I often receive e-mails from former ex-gays and current ex-gays asking me about my experience. Yesterday I got one such e-mail that got me thinking deeply about my time at Love in Action, an ex-gay residential program in Memphis, TN. Although the message I received starts out accusatory, it quickly becomes more thoughtful. I sense the person genuinely desires to hear about my experience and dialogue. What I appreciate his message is that in it he shares some of his journey and the reasons behind it. I thought his questions helpful, so I want to share them with you along with my answer. I have removed his name and the year he attended LIA. (photos are from the renovation of my cottage)
I attended Love in Action in August 20xx. What I don’t understand is why you have so many negative things to say about LIA. I hope you remember that you choose to attend the program and were not forced into attending. You should respect other peoples decisions to live for God and change their lives. I know how hard it is to struggle with homosexuality. But I know that in the end I want a deeper relationship with my creator and that is what motivates me to change my sexuality. You must have had some very strong convictions to spend thirty thousand dollars and countless hours in therapy. Peterson, Why made you change your mind about wanting freedom from homosexuality? I am sorry if at first I came off a little rude. But I really would like to talk with you more on the subject. I have some family members who identify as being gay, and they tell me that this is how I was created…. But I know that God wants more for me. Do you think I asked to be like this? Of course not. I wanted straight and have a wife and kids and the whole nine yards. I am trusting God, that one day it will happen for me.
Thank you so much for writing. I always appreciate meeting fellow LIA graduates. We share a unique experience that most people in the world do not understand. I have spent time thinking about your questions and have a LONG answer below. Thanks for asking. It got me thinking and writing.
I run into so many people who ask,
Why did you go to Love in Action for two years? Why did you spend so much time and effort trying to change your sexuality?
Many people do not understand the conflict and turmoil some of us have felt and the lengths we have gone to in order to do what we felt we needed to in order to correct what we saw as wrong with us.
Some of my dearest friends today are guys who went through LIA with me. Most are now gay, but one is married to a woman, and I was actually the best man in his wedding. Having each other has helped a lot as we live post-LIA.
Like you I have always wanted a deep relationship with my creator. At age 17 I found Jesus (or Jesus found me?) and the Bible made sense in a way it never did before. I entered a lifelong journey of worship of God, of listening to the Lord and of doingministry. Because of messages I heard around me, mostly from the playground growing up and from the media, I got the idea that being straight was the only normal path and anything other than straight was abnormal, taboo, sick, and bad.
I just wanted to be a good person, a faithful Christian and to be normal. I heard about the dream of a family with a wife and children from virtually every movie, pop song and even advertisements I experienced from the time I was small. Society continually represented and rewarded straight people it while it punished and made fun of people who weren’t straight. I heard over and over that non-straight people were sad and unholy.
If any man be in Christ Jesus he is a new creation, the old is gone, behold all things have been made new.
To me that meant that Jesus could completely save me from my same-sex attractions and restore me to the place that I had been told was normal. Surely God was strong enough to do that especially after the mighty work that Jesus did on the cross and through the resurrection.
I found many ministers, counselors and ex-gay leaders who insisted that change was not only possible but probable. I went to church every chance I could, spent hours daily in prayer, praise, Bible study and simply enjoying the presence of God. I failed often but always returned to God bringing my struggle, feeling unworthy to serve as a missionary until I got this thing beat.
At age 25 I married a woman after our church leaders at a very well-known church encouraged us that God would bless our marriage. It seemed I had found that place of freedom I longed for all those years, and for two solid years I remained physically faithful to my wife. We seemed like an ideal Christian couple. But my desires for other men did not diminish. My desires for my wife never materialized. She could tell that I did not desire her and this wounded her deeply. She kept thinking there was something wrong with her. She knew of my former struggles but believed like me that God would bless us. I avoided sex as much as possible, not so much because I did not desire her sexually but more so because of the extreme guilt and shame I felt because I could only be successful in the bedroom if I thought of other men when I was intimate with my wife. I felt like I betrayed her every time we had sex.
I grew depressed, suicidal, hopeless. I continued to call out to God, but after five years of marriage, everything fell apart. It was then I chose to enter Love in Action. I hated that my struggle destroyed everything I held dear–my marriage, my work in Christian service, my church friendships–all lost.
It was at LIA that I first heard that it was impractical to expect that I would change from gay to straight. John Smid, the director, said that this is an unrealistic goal and that most likely we will continue to struggle with our desires for the rest of our lives. I hated that. I felt so deflated and discouraged and wondered if I made a big mistake in coming to LIA. But it was one of the best gifts I received from LIA–reality.
I learned other valuable lessons, especially from a counselor I worked with through LIA. Speaking about some childhood abuse issues he told me that sexual abuse and being gay are two distinctly different things. This freed me up to look at these issues separately and more objectively. John Smid and the other staff also continually reminded us that a definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result. I thought,
Wait a minute, that’s what I have been doing for 17 years, begging God, bullying God to change me as I suppress my desires and call them bad and evil and sinful and sick. What happens if I do something different? What happens if I accept my desires as a natural reality of who I am, how I am wired, and take it from there?
And that is what I did. At first I assumed that meant I could not be a Christian any longer. How I mourned the thought of losing Jesus in my life, not simply because I believed I might go to hell, but more so because I cherished the presence of God in my life and my daily time of seeking God and listening to God. I soon realized I could not live without God, and although I distrusted gay theologians, I knew I needed to come to God with my desires and really ask God for his guidance. All those years previously I assumed the right prayer to pray was
God change me, fix me, help me out of this.
Instead my prayers became more open handed.
God I have these desires. What do you want me to do with them? with my life? I don’t want to simply exchange one identity for another.
I held it out before God and listened. I began to realize that my thirst for change was not as spiritual as I had always assumed. I used God as a cover for the strong hunger to “be normal,” to fit in, to have the dream of straight life and a wife and kids and the whole nine yards. In essence I coveted my straight neighbor’s life. I thought I was listening to God, but really I was hearing the values of the world imposed upon the church, values that praised straight people and punished gay people.
At first I hated the idea that I was gay, but hated more living without integrity. And I began a journey to discover myself and to discover God’s, not man’s, will for my life. And the wild thing is that now I have a deeper more honest relationship with my creator than I ever dreamed possible. I have clarity and understanding and my previous out of control behaviors no longer disrupt my life. I treat my body with dignity and respect and am no longer compulsive.
If you are happy and truly feel that the ex-gay path or a celibate one is the way that God has for you, than I feel happy for you. I do not in anyway wish to invalidate your experience. I just know that for me such a life was not possible nor was it healthy. Love in Action helped me face reality, gave me great friends and some valuable lessons, but overall my time there caused me much more harm than good. The family and friends weekend devastated my parents. (I talk about this here). The overall experience deepened the shame I felt about myself and demonized all of my sexual desires not honestly separating compulsive unhealthy addictive desire from healthy normal desires.
This may not have been your experience. I can understand that, but the vast majority of people I have met (well over 1000) who have tried an ex-gay life say that long-term it was not beneficial, realistic, or necessary. But we are all wired differently and perhaps you represent someone in the tiny minority who find that the ex-gay way is helpful and sustainable.
Over at Beyond Ex-Gay we share some of our stories through our narratives, art work, poetry and articles. We make it very clear that
We believe that ex-gay experiences cause more harm than good. Certain people who currently identify as ex-gay say they are content as such. We don’t seek to invalidate their experience. For us such a lifestyle was not possible or healthy.
Not that it was all bad: Some of us received positive help through our ex-gay experiences. We grew to understand our sexuality better and in some cases even overcame life-controlling problems.
But for most of us, these experiences brought us inner turmoil, confusion, and shame. We are still in a process of recovery from the damage. Through sharing our stories with each other, we find wholeness and healing.