The ex-gay myth

Source: ORF, an Austrian TV and radio station

11 January 2008

The ex-gay myth

By Riem Higazi

About twelve years ago, I read about a sixteen-year-old American who was trying to divorce himself from his parents because they made him get some weird sort of counselling to stop him from being gay. The story really affected me because I thought sixteen-year-olds have enough to worry about and this poor guy has to fight for his right to be who he is and has to fight that battle against the people who should be supporting him and loving him unconditionally. I imagined how alone and scared and brave this young man must be and his story moved me.

Since then, the number of stories about the victims of ex-gay organisations have increased so dramatically that the word trend doesn’t do the situation justice. It’s an epidemic.

Love Won Out. I Saw the Light. Love In Action. Courage. And the biggest one of all, Exodus. Those are the names of American organisations advocating the possibility of changing a person’s sexual orientation whereby the never secular principles of these organisations make it clear that the only change in sexual orientation worth attaining is from gay to straight.

While suggesting alternatives to homosexuality, indeed, and I quote, “cures” to homosexuality, these organisations very nearly always have a Christian right-wing following (although some Jewish and Muslim ones have been formed). By encouraging parents to send their kids to reparative therapy camps, these organisations have controversially targeted teenagers.

Peterson Toscano was one such teenager. In his 43 years of life, he has gone from being gay to being ex-gay to being ex-ex-gay or as he prefers to describe himself, being an ex-gay survivor. When I decided to do a Reality Check Special on the Ex-Gay Movement, I knew I needed people willing to be open and honest about extremely personal issues (and share all of this with a perfect stranger – me!) and I hit the journalism jackpot when Peterson answered my email request for an interview. He has turned his experiences as an ex-gay survivor into very funny and very poignant entertainment. Peterson’s honesty will blow you away. He is living proof that sexual orientation most definitely should not and need not be changed.

Well, I didn’t exactly hit the journalism jackpot without being guided to where exactly I could find it and for this I am grateful to Jean-Marie Navetta. She is a representative of Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians & Gays (PFLAG) , a US non-profit organization with over 200,000 members and supporters. Make that: over 200 001, including me. Not just for the incredible work PFLAG does to protect and honour civil rights in the United States but for the mere fact that Jean-Marie Navetta puts her heart and soul into her work, even if that means spending emotionally draining days amongst those preaching ex-gay sermons. Ex-gay organisations hold seminars and conferences and even three-day jamborees right across the Unites States and Canada and this is where a large part of their message is spread; by way of testimonials – people claiming to have been converted from gay or lesbian to straight. The ex-gay organisation Love Won Out held a huge conference this past summer in Nebraska and Jean-Marie went undercover to check it out. What she discovered is scarier and more heart-breaking than you can imagine and I admire her courage and commitment for getting that insight for us.

The ex-gay movement has been around for over thirty years but has become increasingly popular the past ten years, especially in North America as the prospect of gay marriage has increasingly divided all strains of the social make-up. Political parties are divided and so are church ministries. Many conservative Christian ministries adhere to heterosexually-based family values and for them, being a homosexual and a Christian isn’t kosher.

I tried to speak with organisations and ministries, including the largest, Exodus, to find out how the reparative therapies and programs work but my requests for interviews were declined. The one ministry willing to talk to me about their mission is based in Toronto, Canada and considers itself a moderate church – New Direction is its name and its national director Wendy Gritter gave me the low-down on her church’s mission. She was a soft-spoken and very gentle lady and I felt a sincere sadness when we reached the most frustrating kind of impasse two well-meaning people can come to. At the end of my long talk with Wendy, she asked to please say one more thing and this is what it was:

“The way to really move forward is to address some of the deep fears that perpetuate the divide. I don’t think we should be afraid to refer a gay person to a gay positive resource. If we really believe God is on the throne, we don’t have to do His work for Him. He can be trusted.”

I said, “Exactly.”

And she said, “Exactly.”

But our two “exactlies” were not anywhere near exactly the same.


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