Throughout the 1980s and 90s, the Christian right poured money and muscle into promoting the message that homosexuality was a curable disorder. It advocated conversion therapy, which promised to turn gay men and women straight. But last week, when President Obama announced his support for a national ban on such therapies, few voices on the Christian right spoke up in protest. The announcement confirmed the evaporation of support for these approaches among the communities that once embraced them. As Alan Chambers, who once ran America’s largest ex-gay ministry, told me, “sexual orientation doesn’t change.”
It was a shift rooted in the accrual of evidence and experience. After she came out as a lesbian in high school, Julie Rodgers’ conservative Christian parents urged her to join a ministry in Texas to help make her straight. Ministry leaders promised her that if she continued praying, reading the Bible, attending meetings, and of course, refusing to identify as gay, her sexual orientation would eventually change and she could even marry a man. Rodgers didn’t want to go, but she did want the food, shelter, and love her parents offered. So she agreed.
The program worked great—except that it didn’t. After a decade of compliance, neither Rodger's orientation nor those of her fellow group members budged toward straightness. And worse, the empty promises and feeling that she was “less than” normal left her drowning in a sea of shame.
It’s a sad story, but one that grows gloomier when you consider that Rodgers is one of the lucky ones. Countless LGBT youths have been subjected to much worse, not just in Christian ministries, but also at the hands of licensed counselors who perform what is known as “reparative” or “conversion therapy.” These controversial mental health practices, intended to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity, are ineffective and often drive participants to depression, anxiety, drug use, or suicide.
In recent years, however, conversion therapy has been much maligned if not completely discredited. Almost all major medical and public welfare organizations oppose it, and even conservative Christians—once counted among its strongest supporters—are changing their minds. New Jersey, California, and Washington, D.C., have already outlawed ex-gay therapy for minors. By all accounts, therapies attempting to cure gayness appear to be going the way of the buggy whip.
But this hasn’t always been so. According to Kenneth Lewes, in his book, Psychoanalysis and Male Homosexuality, some began to view same-sex erotic behavior less as sin than as a mental-health disorder as early as the 19th century. This was true of other “sinful” behaviors as well—for example, drunkenness morphed into alcoholism and demon possession became schizophrenia or a personality disorder.
The shift was spurred on by the work of Sigmund Freud in the early 1900s, even though the iconic neurologist was pessimistic about either the possibility or desirability of changing homosexual orientation to heterosexual. Freud’s belief that human beings are born bisexual and can move along a continuum of sexuality formed the basis of the belief that homosexuals could be “cured.”
This way of thinking about sexual orientation persisted into the mid-20th century as many Americans fantasized about an idyllic “traditional family” in the Father Knows Best and Leave it to Beaver molds. By the start of the American cultural revolution in the 1960s, many mental-health professionals, clergy, and politicians supported the idea that homosexuality was a mental-health disorder that could be cured through some combination of prayer and “therapy,” which included electroshock therapy, masturbatory reconditioning, and giving patients nausea-inducing drugs while forcing them to view homosexual erotica.
“One reason why homosexuals are so rarely cured is that they rarely try treatment,” proclaimed a 1965 Time magazine article. “Too many of them actually believe that they are happy and satisfied the way they are.”
But the late 60s and 70s brought on a blitzkrieg of social change. Women’s liberationists energized the feminist movement, the conflict in Vietnam provoked an anti-war movement, a growing awareness of ecological degradation brought on the environmental movement, and an increasingly mobilized LGBT community morphed into a powerful gay-rights movement.
In 1974, the American Psychiatric Association voted to remove homosexuality from its list of mental health disorders. This inflamed many conservatives, especially the Christians among them, who were now mobilizing in the public square against what they believed was a growing tumor of secularism.
Christian pastors promoted anti-gay messages from their pulpits, even advocating the idea that HIV/AIDs was a special form of God’s wrath and judgment against human sinfulness. Christian funders helped bankroll ex-gay ministries like Exodus International, which grew into a coalition of more than 80 ministry partners across 34 states. In 1998, Christian political groups even spent $600,000 on pro-conversion therapy ads in The New York Times, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, and other publications. Robert Knight of the Family Research Council called it “the Normandy landing in the culture war.”
As a result, ex-gay therapy experienced something of a resurgence in the 1990s. Newspapers often treated it as a medically viable option, and Newsweek ran a sympathetic cover story in 1998.
But the foundations of this effort began crumbling at the turn of the 21st century. While peer-reviewed evidence for the efficacy of aversive therapies was lacking, a growing body of scientific studies indicated that it was not effective in altering subjects’ sexual orientations and was potentially harmful. (The main study cited in support of conversion therapy was conducted by Robert L. Spitzer, who later apologized and admitted his data was tainted, unreliable, and misinterpreted.) After reviewing such studies, major medical organizations—the American Medical Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Counseling Organization, National Association of Social Workers, World Health Organization, and others—systematically repudiated these practices as harmful.
While science was discrediting conversion therapy, high-profile ex-gay leaders were either apologizing and defecting to the other side or being exposed as frauds. John Paulk, a man who had been a vocal and visible supporter of gay conversion for more than a decade and claimed to be happily married to a former lesbian, was photographed in a Washington, D.C., gay bar in 2000. Three years later, it was discovered that Michael Johnston, founder of “National Coming Out of Homosexuality Day,” was having unprotected sex with men he’d met online despite being HIV-positive. In 2006, Ted Haggard, a fiery opponent of gay rights and then president of the National Association of Evangelicals, admitted to having gay sex with a male prostitute after unsuccessful attempts to change his orientation through counseling. A few years later, John Smid, former executive director of the ex-gay advocacy group “Love in Action,” apologized and said he “never met a man who experienced a change from homosexual to heterosexual.” These names are only a sampling.
By the second decade of the 21st century, the scientific foundation of reparative therapy had eroded, every major medical association had repudiated it, the movement’s leaders were falling away, and viral horror stories from former participants were popping up across the web.
But the death-knell sounded in July of 2013 when Alan Chambers, president of Exodus International, America’s largest ex-gay Christian ministry apologized to the LGBT community and shuttered his organization. Chambers once claimed he knew “tens of thousands of people who have successfully changed their sexual orientation.” But last week, he told me “99.9 percent of people I met through Exodus’ ministries had not experienced a change in orientation.”
Chambers’ announcement seemed to unleash a broader shift among conservative Christians, the last defense against reparative therapy’s demise. Julie Rodgers, the ex-gay ministry survivor from Texas, now serves on the ministry staff at Wheaton College, one of America’s most prominent evangelical universities, where she has spoken against ex-gay therapy. Russell Moore, the political pointman for the Southern Baptist Convention, has publicly repudiated the practice. Even the opinion editor at the school newspaper for Liberty University, founded by the late Jerry Falwell, editorialized against it.
In 2011—roughly half a century from gay conversion therapy’s heyday—only 24 percent of Americans said they believe it works. The number is presumably even lower today.
While some disparate pockets of support remain, they are waning. The day when ex-gay therapy enjoyed legitimacy in mainstream medicine, media, religion and society is now heading for the history books. And in its place, there is a growing consensus that such practices are distasteful, irresponsible, unethical—and perhaps should be illegal.