Monday, October 22, 2007

Ex-Gay Harm--What Does it Mean for You?

Last week I posted a blog entry outlining the various types of harm ex-gay survivors may experience. In Ex-Gay Harm--Let Me Count the Ways I listed nine categories of areas where people who attempted to live ex-gay or were coerced to do so might experience harm:
  • emotional
  • psychological
  • spiritual
  • relationship
  • financial
  • career
  • physical
  • sexual
  • developmental
One commenter, John, suggested a 10th category of intellectual harm. Many people commented so far giving specific examples of how they experienced harm in one or more of the categories.

Reading these accounts I imagine many people feel moved by the pain and suffering ex-gay survivors have endured and still endure. I also find it encouraging that survivors have also found ways to recover and reclaim their lives.

In this post I want to address specific groups of people--Ex-Gay Survivors, Current Ex-Gays, Ex-Gay Providers, and Allies. I ask the query, But what does this mean for you?

Ex-Gay Survivors
Seeing the categories of harm, reading the descriptions and then the specific examples, what does this mean for you? We are all in different places of our recovery. For some we packed our ex-gay experiences away in the closet as we exited it. We've never mention it again partly because it feels painful and even embarrassing.

First thing we need to create safe spaces for ourselves. Facing the ex-gay harm alone may cause us to get traumatized all over again. We need to break the cycle of isolation find safe people who will compassionately listen without offering tons of advice, but instead will hear us. I know some people live in remote places, and it seems they have no one. One of the great advantages of the Internet is that we can connect with people far away and build a supportive community that way. Having someone nearby may be ideal, but not always practical. Through safe on-line communities and in your actual communities, build friendships where you turn for the support and comfort and validation you need as you unpack your ex-gay experiences.

Secondly tell your story. It may only be to one person or anonymously on-line or to a whole crowd, but the process of telling our stories, honestly and vulnerably,becomes a healing process. Seeing the expressions on people's faces as they listen to your struggles, knowing that someone else bears the burden with you, lightens the load.

We can tell our stories in so many ways. Some have already done so through leaving comments at my recent blog post. Others have also expanded their comments and republished them on their blogs and web sites. You can read what Eric and Barry James Moore posted. Some, like Christine turned to art to process the pain and the pieces of the story that might get stuck with words. For me the art process helped me dig deep and grapple with my ex-gay past as I explored it through theater and comedy and storytelling. You can create a short film about your ex-gay experiences like Vince Cervantes has been doing. Others have submitted their narratives to bXg.

The important thing to keep in mind is that we tell our stories first for ourselves. Sure our narratives will help others in many ways, but first and foremost they will serve as part of our recovery process.

Ex-gay survivors may not be ready to face their ex-gay pasts, the damage they experienced and caused others. You may have far too much on your plate right now. That is fine. You can place your ex-gay experiences on the shelf and come back to them another day. They will be waiting for you, and you may find you have the courage, strength and resources to address them at a future date.

Finally, to ex-gay survivors I encourage you to pursue professional help when needed, especially if you are feeling depressed. After having "therapists" harm us in the ex-gay setting, I know it can be challenging to open up to someone again, but it may be the very help you need. Some have turned to churches and other faith communities. This can be helpful, but it can also create problems for some, especially those deeply wounded by the faith communities they loved and lost. You may find that going to a different style of church or faith community, one that you have not known before, may help in keeping you from experiencing post traumatic stress and such. Some former Evangelicals find comfort in an Anglican or Catholic service. I have found that the Quakers, with the stripped down silence, to be especially helpful for me.

Current Ex-Gays
I know that thoughtful blogging ex-gays have asked, "Well if you are an ex-gay survivor, what does that make me?" I know the term ex-gay survivor can be difficult for some current ex-gays to accept in describing ex-ex-gays, but for many of us we cannot think of a better term to illustrate our experiences.

What does the list of harm I outlined mean to those of you who currently identify as ex-gay (or some other term that you prefer)? When I lived ex-gay for 17 years, I was oblivious to any harm I may have brought on myself. I found myself in the midst of a spiritual battle and considered any feelings of depression or confusion or loss as part of the struggle to break from the world as I died to myself and crucified myself with Christ.

In the midst of it, I could not see the harm to my personality and even my relationship with God. I could not afford to see it. But God desires truth in the inmost part. Living in a way to avoid certain realities kept God's grace at bay. God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble, and perhaps taking stock of our lives in light of potential harm we may have introduced may be an act of humility.

The reality is that the vast majority of same-sex attracted people who attempt to live free of their attractions or to label them as sinful and therefore off-limits, something to be nailed down and healed, will find that such a life does not work for them. It becomes unhealthy and unnecessary. Even Alan Chambers, current president of Exodus International, in stating that Exodus has a 30% success rates, in a backwards way acknowledges that there is at least a 70% failure rate. From the folks I've know, I see that this "failure" doesn't come from lack of trying or sincerity. For many it comes after much soul-searching and agonizing in prayer and it comes with fears and doubts and concerns.

You may not be ex-gay for the rest of your life. And if you should come to the place where you see that an ex-gay life is unworkable, it is not the end of the world. You can live a healthy, holy and peaceful life.

Now as you receive ex-gay ministry or treatment, or simply maintain your ex-gay walk after receiving care, consider how to best protect yourself and your loved ones from harm. Do not lightly walk into a romantic relationship with someone of the opposite sex. Do not fracture your life into those times of doing good and those times of doing poorly. See your life as a whole. Too often I would struggle and fall, get back up, wipe myself off and begin anew, not realizing that I lived in a fixed pattern. The progress I desperately wanted to see was illusionary at best.

Take note of your mental, emotional, psychological and physical well-being. Sometimes our bodies sends us important messages that our minds cannot see. If you become depressed, emotionally exhausted, isolated or even chronically ill with no apparent cause, consider how your ex-gay experiences may affect your health.

Do not be afraid to pursue professional help. How many times did ex-gay providers tell me that I need to avoid secular help? But we need to realize that many of the ex-gay ministers and counselors have limited education and may overlook something that requires the attention of a professional, particularly when it comes to psychological distress.

Ex-Gay Providers & Promoters
After the launch of Beyond Ex-Gay (bXg) and this summer's Ex-Gay Survivor Conference, I felt surprised and baffled by the insensitive and dismissive tone many ex-gay leaders and promoters took towards the stories of ex-gay survivors. I know it can be challenging to consider how something you do to help others might harm them, but the defensive and snarky reactions revealed to me that some of these ex-gay survivor narratives struck a nerve.

Christine and I did find a tiny handful of current ex-gay leaders who agreed to listen to some of the survivors share their stories over dinner, but we also heard from eye-witnesses at the Exodus Conference that senior leadership discouraged people from attending the dinner and even misrepresented it.

To those who provide and promote ex-gay ministries and therapies, I believe that most of you mean well. You genuinely want to help LGBT people and believe that the ex-gay route is the best route. Lots of gay activists may question this, but I have met enough of the ex-gay leaders personally to know that one of their major motives for offering ex-gay services is a sincere quest to help those who they feel would be lost otherwise. I believe they have other motives too as none of us do anything with a single, pure motive.

But what baffles me is that when you have someone under your care, you minister to them, encourage them and walk with them, how is it that once they leave your care and your way of thinking that they become "the other" and in many cases "untouchables"? But more importantly, how can you discount their experiences?

I can't buy a cup of soy latte these days without having to fill out some sort of form or evaluations asking me to describe my caffeine experience? Yet people can spend months, even years and many dollars in an ex-gay program, yet once they leave their opinions do not count.

Perhaps they do at some of the smaller ministries, but since 1999 I have heard from people who have tried to communicate with Exodus about harmful practices at specific Exodus programs, but have barely gotten a hearing and then told that nothing can be done. Dismissed. Invalidated. Ignored. It is a bad business practice. It seems unethical. It runs counter to the ministry model I see in the New Testament, particularly the ministry of Jesus.

For people who run ex-gay ministries, provide ex-gay counseling, promote ex-gay experiences and refer to people to ex-gay programs, to folks who, like Warren Throckmorton, are trying to come up with therapeutic guidelines for those who want to suppress their sexual orientation, you need to sit down, shut up and listen.

I don't mean to be rude, but too many of you have immediately gone on the defensive and shut your ears. Warren Throckmorton, Alan Chambers, Jason Thompson*, PFOX and Focus on the Family have each publicly downplayed the harm that ex-gay survivors say they experienced. Some say that no scientific proof exists that harm occurs. That is because no one has taken the time and the care to effectively study the harm. The recent study by Yarhouse and Jones fails miserably.

But these many stories that have emerged the past six months speak volumes. They reveal the role the church, society, family as well as ex-gay practices and theories play in damaging people who have come to you for help.

It's a hard pill to swallow, but we're not making this stuff up. We speak out as a witness and a warning. For those of you who provide and promote ex-gay experiences and theories, what does this mean to you? How willing are you to sit and listen at length over the next year to these people who once were under your care? Yes, it may mean you will have to rethink some things. You may experience pain and grief. You may also grow in grace and knowledge and love.

UPDATE 10/23/07 9:00 PM
[*I mistakenly placed Jason Thompson in with a list of people who "have each publicly downplayed the harm that ex-gay survivors say they experienced." Actually Jason Thomson is one of the few who have publicly acknowledged possible harm and showed some compassion towards ex-gay survivors. In his August newsletter he writes,
The day of their conference I went with two other leaders to visit them. They were grateful we stopped by. A great sadness and a measure of confusion came over me. What happened to these men and women? In what ways do our ministries contribute to their pain? What are we saying or not saying, doing, or not doing that we can learn to do differently. Obviously, our foundational understanding of God’s truth is different than theirs and these differences can never be reconciled. At the same time, we in Exodus ministries don’t always do everything right. There is room for us to learn.
I had read the newsletter when it was published after Jason e-mailed me about it, but since then in writing this post, I remembered only the part where he gave his definition of ex-ex-gays, a definition that seems both simplistic and inaccurate of the ex-gay survivors who attended our conference. He wrote:
(If you are a little confused, “ex-ex-gays” are men and women who sought change but then found the journey to be too painful and now are content being gay as well as speaking out against the message of freedom).
Jason also acknowledged harm in the form of a public comment he left on Ex-Gay Watch. In prefacing a point about Ex-Gay Watch he states, "It is evident that ex-gay ministries have harmed many."

Although Jason and I can disagree on several items, he has publicly shown his willingness to consider the harm that ex-gay survivors say they experienced. I apologize for overlooking Jason's previous comments.]

Allies, Friends, Family and Partners of Ex-Gay Survivors
Thank you for being there. You may have no firsthand knowledge of what what ex-gay survivors experienced, yet you listen, you try to understand. In reading our narratives I hope you can gain insight into some of the challenges that some of us have in forming intimate relationships with you. You may bump into a wall and wonder if you have done something wrong or if there is something wrong with you. The wall may be one erected years ago through ex-gay therapy and ministry designed to keep us from experiencing intimacy and acceptance. It may be a wall of shamed piled high over time. It may be a wall of fear that we will get rejected once again.

Sometimes the ex-gay survivor in your life may not wish to talk about his or her experience. Too painful. But one of the best gifts you can give is a listening ear, let their stories sink in and simply be there for the person. No need to offer advice, just listen and hear and reflect back what you hear. What a gift. Express your shock and your sadness over what your loved one has to share. Let them know they are safe with you. And even though the ex-gay experience is not one you have encountered, assure them that you want to understand it and more importantly you desire to understand them.

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At 1:05 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for a most thoughtful post.

At 6:00 PM , Blogger Steve Schalchlin said...

Great post. Please continue your vital and valuable work.

At 6:52 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

As someone in the "ex-gay" category and who ministers to other ex-gays, I just want to acknowledge the pain that all of you have experienced. I read through your comments, and I also attended part of the Ex-Gay Survivor Conference. Your thoughts and feelings are valid and there are things that I have, and continue to, learn from all those who consider themselves in the survivor camp.

While we have fundamental differences that cannot be reconciled, that does not mean we cannot listen to each other. And simply because I, or someone else, did not experience harm in an ex-gay ministry doesn't mean that others haven't. We are all individuals with unique experiences.

I know for myself, one of the hardest parts of this journey was feeling that God hated me, that I was such a failure. That is something I have heard some of you as well. I can identify with the pain of trying and trying and trying and feeling exhausted and suicidal.

One of the things I wish I had known earlier is the profound and wonderful grace of God. He loves us no matter where we are at. He loves us unconditionally. When I felt like a failure, I wish I had understood that grace then.

I don't think anyone should be ex-gay because of fear of God, fear of failure. That may have been my motivation for awhile. But ultimately, God doesn't want that kind of relationship with us. I make the choice I do now because I find peace in it, because I love God and this is my way of giving back to him.

Anyway, I think the ex-gay movement can learn from survivors on how we can better avoid some of the painful circumstances. I did provide feedback to Exodus leaders from Peterson, Vince, Vince and Christine etc. And, I am always open to hearing your stories.

At 9:08 PM , Blogger Peterson Toscano said...

Karen, thank you so much for visiting and leaving your comment. I have appreciated your willingness to hear and feel and share your heart.
thank you.

From my few experiences with you, I sense someone who cares more about people than politics. That speaks deeply to me.

At 9:34 PM , Blogger Peterson Toscano said...

thank you jimbo and steve for the encouragement.

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