A few years ago the Southern Poverty Law Center asked me if I would consider the Ex-Gay group Exodus International, a Hate Group. This conversion therapy umbrella organization dismantled itself four years ago, but during its heyday in the late Ninties and early Noughties, it not only proclaimed that change was possible for people gays or lesbians, it spoke out against hate crime legislation and equal rights for LGBTQ people. They did hateful things, but were they a hate group like the KKK and other white supremacist groups?
During the 17 years I received and endured conversion therapies, heterosexuality was preached as God’s ideal for all creation. Anything other than heterosexual partnerships, (within the context of marriage of course,) were considered inferior, immoral, and potentially dangerous, not only for the individual but to society at large. Most of the places where I received conversion therapy, the leaders used God and the Bible to uphold their 1950’s white suburban middle class family values. They expected everyone to adhere to strict gender guidelines. Therefore, much of the teachings we received were designed to transform us into “real” men and women. Technically most conversion therapists and ex-gay ministers do not believe there are any other people in the world beside gender normative heterosexuals. Transgender, bisexual, lesbian, gay, and gender non-conforming people are simply “normal” straight folks who are misbehaving and need to repent.
At large Love Won Out gatherings organized by Focus on the Family and Exodus International, success stories were trotted out on stage, replete with family photos displayed on big screens. For parents with an LGBTQ child, the message was crystal clear—Fear not, like these fine folks, your child can be saved from homosexuality! Of course many of the successful ex-gays on those stages have since come to their senses and are now out of the closet pursuing new lives as LGBTQ people. Some have even gone so far as to renounce their part in the Ex-Gay Movement. They have issued public apologies, and denounced the treatments they provided and promoted as dangerous.
Heterosexuality was prized and preached in the programs I attended. Many of these conversion therapy providers are not only anti-LGBTQ, they are also Straight Supremacists. They hold up heterosexuality as the ultimate goal and God’s best for our lives. Most of the people who have run these programs have been ex-gay themselves. Straight people also have played a part. At the Love in Action residency program I attended in Memphis, TN, a handful of heterosexuals served on staff along side the former gays and lesbians. These heterosexual men and women who never “struggled with same-sex attraction” were referred to as Ever Straights. They were the models we were told to follow.
No doubt I experienced harm at the hands of conversion therapists. They have and still do stir up trouble in people’s lives and families. They cause harm in churches, counseling sessions, and in society. Still it is not so simple to call them Hate Groups. Since so many of the people who run them are ex-gay themselves and live under the burden of gender norms and the aspiration to heterosexuality, they need to also be defined by the self-harm they perpetuate.
After spending time with the question, I replied to Southern Poverty Law Center. These ex-gay groups are not exactly like most hate groups, they operate as Self-Hate Groups. The revulsion and intolerance they have turned in on themselves spills over into the world. They then direct it towards all LGBTQ people.
I lived in that stew of hate and fear for nearly 20 years. The self-hatred ate at me like a cancer. I grew confused, anger, and suicidal. I was not stuck in the closet; I was trapped in a tomb. Coming out was not enough. I had to undo the destruction to my psyche. I needed therapy to address the damage caused by the unethical treatments I received, treatments that have been denounced by every major medical association in the world and are now illegal in some US states.
Besides traditional therapy, I needed to heal though new relationships with openly LGBTQ people, and I needed to learn about our history, and read our literature.
I also decided to return to the Bible to take matters into my own hands. Finding heroic gender non-conforming Bible characters is part of my way to counter the hate and lies I faced. These queer Bible characters along with LGBTQ heroes in history help me see that I come from a people—queer folk who have always been and always will be in the world despite hate and ignorance.
The violence continues against LGBTQ people in the USA and beyond. Therefore, we remain vigilant, resist, and look after each other. We have a lot of fight in us.
As Russian poet Olga Fyodorovna Bergholz wrote after surviving the Siege of Leningrad, “Those who brought us so much death miscalculated. They underestimated our voracious hunger for life.”