The following is a personal essay by a gay man formerly of northwest Illinois who now resides in Vancouver, British Columbia:
I was involved with an Exodus-affiliated ministry for about three years in the late '80s. Compared to many ex-ex-gays, my tenure was brief. But the effects, some positive, some negative, have been lasting. Here is my story.
I graduated from a Midwestern private Christian high school in the mid-80s. Like many schools, my high school was filled with homophobic students. My classmates were cheered on by the Church. But beneath the posturing, there was also a delicious level of unresolved homoerotic tension. After graduation, I burst out of this tension and into junior college, where no one watched or cared where I went or what I did. I plunged into the gay underground of my dying industrial hometown which offered little warmth or compassion to chubby 18-year-old.
I lacked funds, beauty and a 30-inch waist. So, although I burned with desire, few men were interested in me until I met my boyfriend in junior college. With no gay role models, I had no idea how to build a relationship with him. Thus began a fairly short string of men who I dated for a few weeks or months and then recoiled from. During my ruinous dating life, I was smoking both cigarettes and pot. I was also flunking out of junior college. Showing up to computer class stoned wasn't a path to the Dean's List. When I was 19, I came out to my shattered mother and unfazed father. My mother's prying became too much so I moved out my parent's house into a freezing, mouse-infested apartment on the top floor of a house.
To pay the bills I dropped out of junior college and went to work full-time at my dead-end part-time job, trying to survive on $500 per month. My life was a mess. The final straw was when my bisexual boyfriend broke up with me because he didn't love me, after two weeks. In my 20-year-old mind, there were only two worlds: the world of the church and the world of sin. I'd been living in the world of sin and was becoming a loser so I thought I'd better get back to the Church. I also saw so many of my friends who were "in the lifestyle" becoming HIV-positive and dying. I needed a safe place to pull myself together.
I started to attend the Church associated with my Christian high school and reconnected with my old high school friends. They seemed to be prospering both spiritually and financially. They were starting families and had good jobs. I wanted to be like them. And I also wanted to get back into a relationship with God. I saw an ad in the church newsletter seeking members for a new support group of people struggling with homosexuality. I had never struggled with homosexuality or even put up much of a fight. I wasn't crazy about being gay, but it was part of who I was as long as I could remember. I didn't really have a problem with it, but God and the Church did, as I was often reminded. If God didn't want me to be gay, I thought I would try to please Him by trying to be straight.
So I called the number in the newsletter and began a friendship with the leader of the group, who was suffering from a broken engagement to an ex-gay man. The small group was made up of a few women and guys who met every week for about an hour and a half in the office of a Christian psychologist who was later convicted of bank robbery. We sang and then chatted about our struggles. Sometimes afterwards we would go for coffee and desserts. I wasn't sure how hymns and apple pie were going to make me straight but I was playing along. I learned the basic theories of Exodus: that homosexuality wasn't real, that gay people were just confused straight people, that gay sex was a sin similar to idolatry. The theories seemed a bit far-fetched but I did my best to embrace and understand them.
My life started to improve. My full-time dead end job went back to part-time. I moved back in with my parents to save money. I quit smoking, boozing, and boy-chasing. I went back to junior college and my grades climbed until I was on the dean's list. I finally became organized, keeping a datebook to keep track of when papers and bills were due. My life seemed to be on the right track.
My first Exodus conference in Minneapolis was like something out of a dream. I'd never felt so happy. The whole conference seemed bathed in euphoria. The music was emotive and amazing. The sessions were both down-to-earth and inspiring. It was like God Himself was walking around the conference, bestowing grace on all the participants.
After the conference, I devoted more and more time to Exodus-related activities. When not sleeping, studying, or working, I was either reading an Exodus-related book, listening to a teaching tape, reading my bible, resisting temptation, trying to distract myself from temptation, beating myself up for not resisting temptation, or over-eating. In addition to my grades, my weight was also up since gorging myself with food seemed to be the only vice endorsed by my church.
The next year, I went to the Exodus conference in LA. In contrast to the joyful conference in Minneapolis, the general tone of the Los Angeles conference was negative and weary. When the organizers tried to get all of the participants to be photographed for the infamous "we have changed!" photo, only a few hundred participated. I declined because didn't think I was straight enough. I regarded those brave enough to be in the photo as farther along the path to golden heterosexuality.
Most of the ex-gays I met at the conference were working off a life sentence. They still had homosexual cravings but managed them, the way an alcoholic managed their disease. Their future, my future, would be one day at a time and involve endless books, tapes, bibles, and temptation. Unless there was a divine miracle, I would never feel about women the way a heterosexual man felt about women. To me the "ex-gay" label felt more and more like a deception, a lie both to myself and any woman I would be involved with.
One night at dinner an Exodus leader announced that she was engaged to marry a man she had no sexual feeling for. She said that she trusted God to provide those feelings on her wedding night. I applauded like everyone else but shuddered on the inside.
My involvement with Exodus continued for another year or so but I didn't attend any more conferences. I had pulled my life together, but at 22 I was exhausted from the struggle with myself. I was tired of examining life instead of living it. And the sheer amount of time analyzing my every thought and motive was astounding. All this introspection was also becoming exhausting. I had become so adept at jamming down my sexual feelings that I was becoming numb. And this lack of interest in any kind of sex scared me more than the monotony of my monastic existence. I knew that it wasn't normal for a 22 year-old guy to have no sexual desires. This alone was enough to scare me away from Exodus.
I also had fundamental doubts about the Christianity being preached from the pulpit of my church. "If I disagree with almost everything being said here," I asked myself one Sunday morning, "what am I doing here?" So I eventually quit attending the ministry meetings and church services. During a summer break, I lost some weight and that fall I met my first real boyfriend.
My three years in Exodus were ultimately a failure in the sense that I didn't become a heterosexual or develop even a trace of attraction for the opposite sex.
But Exodus did produce some positive results in my life. I embraced its clean-living lifestyle at a time when I had developed a lot of bad habits. I met a lot of interesting people and got to travel to places I hadn't been before. I learned how to organize my life, to be proactive and to not simply react all the time.
But there was also damage done. I don't think Exodus or its practices can make a gay person straight. But the practices can make a gay person feel nothing, which is what I experienced. Exodus managed to take all of the joy out of my sexuality and it's taken years to get the joy back. But happily, I've been in a fairly healthy 12-year relationship with a special guy. Sexuality is a gift to be treasured.
The poisonous teachings of Exodus and the Church still rumble through my head in the voice of Marley's ghost: "You could be straight if you'd stuck with it. God has turned you over to your own desires. Gay relationships don't last." Of course, these are all lies but still stick with me and have affected me and my relationships over the years. Since gay relationships don't matter, the lie whispers, why put any effort into them?
Unfortunately, Exodus creates a black-and-white world where gay people are either in recovery or "in the lifestyle." As a result, many young men have embraced lives of abandon because they can't change and think their lives aren't valuable.
The best thing I learned in Exodus is that I can control the quality of my life and my choices. But Exodus didn't teach me this; I had to learn it on my own.
Mark publishes a weekly podcast at Musings of a Tech Writer. His Web site is www.beyondexgay.com/narratives/mark.