Webster describes a label as “a descriptive or identifying word or phrase, a brand.” We brand things and people everyday. One of my favorite pastimes is to go to the park or mall and people-watch. It’s a cornucopia of labeling. There goes a fat person, a skinny person, a sexy person, an ugly person, a rude person. Labels, labels, labels. It’s easy to put labels on people. If I were to ask those people about my label for them would they agree or disagree? Likely they would disagree, but most likely they’d disagree with another label.
I could say, “I brand you a fat person.” To which they may say [if they do not hit me first!], “No, I am slightly overweight, but not fat.” This person may be offended by the label I’ve chosen for them … so instead, they redefine it. A label for a label.
I’m sure you have a lot of labels for yourself. They are handy ways to briefly describe yourself. I label myself a Christian lesbian. I have had many object to that label saying I cannot be both. I’ve even had some liken it to “good evil.” But that’s their label. They’re trying to stick that label on me and by doing so they cross an ethical line.
Ever since I have heard the term “ex-gay” it has troubled me. Those who say they have left homosexual behavior and feelings behind brandish the label proudly. “I left the homosexual lifestyle, I am now ex-gay,” they proclaim in testimonies for “ex-gay ministries.” It’s very interesting to note that I spent six years in a committed heterosexual relationship, yet when I discovered my homosexuality and left the relationship, I didn’t suddenly become “ex-straight.” [Indeed, I don’t believe I was heterosexual to begin with!] Certainly my realization that the heterosexual lifestyle was not healthy nor right for me was just as painful and well-considered as those who left homosexuality. When we each realize where we’re supposed to be, why should we feel compelled to castigate those who remain in the orientation we left, whether it was gay or straight?
As C.S. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity:
“One of the marks of a certain type of bad man is that he cannot give up a thing without wanting every one else to give it up. That is not the Christian way. An individual Christian may see fit to give up all sorts of things for special reasons — marriage, or meat, or beer, or the cinema; but the moment he starts saying the things are bad in themselves, or looking down his nose at other people who do use them, he has taken the wrong turning.”
This is where unethical behavior emerges. Often homosexuals are accused of recruiting, but it is mainly some of the people who leave behind same-gender sexual behavior that feel compelled to “recruit” others. Since they left, then all others must leave. They dress it up pretty, offering promises of “wholeness in Christ Jesus” or “curing” of homosexual desires and feelings.
At the RENEW website we find this paragraph: “Confused? Do you struggle with homosexual thoughts and/or behaviors that are against your values? Do you experience homosexual thoughts or feelings but find the homosexual lifestyle is not for you? Are you living a double life that causes constant turmoil, shame, confusion and misery?”
You can bet that RENEW is not going to present both sides of the issue on why one might be miserable leading a double life. You can bet their line will be “give up homosexuality and you’ll be much happier.” For some, maybe that is the answer. It may not be the answer for others who simply need to stop living the double life by accept their homosexuality and learn how to overcome the innate homophobia instilled so deeply by society, family and church. Deliberate brainwashing and de-programming tactics of many “ex-gay” ministries are unethical and harmful.
That harm is compounded when those who claim to be ex-gay are used as a powerful tool of the religious right. Their stories of changed behavior are used as “evidence” that gays and lesbians can change their orientation, and therefore are not in need of any “protection” or “equal rights.” Evidence of “ex-gays” make it easier to keep gays and lesbians politically disabled and discriminated against. Those who feel they are “ex-gay” should not play into the hands of the religious right. They should not allow themselves to be pawns, used in a very unchristian and unethical game of politics.
CAN ONE BE “EX-GAY?”
A year or so ago I would have answered a simple “of course not” to this seemingly simple question. In the second issue of Whosoever, we even presented the question as “Ex-Gays? There are None.” Now, I’m not so sure. Surprisingly, it was Rev. Mel White who made me rethink the answer to this question. I asked him, in a rather derisive manner, about “ex-gay ministries” and their work, and those who now claim to be “ex-gay.” His response was, “maybe they are, who am I to say?” After his long struggle with his homosexuality and especially his journey through some ex-gay therapies, I was surprised by his answer. He clarified saying, “some people say they’ve chosen to be gay, and I have to respect that.” How could that be? If it’s true, can’t we all just change and be straight instead of gay? That’s where the tricky question of sexual fluidity, and sexual attraction comes up.
Some believe sexual orientation to be biological. The search for the gay gene has gone on for years. Some interesting findings have come from the research, but so far, there’s nothing definitive about genetic research and human sexuality. The research continues, however, and scientists may soon determine gays and lesbians are “born that way.”
There are a couple of non-genetic measures of sexual fluidity and orientation. The first is the Kinsey scale. Alfred Kinsey did studies back in the 1940s and based his research on hundreds of thousands of studies. He concluded that most people are not simply either homosexual or heterosexual, rather their desires fall in a wide range of sexual desires in between.
The Kinsey Scale
0- Exclusively heterosexual behavior
1 – Predominately heterosexual, with incidental homosexual urges
2 – Largely heterosexual, with significant homosexual urges
3 – Having equal attraction to both sexes
4 – Largely homosexual, with significant heterosexual urges
5 – Predominately homosexual, with incidental heterosexual urges
6 – Exclusively homosexual
Some interesting Kinsey Facts:
- 10% of people had admitted to living exclusively homosexual lives since puberty
- 25% while not exclusively homosexual, admitted having more that incidental homosexual urges
- 37% admitted having an orgasm from a homosexual experience at some time since puberty.
There is also the Klein sexual grid which is considered better because it demonstrates the dynamics of sexuality in one person. In the article “Using the Klein Scale to Teach about Sexual Orientation” by Bobbi Keppel & Alan Hamilton, they explain that Klein examines the element of time in more detail than Kinsey. He asks about sexual behavior during the present (the most recent 12 months,) the past (up to 12 months ago,) and the ideal (which is as close as one can get to intention and prediction of future behavior.)
The biggest change from previous work is Klein’s inclusion of many aspects of sexual orientation in addition to sexual behavior. These include sexual attraction, sexual fantasies, emotional preference, social preference, lifestyle preference, and sexual identity.
This is the Klein Sexual Grid:
Rate each category from 1-7, where
1 hetero only
2 hetero mostly
3 hetero somewhat more
4 hetero/gay equally
5 gay somewhat more
6 gay mostly
7 gay only
Time Scales – Past – Present – Ideal
A. Sexual Attraction
B. Sexual Behaviour
C. Sexual Fantasies
D. Emotional Preference
E. Social Preference
F. Self Identification
G. Straight/Gay Lifestyle
To use the Klein scale, choose one point on each of the three time scales. Each scale represents a continuum, so you may pick points which are not at any of the reference points. For instance, if you feel that you are halfway between reference points 1 and 2 on a scale, you can describe that as 1.5 or 1-1/2.
The time scales are:
Ideal: What do you think you would eventually like?
Present: The most recent 12 months
Past: Your life up to 12 months ago
Sexual Attraction: To whom are you sexually attracted?
Sexual Behavior: With whom have you actually had sex?
Sexual Fantasies: Whom are your sexual fantasies about? (They may occur during masturbation, daydreaming, as part of real life, or purely in your imagination.)
Emotional Preference: Emotions influence, if not define, the actual physical act of love. Do you love and like only members of the same sex, only members of the other sex, or members of both sexes.
Social Preference: Social preference is closely allied with but often different from emotional preference. With members of which sex do you socialize?
Lifestyle Preference: What is the sexual identity of the people with whom you socialize?
Sexual Identity: How do you think of yourself?
Political Identity: Some people describe their relationship to the rest of society differently than their personal sexual identity. For instance, a woman may have a heterosexual sexual identity, but a lesbian political identity. How do you think of yourself politically?
Klein’s research and the experience of many people indicates that sexual identity is fluid (at least for some people), and can change from one period of a person’s life to another. A person’s identity may move to a new position on the continuum; that is,
- a heterosexual may change to a bisexual or homosexual identity;
- a bisexual may change to a homosexual or heterosexual identity;
- a homosexual may change to a bisexual or heterosexual identity.
Many people were sure that they would be, for instance, heterosexual all their lives, but discovered later that they no longer were. [or vice versa] It therefore behooves one to treat others as one would like to be treated, regardless of one’s current sexual identity, as one’s sexual identity may change. Despite the fact that someone may have had different sexual identities at different times, each sexual identity was appropriate and valid for that person in its time.
SO ARE THEY “EX-GAY?”
All these sexual studies serve to prove that one’s sexual orientation can and often does move from some points on the scale. Maybe those who say they are “ex-gay” originally fell around a 4 or 5 on the Kinsey or Klein scales. These people may more likely be able to transfer a majority of their sexual attraction or urges to heterosexual activity more easily than those who are 6’s on the Kinsey scale and 7’s on the Klein scale. This may also help to explain why some ex-gay folk will still admit to having same gender fantasies, or still having some manner of homosexual urge. It’s where they are on the scale, but they no longer are active in homosexual sex.
These scales are but a poor attempt to explain a very complex thing — human sexuality. It is a subject approached with much fear and trepidation by society at large. We are not usually very open to differences, things that we see as alien. We fear them, and want them to either go away, or change into something we are more comfortable with. We would rather gays be straight … then we don’t have to deal with why someone is the way they are. It is the X-Files Agent Scully who rightly observes: “what science may never be able to explain is our ineffable fear of the alien among us. A fear which often drives us not to search for understanding — but to deceive, inveigle, and obfuscate. To obscure the truth not only from others, but from ourselves.”
It is this fear of the alien, or of even being the alien that drives many to ex-gay ministries. It is a deep fear often rooted in religious dogma and guilt or social expectations of “normal.” Instead of seeking to understand homosexuality, some ex-gay ministries seek to deceive, inveigle and obfuscate. They hide the truth, not only from those who come to them for help, but from themselves.
FEAR AND LOATHING IN THE EX-GAY MOVEMENT
It’s fascinating to read some of the testimonies of those who have ceased homosexual behavior. Some of the stories are horrifying! Leading “ex-gay” Anthony Falzarano was a male prostitute [a life of sin, whether gay or straight!], others describe being sexually molested as children, having abusive or absent parents, or other feelings of being inadequate or abandoned. It has been my experience that such stories are the in the minority among gays and lesbians, and are nearly non-existent among those who are happy with their sexuality. I would hazard that a deeper study of ex-gays who describe such horrible experiences would show that any manner of sexual dysfunction was just the tip of their mental health icebergs! I’m sure most gays and lesbians don’t see their life stories reflected in the dark tales of childhood these people describe.
I suppose this explains why most of those who claim to be “ex-gay” talk about how gays and lesbians “struggle” with their sexuality. Certainly these folks did. But one experience, or even several, does not a universal generality make. There are many more gays and lesbians who have no “struggle” with their sexuality. There are no “wounds” in need of healing. There is no speck of sin in their eyes in need of plucking by an ex-gay ministry!
A truly ethical [but admittedly unrealistic] ministry for those do find themselves struggling with same gender attraction would focus not just on orientation and whether homosexual actions or right or wrong. Instead, it would take a holistic approach, looking deeper into what makes each individual tick. If it is a matter of helping them to accept their orientation and learn how to use it in a responsible fashion [steering clear of bad relationships and sexual promiscuity] then the ministry should do that. Teach them how to be gay and Christian, let them know God’s love is there no matter what. But, if homosexuality is truly harming a person, keeping them from God, then the ministry should earnestly seek ways to help them stop a harmful behavior. But it should be a fully informed decision either way. For those not struggling with their sexual identity, the ministry can be no help, and should not actively castigate or “recruit” those who have no struggle or wish to change. Such a ministry would be biblical, based on Paul’s advice to Titus in 2 Corinthians 6: 3-4 — “We put no obstacles in any one’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way.”
If one finds homosexual behavior an obstacle in their path to God and stops engaging in such behavior then are they truly “ex-gay?” Who am I to say what anyone is or is not? But, one crosses the ethical line when one is still gay, but just not engaging in homosexual sex because of societal or religious convictions and proclaims to the world that they’ve found the “cure” and recruits others to join the ex-gay club!
Jim went through an ex-gay ministry, but remains gay. He too sees the ethical delimma of using the term, “ex-gay.” On the Bridges Across website he writes:
“I know of not one person out the hundreds who attended our “program” who have successfully become “ex-gay,” and in fact, I now find the word “ex-gay” or “post-gay” to be offensive for this reason: if someone has “decided” that they are not gay when they thought they were (for whatever reason) then they should just claim to be straight. By claiming to be “ex-gay” I was privileging heterosexuality over homosexuality, which was wrong and for which I am sorry. To claim to be “ex-gay” is to suppose that there is a need to claim it. That gay is something for someone to become “ex”ed. We don’t hear of someone being an “ex-straight” nor do we see ministries built on such an absurd notion. I believe with all my heart from what my life has taught me that we should develop an identity based on who we are, not who were or are not.”
The root of the deception of the word “ex-gay” is in the prefix “ex.” It usually connotes giving up something inherently bad. Ex-drinker, ex-smoker, ex-gambler. But are all of these things bad in and of themselves? I can drink, and not be an alcoholic. I know people who only smoke once in awhile or only in social situations. I can gamble and not be a compulsive gambler. These things may not be inherently bad for everyone. Ex-gay becomes a loaded word because it connotes that you’ve left behind something inherently evil. If one finds that homosexuality [or for that matter heterosexuality] is bad for them, then one should leave it.
It does not logically follow, however, that just because one person leaves behind something they felt was unhealthy for them, that everyone else should follow. They’ll use all manner of moral argument, or their best weapon, religious argument [instilling great guilt and fear!], to drag others along with them. Paul himself tells us that moral decision making is left up to the individual. In Romans 14: 13-14, he writes: “let us no more pass judgment on one another, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother or sister. I know and I am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.”
If homosexuality is truly separating someone from God, then by all means, we should remove the barrier. If homosexuality is not a hindrance, then we should not concern ourselves with it. But we should not place a stumbling block in front of gays and lesbians who are happy with their orientation. Stirring up fear and hatred of gays and lesbians by preaching against their so-called “immoral lifestyles,” trying to “recruit” them out of homosexuality by brainwashing or religious guilt trips and other such unethical tactics used by some “ex-gay ministries,” does nothing but hinder a person from realizing their place with God. Gays and lesbians have been hurt by the church enough, ex-gay ministries only pour salt in the wounds by using the Bible as their main weapon! Is it no wonder that gays and lesbians reject Christ, when ex-gay ministries put so much emphasis on “winning” God’s love by giving up homosexuality?
Remember, we are called to love one another with the unconditional love of Christ. That means loving people just as they are, not as we would like them to be, or not to be. Soren Kierkegaard writes in Works of Love: “There is always the desire, and a worthy desire, too, that the person we are to love may possess endearing perfections; we wish it not only for our own sake but also for the sake of the other person. Above all, it is worthy to wish and pray that the one we love might always behave and be such that we could give our full approval and assent. But in God’s name let us not forget that it is not to our credit if he is such a person, still less to our credit to demand it of him — if there should be any talk about anything being to our credit (something which, however, is unseemly, and an unseemly sort of talk so far as love is concerned), then it should be just this, to love with equal faithfulness and tenderness in either case.”
It is hard to love those who use the concept of “ex-gays” to discredit and devalue the lives of gays and lesbians, but we must. We are called to love those who say they are ex-gay, whether we like the word or not. We cannot withhold our love because we do not agree. The same is true of those who say they are ex-gay, or those who believe gays and lesbians must change to enter the kingdom of heaven. They are called to love gays and lesbians even if they cannot give their “full approval and assent.”
Many ex-gay ministries seem to forget this basic Christian tenant in their recruitment materials. Instead of focusing on love and respect for those who remain active and happy homosexuals, they paint the homosexual “lifestyle” with a broad brush, trying to show it is unhealthy for all. They describe bad relationships and horrible experiences, but one must realize that just because a relationship is bad does not necessarily mean the orientation itself is bad. In the testimony of self-proclaimed “former lesbian” Anne Paulk she writes that she found same-sex relationships were about emotional dependency, and not true love. I dare say we wouldn’t have to look far to find heterosexual relationships we could characterize the same way. The sweeping generalization of same-sex relationships as “emotionally dependent” is inaccurate, unfair and unethical. It’s like describing all ex-gays as confused, repressed and living a lie! If one finds themselves attracting bad relationships, whether hetero or homo, then there needs to be some examination of deeper problems. The problems may not stem from their sexuality at all! Homosexuality is not a barrier to God in and of itself. It is only when one finds that homosexuality is separating them from the glory of God, that it needs to be removed. But remember, Paul tells us, nothing is unclean, except for those who think it unclean.
St. Thomas Aquinas confirms this in Summa theologiae, “Because of the diverse conditions of humans, it happens that some acts are virtuous to some people, as appropriate and suitable to them, while the same acts are immoral for others, as appropriate to them.”
Salvation is a personal matter. Paul tells us to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling. We can look to others for help and guidance, but ultimately, it is between an individual and God to work out salvation. Bottom line: We must respect everyone’s spiritual journey. We must trust that each person is earnestly seeking their place in God’s will. Their faith journeys are valid. No one should tout their spirituality as “superior” as belied in such statements as “love the sinner, hate the sin.” We must love everyone equally. We must respect the stories and experiences of each person, and focus on who they are now, and not so much on who they were, or where they may go next.
NO DISTINCTIONS IN CHRIST JESUS
Ultimately the distinction between gay and ex-gay is unimportant. To God there is no gay, there is no ex-gay. Indeed Paul assures us that in Christ there are no distinctions, no Greek or Jew, no male or female, no slave or master. Indeed, we are all one in Christ Jesus. Instead, we are called to love neighbor as self, rising above the distinctions. Kierkegaard gives a wonderful example in “Works of Love.”
“Distinction is temporality’s confusing element which marks every man as different, but neighbor is eternity’s mark — on every man. Take many sheets of paper and write something different one each one — then they do not resemble each other. But then take again every single sheet; do not let yourself be confused by the differentiating inscriptions; hold each one up to the light and you see the same watermark on them all. Thus is neighbor the common mark, but you see it only by help of the light of the eternal when it shines through distinction.”
We are all God’s children, all neighbors in Christ. If we still feel the need to label others then let “neighbor” be the only label we use. Loving neighbor is difficult, especially when distinctions are so sharply drawn between “gay” and “ex-gay.” But with the “light of the eternal” to guide us, may we all strive to see the watermark of God in everyone.
Portions of this essay are drawn from information provided by the East Coast Bisexual Network, which later became the Bisexual Resource Center.
Whosoever founder and Editor Emeritus Rev. Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians. She earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained by Gentle Spirit Christian Church in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She serves as the spiritual director of Jubilee! Circle in Columbia, S.C., and blogs at Motley Mystic.