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Straight to JesusReview - Straight to Jesus
Sexual and Christian Conversions in the Ex-Gay Movement
by Tanya Erzen
University of California Press, 2006
Review by Marcus Tye, Ph.D.
Nov 28th 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 48)

Straight to Jesus: Sexual and Christian Conversions in the Ex-Gay Movement provides a fascinating yet ultimately unsatisfying look at a less written about side of the ex-gay movement, that of rank and file ex-gays themselves. Tanya Erzen notes that most material on the ex-gay movement takes the form of journalists interviewing talking heads in a pro/con format, or involves a political analysis which focuses on church leaders or the manipulation of gay rights issues by right wing political leaders to draw social conservatives in the United States to the polls and elect "red state" candidates.

Erzen instead takes the perspective of the ethnographer who "lives among the natives" as it were. She spent eighteen months volunteering in the office of the New Hope Ministry, which Erzen indicates is the oldest of five residential ex-gay programs in the United States. Her perspective is a fresh and welcome one, yet I finished her book wanting a great deal more, and a great deal less. While the book focuses on the calendar year 2000 New Hope "class" of ex-gays, it also includes in bits and pieces a history of the ex-gay movement, the larger Exodus ministry, and many figures in the ex-gay movement. I'll first detail the book's strengths and what can be learned from it, and then will consider its weaknesses.

As Erzen explains in the introduction, her offer to volunteer reveals much about the psychological mindset of the ex-gay movement:

After I explained that I hoped to comprehend the perspectives of men and women in an ex-gay ministry through prolonged fieldwork and interviews at New Hope, Anita informed me that "we are in a battle," and the battle is between "us versus them." I was unsure what she meant, and she clarified that "them" meant Satan, and she was convinced that many people were in his service. Her next question, "Who do you serve?" was calculated to establish where my allegiances lay.

I had never been faced with the choice of God or Satan, but I replied that since I was at the ministry to understand their viewpoint rather than simply to dismiss or ridicule them, I supposed I was on the side of "us." Somehow, I passed the test, and my answer enabled Anita to assimilate me into her religious universe. (p. 6)

Erzen succeeds in providing a sensitive account of the internal religious struggle experienced by people who identify themselves as ex-gay. Gay affirmative therapists such as myself understand their struggle to actually be one between innate biological sexual orientation, and their own homophobic belief systems. But this is not how self-identified ex-gays understand their experience. They see themselves as in a struggle to be true to their own internal definition of what it means to be Christian and what it means to follow Jesus' teachings, which they have accepted almost without question means that one cannot be homosexual. Those who question this premise eventually abandon the attempt to be ex-gay and become comfortable reconciling homosexuality with a different definition of Christianity, those who don't reject the premise remain condemned to struggle.

New Hope takes an approach that is at once intense yet low-key. Participants commit to spending a year in a residential program where they live at-cost in humble surroundings, working at part-time jobs that New Hope helps to secure, and have an essentially immersion experience in following the steps of the founder, Frank Worthen, a formerly out gay man who, at the age of 44, in 1973, experienced a conversion himself. The program is now run day-to-day by others, themselves more recent graduates.

The larger and more financially successful Exodus programs such as Love in Action (originally started by Worthen but now independent) take a conventional 12-step treatment model, have professional counselors on staff and conduct psychiatric screenings of potential participants, and have a 30- to 90-day treatment time frame in which participants receive intensive services much as they might in a professional rehabilitation setting, complete with catering and cleaning services. In contrast, New Hope appears to embody something of the home-grown spirit of the hippie movement in the 1970s when it started: everyone lives in a communal environment, they take care of all the chores and eat their evening meals together. The program helps them to find part-time jobs to cover rent and expenses which are essentially at-cost. There are no professional counselors, and while many of the concepts that underlie change are the same as Exodus, these are applied strictly in a supportive, entirely self-help group fashion. Unlike Exodus, which promises conversion of sexual orientation, New Hope's focus is on the relationship with Jesus and a change from homosexuality, but not necessarily to heterosexuality. Professional counseling is not expected. Participants are immersed in their communal experience, going on outings to reinforce traditional gender roles and non-sexual same-sex social relationships. For most of the year, they are required to be chaperoned when they are outside of their residences (even when at work) to ensure they do not stray.

Erzen indicates she spent 18 months at New Hope, conducting two to three hour interviews with forty-seven men and women, with nineteen follow-up interviews. Yet her real research experience was informal, spending most of these 18 months working at New Hope during the day, and informally interacting with most of her interviewees at dinners, church functions, in the office, and sometimes serving as a confidante, chaperone and friend for them. The strength of the book is when she focuses on these individual life stories. It is surprising that there is no single common theme in the backgrounds of the ex-gay "strugglers." Most are men, most come from rural backgrounds and have never lived in a city before. New Hope is near San Francisco, and many have never even once visited a large metropolitan area and are quite naÔve, expecting sin to be on every street corner. Most of course are raised in a fundamentalist version of Christianity that has taught them that homosexuality is ungodly, and most have been very unhappy, often leading secret lives with emotionally unfulfilling anonymous sexual encounters or drug abuse.

While most participants have quite tortured personal histories, there are exceptions at New Hope whom Erzen met or heard about from past years who are strikingly counter to stereotype: some are women, including a former Lesbian Avenger activist, some are educated and come from urban areas, some have lived open lives identifying as out, proud gay men or lesbians prior to their religious conversions, a few had quite fulfilling relationship histories, some came from Europe on religious exception visas as they were unable find ex-gay programs in their home countries, and a few did not have a particularly evangelical upbringing.

If there is any common element, it is only that at the time they are at New Hope, everyone believes that a personal relationship with Jesus is vital to their lives and that homosexuality is antithetical to such a relationship. Erzen tracked from start to finish the "class of 2000" in calendar year 2000. Most of these people did not complete the program. †Many of those who did finish later returned to a gay identity, although a few maintain their identity as strugglers.

Unlike the media coverage of the ex-gay movement, and unlike competing ex-gay ministries, Erzen notes that most of those who participate at New Hope, including the leaders, do not expect or promise a conversation to heterosexuality. Rather, they promise a way to reconcile their personal beliefs in Christianity with same-sex desires by maintaining a celibate lifestyle, one which they claim will eventually involve a lessening of same-sex desires and perhaps a heterosexual relationship. Behavioral lapses are expected and, again unlike other programs, are taken as par for the course if infrequent. A gay identity is replaced with that of an "ex-gay struggler." Among those who do successfully complete the program, a few eventually leave behind this ex-gay identity and return to a mainstream church identifying as heterosexual; more, however, maintain their celibate struggler identity for years after the program finishes. Many New Hope graduates remain affiliated with an ex-gay ministry somewhere, with some remaining at New Hope itself for a second year as a group leader.

The testimonies of participants are an important part of their work, which Erzen notes often come to follow a formulaic approach emphasizing pseudo-scientific theories about gender role nonconformity and inadequate non-sexual same-sex friendships. Erzen is at her strongest when she pulls out their unique histories and experiences from these testimonies.

This perspective is very enlightening, but I was left wanting much more. Even though Erzen got to know many participants quite well, the book only fleetingly touches on the life stories of individuals in the program. Worse, the narratives of many participants are scattered in several different chapters, a little bit here, a little bit there, almost as if one were reading a blog organized chronologically, rather than a scholarly narrative. The author covers quite a few participants and, since histories appear in several places as she learned about them during the year, it becomes difficult to keep track of all the details and to develop a coherent sense about any particular person's experiences. To compound the chaos, she doesn't follow a strict calendar chronology throughout the book, so her eighteen months can't be tracked as one might read a novel. The clock is re-started in most chapters, so that any given chapter contains material learned from the start of her year, the middle, the end, and a follow-up years later. Sometimes within a chapter she jumps from the end of her year, to an event that happened in the middle just a few pages later. It's as if someone had taken a blog and shuffled it up.

At times it is not apparent if she has any overall theme for the book, which she says is based on her doctoral dissertation. For example, in the introduction she says,

Although I consider the ex-gay movement a political, cultural, and social movement, I did not situate New Hope within this body of theory, choosing instead to analyze daily life and interactions. (p. 11)

Yet, in the next paragraph, she says,

However, to understand the connection between the local experiences of ex-gay men and women and the wider political implications of the movement, I situate the ex-gay movement within the wider historical currents of twentieth-century evangelical religion; self-help culture; psychiatric and psychological theories on sexuality, gay and lesbian liberation, and feminism; and the history of the Christian Right. (p. 11)

I had to read this several times to understand that she was intending to write about New Hope in detail, and she was intending to write about the politics of the ex-gay movement, but not to relate her research at New Hope to these politics. This seemed a curious choice indeed! It seems impossible to fully understand daily life at New Hope without considering the tie-in with broader socio-political movements.

Fortunately, Erzen doesn't actually do what she says in the introduction. Her subsequent chapters do somewhat relate New Hope to broader themes about evangelical religion and the ex-gay movement. Unfortunately, her historical research suffers from the same structural choppiness that characterizes her descriptions of New Hope participants. The socio-political histories of ex-gay ministries are far from monolithic, rather, they represent a Byzantine mix of individual churches operated by quirky individuals and sometimes supported by big-name evangelicals. They include small-time pastors who derive their livelihood from rent paid by residential ex-gays living in investment property owned by the minister, to slick nationally-funded "research" organizations countering the findings of peer-reviewed science in the national press. While she provides a history of New Hope and other pre-Exodus ministries in the earlier chapters, and the evangelical political movement in later chapters, this history is often mixed up with the narrative accounts of individuals she met at New Hope or experiences that members had during her time volunteering.

Although the book has an excellent index, the lack of organization in the historical research is reflected in the sparse table of contents. It makes it very difficult to use the book as a reference. While I eventually got a sense of how current organizations like NARTH and Exodus function, I was left confused as to their history even after reading about it. Again, I was left wanting more, better organized information. The last structural shortcoming is that she often repeated basic information and definitions that had been covered earlier in the book, as if later chapters had been written as stand-alone articles (or perhaps at very different times from earlier chapters). This is when I was left wanting much less. Anyone reading this as a reference book who wants to get historical information correct should be prepared to have to read the book cover to cover, taking careful notes organized by church, historical figure, and cross-referenced with a timeline of the reader's own construction, creating a road map that the author should have provided.

In sum, despite enormous organizational flaws that detract from the book's utility as a reference, and despite a scattershot approach that makes it difficult to get close to the individuals about whom she writes, this book offers some history about ex-gay ministries and provides an enlightening perspective on individuals who identify as ex-gay.

 

© 2006 Marcus Tye

 

Marcus Tye, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Department of Psychology, Dowling College, NY.


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