In the past 4.5 years I have been in contact with over 1000 ex-gay survivors. These are people who pursued ex-gay experiences, either on their own, or more often, assisted by others like a therapist, minister, ex-gay program. They attempted to change or suppress their sexual orientation and may have referred to themselves as ex-gays or simply strugglers or by some other name.
Through hearing their stories (some of which are posted on Beyond Ex-Gay–bXg) and in unpacking my own ex-gay journey, I have begun to understand the many ways people can be harmed by their ex-gay experiences. Many of us also received certain benefits from our ex-gay experiences, but in most cases the harm outweighs the good.
I realize that the ex-gay experience is not the only culprit in bringing harm. The anti-gay church and a homophobic society and in many cases one’s own family contribute to the damage. But what the ex-gay experience does is deepen that harm by offering hope for some sort of change or freedom. Led by sincere and caring people, our ex-gay programs, therapists and ministers encouraged us and because of their kindness and sincerity, we often pressed on long after we realized the it was not working. Only afterwards did we began to understand the trauma we introduced into our lives as a result of submitting to ex-gay experiences.
Below is a list of categories outlining areas of harm along with brief descriptions for each. I invite ex-gay survivors to leave comments with specific examples and further explanations for any of the categories that resonate for them. They can even add new categories.
(warning: this can be heavy stuff to look at, so before you do, make sure you feel somewhat prepared and aware that this might bring up stuff for you)
Ex-gay experiences can harm us in several ways.
- Emotional Harm–evidenced in feelings of shame, fear, stress, disappointment, exhaustion and rejection (especially when one is shunned)
- Psychological Harm–manifested in the forms of depression, suicidal tendencies, post traumatic stress and in some cases the triggering of a psychotic break
- Spiritual Harm—
- in the form of chronic discouragement, fear of God, and loss of faith communities and even of faith
- distrust of spiritual leaders
- a spiritual crisis of integrity and incongruence through the constant message that You cannot be gay and Christian
- Relationship Harm–through the loss of vital relationships or damage to relationships with
- who, believing change is possible and necessary, reject children who will not choose to be ex-gay
- who through ex-gay teachings get blamed for their child’s sexual orientation thus creating tension between the child and parent (and also causing deep pain and shame for parents)
- partners of the opposite sex that we dated and married because we believed such a life was possible but found it led to divorce and pain and loss for our spouse, ourselves and others, including children.
- relationship with a current same-sex partner that gets hindered because of the shame and fear drilled into us by our ex-gay experiences
- who we kept/keep at a distance because we were trained to distrust intimacy for fear that we will develop an emotionally dependent/enmeshed relationship or romantic/sexual relationship
- who we rejected once we became ex-gay and they represented a risk to the ex-gay lives we pursued
- who rejected us because the conditional nature of the friendship. Once we no longer identified as ex-gay and a struggler, they ended the relationship
- Financial Harm–
- Career Harm–
- Some left careers considered “unsafe” for a struggler
- Some interrupted school and careers to take a diversion into ex-gay treatment
- Physical Harm—in the form of health issues triggered by stress and depression leading to back problems, skin conditions, etc.
- Sexual Harm–in the form of damaging sex eduction
- Sexually naive people (many who never even had sex) learned about “gay sex” from sex addicts who expressed their sexuality through risky and even illegal behaviors often because of the shame and self-loathing they felt.
- Program leaders, therapists and “testimonies” transmitted negative messages about sexual expression between people of the same-sex which can hinder people from enjoying a healthy, satisfying sexuality even after leaving ex-gay treatment.
- Developmental Harm–because of stunted growth in key areas while we focused our efforts on our ex-gay experiences. Many of us stopped living our lives and diverted our limited energies into the ex-gay process thus hindering personal growth at vital developmental moments
Those of us who have suffered and still stuffer harm from ex-gay experiences need not be victims. The process required to face the pain and loss and unpack our ex-gay experience takes time and support. It requires grieving and forgiveness–especially we need to forgive ourselves for the times we subjected ourselves to harmful ex-gay conversion therapies and ministries.
We need not be stuck though. Many have moved beyond their ex-gay experiences and the damage to embrace life afresh and forge new paths. They even have been able to salvage the good they gained from the ex-gay experiences as they recover from the harm. For some of us, part of the process means looking at the list above in order to acknowledge and validate the damage we suffered.
When I feel discouraged about the many losses from my nearly two decades of ex-gay living, I remind myself that I allowed myself to go through much of that mess. If I could get myself into all that trouble, I have the power and resources to get myself out.
Please feel free to share your experiences in the comment section or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit bXg and fill out a contact form. Thank you and may you continue to find courage and support in your journey.
(special thanks to all the survivors who contributed their thoughts this week as I began writing this post.)
Now that you have considered some of the harm, What Does it Mean for You?