August 2003

Ex-gay ministries and the "cures" that don't work




The very day that our newspapers carried news of the confirmation of Gene Robinson as the Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire – the first openly gay person living in a relationship with a same-sex partner to be elected to such a position in the Anglican communion – another piece of news came whizzing through the internet. This one won’t be carried by our media, for it concerns something that the average Singaporean is not yet conscious of, and that is, the question of ex-gay ministries. 


The news was of another poster boy of the US ex-gay ministries being caught out having sex with other men. The scoop by the gay newspaper, the Washington Blade, detailed how Michael Johnston had been meeting other men online under the assumed name of "Sean". The newspaper verified this through interviews with at least two of Johnston's sexual partners. Furthermore, Johnston was HIV-positive, a fact that he did not reveal to his sexual contacts till much later, which was extremely irresponsible of him.

Michael Johnston had starred in a television commercial in 1998, promoting the programs of the ex-gay ministries, which included reparative therapy. In his ad, he said he had "'walked away from homosexuality through the power of Jesus Christ." He also praised his mother, who appeared in the ad too, for telling him "the truth that set me free."

He founded his own ex-gay organization, called Kerusso Ministries, and was the main driving force behind an annual "Coming out of homosexuality day."

The Washington Blade reported, with its scoop, that the phone number and website of Kerusso Ministries were no longer operational, and the annual event would now be in doubt.

The ex-gay ministries confirmed that Johnston had been exposed by the press, saying that he had suffered a "moral fall".

He wasn't the first of the ex-gay poster boys to "fall". In September 2000, another star of the ex-gay TV ad, John Paulk, was photographed in a gay bar called Mr P’s, located in Washington DC's Dupont Circle, a well-known gay district. Paulk first tried to explain that he was there only to use the bathroom, even though witnesses confirmed that he had been in the bar chatting up men for 40 minutes.

Paulk’s fall was big news in 2000, because he was at the time, chairman of Exodus International, the umbrella organization that grouped the various ex-gay ministries. He and his ex-lesbian wife, Anne Paulk, had even been featured on the cover of Newsweek magazine as icons of the success of the ex-gay movement.

In April 2001, an evangelical Christian group in the UK that likewise sought to "heal" homosexual persons, Courage Trust, collapsed when its leader renounced its mission. Jeremy Marks declared homosexual orientation to be "God-given."

"I have come to the conclusion that we have been quite wrong to dismiss all same sex love (other than platonic) as sinful," he later wrote.

Mark’s renunciation recalled the fact that 20 years earlier, the 2 founders of the American ex-gay movement fell away from it too. Gary Cooper and Michael Bussee organized the 1976 conference of ex-gays out of which Exodus International was formed. But the two of them soon fell in love with each other and left Exodus in 1979. They lived together as a couple and would later be frequent guests on talk shows.

"The desires never go away," Bussee said. "The confrontations begin and the guilt gets worse and worse." Some people who went through the Exodus program had breakdowns or committed suicide, he pointed out.

"After dealing with hundreds of people," Bussee concluded, he and his partner hadn't "met one who went from gay to straight. Even if you manage to alter someone's sexual behavior, you cannot change their true sexual orientation."

"If you got them away from the Christian limelight," he said, "and asked them, 'Honestly now, are you saying that you are no longer homosexual and you are now heterosexually oriented?'... not one person said, 'Yes, I am actually now heterosexual.' "

* * * * *

Other than they’re so prone to scandal and retraction, what are ex-gay ministries?

They are peculiarly American things. They spring from the evangelistic rightwing of American churches, particularly its protestant stream. They treat the bible as inerrant, which is to say that they interpret the bible without historical context, and use insist on adhering to the literal meanings of the modern words contained in the English translations. They lack perspective; they have no time for intellectual reflection. But their PR is very good. They don’t come across as gay-bashers. They sincerely (and I’d say very misguidedly) believe they are there to help homosexual persons turn their backs on sin.

Their methods are almost cult-like. Extreme peer-pressure is applied. Rigid regimens are prescribed, e.g. the 12-step program and so forth. Enormous amounts of guilt are first instilled to motivate the person to change. Some ex-gay ministries are associated with psychiatric treatments involving electro-shock "therapy"

But the fact remains, sexual orientation can’t be changed. So when the person is loaded up with guilt and still finds that he can’t change, he takes to blaming himself (and ex-gay ministries make it a point to blame the person for not having tried hard enough, rather than blame their own misguided goals and programs for failure), and it’s no surprise some participants end up committing suicide.

You can see more details about ex-gay ministries at this location: Mission Impossible: Why reparative therapy and ex-gay ministries fail (1999)

In brief, the key points are:

  • Ex-gay ministries are motivated by politics rather than faith. Their political agenda is to block any acceptance of gay people into society. By repeatedly insisting that sexual orientation can be unlearnt, they hammer home the message that gay people should not be given equal rights.
  • This cause is also a highly-effective way to raise funds from fellow Christians – a cash cow, especially as fighting godless communism no longer opens people's purses, now that the Soviet Union has vanished.
  • The medical, psychiatric and psychological professional bodies all disagree that sexual orientation can be changed. They have also said that so-called "reparative therapy" aimed at altering gay peoples' orientations does not work and may, in fact, be harmful.
  • As a counter to these professional bodies, the Christian rightwing has an organization called the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, or NARTH. According to its policy statement, "NARTH's most important function is to provide psychological understanding of the cause, treatment, and behavior patterns associated with the homosexual condition." NARTH uses as its starting point, the presumption that homosexuality is a developmental disorder or a mental illness, which it frequently compares to alcoholism, presumptions rejected by the professional bodies. However, NARTH frequently accuses these professional bodies of conspiracies against it.
  • The true problem is more mundane. NARTH’s studies are not peer-reviewed. Their own data about the success rate of sexuality conversion are muddled at best. There are no longitudinal studies (i.e. following up cases for many years), and without longitudinal studies, how does one show that there has been any permanent change in the subjects, as opposed to temporary denial?

And there are countless examples of backsliding among even the leaders of these ex-gay movements, as discussed above.

* * * * *


Excerpts from the booklet Finally Free, wherein many persons who went through the ex-gay programs in the USA recount their experiences: 

My first wake-up call to the problems of this particular ministry occurred on Thanksgiving Day in our live-in quarters for women. We had to get permission to watch television so that our leaders could monitor what we were watching. Several of us received approval to watch the annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade. After the parade, however, we continued watching the football game that came on. One of the leaders thundered into the room and immediately started screaming at us, since we had not received permission to watch football. Stunned, we sat there and watched her cut the cable to the TV with a butcher knife.

I should have known at that point that something was unbalanced, but I believed that I didn't have any alternatives. I became depressed because my orientation wasn't changing.
-- Catherine Wulfensmith

It was while I served on a new church extension team overseas that I had a profound realization: through seven years of countless hours of Bible study, intense counseling sessions, prayer vigils, agonizing and soul-searching, I was still a homosexual. My thoughts, desires and drives had not changed. More than that, I realized that as far back as I could remember, I had always felt the way I did….

Where are my friends and companions from Exodus International and other "Ex-gay" groups now? Many were so unhappy that they could not change their orientation that they committed suicide. Some lived double lives; they lived one life publicly as heterosexuals, with wife and children, active in church, seminary or Bible college; they maintained a second, secret life as closeted homosexuals.

Where am I now? I am happier with my life now more than ever, knowing that I don't have to hide anymore. I have rediscovered my faith – deeper and more intense than before.
-- Christopher Camp

The experience was a mishmash of group therapy, pop psychology and Bible study. Through this group, I stopped going to my psychologist and started seeing a "reparative therapist" recommended by the "ex-gay" ministry. I went to "ex-gay" meetings and therapy once a week. At the time, I didn't realise the subtle and not-so-subtle messages that were permeating my life. If God loved me, why wouldn't He change me? Why wasn't God answering my prayers? My conclusion was that God hated me. I couldn't blame Him, because I hated myself too.

My reparative therapist reinforced this self-hatred…. Sometimes he would yell at me saying that I was a "deceiver" and that I was "manipulative." This treatment resonated inside me because of my own self-hatred. I thought that I deserved to be treated this way because I was so evil.

I didn't know any other way to live, so of course I chose to continue down this "ex-gay" path. I began attending meetings with another "ex-gay" group. The treatment program was loosely based on antiquated psychological theories and on Christian teaching. We had a treatment manual full of various masculinity/femininity exercises, writing assignments and aversion therapy suggestions (ammonia inhalers). When we were "tempted", we were encouraged to break open an ammonia inhaler and take a sniff. We were encouraged to play "masculine" sports….

I had started drinking heavily and was living a double life. It seemed the longer I was involved with "ex-gay" ministries, the more self-destructive my behaviour became. 
-- David Fettke

Deliverance ministers believe that a homosexual can be set free from same-sex desires by casting out the homosexual demon and evoking the power of Jesus' name….

I have learnt from my extensive experience in casting out demons that "reparative therapy" and "ex-gay" ministries do not work and can greatly harm people. These practices to "help people change" are nothing more than the art of skillfully shaming and brainwashing gays and lesbians into believing that God will not love them as they are. Gays are told that God would rather send them to a place of torment than accept their sexual orientation….Shame is the bludgeoning tool used by deliverance ministries to make people feel that they need to change. The technique involves breaking people down by drilling into their minds that they are a defilement to human nature. With enough browbeating, these precious souls eventually believe it to be true. But in the end, this grueling exercise ultimately leaves people mentally suicidal and yes, still homosexual.
-- Karen Hindman


A booklet was published in July 2000 by the Human Rights Campaign giving the first-hand stories of 14 people who have been inside the ex-gay programs, seen the horror of it all and lived to tell. Excerpts cam be seen in the yellow box above.

If you have Acrobat Reader, you can read their true stories here:

These are very powerful stories. The resounding message is this:

There is nothing wrong about homosexuality. There is nothing that needs to be changed, nor can be changed, about one’s sexual orientation. The problem really is a deadly cocktail of external factors: societal stigma, hostility, hatred and isolation. Once a gay person has found the self-confidence to deal with these issues on his own terms, he tends to be better-adjusted and happier. 

By repeating the mantra that homosexuality is sin and incompatible with worth, by focusing on the futile attempts to change the subjects rather than societal attitudes, ex-gay ministries abet and reinforce difficulties for gay people. Contrary to their propaganda, they don’t make life better for us; they make things worse.

One day we will see them for what they are: hate-mongers, peddlers of snake-oil and, not forgetting those who still cruise online or in the bars while claiming possession of the secret cure, supreme hypocrites.

© Yawning Bread 




Slippery vocabulary

The ex-gay ministries conveniently use their own definitions of words to brag about their success.

Most people nowadays, when they refer to someone as homosexual, base their view on the person's sexual orientation. And since it is now widely accepted that orientation is largely fixed, the idea of changing someone from homosexual or whatever, is not considered possible.

The ex-gay ministries however, consider someone as homosexual if he engages in same-sex relations. So when they manage to instill enough guilt in their members to refrain from homosexual acts, they go "Praise to God, he is cured!" And they notch one up to their success rate.

By this definition, maybe only 50 – 60% of the population are heterosexual. Children and teenagers who don't have sex aren't heterosexual. Widows who remain faithful to the memory of their husbands or pensioners who don't get any sexual opportunities, are not heterosexual. Prisoners who go years in jail without a chance to make out with the opposite sex aren't heterosexual. Even the Pope is not heterosexual!




  1. See also the guest article It's the same God still, isn't it? by Adeline Woon