Is Ex-gay Ministry “Forced” or “Coercive?”

Recently, former colleague Anne Paulk didn’t appreciate a Psychologist’s inference that RHN (Restored Hope Network, Anne is its leader) is “coercive” or “forcing” people to seek change. On the RHN Facebook page she writes (linkage Anne’s, emphasis mine):

Response to the CBS8.com Article
Anne Paulk

I want to briefly address a view that was recently expressed on local CBS TV, with which we declined the interview. In this report, a local celebrity psychologist who appears often on the news said this,

“To try to force somebody or really coerce somebody to change something about themselves that cannot be changed really can put these people at greater risk for suicide or other mental health issues.” said Dr. Robinson.”

We are also against the concept of forcing and coercion. Her comment is not relevant to our ministry whatsoever nor our summer conference in San Diego.

In fact, we know that unless a person wants to leave homosexuality and is leaning into the Lord’s will for their life along with good counseling or pastoral care, their lives will likely not change much. …

The direct link to the article she was referencing is not included in Anne’s response. Also, it would have been appropriate for her to put ellipses in front of the part of the article she did quote. That would have let her readers know that there was more to the quote than what she referenced.

Why Anne edited the way she did is something only she would know (of course.) But, it was a reminder of back in my ex-gay days, that type of selective editing was done a lot when responding to what we considered adversarial media reports. We did not include direct links, or any links and would often fragment quotes in an attempt to squelch competing ideas and not promote “worldly” messages to our audience; we paternalistically justified this as needing to protect our audience in the name of pastoral care. However, for my post, here is a direct link to the article. Nowadays it’s pretty clear to me that people can think for and protect themselves ;). Also, here is the full quote from CBS 8 by Dr. Robinson (emphasis mine):

The medical community has come out saying that being gay is not a disease. It’s a normal variant of the human condition. To try to force somebody or really coerce somebody to change something about themselves that cannot be changed really can put these people at greater risk for suicide or other mental health issues.” said Dr. Robinson.

Again, I have no idea why Anne would leave out a critical part of the quote (even if she disagrees) but the truth is every credible medical, and counseling professional associations have all unequivocally condemned conversion therapy and the idea that you can change your sexual orientation. “Celebrity” or not, I would also think Dr. Robinson has more professional training than Anne on the issue of someone seeking professional or pastoral counseling being forced/coerced into making that decision.

Even so, from my not-a-psychologist vantage point of having once been a leader at the highest levels in Exodus, I now believe Dr. Robinson’s comments are entirely relevant to RHN and other ex-gay organizations. To say that it is “…not relevant to our ministry whatsoever.” appears, at best, defensive and at worst, an exercise in willful ignorance. The harmful effects of religious stigmatization of any sort, including trying to fix something that isn’t broken in the name of God with highly pressurized consequences is incredibly damaging. The consequences are easily seen in RHN’s consistent overall messaging on what “wholeness” and “brokenness” look like and the “Lord’s will” or “creative intent” for identity and sexuality. Plus, the dangerous aspects of ex-gay ministry Dr. Robinson refers to are relevant or they wouldn’t be brought up over and over and over again since the advent of ex-gay theology 40+ years ago.

Also, I lost a beautiful friend of 23 years to suicide in part due to his struggle with being gay and Christian. Additionally, I also taught on ex-gay beliefs on various topics on the national and international level for two decades. From direct experience and observation, I now believe the ex-gay/conversion therapy worldview is perpetuated by extremely consequential mental and spiritual coercion. Back then, we couldn’t acknowledge that because our denial was incredibly powerful. We couldn’t allow ourselves to see the immense harm our beliefs were empowering and inflicting on ourselves and others. It’s with endless grief that I acknowledge my contributions to a system of belief that would lead to people to question their existence.

That is a burden I am not sure I will ever be free of.

Back then, It was inconceivable that what we were doing might not actually be God’s will; it wasn’t even on the radar that we were following cultural stigma against LGBT+ people reinforced through legalistic religion and not the Spirit.

Let’s go back to the quote of Anne listed above, and the last sentence in it (emphasis mine):

In fact, we know that unless a person wants to leave homosexuality and is leaning into the Lord’s will for their life along with good counseling or pastoral care, their lives will likely not change much.

To me, that last statement undermines Anne’s assertion that RHN and their version of ex-gay theology are not “coercive.” It is obvious they are trying to convince the struggling and disbelieving that it’s God will for you to “change.” It’s also clear that RHN believes if you are a true believer who worships (“leans into”) the way they think you should, with “good” (according to RHN) counseling, you will change.

It is a coercive act to tell hurting and/or skeptical LGBT+ person of faith that they only have one “… Lord’s will…” (as defined by RHN) option.

Here’s a fact, I had access to all the best resources, counseling and ministries for 23 years. I gave it my all, helped create quite a bit of it, too. I “leaned into” the Lord and He transformed every single thing about my life…except for being gay with a dash of bisexuality. In fact, it is my close relationship with Him that led me to eventually find peace with who I am. As I leaned on Him as my sole source of strength and wisdom… I came out of the church closet and into a more full and free life.

Part of my health, growth, and “change” came in finally casting off my ex-gay worldview and embracing who I truly am as a gay man. I am as “saved” and “sanctified” today as I was on May 31st, 1992 when I became a Spirit-filled believer.

Hopefully, now, I am no longer an asshole about it. It’s true. It’s good to not be a jerk.

Here’s another fact. Anne is not a horrible person. In fact, I loved and idolized her most of the time I was in the ex-gay movement. We are definitely not friends today, but I don’t believe for a moment she would chase anyone down and go all pointy-finger-condemning-Christian on them. I don’t think she would ever wish ill on, or seek to hurt, someone. In fact, most ex-gay leaders (the few that are left) are the same. Just like I used to be, they are true believers in ex-gay being the only way to the heart of God for someone “struggling” with their sexuality. The truly believe they have the answers to relational/sexual intimacy and fulfillment.

To be a bit cliche for a moment, while they are sincere about their beliefs, they are sincerely wrong.

It is my hope that LGBT+ people (especially in this context, those of us who are Christians) know that whatever decision you make for your life and how to live it, it’s none of my business to evaluate or judge. That said, I do believe that the doorway to the ex-gay/conversion therapy world is facilitated by the coercive stigma underlying any religious thought that somehow LGBT+ people need to be fixed or “changed.”

Consider Jesus’ “Lifestyle,” Not My Alleged Gay One, This Christmas

I had a loved one invite me over for Christmas. I offered to introduce them to Dan, the guy I have been dating since mid-November. They kindly declined the offer ending with the, “I’m still working on adjusting to your lifestyle” statement. On that note, it would be easy to get argumentative, but this loved one and I didn’t argue. Instead, they decided to do other things, and I will do my thing with Dan and friends. But, there is one “thing” that transcends all of this. More on that in a minute.

To be sure, I can empathize with how easy it would be to see it, the “lifestyle” label, as dismissive and insulting when it is applied to those of us who are LGBT. Reducing us to the highly charged stigmatized cultural catch-all “lifestyle” word is problematic. At best, it short-circuits in-depth dialog. At worst, it reinforces negative stereotypes that could lead to unhealthy behavior and unnecessary relational hardship and conflict.

However, even coming from that perspective, I didn’t feel mad or upset at all with this loved one. Instead of focussing on the word “lifestyle” I am choosing to concentrate on the words “I’m still working on adjusting to…” <–That is exciting to me and is light years from where we have been in the past.

But as I was thinking about my loved one’s beliefs and the realities of my life, I believe the Spirit reminded me that one of the miracles of Christmas is that this holiday transcends all of that. In truth, if there is a “lifestyle” to be mindful of this Christmas Sunday, it would be the life of Christ. A life marked by:

  • Humility: The Eternal Creator of everything reduced Himself to human form, a crying poopy baby in a manger and lived 33 years in this wacky, weird world.  He is one of us.
  • Simplicity: When it came to resources, Jesus lived a life mainly of function and acts of service. He taught intentional contentment, personal responsibility and celebrated gratefulness. He didn’t earn a bunch of initials after His name or brag about being a Prophet, Pastor or Preacher. He had no need for an expensive marketing plan with strategic 1-3-5 year goals. He lived simply, taught simply, led simply… and revolutionized the earth for eternity.
  • Compassion and Love: Jesus literally fed thousands without turning away any culturally defined “Sinner” in the name of “religious freedom or conscience.” He stood up to the religious extremists seeking to murder in the name of godliness. He called out and confronted religious bullies trying to disenfranchise and oppress others through unnecessary burdens being passed off as the will of God. Jesus prayed for people, taught people, wept for entire cities, suffered through humiliation and the Atonement to rise from the dead; all out of His core of love and compassion.
  • Selflessness: Our Creator could have made a world of simple instinctual creatures or robots to serve and entertain Him. Instead, He divested of Himself by allowing us to bear His Image, to reflect back to Him, or not, free will and relationship. He’s not in this for what He can get from us. He is in this for what He did for us. We are the gleam in His eye, the beat of His heart, the catch in His Breath. I don’t believe God has ever needed or wanted to look in a mirror. His gaze is only toward you/us and His creation. He looks on us with joyous infinite love, not pity or anger. I truly believe this.
  • Sacrifice: God knew His wayward creation needed to be reconciled, but knew we would never find The Way on our own. While other paths are for others to explain and consider, I believe He brought me Home to Himself through Christ’s sacrifice and atonement in the starkest and ultimate of ways. He did this all for the hope of us choosing to look away from ourselves, our mirrors, and to Him with a spiritually energized heart and responsive love lighting up our own eyes.

Now, after reading the above bullet points… do you even remember what I started writing about at the beginning of this post? Maybe. Or perhaps, if you are like me, the start of this post is necessary to face and process but should not distract from the main point of Christmas for those of us who are Christ followers.

Christmas is a time to examine, reflect and meditate on the beauty of Christ’s life, not have to defend our own.

So yes, my loved one and I are going to do different things this Christmas because I am gay and want to spend time with a great dude named Dan. But for those of us who seek to love, treasure, and appreciate the Life of our Creator, it will be a wonderful Christmas.

Two Imporant Documentaries In The Works

lat-times-ad

Appeared in The Los Angeles Times on July 23rd, 2004. The caption says “I Questioned Homosexuality” byline says, “and when I discovered a way out, I took it.”

This past week I got serious about moving at the end of the month. I was packing, cleaning, donating, tossing, and finding surprises! As a part of all that, I decided to filter through about 20 years worth of paperwork (receipts, bills, taxes, old condo papers, etc.) In the process of digging through all this paper, I found a hard copy of The Los Angeles Times ad I was in on July 23rd, 2004.

The weird thing about July 23rd, it is a day that just sort of pops up in strange ways. On July 23rd, 1992, I went to my first Exodus group meeting in Arlington Texas. This ad was placed exactly 14 years, to the day, later. Then, 11 years after the ad, on July 23rd, 2013, I made a public apology to the gay community for doing things like that ad. I consider that apology my last “statement” as an ex-gay leader. I would lay myself off from Exodus, as a part of shutting it down, a month later. More about why I include this tidbit later in the post.

Seasons change, and one date I do not feel trepidation over 🙂 and love is January 12th, 2015. The next 1/12 will be my two year anniversary of coming out. Interestingly I will be interviewed in mid and late January for two different documentaries that I am excited for and want to tell you about.

At the end of January, I will be interviewing with Kristine Stolakis out of San Francisco. She describes her documentary as, “a documentary film exploring the history and ramifications of conversion therapy.” Her amazing bio reads in part,

Hello! I am a BAFTA nominated documentary filmmaker dedicated to making creative and diverse stories. I am a director at Paper Bridge Films, a documentary production company based in San Francisco.

Click here to read her full bio. I have thoroughly enjoyed talking with and getting to know Kristine. Love her heart, professionalism, and vision. All that, and she’s fun! She is flying into Orlando twice to do interviews and visit local places. Looking forward to her visits.

In Mid January, I will interview with award winning documentarian Daniel Karslake. Daniel made a documentary that drove me nuts back in 2007 called “For The Bible Tells Me So.” I was not a fan of the worldwide hullabaloo it generated at the time and never actually watched it (then.)

After watching his film last winter, I was so wrong. Daniel’s documentary is powerful and good. I highly recommend watching For The Bible Tells Me So.

Daniel and I have become friends over the past year. He is an amazing man, artist story-teller, with an incredible heart. His bio reads in part:

Daniel Karslake is an award-winning American director and producer whose highly acclaimed work deals with pressing issues of national and international social justice.

Click here to read Daniel’s full bio. He is doing a sequel to his first film and has titled it, “For They Know Not What They Do.”

From the director/producer of FOR THE BIBLE TELLS ME SO comes a new film that continues the conversation about the intersection of religion, sexual orientation, gender identity and the real definition of “family.”

Daniel sent out a film update last week. Click here for the PDF report and read all about where the film is currently at in its development. Please, after reading, consider supporting this project. Daniel and I have spoken in person several times when he has been in Orlando visiting friends and a few fundraisers. We have also had many conversations online. He is a genuinely great guy. I am really looking forward to the interview and helping his project in any way I can.

I included the photo of the LA Times ad at the beginning of this post because running into it this past week caused my heart to sink. Even so, it is a timely reminder that while I believe I was wrong back then, I’ve always been passionate about what I believe. Finding this ad reminded me to not shrink back; to continue to press forward and seek to make a positive difference. If I was willing to put a face to that side of the issue, I need to continue to speak up about how true freedom includes being honest with ourselves and others. Lend my voice to the truth that being gay is a blessing, a gift even. As a person of faith, I also want to share that Christ accepts us for all of who we are, including our innate relational state of being as LGBTQ people

My story is just one of many that can and will be told. It will take all of us sharing our stories in whatever way we can to make a loving impact for the greater good. Sharing our lives is one of the many ways we manifest beauty in the world and possibly help others navigate in healthy and safe ways. Sure, I would love to help others avoid the pain and confusion I went through. More importantly, I hope they experience abundant joy, overflowing grace, honest relationships, and the treasure of personal authenticity.

I spent many years talking about “freedom.” Now that I have finally found it, I want to share it in whatever ways open up to do so.

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Honoring A 23 Year Commitment

Recently a friend asked me about the rings I wear on my right hand. He shared that he and other gay men he knows, who had once been married to women but divorced when they came to terms with being gay, started wearing their wedding bands on their right ring finger to honor their ex-wives and the decades of life/love/investment they had in their marriage. I thought that was powerful and appropriate for him and some other gay men I know who have had similar stories.

Interestingly, while very different, that is similar in a few notable ways to the rings I wear. I used to wear them on my left hand to signify my commitment to celibacy but moved them to my right hand once I found congruence between my faith and being gay. For over two decades I wore these bands (starting with the silver one with the Trinity symbol on it) on my left hand to signify my commitment to being “set apart” and celibate for the Lord. I only dated two women during that time but never had sex with them or any other person during that season of life. I took this commitment of love, and service, very seriously. I invested in my faith, church relationships, prayer, and spiritual intimacy with the Creator.

I honestly believed, and do believe that the spiritual intimacy I developed during that time is something I will want to honor forever. Those years are not “lost” in that they made me who I am. To be honest, there are times I grieve “what could have been” but it is short-lived in realizing that those years are not a waste but a gift. They instilled a deep honor and respect for sexual and relational intimacy. I see both as treasures to steward and embrace, not something to be taken for granted.

I don’t judge others for pursuing sex as often as they do. I am not them or God, and I am too busy trying to live my life. However, if I am going to have relational and sexual intimacy with someone, I have to have at least the hope, they will be a long term and loving partner. Someone who loves me as much as I love them and vice versa. This is why, 23 months after coming out, I have only had this type of intimacy with one man that I dated last year. And, because he knew my respect for what was happening, I enjoyed our time together and didn’t have regrets.

When preparing to come back out as gay, I believe the Lord released me from this unique 23-year covenant to celibacy and is leading me toward my future partner. Reminding me of the lessons learned, the knowledge and gifts He has given, and the beauty of healthy stewardship of love and life.

Both of my rings symbolize the triune nature of God (The Father, Son, Spirit). Both of them were bought when I was incredibly lonely and desperately needing to know I was loved. God met me at my point of need every step of the way. He was, and is, faithful.

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Thankful for the Most Amazing Miracle of All… You

randythomas-blogThis Thanksgiving, while meditating on all that I have to be grateful for, I keep getting stuck on the word “miracle.” One definition of “miracle” is:

.. an extraordinary event, development, or accomplishment that brings very welcome consequences.

  • Genuine Friendship is miraculous.
  • Selflessness, Sacrifice, Humility … all miracles.
  • Compassion, Passion, Service … miracle, miracle, miracle.
  • Love is miraculous.

As a Christ follower, I believe we are “made in the Image of God.” Some people believe that to be in our physical appearance and religiously taught gender attributes. I am not sure about how much those might play into it or not. What I clearly see in our faith’s scriptures, and in my personal relationship with our Creator, is that our Creator definitely wants us to know Him and to know that we are known by Him. He wants us to love Him and to allow ourselves to be loved by Him.

To know and be known, to love and be loved. That’s the Divine Image we bear. It’s a transcendent state of being that miraculously facilitates the greatest of Jesus’ teachings, which is to love God with our whole being and to love others as ourselves.

In this world, to have even a glimpse of this heart-wired relational and loving dynamic is to witness a miracle.

In that spirit, this Thanksgiving, when I consider all that I have to be grateful for, I think of you. You are known and loved; “miracle” is the only perfect word for what I see in who you are.

You are miraculous.

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