Ex-gay therapy, reparative therapy, conversion therapy, pray the gay away, spiritual counseling, it really does not matter what you call it, the goal is to help gays eliminate, reduce or at best, manage their SSA (same sex attraction).
I spent nearly three years in ex-gay counseling or therapy, attending retreats, reading the books, going to conferences, listening to national speakers (most of which have since renounced the ex-gay movement and come out) and attending group sessions with other "strugglers" - as we were labeled. The majority of my therapy/counseling was spent pouring my heart out through the hot tears that streamed down my face as I recounted nearly every troubling thing that had ever happened to me. Then there was prayer. Lots and lots of prayer. I would talk and cry and the counselor would suddenly begin to pray and ask God to speak to me. "Joel, what is God saying to you? What is on your heart now?" he would ask soothingly. I was never sure. I desperately wanted some message from God. I wanted a breakthrough. Instead, my mind would be racing around like a pinball bouncing from thought to thought, looking for some landing spot, but never finding one. "I don't know. I'm not hearing anything." I sat in the tearful silence with my eyes closed, trying not to think about the ticking clock above my head in the tiny room or the music bleeding through the wall from the waiting area just behind me. If I communicated that distraction to the counselor, he would pray again but this time he would, in the name of Jesus, bind the spirits of distraction and confusion that were keeping me from hearing whatever the spirit of God was telling me. Then we'd start the process all over again. Talking. Crying. Praying.
I was a willing participant in this therapy. I knew this was my last chance at fixing this gay thing and living a happy heterosexual life. I desperately wanted to not be gay. I was a Christian. I was a conservative Baptist pastor. I had a wife and three kids waiting for me to get my act together. I wanted to be attracted to her. I didn't want to hurt her. I didn't want to live my life in turmoil anymore. I gave myself 200% to the process. I did whatever the counselors told me to. I did my best to modify my behavior in hopes that my gay feelings and behaviors would fade into the sunset and become a distant memory. I was more honest than I had ever been in my life.
In my group sessions I sat with a handful of other men who were sexual strugglers just like me. Together we shared our hearts, our struggles, our lustful thoughts, our sinful behaviors, and our same sex attractions. We supported and encouraged one another. We longed for freedom, yet no matter how much we shared, cried and prayed together, we never seemed to make any significant progress. Outside of therapy session we would sometimes level with one another about how we were really doing. I quickly discovered none of us were finding the freedom we sought. Yet, we kept meeting, crying, praying, and trying. Because that was the only option.
Recently Frank Worthen, the "Father of ex-gay ministry" died at the age of 87. In the early 1970's Worthen was instrumental in founding Love in Action, one of the original ex-gay organizations. Later he helped establish Exodus International, a network of ex-gay ministries and counselors around the globe. It was a phone call to Exodus in 2001 which began my guided quest to be ex-gay.
The ex-gay movement was built upon non-scientific ideas that homosexuality was caused primarily by external factors such as an emotionally absent father, an overbearing mother, sexual abuse, or sexualized fantasies left unchecked. Since nearly all the ex-gay movement was connected to religion, it also carried with it the idea that homosexuality is a sin against God, or at least "acting out" on your homosexual desires is a sin. Since God doesn't intend anyone to live in sin, there is no sin that can't be overcome.
Since I was taught the Bible says that even thinking about a sinful act was the same as committing it, I was never sure how I could make all that work. It seemed to me that God's plan was an "all or nothing" arrangement that I could never live up to. When I inquired about this I was told to just focus on each day and try to do the most right and the least wrong each day. I was encouraged to look at it like a scale with having gay sex as being on the worst end of the spectrum and on the opposite end was maybe something as small as a fleeting lustful thought that I quickly dismissed. This too brought confusion because I had also been taught that God makes no distinction between sins. He views sin as sin. "All have sinned and come short of the glory of God" It makes no difference how big or how small the sin. So in addition to God's all or nothing at all there was a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" component. But I wanted to please God, be straight, and save my marriage and family, so I kept on trying to make this work in my mind. If it wasn't working, I must be doing something wrong.
After nearly three years of trying, talking, crying, praying, and failing, followed by much more trying, talking, crying, praying and failing, I grew quite discouraged with my lack of progress. I had given it my all and yet I was still just as gay as the day I made that phone call to Exodus International. I looked at the men in my group sessions and they were just like me.
I needed encouragement. I needed to know that it was going to get better than this. I needed real hope that one day I would indeed be able to call myself ex-gay. I knew no one who had achieved this status. I wanted to hear from someone like myself who would say to me, "Joel, just hang in there. I remember when I was where you are. I assure you, it gets so much better. You're almost there!"
I emailed my counselor from Exodus International who was the director for my state. I was certain he must have a large database of success stories ready to lend a hand and some words of encouragement to a fellow, discouraged, struggler.
To my surprise he told me he could not. In disbelief, I asked why.
"Because they all pretty much fall into one of two categories. One, this was a part of their life they are ashamed of. No one knew about it. They got help and moved on and they don't want to talk about it to anyone. Two, this was a part of their life. They got help and moved on, but they are afraid if they were to talk to someone like you, they would just fall back into it again."
Shame or fear. That's what I get to choose from? Those were the ex-gay success stories? No thank you.
I wadded up the email and tossed it aside. I stood to my feet and I said out loud,
"Then I'm done! I have a life to live."
Do not mistake my resolve for fearlessness. I was very scared. I had no idea what it meant to live as gay man. I was concerned about what God would think of me. Would I suffer God's judgement? Would I lose my children? What would my life look like in the future? These and many more questions swirled in my mind.
As I pondered these questions, I suddenly had a visual for my life. I could see myself standing at the highest point of a long and winding trail. My eyes followed the trail in front of me that led downward into the valley before me until it disappeared into the forest at a distance. I had no idea where it led. I felt fearful of the uncertainty it embodied, so I turned and looked back at the trail behind me. It was a familiar path. Because I had been on that path for 35 years, I knew exactly where it led. I knew every twist and turn it held. I turned my back on the past and turned toward the future. I said to God and myself, "I don't know where this path will lead me, and that uncertainty scares me, but I know where I've been and I will never go back. I will go forward no matter where this path will lead because from here on out I am choosing to live as me. Just as I am."
I have never regretted that choice. It was not easy, but It was the freedom and joy I had longed for all of my life.
The day I quit ex-gay therapy is the day I began to LIVE!
Joel Barrett LGBTQ Speaker, Writer and Gatherer