The Decline and Fall of the Ex-Gay Movement
How a multimillion-dollar industry that seeks to ”cure” gay people was brought to its knees
When Tracey St. Pierre was 16-years-old, she fell in love with a girl from her high school. They were head over heels for each other but as children of Charlotte, N.C., neither was out and their relationship was anything but public.
“We were closeted in a secret relationship for two years,” says St. Pierre. “We basically pretended to be straight, just best friends.”
It was the 1970s, and the modern gay-rights movement sparked by the Stonewall Riots in 1969 was in its infancy. There were few gay role models and the anti-gay right was winning. The Rev. Jerry Falwell formed the Moral Majority in 1979 and, as St. Pierre recalls, “Anita Bryant was on a rampage down in Florida,” successfully leading the “Save Our Children” campaign to overturn a sexual-orientation nondiscrimination statute. “There were no positive images about homosexuality or being gay,” she says.
St. Pierre didn’t come from a particularly religious family. With four brothers and a sister, she describes her parents as “run of the mill Methodists.” However, as she left for the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, in 1980, societal pressures to be straight closed in. “I had a friend talking about God and the Bible and in my mind, you couldn’t be gay and a Christian because no one was saying that. Everyone was saying it’s a sin, you’ll go to hell, you can’t be gay,” St. Pierre says. “I remember going to the library on campus and looking for books about being a gay Christian to find out if it were possible.” Desperate to talk to someone about her secret, what St. Pierre found instead was a religious group called Maranatha Campus Ministries. “They were basically a right-wing Christian cult that said you could be healed through prayer,” St. Pierre says.
Founded in 1971 as a youth center in Kentucky, the ministry soon expanded across the United States and took up the mantle of the Christian right during the 1980s. Part of the Charismatic Christian movement, the group was highly authoritarian and controlling. With a spiritual counselor who essentially advised St. Pierre on every aspect of her life, it wasn’t long before her relationship with her high school sweetheart began to raise suspicions.
“She had heard me talk about my friend back home a lot, I guess. She asked me if I were — she used the term ‘homosexual’ — and if I was in a relationship with this woman and I said yes. She told me that God didn’t make me gay, that God could heal me and make me straight and give me a husband and God wanted me to be ‘normal,'” says St. Pierre. “So we prayed and she had me renounce the demon of homosexuality and she laid her hands on me and cast that demon out of me. And I accepted it. I believed it.”
On her next trip home, St. Pierre broke off her relationship with her girlfriend in a manner she describes as “self-righteous” and “preachy.”
With a policy that did not permit dating, the group proved a perfect haven for someone trying to avoid dealing with their sexuality. “Basically [they believed] God would tell you who you were going to marry. You’d pray about it and go talk to your counselor and pastor about it and they’d advise if it was God’s will and the guy would propose to the girl and they’d get married,” St. Pierre says.
St. Pierre would be a member of the ministry for the next 12 years and celibate for nearly 15 years.
“During that time I would pray, fast and beg God to change me and to change my desires. I think I was in self-deception for a lot of that time because during that time I didn’t really allow myself to have feelings for women, but when I look back I can see all these crushes that I had on all the different women,” St. Pierre continues. “And, somehow, God never told me I was going to marry a guy.”
MARRIAGE TO THE RIGHT
St. Pierre’s story is not unique. It mirrors the stories of thousands of people who, often as adolescents, underwent various forms of “reparative” or “conversion” therapy to rid themselves of their homosexuality. Many were told they were to blame and had let sin into their lives. Others were told one of their parents hadn’t loved them enough, or had loved them too much, or that they were the victims of child abuse. For St. Pierre, it was her religious beliefs that pushed her to try to “pray away the gay.” For others, shame and societal condemnation pushed them into therapy. Often such measures weren’t a choice, but something thrust upon them by parents.
Attempts to rid homosexuality through therapy go back more than a century. Since the late 1800s, therapists, psychiatrists, psychologists and endocrinologists have sought to “cure” homosexuality through a variety of treatments. According to a history of ex-gay therapy published by The Gay and Lesbian Review, one of the first medical professionals seeking to treat homosexuality was American neurologist Graeme M. Hammond. In 1892, Hammond recommended extensive bicycle riding as a treatment because he believed homosexuality was caused by nervous exhaustion. Treatments soon grew progressively more cruel. Throughout the early part of the 20th century, treatments often included forced intercourse with the opposite sex, at times aided by hypnosis or large amounts of alcohol, and trips to brothels. In the 1920s, castration was a treatment; widely applied by the Nazis in the 1940s.
It was a few years after the American Psychiatric Association listed homosexuality as a sociopathic personality disorder, in 1952, that one psychoanalyst reported homosexuality could be cured through beatings, doses of methyl testosterone or trips to brothels. He also recommended one hour of such therapy daily for up to five years. In 1962, a British psychologist injected a man with nausea-inducing drugs while playing audiotapes of men engaging in sex and surrounding the patient with glasses of urine in an attempt to “overdose” him with homosexuality so he would switch to women. In the 1960s, electroshock therapy was also used in certain cases.
Not long before St. Pierre fell in love with her high school classmate, how the medical community approached homosexuality changed dramatically. Amid growing scientific evidence that refuted the belief that being gay was a sign of mental illness and could be changed, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders in 1973. Numerous other medical associations soon followed, with the focus of mainstream sexual orientation therapy shifting from “curing” homosexuality to helping patients cope with the social stigmatization that can come from being gay.
Although gone were the days of some of the more savage aversion treatments, the APA’s decision sparked backlash from the religious right and marked the birth of the modern ex-gay movement. That same year, Love In Action — the nation’s first contemporary ex-gay ministry — was founded in California. In 1976, a coalition of ex-gay ministries was formed in what would later become Exodus International, which at its height would include more than 120 ministries in North America and over 150 ministries in 17 other countries.
The ex-gay movement soon became less of a movement and more of an industry, fueling the publication of countless books and self-help tapes. The expansion of the ex-gay movement also coincided with the rise of the Christian right and the formation of the modern conservative movement. The HIV/AIDS epidemic boosted interest even more as some with same-sex attractions joined out of fear of contracting the virus. However, the ex-gay industry did not reach its pinnacle until the embrace of the Christian right.
“After having their support erode because they became too mean and nasty over several years — a lot of people had been coming out and people were beginning to know gay people — the whole fire and brimstone was beginning to backfire,” Wayne Besen says of the Christian right. A former journalist and spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, Besen has been fighting the ex-gay movement for most of his professional life and founded Truth Wins Out in 2006 with that explicit purpose. Facing public backlash for their demonization of gay people, religious conservatives looked to the ex-gay movement and made a calculated political decision. After decades of condemning gay people, they strategically shifted their message to salvation. “They had to appear to be more loving and mainstream and so they jumped on this ex-gay bandwagon, which they had previously rejected,” Besen says.
On July 13, 1998, more than two decades after the APA determined homosexuality is not a mental disorder, 15 socially conservative religious organizations, including the Family Research Council, the Christian Coalition and the American Family Association, launched a $600,000 ad campaign in the nation’s more prominent newspapers touting ex-gay success stories.
“I’m proof that the truth can set you free,” proclaimed a woman wearing a diamond engagement ring and wedding band featured in an ad in The New York Times. Her name was Anne Paulk, and, according to the ad, her homosexuality had been caused by molestation during her childhood. She had found Jesus Christ, however, and married John Paulk, who also identified as ex-gay and had worked as a drag entertainer and male escort in college before finding salvation.
Similar ads soon followed, with professional football player Reggie White, who called homosexuality a sin, featured in USA Today and a group of ex-gay leaders displayed in The Washington Post. Other ads ran throughout the summer in The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune. Television ads also began airing. At the time, Robert Knight of the Family Research Council declared the ad campaign the “Normandy landing in the larger cultural wars.”
“They thought this was the way they were going to destroy the gay movement,” Besen says.
The idea for the “Truth In Love” ad campaign came from Janet Folger, an anti-abortion activist and director of the Center for Reclaiming America. Folger proposed the idea of showcasing “former homosexuals” in the mainstream press during a conference call with conservative strategists in June 1998 after comments by Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) comparing homosexuality to kleptomania and alcoholism.
Many advocates point to the ads as thrusting what was previously an obscure movement into the consciousness of most Americans, and the campaign elicited widespread publicity for ex-gay therapy. A month after the campaign’s launch, Newsweek splashed John and Anne Paulk across the cover of its Aug. 17, 1998, issue under the headline, “Gay for Life?” The cover story coincided with a flood of television appearances for the couple across the major networks.
LGBT-rights organizations looked at the ad campaign, along with the media’s subsequent sympathetic coverage, as deeply concerning. In a report published in October 1998 titled “Calculated Compassion,” the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force warned the Christian right’s embrace of the ex-gay movement could potentially be the “most damaging manifestation of an ongoing backlash against [the LGBT] community.”
“By re-framing its attack on homosexuality in kinder, gentler terms, the Christian Right is putting forth a softer face that cloaks a hard line agenda, which includes rolling back lesbian and gay civil rights, enforcing criminal laws against gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender people, and promoting a broader theocratic agenda based on a literal interpretation of Biblical Scripture,” the report stated. “The ex-gay movement offers a vehicle for publicly questioning the very sexual and social identity of homosexuals and, by extension, undermining their claim to civil rights legal protections. After all, the argument goes, if lesbian and gay people need not be homosexuals, because with God’s help or through reparative therapy they can ‘heal’ themselves, then civil rights for gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender people are not needed.”
The ad campaign proved effective, but would soon be abandoned when the same summer that saw the launch of the Christian right’s “Normandy landing” culminated with the October murder of a gay University of Wyoming student named Matthew Shepard.
There have always been cracks in the ex-gay movement, exposing an industry teetering on collapse. In 1979, Michael Bussee and Gary Cooper, two of the original co-founders of Exodus International, left the ministry and their wives to be together, ultimately participating in a commitment ceremony in 1982. John Evans, who had helped found Love In Action, renounced the organization after the suicide of a friend who found himself unable to change his sexual orientation.
It was September 2000, however, when Wayne Besen would take a photograph that would shake the industry. Besen was a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign at the time when he received a phone call from a colleague late on a Tuesday night telling him John Paulk was at Mr. P’s, a popular D.C. gay bar near Dupont Circle. Paulk was the poster boy of the ex-gay movement. Aside from his numerous media appearances, he had helped found and lead Focus on the Family’s ex-gay ministry, Love Won Out, after co-writing a book by the same name with his wife, Anne. He also served as chairman of Exodus International. Besen knew if the story were true, it had the potential to kick the foundation out from under the ex-gay industry. With a camera in hand, Besen confronted Paulk at the bar. At first, the man denied being Paulk, but after Besen took his photo Paulk later insisted he didn’t know he was in a gay bar and had just come in to use the restroom.
Paulk’s career in the ex-gay industry disintegrated soon after the photos went public. He was called back to Focus on the Family’s headquarters and questioned by the organization’s founder and president, James Dobson. Upon confessing he had knowingly gone to a gay bar, Paulk was removed as chairman of the board of Exodus International and was required to be chaperoned when he traveled for future speaking engagements.
Paulk left the ex-gay movement in 2003, but did not publicly apologize until April 2013. Announcing that his marriage to Anne was ending, Paulk renounced the movement he had been part of for nearly a decade.
“Today, I see LGBT people for who they are — beloved, cherished children of God,” Paulk said. “I offer my most sincere and heartfelt apology to men, women, and especially children and teens who felt unlovable, unworthy, shamed or thrown away by God or the church.”
Countless other defections would follow. Perhaps the most important, however, came just this summer when Alan Chambers, the president and face of Exodus International during its rise to becoming the world’s “largest Christian ministry dealing with faith and homosexuality,” issued a lengthy apology to the LGBT community for any harm he may have caused while at the helm of Exodus. Hours after his apology, the organization’s board of directors announced Exodus International would shut down. In subsequent interviews, Chambers, who himself is still married to his wife despite admitting to a continued struggle with his same-sex attractions, would disavow ex-gay therapy for minors. At the time, Besen described the closure as “an earthquake that is shaking the very foundations of the ‘ex-gay’ industry.”
Exodus’s closure came a little over a year after Robert Spitzer, a psychologist and retired Columbia University professor, retracted a controversial 2001 study he authored arguing some highly motivated individuals could change their sexual orientation. The study was particularly damaging to the fight against the ex-gay movement, not only because of Spitzer’s stature in the medical community, but because he had helped wage the fight to remove homosexuality from the APA’s list of mental disorders in 1973.
The Washington Post called the study “explosive” in 2001, but LGBT-rights activists soon attacked its finding, noting that Spitzer had only interviewed 200 people for the study, and that 43 percent of respondents had been referred to Spitzer by ex-gay ministries and another 23 percent were referred by the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), which believes homosexuality is a mental disorder.
In an interview published in April 2012, Spitzer admitted to Gabriel Arana, an editor at The American Prospect who himself had been enrolled in ex-gay therapy after coming out to his parents as a teenager, that his critics were right.
“In retrospect, I have to admit I think the critiques are largely correct,” he said. “The findings can be considered evidence for what those who have undergone ex-gay therapy say about it, but nothing more.” The 79-year-old Spitzer then asked Arana to print a retraction of his study.
Ex-gay therapy has been deemed junk science by every major medical and mental health organization. From 2007 to 2009, a task force appointed by the American Psychological Association studied ex-gay therapy and found there was little evidence to support “sexual orientation change efforts,” and that in many cases such treatment only exacerbated distress and depression in patients.
But with some licensed therapists still engaging in the practice, advocates have taken their fight before lawmakers and judges. In September 2012, California became the first state in the nation to outlaw ex-gay therapy for minors at the hands of licensed therapists.
“This bill bans non-scientific ‘therapies’ that have driven young people to depression and suicide. These practices have no basis in science or medicine and they will now be relegated to the dustbin of quackery,” said Gov. Jerry Brown (D) in a statement upon signing the bill into law.
In August, New Jersey became the second state to ban ex-gay therapy for minors. Gov. Chris Christie, a likely candidate for the Republican nomination for president in 2016, said, “Exposing children to these health risks without clear evidence of benefits that outweigh these serious risks is not appropriate.”
Both bans have been challenged in court by conservative groups such as the Liberty Counsel, who have argued the laws undermine parental rights. The challenges have thus far proven unsuccessful, with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upholding the California law earlier this summer. In its 3-0 decision, the federal appeals court ruled the state Legislature was within its right to pass legislation protecting the well-being of minors.
The broader message sent by the passage of the two bans with bipartisan support is significant. After all, such laws essentially profess a consensus among lawmakers that being gay is not a choice, thus raising serious questions about how other civil rights, such as marriage equality, can be denied to gay people.
“This is the keystone issue that underlies every single LGBT issue that’s out there,” Besen says of defeating the ex-gay movement. “If you win this issue, you’ve won, in essence.”
Similar bans are expected to be considered by lawmakers in states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio. But with such legislation only extending to licensed therapists and not ex-gay ministries due to religious freedom protections, the final battle of the fight against the ex-gay movement is likely not to occur in the halls of state legislatures, but in the churches of some of the nation’s most conservative communities.
The fall of the ex-gay movement has coincided with a widespread shift in public opinion about specific LGBT policy issues, and homosexuality in general. While support for same-sex marriage has reversed in the past decade, with a growing majority of Americans supporting same-sex couples’ right to marry, general acceptance of homosexuality has risen to new highs. A Gallup poll conducted this year found the number of Americans who believe consenting same-sex relationships should be legal increased from about 45 percent just a decade ago to 64 percent. The number of Americans who believe people are born gay has also changed dramatically. Around the advent of the ex-gay movement in 1978, only 13 percent of Americans believed sexual orientation was biological. Today, that number stands at 47 percent.
The shift in public opinion has come as the LGBT-rights movement has racked up a series of significant legal victories, with the Supreme Court striking down laws prohibiting consensual relations between people of the same-sex in 2003 and, 10 years later, striking down the federal government’s definition of marriage as between a man and a woman. It has also taken place at a time when LGBT-rights advocates have been making a quiet but effective push to change the hearts and minds of people in communities where religion is deeply ingrained. Shortly after voters in 11 states approved same-sex marriage bans in 2004, the Human Rights Campaign created a program specifically focused on religion and faith.
“It was widely perceived that the LGBT community had lost in that election due to the ‘value voter’ and that was perceived as mostly Christian, but also as a kind of religious-right position,” says Sharon Groves, director of HRC’s Religion and Faith Program. “And what we would see is often religious leaders on the right being the voice opposing LGBT equality and they were countered often on the other side by lawyers or activists.”
Groves, who has been with the program almost since its inception, says an effort was undertaken to highlight the voices of religious leaders who support LGBT equality in order to combat a perception that religion was by definition antagonistic to LGBT people. “People have been doing this work since before Stonewall, but there hadn’t been a public recognition of that work and it needed to move to another level,” she says.
The program set out to amplify pro-LGBT religious voices in jurisdictions where issues such as marriage equality or workplace protections were being considered, while doing what Groves calls the “quieter work” of engaging communities that are more conservative. “Where religion goes is where the country goes,” says Groves. Pro-LGBT religious leaders played critical roles in each of the four states where voters either approved marriage equality or rejected same-sex marriage bans at the ballot box last November.
Scripture, however, isn’t quite as fluid as legislation and is grounded in centuries of religious doctrine. Nevertheless, signs that even some of Christianity’s most conservative sects are evolving has been on full display in recent months following the naming of the new Roman Catholic pope. Six months into his papacy, Pope Francis has made comments that have stirred the church and given hope to those working for a more inclusive Catholic Church. Asked about gay priests in July, Pope Francis responded, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” While the pope is not advocating for a change in church doctrine, Groves says his comments illustrate a growing trend among religious people who are returning to the core principles they care about.
“Religious people are saying, ‘Not in my name anymore.’ And that’s what’s really making the difference,” she says.
For the contemporary ex-gay movement, the struggle between religious identity and sexual identity has always been at the center. “The ex-gay industry relies on people feeling ashamed of themselves,” says Besen. “And the market is shrinking.”
HOW IT ENDS
The ex-gay movement has been broken, but it is not dead.
Declaring September “Ex-Gay Awareness Month,” supporters of ex-gay therapy gathered for their first annual Ex-Gay Awareness Dinner and Reception last month at an undisclosed location in D.C. Although Metro Weekly was denied media credentials for the dinner, The Christian Post reported that about 60 attended. Earlier in the day, about 15 ex-gay activists participated in a lobby day on Capitol Hill. Organized by Parents and Friends of ExGays and Gays (PFOX), the dinner was shrouded in secrecy, organizers said, because of threats. Liberty Counsel’s Mathew Staver, who is challenging the two state bans on ex-gay therapy and is dean of Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University School of Law, was honored with the Ex-Gay Freedom Award for his efforts.
Speaking at the Family Research Council’s Values Voter Summit this month, Sandy Rios, a host on American Family Radio and Fox News contributor, said there are “tons of ex-gays with fabulous stories,” while insisting there is a Christian duty to help gay people so as to halt the spread of HIV and disease.
“Anybody know an ex-gay?” Rios asked a silent ballroom at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in D.C. “You know, they are everywhere and the reason you don’t hear about them is because they are maligned and threatened.”
With the shifting wave of public opinion, growing momentum for legal LGBT equality and the disintegration of the ex-gay movement’s most celebrated institutions, it is difficult to image how this once flourishing industry will recover. For Wayne Besen, that reality is comforting, but the threat the ex-gay movement’s holdouts still pose to vulnerable youth is no less serious.
“The ex-gay myth has all but collapsed and lost credibility in the public sphere. They’re like cartoon characters jumping out of a clown car,” he says. “But as long as there’s prejudice and discrimination there’s going to be some charlatan willing to exploit for money or for ideology.”
For many of those who survived ex-gay therapy, salvation did not come through praying to be different — it came through acceptance.
“When I was in the group I was pretty narrow-minded,” recalls Tracey St. Pierre. “My feeling at the time during the early part of being in the group was nobody has to be gay. I overcame it. And they also taught me that if you’re gay it’s because of something sinful and horrible that you did in your past and Jesus will forgive you and change you and you just need to forget about it.
“They would say you allowed this evil into your life because you had some weakness from a bad relationship with your mother, a bad relationship with your father, you were a abused,blah blah blah. I could never really figure out a root cause of what made me gay. Nothing seemed to fit. I could stretch and try to imagine it. And I was adamant about it, [that] if I could overcome this and I was controlling my behavior and suppressing my behavior, that anybody could.”
St. Pierre would leave Maranatha Campus Ministries 12 years after she joined. She became disillusioned with the leadership, and says her attempts to suppress her same-sex attractions had become like a “pressure cooker.”
While it didn’t take long for her therapist to insist the ministry had done no less than brainwash her, St. Pierre wasn’t in a position to come out yet. Maranatha Campus Ministries was not just socially conservative, but politically conservative as well, encouraging members to get involved in politics. St. Pierre had taken the message to heart, and after graduation moved to D.C. to work for three different Republican members of Congress and in the office of Vice President Dan Quayle. St. Pierre was working for Rep. Charles Canady (R-Fla.), a key backer of the Defense of Marriage Act, when the Human Rights Campaign began circulating a nondiscrimination pledge among members of Congress.
“Of course the guy I worked for would not sign it,” says St. Pierre. “I realized, ‘Hey, I can’t continue working for someone who would fire me if they found out I was gay, who would not be able to accept me as a lesbian.'” So she came out to her boss and resigned from her position as chief of staff. What’s more, she then took a job with HRC. “Canady aide quits to lobby for gays,” read the headline on the front page of The Hill newspaper.
When she came out, St. Pierre lost a lot of friends she had made while a member of Maranatha Campus Ministries, including some of the seven women for whom she had served as a bridesmaid. Shortly after leaving her job on Capitol Hill, St. Pierre met over coffee with the woman who had cast the demon of homosexuality out of her years earlier. “I basically spilled my heart and told her about this 15-year-long struggle. She looked at me and she said, ‘Well, if I weren’t walking with the Lord I’d backslide too.’ And that’s all she said. She was implying that because I had turned my back on God I was not walking in the faith — that I had gone back to my sinful ways.”
St. Pierre has been married to her wife, Julia, for 10 years. They had a church wedding in 2003 and a legal wedding in D.C. in 2011. She works for the federal government now, and the couple lives in Northern Virginia with their two children. They connected at party one night when Julia found herself dumbfounded that Tracey didn’t recognize a popular song that came on. It had been released during what St. Pierre calls her “’80s blackout” — when she was involved in the ministry and forbidden from listening to secular music.
“She was very interested in hearing my story, so we sat down and talked and talked and talked and now it’s 13 years, two weddings and two kids later,” St. Pierre says.
St. Pierre still prays and considers herself spiritual, but hasn’t found a church where she feels at home. She’s occasionally seen members of Maranatha Campus Ministries, which shuttered in 1989, but says those meetings have often been brief and awkward.
“I think there’s a healing process when you leave a group like that,” she says. “I’ve gone through phases of being angry and I still sometimes have sad dreams over some of the friendships, but I also realize that nobody made me go in that group. Those were choices that I made for whatever reason. That’s my journey and I made those choices and I can’t really be angry at other people. And they made me who I am today. If I had joined marching band instead of a cult my life would’ve taken a completely different course. I’m not resentful towards them. I can’t be. But I still have some wounds that haven’t completely healed. Everyone wants to be accepted and loved.”
Originally published by Metro Weekly.