The most important discovery I made in my research* and understanding of my recovery process from my ex-gay experience had to do with the way “ministries” like this function. Briefly put, it is nothing new. In fact, the movement is a microcosm of a larger, more rampant problem today — religious abuse.
I had a suspicion that the ex-gay movement might have some commonalities with religious abuse and dependency, but I had no idea just how similar they were. As I began to read about religious abuse, I would often blink my eyes and glance at the title of the book to make sure I wasn’t reading a book exclusively about the ex-gay movement. It seemed that what was described as a structured kind of power abuse within a given church, was describing point for point any number of ex-gay groups. Whole chapters of religious abuse books could apply perfectly to what has occurred in the ex-gay environment — really!
The Unholy Relationship
Anyone can have a positive and growing experience from authentic spiritual leadership. Unfortunately, all too often an abusive relationship surfaces when an unspoken deal is struck. One side of the deal is that most people would rather have someone else take on their problems so they don’t have to be responsible for them. The other side of the deal is a leader who may genuinely wish to help, ends up overstepping a person’s individual responsibility by “solving their problems” rather than supporting a person to solve his/her own problems. Although this system can seem to work very well for a large number of groups, this kind of relationship cultivates communal dependency rather than individual responsibility.
The leadership is viewed as God’s conduit of authority, to which everyone and everything (Biblical interpretation, pop psychology, science, education, reality) is subject.
While in the program [Love In Action], I was astonished at the energy expended by the leadership to maintain control. Absolute obedience was expected, even demanded at times, and any questions or doubt brought swift deflection to God: “It’s not us, but God who tells us to do this….” Continued questioning by a member brought accusations of disobedience and rebellion from the leadership and would eventually result in excommunication from the program. — Sean Greystone, Ex-gay Survivor.
All things deemed as the “corruptible world” — i.e., different religions, “secular” cultures, the body, pleasure, human experiences, those who do not agree — are believed to be ultimately evil, are not to be trusted, and work against you and God.
In the ex-gay programs I attended in New York City and Memphis, as well as the one I visited in Ecuador, we got the message that the outside world provided a direct and constant threat to our resolve to straighten ourselves out. In Love In Action, the staff enforced a rule that stated we could not enter “The Forbidden Zone,” a large section of Memphis where one would find gay establishments, open and affirming churches and cruise spots. We maintained a bunker mentality with the belief that the devil and the World maintained a pro-gay agenda. Even the church we attended as a group did not provide a safe haven after one of the participants repeatedly met up with a parishioner for sex in one of the many restrooms. The staff insisted that we not maintain contact with anyone who proved gay-affirming, even close family members and friends. We had no access to television and only limited access to one movie per week which had to be approved by the staff. (These included mostly family film or testosterone-laden action adventure films. No romantic comedies or movie classics. They even banned Bible films since the characters wore such revealing costumes). — Peterson Toscano, Ex-gay Survivor and Performance Activist.
The abusive system requires participants to be viewed as “flawed.”
New Directions was not the beacon of hope and love their public image portrayed them to be. If I was not being ignored, I was being shamed publicly by the leader which evoked in me feelings once again of being less than. Desperately needing to have approval I did everything I was taught: I attended Bible study groups with healthy heterosexuals, tried to play sports, even sat in a chair the way that a man does according to New Directions. When all of this failed to destroy my “same-sex attractions” I briefly conceded defeat and allowed the feelings of being less than and not good enough to take over and sought out gay sex which tragically turned into gay bashing. With a broken nose, two black eyes and a shameful secret (my story was that I had been mugged), I began to listen even more to the teachings of the ex-gay community and my fundamentalist church. I began to attend a new ex-gay program called Living Waters, which was much more charismatic and shaming than New Directions.— Darin Squire, Ex-gay Survivor.
When real answers, trust and peace are allusive, instead of considering the system as flawed, the blame turns further inward. At the same time, success and acceptance fall dependent upon outward behavior and performance, while the authentic person is hidden, denied and neglected. There is not a sense of freedom to explore other avenues of growth; participants feel trapped, treading the same territory over and over again, although they may not be able to see it.
From my own experience: I was not going to be a failure. I was not going to let God down. I overlooked more and more nonsense to be the person I thought God wanted me to be. I began to notice a cyclical pattern to my behavior. I would go to the LA meeting, share my past week’s “temptations,” and get prayer for strength and healing. Then I would drive home feeling motivated: “Yes, I’m perfect and clean in God’s eyes. I’m God’s child and I want to please him in everything I do.” I’d get up the next morning and read my Bible. On the way to class, though, I’d see a cute guy in shorts and I would get angry at myself for allowing my eyes to wander down his hairy legs. I’d ask God’s forgiveness, quote a scripture, and refocus again. Sometimes I could focus for a day or two, kind of like keeping a lid firmly on a boiling pot, but eventually that seemed to burn my hands and make the “fall” all the more disappointing. I would think I would be gaining ground, but I would get horny, masturbate, and feel like a tremendous failure. Instead of questioning the routine, I assumed that I must not be trying hard enough, and I’d start the whole “workaholic” treadmill over again, and again, and again.
As time passes, most people within this system never acquire the deep satisfaction they work so hard to achieve, though they may never admit to it openly for fear of being disloyal. However, reality creeps in with signs of severe exhaustion, burnout, health problems, spiritual disillusionment, emotional fatigue and mental disorders.
I became very ill the last year — extremely ill from stress [and] fatigue. Because of all the years of repenting from my sins, and going to the “lifestyle” and back and forth. Actually I got so sick, I couldn’t repent. I didn’t have the strength to go through it again. I was just crushed like that for years. And I don’t know how else to describe my struggle but I thought I was going to take a gun to my head several times because of the anguish. — Stefani Cort, Ex-gay Survivor
The above points, compiled from various books on religious abuse and dependency, never once mentioned the ex-gay experience. Yet, as you can see, point for point, they describe the ex-gay experience with amazing accuracy. To read more about the damaging effects of my ex-gay experience and to learn what I did to recover, check out my book Ex-Gay No Way: Survival and Recovery from Religious Abuse.
* This article is primarily an excerpt from my book.
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