Reflections on Tushnet’s Thoughts about Exgay Ministries

As I said a couple of posts ago, I thoroughly enjoyed Eve Tushnet’s blog posts about her visit to a Love Won Out conference and her thoughts on the ex-gay movement. Now that I finally have a little spare time, I’m going to use her thoughts as a springboard for some thinking aloud of my own. (Note: I’m not discussing what I thought was the most interesting part of her posts–her thoughts on same-sex attraction, alienation, and beauty. I tried, but I’m simply unequal to the task–it’s too lofty and intimidating a subject for me right now. So I devote myself to these humbler and more trivial matters instead: eschaton immanentization, salvation-through-pantyhose, parental reactions to their child’s homosexuality, why the ex-gay movement is a Protestant thing, and putting homosexuality on the back burner.)

1. Eschaton immanentization

Yeah it’s a problem. I wouldn’t say that those exgays try to “yank Heaven down” by force. It’s more that they genuinely believe that this is what God is doing now, that these really are special and awesome times, and you can either get with the program or miss out on the blessing. It’s not that you can “make” God “fix” you, it’s that God really really wants to “fix” you, if only you’d cooperate in faith. (Look at all the other people He’s fixing! Why not you?!) Now, maybe they’re subconsciously “yanking Heaven down” in leaning toward the interpretations that they do. But I don’t think they consciously see themselves as manipulating God.

Still, the perspective is problematic because (in my humble opinion) it sets an unrealistic goal for many of us, and it blames our failure to achieve it on our spiritual state. This is partly why exgay “failure” to change can be a really painful thing, I think. The implication is often that change would happen if you really had true faith, if you really trusted God, if you really desired to please Him, if you were really obedient in stewarding your sexual desires, if you were really earnest in pursuing holiness–in other words, if you were really His child, if you were really saved. I know ex-gay ministries don’t explicitly say or believe this, but isn’t it a logical conclusion to draw from things they do say, about change being possible for everyone, about change being something God wants to work in the life of every same-sex attracted believer, about change being a product of intimacy with Christ?

I suspect that there are at least four factors contributing to this problem: (1) the influence of Charismatic/Pentecostal beliefs to the effect that healing and miracles are available to all with sufficient faith; (2) a bad exegesis of 1 Cor. 6:11 where “And such were some of you” is read by many exgays, in defiance of all logic and reason, as talking about a change in sexual attraction rather than a change in sexual behavior; (3) a split-mindedness within the exgay movement over whether homosexual attraction is a spiritual issue or merely a psychological one (and therefore capable of being psychologically “cured”); and (4) a sense of entitlement and conviction that God wants His people to be happy and successful. I think there’s an implicit view sometimes that being a good witness means having a life that is attractive in the world’s eyes, so that they’ll want to be just like you. (I personally was more drawn to the faith by those total losers who gave up everything for Jesus, but what do I know?)

In any case, I dissent from that view. I do not believe that God has promised everyone attraction change. I feel kind of Scrooge-like saying this, after having been blessed as I have, but the evidence seems compelling to me. I simply know too many men and women who tried too hard, men and women who followed the exgay teaching far more assiduously and wholeheartedly than I. I will not dishonor them by claiming that they just didn’t have enough faith, or pray the right prayer, or try hard enough.

2. “Salvation-through-pantyhose”

From what I’ve seen, there is considerable disagreement among exgays on this issue. I am officially on the “anti-pantyhose” side. I think the emphasis on gender stereotypes is misguided even by mainstream exgay theology’s own lights. After all, they believe that a key cause of same-sex attraction is feeling insecure in one’s gender as a child. Well, what better way to make kids (or adults) feel insecure and inadequate in their gender than to set forth a very rigid notion of what it means to be a woman or a man, which will likely be hard for them to live up to or feel comfortable with?

Nonetheless, I think there’s a kernel of truth in the pro-pantyhose position for some women, probably including Ms. Fryrear. I know there are many women who are cool with themselves as women but just don’t like the girly stuff, and that’s great. But I also know that there are some other women who don’t like the girly stuff because they are uncomfortable with themselves as women. For these women, I think their discomfort with pantyhose (or whatever) might be a dragon that needs slaying, as part of embracing and accepting themselves as women, as God created them. Of course, I wouldn’t put any pressure on anyone. God showed me what I needed to do when I needed to do it, in no uncertain terms.

3. Parental reactions to a child’s homosexuality.

Like Tushnet, my intuitive sympathies are with the kid, for obvious reasons. I get pretty agitated by parents who are devastated by and mourn and grieve over their child’s gaiety. I want to grab them by the neck and yell all kinds of stuff at them, like about how being a queer kid is plenty stressful enough without having to worry about dealing with your parents while they’re self-indulgently bewailing the demise of their bourgeois fantasies of normalcy and grandparenthood….GRRRRRRR.

<deep, cleansing breaths>

But, all that being said, the fact is that parents do have those kinds of ridiculously overblown feelings and reactions. I don’t fully understand why they do, and I sure wish they didn’t, but there it is. And if I’ve learned anything from observing the homo-struggle, surely it’s that Beating Up On People For Feeling What They Shouldn’t Feel isn’t terribly productive. Sure, if she really had it together as she ought to, the mother of a gay son wouldn’t feel that his being gay was tantamount to his being dead. And if I really had it together as I ought to, Zhang Ziyi wouldn’t do that thing she does to my insides. So I need to restrain my killer instincts, and cut unto others the slack I would have them cut unto me.

Tushnet’s take seems to be “well, the kid will be able to tell how you feel anyway, so why bother telling them?” My take is more “well, since the kid is probably going to be able to tell how you feel anyway, don’t b.s. them about how you’re taking it.” To illustrate, I offer a not-so-hypothetical tale of two parents.

When I came out to my mom, she appeared to take it just fine. Sure, she looked a little stunned, but her voice was composed and moderate as she shared her extraordinarily low opinions of the female genitalia and cunnilingus, and informed me that I needed go out and get some sexual experience with boys before coming to any conclusions. I breathed a huge sigh of relief over how well she handled it. But she then proceeded to spend the next three years passive-aggressively snarking at me over the subject at every opportunity, all the while insisting that she “didn’t have a problem with it,” until one day she just snapped and her sorrow, fear, frustration, and horror exploded all over me like a slime-filled balloon. (If anyone’s trying to piece together a chronology, this was about a year before before she asked God to kill me on account of my queerness.)

In contrast, when I came out to my father, I (and the rest of my family) expected him to react angrily, kick me out of the house, and disown me. Well, that didn’t happen, but what did happen was even more horrifying to me at the time. He cried. I don’t mean a wistful solitary tear streaking down his rugged, stoic, masculine cheek. I mean he bawled hysterically and incoherently like a little girl. For a loooong time. I had never seen anything like that from him in my entire life, and I hope never to again. But all the same, his pain and anguish and sense of unfathomable loss were palpably real. Trying to cover them up would have been both futile and insulting.

Anyway, I guess my point is simply that I preferred my father’s handling of the news to my mother’s. So yeah it would be fantastic if parents could be level-headed and control themselves, if they could successfully protect their kids from their emotions. But I worry that expecting that of parents in general would be a little bit like, well, immanentizing the eschaton.

4. Why the Ex-Gay Movement is a Protestant Phenomenon

So some guy named John wrote to Tushnet wondering about why the ex-gay movement is overwhelmingly a Protestant thing. (But let’s not forget Joseph Nicolosi! And that lovely jewel of a statement from the Vatican a while back–as far as I’m concerned, once you’ve declared that homosexual attractions are necessarily a manifestation of spiritual and emotional immaturity, you’re nine-tenths of the way to the very worst kind of ex-gay viewpoint.)

He was specifically wondering whether it had something to do with a Reformation view that homosexual desire itself was sin. So, the thinking might run: because the desire is sin, the desire must be got rid of, which brings us to ex-gay ministries.

I am pretty certain this is not the case. For a few different reasons, but I’ll just give the simplest one: The explicit view of every exgay leader I have ever heard is that homosexual desire is not sin. They are quite emphatic and unequivocal about that.

Do I have an alternative answer? I don’t claim to know the exact whys and wherefores, but in my humble opinion the biggest reason by far is this:

Protestants have no meaningfully fleshed-out concept of intentional, joyful celibacy to work with. Period.

Thus, we have to change homosexuals’ orientations and marry them off, because we don’t have any real alternatives for them.

The Reformers and their heirs were so eager to uphold and exalt the holiness and sanctity and spiritual excellences of marriage that celibacy got buried and was largely forgotten. Now don’t get me wrong, I believe with all my heart that the Reformers were wonderfully and profoundly right about emphasizing the highness of the calling of marriage and the spiritual importance of “ordinary” secular life. But, there’s a problem lurking in the neighborhood.

Traditionally, Protestants have held that the solution to sexual temptation is sex in marriage. This was a claim Luther and Calvin made, and it is repeated over and over again throughout our history. If you are sexually struggling and you are unmarried, then you need to get married. If you are sexually struggling and you are married, then you and your spouse need to be having more and/or better sex. (The Reformers and Puritans were very insistent upon the value of sexual pleasure and the importance of mutual satisfaction in the marriage bed.) The general feeling one gets from reading them is that sexual desire cannot be tamed or subdued at all, but only corralled in marriage.
The problem of course is that this approach has nothing to offer those who don’t see hetero marriage as a viable option, but who still find themselves excruciatingly sexually tempted–i.e., the exclusively homosexually attracted. Unless it can make heteros out of them.

I would love to be proven wrong on this–I’d love for someone to point me to secret treasure troves of Reformed teaching on the subject of celibacy. But this is my impression as someone who spent several years earnestly trying to find support and resources for celibacy from the evangelical Protestant traditions and coming up empty-handed. There is simply not much of a place in the evangelical church for someone who isn’t trying to get married. Our great celibate role-models (Amy Carmichael, John Stott, etc.) were all accidental celibates who were earnestly hoping to get married until it was simply too late.

Evangelicals do acknowledge that a tiny handful of people are called to lifelong “singleness”, but we generally seem to think that those people will have such special grace and revelation from the Lord (in accordance with their exceedingly rare and special calling) that they will know what to do and how to handle it themselves without any advice from mere mortals. So it’s treated like a mysterious superpower, and not spoken about much. If you’re struggling sexually, you weren’t meant to be celibate. A suitable spouse will be coming along shortly, have no fear.

Given all this, I think it’s not hard to see why the ex-gay movement is the primary evangelical method of helping homosexually-attracted believers. It’s also not hard to see why this is a difficult context for homosexually attracted people to try to exist in. This is another reason why I think ex-gay “failure” (or lack of “success”) can be so painful: the Church doesn’t know what to do with you!

On top of this, exgays are sometimes told that their “healing” will not be complete if they don’t go onto heterosexual attraction and marriage. (See this Exodus article and this one as well.) That they are cowards for not desiring or pursuing hetero marriage, afraid to step out of their same-sex attracted comfort zone. So sometimes I wonder if the exgay movement seems reluctant to offer “too much” support for celibate chastity, lest exgays become too comfortable in that place without pursuing further change. In any case, I blame the historic Protestant discomfort with celibacy for the whole darn mess. And I do think it is a mess, a mess that needs to be cleaned up if we’re going to effectively minister to gay people.

5. Putting homosexuality on the back burner

“She also said–to much applause–that the Christian who made the biggest impression on her when she was still a lesbian “put homosexuality on the back burner,” presenting Christ as her Savior first rather than talking about her sexuality. It is not my impression that the ex-gay movement, in general, actually takes this approach.”

For what it’s worth, my own experience is that the ex-gay movement, in general, actually does take that approach. I spent a lot of time before becoming a Christian conversing online with many exgays and exgay leaders. Without exception, they all put Christ front-and-center and never brought up my sexuality issues.

It is certainly true that plenty of other Christians fail to put Christ ahead of a person’s homosexuality in talking to them. But I have never seen that in the ex-gay movement. Which makes me very glad. Because really, it’s stupid. As a pastor involved in exgay ministry said affectionately to me shortly after my conversion “Jesus has to catch the fish before He can clean them.” And as I’ve said before:

The way to lead gays to Christ is not through arguing with them about homosexuality. If I know you have one deaf ear, I won’t speak in it if I’m trying to get you to hear me. If I know you have a blind spot, I won’t display something in front of it if I’m trying to get you to see. “But they must be convinced of their sin before they will see their need for a Savior!” True enough. But it’s not as though homosexual sex is the only sin that gay people commit. On the contrary, like everybody else, most of them struggle with many things that they themselves wouldn’t hesitate to call wrong. So why not address those matters instead?

Speaking personally, when I first keenly felt my need for a Savior, I felt it because of my pride, because of my greed, because of my hatred, because of my lack of self-control, because of my selfishness, because of my unrighteous anger, because of my impatience, because of how I had hardened my heart against the Lord of the Universe and blasphemed His name. These things condemned me. I did not yet see the sinfulness of homosexuality, or any [consensual] sexual sin for that matter. It was not until after I became a Christian by God’s grace that my eyes were more fully opened and I could see the truth in the Scriptures and in the witness of the Holy Spirit within my heart.


7 Responses to Reflections on Tushnet’s Thoughts about Exgay Ministries

  1. ck says:

    On the marriage bit, you’ve gotta love these guys.

    “Pastors should read this because they need to teach the men that “it is not good” for them to be alone; each man needs a wife.”

    Nice post, by the way. Very clearly articulated.

  2. When Eve interviewed me for her piece, we talked quite a bit about my Catholic upbringing. Knowing about her own background as a Catholic helped me to reflect on my own. Raised in an Catholic Italian household, part of my ex-gay treatment meant leaving my Catholic roots.

    Of the four ex-gay programs I attended, each one required a personal Evangelical faith in Jesus and a conservative Protestant rendering of the scriptures. The Catholic church with all its celibacy and even the Anglican church with the “bells and smells” seemed suspect to many of the ex-gay leaders I met.

    Perhaps it is an issue of theology or something more. I have always noticed that the vast majority of people who attend and especially those who run ex-gay programs are white Protestant males. Even looking at documentaries like Fish Can’t Fly and It’s Not Gay, most of the people profiled are white Protestant males.

    To me this reveals that one of the factors motivating white males to change is the loss of power and privilege for being less than the powerful in America. Who wields the most power in the US? Straight white Protestant males. I don’t think for a minute that this is the only or even primary reason why someone pursues ex-gay experiences, but that Exodus and nearly all of its ministires are Protestant programs run by white males cannot be overlooked.

  3. Hey Peterson,

    Yeah I dunno. The one exgay group I attended (for any meaningful length of time) was kinda smallish and oscillated wildly in terms of its racial and gender makeup. But what little sense I have of the makeup of the exgay movement as a whole suggests to me that you’re right, that there are a lot of Protestant white males out there.

    And the feeling of disempowerment makes some sense as a factor…I can see how that might work for some. You’re so close to having it made, to being at the top of the heap…there’s just that one little thing standing in the way…oh if only…

    But I’m hesitant to speculate too much about it, because I haven’t studied other exgays’ experiences, and it wasn’t my own experience. (Obviously, not being male.)

  4. […] Eve Tushnet points me to my new favorite ex-gay blogger, Disputed Mutability, as she responds to Eve’s series on the ex-gay movement. Cool stuff on trying to yank Heaven down, salvation-through-pantyhose, parental reactions to a child’s homosexuality, why the ex-gay movement is mostly a Protestant phenomenon, and putting homosexuality on the back burner when doing evangelism. Just a few comments on parts of her post. I am officially on the “anti-pantyhose” side. I think the emphasis on gender stereotypes is misguided even by mainstream exgay theology’s own lights. After all, they believe that a key cause of same-sex attraction is feeling insecure in one’s gender as a child. Well, what better way to make kids (or adults) feel insecure and inadequate in their gender than to set forth a very rigid notion of what it means to be a woman or a man, which will likely be hard for them to live up to or feel comfortable with? […]

  5. Hey ck,

    Thanks. Yeah, the Credenda link pretty much sums it up. Sigh.

    I don’t object to their view that more people need to get married. But I wish they could promote that in such a way that doesn’t ignore the predicaments of many within the church who for whatever reason are extremely unlikely to get married.

  6. jasmine says:

    “eschaton immanentization”
    that is an interesting term…

    i think the idea that unsuccessful ex-gays just dont have enough faith is also based alot on matt 17:2 which is about moving mountains with the faith of the mustard seed… as well as all those verses in the gospels where jesus says stuff like… “You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.” (John 14:14; 16:23-24; matt 18:19… matt 7:7-8 (also luke 11:9-10): “ask and you shall receive, seek and you shall find”

    i dont know how to interpet those verses at all. because they just dont seem to be true, but jesus seems really intent on it; he says it several different times. and st. john reiterates it in 1 John 3:21-22.

  7. Hi Jasmine,

    I agree that these other references about asking for things in faith are quite relevant as well. I have to admit that in general I don’t know how to interpret those verses at all either. Not just about the exgay issue of course, but in general. It is weird how different our lived experience of prayer seems to be from what those verses suggest it should be like. I mean don’t get me wrong, I’ve had my prayers answered in wonderful, beautiful ways on many occasions. But not as clearly or consistently as those verses seem to suggest. Maybe it’s a lack of faith, maybe it’s wrong motives, maybe it’s asking for things that aren’t good for us, maybe it’s about a bigger picture what we can’t see. I dunno. All that’s just to say: Yeah, I know what you mean. 🙂

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