The challenges of coming out from conversion therapy

While it feels like ancient history to me, my long and winding odyssey in what was called the Ex-Gay Movement, still informs a lot of my work. I spent nearly 20 years trying to transform myself into a masculine presenting heterosexual. These days I regularly receive questions from people about conversion therapy. Recently a  friend of mine asked about a man he suspects has been through conversion therapy. Though married with children, the man has offered hints to my friend.

I think my friend is ex-gay

My friend is openly gay and wonderfully flamboyant. One would imagine an ex-gay would run the opposite direction. But the man keeps coming back.  They don’t talk about “gay stuff,” but there an important exchange happening. My friend wrote wondering if this person is asking for help. He also wanted to know what advice I could give in connecting with someone who has been through conversion therapy.

Based on my own experience and the many people I have met who survived or who are still in conversion therapy, I shared some thoughts. In this blog I am sharing an edited version of my response:

The Attraction and Revulsion of all things LGBTQ

People who pursue conversion therapy and ex-gay experiences have a unique experience; they are simultaneously drawn to and repulsed by LGBTQ stuff. They often live with internalized homophobia that radiates outward. While no longer receiving conversion therapy, the person may also live with all sorts of myths and prejudice towards LGBTQ people and LGBTQ communities. As a result they shun overtly LGBTQ spaces and events like Pride.

The folks at the Southern Poverty Law Center once asked me if ex-gay ministries should be considered hate groups. I responded: these programs are more like “self-hate” groups. Yes, they have done harm to the LGBTQ community, but that harm first comes to them and then spills into the world.

I find that even after people come out LGBTQ after a time in conversion therapy, they go through a period of uncertain allegiance. They no longer actively partake in the ex-gay/conversion therapy groups, but may maintain relationships with leaders who run them. It has been called dry gay relationship. There is still an affinity and draw to that anit-LGBTQ world. Like someone coming out of an abusive relationship, they can quickly come to the defense of their abuser when someone judges the abuser in a way that sounds too harsh to them.

Conversion Therapy Motivations and Harm

I wrote a piece some years ago about the various types of harm that come to those to partake in ex-gay treatments. It affects us in emotional, psychological, sexual, spiritual, and physical ways. It can also negatively affect our career path and relationships years after coming out.

Recovering from the conversion therapy process is complicated. Therapists need to take care to help someone understand what they went through. One of the most helpful things someone who has received conversion therapy can do is to determine WHY they have pursued this course. While this may sound like a simple question, often there are hidden motivations under the religious crust. I did a video about this that helps point out some of these less immediately obvious reasons, particularly to the person pursuing “change.”

If you can help the person to articulate why they are pursuing this, that can help. Sometimes I ask, “If you miraculously won’t up 100% straight and masculine, how would you life be different? How would this affect your relationships with family, friends, work, church? What differences would you experience?” This is a way to begin to get them to think what they are really after, and at the end of the day, it often has precious little to do with pursuing Jesus.

The Power Twins: Fear & Shame

Jacob Wilson, ex-gay survivor outside NARTH Conference

Finally, fear and shame often choke the life out of ex-gays and people involved with conversion therapy. This is true of conversion therapy survivors as well. This toxic mix makes it hard for folks to think clearly. In my experience it was like my brain had been removed and handed over to the church and sat pickling on the shelf of some pastor. The fear and shame kept me from accessing my critical thinking.

This fear also made me skittish. If someone came along to challenge my determination to “de-gay” myself, I ran away in fear. Fight or flight kicked in as I thought, “If I keep talking to this person, they are going to say something that will destroy my faith and my limited success fighting my gay side. Ultimately I will hell!” So when speaking with someone still in this work know that if you push too hard, the person may push you away.

Addressing Abuse

I ended my email to my friend this way:

You have experience with people who suffer sexual, emotional, and physical abuse. In many ways think of the person who endured conversion therapy as someone in an abusive relationship. That complicated world of abuse is wrapped up in many layers and have multiple negative consequences.

The best thing you can do is to be there for him and remain a gentle, safe, gay presence in his life. He will keep coming back. Hopefully one day soon he will open up.


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