Ex-Gay Ministries’ Changing Definitions of ‘Cure’

In olden days — not so very olden either — this practice was painted as the blackest of all possible sins. Anyone who practiced it was pretty sure of hell. Our grandfathers, including our medical grandfathers, if they did not avoid all reference to it, taught that it was not only a dreadful sin, but that also it had physical and mental consequence which were terrible; these consequences being regarded as the just punishment of God for human wickedness. It was said that the victim of this habit invariably brought disease upon himself and that if he did not speedily check it he would go mad…. The only hope of cure held out was said to lie in the exercise of the victim’s will assisted by religious exercises of prayer and Bible reading. (Leslie Weatherhead, The Mastery of Sex Through Psychology and Religion, 1931)

The real changes taking place

The Rev. Leslie Weatherhead, a British Methodist in a Congregationalist pulpit, was one of the pioneers in attempting to integrate psychology and religion. In his day, he was considered a “liberal” or “enlightened” voice on matters relating sexuality to spirituality, as his above words on “Masturbation or Self-Abuse” might indicate. The “Methodist Recorder” predicted, “without fear of exaggeration it can be said that tens of thousands of young people will be deeply grateful” for Weatherhead’s book.

In that essay, Weatherhead also stated: “Fortunately, most of what was held to be true in regard to masturbation, physically, psychologically, and theologically, we now know to be vulgar nonsense.” He noted that a “psychologist says that 99 per cent of those who have given him their confidence practice it, and he suspects the hundredth of concealing the truth.”

We should by now, however, know better than to think that Weatherhead was particularly enlightened. He went on to claim that “some [men and women] achieve complete mastery [over masturbation] … Quite recently I have had the joy of curing — apparently completely — a boy who masturbated several times daily for eight years and a girl in whom the practice had been a daily one for nearly fifteen years.”

By what means did Weatherhead have such “joy of curing” masturbators? His recommendations ranged from the psychological (urging patients to recognize masturbation as “the misuse on selfish levels of an instinctive energy”), to the religious (“Simply soak the mind with thoughts of Christ”) to the physical (recommending circumcision of all uncircumcised masturbators, avoidance of “heavy meals late at night,” and sleeping with coverings that were “as light as possible” in a bed that was “not too soft”).

It should not be surprising how many parallels exist between this approach to masturbation and the various, supposedly enlightened approaches to homosexuality popular today among evangelicals, fundamentalists, and charismatics. [Footnote: In his own chapter on homosexuality, Weatherhead simply referred his readers to his chapter on masturbation, though he did say that the sodomy laws were “both cruel and useless.”] As was the case with Weatherhead’s “ex-masturbator” process, many (though not all) leaders of what is commonly known as the “ex-gay movement” are attempting to move away from the really outlandish misinformation of previous generations. In both movements, we see a move from ignoring a taboo topic to a revolutionary recognition if it as a widespread phenomenon — even within the churches — requiring a change in perception. We see a seemingly greater compassion. But we see, too, simplistic solutions in the misuse of prayer and Bible reading. And we see the naive reporting of “cure” on the basis of instant evaluation of alleged change, rather than on long-term follow-up studies. We see testimony of “ex-masturbators” and “ex-gays” as narrowly reported by their world-be deliverers. We see recommendations that the behavior be redefined, that thanks be given for a “freedom” not yet actually attained. We see recommendations for avoidance and silly suggestions for distraction, repression and denial.

Make no mistake about it — changes undoubtedly do occur in the “ex-gay” movement. But in my extensive study of “ex-gay” phenomena over more than a decade convinces me that the changes are turnover in testimonies, personnel, promises, definitions, expectations and claims, not changes in sexual orientation and behavior. As even “ex-gay” movement promoter Sharon Kuhn has admitted in Campus Crusade’s “Worldwide Challenge” magazine, “most [“ex-gay”] ministries to Christian homosexuals soon die out.”

The degree of “enlightenment” among modern-day evangelicals, fundamentalists, and charismatics varies widely. This is especially the case with many heterosexuals who desperately want to believe in the “ex-gay” movement. Some persons continue to propose “cures” that are downright stupid. Out of Dallas a “Chaplain Ray” has issued advice on “How Homosexuals Can Change.” He says that homosexuals should “Keep active. Work. Exercise. Involve yourself in as much wholesome group activities as possible.” This Rambo-like prison chaplain also believes that homosexuals would have been “healthier emotionally and psychologically if they had been involved in the rough and tumble games and fights of the children on the playgrounds.”

Some evangelicals continue to claim that complete change to heterosexuality is possible for the gay man or lesbian. For example, Kenneth Gangel, of Dallas Theological Seminary, claims that the “propensity can be changed by the power of Jesus Christ.” He says that those Christian leaders who do not propose complete change “stop short of the real power of the gospel.” (He cites as his evidence the testimony of a man who has now left the “ex-gay” movement and who, in the testimony cited by Gangel, readily admitted that he continued to masturbate thinking of “fond wishes” for homosexual activity.)

And Leanne Payne, a heterosexual charismatic who runs Pastoral Care Ministries, calls all same-sex sexuality “a sexual neurosis” (contrary to the diagnostic classification of the American Psychiatric Association). She defines homosexuality as “a condition for God to heal” and says that, as such, “it is (in spite of the widespread belief to the contrary) remarkably simple.”

Among other evangelicals, such views are waning. Five years ago, “Christianity Today” splashed across its cover: “Homosexuals CAN Change.” Two years later, that magazine’s editor, Kenneth Kantzer, admitted that “The evidence is clear that such a turn [from homosexuality to heterosexuality] is often not very successful,” though he demanded that all lesbians and gay men “try to turn from your homosexual orientation” or at least “exercise self-control…refrain from homosexual practice…and live lives of sexual continence.”

Eastern College sociologist Tony Campolo admits that “ex-gay” claims “always fall through” on close examination. He even acknowledges the probability of a “biological basis for homosexuality” and thus says that we “cannot expect such a person to change his orientation.” But Campolo, too, advocates celibacy for men and women whose orientation is homosexual.

Increasingly, some evangelicals are moving all the way to the postion espoused by Evangelicals Concerned, supporting a realistic integration of same-sex relationship and biblical faith. As early as 1978, Richard Quebedeaux observed in “The Worldly Evangelicals,” “Right and center evangelicals may continue to say ‘no’ to homosexual practice explicitly and homosexual orientation implicitly; but it seem likely that left evangelicals will finally come out closer to Ralph Blair than to Anita Bryant.”

Nonetheless, perceived “causes” and “cures” of homosexuality are still quite confused and confusing among most evangelicals, fundamentalists, and charismatics. It does not, of course, take much beyond chutzpah to posture righteousness indignation and promise “freedom from homosexuality,” especially if the one who makes the promise is a heterosexual who says it is really up to God to heal. It requires quite something else to offer an effective way out of homosexual orientation. And no matter what they claim, it is obvious that nobody is delivering on deliverance.

THE CLAIMS of “ex-gays” themselves also vary considerably. Many frankly admit that, contrary to Payne’s claims, “healing” of homosexuality is not “remarkably simple.” They know from their own experience what daily and even hourly struggles they are up against. In a recent interview in the “St. Paul Pioneer Press,” “ex-gay” leader Jeff Ford of Outpost says that he still wrestles with his own homosexual urges, admitting he is not “cured,” and that he doubts that “anyone has shed their homosexual orientation” through the “ex-gay” process.

Similarly, Frank Worthen, the director of “Love In Action,” warns in a recent issue of his newsletter, “When the sun [comes out] and the clothes [come] off, [‘ex-gays’ have] a full blown problem.” He admits that even “during the winter months,” the “ex-gays” have only “a measure of victory.”

He confesses, “One of the most difficult battles ex-gay men and women face is working through attractions we often have to members of the same sex.” He notes that “ex-gays” are often sexually attracted to persons they see while out shopping or at church but says that it is especially hard when “ex-gays” are sexually attracted to “someone we work with or are required to interact with on a regular basis.” Worthen, who is now married to a woman, suggests that other “ex-gays” should, “if possible, cut down the number of times you are seeing the person. Using the telephone rather than visiting the person helps.” He advises that “ex-gays” seek out “the physically unattractive.” Finally, Worthen says that “ex-gays” “should not just beat yourself…every time you feel attracted to another.”

Another “ex-gay” has this to confide to the readers of “The Presbyterian Survey”: “I have a hope that I will someday have a heterosexual orientation, or meet a woman who will help me find one. But my hardened, cynical side insists that the future for me will consist of celibacy, and a decreased sexual tension. Nevertheless, the tension will remain with me until death. That’s what I think the future will be like.”

Some “ex-gays,” however, actually deny their experience. Daniel Roberts of Homosexuals Anonymous (also known as Quest) says that homosexuals are all mistaken even in thinking of themselves as “homosexuals.” According to his pseudo-Freudian interpretation, homosexuality is really “an ambivalence toward the same sex rather than love for the same sex.” He says that such ambivalence leads to genital behavior when it is “misinterpreted as erotic.”

Other “ex-gays” redefine terms to suit themselves. Joanne Highley of L.I.F.E. Ministry says that Christians must “see homosexual orientation for what it is — a lie. We are,” she insists, “truly heterosexual” in the first place. With such flip-flop argumentation she finds it easy to promise “a transformation of one’s orientation” (though we might ask what the need is for such a “transformation” if the homosexual orientation is really just “a lie” all along). At any rate, she says that such “transformation of one’s orientation” is done through a “change of identity — recognition of being a new creation.”

NO MATTER what they over-claim in promoting their movement, careful examination of most of the claims of the “ex-gays” — at least in their fine-print disclaimers — shows far more modest promises. Some of their stories of so-called deliverance’s don’t even focus on sexual orientation or behavior, offering instead illogical “proofs” of change. For example, in an article entitled “Showing Homosexuals A Way Out” and published in the conservative United Methodist magazine, “Good News,” reporter James Robb relates the testimony of a man who “was once a practicing homosexual. Now he’s set up in ministry.” How that man’s change of career automatically proved any change in sexual orientation of behavior is never demonstrated. In another issue, “Good News” has printed the testimony of “A Former Homosexual,” now a “musical evangelist.” But a close reading of the testimony indicates that, however more musical he might have become, this “former” homosexual’s homosexuality is continuing in the form of repeated homosexual temptations.

Another evangelical magazine, “Message,” has published the “ex-gay” testimony of Tim Youngblood. He claims, “After accepting Christ I began changing.” But what began changing? “The way I moved my hands and arms changed. Even my walk changed. My voice lowered. My laugh changed.” He doesn’t say that his desire for men changed. He doesn’t say that he now desires women instead of men, sexually. Youngblood advises other “ex-gay” men to “find a Spirit-filled man of God who is secure in his own self image … You need someone to go to when things get difficult.” How is this not a description of homosexual attraction? He warns the “ex-gay”: “Allow yourself the freedom to fail. …You’re going to stumble.”

“Christian Life” magazine has published an article, entitled “I Was Delivered from Lesbianism,” about Darlene Bogle. Now a “leader of singles” at an Assembly of God center, Bogle says that she was “demonically indwelt” by lesbianism but that when she “took authority over the spirits of homosexuality in the name of Jesus and served them their ‘vacate-the-premises-immediately’ papers they had to leave.” Evidently, however, her lesbianism did not leave with the demons. She asks in the article: “Did all the struggles leave overnight? No.”

While at first “ex-gays” may make outlandishly false claims about their own “change” experiences, they almost always soon become more honest and modest in their claims. All of the early movement’s leaders who claimed to be personally “ex-gay” have now dropped out: Guy Charles of LIBERATION in Jesus Christ, Roger Grindstaff (also known as Roger Dean) of Disciples Only and a consultant to Teen Challenge, John Evans of Love in Action, Jim Kasper and Mike Bussee of EXIT at Melodyland, Greg Reid of EAGLE, Rick Notch of Open Door, and many others. Alan Mediger, executive director of EXODUS, the “ex-gay” umbrella organization, acknowledges “that his group has had problems with ministry leaders who return to a gay lifestyle…and that when an ex-gay is trying to help a struggling homosexual, the temptation to fall is great.”

This “exodus” of “ex-gay” leaders does not, however, prevent some Christian publishers from continuing to distribute, and even advertise, these persons’ previous testimonies of deliverance. Today, many of those who lead the “ex-gay” movement have never been homosexual (e.g., Leanne Payne, Robbi Kenney of Outpost, and Ron Highley of L.I.F.E.).

And, apparently, those “ex-gay” persons who do continue to help lead the movement often still struggle with the conflict between their desire to purge themselves of homosexuality and their deep-felt need for same sex relationships of some sort. Andy Comiskey, founder of the “ex-gay” Desert Stream at John Wimber’s Vineyard asks in its newsletter, “How do we [“ex-gays”] sort out sinful desires from legitimate needs for same-sex friendship?” He continues, “Perhaps we’re fearful of falling hopelessly in love with another of the same sex. We detach ourselves. On the other hand, we can rush unwisely into friendship and find ourselves enmeshed in an emotional and sexual death grip.”

COMISKEY’S CONCERNS have been a constant battle in the “ex-gay” movement, where the biggest worry at every “ex-gay” convention is that the ‘ex-gays” will “fall” during the convention. As ex-“ex-gay” leader Rick Notch has put it, “You pick a prayer partner the first night of the convention, you pray with him the second night, and by the third night your prayers are answered.” Don Baker, in his recent book, “Beyond Rejection: The Church, Homosexuality, and Hope,” acknowledges that even after a prescribed Bible-memorization program, “deliverance from homosexuality is a slow, agonizing process with the ever present fear of falling at any time” into protracted homosexual behavior.

In short, leaders of the “ex-gay” movement seem to be scrambling to find any substantial proof of success in their efforts. For many, this has meant carefully defining (or redefining) very limited goals.

A couple of years before “ex-gay” leader Greg Reid dropped out of sight, abandoning his EAGLE (Ex-Active-Gay-Liberated-Eternally) ministry, he admitted, “There have been many [ex-gay] failures… Ex-gay testimonies are touted before they are ready, many, in fact, don’t even have a genuine call.

…Evangelicals and gay Christians alike are looking for a ‘perfect record’– and heterosexuality to boot. Ex-gays play right into that destructive game. The scriptural standard is NOT ‘are they reoriented’ or ‘have they fallen.'”

Robbi Kenney has issued the following directive to other remaining leaders in the movement: “Know what you are offering. … You are NOT offering heterosexuality… [but] the power to come into celibacy.” She even advised, “avoid calling them ex-gays.”

This past year, leaders of various “ex-gay” groups, including Love in Action, Homosexuals Anonymous, L.I.F.E. Ministries, and Mount Hope, conducted a winter conference in New York City. They repeatedly stressed that the “ex-gay” promise was not one of change from homosexual orientation to heterosexual orientation but rather one of either demanded celibacy or heterosexual marriage (which was recommended to be arranged by a third party and in which genital acts might or might not eventually be added to friendship with someone of the other sex).

In summer 1985, EXODUS held its ninth convention. Of 54 conference participants polled, 23 preferred not to use a noun to describe someone “freed from homosexuality.” Instead they said that such a person was “struggling with homosexuality” — a “fallen angel.” Phrases such as “set free” and “delivered” were said to be “theological terms [that] often misrepresented the process of change which most ministries teach.” Ambiguous, non-sexual terms such as “new creation,” “image of God,” and “sanctified” were used to define what is meant by “being changed.” To be “ex-gay,” said Doug Houck, founder of the Christian Reformed-backed Metanoia Ministries, does not even mean “a complete elimination of homosexual behavior: homosexual contact, masturbation, buying/reading pornography, etc.”

But how was this convention covered in the evangelical press?

According to a news feature in “Christianity Today,” there were at the convention “living testimonies that practicing homosexuals can become heterosexuals.” Such backtracking from the editorial enlightenment shown three years ago at “Christianity Today” clearly points up the continuing ambivalence of evangelicals when faced with evidence they don’t want to believe.

Conservative Presbyterian Richard Lovelace has also displayed this ambivalence. Not long ago he repeatedly referred to EXIT of Melodyland as the “ex-gay” organization that was “most successful in bringing persons out of the homosexual lifestyle.” Now that the cofounders of EXIT have exited into “the homosexual lifestyle,” however, he pushes Homosexuals Anonymous, calling the approach used by its leader, Colin Cook, “an authentic theological masterpiece…a jewel…a theological pearl…a silver bullet against evil.” Interestingly, Lovelace neglects to mention that Cook is a Seventh-Day Adventist, a fact that many of his conservative Presbyterian readers might well dislike.

At any rate, the “masterpiece” Cook is said to have produced is based on the idea that God accounts the “ex-gay” to be “heterosexual” even though “God knows” that he or she still is not heterosexual. According to Cook, the “ex-gay” must claim the belief that “God charges to your account all of Christ’s … heterosexual wholeness.” It’s a “charge,” not a “change.” And so, of course, Cook must admit that the homosexual “feelings remain.” But without any evidence or explanation, Cook suddenly announces on the last page: “In time, 80 to 90 percent of the strength of homosexual feelings will pass away.”

Where does he get these figures? And when will the “homosexual feelings… pass away”? When the homosexuals themselves pass away? Cook admits in a recent interview in the “Philadelphia Inquirer” that he has no records by which he can speak of “success levels.” Indeed, in “Ministry”, a Seventh-Day Adventist publication, he says, “Many Christians, battling with a homosexual problem, hope one day in the vague future finally to arrive at heterosexuality by the gradual process of God’s righteousness working within them as they have faith.” But, according to Cook, this “is a wistful hope” and “Biblically false.” The Cook approach “focuses itself on a wholeness, a righteousness (and hence a heterosexuality) outside of itself and in the person of Another, namely Jesus Christ. This wholeness and heterosexuality of Christ the homosexual accepts as his own.” Cook says that this, then, “ends the search for heterosexuality within himself.” he says that “ex-gays” must then praise God “for our new unseen identity.”

Such a “transformation” is hardly “a theological pearl…and a silver bullet.” Rather it’s junk jewelry and a blank.

By the winter of 1987 Cook was ousted for having sex with male counselees over the past six years. Investigation by Seventh-Day Adventist sociologist Ronald Lawson has uncovered evidence from 14 young men who complained of sexual pressures from Cook during counseling sessions to become “ex-gay.” Cook says he is “coming to admit to a level of delusional thinking that I have let myself be deceived by.”

As is true today of the older approach to “self-abuse,” the “ex-gay’ approach would be comical if it were not so tragic. In several more decades, the views of the Cooks and Lovelaces will be but amusing footnotes of a less enlightened generation. But those who, because of these unenlightened moralists, will have forfeited a rewarding intimacy for the true self-abuse of isolation, enforced celibacy, and even promiscuity will be beyond the ability to enjoy God’s earthy gift of sexual closeness. Whether male or female now, they will then be where, like the angels, they “neither marry nor are given in marriage.”

Article republished with permission