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.”

Leaving The Little House On The Edge Of The Boonies

When I entered the little house on the edge of the boonies three years and 10 months ago, I was still relatively conservative (spiritually, politically and otherwise). I was the Executive Vice President of Exodus and trying desperately to help figure out a way, with Alan’s direction, of course, to redefine and cast a new vision for the “world’s largest ex-gay ministry” or set a course for shutting it down.

From 2013 to now has been the most tumultuous season of my adult life. Many highs and quite a few deep lows. Today, it feels like a rebooted life. Completely different…transformed and free. While moving forward into the unknown, it doesn’t feel strange or cumbersome. As I drove away from this house for the last time, it felt as if a mountain fell off my shoulders and a fresh wind is empowering the journey forward.

This house has seen a lot of pain.

Here my prayers were answered and the resulting meditations helped make a case for and eventually shutting down Exodus. This house has seen many tears during the implosion, infighting, public criticism (from all sides), and betrayals at Exodus. This is also where I came to the humbling (almost humiliating) realization that I had also caused others pain and hurt during that time as well.

This house saw deep mourning as I continued to grieve Michael’s suicide shortly before I moved in here. It is here I experienced another type of relational death in that I got some shaming texts from an elder at a church I attended (copying my friends at the church) that pushed me over the edge to leave. After 23 years of attending church every Sunday I could, 10 of them at my last church, I have only visited a few services a handful of times over the past year and a half (my choice).

During my time here, after Exodus closing and my coming back out, I lost almost all of my long-time friends. There are a few that survived (thank goodness, love them!) but not many.

Even though there has been a lot of pain, don’t want to elaborate and recreate a full “bitterness” list (no one needs that), it was all part of blinders being ripped off and the death of an idealized false authenticity. In other words, it was a healing pain (or turned for good and productive pain) and not wounding pain left to fester.

This house has seen a lot of love.

In two weeks I will have been “out” as a gay man for two years. It is here I fell in love with another man and had my first passionate “moment(s)” with him in over 20 years. It is where my current love interest and I tease each other and watched “The Crown” on Netflix together. He also helped me move out of this house and has been a great support and incredibly loving.

It’s here that my war on Big Ass Spiders gained social media traction :). It’s in this cute little house on the edge of the boonies where I baked my first Whiskey Chocolate Pecan Pies and painted my first large paintings. It is here that I gave names to a cast of characters like Hubert the Handsome Humble Hybrid, Arnie and Annie the Armadillos, Joe the Tortoise, Henrietta the Hangry Hawk. Danger Kitty (various feral cats) that prowls through the yard three times a day to protect us from Zombies and Sasquatches (raccoons). Also, the day I “came out” publicly, I saw a pair of bald eagles so vividly and clearly… beautiful moment.

It is in this little house on the edge of the boonies where I have begun a new career as an Online Content Creator and Social Media Consultant; embraced that I am truly a “creative” writer and artist. It’s also where I have made many new friends locally and around the world. Yay, Interwebs and social media!

It is in this house I found my own voice, vision, and passion that will not adapt/modify for someone else’s purpose.

This is where I have had many, many, moments of laughter and fun conversations about life, about and with God, friendship, love, and joy. So many life-giving and beautiful moments.

Ready, Set, Launch!

This house has heard bitter tears as well as laughing so hard I got dizzy… more than a few times! This house was the safe place where freeing epiphanies came to reveal that, of course, God would never forsake us. This was also a season of deeper revelations about grace toward others in times of conflict; not being derailed by the “should be” and staying focused and gracious toward “what is.” We are united in His Spirit, always have been, always will be.

I came into this house talking about freedom a lot. Now that I am leaving this house, I am actually, truly, free. My pursuit of freedom hasn’t changed, finally living this deeper understanding of it is.

I came into this house at the top of my “game.” I am leaving this house realizing that life isn’t a game. That life cannot be lived in a false authenticity and a false idealization. Real life is only worth living in love; to love and be loved by God, to love and be loved by others.

No more games. Eyes, mind, and heart open.

Coming into this house, I was a caterpillar; leaving a butterfly. Came in as a Mourning Dove; leaving as an Eagle. But, obviously, I am still into over-the-top metaphors!

I wept while thinking of all the “moments” and changes that have happened in this little house on the edge of the boonies. Now, the tears are done. My wings are unfurling as I launch off into the future…