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 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.