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Can We Leave the Ex-Gays Alone?

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Recently an "ex-gay" friend of mine was detailing the pain he felt when some of his colleagues at work were gossiping about him after finding out he was an ex-gay. "It gets better," I jokingly told him, before immediately realizing that that statement in itself was an act of bullying.

I recalled my five years in reparative therapy through the Jewish ex-gay organization JONAH (Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality) and remembered attending ex-gay conferences such as Love Won Out and being confronted by LGBT protestors. Those times were quite difficult, because even though I was confident I was on the right path, I felt I was being challenged, mocked, and put down.

Occasionally, an opportunity would arise to meet with a graduate student writing her thesis on ex-gays, or a filmmaker wanting to document someone's journey out of homosexuality. I guess a part of me wanted to connect with the mainstream world, and therefore I usually obliged. Graduate students seemed interested in the desire of someone wanting to change their sexuality, while filmmakers tended to focus on mocking the ex-gay process. Many times I left feeling defeated and down after having my level of attractions challenged and questioned.

The media didn't help, either. During my process of change, I saw the Will & Grace episode in which Jack becomes attracted to the leader of an ex-gay program (played by Neil Patrick Harris) and acts straight to woo the man -- and succeeds. The movie But I'm a Cheerleader, about a naïve teenager who is sent to rehab camp when her conservative parents and friends suspect her of being a lesbian, also mocks the ex-gay movement. At the time, I felt bullied by mainstream media, and no outrage was mentioned anywhere. Had there been movies and television shows that mocked the LGBT community, there would have been an uproar (as seen when ABC aired the cross-dressing sitcom Work It). Why had no one come to the defense ex-gays being mocked in the media?

The ex-gay life is a constant struggle, and the inability to "come out" as ex-gay is a result of the LGBT community ridiculing and mocking the visible and outspoken ex-gays and putting their mannerisms and affectations under a microscope. If this were done to us, we would call it bullying. At one of my lowest times as an ex-gay, I called the Trevor Helpline (now called the Trevor Lifeline, a program of the Trevor Project) to talk to a counselor. I didn't identify myself as an ex-gay, but just needed to speak to someone. I imagine others in the ex-gay world do the same in moments of crisis.

The truth is that ex-gays are not fully accepted in their own religious communities. While preachers and rabbis publicly regard their ex-gay congregants as heroes and champions, ex-gays are often ridiculed and judged by the very people that demand they change. Many lay leaders that support the ex-gay movement would not want their own daughters marrying the very individuals they counsel to change. Successful ex-gay alumni can't come out as ex-gay, as they will likely be ostracized by their own religious communities and the gay community. It's a lose-lose situation.

The definition of "change" is truly different to the ex-gay community and the overall LGBT community. Most ex-gays define change as the ability to achieve certain goals, not shifting where they fall on the Kinsey scale. Those goals may include not acting on their same-sex attractions or thoughts, being able to find a woman who will accept their struggle, and marrying with the minimum ability to perform with their wives, or being celibate and committed to Jesus. It's no secret that Viagra and Cialis are doing their jobs within some marriages involving ex-gays. The LGBT community (and the media) define change within the boxes that general society does: Choose a letter in the rainbow of sexuality, or be an ally. If I, a gay man, were to come stumbling home from my local gay bar and hook up with a woman, none of my peers would accuse me of being "straight." Yet when ex-gays "slip" and fall into the arms of another man, you can be sure someone will be there with an iPhone to capture the experience and expose their gayness to the world. It's a double standard.

That said, I don't have compassion for the ex-gay leaders who spew misinformation to their flock of changers, don't properly state the dangers of reparative therapy and unsafe sex, present skewed statistics on people who have successfully "changed," and misstate the definition of "change" to those in their programs. Ex-gay leaders who have histories of unethical behavior or mistruths should be exposed to the public as such. However, we need to remember the countless number of men they are counseling who don't have YouTube campaigns or mainstream organizations dedicated to their well-being.

The existence of ex-gays does not delegitimize who I am as a gay man, and vice versa. The fact is, some people have attraction to people of the same sex and live their lives proudly as gay, and others don't. Some come out swinging, and others stay on the down low. Remember, there was a time when LGBT life was not visible to the public, but it didn't mean we ceased to exist. The ex-gay community is active and here, even if we don't see them, so we'd better get used to it. We believe we were born this way, and they believe they were born that way, but you know what? Suicide doesn't discriminate against ex-gays, and neither should we. We need to realize this before we make a mockery of their struggle.

UPDATE: In response to the many comments below, I would like to clarify some things. Like many LGBTs, I spent years going through reparative therapy and other "ex-gay" programs before accepting myself as a gay man, out and proud. I see no evidence that these programs work; on the contrary, they offer only false hope and, in many cases, real harm. The evidence against orientation change is overwhelming and mounts every day. We must continue the fight against the spread of misinformation about this issue and for the rights we all deserve. We must also recognize what is often at the root of the desire to change: entrenched heterosexism and internalized homophobia. Let's try always to remember how destructive this can be when we deal with individuals who are caught up in ex-gay ideology. Many of them will eventually gain their own self-acceptance as we have, and they deserve some understanding along the way. It is my compassion for these victims that motivated this post, clumsy as the attempt may have been. You can read more about my journey through the ex-gay movement here.