Wednesday, March 9, 2011

"Pray Away the Gay?" on OWN

On Tuesday evening at 10 p.m. Eastern, OWN presented an edition of Our America with Lisa Ling that discussed Christian "ex-gay" ministries. Not only did Ling bring attention to a worrisome movement, but she incorporated multiple voices into the show in a respectful manner, without neglecting the controversies surrounding "ex-gay" programs.

The episode began with scenes from the 35th Exodus International Freedom Conference, where Exodus president Alan Chambers acknowledged that the ex-gay ministry offered no guarantees. "What if your feelings never change?" he asked the audience. "Will you still serve Him?" Chambers insisted that God "created us for something better" than homosexuality.

In a one-on-one talk with Ling, Chambers said that while he still struggles with same-sex attraction, he had resisted the "power" that those "fleeting temptations" had over him before. He claims that he is now living his life through the "filter of faith" instead of the "filter of sexuality." Chambers told Ling that he did not say homosexuality was wrong, God did. Reflecting on the six passages in the Bible that address homosexuality, Ling wondered if the Bible was a "moral compass" or an iron-clad cage.

While at the Exodus conference, Ling spoke with a twenty-something young man named Ethan, who claimed that his identity is now in Christ. Sexuality , Ethan said, is part of one's identity but not the core of it. While browsing at an Exodus book table, Ethan told Ling that the lack of a male role model in his youth allegedly made him effeminate, and that Christian ex-gay books helped him affirm his masculinity.

In Ethan's worldview, sexual identity is conflated with gender identity, a common assumption in fundamentalist Christian ex-gay ministries. The words of both Ethan and Chambers also set up Christian faith and (homo)sexuality as incompatible identities, framing gay sexuality as all-encompassing identity that must be put aside to be Christian. This black-and-white message struck me as not only unrealistic, but unhealthy for LGBT people.

Ling reflected on the brutal ways that religion and science had tried to "cure" homosexuality in the past, including exorcism, lobotomies, and electroshock treatments. While medical science has abandoned these approaches and no longer classifies homosexuality as a disorder, many Christian churches still see homosexuality as sinful or pathological.

Next, Our America focused on Michael Bussee, one of the co-founders of Exodus who launched the organization in 1976. Bussee began to experienced doubts about Exodus when he saw many of the ministry's followers succumb to depression, self-injury, and suicide attempts. When he fell in love with another man (whom he later married), Bussee finally admitted that he was not "ex-gay" and left Exodus. Bussee now speaks out against ex-gay programs and has apologized for his participation in Exodus. Warmly, he told Ling that God doesn't have a problem with him being gay, as God made him gay. God, he believes, has a great love of diversity, as evidenced by the dizzying diversity found in nature.

Janet Boynes, an allegedly ex-gay woman who leads an ex-gay ministry in Minneapolis, made an appearance on the show as well. Boynes told Ling that one can "turn off" homosexuality, but one cannot turn off skin color (a possible attempt to distinguish homophobia from other forms of bigotry such as racism). I was disappointed that the show made no mention of Boynes' troubling political ties to right-wing figures, which Truth Wins Out has highlighted.

One of the people who attends Boynes' ministry is a young man named Christian, a former drag queen turned born-again Christian. While Christian gave Ling a driving tour of his old gay hangouts, he admitted frustration with an "antsy feeling" that occasionally comes over him. Painfully, he told Ling that he had been molested around the age of nine or ten, a trauma to which he attributed his later lifestyle. However, Christian also spoke warmly of his faith and church, contrasting his life now with his former life of decadence.

For a long time, I've wondered why some alleged ex-gays correlate the gay "lifestyle" with decadence and self-destructive behavior. I suspect that they connect -- or have been told to connect -- their sexual orientation with other unrelated traumas and behaviors, leading them to believe that they can resolve these problems by transcending their homosexuality. Do ex-gay ministries hold an allure for wounded, hurting people? As Evan Hurst recently observed at Truth Wins Out, "[Y]ou can’t sell the “ex-gay” lie to smart, happy, successful gays and lesbians, because we’re not vulnerable to being convinced that every problem in our lives is due to the fact that we are homosexuals."

Refreshingly, Our America also discussed a gay-affirming Christian ministry that helps LGBT Christians make peace between their sexuality and faith. Ling highlighted the Naming Project, which offers a yearly summer camp for Christian LGBT youth. In this affirming environment, young people are shown acceptance, respect, and a nuanced interpretation of scripture with regard to homosexuality.

Ling highlighted two young people whose lives were nourished by the Naming Project camp. Julian, a young man of color, had been kicked out of the Christian summer camp he'd attended for years when he came out as gay. At this new camp, Julian found acceptance as both a gay youth and a Christian. A young woman named Chelsea had encountered hostility from schoolmates when she tried to establish a gay-straight alliance at her high school, as well as when she took her girlfriend to the prom. After attending the Naming Project camp, Chelsea was ready to reach out to the anti-gay voices in her school.

After the show, Ling sat down with Gayle King for a live discussion of ex-gay programs. Ling admitted she found the teachings of Jesus "incongruent" with the often harsh teachings of the church on homosexuality, acknowledging that LGBT Christians often face scorn from their religious communities. However, she stressed the importance of civility in the debate between ex-gay groups and the LGBT community.

King and Ling welcomed commentary from several pro-LGBT guests, including Rashad Robinson, senior director of programs for GLAAD. Robinson encouraged viewers to look at ex-gay programs in the context of the wider cultural landscape, in which LGBT people face discrimination and challenges. Furthermore, he reminded the audience that thousands of lives had been damaged by ex-gay programs (an excellent point that the episode could have explored further, in my opinion). King and Ling also spoke with psychologist Adrea Macari, who emphatically insisted that ex-gay programs were NOT therapy and NOT based in hard science. Condemning reparative therapy as "pseudotherapy" and "quackery", Macari argued that ex-gay programs amounted to people being suppressed through fear and hatred.

In all, I was pleased with how Our America with Lisa Ling handled the topic of Christian ex-gay ministries. Ling allowed ministry participants to speak in their own voices while also giving attention to strong dissenting voices. Importantly, she acknowledged that ex-gay ministries do not speak for all Christians on the subject of homosexuality, highlighting a gay-affirming Christian camp and the teens who found refuge there. Ling did not shy away from talk on scripture, nor did she hesitate to ask difficult questions about religion. My biggest criticism is that the episode could have spent more time on the damage inflicted by ex-gay "therapy" on former participants, as well as the ethical implications of ex-gay ministries and programs. As shows such as Our America shine light on these ministries, they will broaden public discussion about ex-gay programs and LGBT identities.

For additional commentary, visit the following links:

The Advocate: Lisa Ling Takes on 'Ex-Gays"

Truth Wins Out: Ex-Gays’ Soft-Pedal their Politics on the Oprah Network

Truth Wins Out: Oprah Winfrey Network Turns Blind Eye to Ex-Gay Janet Boynes’ Politics


  1. I was not able to watch the program but it looked intriguing. I appreciate your excellent summary.

    You've hit the fundamental problem with the anti-gay "Christian" approach on the head: It is not healthy. It requires self-denial and suppression of self. It creates deep feelings of self-loathing.

    As you know, this is the reason why so many young gay people in the Mormon faith (and others, obviously) have committed suicide. And this is just one reason why I see any ism that engenders self-loathing and requires self-denial as inherently evil.

  2. "God said homosexuality is wrong." There you go -- end of discussion. (sigh)

  3. Sadly I missed the episode, but I will see if I can catch it on On Demand. You gave a very intelligent synopsis.

  4. Cognitive Dissenter -- If it runs again on OWN, I definitely recommend seeing it. I agree that any belief system that promotes self-hatred will foster pathologies in its followers.

    Donna Banta -- Yeah, they leave very little room for nuance or alternate interpretations of scripture ... with heartbreaking consequences.

  5. Vertigo -- Thanks! I definitely encourage you to watch it.


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