Is the Word “Exgay” Offensive? Is it Useful? Is it Meaningful?

Suzanne at Rainbow Unbroken was pondering earlier this month whether the term “exgay” is offensive.

I guess the fact that I use it indicates that I’ve at least tentatively answered that question in the negative.

When I self-labeled as “gay,” and knew people who self-labeled as “exgay”, I never found it offensive. Sure, I found certain things that individual exgays did offensive, but never the label itself. When I first heard the term, my reaction might have been one of complete confusion, but it certainly was not offendedness. They were just saying by that label that the whole gay thing was part of their past, and it wasn’t part of their present. Or at least, that was their intent. That was how they were seeking to live.

Similarly, I know people who call themselves “ex-Christian”, and again, I don’t find that offensive. They’re just communicating that Christianity was a significant part of their past, and it’s part of their past that they’re moving away from. I suppose I could be offended by that: “Oh, so Christianity wasn’t good enough for you, huh???” But I’m not. And I know people who label as “exexgay”, and that doesn’t bug me either. I don’t take it as an insult that they feel that the path I’m on now didn’t work for them, that they see themselves as “so over that.”

Maybe I’m just unusual in this regard. But I really can’t figure out what the big deal is. It’s a crazy complicated world we’re all trying to muck through as best we can. The fact that someone decided to flush my chosen path down the toilet of their personal history doesn’t really bug me.

I find the term “exgay” sometimes useful, insofar as (at least in a certain crowd) it gives a hint of where I’ve been and where I’m going. Perhaps once upon a time, “gay” made sense. But when I came to the point where I relinquished gay identity, it made much less sense. And now that I’m attracted to men, “gay” makes almost no sense at all. It’s been suggested that I could say “bisexual” instead, but while the “bisexual” label may do justice to my present state of attractions, it gives the person I’m speaking to no idea of what I went through before I got to this point. It gives the impression that either I always liked both guys and girls, or that I just woke up one morning in my happy gay life and said, “Hmmm, I think I’ll try men today.” It gives no sense of my history, of my past struggle.

I also find the label useful in this current atmosphere when there are a lot of anti-exgay things being said. For example, there are a lot of people saying that all exgays fail, and end up miserable and desperate, crawling back to their gay lives. I think that’s false, but I can’t talk about my experience as a counterexample if I don’t use the label myself. Regardless of how I feel about terminology, I simply disagree with those people who say that all exgays are unhappy, or exgays don’t exist, or whatever. It seems that in order to express my disagreement, I should use the same vocabulary that they’re using.

However, I realized the other day that I could be overestimating the usefulness of the term. After all, a lot of people (in particular those who aren’t gay, exgay, or following the culture war for other reasons) don’t really have a clue about what the word “exgay” means. For example, it turns out that my *husband* didn’t know what it meant. The other day I was going off on some exgay issues and current events and he said, “Um, what’s an exgay?” He knows about me, of course, he had simply never heard that term before.

To me, the real problem with the term “exgay” isn’t that it’s offensive, but rather that it’s so ambiguous. In different contexts, I’ve heard the word used to mean all of the following things:

  1. Someone on a path away from homosexual identity and behavior, and towards an openness to attraction change and possible heterosexual relationships. Not a state or an achievement, but rather a particular path or life direction.
  2. Someone who has given up gay identity, and perhaps has also experienced a significant decrease in homosexual attractions, or at least has gained victory over them to a large degree. (could include same-sex attracted celibates)
  3. Someone who has come to experience significant heterosexual attractions, making serious, mutually fulfilling heterosexual relationships a possibility or a reality.
  4. Someone who used to have only homosexual attractions, and now has only heterosexual attractions; someone who has been “completely healed.”

I think in talking among ourselves as exgays and perhaps within broader Christian circles as well, there’s relatively little confusion about which definition is meant—one can usually tell from the context. And there’s good reason for using the word in each way. I don’t know if I could pick one of the definitions as the “good” one, and throw out all the rest. (Aside from the fact that I don’t really like #4, which seems to be popular only among anti-exgays and those “complete healing” Pentecostal types.) But I think in talking to the outside world, the word “exgay” is just too messy right now. It doesn’t succeed in communicating much of anything, and confuses more than it informs.


13 Responses to Is the Word “Exgay” Offensive? Is it Useful? Is it Meaningful?

  1. ck says:

    For number 1, I’d say that “repentant sinner” (within the context of Christianity) would work just fine. For 2, how about the same or “struggler”, “recovering” etc. For 3, I think “post-gay” seems to include the intuition that I’m not just formerly, but moved beyond, in a forward direction. And for 4… how about “straight”??

    I used to call myself a “doubter”/”agnostic”, then “ex-Christian”/”apostate”, then “post-Christian” and now “Unitarian Universalist”/”religious humanist.” I think that gets at a parallel trend–shifting paradigms. Where I am now, I don’t need to define myself in relation to Christianity; but for a while I did. The same could go with a move out of homosexuality…my personal problem is that I rarely see that shift, but a bunch of being stuck at the “ex” stage.

  2. Excellent point! I’m torn both ways. On the one hand, I do feel like moving on beyond the label. I mean, when I’m not following the online exgay discussions, the concept “exgay” hardly ever crosses my mind…it’s not really relevant to my life anymore. But, on the other hand…I also want people to know that there is diversity among exgays. And I can’t be an alternative exgay without being an exgay first.

    I’m intrigued by your parallels, but I feel compelled to say that UU/Religious Humanism is NOT complete healing for you. Buddhism might be. Wicca might be. REAL atheism (the sort that has overcome the deep longing to congregate in churches and sing neutered hymns and say vaguely spiritual and hopeful things) might be. But UU? Honey, nothing screams “I can’t go back to Jesus, the faith of my childhood, and authoritarian religion, but then what am I going to cram into this gaping Christianity-shaped void in my heart?” like UU!


  3. ck says:

    I’m intrigued by your parallels, but I feel compelled to say that UU/Religious Humanism is NOT complete healing for you. Buddhism might be. Wicca might be. REAL atheism (the sort that has overcome the deep longing to congregate in churches and sing neutered hymns and say vaguely spiritual and hopeful things) might be. But UU? Honey, nothing screams “I can’t go back to Jesus, the faith of my childhood, and authoritarian religion, but then what am I going to cram into this gaping Christianity-shaped void in my heart?” like UU!

    Well, that’s a point lots of people like to make–but I don’t agree. First of all, I will probably end up identifying as a Buddhist UU, which I didn’t mention because it’s still something I’m working out. Second, UU isn’t a “Christianity-shaped” religion in the sense of “neutered” Christianity. Yes, there is hymnody which borrows from it–and that bugs the hell out of me. However, that is a tradition dating back to the earliest days of the Christian Church, when “heretics” would have hymnody that reflected their own theology.

    As far as arguing what “REAL atheism” is, I don’t want to get into that here. Suffice it to say that the Western dichotomy between a/theism is too neat and tidy, in my opinion. I’m working with Process Thought and Buddhism currently in my academic life, and while Buddhism may be “atheistic”, it isn’t so in the sense that most people consider atheism to be–dry, secular-materialistic, and individualistic. I can reject the idea of a transcendent, personal deity who is the First Cause (of everything except sin and evil), and still believe that congregating in a church is a good thing for me as a human being.

    UUism in its present form is new, but then so is evangelical Christianity. Unitarianism dates back to the Reformation (and was spawned by the same underlying ideas and rejection of Catholic sensibility). Universalism dates back to the earliest days of the Church Fathers. It’s the idea that there is one “right” way to be a Christian that makes UUism seem like a generic version of the “real thing.”

    That’s not to say that the Christian/not-Christian debate isn’t a big deal in UU circles today–it is. But there’s a parallel theological problem within “orthodox” Christian churches about how the New Testament relates to the old. How Jewish is Christianity? Whenever you have ongoing revelation, whether one stops at around 100 AD, or keeps going up through Walt Whitman and beyond, there’s a problem with dis/continuity and theological identity.

    End of rant, I suppose. But really, I thought the same as you when I began attending the UU church. Either they’ve brainwashed me (which I doubt, since I am critical of many things in the church) or I had a view influenced more by what I thought UUism is all about….

    Good UU blog to start learning more: He’s got links to other UUers and theological discussion of some of the above items.

    Oh, and I guess one other thing, is the parallel brings up what “healing” looks like. Does everyone need to become an atheist, Wiccan or Buddhist in order to turn away from Christianity? And does everyone need to become a suburban homemaker, flaming straight Don Juan or ex-gay poster child in order to turn away from being gay?

    And is there a fatal flaw in the parallel in that theological “healing” has to do with propositional beliefs and homosexual “healing” has to do with less tangible things, like desires and tendencies? Or is that a false dichotomy?

    Just some thoughts….

  4. ck,

    Thanks for your gracious and thoughtful reply.

    I’m sorry for speaking dismissively of your religion, even in jest. I had a bad feeling about it as soon as I submitted it, but as I get bugged by people deleting things from the their blogs and pretending they never happened, I figured I would leave it up and apologize to you next time you came around.

    I might have more to say, but not tonight. My brain is feeling kind of mushy after surfing a whole bunch of sites trying to understand Process. 🙂

  5. ck says:

    No problem. If I thought you meant it in a snarky way, I would have responded differently. Process makes my brain mush, too–and I’m crazy enough to want to write a thesis on it! I’ll be interested to hear any thoughts you have.

  6. […] Check this out – A female ex-gay, now happily married (to a man) posts in her blog Disputed Mutability: Is the Word “Exgay” Offensive? Is it Useful? Is it Meaningful? […]

  7. Christine says:

    For what it’s worth, I often think about this too in relation to the ex-ex-gay thing…to be so identified with what is past seems like I’m not moving forward…or not concentrating on moving forward, at any rate. On the other hand, it can effectively convey something that’s still important for me to convey; namely the journey I’ve been on. I’m not just your garden-variety gay that has always been OK with who I am. And I don’t use that label, obviously, in all circles, only the ones where it would mean something. I think labels do help us categorize each other sometimes in helpful ways. I have seen Willie Hewes use the term Re-gay and I kind of like that as a definition for where I’m at.

    I agree with your point about ex-gay being used to describe so many different things. I suppose that’s the problem I have with that pesky word “change” too.

  8. Randi Schimnosky says:

    Disputed Mutability, the term ex-gay is offensive because it is grossly misleading. Notwithstanding your lengthy explanations here and at exgaywatch

    for most people gay means simply same sex attracted and ex-gay means no longer same sex attracted. I find it highly offensive to essentially make this statement when one knows it not to be true as is the case with virtually all who call themselves “exgay”.

    While technically I am bi-sexual I know what it is to be a gay person and for me the main feature that has gone with being same sex attracted is social rejection. Beyond that there is no “identity” associated with being gay for me and I’d guess all but anti-gay religious people (same sex attracted or not).

    You say “To see oneself as gay, I think, is not simply to acknowledge one’s same-sex attractions, but to see oneself as the sort of person for who same-sex love is natural and appropriate, the sort of person who was *meant* to be in same-sex romantic/sexual relationships. A person who identifies as gay in that way while rejecting homosex as sinful is obviously adopting an unstable, incoherent position. “.

    No, Disputedmutability, for me being gay is simply acknowledging my same sex attractions. First off it is perfectly natural to act on desires whether or not you consider them wrong or sinful. Assuming I speak for others as well as myself I don’t believe it is necessarily “appropriate” or that I was “meant” to be in a same sex (or opposite sex) romantic/sexual relationship, simply that I desire to be so, That outcome is natural only given the desire – whether or not it actually happens is open to all manner of vagaries and I’m under no delusions that being in any relationship is something that simply is supposed to be regardless of reality. Being in any romantic/sexual relationship isn’t something that automatically goes with being either gay or straight.

    I don’t believe most gay people are not open to heterosexual attractions regardless of whether or not they ever experience them. As most gays I’ve known have tried and given up on suppressing same sex attractions I seriously doubt they’d try again and reject opposite sex attractions if they appeared. Certainly I do experience both and I still sometimes call myself “gay”. I assure you having opposite sex fantasies was never a threat to any “gay identity” of mine.

    You said on exgay watch “A willingness to embrace opposite-sex attraction, should the opportunity arise. To me this seems like a reasonable standard for being “minimally” exgay. “. No, that’s not reasonable because by your standard I myself would then be “exgay” and I’m sure those that know me at exgaywatch would say that’s the last word that could possibly describe me.

    You then said “My reason for rejecting a gay identity and encouraging others to do so has absolutely nothing to do with politics. It is simply that my experience (and the experience of many others I have known) is that trying to maintain a gay identity and at the same time maintain one’s belief that homosexual sex and relationships are sinful simply doesn’t work well in the long run”. Well, as with the “gay” and “ex-gay” labels I can’t stop you from using whatever labels you want to describe whichever internal state you feel but your use of these labels is not consistent with most people’s understanding of them. If you’re encouraging others to be “ex-gay” like you that is political. You could just as easily be encouraging them to acknowledge that the bible says nothing about loving monogamous same sex relationships.

    You say you view same sex attractions as a temptation to sin like pride greed, gluttony, and impatience. You’re wellcome to trivialize and hold you’re own same sex attractions in contempt, but please recognize how offensive it is to some when you equate same sex attractions with pride, greed, gluttony and impatience. You could have described simiar concepts using the words self-esteem, eat to live, eager. Granted one can go overboard, but in sexuality as with these concepts the simple existence of any of this type of behavior cannot rationally be considered an excess by itself.

    If you find the phrase bi-sexual accurately describes your present state then I’d suggest using that term would be the most honest way to present yourself to others. Its where you are now that matters, not where you were in the past, that’s gone. If you’re use of the term ex-gay is not political why use a term that describes what you supposedly are no longer instead of a term which describes what you are now?

  9. […] Earlier today I posted about supervenience and homosexuality, prompted by Disputed Mutability’s discussion at ExGayWatch–which arose from a post she wrote. That same post gave rise to another semi-off-topic conversation, this time about what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist.  Her questions deserve lengthier answers than I have time to give to them today, but I’m hoping that some of my readers might want to jump in–I know a few of you are UUs, and have debated these topics with me (see my post on the UU Pageant–I’ve reproduced the original comment thread there.). […]

  10. Hi Randi,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. As you note, I have already devoted embarrassingly copious amounts of text to explaining how I see things, here on my blog and in the comment thread at XGW. I’m not quite sure what I can add to that, but I’ll try anyway.

    I personally did not find the term exgay grossly misleading when I first heard it–I simply found it confusing and had no idea what it meant. When I first encountered people who called themselves “exgay”, my thought wasn’t “oh, they must no longer be attracted to the same sex at all,” my thought was rather “Huh? Exgay? What the heck does that mean?”

    In some respects, it seems that our experiences of being gay and our ideas about it differed. That’s hardly surprising, given the vibrant diversity of gay perspectives out there. You saw your gay identity in one way, I saw mine in another.

    As far as my practice of using the term “exgay” goes, if I haven’t pointed this out yet, I only use it in particular contexts–like this blog which discusses issues related to all the controversy surrounding exgay ministries. I try to be careful in conversation to make sure that no one is misled. I also haven’t been shy to mention my continued (albeit diminished) attraction to women here on my blog. I was quick to correct another blogger when they mistakenly labelled me as “heterosexual” while linking to me on their blog.

    The problem with “bisexual” is that in conservative Christian circles it is taken to mean “having sex with or looking to have sex with people of both sexes.” Thus, to conservative Christians, “bisexual” would be terribly misleading, as my relationship with my husband is one of sexual exclusivity. We can get angry with the Christians for this, but I don’t see what point that would serve. The annoying fact is that these different communities speak different languages and use words to mean different things. I spend a considerable amount of time trying to think about how to navigate these difficulties–this blogpost is part of my feeble attempt to brainstorm about it. Obviously I don’t have any great answers yet.

    “Its where you are now that matters, not where you were in the past, that’s gone.”

    Isn’t it more complicated than that sometimes? Isn’t our history, our past journey, sometimes important to who we are? I found that Christine’s comment (which is the one before yours) really resonated with me as she discussed her use of the exexgay label: “On the other hand, it can effectively convey something that’s still important for me to convey; namely the journey I’ve been on. I’m not just your garden-variety gay that has always been OK with who I am”

    Just out of curiosity–are you similarly irritated by people who call themselves exexgay, who also use a label that references where they’ve been in the past?

    Anyway, thank you again for your input. I’m very much just trying to think this stuff through.


  11. Randi Schimnosky says:

    DM, the phrase bisexual wouldn’t be misleading to Christians if you explained that bisexual or homosexual doesnit mean “sexually involved” anymore than heterosexual does – that it simply means attracted to both sexes. I am in a committed relationship with my boyfriend but I’m still bisexual, attracted to both sexes, it’d be dishonest to say otherwise To be heterosexual doesn’t necessarily mean to be having opposite sex sex and if you look in your dictionary I think you’ll see homosexual means simply attracted to the same sex. There is nothing wrong with using the correct “bisexual” label to accurately describe yourself, the problem if there is one is that the Christians you know wrongly and inexplicably interpret it to mean having sex with both sexes when they wouldn’t interpret the word heterosexual in such a way.

    Its well known to some of us that conservative Christians apply non-standard meanings to everyday words like “love” (control) or “gay”, or “homosexual”, or “bisexual” (having sex instead of simply attracted to). The answer is not to tolerate the conservative christian confusion of meaning but to educate them, as to what the words mean and eliminate the confusion.

    Sure past journeys can be important, but for me the past has a lot of bad news and I’d just as soon forget it and focus on where I am now and where I want to be. I sure don’t want what I used to be to define me, what I am now and what I want to be are far more important. I don’t know what Christine is talking about when she says she’s not the garden variety gay that was always okay with who they are. I’ve been there too, wishing I wasn’t same sex attracted and so have all of the handful of gays I’ve known. As far as I know all gays have wanted to stop being same sex attracted at first and later came to accept it. I don’t see a personal need to recognize that with a label that means something else as being a good idea. Regardless of how many times one goes back and forth between not wanting to be same sex attracted and being okay with it, its misleading to use lables like exgay or even ex-ex-gay which imply one has turned same sex attractions on and off.

    The term ex-ex-gay does not bother me in the same way the term “exgay” does. The term “exgay” misleadingly states one has stopped being same sex attracted, while the term ex-exgay does not – to me it means a person who has failed to stop having same sex attractions and I consider that an honest label where as “exgay” almost always is not. I would still suggest to both “exgays” and ex-exgays that they always have been same sex attracted and what they are now is more important then who they thought they were at one time and the label “gay” (or at least “bisexual”) would be most honest for both.

  12. Hi – you might be interested in a Muslim perspective on the term “ex-gay”, and some views on sexuality in general. Here are two links to a couple of relevant posts at my blog:

  13. […] Check this out – A female ex-gay, now happily married (to a man) posts in her blog Disputed Mutability: Is the Word “Exgay” Offensive? Is it Useful? Is it Meaningful? […]

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