By Barry Yeoman, published on March 1, 1999 - last reviewed on June 14, 2012
A breakaway group of Christian and secular therapists claims to be able to convert homosexual into heterosexuals—if they'll just get with the program. So what exactly is the program? And does it work?
It's a Sunday morning in Lecanto, Florida, and Faith Chapel is filled with the Holy Spirit. Tambourines shaking, guitar jamming, the storefront church is awash in praise. "Dance with all your might," sing Pentecostal Christians in khakis and lightweight dresses. "The time's drawing near." Church members filter down the aisles, and knots of people form, hands touching shoulders, hands touching faces. A woman faints and is covered by a white blanket. Another lifts her arms as her fellow worshippers crowd around her, encouraging her ecstasy until she, too, faints. "Thank you Jesus, thank you Jesus," people intone, while the pianist plays a running melody.
Steve Simmons is in his element. A pale-eyed 38-year-old with cowboy boots and a goatee, he runs here and there, his long curly hair slicked back and cascading past his collar. He sings in the ensemble, prays with people, lays on hands. His wife Shawn is never far away.
Simmons' old life, by contrast, seems very far away. Earlier in his marriage, he was a closeted homosexual, sneaking off on lunch breaks to find quick release with other men at a lakefront park. "Any chance I could get to get away from the house, I was out," he says. He eventually settled into a relationship with a coworker, and the two men planned to move in together as soon as Simmons could ditch Shawn and their two-year-old daughter.
It took him most of an evening to break the news to Shawn. He brought her to a restaurant but couldn't tell her there; at home, he fumbled for a half-hour before blurting out that he was gay. "What can I do to help?" Shawn asked her husband. Taken aback by his wife's good will and dogged by his religious beliefs, Simmons realized he couldn't leave his marriage. "I know about this ministry," he told her. "I'm willing to go through it if you're willing to stick it out."
She was. So Simmons split up with his male partner and started attending the Orlando-based Eleutheros, one of more than 100 Christian organizations in the United States dedicated to helping people forego gay sex.
There, at a ministry that believes homosexuality stems from family dysfunction, Simmons talked about growing up with a father who was a military medic and would disappear for six-month tours aboard a Coast Guard cutter. He discussed his "domineering and controlling" mother. And he recalled the male teenage cousin who lured him, at nine years old, into unreciprocated sexual service. "I remember feeling that I had made him happy," Simmons now recalls. "I could please a guy, and maybe in some respects, I was trying to please my father." With the help of Eleutheros, Simmons came to believe that his same-sex urges were an unhealthy mutation of a natural desire to receive the affirmation of other men.
At the same time, he started learning how to avoid temptation. The key was an "accountability group," six to eight men to whom he was required to report every homosexual contact, every same-sex fantasy, every trip to a gay bar. "All of a sudden, it was like, 'Do I really want to do this?' To be honest with these guys, that means I've got to stop. And it's not easy."
Though Simmons no longer was sexually intimate with men, he remained attracted to them. "There were times when driving down the road and just looking at a guy in the next car was enough to keep my fantasy life going," he says. "And I could keep myself going on fantasy for a long time."
Other would-be converts dropped out of the ministry, but Simmons persisted, attending meetings up to three times a week. Eventually, he began thinking of homosexuality as an addiction, something he could never get rid of but could keep in check. "The accountability groups give you a chance to sober up," he says. "They give you the time to get away from the sex long enough to start thinking a little more clearly. That was a big part of the recovery process for me, because I finally had a chance to stop and see exactly what my actions were doing, who I was hurting."
Now, four years after leaving Eleutheros, Simmons considers himself one of the ministry's successes. He and his wife have worked on their relationship, and he feels more physically engaged with her. "She still probably wants more sex than we have," he says. "But it's nothing like it was before. Before, we'd have sex maybe once a month. Now it's six to eight times a month. We've come a long way in that respect." Simmons occasionally finds other women attractive, too. "I work outside delivering mail, and I see women, and I think, 'Wow, that looks good.' But I wouldn't say I'm all the way there."
"I don't feel like a stereotypical straight guy, the beerdrinking 'Hey buddy, let's shoot some deer,'" Simmons adds. But neither does he feel consumed by his same-sex desires. "There's still some attraction to men. But it doesn't set off the same bells and whistles it used to. Now I'm a little freer; I can say, 'Wow, that's a very attractive-looking man' and leave it at that. If a guy looked at me and winked, there might be a little sexual flush. But if he's just sitting there, and I look over and he's very handsome--it's not a big deal."
Simmons' is one of the real-life stories behind the "ex-gay" movement, a loose alliance of secular counselors, renegade psychoanalysts and Christian ministries that believe homosexuality is a pathology that can be overcome. Though no statistics exist on the number of men and women who have tried to change their orientations, Exodus International, the Christian ex-gay umbrella-organization, estimates it has fielded 200,000 inquiries from homosexuals and their families since the 1970s, according to director Bob Davies. Exodus and its member ministries now draw more than 400 inquiries a month.
Operating quietly for many years, the movement suddenly burst into notoriety last summer, when 15 conservative organizations began a $400,000 advertising blitz in the New York Times, the Washington Post, USA Today and other major newspapers. The ads feature photos of men and women who have struggled with same-sex attraction and have a text that reads, "Thousands of ex-gays like these have walked away from their homosexual identities. While the paths each took into homosexuality may vary, their stories of hope and healing through the transforming love of Jesus Christ are the same."
The ads have sparked a firestorm of controversy, with lesbian and gay activists accusing the sponsors, including the Christian Coalition, of exploiting sexually confused individuals to promote an ideological agenda. It has been a made-for-media issue, and the press has focused on the political debate.
Lost among the coverage have been the more personal issues: What is the nature of sexual orientation, and is it mutable? Who are the thousands of people seeking to change their sexualities? What life experiences drive someone to seek a "conversion" to heterosexuality? And what does it mean to convert? Are homosexuals truly shedding their same-sex attractions? Or do they continue to struggle against their natural impulses, accepting celibacy or marriage as a socially sanctioned substitute? In other words, can one really "learn" to be straight?
Moreover, is it healthy to try? For people within the ex-gay movement, this last is an easy question to answer. They believe that homosexuality is sick or immoral, and anything that frees someone from having gay sex is inherently healthful. "We're not free from the opportunity, but we're free from the power of sin," says Greg Wallace, an ex-gay who now runs the Living Waters ministry in Beech Grove, Indiana. "The word 'recovery' means the ability to live a productive and enjoyable life, beyond the control of life-dominating sexual behavior and impulse."
The vast majority of mental-health professionals, however, view reorientation programs with skepticism and alarm. In December, the American Psychiatric Association's board voted unanimously to oppose conversion therapy, saying that it could "reinforce self-hatred already experienced by the patient." Even the American Psychoanalytic Association, once in favor of attempts to "cure" homosexuality, has moved away from endorsing such efforts. Marvin Margolis, M.D., Ph.D., past president of the association, calls same-sex attraction "a variant of normal sexuality."
Most psychologists say that conversion ministries and therapists are trying to force lesbians and gay men into a mold that doesn't really fit, and the results could lead to depression, addiction, even suicide. "When people repress their orientation, in order to make all that work, they hide under layers and layers of incredibly destructive behavior," says Terry Norman, D. Min., a professional counselor in Kansas City. "Ultimately, it kills."
Sexual orientation is one of the great mysteries of the human mind. For decades, researchers have tried to figure out what makes someone attracted to a particular sex, and the question is far from settled. Most scientists now believe that there isn't a single cause; rather, our desires spring from the complex interplay of biology and environment.
"Our understanding of why people have the sexual orientation they do is still very poor," says Stephen John Clark, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at Vassar College. "There is growing evidence that events that happen very early in life, genetic influences, the environment in the womb and experiences in the first years of life play a large role in determining one's sexual orientation. The evidence is not conclusive, however, and workers in the field are far from a consensus." It's not even clear, he adds, whether everyone's sexuality is shaped by the same forces. "People are diverse. They fall in love with all sorts of different people. Should it surprise us if it turns out that who they fall in love with is determined by a variety of factors?"
In recent years, scientists have intensified the search for biological causes of homosexuality. Best known is the controversial work of molecular geneticist Dean Hamer, Ph.D., of the National Cancer Institute, who is focusing on finding a so-called "gay gene." Looking at families with more than one gay member, Hamer and his colleagues have used inheritance patterns to theorize that the X chromosome contains a gene that predisposes some men toward homosexuality. In one study, Hamer examined 40 pairs of gay brothers and found that 33 of the pairs had five identical strips of DNA on their X chromosomes. Hamer and his colleagues are now searching for a specific gene within these DNA strips, and are also looking for other chromosomes that might have a connection to sexual orientation.
Researchers have also been examining whether brain structure correlates with sexual orientation. At San Diego's Salk Institute, Simon LeVay, Ph.D., a neuro scientist, has noted in autopsy studies that a certain nucleus--or cell cluster--in the hypothalamus is between two and three times larger in straight men than in gay men. He has also observed that this nucleus is generally smaller in deceased women, leading him to hypothesize that smaller structures are somehow correlated with sexual attraction toward men. (LeVay did not know the orientation of the deceased women whose brains he was studying.) LeVay's findings are open to challenge; for example, some critics note that the "gay brains" belonged to men who died of AIDS, whose nuclei might have been shrunk by their medications.
While many psychologists today are convinced that biological factors will ultimately prove to play a strong role in determining sexual orientation, a breakaway group of therapists believe that this entire body of science is off the mark. Known as "reparative therapists," they hew to an alternative theory of homosexuality, which has been adopted by both the secular and religious arms of the ex-gay movement. Their theory harks back to old notions of homosexuality as a mental disorder--notions repudiated by the American Psychiatric Association.
The current leader of this movement is Joseph Nicolosi, Ph.D., director of the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality. A lifelong heterosexual, Nicolosi makes no pretense of hiding his biases. "Nature made man complementary to woman, and to cling to the sameness of one's own sex is to look at the world with one eye," he writes in his book Reparative Therapy of Male Homosexuality (Jason Aronson, 1991). "I do not believe that any man can ever be truly at peace in living out a homosexual orientation."
To Nicolosi and his followers, gay male sexuality stems directly from a poor relationship between a boy and his father. If a father isn't a strong influence on the family, and if he doesn't provide emotional support and physical affection, then the child won't learn to identify with adult men. As he grows older, the boy will start looking for the maleness he never acquired, and his search will take on sexual overtones.
"People are gendered. We are naturally gendered into male and female. So the male homosexual is trying to find his unfulfilled masculinity," Nicolosi declares. "His homosexual attractions are a symptom of his desire to find his masculine identification and same-sex emotional needs."
Critics consider this a deeply flawed argument. Andrew Sullivan, former editor of The New Republic and a gay man, notes that if distant fathers were the cause, "then most of the generations born between 1930 and 1980 would be homosexual. There might also, perhaps, be a startling rise in homosexuality among African-Americans in the last 20 years, when absent fathers have become the norm, rather than the exception."
But Nicolosi presses on, maintaining that homosexuals can never be truly happy. He describes gay sex as "isolated and narcissistic," because partners experience orgasm separately and must negotiate their sexual roles in the acts they perform. And he claims "sexual sameness" causes partners to lose interest and look for other contacts. Nicolosi ignores the fact that lesbians are famously monogamous and dismisses two respected studies saying the majority of gay men have 20 or fewer panners in their lifetimes. "I just don't believe it," he says.
In Nicolosi's therapy, clients discuss their relationship with their parents, their sense of maleness, and new ways to interpret their sexual attractions. They're encouraged to form platonic friendships with handsome straight men in order to demystify and desexualize those men. And they are prevailed on to reclaim their masculinity by playing sports, getting angry and expressing their relationship needs directly.
The result is not instant heterosexuality. A successful client "doesn't immediately walk down a street and get a sexual charge from looking at a woman," Nicolosi says. "But he will begin to notice women. He will begin to feel a desire to get married and have a family." He will still be attracted to men, Nicolosi says, "but that sexual desire is greatly diminished. If the attraction is intense, it becomes a signal to him that there's something amiss in his life. "Wow, what is going on that I'm having a feeling like this? Have I been honestly connected to my wife? Have I been keeping connections with my friends?'"
Using such techniques, Christian ministries and reparative therapists claim to successfully convert about 30 percent of homosexuals in their programs. But are those really successes?
Nicolosi and his adherents don't track former clients, and mainstream psychologists have their doubts that these transformations are long-lasting. "I have yet to see a conversion hold," says Michael Picucci, Ph.D., a psychologist in New York City. More troubling, however, is the fact that these programs do not, as Nicolosi acknowledges, change basic sexual orientation. "The danger is that some individuals are going to end up feeling that in some important way their life is a lie and a sham," observes Christopher Wallis, M.D., a member of the American Psychoanalytic Association's committee on issues of homosexuality.
The consequences can be devastating. Terry Norman, the St. Louis counselor, says "orientational repression" sometimes leads to drug and alcohol abuse, workaholism and compulsive sex. There also have been reports of people killing themselves, or attempting to, after failing to convert. "After hearing the categorical promises that these programs work, what do people conclude when they do these things and it doesn't work for them?" asks Norman. "That God doesn't bless them, that they really are pieces of trash that pollute the Earth."
Just who tries to change? Not the average gay man or woman. Would-be converts, say psychologists, typically come from deeply authoritarian backgrounds where homosexuality is branded immoral or a sin, while others are married and cannot reconcile their family commitments with their erotic desires.
Many also are facing tremendous problems, including alcoholism, drug abuse, sexual abuse and parental violence or rejection. Mike Jones, 44, remembers that his first sexual contact in adolescence involved mutual masturbation with his father. "That was the first time that my reaching out to my father was received by him," says Jones, who runs the Corduroy Stone ministry in Lansing, Michigan. Through his involvement in Exodus International, says Jones, he has learned how to live a celibate life, though he continues to fantasize about men when he masturbates. He finds himself attracted to about a quarter of the men who pass through his ministry. (When those feelings surface, he says, he channels them into platonic friendship.)
Dena Westcott of Orlando, an Eleutheros graduate who grappled with suicidal tendencies and her own explosive temper, voices a similar experience. The ministry has helped her confront childhood sexual abuse and her relationship with a hateful mother. It also taught her to cultivate close platonic friendships with other women, particularly when she feels her lesbian attractions intensifying.
It should come as no surprise, then, when ex-gays express satisfaction about getting their homosexuality "under control." Faced with a panoply of problems, many have acted out sexually, seeking encounters to ease their pain. By dealing with core issues, conversion programs put the brakes on destructive sexual and social behavior. But, as psychologists point out, this has nothing inherently to do with homosexuality.
For every person who claims a conversion to heterosexuality, there are several others who fail in their efforts. Two of the founders of Exodus International, Michael Bussee and Gary Cooper, left the organization after falling in love, and more than a dozen Christian ministries have closed down after their leaders reverted back to homosexuality. There is now an informal network of "ex-ex-gays," people who tried unsuccessfully to change their orientations, and instead have learned to live as gay men and lesbians. "Sexuality is an incredible part of life. But it's not the aspect, and I needed to get on with living," says Jallen Rix, a Christian music singer.
The product of a strict Southern Baptist upbringing, Rix wanted badly to be accepted by his family and community, but found that men excited him sexually. There were "doctor" games with male cousins, encounters with strangers in the woods near his home, and at the Christian college he attended, a physical friendship with a male student. To ward off suspicions, Rix became a "semi-compulsive liar," adept at deflecting any query that would reveal his homosexuality.
When the dissonance became too great, Rix began attending the California-based ministry Desert Stream where worship and pep talks were allied with "dives into our past," he recalls. "They'd have all this outdated therapy that because of an absent or passive father, I have identified more with my mother and I'm attracted to men." Rix became suspicious of the ministry's techniques. Young men and older male mentors, who were supposed to serve as surrogate fathers, sometimes began living together in relationships that were essentially gay, except that there was no sex.
More important, the program didn't work for Rix. "I went home and I was still horny for men." After a year and half and still desperate for help, Rix drove to another charismatic church where a woman promised to exorcise his homosexuality She laid hands on his head, anointed his forehead with oil and started praying. "I wanted this to work so bad," he recalls. "I granted and squeezed and tried to shove this homosexuality out of me. I remember afterwards, going out for fast food and trying to coach myself, 'It's gone. Yeah, it's gone.' But it wasn't."
Disillusioned, Rix started coming to terms with being gay. He continued to perform Christian music for conservative churches and private schools, but by his early 30s realized he couldn't hide his sexual orientation. Now 35, he still performs, but generally for liberal and gay churches. Rix doesn't regret his time in the ministry. But he worries that others are being pressured into conformity and denial, rather than learning how to lead authentic lives. "When people say they're happy being married, they're really saying, 'I am acceptable to myself and to the people around me.' I don't think they'll feel that way in the long run."