Closed for Business: The Death of the ’Ex-Gay’ Movement

by Chris Sosa

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday July 16, 2013

In the early 1900s, psychologists began openly discussing a new and prevalent sexual deviation: homosexuality. Abraham Brill, in a seminal 1913 essay for the Journal of the American Medical Association titled "The Conception of Homosexuality," asserted that homosexuality was a psychological disturbance related to narcissism. He argued that homosexuality was a curable state, although such cures should be of psychological, not physical nature.

Another school of thought, however, began to emerge after the controversial and radical sex researcher Alfred Kinsey began his intensive study of human sexuality. Kinsey discovered that homosexuality existed as a completely normal and harmless variation on the sexual spectrum, no better or worse than the accepted standard of homosexuality. This sparked a fire in fellow psychoanalyst Edmund Bergler, who vehemently claimed homosexuality was a perversion that could and must be cured. Through his introduction of shock therapy, the seeds of the "ex-gay" movement took their roots.

Early forms of sexual conversion therapy relied on the theory of aversion. Essentially, they were going to shock gays straight. This was accomplished, or rather profoundly not accomplished, through exposing homosexual individuals to various slides and shocking them when "perverse" images appeared. Occasionally, such shocking materials would even be applied to the genitals. In some instances, the gay individual would be given a button to skip the slide after the shock, and would continue to be shocked until the button was pressed.

This primitive and appalling therapy was widely accepted among the psychiatric community from 1939 until the Stonewall Riots of 1969. After this, a sea change emerged, and homosexuality was declassified as a mental disorder in 1973 by the American Psychiatric Association after a bitter battle among psychiatrists and extreme pressure from gay rights advocates. After critics argued that the change was political and called for a referendum, the APA reaffirmed its position that homosexuality was not a mental disorder by an official vote in 1974.

At that time, psychiatrists began dropping conversion therapy from their programs, but another group emerged to take the reigns less than a decade later: the Evangelical Christians. British psychologist and theologian Elizabeth Moberly was among the first to address gay conversion through Christianity in "Homosexuality: A New Christian Ethic" published in 1983. This book was among the first to inspire the "hate the sin" position of Christians, arguing that homosexuals were merely a confused group addressing other needs through their homosexuality.

It is difficult to deduce when existing Christian support groups for gays began introducing repairative-style therapy. Exodus International (originally called Love in Action), the leading anti-gay Christian group founded in 1973, claimed that it could successfully transform an individual from gay to straight, despite a complete lack of evidence.

Usually these conversion techniques would involve bizarre gender-role affirmation actions, with various individuals reporting bans on show tunes and forced "straight-looking" dress codes. Underneath the more ridiculous overt "therapy" was the destruction these "ex-gay" organizations visited on families. A usual tactic was to blame a supposedly distant father for his son's sexuality and force the son to accept this negative reading of his family. Parents were often coerced by churches to send their gay children away to what were essentially profit-grubbing summer camps that shamed kids for their self-expression.

This "ex-gay" conversion movement continued on for a startling period of time. In the 2000s, a public change in attitude began to rapidly occur. Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage in a move that stunned a still largely anti-gay United States. After this legal change, a ripple effect began, and Christian conservatives started abandoning the notion of gay conversion. The first sign of defeat was the selling of "Love Won Out" in 2009, a program owned by Focus on the Family. The vehemently anti-gay organization reported a record profit loss of $6 million and Exodus International ended up purchasing the series.

Exodus International eventually disavowed conversion therapy in 2012, with President Alan Chambers openly admitting that such remedies are ineffective. A year later, the last remaining symbol of the "ex-gay" Christian movement announced it was closing. Chambers posted a lengthy apology to the LGBT community on his website and appeared in Lisa Ling's "Our America" to face the individuals harmed by his organization. Most notably, Chambers blatantly admitted to ongoing same-sex sexual attraction, saying, "I accept these feelings as parts of my life that will likely always be there."

While many felt Alan Chambers' actions were a PR stunt to launch his new ministry, there is no denying that the LGBT community has won the war against the "ex-gay" movement. Christian churches are abandoning the cultural discussion in droves, with organizations like Focus on the Family and Christianity Today engaging an extreme paradigm shift by adopting LGBT language and timid tones to discuss what they can do to move forward after losing the culture war.

"Here at Focus we've seen marriages reconciled. We've seen people who struggle with unwanted same-sex attraction change," Focus on the Family's Jim Daly stated. "We've seen people experience real transformation in their... identity." He went on to claim numerous organizations existed to "help" LGBT individuals wanting to change, but a quick examination revealed that not one of these ministries claims to change sexual orientation.

The final nail in the coffin came from the Supreme Court of the United States, which unilaterally struck down the federal definition of a marriage as the union between one man and one woman in a landmark case the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act. With public approval of gay marriage at a solid, growing majority and young parents hugely accepting of a more diverse world, the next generation won't suffer the abusive "therapy" of the past.

EDGE attempted to reach out to Alan Chambers for a comment to include in this story and communicated briefly with his press representative. Results were unsuccessful.