by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2012, 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
I’m going to miss Exodus International. In case you haven’t heard, the organization that once proclaimed its mission as preaching the gospel to Queer men and women that they could be “cured” of their homosexual desires and turned into happy little heteros shut its doors as of June 20. According to the media reports, the decision to shutter the group was made by a unanimous vote of its board after a year and a half in which Exodus had groped — pardon the pun — for a new sense of purpose after its president, Alan Chambers, disavowed “reparative therapy” at a Gay Christian Network conference in January 2012.
The disavowal, and Exodus’ subsequent dissolution, came about as a result of three years of involvement between Chambers, his wife Leslie (an appropriately gender-ambiguous name) and a journalist named Lisa Ling. Lisa Ling works on a TV program called Our America on — guess what — the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN). The fact that it was one of Oprah’s minions who got Chambers to knock off the attempts to “pray the Gay away” and detach himself from the founding mission of Exodus indicates to what extent Oprah, even without a daily broadcast TV showcase, remains a sort of Mother Confessor to the nation, the source for absolution for all manner of real or imagined sins against the combination of vague progressivism and psychobabble she peddled for years on TV.
One reason I’m going to miss Exodus is that pointing out its various hypocrises was almost too easy. Two of its founders, Michael Bussee and the late Gary Cooper, traveled the U.S. in the 1980’s proclaiming to Queer folk the “good” news that their sexual orientations could change — only they rather blew (again, pardon the pun) the message when they ended up falling in love with each other. (They were the subject of a 1993 documentary called One Nation Under God.)
The organization’s credibility wasn’t helped in 2000 when a later Exodus president, John Paulk — a self-proclaimed “ex-Gay” who was married to “ex-Lesbian” Anne Paulk — was found in a Gay bar in Washington, D.C. and came up with a typically lame excuse for his presence there. In April 2013 John Paulk finally came out as a Gay Christian and announced his marriage is ending and he no longer believes in “reparative therapy,” either. Like Chambers, he has publicly apologized for his role in the “ex-Gay” movement.
I encountered the “ex-Gay” movement myself in early 1990, when I spotted in the North Park Albertson’s a flyer advertising a weekend event, the “San Diego Christian Conference on Trauma and Sexuality.” By then I’d been definitively identifying myself as a Gay man for seven years, but my journalist’s instinct made me curious about just what they were going to say at the conference and how they proposed to “cure” me of homosexuality and other “trauma-induced sexual sin.” So I registered for the conference and took my pens and note pads to take it all down and write an article about it.
The featured speaker at the conference was Sy Rogers, whom I found to be a screaming queen. He claimed to have given up homosexual activity and got married. Indeed, he said that after he first had sex with his wife he called a man from his church and complained that it wasn’t as intense as it had been when he had sex with men. “It’s not supposed to be that intense,” his friend said. But he sprinkled his speech with so many quotes from songs made famous by Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand I couldn’t help thinking, “You may not be having sex with men anymore, but you’re still Gay.” More recently Rogers — who, unlike Alan Chambers and John Paulk, still believes in “reparative therapy” — has switched from identifying himself as ex-Gay to identifying himself as ex-Transgender and has written a book about his experiences called The Man in the Mirror, available at the “Last Days Ministries” Web site.
The name of Rogers’ publisher is a good indication of what was motivating the “ex-Gay” movement at its height. Through all the queeny inflections and quotes from Saints Judy and Barbra that punctuated his talk, there was an undercurrent of fear, a genuine belief that God was about to strike down the U.S. the way he had Sodom and Gomorrah because of our growing tolerance of homosexuality. That attitude surfaced again right after 9/11, when Pat Robertson declaimed on his radio show that God had once put the United States under his personal protection and therefore not allowed events like the 9/11 attacks to happen to us.
When 9/11 did happen, Robertson explained, it was evidence that God had withdrawn that “protection” — and just then Jerry Falwell came on his show and agreed, saying that the reason God had taken his protection from the U.S. was because of our tolerance for abortions, homosexuality and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Falwell got lampooned for his remark, but few people who heard it quoted understood the context or what it said about the radical-Right world view in general.
Another weird thing about the “ex-Gay” movement as I experienced it during that conference in 1990 was its reliance on an old, discredited psychological theory from the 1950’s about what caused homosexuality. For a movement that ordinarily has little or no use for science — one which flatly rejects scientific consensus on issue after issue, from evolution to climate change — this part of the radical Right leaped to embrace the psychological orthodoxy of the 1950’s that boys became Gay because of weak or absent fathers, overly strong mothers and an absence of male role models. As the phrase “trauma-induced sexual sin” suggested, they also regarded homosexuality as a response to child molestation and urged people to scour through their childhoods for some horrible experience that would have sent their sexuality off the straight and narrow and nudged it into Queer paths.
I’ve done interviews with so-called “ex-ex-Gays” — people who’ve tried to “change” with the help of reparative therapists and A.A.-type groups, given up and accepted themselves as Queer — and read other accounts of what drove people both into and out of “change” attempts. One of the running themes is the “ex-Gay” movement’s obsession with blaming it all on the parents. If you’re in “reparative therapy” you’re encouraged to scour your childhood looking for unhappy memories — and if you can’t find any you’re encouraged to look harder. When I interviewed singer Justin Utley, who grew up Mormon in Utah and tried an “ex-Gay” program recommended by the Mormon Church, he said:
I accepted their answer, which was that I had been molested as a kid and just didn’t remember it. I believed that for a period of time, and I told my family. Before I had come out as a Gay man, I told them I had actually been molested and didn’t remember. We went on this pseudo-witch hunt of who in our community, when I was growing up, could have done this. Then my mom called me out of my bullshit and said, “I don’t know what the hell is going on with you right now, but you can’t blame something that’s going on in your life on a repressed memory of something that never happened.”
Indeed, according to Gabriel Arana, who published a moving account of having failed “ex-Gay” therapy with the movement’s founding psychologist, Dr. Joseph Nicolosi (who coined the term “reparative therapy” and last year got into a pissing contest with Alan Chambers on Facebook over whether he had ever promised a complete “cure” and whether he showed straight porn to would-be ex-Gay men), “My parents were surprised at how the therapy blamed them for my condition. … They continued paying for therapy but no longer checked in with Nicolosi regularly or asked what he and I talked about.” It’s odd, to say the least, that a movement which prides itself on upholding “family values” should adopt a form of “therapy” that seeks to “cure” homosexuality by tearing families apart — but that’s a good deal of what goes on in the “ex-Gay ministries.”
Do People Really Change?
So I won’t miss Exodus International for screwing up people’s lives and selling them a whole bunch of discredited pseudo-scientific crap in the name of “curing” them of a quite natural and normal human variation. But, quite frankly, I’ll miss their challenge to an equally annoying, though considerably less harmful, insistence on the Queer side of this debate that sexual orientation and gender identity are fixed, immutable, unchangeable. It’s long upset me that the Queer community has staked so much of its civil rights struggle on the idea that Queer people are “born this way,” which makes a great catch line for a Lady Gaga song but a lousy scientific analysis.
To say that attempts to force yourself to “change” from Queer to straight via the sorts of programs Exodus used to endorse — and successor organizations like the defiantly named Restored Hope Network still endorse — are wrong does not necessarily mean that people don’t change their attractions, often in ways that come as quite a surprise to them. I’ve heard enough stories from people who lived for two or three decades as heterosexuals, married opposite-sex partners, had children and then suddenly found themselves dealing with attractions to people of their own sex not to believe that that process doesn’t also happen the other way around: that a person can live an exclusively Gay or Lesbian lifestyle for decades and suddenly meet, fall in love with, have sex with and even want to marry a partner of the opposite gender.
Indeed, along with its ugliness, one thing that upsets me about the acronym “LGBT” (for “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender”) by which the Queer community frequently identifies itself in public these days is that it’s become a token of inclusion, a substitute for the rethinking the Queer movement would have to do to be genuinely inclusive of Bisexual and Transgender people. To my mind, the very existence of Bisexual and Transgender people disproves the idea that sexual orientation and gender identity are fixed at birth. After all, what characteristic of a human being could seemingly be more “immutable” than the physical configuration of our bodies as male or female? But the Transgender community has taught us that there is an inward psychological and (if you believe) spiritual gender identity that doesn’t necessarily match the physiognomy we got stuck with by the luck of the DNA draw.
Likewise the Bisexual community has blown holes through the very concept of a “sexual orientation,” fixed across a person’s lifetime. In so doing Bisexuals have undermined a large part of the case for Queer rights as it’s traditionally been made: the idea that Gays and Lesbians are a fixed “community” similar to a racial or ethnic minority, and therefore are subject to — and should be legally protected against — discrimination. And the mainstream Queer leadership has responded to the threat with the token inclusion of the initials “B” and “T” in every organization name — and veiled, and sometimes not-so-veiled, attacks on Bisexual people and the whole idea of Bisexuality.
When Sex and the City actress Cynthia Nixon was interviewed for the January 19, 2012 New York Times Magazine and made the political mistake of saying her current relationship with a woman, after years of marriage to a man, was a “choice,” the enforcers of the mainstream Queer orthodoxy went after her like the proverbial ton of bricks. “You don’t get to define my Gayness for me,” Nixon said. “A certain section of our community is very concerned that it not be seen as a choice, because if it’s a choice, then we could opt out. I say it doesn’t matter if we flew here or if we swam here. It matters that we are here and we are one group, and let us stop trying to make a litmus test for who is considered Gay and who is not.”
“Cynthia did not put adequate thought into the ramifications of her words, and it is going to be used when some kid comes out and their parents force them into some ‘ex-Gay’ camp while she’s off drinking cocktails at fancy parties,” said Wayne Besen, who as founder of a group called Truth Wins Out had done excellent work exposing the harm done by Exodus and other “ex-Gay ministries.” “When people say it’s a choice, they are green-lighting an enormous amount of abuse because if it’s a choice, people will try to influence and guide young people to what they perceive as the ‘right’ choice.”
I’ve long found it ironic that the Queer civil-rights movement embraced this rigid attitude of biological determinism when every other civil-rights movement in American history has attacked biological determinism. One of the tasks African-Americans and other people of color had to do to fight for their civil rights was to prove they were not biologically inferior to whites, and therefore there was no scientific basis for denying them equality. One of the tasks women in the so-called “second wave” of American feminism had to do was attack the biological determinism that had long been used to argue that women weren’t as capable of functioning in the workplace as men.
Yet the Queer movement — or at least its Gay and Lesbian components — have enforced a biologically deterministic explanation of Queerness with the ruthlessness of a dictator’s propagandist — as witness Besen’s snide remark about Nixon “drinking cocktails at fancy parties” while young Queers suffer through so-called “therapy” programs to try to turn them straight. And what’s more, they’ve done this in the face of ample evidence not only that Bisexuality exists, but it’s far more widespread and prevalent than once believed — and, indeed, that there are actually more Americans who self-identify as Bisexual than as Gay, Lesbian or Transgender.
In 2010 the Journal of Sexual Medicine published a national study of American women and men. Out of their 5,042 respondents 3.1 percent self-identified as Bisexual versus only 2.5 percent as Gay or Lesbian. What’s more, among adolescents the split was even more dramatic — 4.9 percent self-identified as Bi versus just 1 percent as Gay or Lesbian. Data from the 2002 National Survey of Family Growth, based on in-person interviews with 7,643 women and 4,928 men, found that 2.8 percent of women and 1.8 percent of men identified as Bisexual, versus 1.3 percent of women identifying as Lesbian and 2.3 percent of men as Gay.
A 2007 survey, sponsored by the City University of New York (CUNY), found that of 768 Queer people 48.9 percent identified as Bi versus 51.1 percent as Lesbian, Gay or “homosexual.” But the gender difference was dramatic; 65.3 percent of the women in the survey identified as Bi versus 34.7 percent as Lesbian, while 68.4 percent of the men identified as Gay versus 31.6 percent as Bi. (The people who did the CUNY survey admitted that they did not cover Transgender people since they couldn’t find enough of them to constitute a representative sample.)
When I encountered these numbers — summarized in a marvelous 2011 report on Bisexual invisibility from the San Diego Human Rights Commission — they confirmed a lot of impressions I’d had from anecdotal evidence, particularly people I’d met and interviewed during my 18 years as editor/publisher of Zenger’s Newsmagazine. I’d long had the impression that women were far more flexible in their conception of sexual orientation, less likely than men to believe that one same-gender sexual experience marked them as Queer for life, and the CUNY poll results bore that out.
The National Survey of Family Growth numbers also bore out the belief I’d had talking to younger people — including some I interviewed for the magazine — that today’s youths are far less likely to regard sexual orientation or gender identity as immutable. They don’t think of it that way in abstract terms, and they don’t think of it that way in their personal lives either. More and more young people find labels like “straight,” “Gay,” “Lesbian” and even “Bisexual” too confining. They want to be free to fall in love with, and make love to, anyone they like, anyone who appeals to them for whatever quirky reasons humans are attracted to other humans.
This is especially significant because the modern-day Queer movement has staked much of its future on the idea that young people are more liberal in their views on sexual orientation and gender identity than older ones. This has been borne out in the polls that show that the younger you are, the more likely you are to support marriage equality for same-sex couples. But it’s going to be hard for a Queer movement to remain relevant and attractive to young people who increasingly reject its basic assumptions that sexual orientation and gender identity are fixed.
The San Diego Democrats for Equality — founded in 1974 as the San Diego Democratic Club and therefore the oldest political group in San Diego with a specifically Queer issue agenda — is having a hard time staying relevant to new generations of Queer people with new ways of thinking about their identities. In an era in which young people are questioning the ideas of a fixed sexual orientation, a fixed gender identity or a fixed political affiliation, a club started as a group of Lesbian and Gay Democrats is proving to be a harder “sell” to them than it was to earlier generations.
As I wrote in a commentary on Cynthia Nixon and the controversy over her New York Times Magazine interview in the March 2012 Zenger’s Newsmagazine:
Why on earth can’t we acknowledge at least some element of “choice” in how we express our sexual desires? No Gay man is equally attracted to all men, nor is any Lesbian equally attracted to all women, any more than any straight person is attracted to everyone of the opposite sex. If we can pick and choose our partners based on height, weight, age, hair color, tastes in politics or music, or whatever weird and beautiful criteria that guide us, why can’t we pick their gender, too? Why do we have to make some hard-and-fast decision, once we’ve had our first experience with a same-sex partner, that we have to identify as Gay or Lesbian for life?
So I bid Exodus International goodbye with really mixed feelings. I hate them for the harm they’ve done to people — especially young people pushed into “reparative therapy” by parents, families or churches and forced to undergo painful programs to “change” something that does not need to be changed, to “repair” something that is not and never was broken. I respect Alan Chambers for his change of heart and wish he’d self-identify as Bisexual, since by his own account — he’s married to a woman but he still feels sexual attractions to men — that’s exactly what he is. I condemn anyone who would use the idea that sexual orientation is a “choice” to force people into programs aimed at denying a large part of who and what they are — but I also oppose anyone who denies that there is a large and powerful element of choice in terms of how we as individuals define our sexuality and how — and with whom — we choose to express it.