My disillusionment with ex-gay ministry/conversion therapy happened, to quote Ernest Hemingway’s character Mike in the novel The Sun Also Rises, “gradually, then suddenly.”
When I eagerly became a Christian in my mid-twenties, I approached being “ex-gay” with the same zeal I approached God and His Church. My thunderclap conversion from militant lesbian to dedicated Christian, and the excitement over God revealing Himself to me fueled my determination to follow Jesus with all my heart, mind, soul and strength. If the Bible said it was a sin to be gay—and my pastors assured me it did—then I wouldn’t be gay. Simple. I was a new creature in Christ, why would ending a behavior be an insurmountable challenge? If loving God meant obeying His Word, then I would abandon all vestiges of my former self, and throw my body and soul into full obedience.
This worked for a year, until I fell in love with one of my friends. I kept my feelings to myself, and suffered an unrequited, forbidden love that was as agonizing as it was discouraging. My self-hatred grew as I was reminded that our thoughts and attractions matter. After all, Jesus said in Matthew 5:28, “But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” I wasn’t looking at anyone “lustfully,” but I believed my desire for an immoral relationship was sinful.
This silent torture continued for three years. No matter how many hours a day I prayed and read my Bible, no matter how many Bible studies I attended or how many scriptures I memorized, the deep feelings of love and attraction for my friend did not diminish. I began to think of these feelings as my cross to bear. I’d remind myself of Job, in the midst of his suffering, saying, “Though He slay me, will I trust in Him,” and vowed to never give up, to maintain my walk with the Lord even if it was painful and didn’t seem fair.
To further my commitment to God, and feeling called to spread the gospel, I became a campus missionary at UCLA. My job was to invite students to our weekly Bible study and to conduct Bible studies with female students. Located on the west side of Los Angeles, UCLA is full of actors, performers, and movie industry people. It wasn’t long before I met an actress studying to be a director and producer in the M.F.A. program (I’ll call her L). After L and I had gotten together a few times to talk about Jesus, I told her I used to be a lesbian but not anymore, God had changed me. It was true my behavior had changed, even if my feelings hadn’t. L didn’t say anything. A few days later, she invited me for coffee. We walked from her apartment to Westwood Village in uncomfortable silence. Waiting to order, she turned toward me with a flash of fury, “Why do you think someone can’t be gay and Christian? I’m gay and I’m a Christian.” I was astounded. I had never heard anyone say they were a gay Christian; at 27, I didn’t believe it was possible. When I quoted the well-worn passages from Romans and 1 Corinthians, pointing out that they weren’t difficult to understand, L spat, “You need to read theologians who aren’t hand-picked by the Religious Right. I’ll lend you some books so you can educate yourself.”
Unswayed by L’s insistence that some theologians thought being gay was okay, I mumbled, “But, the Bible is clear that same-sex sex is sin.”
“Is it?” retorted L.
I backed off.
When we got back to her apartment, L gave me an armful of books and told me to leave. I looked back to say good-bye, but she closed the door. That was the last time I saw L. I left messages on her answering machine under the guise of returning her books (that I never read), but I really just wanted to see her again. She never responded. When I lamented to my campus pastor, he said, “like the Bible says, ‘shake the dust off your feet.’ She wants to sin and is listening to people who tell her what she wants to hear.”
Years later, when I was a policy analyst at Family Research Council, entrenched in ex-gay political and religious ideology, I saw a movie review in the Washington Blade of “But I’m a Cheerleader” (starring Natasha Lyone, with Michelle Williams and RuPaul), about a lesbian whose parents send her to conversion therapy camp. As I scanned the article, L’s name popped out at me. She was the producer. I closed the paper. L is a lesbian…and she loves God. With a twinge of sorrow over our lost friendship, I brushed the thought aside and went back to work.
By the time I began working at FRC, my same-sex attractions had calmed down, but would flare up from time to time with shocking intensity. I would go through months of longing and anguish, begging God to take the feelings away, to make me whole, to no avail. Meanwhile, struggling gay people would contact me for help. Often, when I would refer them to an Exodus ministry, they would say groups that gathered to talk about their shared sin weren’t for them. I’d provide book recommendations, pray with them, and offer advice. But no one ever changed. They would call back months later and say, “I tried. I really did. But the attractions won’t go away. Does this mean God hates me?”
I assured them God didn’t hate them. But I secretly wondered why God was not changing anyone. After every discouraging interaction, I dug deeper into books, looking for a fool-proof method for changing sexual attractions—something I had overlooked, something new, something that worked.
At the Exodus member-ministry I attended while working at FRC, no one was changing either. The same people showed up week after week, month after month, year after year. They shared their struggles: their thoughts and actions, their dimming hopes and piercing sorrows. The director berated the group members for being weak and not loving God enough, yet they would return the following week, begging Jesus for a breakthrough.
Some gay people married the opposite sex, had kids, and seemed to be happy, only to cheat on their spouses and/or divorce years later. It was a sad and tragic cycle I saw over and over again. The only gay people whose mixed-orientation marriages lasted were “professional ex-gays,” whose livelihoods depended on proving to the world they had changed—and even those weren’t beyond destruction. Gay people who tried to change, but never did, accumulated like dust in a neglected corner. Closer to home, a dear friend from high school, who had experienced same-sex attractions since adolescence but remained abstinent, never changed. His close-knit family would disown him if he were gay, so he hid and pretended.
Years later, as director of women’s ministry for Exodus (the largest ex-gay ministry in the world prior to its closure in 2012), I fielded calls from local member-ministry leaders who admitted to gay relationships, primarily with group attendees. High-level leaders “fell” and we chalked it up to attacks from the devil, or the stress from verbal attacks against us by gay activists pursuing the “gay agenda.”
It was disheartening to see ongoing stagnation and failure. But there was little room to question whether ex-gay ministry/conversion therapy worked, whether people really changed, when promoting it was a “calling” from God. For years I had been told by pastors, prophets, and ministry leaders that helping gay people see “the error of their ways” and become straight was God’s purpose for my life. My identity in the Church was as a staunch upholder of God’s word concerning homosexuality. How could I deny God and his plan for my life?
Then one day, in the spring of 2009, I received a harrowing call from my 5-year-old daughter’s pediatrician. “Take Erica to Oakland Children’s Hospital. They’re expecting you.” My daughter had acute lymphoblastic leukemia and, what’s worse, she was slow to respond to treatment. In her hospital room day after day, I was trapped in a nightmare: would my daughter survive, would the treatment crush her emotionally, would she be frail and sickly for the rest of her life? The pain and torment she suffered from the various chemotherapy treatments were difficult for me to witness when there was nothing I could do to ease her pain. My body shook with panic and I couldn’t catch my breath. For weeks, I could barely hold myself together. In desperation, I went to a therapist when we got back home. She said, “Your daughter’s cancer is like a tiger chasing you, and you can’t get away. Your physical reactions, while scary, are normal. However, I get the impression this isn’t the first time you’ve experienced anxious responses in your body. When people do not live authentically, panic and anxiety can set in. Think about it.”
I held my head in my hands and said, “It’s my job.”
“What about it?”
“I can’t do it anymore. Gay people can’t become straight, no matter how much they want to or how hard they try.”
I couldn’t continue to promise LGBTQ+ Christians they could become something they weren’t. It was pharisaical to yoke them with an impossible burden. This sudden realization sparked real change in me, from someone wedded to the idea that gay Christians could and should change, to someone willing to lay aside everything I thought I knew and begin the hard process of listening and learning.
Yvette can be contacted at Yvette@canyonwalkerconnections.com