Torn, Chapters 5-6: On Reparative Therapy and Ex-Gay Ministries

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

Today we continue our discussion around Justin Lee’s fantastic book, Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate as part of our series on sexuality and the Church.

Last week we discussed Chapters 1-4. This week, we’ll cover Chapters 5-6. (I’d originally planned to cover chapters 5-10, but these two chapters are just too critical to breeze through without a thorough discussion.) Next week we’ll cover Chapters 7-11, before wrapping up a week later with Chapters 12-15.  After that, we’ll move on to our next book, Washed and Waiting by Wesley Hill.

Chapter 5 – “Why are People Gay?”

In Chapter 5, Justin tackles a huge question: Why are people gay?

The short answer, he says, is “we don’t know.”

The long answer requires unpacking what we mean by “gay” and exploring various theories as to why some people are attracted to the same sex.

Justin believes it’s important to define what we mean when we say “gay,” especially in light of his (not-so-great) experiences with “ex-gay” ministries. “

“If one person believes that ‘gay’ means ‘someone who is attracted to the same sex’ and another person believes that ‘gay’ means ‘someone who has sex with members of the same sex,’ then it shouldn’t surprise us when they come to two very different conclusions!” he explains. (52)

Justin uses the word ‘gay’ the way it is usually used in our culture: to refer to people’s attractions, not necessarily their behaviors. Typically, when we say someone is ‘gay,’ we mean that he or she is attracted to the same sex. (By contrast, someone who is “straight” is attracted to the opposite sex, someone who is “bisexual” is attracted to both sexes, etc., etc.) “These words don’t tell us anything about the person’s behaviors, beliefs, or plans for the future,” writes Justin, “they only tell us to who the person is generally attracted…When I called myself ‘gay,’ I wasn’t referring to any kind of behavior in my life. I had never had any kind of romantic relationship with a guy…” (p. 52)

So why is Justin, and others like him, gay?

Theory 1: People choose to be gay

Growing up, Justin says he firmly believed that people chose to be gay. Obviously, he changed his mind when he found himself attracted to other men. “As a conservative Southern Baptist kid, I would never have chosen to be gay,” he says. “Not in a million years.”

“Most people discover when they’re young that they are involuntarily attracted to people of the other sex,” he says. “A minority of people, however, discover instead that they are involuntarily attracted to the same sex, and an even smaller minority discover they’re involuntarily attracted to both sexes. None of these people choose their attractions; they can only choose how they will respond to them.” (p. 54)

Theory 2: People are seduced or tricked into identifying as gay

You hear this one a lot in evangelical circles—that if someone is gay, he or she must have been abused as a child or seduced by someone of the same sex at an early age. While this certainly happens (and the impact of childhood abuse on an adult’s relationship with his or sexuality is complex), it is not the norm.  “I wasn’t sexually abused,” Justin says, “and studies show that the majority of gay people weren’t either.”

Theory 3: People are gay because of their parents

Sometimes called the “reparative drive” model, this, in my opinion, is one of the most damaging, heartbreaking lies circulating around the Church today.

As Justin explains, the idea was first popularized in the early 1960s by a psychologist named Irving Bieber. [Insert Justin Bieber joke here.] Riffing off of Freud, Bieber proposed that gay men came from families “characterized by disturbed and psychopathic interactions,” with severely detached fathers and possessive, overprotective mothers. According to Bieber, it would be impossible for a boy to turn out gay if he had a warm, loving relationship with his father. (Justin’s story is one of many that reveal this theory to be faulty, as Justin had a close, loving relationship with his father.)

When continued research and scientific evidence failed to support Bieber’s ideas, the psychological community abandoned them. However, in the early 1980s, Elizabeth Moberly, a Christian theologian and psychologist, resurrected Bieber’s ideas and argued in Homosexuality: A New Christian Ethic that parental relationships were the cause of homosexuality. She theorized that if a child had a distant same-sex parent, he or she was left with an emotional deficit. The child needed same-sex bonding that was never met by the parent, and so as he or she grew, a subconscious drive would kick in to try to repair that hole. A man was attracted to other men, she said, because his father never met his emotional needs, and a woman was attracted to other women because her mother didn’t meet her emotional needs. Despite having no compelling research or evidence to support her claim, Moberly’s book was a huge hit in Christian circles. It spawned the “reparative therapy” movement, which sought to reverse same-sex attraction through intensive counseling, and has been perpetuated in the work of Joseph Nicolosi who wrote in 1996 “You will hear a shallowness in the voice of any homosexual who claims to love and respect his father…” Yikes.

Justin was suspicious of this theory from the get-go because his story simply didn’t fit. He had a fantastic relationship with both of his parents. His father was always emotionally available; his mother was not overbearing…and there is no “shallowness” in Justin’s voice when he says so, believe me. Besides, Justin reasons, there are plenty of people who grow up in horribly dysfunctional homes who turn out straight!

 “Distant fathers and overprotective mothers are extremely common in American society,” Justin explains, “so this allows a larger percentage of gay people to say, ‘Hey that sounds like me!’ But these same dynamics are very widespread among straight Americans as well, and they are not at all present for many gay Americans. If distant fathers and overbearing others made people gay, there would be far more gay people in American society than there are. Meanwhile, I should have been the straightest guy in the world.”

Justin explains how damaging this narrative can be later in the book.

Theory 4: People are gay because of their biology

This seems to be where the current scientific evidence points, but as Justin explains, the jury is still out. Justin points to evidence that suggests specific structures in gay men and women’s brains may have developed in ways that are more typical for the opposite sex, possibly due to differing hormone levels in the womb. He covers a lot of ground in a short amount of space; rather than repeating it all here, I suggest reading the book, or checking out Simon LeVay’s Gay, Straight, and the Reason Why, from which Justin draws. As Justin concludes, “The biological theories have the most evidence to support them right now, but even they have lots of questions, and at this point, we can’t ‘prove’ anything. We can only make educated guesses.”

I'm relatively new to this whole discussion, but from what I understand, many researches are beginning to see sexuality as existing on a continuum, with, (as one commenter has already put it), "multiple 'possible' causes of homosexuality, which are not mutually exclusive."

[Note: Today I just finished the first chapter of a book called "A Time to Embrace" by William Stacy Johnson and there's an excellent section on the possible causes of homosexuality that is much more in-depth and much more nuanced than what I presented here. Johnson concludes that "there is probably a complex 'biology of sexual orientation,' but there are alos developmental and psychological processes in earl childhood, as well as culturally bound determinants throughout life, that contribute to the way each individual experiences sexual orientation...Therefore, the question of 'essentialism versus constructivism' (basically, nature vs. nurture) presents us with a false dichotomy. There may be some component of sex or sexual orientation that is the same in all places and times, but the historical evidence of diversity makes clear that how sexual orientation works itself out in any given time and place is, at least in part, socially constructed."]

  • Chapter 6 – “Justin in Exgayland”

    As Justin enters college, he decides to try ex-gay ministries—the kind whose Web sites promised “healing” and “deliverance” from homosexuality, complete with testimonies from “ex-gay” men and women that included pictures of them smiling with their families. Justin and his parents spared no expense; they would do whatever it took to “fix” his same-sex attraction.

    At his first ex-gay conference, Justin was moved by the worship service, thrilled to be among other Christians wrestling with the same questions with which he wrestled. But his excitement waned as the first keynote speaker focused almost exclusively on political issues, charging the audience to fight the “gay agenda,” painting the world, Justin says, “in simplistic ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ terms: We were the Christians. They were the gays. They must be stopped at all costs.”

    Other speakers, many of them self-professed ex-gays, spoke of childhood traumas they believed had caused them to be gay…stories Justin jut didn’t relate to. In a brochure at the conference, Justin was shocked to see this:

    Q: Is homosexuality preventable in my child?
    A: Absolutely. Show unconditional love for your child and ensure that he or she has positive and healthy doses of love from both parents.

    The unfounded theories of Bieber and Moberly were alive and well at this conference, and Justin recalls stories of parents weeping through sessions, convinced they had made their children gay through bad parenting.

    In one session, Justin finally spoke up during the Q&A time and told the speaker, who had cited Moberly in a session entitled “The Root Causes of Male Homosexuality”, that the model of an absent father and overbearing mother just didn’t fit his experience. After the session, the speaker tried to convince Justin that with enough therapy, Justin would discover that his parents had indeed been negligent.  But at lunches and between sessions, Justin kept encountering other gay Christians who said their parents had been loving and available. “The people I kept meeting who didn’t fit the pattern were largely ignored or shoehorned in,” reports Justin, “forced to revisit their childhood memories over and over until they found some sort of problem to blame everything on.”(p. 77)

    Justin's disillusionment with ex-gay ministries grew even more pronounced when he realized that these ministries were using the word “gay” differently than most people used it.

    “When I first heard the testimonies of people who said they ‘used to be gay’ but weren’t anymore, I interpreted that to mean they used to be attracted to the same sex, and now they weren’t…That turned out not to be true.” (p. 79)

    As Justin investigated these testimonies further, he learned that most followed a pattern in which the gay man developed attractions to men during puberty, acted on those feelings at some point (usually destructively, with anonymous sex, drugs, and other addictions), found that life to be unfulfilling, reconnected with Jesus, and walked away from their past behaviors. While Justin found these testimonies to be powerful reminders of how God changes lives, he noticed ”there was one thing missing in all of their testimonies.”  “None of them seemed to be becoming straight,” he observed. “They had changed their behaviors, sometimes in dramatic ways. Some had not had any sexual contact in years. Others had gone so far as to date and marry a member of the opposite sex. But almost universally, when I asked, they confessed that they still had the same kind of same-sex attractions I did.” (p. 80)

    “In ex-gay circles,” Justin learned. “The word ‘gay’ didn’t mean ‘attracted to the same sex.’…Instead of using ‘gay’ to mean ‘attracted to the same sex,’ they redefined it to refer to sexual behaviors they were no longer engaging in or a loosely defined cultural ‘identity’ they didn’t accept.” (81)

    “I could understand that they didn’t want to identify with their former way of life,” writes Justin. ”In their minds, ‘gay’ encompassed a whole sinful and self-destructive lifestyle. But by giving public testimony that they weren’t ‘gay’ anymore, they were leading millions of Christians to believe that they had become straight, when that wasn’t true. And those misleading testimonies were getting a lot of attention on Christian radio, in Christian magazines, and in churches around the world.” (p. 81)

    “For all the ex-gay talk of this journey toward becoming straight,” says Justin, “no one ever seemed to actually get there.”


    Justin then shares the stories of people like his friend Terry, who followed the example of the ex-gay testimonies and tried to marry a woman to see if it would make him straight. It didn’t. Terry’s entire family—his wife, his kids—fell apart when the truth came out. And his friend James, who went through the same process, married a girl for whom he has no sexual attraction, and keeps his homosexual urges and online flirtations a secret.

    He shares the stories of more high-profile “ex-gays” like Colin Cook, Michael Bussee, Gary Cooper, and John Paulk—men whose stories helped fuel the ex-gay movement but ended with scandals, lies, and broken families.

    At the very least, Justin suggests ex-gay ministries should include a "results not typical" note at the end of promotional material that includes the testimonies of gays and lesbians who have married members of the same gender and started families. 

    Of his peers who have gone through the ex-gay movement, Justin writes: “These were some of the most dedicated and devout Christians you could ever meet. They were willing to sacrifice everything to please God. But years of trying to change and being told it would happen didn’t do anything to make them straight. Instead, it only damaged their faith and their feelings of self-worth. When they finally came to the point of telling the truth about what they were feeling, their ex-gay mentors accused them of ‘backsliding,’ and the churches they had so loved seemed to have no place for them. In a Gays-vs.-Christians world, admitting you’re gay makes you the enemy of Christians. After hearing some of these people’s horror stories, I’m amazed that any of them have any faith left at all.” (p. 86)


    If Justin’s story was the first I’d heard regarding ex-gay ministries, I would withhold judgment, read more, and perhaps present another perspective.

    But it’s not.

    Justin’s story—though powerfully told—is not at all unique. I’ve heard it again and again and again and again from friends and acquaintances who turned to ex-gay ministries to try and become straight. Sadly, many of these stories involve painful chapters on suicide, self-harm, anger at the Church, lies, affairs, and broken families. 

    Now, as I understand it, Alan Chambers, president of Exodus International, is trying to reform what is perhaps the most popular “ex-gay” ministry in the country. But I confess, I'm skeptical. I may get into some trouble for saying this, but I don't care; we simply can’t afford any more suicides or families caught in the middle: I think it’s time for evangelicals to confront reality and move away from the “reparative therapy” approach, which seems to be doing far more harm than good. 

    The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Counseling Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association, the American School Counselor Association, the National Association of School Psychologists, and the National Association of Social Workers, together representing more than 480,000 mental health professionals, have all taken the position that homosexuality is not a mental disorder and thus is not something that needs to or can be “cured.” (See "Just the Facts About Sexual Orientation and Youth" from the American Psychological Association.)  The World Health Organization calls reparative therapy "a serious threat to the health and well-being--even the lives--of affected people." Even Robert Spitzer, whose work is often cited by ex-gay ministries, retracted his own study in 2012, citing problems with its methodology.) 

    While it could be said that anything is possible, reversing a person's sexual orientation does not appear to be the norm, and presenting it as a measure of faithfulness seems nothing short of cruel. 

    What this means for sexual behavior, marriage, and politics is the topic for future posts. But, for now, we don’t have to know exactly why people are gay to put a stop to harmful  practices that have left Justin, and so many like him, with no other option but despair.

    We’ll continue this discussion next week as Justin confronts the inevitability of his same-sex attraction.

    Questions for Discussion

    1. What theories have you heard about why people are gay? Which seem the most sound?

    2. Have you or someone you know gone through reparative therapy or an ex-gay ministry? What was it like? What were the results?

    I’ll be monitoring the comment section closely to ensure things stay as civil and respectful as possible, with plans to close the comment thread within the next 24 hours or so, just so I don’t have to keep up with 200+comments. When someone shares his or her story, I strongly urge you to simply listen, not argue. We will be devoting future posts to discussing the biblical and political aspects of this issue, at which time we are free to whip out our Bibles and constitutions and engage in civil debate…but now is not the time. For now, let’s just share and listen.

    See also, "Forgive them, Father" - a guest post

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