Gay, godly and guilty

The thoughtful new book "Straight to Jesus" reveals the torment suffered by gay Christians who entered a residential program to battle their sexual desires.

Published July 11, 2006 12:00PM (EDT)

If you were looking for evidence of how hard it is to change our fundamental sexual proclivities -- not minor aspects, like a taste for black lingerie, but the deep stuff, like whom we're attracted to -- you'd find plenty of it in Tanya Erzen's thoughtful new book, "Straight to Jesus: Sexual and Christian Conversions in the Ex-Gay Movement." Erzen spent 18 months hanging out with and interviewing the members and administrators of New Hope Ministry, which runs a residential program for evangelical Christian men who are "struggling with homosexuality" in the San Francisco Bay Area. She even volunteered in the ministry's office, revamping its Web site, all as fieldwork for her dissertation. (She's now assistant professor of comparative studies at Ohio State University.)

Erzen wasn't interested in collecting fodder for political battles, though, and that's what makes "Straight to Jesus" so enlightening. As an ethnographer, she made every effort to listen to and understand everyone at New Hope Ministry, whether or not she agreed with their beliefs (and it's fairly clear that most of the time she didn't). That's practically unheard of in most popular discussions of charged issues like homosexuality -- and rare in scholarly discussions, either. Nowadays, everyone's convinced that they already know everything the other side has to say and that actually having to listen to it would constitute an insupportable demand on their own patience. Everyone thinks their side of the argument never gets any exposure, yet rabid, ranting opinion of all varieties howls at us everywhere we turn.

What emerges from "Straight to Jesus" is a far more nuanced and moving picture of the "ex-gay" movement than most readers will expect. If you're like me, you probably view outfits like Love in Action and the other "reparative therapy" operations collected under the umbrella organization Exodus International as propaganda wings of the Christian right, populated by small coteries of delusional closet cases like the highly visible John Paulk. Paulk is an "ex-gay" man, married to the equally publicity-loving "ex-lesbian" Annie Paulk, but he's perhaps even better known for being photographed in a Washington, D.C., gay bar in 2001, while ostensibly living a life of irreproachable heterosexuality.

In fact, scandals involving the sex lives of ex-gay movement leaders are so common (even one of the straight leaders, Kent Philpott, got busted for fooling around with his adopted daughter), that it's hard for anyone outside the evangelical right to take them seriously. Add that to several prominent cases of parents forcing their gay teenage children into scary camps like Love in Action's Refuge, an "intensive discipleship program" -- and the fact that no reputable professional psychological organization endorses the idea that homosexuality is a mental "disorder" that can be "cured" -- and the image of a pack of dangerous cultists is cemented.

Granted, Erzen didn't study LIA -- a richer, glossier operation than New Hope. She characterizes LIA as "extremely secretive," which suggests that she might have approached them for her research and been turned down. New Hope has a funkier, shoestring quality. Its director, Frank Worthen, was one of the original founders of LIA, but he split with the organization in the 1990s. Worthen claims to have abandoned his early homosexual behavior for heterosexual marriage, and his wife, Anita, helps run New Hope. The house leader, a guy Erzen calls Hank (many names in her account have been changed to protect her subjects' privacy), wears his hair long and walks around barefoot, unconventional touches that would surely be verboten at LIA.

But perhaps the most interesting thing that Erzen reveals about New Hope is how alienated many of the people there feel from the mainstream Christian right. "Initially," she writes, "conservative churches rather than gay organizations opposed the establishment of an ex-gay movement," when it emerged as a branch of the countercultural Jesus Movement of the 1970s. For Worthen, she reports, the fraught relationship between the ex-gay movement and conservative churches is "a central preoccupation." Despite the Christian right's insistence that they "love the sinner, hate the sin," it seems that the homophobic faithful just don't want to share their chapels with people whose past sex lives gross them out. The ex-gay movement, Erzen writes "envisions itself as a pocket of resistance and tolerance" by comparison, a view that would surely startle the gay protesters who picketed the ministry in its early years.

The friction between ex-gays who sought "legitimacy" from the Christian right and those who objected to its political agenda came to a head during a 1998 ad campaign sponsored by a coalition of conservative religious groups called the Center for Reclaiming America. In a bid for greater respectability and clout with fundamentalist organizations, Exodus allowed CRA to use testimonies -- personal confessional narratives -- by ex-gays in ads claiming that homosexuals could become straight with the help of Jesus and reparative therapy.

Erzen writes that Christian right kingpins like James Dobson (director of Focus on the Family) usually either ignored ex-gays or treated them as an "embarrassment." But when the Christian right made anti-gay activism a keystone of its agenda in the '90s, it needed ex-gays as evidence. If homosexuality is innate and unchangeable -- as some, but not all, gay activists insist -- then laws and practices that infringe on the rights of gays and lesbians can be likened to the injustices suffered by African-Americans and other ethnic minorities. But if the Christian right can succeed in characterizing homosexuality as curable and therefore a "choice," gays and lesbians couldn't claim they were being discriminated against.

A few key leaders of the ex-gay movement were willing to go along with this, and were made poster boys and girls for their cooperation. But most of the men that Erzen interviewed at New Hope "opposed any legislative efforts against gay civil rights, and they frequently spoke of their own identification with gay men and women, even as they rejected that label for themselves." One of the men Erzen met told her, "What I don't like ... is the whole idea that we're going to make it uncomfortable for you socially if you choose to be gay in this society -- to the point of taking away your rights or even throwing you in jail. Anything along those lines I believe is repulsive."

Not all of New Hope's members would agree with this -- one man told the others that he thought states should pass laws to "incarcerate" homosexuals -- but many had major problems with the Christian right's anti-gay policies. (Even Worthen, who was never consulted on the CRA ads after he supplied the testimonies, felt mistreated.) Most of all, they believed that the "change" offered by New Hope and other ex-gay ministries had been grievously misrepresented. Even men who had been part of the New Hope community for years didn't consider themselves to have become heterosexual, and most didn't think they ever would be.

Another New Hope resident told Erzen that the CRA ads were "too plastic ... It made it sound like, 'Ta da, just walk through our program and it will all be changed.' I felt like it wasn't completely honest and it smelled like Christian cheesiness." The way the ex-gay men that Erzen interviewed saw it, they were unlikely to ever be free of same-sex desires. For them, the New Hope program promised a religious transformation more than a sexual one. They considered heterosexual marriage to be the ideal they aspired to, but it was a dauntingly remote one. Quite a few were simply resigned to living the rest of their lives in celibacy.

Contrary to what the Christian right proclaims, ex-gay programs operate more like 12 Step regimens than like psychiatric treatments for, say, depression or bipolar disorder. Worthen and other gurus of reparative therapy often speak of homosexuality as a form of addiction, and just as AA holds that an alcoholic is never really "cured," only "sober," they caution that relapses or "sexual falls" remain an ever-present threat to the devout ex-gay. AA members refer to themselves as alcoholics even when they're not drinking, and, Erzen believes, "ex-gay" is a similar identity group, an unsettled and perilous condition rather than a firm relocation to heterosexuality.

"Recovery and relapse are built into the creation of an ex-gay identity," she writes, "and sexual falls are expected. Rather than becoming heterosexual, men and women become part of a new identity group in which it is the norm to submit to temptation and return to ex-gay ministry over and over again." That's one reason why the sex scandals involving Exodus leaders don't discredit the therapy in their eyes.

Nevertheless, because the ex-gay movement is deeply invested in the possibility of change, it needs to believe that homosexuality is a matter of nurture, not nature. As a result -- and this is an irony that Erzen points out repeatedly -- their belief that almost every aspect of conventional masculine and feminine roles is inborn lives alongside their conviction that homosexuality is purely the product of a dysfunctional family environment. For gay men, this rationale holds that boys who insufficiently bond with their fathers suffer from an unfulfilled longing for a masculine identity that mutates into an erotic desire for men.

Reparative therapy's prescription for correcting this condition is to concentrate on forming strong platonic relationships with other men. Conventionally manly behaviors like sports and camping are mandatory. This results in a program that tries to cure men of same-sex desires by installing them in all-male, dormitory-style housing, decorated (in one memorable detail Erzen offers) with posters of Jesus wearing short hair, blue jeans and a workshirt, and punctuated with expeditions in which the men sleep together in tents. Such a plan would strike anyone comfortable and familiar with gay culture as laughably daft and self-defeating -- "curing" homosexuality by piling gay men together in close quarters with Village People depictions of the Son of God -- but that's their story, and they're sticking to it. Needless to say, affairs, relapses and defections are pretty common, despite the Big Brother-style surveillance imposed on all residents.

Why would anyone subject themselves to such an onerous regimen, followed by a life spent in either celibacy or constant sexual vigilance and guilt? Erzen's answers to that question make for some of the most moving parts of "Straight to Jesus." Without exception, the men (and a few women, though New Hope only admits men) who sign up for this perceive a fundamental, irresolvable contradiction between their Christian faith and their homosexual orientation. They may consider themselves to be homosexual, but they refuse to be "gay" -- that is, they refuse to willingly take on a positive gay identity.

After looking over the manuscript for the book, Hank told Erzen that he felt she hadn't sufficiently conveyed "the misery and pain" of the ex-gay dilemma. "I worry," he told her, "that people will come away from reading this asking, 'Why would people want to do that?' They don't realize the conflict we deal with." Virtually all of the men at New Hope had been raised in conservative religious families, and some but not all of them had tried to live openly gay lives with long-term partners. Others had been closeted and had acted on their homosexual desires only in furtive, anonymous trysts. At least one, the irrepressible youngest member of the residential program, "Curtis," had never had sex with another man.

What they all seem to have experienced was rejection from the churches and communities they grew up in, which explains their mistrust of the Christian right. "Most of them can't handle the truth," one man told Erzen. "If you're in the church and you're a drug addict, murderer, whatever, guys will come up to you and slap you on the ass. But if you state that you struggle with homosexuality, you get the whole pew to yourself." Some of the men at New Hope had asked their fellow congregants for help and prayers, only to be shunned or told they were possessed by demons. Some didn't dare to speak of it at all.

But if their churches ostracized them, these men couldn't seem to shake the conservative faith they grew up with. One of the tenets of that faith is that, to quote a New Hope statement, "the Bible is the inspired word of God ... infallible ... inerrant in the original," and that it explicitly condemns homosexuality. Because they could never reconcile these deeply rooted beliefs with their homosexual behavior and relationships, those behaviors and relationships could never be truly joyful or satisfying, and because they had never had joyful or satisfying homosexual experiences, they assume that gay life is inherently empty and destructive.

The torment generated by this conflict can only strike the secular or liberal religious person as tragically unnecessary. Yet the comforts of this belief system must be powerful. One of the strangest stories in "Straight to Jesus" is that of Arden, a Queer Nation activist turned ex-gay renegade. After coming out as a teenager, she was committed to "an institution for gay youth with behavioral problems" by her mother. She sued to "divorce" her mother, won, and was adopted by two Jewish lesbians. Several years later, while working as a gay rights activist, she became a born-again Christian, joined Jews for Jesus, and is now presumably ex-gay. No one can argue that Arden lacked exposure to positive ideas and examples of lesbianism, yet somehow she was drawn back to a version of Christianity that views her sexuality as sinful.

The religion the men of New Hope espouse does offer them many comforts. Erzen (who's not a Christian herself) describes their ecstatic participation in church services and the solace they take in what they believe is the ever-present companionship of Jesus. And Christianity, with its focus on the inexhaustible forgiveness of Christ (provided you return to the fold and follow the rules) is a perfect fit with a program that involves possibly endless cycles of relapse and redemption. New Hope transforms its members' sordid, secret transgressions and their personal discomfort with their own homosexuality into a celestial epic or, as one man described it to Erzen, "a spiritual battle. It's a war. Spirit forces are raging in the heavenly realm -- that kind of thing." At the very least, it's not mundane.

Still, whatever the benefits these men get from evangelical Christianity, their religion is no more a rational choice than their sexuality is. Even when opting not to believe seems the only and obvious healthy, life-affirming alternative, these men -- some of them educated and sophisticated -- can't manage it. One of Erzen's most articulate subjects explained, "I had a very fulfilling, completely faithful, monogamous relationship with Ted. I really loved him. Everything about it was great, but I felt that I had sacrificed my relationship with God in order to have it. And it wasn't just something in my head. It was in my soul."

Surely one reason why religion and sexuality are so often at loggerheads is that each is a kind of mystery. Faith and desire -- forces that rock us to our very foundations -- rise up from within and transform our lives in ways that are uncannily similar. To an unbeliever like me, the solution to the ex-gay's dilemma seems elementary: switch to a less rigid form of Christianity and while you're at it, make sure that no one else gets raised with the same toxic dogma. But for the men at New Hope, their view of God is as immutable as their sexual orientation. Hank was right in suspecting that "Straight to Jesus" would make readers wonder why anyone would want to put themselves through reparative therapy. But the misery and pain -- that comes through loud and clear.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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