Ask-It Basket: How do you respond to those caught in the ex-gay whirlwind of what’s right and wrong?

In my last post, Being Gay Is A Core Strength, Not A Religious Curse, a commenter left a heartfelt set of questions as a comment. Because there are quite a few, I will quote in part and then answer each of the questions as we progress. “Confused by ‘leaders'” writes:

How do you respond to individuals who were led by exgay group leaders and it became an deeper battle for them and now the tide has turned, while those taught are caught in this whirlwind of is it right or wrong and will leaders keep flopping between exgay to pro-gay?

Regardless of the momentum of the whirlwind, please don’t let it rob you of your time and energy. My encouragement is to avoid all that manufactured pressure and take whatever time and resources you need to come to the conclusions that are life-giving to you. And, if you don’t know, it’s ok to not know. Our culture is insta-everything and expects instant opinions and conclusions. Even though I have definite and strong opinions :), I think it is really healthy to be ok with not knowing and needing time to think through issues.

I don’t know many people/leaders flopping between ex-gay and pro-gay. I know two (literally, two) who seemed to “switch teams” every other week. On the other hand, I have met people who reject who they are as LGBTQ+ people or much more who have found congruence with who they are and their faith (if they are people of faith.) A vast majority of individuals who leave the ex-gay/conversion ministry world never go back and, in my opinion, with good reason.

How should they deal with the PTSD?

As an individual who has been professionally diagnosed with PTSD, I take it personally and seriously. First, if it is legit PTSD, the guidance of a licensed professional counselor is the first priority. PTSD is Post Traumatic Stress *Disorder*. Emphasis on the disorder because it takes professional help to work through, manage and receive healing from PTSD. I say legitimate PTSD because that acronym gets thrown around a LOT by non-professionals and they need to slow their personal opinion (not an official diagnosis) roll. You can be incredibly hurt, wounded, negatively impacted and not have PTSD.

That said, if all the hullabaloo between former ex-gay leaders and current ex-gay/conversion ministry leaders is triggering you with inordinate negative feelings and/or PTSD leading to hurtful coping mechanisms…do what you need to do to remove that stimulus and talk to a professional counselor as soon as possible.

Will you rejoin the exgay movement and change sides again?

No. Never.

I had a exgay ‘therapist’ attempt to lead me, while having sex with men at the same time.

I am very sorry to hear that but am not surprised. In my position at Exodus, I would hear of that type of situation, and similar, happening often. If appropriate and you feel safe doing so, please notify the people that person reports to of what you have learned.

I know gay drag queens who have ‘found the light ‘ and turned away from their affections of same sex.

There is tremendous pressure from our communities and culture (at large) to conform to the religious stigma against the LGBTQ+ people. These ingrained cultural messages tell us we only have two options: “embrace God’s creative intent for your heterosexual potential” or “celibacy” options. It can often feel like a religious experience to give into religious indoctrination or even bullying in the name of Christ. However, that temporary relief and “bias affirming” feedback is an inauthentic type of “affirmation,” and very damaging. That is my opinion based on my 21 years of experience in the movement.

So, what do you say to those hurting by the confusion that exgay ‘ministries’ promote?

Walk away. Just walk away from them, take the time you need to find your way, and move toward truly life-giving messages and resources. Exodus International, and really the ex-gay “movement” as a whole, began in earnest in 1976. And in the way we do our calendar, that date is based on AD (after the death of Christ.) So for at least 1,976 years… Jesus never needed an “ex-gay” ministry to organize as a 501(c)3 non-profit organization. Exodus folded in 2013 and even though ex-gay conversion ministries still operate, I would offer that God never needed Exodus and doesn’t need “ex-gay” anything to help His LGBTQ+ children thrive and flourish. In other words, while respecting a person’s journey and timing, I would encourage them to not give ex-gay ministries room in their heads and hearts to sow dissension, strife, contention, and confusion.

It is possible to be a “saved”, healthy, whole, mature and responsible person who also happens to be LGBTQ+. There are all kinds of resources to help you. Furthermore, the faith I still hold onto teaches that nothing, absolutely nothing can separate us from the love of God. Be at peace.

And, in whatever way I can be of help, I will.

Ask-It Basket: “Do You Feel, In Any Way, That Those Years Are, ‘Lost'”?

Interestingly, the questions asked by Steve (below) are issues I have been privately wrestling with for a while. Steve asks:

What is it like to have spent 20 years not being able to be your true self, no matter how sincerely? What is it like to start over in the dating pool when you’re not 20?  Do you feel, in any way, that those years are, “lost?”  – Steve S.

First question, “What is it like to have spent 20 years not being able to be your true self, no matter how sincerely?”

I was in the ex-gay world for a little over 23 years and in leadership of some sort for 20. The first time I was “out” in the ’80’s, I was not a very healthy or responsible person. I didn’t have good coping or relational skills and plenty of dysfunction as a result of abuse and trauma. So when I became a Christian, I didn’t have a broad sense or definition of “true self” until I entered the ex-gay/Exodus International world. It was all new to me; there was very little healthy personal experience to counter it.

The world I had entered into disarmed my skepticism with humility, compassion, and friendship. I believe they genuinely wanted to love me and believed that the only way to do that was to encourage me to overcome my “struggle.” Alan Downs in his excellent book “The Velvet Rage” describes that type of dynamic very well. He calls it “inauthentic affirmation.” They taught, encouraged, and affirmed a false reality. They, of course, didn’t see it as “false” and genuinely believed it is their only real way to affirm me and because I was starving for attention and affirmation, I allowed it to happen. Then I internalized and echoed the systemic bias. False or not, any affirmation on a core level was like food to the starving. And, I ate it up.

In my heart of hearts, I knew I was not living out my “true self.” However, I was also afraid of the consequences of “going back.” Since I had not experienced much of life as a truly healthy gay man before that point, the fears of repeating past hurts as well as the unknown fueled by the stigmatized views I had adopted kept me where I was for a very long time.

What might be surprising to some people is that “overcoming homosexuality” wasn’t the only topic taught in these groups. I did develop healthy coping skills, overcame co-dependency and emotional dependencies, and overcame fear of other Christians. Lots of peripheral issues were addressed that did impact my life for good. I also discovered my innate gifts and strengths that I still operate in today. So, because I was experiencing some forms of healing and growth, I thought my sexuality was “changing.” It was taught that dealing with all that would help me “overcome” my “same-sex struggle.” Plenty of things changed except of course my sexuality. Now I know that the peripheral issues should have just stood on their own and not be forced into the ex-gay worldview. As a gay man, I should have found those same lessons in the broader church environment and resources, not sequestered away in the church closet with unattainable idealized goals.

Next: What is it like to start over in the dating pool when you’re not 20?

Well, it’s interesting. I tried a few of the dating apps early in 2015 and didn’t enjoy them. Might check them out again but not rushing to download. Life is SO different than when I was out in the ’80’s. I dated two guys last year, one for about six weeks and one for almost six months. I respect them both and love the man I was with for six months. I am glad we were together.

However, I spent two decades trying to convince myself that I was divinely “called” to celibacy. I dated one woman during that time for a year (2005), but other than that, I conditioned my brain to think of life stemming from a celibate frame of reference. It’s been hard to get my brain in the game of being open to dating. Not because I don’t want to, I do. But I am so used to not doing it; it’s hard to recognize when a fella might be interested. Then, when I flirt, I am such a goober goofball! Even with those two men last year, it was a surprise to end up on a date with them. 🙂

Seriously, think about it,  23 YEARS of thinking I would be single till I died. Now, even though I look forward to being with the man I can hold, enjoy, and love life with, my habits and thoughts don’t often veer into “go on a date” realm. I also recognize I am learning lessons and having experiences many people obtain when they are younger goober goofballs :). It’s weird being a 48-year-old dealing with the romantic feelings, notions, and lessons usually experienced in the early 20’s. Some of it is very humorous, and at other times I feel embarrassed.

All of that said, I am a quick learning goofball and have already edited the new application for potential Mr. Future Thomas-Husband. 🙂

And the biggie (to me), “Do you feel, in any way, that those years are, “lost?”

Earlier this year, through our mutual friend Daniel Karslake, I met Don & Craig Barton. They have been together for 25 years, married with children, and have a beautiful life together. They just sent their twin daughters off to college.  They are successful, spiritual, humble, kind, gracious, funny and I just love how much they love each other and those around them.

When I look at them I don’t think, in any way, “I could have had that life.” I don’t envy them or have any sense of jealousy. When I see their posts on Facebook or have visited with them at a couple of events since our first meeting, I am simply happy for them and enjoy their company. I find them encouraging and inspiring.

Don and Craig met one year before I went to my first ex-gay group meeting. While they built a life together, I lived within the false confines of adopting beliefs born out of stigmatized religious teachings and unnecessary cultural burdens. While I am not comparing my life to theirs, I have wondered what would have happened if I went to a gay church instead of the ex-gay group all those years ago. Could I have met the man of my dreams? Raise children? Be successful in a career path not hijacked by being “called” to be a celibate ex-gay leader for so long? Maybe, and maybe not.

The “what if my life had…?” game is not something I like to play around with regarding the past. However, for around 20 years I didn’t allow myself  to ask “what if” type of questions in the present. I lived in a world of inauthentic affirmation that in effect blinded and limited me from true romantic love, personal fulfillment and the freedom to explore life from my God-given core relational state of being as a gay man. Asking “what if…?” is a necessary and catalytic question for me in the present. It’s a question I did start asking a few years before we decided to close Exodus. I believe that God led me down that path and out of that false ideological prison and toward this life-giving new direction and journey.

The way I arrived at the observations in the above paragraph has been raw and sometimes awful. I have wept, grieved, even despaired a couple of times for the “lost” opportunities. It’s been hard to recognize, adjust and live with the consequences/limits on the possibilities I have now. I’ve struggled with bitterness and depression over the “what if’s” that could have happened over those years if I had not been involved in the ex-gay world. It’s all a little too much sometimes.

While I have flashes of that depression/anger still, I am coming to peace with all of it. The truth is, I have a good life today and a hope-filled future. Life is good, our Creator is good, and I am glad to be who I am and where I am at now.

What I have not lost

What I didn’t lose is my love for Christ and His love for me. We have an amazing relationship and our spiritual communion has always been intimate. I have not lost the steadfast friends I made during that time and survived the Exodus Civil War, it shutting down, and my coming back out of the closet.  I heard many life-giving sermons, amazing transformative teachings, and read many many great books. Over those years I did have wonderful experiences and have always sought to gain wisdom and understanding. All of this, learning from the good and bad, hopefully, has equipped me to be  a healthy/responsible gay man in a number of ways.

So, yes, I “lost” quite a bit because of being involved in that world. But, our Creator is good and being gay is one of the many gifts he has built into my life. I am at peace with being a big gay goober goofball, maybe for the first time; and that’s ok. It’s also my hope that by sharing my experience other young people will steer clear of ex-gay ideology and making some of the choices I made.

Being free is good.

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If this post has brought up any questions, feel free to leave them in the comments or contact me privately. Thank you!