Last week news broke that yet another "ex-gay" minister is accused of sexually abusing young men in his ministry. It's a story that has played out over and over, in ministry after ministry, for decades now. As an evangelical who once thought "ex-gay" ministries were the answer for me, too, I'm heartbroken every time.
Evangelicals: This is on us. We've got to stop this from happening.
In case you've never heard of "ex-gay" ministries, they are organizations that offer various forms of counseling, therapy and religious support to gay people who don't want to be gay. Most of them are Christian-based, and most of them are evangelical.
It's easy to understand why they exist. If you believe that homosexuality is wrong, and then you discover that you yourself are attracted to the same sex, then the obvious solution seems to be some kind of therapy to help you change your attractions and become straight. As an evangelical teenager, that's certainly what I thought.
But here's the problem: People in "ex-gay" organizations don't actually become straight. Yes, they might choose to abstain from gay sex and dating. They might choose to be celibate, or even to marry a member of the opposite sex. But none of that makes them straight, if by "straight" we mean "attracted to the opposite sex, not the same sex."
I know many people who have gone through ex-gay programs. Some of them married someone of the opposite sex. Some had children. But every single one of them is still attracted to the same sex. Changing your behavior doesn't change what you feel inside.
Ex-gay ministry leaders know this. That's why many of them have stopped using the term "ex-gay" altogether, and most use language like "coming out of the gay lifestyle" rather than "becoming straight." (Incidentally, I hate the term "lifestyle" in this context. My friend Peggy Campolo, wife of Baptist minister Tony Campolo, says that she and Madonna are both straight women, but they live very different lifestyles! The same is true of gay folks.)
Even though ex-gay leaders themselves know that people aren't becoming straight, the wider evangelical community hasn't gotten the message. Many of these ministry leaders will tell you that they're still "same-sex attracted" even though they don't like to describe themselves as "gay." But what evangelical churches across America are hearing is that these groups help people become "no longer gay," and in their mind that means that these ministries can help their gay sons and daughters become straight.
That's why they unquestioningly send their children to them -- or seek the ministries out for themselves. And that's why they so easily fall into unhealthy situations where desperate, lonely, young Christians are encouraged to discuss their sexual thoughts and feelings with a leader who is denying his own gay attractions and unwilling to admit the conflict of interest.
Let me be clear: I don't mean to suggest that all ex-gay ministries involve this kind of sexual abuse. But I've personally heard countless cases of emotional, spiritual and psychological trauma in these groups, and even in less stark cases, nothing good comes from deception. Christians, of all people, should know this.
Yet herein lies the problem. The LGBT community responds to ex-gay ministries by arguing that there's nothing wrong with being gay in the first place and that people shouldn't have a reason to want to change. Conservative evangelicals reject this argument because they believe that the Bible condemns being gay -- or at least gay sex. And when some LGBTs respond with, "Well, maybe the problem is that you need to stop looking to a 2,000-year-old book for your sexual ethics," that certainly doesn't endear them to evangelicals. As a result, nothing changes.
So let me say this as a fellow evangelical: Brothers and sisters, whether you support or oppose same-sex relationships, one fact is undeniable. No ministry can turn same-sex-attracted people into opposite-sex-attracted people. It simply doesn't happen. You can call folks "gay," "ex-gay," "struggling" or "tempted," but that simple fact remains. We can bury our collective heads in the sand, but that only exposes our loved ones to abuses like this one and misunderstandings from their own churches and families. That is not the way of Jesus. If we're going to be worthy to call ourselves Christians, we need to face the realities of people's lives head-on and then determine a reasonable and compassionate response. We can't do that when we're blinding ourselves.
This reality leaves a lot of questions for the church. I've just written a whole book about what it's like to be confronted with this reality and torn about what to do about it. (Celibacy? Relationship? Change my view of Scripture?) But that process can't start -- and these abuses won't stop -- until we evangelicals pick up our heads, open our eyes and look at what's happening in the groups we've blindly trusted for far too long.