“Why Can’t You Just Obey?” Reflections on Pray Away, Part 3

Disclaimer: Pray Away is a documentary film on the harm caused by the ex-gay movement that promotes changing one’s sexual orientation through reparative (conversion) therapy. Please be aware that the film can be very difficult to watch, especially if you have been hurt by the movement. The Pray Away website offers “tips and resources to prioritize your mental health before, during, and after viewing the film.” If you think it may trigger trauma, you do not have to watch it. If you have already watched it and need support, please reach out to a safe person. For those who have not suffered at the hands of this movement, please watch it. We need you to listen to these stories. Pray Away released August 3 on Netflix.

Below the trailer for the film is the third in a series of reflections inspired by the film. Please be aware that the post itself can be triggering, as this one focuses on the theories behind conversion therapy and the harm these narratives have caused LGBTQ people. Suicidal ideation, abuse and other forms of harm are mentioned.

“Why Can’t You Just Obey?”

In reflecting on his growing struggle to keep his homosexuality “under wraps” and maintain his role as “figurehead” of the ex-gay movement, John Paulk recalls a conversation with his then wife, Anne, who asked him, “Why can’t you just obey?” He replied, “I don’t know.” So many of us have asked that question of ourselves. Exasperated, at the end of our rope, we cry out – Why won’t this go away? Why can’t I just stop feeling this way? Why can’t I just control my thoughts? Why can’t I just resist acting out?

Pray Away features several former leaders of the ex-gay movement who tried, some for decades, to “pray away” their “homosexuality.” It did not work. In the first post of this series, I explored Yvette Cantu Schneider’s question to herself – How did I believe that for so long? I suggested that the ex-gay narrative held us captive for so long because of its compelling power to shape meaning in our lives. In the second post of this series, I demonstrated the connection between that narrative and Evangelicalism’s larger worldview that defines humanity as sinful and separated from God whose “flesh” cannot be trusted, and in which the “good news” of “salvation” is steeped in shame and fear. It is very difficult, even with so much evidence to the contrary, to see the ex-gay narrative as a whole as false because it is supported so strongly by the larger story of faith in which we found all meaning. It was much easier to blame ourselves as failing the story, than to see that the story itself was a failure, especially when there were no shortage of ex-gay testimonies to point to as proof of its truth.

The film includes excerpts from talk shows, news interviews and other past recordings of the featured former leaders promoting the “freedom from homosexuality” narrative. One clip showed John Paulk sharing with an audience: “I’ve had a successful marriage for ten years, have a very fulfilling emotional and sexual relationship with my wife, have fathered two sons, so something has changed!” Another clip is of Yvette Cantu Schneider responding to an interviewer inviting her to “speak from your heart to those that are trapped in the lifestyle”: “I know that it is difficult. It took me three years just to overcome same-sex attractions. And it was because I was surrounded by people in the church who really loved me. By God really healing the feminine within me… He’s the only one who can touch those deep places.” Julie Rodgers reflects on attending her first Exodus conference as a seventeen year old, hearing all the “big, ex-gay speakers” share “these stories of this big conversion to Jesus, and realizing God loved them, realizing they ‘didn’t have to be gay,’ was how they would frame it. They were really compelling stories. And so I remember feeling like, I wanna be like them. I wanna be cool and happy and loved by God.”

The ex-gay narrative provided a pattern of meaning that shaped these testimonies. On the one hand, they followed the typical pattern of testimony heard within Evangelicalism: lost sinner meets Jesus and is saved. The more sensational the sin, the greater the narrative impact of being “saved” or “changed.” John Paulk attests to this in reflecting on his own status within the ex-gay movement: “There were many leaders, but I was the visual aid because I had this extreme story of ‘married to an ex-lesbian.’” On the other hand, the pattern of meaning came from specific assumptions about homosexuality and theories about how homosexuality happens.

One such theory was proposed by Dr. Elizabeth Moberly (b. 1949), a British research psychologist whose book Homosexuality: A New Christian Ethic was first published in 1982. The back cover states that Moberly “is known as the originator of gender-affirmative therapy for homosexuals.” During my summer internship with Exodus prior to graduating college and joining the staff, the book was assigned reading provided as critical for understanding the work of “change.” Below is an outline of Moberly’s thesis. Please note that this is simplified and distilled for the purposes of this post.

Moberly writes that “the attainment of male-female complementarity” (heterosexuality) “is God’s plan – but this is the goal of human development, not something given ‘ready-made’ right from the start.” Thus, “the complementarity of male and female is certainly in God’s plan, but it is in God’s plan for adulthood. Men and women are not born adult. Rather, we are designed to undergo a long period of physiological and psychological development before reaching maturity… Children are in the process of attaining the mature identity that implies complementarity.”

The process of normal maturation that leads to heterosexuality includes: (1) the child forms a secure attachment with his/her same-sex parent, which facilitates (2) fulfillment of same-sex love needs, making possible (3) identification with the same-sex parent, and (4) the completion of gender identity development. This normal psychological development then coincides with physical maturation, so that upon adulthood, the man/woman has complete heterosexual capacity and is able to engage in mature sexual love.

Image 1: Normal Development of Gender Identity and Sexuality (my image).
Image 2: Development of the Homosexual Condition (my image).

Drawing from Dr. John Bowlby’s (1907-1990) work on the effects of child-parent attachment disruption on pathological development, Moberly “applied [Bowlby’s principles] to the development of gender identity.” She proposed that an early disruption in the attachment between child and same-sex parent creates a cycle of defensive detachment: the child cannot bear the strained attachment and represses the need for attachment; a drive to restore the attachment is triggered; a loop of repression and reparative drive ensues. Moberly writes, “I therefore designate the homosexual condition as one of same-sex ambivalence, not just same-sex love. Homosexuality implies a conflict between positive and negative attitudes towards members of the same sex.” This cycle results in stalled psychological development, including the inability to “complete” gender identity development due to a dis-identification with the same-sex parent. When such child reaches physical maturity, their psychological need for same-sex attachment is interpreted and experienced as sexual attraction. This sexualization makes sense, but acting on homosexual attraction is always inappropriate, according to Moberly. Homosexuality, as is a popular ex-gay saying, is the attempt to fill legitimate needs in an illegitimate way. Moberly set forth a “twofold therapeutic goal” for “healing”: “undoing the defensive detachment and meeting unmet needs.” According to Moberly’s theory, when a homosexual’s unmet childhood needs for same-sex attachment and love are fulfilled, normal gender identity development can continue to completion, at which point heterosexuality emerges naturally.

Exodus and others in the ex-gay movement promoted popular versions of this theory, as seen in several instances in Pray Away. Michael Bussee, one of the founders of Exodus who left the organization in 1979, reflects, “We believed that homosexuality is a psychological illness that you needed treatment for… In conversion therapy, the explanation for why you are gay is that you must have been traumatized as a child. Either by direct abuse, sexual molestation, physical abuse by parents, or by inadequate or toxic parenting. If you can resolve those parenting issues, then your innate heterosexuality will emerge.” Julie Rodgers recalls being taken to Living Hope Ministries by her mother after coming out at 16. She met with the director, Ricky Chelette. “He has all these dry-erase markers. He goes through this whole theory of how people end up struggling with same-sex attractions. He draws it all out… essentially, a boy becomes gay because he has a bad relationship with his dad, and there’s a sense of mystery toward the same-sex parent and when they get to adolescence, that becomes sexualized.”

If you’ve seen or decide to watch Pray Away, notice what Julie says next. “I asked [Ricky], ‘What if you have a great relationship with your same-sex parent, you know, and you still feel gay?’ And he was like, ‘That’s where the wild card comes in.’ And so he talks about sexual abuse. ‘Well, what about people who haven’t been sexually abused?’ And then he’s like, ‘Well, a lot of times people forget it.’ I had no reason to believe it was wrong. I hadn’t heard other theories of how people end up gay. And I’m 16 – I literally know no science around any of this. And what he drew out made sense to me.”

To understand the power of the ex-gay narrative, one has to realize the incredible pressure a Julie Rodgers or John Paulk or Michael Bussee felt to “fix” what everyone around them said was “wrong” with them. Whether coming from parents, church, or society at large, the belief that same-sex attractions are an illness or moral perversion – one that elicits disgust, rejection or eternal condemnation – creates intense shame and can be experienced as an existential threat. As social beings, love and belonging is necessary for survival, and the threat of total rejection can trigger feelings that one’s very life is at stake. I remember being terrified that my parents would find out about my feelings. As a kid barely in her teens, I had no other way to understand that fear other than to feel like my life would be over. It felt as if I would die, and there were several years when that shame and fear manifested in suicidal ideation. Our very lives were at stake: we desperately needed to “change” the source of that threat.

In the face of such pressure, it is no wonder the ex-gay narrative was compelling. Instead of total rejection, it offered a path to acceptance. Instead of eternal condemnation, it offered a path to salvation. You watch John Paulk on the Jerry Springer Show saying, “We’re just saying that if you want to change, there is a way to do it.” Or you see Yvette Cantu Schneider, representing the Family Research Council, respond in an interview, “I personally came out of the homosexual lifestyle that I was in for six years. I have 15 dead gay male friends who have died of AIDS. My point in all this is to show that it is a dangerous, destructive lifestyle, and people can leave it.” These stories sound like your only hope.

After the 1976 gathering of ex-gay ministries “where the organization Exodus was born,” Michael Bussee recalls, “Letters started pouring in from Christians who had no place else to go and suddenly were hearing about this organization that might be able to help them. There were thousands of people who were looking for a group like Exodus.” Instead of being alone and afraid, “everybody felt that this was a wonderful relief, that they didn’t have to struggle alone anymore, they didn’t have to pretend they were the only one. We believed that if you kept repeating it, if you kept claiming that God was changing you, that he would.” In other words, if you just obey, God will reward you with his favor and the people in your life will love and accept you.

What happens, though, when the narrative isn’t working out? What happens, as Julie’s questions to Ricky at their initial meeting suggest, the equation doesn’t add up? What if you do not fit the pattern? And what if the promised results never come?

Elizabeth Moberly’s theory and “reparative therapy” proposal was largely motivated by “the relatively limited success of traditional attempts to cure or change homosexuals” and the harmful Christian response to people she saw as wounded and in need of healing. She offered an approach intended to be compassionate and destigmatizing, to resolve the polarization of her day and put forth real solutions. Her book ends with a call to the church to love: “Love, both in prayer and relationships, is the basic therapy… Love is the basic problem, the great need, and the only true solution. If we are willing to seek and to mediate the healing and redeeming love of Christ, then healing for the homosexual will become a great and glorious reality.”

Films like Pray Away demonstrate the damage done in the name of “love” and “obedience.” Even though Exodus closed its doors in 2013, the ex-gay movement persists. It continues to promise “change” based on psychological theories and practices that have since been rejected by major professional organizations such as the American Psychological Association. Even with the growing number of former leaders and survivors of the ex-gay movement who attest to the lie of the “change” claims and bear witness to the lives that have been lost or harmed in service to that lie, the movement continues.

In my next post, the final of this series reflecting on Pray Away, I will explore how we might respond to survivors – and as survivors – and those still being evangelized by the “ex-gay gospel.”

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