If You Think I am Damned, I Have A Few Questions For You…

While it may come off this way, this short post might step on some toes but is in no way meant to be flippant. Truly, I have no interest in being disrespectful.  This post is written because it boggles my mind how seemingly hypocritical some religious legalists are. I have no interest in condemning fellow Christians, so the below is not an attempt to create a sense of being better than or worse than they are; I am not either as you will read in the last paragraph.

That said, sometimes I want to ask a few questions of those who curse me as being damned for simply, finally, embracing who I am as a gay man. Like:

  • “How many trips to the buffet line, or mountainous meal portions and decadent desserts, did it take for you to lose your salvation?” #Gluttony
  • Or “How many angry words, snarky thoughts/responses, and haughty ‘shady’ looks did it take for Jesus to revoke your gate access to heaven?” #Gossip #Malice
  • Or, especially for Christian leaders, “Personal pronoun check: Have you ever counted the number of times you promoted yourself/your ministry/your passions instead of Jesus in a day?” #Vanity #Greed and sometimes #Idolatry.

Some religious people say I excuse sin (which I don’t agree with. My being gay is not sin), and yet they give a wink, a nod to or outright ignore their own “sins” of the flesh. They need to pay attention to their own soul, mine belongs to our Creator and is no one else’s concern.

Also, if by chance I pass before they do… I am going to ask Jesus to let me stand at the Pearly gates and jump out yelling, “Surprise!” when they walk through. Knowing Him, and where we will be, we will all laugh at how silly worrying about each other’s spiritual condition is. Christ is all; He is everything. Nothing to fear.

To be clear, I don’t care if you eat too much (pass the queso please), quote yourself (“Good point!”- Randy Thomas), annoyingly promote your stuff (ok ….that can stop) or have a temper tantrum (who doesn’t do that on the daily in Trumplandia?). I do the same, and more, all the time. I have no need to worry about what others do. The above are rhetorical questions hoping to point out issues with how some want to impose a standard of “righteousness” they seemingly don’t apply to themselves.

As a Christian, I believe Jesus did what He said He would do. He reconciled/saved the world. If we had no hope of gaining salvation on our own, we have no hope of maintaining it ourselves. It’s time to stop with the comparison of behavior and unnecessarily negative consequential nature of our own standards. We can trust God, and each other, to steward our own hearts.

Ex-Gay Movement’s Founding Fathers Die

Last month on February 11, 2017, Frank Worthen, often referred to as the “Father” of Exodus and the Ex-gay movement passed away. He started his first ex-gay ministry, Love In Action, in 1973. In 1976 he helped organize and incorporate Exodus International as a non-profit organization. Exodus would eventually go on to become the largest ex-gay ministry network in the world. It remained that way until we (my boss, the board, myself and other staff) shut it down in 2013. However, there is a good chance it would have stayed an obscure movement if it hadn’t been for the infusion of Reparative Therapy (RT). RT is known today as “conversion therapy” and was founded by Joseph Nicolosi (who also recently passed on March 9th, 2017). He is also considered the “father” of that approach and the creation of his organization “NARTH.”

The two organizations grew to be very large and always tried to make sure they were publicly perceived as NOT the same as the other while supporting each other. That symbiotic relationship remained strong until around 2009 or 2010 when Alan Chambers officially distanced Exodus from Reparative Therapy. Both organizations tremendously benefitted from each other for a long time. Exodus absorbed all it could from RT’s formulaic and branded approach, language, and goals. Exodus benefitted from having the appearance of professionally credentialed counselors affirming our mission to  “overcome” or “find freedom” from homosexuality. Exodus donors/supporters loved the alliance…mostly.

Now, some personal memories/thoughts about both men. This post concludes with some other thoughts regarding their legacy.

Frank Worthen

Frank was always kind to me. Actually Frank never said much more than, “Hi Randy” but I knew he liked me. We may have been in literally dozens and dozens (hundred?) meetings together over the 21 years I was in movement. He seemed to be very gentle. That said, I would hear from people, maybe three, that when he got mad or disagreed with you… nice Frank was not very nice at all. I still find that hard to believe in the context of my experience with him, but I also know that my experience is limited. Plus, I idealized him and many others for almost the whole time I was with Exodus.  My last memory of him was having our picture taken with Joe Dallas at a Love Won Out conference in Fresno. He genuinely seemed happy. I have no idea where that photo is.

That said, I heard, that Frank was very upset that we closed down Exodus and he was very supportive of the RHN network that sought to take over Exodus’ spiritual “mantle” (calling, authority) once it closed.

Joseph Nicolosi

Nicolosi and I were acquaintances up until I started traveling to all the Love Won Out conferences as a staff person for Exodus. He was a regular speaker at all of them. It was there we became friends. We hit it off at first. He was straightforward and one of the crassest people I ever met. He was hilarious, and I loved his humor. We had a falling out around 2006 when he was diagnosing my girlfriend at the time (from afar, without permission, without me even asking). I was very offended and still believe he was completely wrong and insulting. I distanced myself from him but still tried to be professional. He also started after me to go to counseling and some warrior weekend type of retreats (to discover my “true” masculinity and “heterosexual potential”). He even offered to pay for me to go, under the condition I told no one so I could deal with my “lingering issues.”

He never said it this way, but I knew he thought I was too effeminate and passive. I politely declined his offer each time. Then things were getting weird, and rumors started floating around of some terrible suggestions that he was allegedly making to his clients. I honestly hate that our last conversation was a very loud one over the phone with us hanging up in anger (2010’ish).

Legacy

In the ex-gay movement, there was always a fascination with “signs.”  That God was speaking through things that were happening within the movement as a sign. I still haven’t gotten my invitation to the next RHN conference (that would be… crazy) but I have no doubt that their board meeting will have a very specific agenda item: Prayer Time: What is God saying through the passing of Frank and Joe?

I can’t ever presume to know what God might or might not be saying to someone else but my earthly totally biased mind thinks that maybe their passing, a few years after the death of Exodus, is another “sign” that the few remaining remnants of the ex-gay/conversion movement should fold. That unfortunate season, right at 40 years, is over.

Maybe it is a sign that we as LGBT+ people of faith are leaving the wilderness of withering judgment and ridicule to enter into the “promise land” of affirmation and acceptance for who God created us to be.

Finally.

And, please join us. You don’t have to wither in the ex-gay/conversion therapy desert of false expectations and unnecessary burdens.

I believed, and still do to a degree, that both the Exodus birth in 1976 and the advent of Reparative Therapy happened because the church at the time was so incredibly closed off to LGBT+ people; even those who agreed with the church. At first, I think these groups were honestly seeking answers. For many, it was in those environments they first felt free to disclose their core relational sense of being. However, what both organizations also did, was to go on to create and affirm an inauthentic reality that reinforced culturally stigmatized beliefs, expectations and consequences.

In the course of my relationship with both of these men, I honestly told them that I loved and deeply respected them. My heart still feels for them and I find no joy in their passing. I miss their smiles and laughter. That said, it is my hope that their beliefs about God’s LGBT+ children will be forever discarded and no longer used as weapons of personal, familial and social destruction.

LGBT+ people deserve true equality in the church and culture. We should not be sidelined by the bitter fruit of systemic cultural stigma. We are God’s children, too. No better, no worse … and no longer in the church closet.

“When We Rise” (Review)

This week we experienced an amazing television series about the LGBT+ movement’s history titled “When We Rise.” It is based on the memoir of the amazing Cleve Jones.

To my knowledge, this is the first time our community’s history has been documented this way. It has received some backlash about ratings and portrayals of conservatives (of course), but that does nothing to diminish the series importance and power to positively impact our community, efforts, and country.

The power of the series was its ability to have many stories unfolding on the screen and in my memory at the same time. Simply powerful and often overwhelming. Here are a few examples:

  • When the cops hurt and threatened the characters on the screen, I vividly remember bleeding in the snow after suffering a physical assault (one of many). I remembered feeling powerless and hopeless as the cops talked to and took the word of my attackers (that I had flirted with them…not) and then the police officers turned smirking and saying, “he got what he deserved.”
  • When the AIDS pandemic first manifested as depicted in San Francisco, the looks on their faces and tears of terror, we experienced those exact emotions as the gay community in Nashville was also decimated. I remember, vividly, erupting with grief in a Krystals burger place at 3 am one morning when I found out my first boyfriend (we had broken up by then) had died of AIDS. He didn’t even know he had it until two weeks before he died.
  • When the AIDS Quilt went to DC in the series, I remembered and grieved, again, my friends who have been memorialized with panels in the quilt.
  • During the third and the beginning of the fourth installment, I felt the guilt of having betrayed my own community. I went into the church closet in 1992 and eventually was vocal in my opposing of LGBT+ rights.  I remembered everything that happened that was shown (and more) but from an opponent’s viewpoint. The contrast of the emotions from being in the community, to being an opponent of the community, and now trying to find my place in our community, broke my heart. After the third show, I cried myself to sleep.
  • When they showed the Prop 8 Protests, I remembered seeing that footage after a night of celebrating the passage of it. At the time, when I saw the footage, a small voice inside my head said, “How could you do this to your own people?” I wept then and wept again when I saw the same people and protests in the movie. It would take quite a while, but it was that moment that began my return home to the LGBT+ community and living an honest, authentic life.
  • When Ken Jones left his conservative church environment in the series, I saw his heart in his eyes (very well acted) when he recognized his LGBT+ brothers and sisters in Christ as authentic believers.
  • When DOMA was struck down on-screen, I remembered being silently happy and wanting to join the celebration but feeling, at that time, I couldn’t. At that point, it was another moment of being compelled to come out again which happened a little while later.
  • The sentence they showed at the end of the Supreme Court recognizing our right to marry, I remember the country erupting with joy, Facebook turning into a rainbow, and texting/calling my boyfriend at the time simply elated and crying with happiness all day. Also, I joined the Orlando community that night at a fantastic celebration. It was one of the best, and most memorable, days of my life.

Of course, the binary unfolding of the series and the stories that weave throughout my journey happened ALL throughout the series. I know some of the conservatives portrayed and a LOT of the specifics of the behind the scenes details. I don’t get invites to conservative shindigs anymore, and I am ok with that ;). I have met some of the gay rights leaders portrayed in the series as well. But as importantly, maybe, more importantly, I remember all the amazing people I was honored to be in a relationship with and their stories throughout almost the entire timeframe documented in the series.

Powerful.

When We Rise, even though based on a memoir, told all our stories. There is no way to document the entirety of almost 50 years of history in 8 hours, but they did a great job in showing both the big vision and personal impact of the events that unfolded. I also love that it showed humility by revealing our strengths and some of our weaknesses as a movement. I am very proud to live in a country that, at times, is willing to humble itself (ourselves) and correct wrongs. A country that at our core does want to bring further equality and freedom to people who deserve the exact same right to pursue life, liberty, and happiness.

We rose. We are rising. We will rise. No going back.

Thanks to all those who pursue(d) full equality and justice for LGBT+ people.

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.”

Informed Freedom Brings Healthy Self-Determination & Respect

People have the capacity to make decisions for their own life that are in their best interests, life-giving and fruitful. That would seem an obvious thing to say. However, ex-gay ministry, conversion therapy, and legalistic religion do not trust people to make up their own minds on what is healthy or not healthy for them to pursue unless it fits with their ex-gay/conversion views. Whether it is with the best but misguided (in my opinion) of intentions or outright “exhortation” and manipulation, these groups will always seek to “educate” or guide someone who is questioning their sexuality down their particular well-worn paths. I do believe we were created to journey with others, but I don’t believe that it is any of our jobs to guide someone else’s direction.

In my experience, the problem with the ex-gay destination is always blurry and only gets murkier as we tried to get to an unrealistic “biblical” life. Eventually, we find the ex-gay/conversion path isn’t changing anything or going from one place to another. It is simply an incredibly long roundabout full of irreparable potholes with a never-ending emphasis on “brokenness”; all the exits are walled-off or boarded up by stacks of man-made stigma and religiously imposed unnecessary burdens. Learning how to avoid potholes and ignore the “no exit” strategy is not changing our core relational sense of being, it’s culturally conditioned behavioral modification.

That’s why many of us who have come out of that world feel like we lost ourselves after getting “saved.” In the name of getting “sanctified” (growth and being “set apart” in Christ) we were actually being hidden away on a path paved with shame for who we truly are. We were not “in process” as we were taught. We were not growing in sunshine and light but isolated in a figurative closet of terminal uniqueness. Finding who we are created to be was defined for us, not what I now believe God naturally designed and celebrates.

We were diverted from our authentic journey to follow someone else’s steps leading to a destination that doesn’t exist.

It is my hope and prayer that instead of losing ourselves in the name of “discipleship” and “overcoming brokenness” that we embrace the reality at who we are as beautiful and something to be celebrated.

Yes, coming to Christ is transformative. He has wonderfully blessed and allowed me to celebrate all aspects of who He created me to be. I look forward to learning more! He destroyed the barriers to the exits from that world by allowing me to see through the blinders of a religiously and self-imposed ideal. We are created with the capacity to think for ourselves and through the issues. For those of us who are people of faith, we will always find Him in the “peace that surpasses all understanding.”

And for the first time in my life… SO cool with you if you agree or don’t agree. I know this post is reflective of my path/journey/opinions. I’ll do me, and you do you, we’re good. However, this is my blog, so the personal observations and opinions shall continue :)…

Truthfully, it doesn’t take long to learn a myriad of ideas. We have resources available from every possible angle. I personally believe we do not need a smiling well-intentioned in their own mind ex-gay minister manipulating, creating, or seeking to steward our questions and/or pain with an assumed power to do so. We do not need parachurch organizations taking money to fix a manufactured brokenness. We can trust in our ability to think for ourselves. For those of us who are people of faith, that includes the guidance of our Creator. Jesus doesn’t need donations or a 501(c)3 resource catalog or bylaws to be a Good Shepherd.

He is with, loves, affirms, and celebrates you.

Truly, if you want an opinion I would be glad to offer one (obviously), but I will not seek to impose it. Some will agree, and others will deny that their core sense of relational being is as an LGBT+ person… that’s their decision, and I will seek to love and understand as best I can.

What I won’t be silent about is the fact that an entire system has risen up from a stigmatized foundation that exploits LGBT+ lives; a system that must be dismantled or at least revealed so that it no longer has the power to convolute issues and breed destruction.

People should be allowed to determine their path from a position of informed freedom, not from a stigmatized environment enforced by culture conditioning rooted in shame and condemnation.

Wherever you are at on the journey, I respect you. Regardless of what you think about my path, choices, and beliefs … anyone who is struggling to live an honest life regarding their core relational sense of being… I have nothing but love and empathy for you as a person and friend.

You are worthy of being celebrated and loved. I hope you feel and experience that today.