet while attempting to conceal and change our own sexuality. A YouTube search of the term “ex-gay” will yield many videos by Ex-Gay Survivors. Blogger Daniel Gonzalez (boxturtlebulletin.com) posted a YouTube video titled “Ex-Gay Therapy Doesn’t Work, I Tried It” that has been viewed well over 100,000 times.

The growing ex-gay survivor movement has drastically altered the way in which all of the media cover ex-gay stories. Previously, a typical news piece would begin with the question, “Can gay people change?” and then go on to offer a point–counterpoint debate on the issue. Now, with so many ex-gay survivors telling their stories on-line, there’s been a shift in the handling of ex-gay stories. One recent story began with the more skeptical opener, “Some faith-based programs say that they can cure gays and lesbians,” and went on to describe how one woman’s life was almost destroyed by ex-gay therapy.

Since the emergence of the ex-gay survivor movement, mainstream media outlets such as The New York Times, Glamour, People, The Times of London, Good Morning America, and The Tyra Banks Show have all done stories that featured ex-gay survivors. Meanwhile, spokespeople for ex-gay programs have been forced to publicly admit that making a gay person straight is not actually possible, and now they’re on the defensive as they face questions about the potential harm that can result from their programs.

Ten years ago, most people who left ex-gay programs and came out as gay felt terribly isolated. Having just come out of one closet, they would often pack up their ex-gay encounters and hide them away in another kind of closet, never coming to terms with this experience. For many of us, this process hindered our recovery and healthy development. The Internet has provided venues for the sharing of survivor narratives and the creation of a meaningful community. Today, there are dozens of former ex-gays who are blogging, podcasting, and vlogging about how we attempted to change and suppress our sexuality, and how we have learned to come out fully both as gay and as ex-gay survivors.

 

Peterson Toscano may be contacted though his website, www.petersontoscano.com.

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