In the aftermath of New Life Church pastor Ted Haggard’s fall from grace amid allegations of gay sex and drug use, a subtle controversy emerged among conservative Christians.
Three weeks after the Colorado Springs pastor left for an undisclosed treatment center to grapple with his sexuality, pastor Tim Ralph announced that Haggard had emerged from those meetings “completely heterosexual.” Among those who questioned this pronouncement was Alan Chambers, president of Exodus International, an umbrella organization for what is called the ex-gay movement. Chambers politely contended that Ralph had possibly misunderstood the dynamics of sexuality involved in the Haggard case. He was quick to caution that Haggard’s story is not typical of people involved in ex-gay therapy and that “recovery” from homosexuality is a long process.
The ex-gay movement is controversial and misunderstood. Essentially, ex-gay leaders argue that homosexuality is caused by a particular kind of home environment and that homosexuals can change their behavior with the help of therapy and through a relationship with Jesus Christ.
Two recent books help make sense of the ex-gay movement and its complexities through careful research. Tanya Erzen wrote Straight to Jesus after spending a year at New Hope Ministry in California, a residential treatment program for men who hope to change their homosexual behavior. Erzen interviewed both participants and leaders, attended group meetings, worked in New Hope’s office and helped design the ministry’s Web site. Her book draws on a wealth of personal relationships.
At the heart of Erzen’s analysis is a point about ex-gay ministries that the media often miss: most ex-gay ministries are skeptical about their ability to “cure” homosexuality. While many people involved in these ministries have heterosexual marriage and biological children as their ultimate goal, and while they idealize heterosexual relationships, most ex-gay people find themselves part of a third category.
Ex-gay people believe that they will still experience homosexual desire and maybe even occasionally “fall,” but that through gradual religious conversion, sexual conversion can happen as well. “Sexual identity is malleable and changeable,” Erzen writes, “because it is completely entwined with religious conversion.” Religious conversion and sexual conversion are so linked that participants don’t change their sexual orientation so much as commit to a life of “following Jesus.” As one ex-gay woman put it, “First I considered myself a lesbian, then a woman who struggles with lesbianism; now I consider myself a woman of God.”