The New Ex-Gay

While observing the conversation about faith and sexuality over the past few years I have witnessed a depressing number of harmful and untrue words come out of someone’s mouth right after the preface, “Well, as someone with a conservative ethic…” or “As someone who is ‘side-B’…” (Side-B being clunky shorthand for a more traditional sexual ethic, for those who hadn’t heard it before.)

I understand that some of these people are new to the discussion, are becoming more aware of something that they used to not even have to think about. But…

It’s hard, sometimes, to watch people who are insulated from the consequences of their words keep saying the same harmful things over and over. And it becomes harder when these words are used by others as the example of a “traditional sexual ethic.”

“These words” range from banal prejudices that cast all gay people as exceptionally promiscuous or obsessed with any number of threatening agendas to more contextually specific comments like “Shouldn’t we, as Christians, not have to talk about this so much? Can’t they just keep it between them and a few friends or a counselor? We all have problems; can’t they just find their identity in Christ and stop whining?”

And they’re being heard.

Over the past few weeks there has been a rash of articles “introducing” the internet to celibate gay Christians. The responses have been, unsurprisingly, mixed. The most common reaction I’ve seen has been a reflexive categorization of “side-B”* beliefs as “the new ex-gay,” as nothing more than the next tool of homophobic fundamentalists to marginalize gay people.

These “response” articles—and particularly the subsequent comments—are often uninspiring, caustic, and full of caricature. I also don’t think they are entirely wrong.

Rant with me, please?

“I can admire your rampage against the hegemony much better from here, thank you.”

As I’ve engaged those who are discussing matters of faith and sexuality, one of the main sources of frustration has been the persistent sense that most conservative straight Christians are more passionate about gay people not having sex than they are about gay people flourishing in church communities and in society at large. Put more witheringly, I get the sense that when people say things like “Why do they even have to ‘come out’ at all?” what they mean is that it would be better if gay people simply didn’t exist.

This is why the ex-gay narrative was (is) so attractive—it literally removed the “problem” of gay people. As that narrative continues to unravel some people are searching for a new way to pursue their unchanged desire to pray the gays away.**

Some may balk at that claim, and maybe it’s ungracious—there are some important differences in rhetoric, and I get that. But here’s what I see: one way or another, championing ex-gay ideology or appropriating a ravaged shade of the “traditional sexual ethic,” these particular people are looking for a belief that demands nothing from them and everything from sexual minorities.

Given that the ex-gay narrative placed all the weight of “faithful response” on the gay people themselves, it makes sense that prior supporters of that ideology would continue to focus exclusively on what the gay person needs to do, just in different language. Unless the switch from the ex-gay narrative to the “side-B” narrative of celibacy/chastity coincides with a shift in one’s understanding of church community and personal responsibility, then the “traditional sexual ethic” becomes a rather cruel farce, a perpetuation of unequal power structures and shame.

Those highly critical articles are responding in part, I think, to this ultra-lame permutation of a conservative ethic. So, I understand the hate; ex-gay ideologies have left so many scars on beloved people, and to see the phantoms of those ideologies take on new skins merits unequivocal response.

I’m not naïve enough to think that everyone, or even most people, will accept the differentiation of what we are trying to do at Spiritual Friendship from the ex-gay narrative in all of its forms. Or, even if they do see the difference, that it will matter at all.

But, well, here we are.

One of the things that I find beautiful about the “traditional sexual ethic” as I see it expressed by people who have thought through it extensively is how it is about so much more than just what certain people do or don’t do with certain parts of their bodies.

Rather, it is a sweeping yet grounded reimagining of what it means to be embodied beings in mutual communion with each other for the sake of human flourishing and the demonstration of the gospel in our particular contexts.

In other words, it is just as much about churches and communities addressing their trenchant sins of inhospitality and marginalization as it is about an individual’s stewardship of her mind and body.

For me, such a reframing provides motion and purpose and is far more true to the reality of the gospel than the one-sided and apodictic platitudes that characterize the rhetoric of those interested primarily in maintaining the status-quo and keeping this “problem” at a distance.

What kills me is how these Christians think they are preserving the witness of the church, but because many of them are blind to the actual lives of gay people they are unaware of the destructive character of their words and actions, how they are so profoundly corroding the beauty of the gospel*** and, in a very real way, making all expressions of a “traditional sexual ethic” culturally equivalent to ex-gay ideology and homophobia.

And I hate how I can’t escape saying “these people,” as if “they” aren’t often friends and family who I know and respect, or how, even still, my brain gets so caught up in the distressing tension of it all and becomes paralyzed by weariness and the most boring kind of despair.

But then, when I’m tempted toward total apathy, I encounter beautiful moments of community done well and am reminded how much there is to be gained from pursuing, together, a better way forward.

So I guess I want to end with this: would you, whoever you are, just examine the underlying character of your beliefs about sexuality, whether or not they have been formed in relationship with gay people, whether or not they are also concerned with whole church communities becoming more tightly knit and hospitable and responsibly sexual beings, and whether or not they manifest the fruit of the Spirit in their expression?

Because, honestly, it often feels as if the church is asking gay people to walk through a minefield as everyone else just stands back and yells instructions, and I don’t think I’m the only one who has grown a bit tired of being one of its human minesweepers.


* I will give my holographic Charizard to anyone who can institute a better-yet-still-pithy phrase to communicate “side-B” beliefs without having to actually use that arcane label.

** High-five!

*** I’m not unaware that most affirming Christians feel the exact same about me.

45 thoughts on “The New Ex-Gay

  1. I will give three suggestion:

    1) ignatian spirituality or the discernement of bad and good spirit, consolation/desolation and so on: many Popes have found it a wonderful way of searching God’s way into us, this would put in shade moralistic approaches which are creating too much damages from hyper conservative or laissez-faire points of view. Jesus has a tender voice for the sinner and that Blessed voice is unresistible…we must improve in hearing it, and Saint Ignatius has perfected a good method.

    2) queer ideology is challenging everything, since they write that everything “heterosexual” an “homosexual” is socially constructed…so gay activism as it was known up to now, and conservative sexual ethics are both destroyed since both are challenged by a constructionist ideology…this will lead to a man/woman, who can chose every night the sexual roles he wants (or the market wants to impose him/her)…as a gay catholic i must make my church aware of this…I must tell them sexual freedom inside a well established role identity (even homosexual) could be bad, but is not so fortrightly dispersive et disruptive as sexual consumerism in the absence or in the extreme fluidity of sexual roles…in this perspective a gay man was led by gay agenda to sin, but even to a self-empowerment which was not bad, per se. A gay boy of our time, but even an heterosexual one, will be lead into disruptive role confusion…the only answer to this is a rediscovery of all the good fruits of chastity.

    3) sacramental dignity is above all sacramental recognition of our indignity…Domine, non sum dignus…if I were “dignus”, there will be a wall of unsurmontable pride….certain conservative stances betray the fact that they think there is a price for salvation…so if I am “dignus”, God must save me, and if I am indignus, i must go to hell…it is not the teaching of the Gospel: every man is indignus, and every man must repent. When saint Paul was offerd sacrifices at Lystra he said “we are passible as you”: the black whole everyone has is the first instrumentum of the Grace of God…where you are weak, there the strength and grace of God will triumph…this is the law of Jesus, the law of the salvation through the Cross, and it is the best argument against moralistic morals. Generally the history of a saint is a history of an extreme success in developing the virtue which he was lacking greatly at the beginning.

  2. Sometimes I do fear that Mother Church is in a no-win situation at this point in MANY respects, not just on the matter of same-sex relations. May God protect Mother Church’s livelihood as much as possible even as He guides her in reform and renewal.

  3. Dear Brian,
    Mother church is faced, as Methol-Ferré noticed, with a pervasive sexual edonism, which is a “recherche de beauté” completely dissociated with moral stances…it is something like the search for luxuous objects for themselves, without linkage to utility…this leads to the incapacity of understanding the moral links to other people…the way will lead to sexual dissolution, to incomprehensibility of our generative place in society…but this also is a sign that there will be a growing thirst for chastity, because in the affirmative gay or feminist agenda sex was a way of empowering an identity…now it is a way of destroying one identity and this will lead to the search for one identity…my concern is that the archenemy will try to strengthen his plan by a large diffusion of drugs, in order to render this thirst for role-identity less cogent. The Church has a simple task: making us rediscover the joy of chastity, and there are shelves of inspired volumes of the fathers, many of them celebrating this joy without moralistic overtones.

    • I am more on the Side A side, though virgin and monogamous by nature, and I can say I have seen big changers in what you are saying. Gay men prior to my generation and those who came after are wildly different. Whereas the ones right before sought out sex with many partners and used sex to destroy themselves in many ways I have seen a resurgence of monogamous seeking and loyalty to one lover in younger generations. You can see the disconnect as well in the way it is addressed. One older gay blogger posited that the reason people like myself and many of these others are monogamous or seeking lifelong love with another guy is because of our fear of AIDs. In truth, though, it has always seemed natural to me to seek love and not use sex as a means of hurting myself or others like that. It isn’t about AIDs at all.

      Unfortunately, this answer likely wouldn’t please the Church much as it violates their idea of chastity (since the Church believes romantic love between two men can’t be unitive as it can between man and woman). I think, on that front, they will wind up losing as there really aren’t good arguments for their perspective beyond Aristotelian philosophical vagary.

  4. Alberto, are you not aware of the earthly institutional Church’s popular association–in some ways justified by a quick glance at history–with a dark, authoritarian, puritanical, willfully ignorant, exclusionary, eliminationist conservatism, one that sacrifices flesh-and-blood humans to abstract ideas? How can Mother Church prove her critics wrong? I do appreciate how you you imply the need to get away from crass moralism.

  5. Two-proposals for a better phrase than the arcane (and in actuality misleading– a Christian-informed ontological understanding morality is totally counter to the ontology/morality of most of human history): Christologically-informed Anthropology; Liturgical Anthropology–any articulation of morality is essentially an ontological anthropology.

  6. OMG…holographic Charizard! Brainstorming as we speak 🙂

    But really…Thanks Matt for the reminder that celibacy is more about the abundance of life than the don’ts, and putting in words the feeling I was getting when people use side-b as a tool against other gay Christians. Feeling challenged and encouraged!

      • Omg…i just saw this comment 😅 sorry lol. Yeah! Actually when I turned around to hear a question, i saw you and was like “i feel like I have seen this guy before” haha Yeah it was good! Actaully my dad really wanted to come and listen and to learn more which I appreciated a lot. Right after that we turned around an went straignt back home to Ensenada, Mexico. Which is not too bad of a drive. Anyways, if you ever find yourself in Ensenada hit me up! (Don’t worry, you won’t be kidnapped) 😁

  7. I lived as a openly and sexually engaged gay man for 13 years before understanding the Gospel of Christ and finding my way into the Church. I did not find healing in a book, a teaching or an “ex-gay” ministry. I found my healing in true and loving community; in relationships with other broken people that were not threatened by my struggle. I’ve been incredibly blessed to have been married to the same amazing woman for over 25 years and have four beautiful adult children. Life is beautiful!

      • I’d be happy to! Men in the community built healthy same-sex relationships with me. They prayed with me. They hugged me and let me know I belonged in their world. I was welcome into their lives. They allowed me to be authentic and real in my struggles and shared their struggles with me as well. I was accepted, loved and affirmed in who I was and encouraged to grow.

      • How do you think you reach such a point in a community?
        Also I suppose the community you are talking about believes in a traditional sexual ethics…

    • Interesting. I sometimes wonder if I would be where you are in a different life, had my own experience with the Catholic community been as positive. Would I be chaste like the bloggers here instead of in love with another man and outside of the auspices of my old faith? When I came out I was met with suspicion, disgust, and requests to stop talking about my own problems like they were such a big deal (e.g. “Straight guys can’t have sex without being married either so your stuggle is no different.”)

      The man I fell for lives far away but I came to realize that in all of this he had supported me and my former family had not. I left the Church in hopes of finding clarity and I did. I came to mistrust the Church to such an extent that, when invited back into the fold, I came at my former Catholic brethren with hard questions. Two years of studying what I was and other faiths plus a lifetime as a Catholic had instilled in me doubt of everything about the Church. None of them could answer my charges or my concerns. I became convinced that the Church was wrong and walked away from it. I still oppose it in defense of my LGBT brethren and believe I am in the right,

      Still, I return to places like this because there are so many side B and ex-gay folks that I can’t help but leave the door open, wondering if it could have been different. I feel no guilt for what I am or who I love but I don’t relish fighting the Church for the rest of my life. I don’t think I could ever have been straight as you went, but perhaps, in another life, I might have been like the bloggers here. Oh well, it is what it is. Roll the dice and we will see who is right when the bones come to a halt, I guess.

      • Just for transparency’s sake, I’m protestant, and my relationship with the church hasn’t been all roses and sunshine, unfortunately. The church I grew up in stripped me of an internship and communicated all sorts of painful things (that I was a barrier to a gospel, that I was a threat to the young people, etc). Definitely understand the “suspicion, disgust, and requests to stop talking about my own problems like they were such a big deal” thing.

        I’m so sorry you’ve had to experience that kind of rejection… it can poison the soul. If I hadn’t had friendships and community outside of that congregation, I’m not sure what I would have done.

        I wish you the best, man, and that others will show you the grace and kindness that your church failed to demonstrate.

      • Sorry to hear you had it rough too. It is a common story even for those whom they should consider allies like yourself. I am not sure where this odd drive to stab their own allies in the back comes from but it definitely raises my own heckles when I see it in my former Catholic faith (blogger Austin Ruse on First Things comes to mind – he has dedicated two posts to crapping on chaste gay Catholics and has tried linking them to pedophiles by referring to them as homophiles, I assume in the hopes that someone reading his post in their church kills them out of fear for the children in said parish). I suppose I should be rejoicing with my less than religious brethren at watching my “enemies” tear each other apart since it quickens the victory of my own side of the debate but I am not happy to see any LGBT people pushed to the fringes and spat upon – especially those taking up the cross, so to speak, of being chaste since those on your side have no brethren of your own. Good luck to you. I will do what I can to watch over you guys from my side where I can.

  8. Are you guys in Mensa? I enjoy reading the posts in Spiritual Friendship but often I can’t keep up with the intellectual dialogue. I need Spiritual Friendship 101.

    • Oh man, I could never solve their “which shape could become a cube” problems. They’ll never take me.

      Actually, could you elaborate maybe on which points of the piece were a bit more obscure and difficult to understand? I obviously want to write clearly and in a way that is helpful to the reader, but sometimes I can’t tell when I’m being “out there” because I’ve been in this conversation for a while and have grown numb to some of the terminology and phrases.

      Thanks Deborah!

      • Matt, I consider myself a fairly avid reader. Some of my favorite writers are those whose intelligence far surpass mine, yet they write in such a way as making it approachable by most people. Some of the words and phrases you, and those who comment on this blog, are not commonly used. If people have to look up more than a few words in each of your posts, they will generally feel less than and stop reading.

  9. Tom (as I can’t reply to your comment under mine and Deborah’s because Worpress is evil): I totally agree, and generally try to write in a super accessible way while maybe throwing in, like, one vocab word (in this case “apodictic”, which is a pretty important term for studying the Bible). This is why I asked Deborah to elaborate on what specifically felt “out there,” as it’s always helpful to know what phrases are self-evident and what phrases need to be explained or omitted, especially as I spend so much time in this discussion.

    Clarity is absolutely the goal and I hope to keep improving in that regard.

    • Take this entire paragraph for instance:

      For me, such a reframing provides motion and purpose and is far more true to the reality of the gospel than the one-sided and apodictic platitudes that characterize the rhetoric of those interested primarily in maintaining the status-quo and keeping this “problem” at a distance.

      I read it twice and I’m still not sure what you are trying to say. Maybe I’m that backward. But I don’t think so. I read one to two books a week. Mind you they aren’t seminary level theological works, but some fairly deep writings.

      • Matt, you said: “Basically, a sexual ethic that demands the entire church community grow and change is closer to the gospel than one that is simply a list of “don’ts” for gay people alone.”

        I couldn’t agree with you more. Most of my Christian life has been helping people deal with all kinds of sexual brokenness. I have been involved with ministry helping people dealing with sexual addiction, pornography addiction, homosexuality and victims of incest and childhood molestation.

  10. Dear Matt,

    “Basically, a sexual ethic that demands the entire church community grow and change is closer to the gospel than one that is simply a list of “don’ts” for gay people alone.”

    I’m not sure I understand what you mean by “change”; that we need to be more loving and welcoming of Gay men and women, to love and commune with them instead of simply saying “don’t do this or that”?

    • I suspect that Matt is referring to the unbiblical way in which the church generally deals with heterosexual sex and opposite-sex marriage. As Peter Leithart noted in his article “Intrusive Third Parties”, what passes today for “traditional marriage” is a far cry from traditional marriage. Leithart calls today’s variant “pornographic marriage.” We often assume that pornographic marriage is traditional marriage because it avoids the same list of “Don’ts” as traditional marriage. But it’s not. And the church generally seems to want to avoid this issue.

      So, on the one hand, the church is telling gay people, “Stop getting so hung up about your sexuality; just find your identity in Christ and shut up already.” Meanwhile, the church is upholding a fairly sex-centered, pornographic view of heterosexual marriage, where heterosexual desire is valorized and celebrated as the sine qua non of the marital estate.

      The biblical answer is to return to a view of marriage where sex figures much less prominently.

      There are no more ardent adherents to orientation essentialism than American evangelicals, at least when it comes to heterosexuality. This comes through most strongly in the movement’s fixation on the nuclear family at the expense of more traditional conceptions of family. This fixation owes more to conservative variants of psychoanalysis than it does to anything biblical. And the valorization of heterosexual desire is at the center of it.

      That’s why the “Side B” position is so offensive: It accepts the valorization and celebration of heterosexual desire, suggesting that sexual orientation is important, if not essential, to one’s social identity. At the same time, it tells gay people that they shouldn’t make much of their sexual orientation.

      • Do side B (clunkys?) really “accept the valorization and celebration of heterosexual desire”? I’m all for telling the 98% straight majority that they were/are the chief architects and beneficiaries of the sexual revolution and if they want to us to act as if the sexual revolution never happened, they need to get with the program too.

  11. Your minefield analogy is spot on! As a hetero Christian, I’m sorry. We’re trying to do better (well, some of us!) You have so much support and respect from me.

  12. I am a conservative, by-the-Bible Christian. I am not homosexual and I often post against same-sex-marriage and teaching immoral sex in schools. I usually post something like this…

    For homosexuals who are struggling with unwanted homosexual thoughts, feelings and desires, if you want to change but do not know how, read and listen to these testimonials. Judge for yourself if they are sincere or staged…

    Followed by links to ex-gay, Christian testamony. I usually get pounded hard by what I call homosexual bullies who do not want to hear anything like that.

    What I find as most effective against these bullies is truth backed by the Bible. To that end this site caught my attention…

    Is this a current discussion, is anyone here open to questions?

    • I think the difficulty here is twofold:

      1. The Bible doesn’t actually say anything about orientation change, or indeed anything about sexual orientation at all. It has plenty to say about chastity; but chastity is, fundamentally, what we decide to do with the raw material our sexual impulses provide. Getting better raw material for our sexuality (or anything else) might be a desirable thing, but I know of no Scripture that promises it will be given to us, and there is certainly no direct witness in Scripture to people being changed even by miracle from gay to straight. This isn’t to say it can’t happen; nothing is outside God’s power; but He does not appear in Scripture to teach us to expect it to happen, any more than He teaches us to expect all blind people to be miraculously healed. Still less, of course, does He teach us to suppose that if someone is not healed of blindness, it is a consequence of sin; and I am bold to presume that the same is true of those of us who happen to be gay.

      2. Where, then, does the ex-gay narrative, the idea of changing from gay to straight, come from? I’m afraid it really has a very short and — I am honestly sorry to say it — rather disreputable pedigree. It wasn’t even attempted as such before the twentieth century, and was often sought on the basis of some very dubious psychological ideas (largely derived from Freud) and by some very questionable means (such as performing testicular transplants on gay men, trying to condition them with electric shock treatments, encouraging them to look at straight pornography, and the list goes on). Its adoption by Christians is in my opinion neither necessary nor theologically compelling, and the brute fact is that the actual results of ex-gay programs are mixed at best. Nor does anybody have to take my word for it; Alan Chambers, who until a very few years ago was the head of the largest ex-gay organization in the world, said as much when he disbanded said ex-gay organization and apologized for its activities to date in 2013. And this was after a long string of defections from its ranks, not infrequently from prominent and ostensibly successful members like Michael Bussee and John Paulk.

      Now, I am loth to accuse anybody of lying. However, based on my own experiences in ex-gay ministry and those of my friends, I honestly have to suspect that self-deception may frequently play a role in ex-gay testimonials — to say nothing of the desire to please others, especially people who have been working with great persistence and charity to effect a change in us. That isn’t to say that no one has ever experienced any change at all, but I think that the sort of things that are often touted as change, and the degree of change that is claimed in many cases, are not shown by the other evidence to be a reliable argument in favor of ex-gay efforts.

      And the gay bullies? Well, some of them are simply bigoted against Christianity, for some of the same reasons that some Christians are bigoted against gay people. But a lot of them are people who were promised something they didn’t get, and who were sometimes punished for not succeeding in changing themselves, despite the fact that such change is neither required nor promised by the Scriptures. (The Bible offers us grace, and the possibility of holiness; it never offers us heterosexuality.) Such bullying, when it does exist, is to be expected as a form of self-defense — possibly immature or unfair, but entirely understandable, especially in contexts where Christians show little or no appreciation of, or repentance for, the hurt they have often inflicted upon their gay brothers and sisters.

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  18. There is an old saying that “The more a thing changes, the more it remains the same”. The “new” Christian Celibacy movement isn’t really new at all. It’s the same old, repackaged “ex-gay” message, just without the “you can change your sexual orientation” false promise. Can’t become straight? OK. Just never act on your “unwanted same-sex attractions”. Until you die. Or else.

    You still are supposed to view your orientation as somehow broken or disordered. Gay sexual relationships are still displeasing to God and could result in eternal separation from him. God still expects you to never enjoy romance, intimacy, sex or marriage — unless it’s a mixed-orientation marriage.

    The “new” gay celibates may say that they feel “called” to celibacy, that they have the “gift” of celibacy or are just making a “personal choice”, but it not just that. It’s prescriptive for all LGBTQ Christians. The unspoken message is still that LGBTQ people and their relationships are “less than”. Less deserving of equality or respect. Taking away the “change is possible” slogan doesn’t make it any less damaging to LGBTQ people or their families.

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  20. Matt, thank you so much for this! Three-and-a-half years later, post-Nashville Statement, I’ve come back to your post to reflect on the stark contrast between those on either wing of our more centrist position. You beautifully outlined the positions of those to our ideological “left,” and I’ve tried to respond to those on our “right” here: Finding Center. Thanks again!

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