By Greg Johnson. This blog post is adapted from Greg’s forthcoming book Still Time to Care: What We Can Learn from the Church’s Failed Attempt to Cure Homosexuality (Zondervan, 2021). www.StillTimeToCare.com
It was the question I dreaded most. I sat in the university medical center that day in 1997 and stared at the paper. I was filling out a medical questionnaire for a new doctor. I got to the question about my sexual orientation. There were three boxes. Heterosexual. Homosexual. Bisexual. I struggled with how to answer the question.
After staring at the boxes for thirty minutes, I checked the heterosexual box.
No, I was not closeted. I was ex-gay.
With 700,000 others in the United States, I was claiming my new reality.
But it didn’t sit well with me. Who was I kidding? Had I just lied to my doctor? Did Jesus really want me lying to my doctor? Was that how Jesus would make me straight? Was this faith, or was it deception?
At the heart of the ex-gay movement was the ex-gay script. And while the movement itself officially died with the closure of Exodus International in 2013, the movement still walks undead in the form of the ex-gay script. Though a relic of conversion therapy, this script remains enforced with a vengeance in conservative religious spaces filled with well-meaning people who don't even know what the ex-gay script was or why it was developed.
Embodied: The Latest from Preston Sprinkle
The Ex-Gay Script within a Testimony-Driven Movement
The ex-gay movement was a testimony-driven movement. In 2007, Christianity Today observed, “Since its beginnings in the 1970s, the ex-gay movement has engaged gay advocates in a battle of testimonies. Transformed ex-gay leaders are the best argument for their movement.” The ex-gay testimony was the life narrative that every ex-gay developed. Usually starting with a wounded childhood, the ex-gay testimony progressed to the sexual experimentation and sin, the shame and bondage. The climax of the ex-gay testimony was the ex-gay’s turning to God for salvation and healing, often followed by dating, getting married, and having children.
Everyone had their personal exodus story. Just as the Israelites had their story of being led out in an exodus from slavery in Egypt, we all had our stories of being led out from homosexuality. Our ex-gay testimony told our narrative from gay to anything-but-gay.
It was a basic structure repeated thousands of times, a narrative that sought to explain how you became gay—parental dysfunction, peer rejection, and abuse being the big three—and how, because of God, you aren’t gay anymore. I know I certainly gave that testimony. At the heart of the ex-gay movement, the ex-gay script was a driving factor behind efforts at both sexual fidelity and reorientation.
And because the most platformed testimonies ended with marriage and children, the ex-gay testimony created the illusion that the individual’s sexual orientation had changed. “These stories of people getting married took on a life of their own,” comments Roger Jones, director of Denver-based Where Grace Abounds, a ministry that left Exodus in 2008. “They added a lot of pressure.” Scott Kingry agrees: “As a single person at an Exodus conference, you just felt like a big old failure. I sat listening to these testimonies, praying, ‘Please, God, don’t let them parade out the wives and kids.’”
Equivocation as our Ticket to Acceptance
When I would tell someone that “I used to be gay,” that ex-gay script fostered the illusion that I had experienced a change in my sexual orientation. It was all about equivocation, using language that meant one thing to us but something different to our hearers. When I said I had “come out of homosexuality,” I meant that I had decided not to engage in homosexual practice. When I said “I used to be gay,” I meant that I no longer consider homoerotic expression to be an option for me.
But I was still at the top of the Kinsey scale, exclusively attracted to the same sex, a fact I did not mention.
This equivocation effectively made ex-gays more acceptable within the culture of conservative churches. It also left us hiding behind an illusion that we had experienced far more change than we had in fact experienced.
The equivocation was our ticket to acceptance within a conservative religious establishment during a culture war between the Christians and the gays. And it was our cage.
It was also the first step in conversion therapy.
The Ex-Gay Script as Conversion Therapy
Exodus executive director Alan Medinger insisted that rejecting a homosexual self-perception was key to successful healing. “Accompanying these erotic and emotional changes is a change in self-perception in which the individual no longer identifies him or herself as homosexual.” Becoming a “former homosexual,” even before your attractions changed, was part of the sexual conversion process.
You had Homosexuals Anonymous (HA) indoctrinating people with the belief that they weren’t really homosexual but heterosexual. Homosexuality was just an illusion. You had HA’s founder Colin Cook telling you to claim by faith your “completed heterosexuality,” which already is “your new unseen identity.” Still experience homosexual temptation? Cook explained, “Feelings are trying… to foist an illusion” on you. You had Joseph Nicolosi telling a crowd that “there is no such thing as a homosexual.” You had Michael Bussee saying, “By professing it, it had become real on a spiritual level already in heaven.” You had Exodus founder Frank Worthen claiming a 70 percent success rate at a cure—in his words—“from gay to straight.” The Exodus International motto was “Change is possible.”
I know of no better way to create the impression of successful orientation change than to convince thousands and thousands of people that the first therapeutic step toward becoming straight is to insist that they used to be homosexual but are not anymore. By enforcing this script, the ex-gay movement created a new theological belief—a doctrine—that you cannot be both homosexual and a Christian.
SSA as a Replacement Label for Ex-Gay
When Roman Catholic reparative therapist Richard Fitzgibbons first began promoting Same Sex Attraction Disorder (SSAD) in the late 1990s, he imagined the term replacing the word “gay.” Instead, there was an intentional effort by Exodus to promote it as a replacement for “ex-gay.” Reparative therapist Richard Cohen picked the term up in 2000. Christianity Today first used it later that year. Ex-gays Joe Dallas and Anne Paulk adopted the language in 2003 and 2004. By the mid 2000s, Exodus leadership had realized that actual orientation change was quite rare, and so they threw their full weight behind the rebranding effort.
The adoption of the language of same-sex attraction in the 2000s made it more tenable to continue maintaining the ex-gay script. I no longer had to say, “I used to be gay” and thus imply that I’m now straight. That was the old ex-gay script. Now I could say, “I used to be gay, but I don’t think of myself as gay anymore. Now I just experience same-sex attraction.”
Now, I acknowledge that to anyone outside the narrow halls of conservative Christianity, the new statement sounds even sillier than the old one. But after all those years I spent being an ex-gay, there was still that emotional need to renounce a homosexual self-perception. Even if it sounded silly to a lot of people.
Remember, the ex-gay movement had spent decades creating a narrative in which the gay person stopped being gay or homosexual and changed to become something else: ex-gay or heterosexual or on the healing path toward heterosexual functioning. That was the script. That expectation of change did not go away. There remained an expectation that you stop being gay and think of yourself as having been changed. With the language of same-sex attraction, Christians could still speak of having forsaken a gay identity without having to pretend that their sexual orientation had changed.
This new language opened up a way to speak about our experience while signaling our commitment to biblical sexuality. This was a great help for a lot of us. I jumped ship from “ex-gay” to “same-sex attracted” at my earliest opportunity. Today one almost never hears someone identify as an ex-gay. But the ex-gay script still walks undead among us.
The Ex-Gay Script as Relic
The new terminology of same-sex attraction raised a question. What does it mean to stop being gay, when you’re openly admitting that you’re exclusively same-sex attracted? While many of us prefer one descriptor to the other, and often for perfectly valid reasons, what's the objective difference between being gay and being “not gay… just same-sex attracted”?
Is the expectation of possible sexual orientation change the only difference between perceiving of yourself as homosexual and perceiving of yourself as same-sex attracted? If so, what happens now that we know how rare orientation change is? At this point, does the ex-gay script just become semantics? As a relic of reparative therapy, does forsaking a homosexual self-perception still have any real meaning or use apart from the conversion therapies that invented it?
What does it mean to forsake a homosexual self-perception if you’re freely admitting that you’re likely to remain homosexually oriented for the rest of your life? By making it all about self-perception (a.k.a. identity), the ex-gay script's equivocation continues to exert a powerful force in conservative religious spaces. One popular author describes herself as a “former lesbian,” though she is still attracted to other women. Her story is tossed in the faces of others as an example of orientation change, which it is not.
For many, maintaining the ex-gay script meant changing which term you use, and not really much else. This meant that a gay person who repented and followed Jesus and gave up sex and porn and lust and walked with God and called themselves same-sex attracted was a godly Christian.
But a gay person who repented and followed Jesus and gave up sex and porn and lust and walked with God and called themselves gay was probably not walking with God, was definitely immature, lacking in wisdom, and in need of pastoral attention.
That difference is the ex-gay movement walking undead among us. The history behind how we got here is the silver stake that can send it back whence it came.