Coming Clean On “Coming Home”: On Being Ex-Gay & What It Means To Be Gay
Since last year, a church in Singapore has been running a campaign titled “Come Out. Come Home”. It recently launched a ministry called truelove.is that provides stories and resources for Christians who want to know more about LGBTQ issues on its website. The ministry’s logo features colours that look very similar to the pride flag, except that there are seven, not six colours.
The ministry’s website does not outrightly reveal its position on the issue of homosexuality though the citations offer some insight into what their position on this deeply controversial issue might be. The first citation is a 1970 book by Lawrence Hatterer, three years prior to the demedicalisation of homosexuality by the American Psychiatric Association. In that book, Hatterer discusses his treatment of the “homosexual illness” of hundreds of patients during the 1950s and 1960s, when homosexuality was still widely regarded as a medical and moral ill.
Another citation refers to a book by Anne Paulk, the executive director of Restored Hope Network, an interdenominational Christian ex-gay ministry headed up primarily of former members of Exodus International. She identifies as an ex-lesbian and was previously married to John Paulk, who has since come out in 2013 in rejection of the ex-gay movement and apologised for his earlier involvement. Paulk was not the only one to have changed his mind; Exodus International — once the largest ex-gay organisations in the world— closed down in 2013, with a formal apology to the LGBTQ community.
Contrary to what these initial inklings about the ministry’s work might suggest, this article proposes that while there may be significant similarities, the new conception of being “same-sex attracted” should be distinguished from the “ex-gay” movement that promoted conversion therapy to “correct” one’s sexual attraction. While this may potentially threaten the “born this way” foundations of the contemporary gay rights movement, it may not be as fatal if we recognise that one’s sexual orientation is closely related to but ultimately distinct from one’s sexual identity.
Coming Home to the Ex-Gay Movement
The ex-gay movement has gained much notoriety in recent years for falsely peddling promises of “curing” homosexuality through what is known as conversion or reparative therapy. Such practices have been largely denounced across the globe, whether it is by Brazil’s Federal Council of Psychology, the Indian Psychiatric Society or the South African Society of Psychiatrists. In the words of Alan Chambers, who once ran Exodus International before closing it down, ““sexual orientation doesn’t change.”
Some places, such as Taiwan and Switzerland, have since enacted legislations prohibiting such practices while others like China have prosecuted psychiatrists and medical institutions for providing such services and causing harm to vulnerable people. Bans on these practices are fast gaining ground in many jurisdictions, including the UK, Australia and a growing number of US states.
Such therapies may take many forms, which can range from more extreme methods such as electric shock to religious prayer and rituals. However, in light of the growing recognition that sexual orientation is not something to be cured nor something that can be altered, new and more insidious types of “reparative therapy” have mushroomed. One such method, called SAFE-T or Sexual Attraction Fluidity Exploration in Therapy, sought to exploit the language of affirmative therapy by “offering treatment to those who are victims of the stigma, shame, and stereotypes that their proponents perpetuate”.
Essentially, the belief is that homosexuality — and all other sexual orientations that are not heterosexuality — is caused by some brokenness or trauma that the struggling same-sex attracted person experienced. According to Joseph Nicolosi, widely regarded as the pioneer of “reparative therapy”,
“Many men were victims of homosexual sexual abuse [and] that childhood experience has left them with attractions that they find compelling, although ultimately not satisfying… There are many other factors of childhood that can lead a man down a homosexual path…. Others failed to make a strong connection with their fathers, and in adulthood, they romanticize maleness.”
These “causes” of homosexuality are manifest in the stories posted on truelove.is’s Youtube channel. Vincent suffered childhood sexual abuse at age 5, Joseph at 14, and Pastor Ian at 5 as well. Amy suffered a traumatic breakup with her girlfriend, which “left a void” in her. In a 2005 news interview, ex-transgender Leslie Lung attributed his “sexual confusion” to his “poor relationship with his father and the bullying he encountered in school for being effeminate”.
Leslie Lung was also founder of a group called Liberty League, which aimed to promote ‘healthy gender identity’. Back in 2006, the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre even disbursed a $100,000 grant (funds which came from the Ministry of Community Development Youth and Sports) to the group, which finally closed in December 2014, a year after Exodus International shut its doors as well. On what exactly the group does, Leslie explained in a 2006 news interview: “It’s about people being able to say, I’m human and sexual orientation is so wide. Being gay and lesbian is part of it; coming out of it is part of it as well.”
There is little detail about what exactly truelove.is does as a ministry for people struggling with same-sex attraction, apart from a helpline. However, other information on the website may provide some clues. Under “Help Resources”, it also lists Choices Ministry from the Church of Our Saviour. Choices has a long history with the LGBTQ community in Singapore. Many pioneering local gay activists, including founding members of the Free Community Church, were once part of Choices before realising that the promise that they could eventually become heterosexual was an empty one.
Nevertheless, the narratives of the YouTube videos may shed some light. Each individual was touched by the Christian God and found the motivation to live what they consider to be a more spiritually good life by rejecting the “impulse” to identify on the LGBTQ spectrum. This clearly religious overtone distinguishes itself from the pseudo-scientific methods of reparative therapy that purported to be based on some psychological or psychiatric basis.
Coming Clean: What It Means To Be (Ex-)Gay
If sexual orientation is not something that can be deliberately altered, can it be said that people like Vincent, Joseph, Ian and Amy are simply living a lie?
At a time when LGBTQ voices are increasingly amplified in popular culture and social media, it might be easy to dismiss these narratives simply as some religious or conservative anti-gay propaganda. To the more liberally-minded, these supposedly “ex-gay” individuals must be suffering from some form of hermeneutical injustice and what they need is liberation from the oppressive, heterosexist ideology of the Christian church.
First coined by Miranda Fricker, hermeneutical injustice refers to “the injustice of having some significant area of one’s social experience obscured from collective understanding owning to a structural identity prejudice in the collective hermeneutic resource”. Put simply, this means that these individuals are unable to recognise, or more precisely interpret from the circumstances, that they are suffering from some unfair treatment. Fricker gives the example of Carmita Woods, a woman who had experienced workplace sexual harassment at a time before the concept of “sexual harassment” existed.
Katherine Jenkins subsequently introduced hermeneutical injustice in the context of rape and domestic abuse, arguing that victims of these forms of violence often are unable to recognise that they had suffered them because of persistent myths about how and when rape and domestic abuse occur and by whom. Applied to the context of ex-gay individuals, it is arguable that they are unable to recognise their own unjust suffering caused by certain (often) religious beliefs about homosexuality as a sin and consequence of childhood or prior sexual trauma.
Yet, anthropologically, this view does not seem to hold water. In their detailed ethnographies of ex-gay communities, Tanya Erzen (Straight to Jesus: Sexual and Christian Conversions in the Ex-Gay Movement) and Michelle Wolkomir (Be Not Deceived: The Sacred and Sexual Struggles of Gay and Ex-gay Christian Men) found that the individuals were autonomous agents in their own right.
For instance, Wolkomir observed that men in both gay-affirming and ex-gay support groups engaged in similar processes of “revisionist ideological work to alter the meaning of the identity “Christian,” in accord with their respective group’s definition as well as to accommodate their sexual desires and behaviors in ways that felt legitimate”. Erzen also noted that ex-gay individuals do not consider themselves “cured”, contrary to what right-wing anti-gay advocates would like to promulgate; instead, being “ex-gay” describes someone who desires Jesus to enter his heart and an ongoing personal relationship with Him. In Erzen’s words, “sexual conflicts… diminish as their Christian identity is strengthened”.
Personally, I know of several friends who identify as same-sex attracted and some of them have recently come together to share their stories in a book titled “Good News for Bruised Reeds — Walking with Same-Sex Attracted Friends”. While it may be easier to sustain the claim that such individuals are suffering from some hermeneutical injustice due to either social stigma or misunderstanding about sexual attraction a few decades ago, many of these individuals are young people who themselves have friends who are extremely comfortable with their own sexuality and are aware of and appreciate the vast diversity in gender and sexuality.
Coming Clean, Continued: Not Born This Gay
Yet, if it is not because of ignorance or obfuscation that people may identify as ex-gay or same-sex attracted, then does this mean that the stories of these individuals have conclusively proven that gay people are not “born this way” and that everyone should therefore strive to live out their lives as heterosexuals?
After all, the suggestion that homosexuality or sexual orientation more generally may not be an innate and immutable trait is a dangerous one; it threatens the very foundations of the contemporary gay rights movement. However, as Ann Cahill noted, it would be a mistake to “confuse its strategic use with its philosophical strength”.
The philosophical weakness of “born this way” may not however be fatal. Instead, it may be resolved by distinguishing between sexual orientation and sexual identity. On one hand, sexual orientation refers to “an enduring, fairly stable desire oriented toward a particular gender”. Sexual identity, on the other hand, is a “self-consciously directed project that a person develops around this orientation”. Contemporary discourse has often conflated the two as being one and the same: if you have a particular sexual orientation, it then must mean that you identify accordingly as well. For instance, if someone is sexually attracted to other men, it must mean that he is gay.
If we distinguish between the two as closely related but distinct categories, then it follows that one can be sexually attracted to other men but not identify as gay. This seems to be the position taken by people who consider themselves to be struggling with same-sex attraction. They no longer buy the the view from several decades ago that being gay is something that can be “cured” or “changed” and generally accept that same-sex attraction is something immutable. At the same time, that does not mean that they must embrace or act on those desires or to identify accordingly.
Put simply, we may be “born this way”. But we are probably not born this gay.
Indeed, this view was outlined in another page on truelove.is titled “Am I Gay If I’m Attracted To A Person Of The Same Sex?” It explains that:
“While same-sex attraction may not be chosen, one can choose whether or not to act upon one’s same-sex desires. There are people who experience same-sex attraction, but who have chosen not to pursue their same-sex desires. There are also same-sex attracted people who have chosen not to identify as gay.”
This raises the question of what it means to identify as gay. Fundamentally, to identify as gay is to affirm and manifest one’s sexual orientation in ways that are recognisable and understood by others to express that sexual orientation. This means that the gay identity is a socio-cultural one and what this identity looks like is often culturally contingent. However, given how interconnected the world today is, there obviously exists some hegemonic global gay culture that manifests itself slightly differently in different places.
Being same-sex attracted can therefore be distinguished from being ex-gay. On one hand, being same-sex attracted comprises the acknowledgment that the same-sex attraction/ orientation cannot be “corrected” but one can decide whether and how to manifest that orientation. This contrasts with the concept of being “ex-gay”, that is associated with the idea of curing or changing one’s sexual orientation.
What Now? Some Concluding Thoughts
Ultimately, drawing this distinction between sexual orientation and sexual identity has three important implications. Most critically, recognising now that some who experience same-sex attraction may not accordingly identify as gay does not (and should not) threaten the progress made by the gay rights movement over the past few decades. Indeed, if the movement’s fundamental values are of celebrating diversity and individual autonomy, then this next step of recognising different ways by which one can engage with one’s sexual desires should be a natural one to take.
What the movement has achieved thus far is make it a common (or at least, widely accepted) understanding that sexual orientation is not something that can be changed or altered. The prohibitions on conversion therapy are often targeted at such practices being performed on young people below the age of majority, who may not have developed this understanding. It is nevertheless possible for prohibitions on harmful conversion therapy — which promise to cure or change undesired sexual attraction—to remain congruent with this broader conception of sexual attraction, given that adults who struggle with same-sex attraction are able to make informed decisions while minors cannot.
Secondly, it is clear that the immutability of sexual orientation is no longer a relevant consideration in determining the moral acceptability of non-heterosexual orientations. Just because something is immutable does not make it moral, nor does something being mutable make it any less moral. Whether homosexuality should be morally accepted must instead be based on other moral considerations.
After all, the exercise of one’s agency per se cannot in and of itself be moral or immoral; the moral judgment is instead with regard to the decision or choice that one has made. It therefore cannot be said that individuals who experience same-sex attraction and decide to identify as gay are more or less moral or “right” in doing so, anymore than individuals who decide not to identify as gay.
If as a devout Christian, someone believes that it is a sin to engage in sexual activity with someone of the same sex, then that decision to do so would necessarily be immoral and wrong. However, outside the context of Abrahamic faith traditions, few other religions and secular moral theories would posit homosexual relations as wrong or immoral (with the exception of Kantian ethics).
Finally, in approaching people who consider themselves same-sex attracted, gay rights advocates should not be to simplistically regard them as ignorant or blinded by their religious piety. Rather, it is important to recognise and respect their experiences and choices. The project of change must rely on the moral resources available to these individuals within their faith traditions, to assist them in finding ways to accommodate, if not reconcile, their same-sex attraction with their religious faith. Encouragingly, there has been some developments in this aspect, with several support groups sprouting up to support queer Christians and Muslims over the past few years. It is imperative for people of faith to have the ability and choice to find and explore the ways by which they can best live out their lives, whether others like them or not.
The gay rights discourse has developed significantly over the past few decades and it is timely to rethink our attitudes and understanding of dichotomies and attitudes. Both sides of this debate need to come clean about certain assumptions that have aided in promulgating their positions, in light of the fact that these assumptions are no longer tenable or true.
Daryl Yang is a rising final year student reading a double degree in law and liberal arts at Yale-NUS College and the Faculty of Law at the National University of Singapore. He co-founded and served as Executive Director of the Inter-University LGBT Network, a network comprising five student-led organisations across Singapore’s universities with the aim to foster safer and more inclusive campuses. He was also previously a two-term Coordinator of The G Spot, Yale-NUS’s gender & sexuality alliance. Daryl also co-founded CAPE (Community for Advocacy & Political Education) with a group of students from Yale-NUS and NUS Law, which aims to increase political literacy and promote civil society engagement in Singapore.