Is Change Possible? Is this the Right Question?

People so often ask all the wrong questions. The press has been doing this for years in regards to ex-gay programs.

They display bold headlines, Is Change Possible? Exodus leaders and other Christian spokesmen assert that YES it is possible, while gay activists counter NO it is not possible. And so it goes round and round.

People ask the wrong questions. Few ask, What does this change look like that is supposedly possible? I have spoken with leaders at Exodus in the US and others in South America and Europe. Over and over I hear from them that they understand people with same-sex attractions will most likely have these attractions for the rest of their lives. In many perhaps (most cases?), they will not develop attractions for the opposite sex.

I remember how disappointed I felt when I first heard this at Love in Action, where I attended for two years. I spent 15 years trying to become a new creature in Christ Jesus to then show up in what had long been considered the Cadillac of Ex-Gay Ministries only to find that such a change was not a realistic goal.

So the change is not in orientation but in behavior and identity. Perhaps a tiny percentage insist they shifted in their orientation, which of course is something we have to just take at their word.

When looking at most Exodus testimonies, we hear stories of people who lived as sexually addicted, miserable, lonely, faithless, confused people (who also overindulged in drug and alcohol abuse, illegal activities and unprotected sex). They found Jesus and the church, and they changed their lives.

They became celibate, began to develop healthy relationships, changed their lifestyle–not to a straight one, but to one far less reckless and destructive than their previous life.

This is not exclusive to people who are gay or lesbian or bisexual. Lots of straight people, (in fact many more than gay folks), pursue irresponsible, reckless, self-destructive lives, and they would do well to change. Most likely they will be happier, healthier and feel closer to God and others once they do (they may find themselves with more money in their pockets too. Decadence is pricey.) So yeah, that sort of change is possible and can be sought after if needed, but one does not need an ex-gay program to do this.

In fact, I believe that over time attending most ex-gay programs prove harmful for most gay people. In many ex-gay programs (and conservative churches) the leaders teach that many of clients’ problems stem from being gay and that even without the reckless lifestyle, they have to daily reject a part of who they are and deny themselves love in the way that makes the most sense and is most authentic to them. These ex-gays will almost always be at war within themselves, a war not sanctioned by the Bible but one declared by the world around them.

Which brings me to the two major questions I rarely hear the press ask or asked by people considering going into an ex-gay program.

Why is change necessary and at what cost?

Sure we can choose to no longer identify as gay. We can deny ourselves relationships with LGBT people. We can even marry someone of the opposite sex and have children. This is no great miracle. Men and women have done this for centuries with and without the help of Jesus.

Why is it necessary to change? Mostly because life would be easier for many of us. Parents would treat us better. Society would gift us with privileges and affirmation. We can feel normal for a change, for a time.

But at what cost? This is one thing that the ex-gay programs never ask. They never follow up to see what happens to people after they have been through programs. They only stay in touch with their successes, who typically have to be quiet about many of their internal struggles.

The ex-gay leaders do not meet the people Christine and I meet through BeyondExGay or the people who pull me aside after one of my talks or shows. The costs of putting ourselves through ex-gay experiences are very very high. In many cases depression, low self-esteem, feelings of worthlessness, suicidal tendencies, discouragement and loss of faith all regularly occur for many who have been through ex-gay experiences.

At bXg we say if someone is happy as an ex-gay, that is fine. But such a life was not possible or healthy for us. Also, such a life is not necessary.

Is change possible? Yes, our societies and churches and families and laws can change so that people who are romantically and sexually attracted to people of the same-sex can be fully accepted and affirmed and celebrated just like heterosexuals. This change takes work and love and listening and painful realization, but well worth the effort.

This post has 9 Comments

  1. CrackerLilo on May 22, 2007 at 12:24 pm Reply

    Peterson, this is just wonderful. Thank you so much for writing this. If you don’t mind, I will probably refer people to it.

    I like to respond that “change *is* possible–I left the conservative Christian lifestyle!” They usually don’t want to play any more after that.

  2. Joemg on May 22, 2007 at 1:00 pm Reply

    They became celibate, began to develop healthy relationships, changed their lifestyle–not to a straight one, but to one far less reckless and destructive than their previous life.

    Exactly! That someone stopped taking lots of drugs, being depressed, or frequenting bath houses every week does not equal changing one’s sexual orientation. It just means the person stopped taking lots of drugs, being depressed, and/or frequenting bath houses after being involved with something that demands a lot of one’s attention and energy.

  3. alex resare on May 22, 2007 at 7:00 pm Reply

    I feel like I have to warn you! If you keep on posting posts like this the world will be a better place.

  4. Steve Boese on May 23, 2007 at 12:27 am Reply

    Exactly.

    I find it helpful to remind myself that salvation stories are often fertile ground for hyperbole. Emerging from prior experiences, or transcending old hurts, becomes more glossy and spectacular — a stronger testament to God’s power, perhaps — if the old can be cast as dark, tarnished, and utterly broken.

    A lot of folks make healthy transitions regarding food, exercise, entertainment, relationships, substance use/abuse in the course of their adult lives. In broad terms, that’s simply a matter of personal growth and an often organic process of maturing through life.

    While some find it helpful to attribute their transitions to miraculous twas-lost-but-now-I’m-found moments caused by God, I do better when I admit that growth tends to be a gradual process. That speaks to the fact that I have never been a good fundamentalist.

    In significant ways, the Change Is Possible mantra is a cultural fixation. How many shows are available, or features in infotainment media, that advance that theme? The number is huge. They have learned from salvation stories, it seems to me, that drama sells. The way to promote it is to highlight personal stories as supposed proof that it could happen to anyone.

    In truth, people tend to move their lives forward in small steps, not huge ones. Black-to-white change of any flavor is relatively rare, but gradual growth is common. Going from being a frequent consumer of heavy fast foods to being a thoughtful vegan is possible, as well as going from carrying 50 extra pounds to being slim and toned. But those complete shifts are much more rare than smaller, yet still meaningful steps in healthier directions.

    The smaller, more prevalent steps are just not as dramatic, though, and there’s no use for hyperbole in describing them.

  5. Willie Hewes on May 23, 2007 at 3:35 pm Reply

    Excellent post. Really. Is this on bXg?

  6. Michelle on May 23, 2007 at 4:52 pm Reply

    This is a really excellent article, Peterson. I’m with you all the way. I’ll be linking to this. In fact, it reminds me of some thoughts I had when reading the testimony of an ex-gay leader, and which I’ve been meaning to write about for awhile.

  7. Peterson Toscano on May 23, 2007 at 10:51 pm Reply

    crackerlilo, yes totally refer others to the piece. Much of the thoughts have come out through recent conversations with both ex-gay survivors and ex-gays.

    steve, your post is amazing. Thank you for writing it.

    michelle, I really like what you did in your post too and how you exposed the inconsistencies in John Smid’s testimony particularly how he frames sin in his life.

    willie, no not yet on bxg. Ya think it is a good fit? Hmm, I hadn’t thought of it, but perhaps as an article there.

  8. PW on May 24, 2007 at 2:12 am Reply

    The understanding that orientation does not change has apparently not been communicated by these leaders to headquarters, because this is a quote from the Exodus website (on the Policy Statement page)…

    “Exodus affirms reorientation of same sex attraction is possible. This is a process, which begins with motivation to, and self-determination to change based upon a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”

    I would say more but I’m dumbstruck.

  9. Greg on May 24, 2007 at 6:37 pm Reply

    GREAT POST!

    Joseph Nicolosi, a psychotherapist who works with men who experience unwanted homosexual desires, says complete conversion occurs only in a third of his clients, and even then, it takes a minimum of one session of psychotherapy per week for two years. Ironcally, Nicolosi says that after all that, complete eradication of homosexual longings for the homosexual individual is not a realistic goal (People Weekly, Feb. 26, 2007, pg 80 and Nicolosi’s book, “Reparative Therapy of Homosexuality: A New Clinical Approach”).

    Well, if “complete conversion” means that romantic desires and feelings of intimate affection for those of the same gender are completely replaced with romantic desires and feelings of intimate affection for those of the opposite gender, then, according to researchers on both sides of the LGBTQ debate, “complete conversion” never really occurs.

    It appears to me that the phrase, “complete conversion” is equivalent to the phrase, “behavior modification.” I am left to think that the ex-gay and reparative therapy movements use the phrase “complete conversion” to mean an individual finally stops holding hands with someone of the same gender and begins holding hands with someone of the opposite gender. It is when a formerly self-avowed homosexual one day marries someone of the opposite sex. It is when, by all outward appearances, a homosexual male stops dating his boyfriend, or splits up with his partner, and pursues a romantic relationship with a female. In other words, the only evidence of conversion is outward displays and personal conversion claims. This is all any alleged conversion observer actually “sees.”

    Human beings, with the right amount of will power, suppression of feeling, and behavior modification, are capable of pulling of extraordinary things – or, at least, leading others to believe we have pulled off extraordinary things.

    As a supporter of individual liberty and freedom of choice, I am inclined to refrain from belittling so-called ex-gays on the basis of their choice to suppress their innate longings and align themselves with the ex-gay movement. I respect their right to make such a choice, but I worry that this choice may not really be their own. I feel that many adopt the term “ex-gay” out of a desire to conform to social and/or religious expectations, out of fear of discrimination and ostricization, and/or out of fear of somehow losing favor with God (and burning in Hell).

    I personally cannot understand how LGBTQ individuals who, for whatever reasons, refuse to embrace themselves as anything other than heterosexual, live without tons of baggage and issues resulting in low self-worth and self-esteem. Nonetheless, I respect the right of a homosexual individual to choose a life of celibacy or a traditional life of heterosexuality.

    On the other hand, I do NOT respect audacious and misleading “complete conversion” claims that are made by individuals who have little to no understanding about what it actually means to be homosexual – claims that are made to selfishly boost personal acceptance of an individual within a homophobic and heterosexist society and/or religious institution.

    So, that’s my two cent’s worth. =)

    Greg
    blog.greggriffey.net

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