Ex-Gay? So What?
Who cares whether a gay person can go straight?
According to the ex-gay movement, gay men and lesbians should forsake our sinful ways and embrace heterosexuality. Anti-gay conservatives take this one step further, arguing that the presumed mutability of sexual desire disentitles gay Americans from anti-discrimination protection and other legal rights.
But can gay people change their sexuality? Should they even try? And what should the legal penalties be for an unwillingness--or an inability--to do so?
The stories of ex-ex-gays--gays and lesbians who futilely attempted to convert to heterosexuality--are legion. And the failures can be fatal.
Jack McIntyre, gay and Christian, labored for four years endeavoring to cast aside his homosexuality as a member of the San Francisco-area organization Love in Action. He ended up in a hospital psychiatric ward.
One day, at the age of 46, after giving himself Communion, he swallowed a lethal combination of Valium and Dalmane. "I love life," he explained in a letter, "but my love for the Lord is so much greater, the choice is simple."
On February 25 of this year, Stuart Matis, a 32-year-old devout Mormon living in Los Altos, California, made the same terrible decision. He drove to the local Mormon chapel, pinned a "do not resuscitate" note to his shirt, and shot himself in the head. "Mother, Dad and family. I have committed suicide," he wrote in a note. "I engaged my mind in a false dilemma: either one was gay or one was Christian. As I believed I was Christian, I believed I could never be gay."
According to Newsweek writer Mark Miller, the people who dressed Matis for burial were struck by the sight of his knees, deeply callused from praying for an answer that never came.
Another Mormon gay man, David (DJ) Thompson, fully aware of Matis' death, committed suicide two weeks later in Arizona. In a letter written shortly before he took his life, he explained that "my heart can no longer stand for what this world has become." Mormon support for a California defense of marriage initiative was, he said, "a last straw in my lifelong battle to see peace in the world I live in."
While ex-gay spokespeople typically characterize their crusade as nonpolitical, the assertion that sexuality can be changed clearly has political import. Polls consistently show that people who consider homosexuality to be a choice are considerably less hospitable to gay rights measures than are those who believe sexuality to simply be a given.
The involvement of so many ex-gay leaders in anti-gay political campaigns demonstrates that they strive for this political impact.
Janet Folger, the national director for the Florida-based Center for Reclaiming America, concocted the splashy "Truth in Love" campaign two years ago. Advertisements in major newspapers featured Anne Paulk, "wife, mother, former lesbian." While the literal text of the ads insisted only that "the truth can set you free," Folger later admitted to the New York Times that her goal was to undermine support for anti-discrimination legislation protecting gay and lesbian citizens.
Calls for gays and lesbians to seek sexual transformation are explicitly predicated on the religious assertion that homosexuality is sinful. To deny gay and lesbian Americans our civil rights is to impose a penalty for our rejection of this religious proposition.
The civil rights of gay and lesbian Americans may not be rendered contingent upon submission to psychiatric intervention or the experience of a religious conversion. To suggest otherwise violates our basic human right to personal autonomy, just as it assaults our constitutional right to religious freedom.
Yet anti-gay conservatives continue to insist that gay and lesbian citizens should be required to chose between personal conversion and legal marginalization, even though for some the consequences may be tragic. The arrogance of this demand is unfathomable.
People are free to believe whatever they wish. But in our democracy they are not at liberty to diminish the legal stature of those who believe--and choose to live--differently.
1. Michael Vbarra, "Going straight: Christian groups press gay people to take a heterosexual path," Wall Street Journal, April 21, 1993, page A1.
2. Mark Miller, "To Be Gay--And Mormon. As a pious churchgoer, Stuart Matis prayed and worked to change his sexual orientation. He died trying," Newsweek, May 8, 2000. For additional information, see Mormon gay/lesbian group Affirmation.
3. Erie Presley, "LDS gay suicides focus of Sunstone Symposium," Ogden [UT] Standard Examiner, August 6, 2000.
The text of Thompson's letter can be found here.
4. For another direct report of this political linkage, see Todd Van Campen, "Counselor trying to help gays change speaks out on bias law," Herald-Leader (Lexington, KY), July 8, 1999. For an analysis of this linkage, see Surina Khan, "Calculated Compassion: How the Ex-Gay Movement Serves the Right's Attack on Democracy," October, 1998. Available online from Political Research Associates and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
5. Laurie Goodstein, "Woman behind anti-gay ads sees Christians as victims," New York Times, August 13, 1998.
See also the Center for Reclaiming America website.