Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Prominent "Ex-Gay" Leader Tells Truth about Conversion Therapy: Doesn't Work, Perverts the Gospel

There's an important story breaking right now regarding how churches--and, in particular, the conservative wing of evangelical churches--are coming to understand homosexuality.  This story, which will perhaps not receive as much notice in the mainstream media as it should, is a significant one because it illustrates the extent to which even those faith communities most strongly opposed to acceptance and inclusion of gay people in church and society are slowly coming to revise their attitudes.

This story centers on one of the leaders of the so-called "ex-gay" movement, the faith-based movement which preaches that gay people not only can, but must, repent, convert, and seek to change their sexual orientation before they can claim acceptance within a religious community.  John Smid, a leader of that movement, formerly headed an "ex-gay" program called Love in Action in Memphis.

I blogged about this program several weeks ago when I noted that Memphis filmmaker Jon Morgan has produced a documentary about the controversy that arose in 2005 when a Memphis teen, Zach Stark, was forced by his parents to attend Love in Action programs, and posted a plea for help on his MySpace page.  That plea sparked an international movement of protest against the attempt to force gay teens to "repent," "convert," and change their sexual orientations.

The protest movement also resulted in a period of serious soul-searching for Smid.  Smid subsequently resigned as director of Love in Action, and in 2010, issued an apology to those who maintain that the attempt to convert them from homosexuality to heterosexuality has seriously harmed them.  And now this week, Smid has posted a blockbuster reflection at his blog site, Grace Rivers, at which he states unambiguously that, though he has been a national leader in the powerful Exodus International "ex-gay" ministry (of which Love in Action is a part), and though he has claimed to be an example of someone who has "converted" from homosexuality to heterosexuality, he remains homosexual.  Though he's married to a heterosexual woman . . . .

In other words, Smid is admitting publicly and without qualification that "ex-gay" therapy doesn't work.  It's bogus.  It depends on misconceptions--about sexual orientation, about the difference between changing one's behavior and changing one's sexual orientation, about what the scriptures have to say re: homosexuality.  It depends, in fact, on lies.  And those lies hurt people.

These are no small admissions. They signal a sea-change in how even conservative evangelical Christians, who remain the group in American society most resistant to inclusion and acceptance of those who are gay, are coming to view homosexuality.  And so what Smid has to say in this recent blog posting is of critical significance for anyone tracking the religiously fueled cultural debate about homosexuality, conversion therapy, and gay rights that has occupied so much attention and consumed so much energy in the United States for several decades now.

Here's what Smid now tells us:

1. His understanding of homosexuality has shifted as a result of hearing the stories of gay people, many of whom are "wounded Christians" who have been powerfully hurt by the rejection, scorn, and, sometimes, outright hatred exhibited towards them by people of faith.

Smid notes that his high-profile job as head of a conversion therapy ministry has caused him to go "around the world" listening to stories of those who are gay.  As he has listened to these stories, he has begun to recognize that he's actually also listening to God.  

And what he has heard shatters the smug assumptions on which his "ex-gay" ministry has been based.  What he has heard "is so different than I always thought in my small world of ex-gay ministry."  Smid explicitly notes that the stories of real-life gay human beings, which comprise much pain (as well as joy, forgiveness, and committed love) have shattered the tightly controlled, utterly confining, and exceedingly small paradigm out of which those who believe in conversion therapy operate:

And yes, it was a small world because I made it small. I was completely unwilling to hear anything that didn’t fit my paradigm. I blocked out anyone’s life story or biblical teaching that didn’t match up with what I believed.

2. While conversion therapy may occasionally change the behavior of those who are gay, it does not change their sexual orientation.

Smid notes that he has encountered gay people who report "dramatic changes" in their lives as a result of their encounters with grace.  But he notes that in all honesty he must admit that "this transformation process may not meet the expectations of many Christians."

To be specific:

I also want to reiterate here that the transformation for the vast majority of homosexuals will not include a change of sexual orientation. Actually I’ve never met a man who experienced a change from homosexual to heterosexual. I have met some women who claim that is the case but then again, male sexuality and female sexuality are vastly biologically different so this would not be a fair comparison.

3. Smid himself has equated changing behavior with changing sexual orientation.

Smid states flatly: "I used to define homosexuality or heterosexuality in terms describing one’s behavior."  This is an extremely important admission.  It clearly implies that all of those who promote "ex-gay" therapy are reporting behavioral change and not change in people's constitutional God-given sexual orientation, when they claim that they have successfully "converted" people from homosexuality.   It implies, in other words, that the claims of the "ex-gay" movement that it can successfully turn people from gay to straight are patently false.

4. Smid points to himself as an example of what he's talking about when he says that one may change behavior and therefore "convert" a gay person to a straight one.

Smid makes the following stunning (and honest) admission about himself:

As to the question at hand, I would consider myself homosexual and yet in a marriage with a woman.  My sexual desires, attractions and lifelong struggle with common factors relating to homosexuality are pretty much all in the classification of homosexual.  Someone once described this type of scenario a “mixed orientation marriage”.

I am homosexual, my wife is heterosexual. This creates a unique marriage experience that many do not understand.  For many years I tried to fit into the box of heterosexuality.  I tried my hardest to create heterosexuality in my life but this also created a lot of shame, a sense of failure, and discouragement.  Nothing I did seemed to change me into a heterosexual even though I was in a marriage that included heterosexual behavior. Very often when I am in situations with heterosexual men I clearly see that there are facets of our lives that are distinctively different as it relates to our sexuality, and other things as well.

5. If points 1-4 are true, then the theological foundation on which many people of faith have rested their condemnation of homosexuality and their call to repentance and conversion (as in becoming "ex-gay") is false.

Smid zeroes in on the call of many people of faith to their gay brothers and sisters to "repent."  He concludes,

So often people will say someone needs to “repent” from homosexuality. It is something that actually cannot be repented of! People are, or they are not, homosexual. It is an intrinsic part of their being or personally, my being. One cannot repent of something that is unchangeable. I have gone through a tremendous amount of grief over the many years that I spoke of change, repentance, reorientation and such, when, barring some kind of miracle, none of this can occur with homosexuality. The article today is a great example of how we as Christians pervert the gospel as it relates to homosexuality as though homosexuals aren’t welcome in the kingdom unless they repent (which many interpret to change).  

Homosexuality does not need to be repented of.  It cannot be repented of.  It is who a gay person isTo ask people to repent of their God-given nature is--and this is a critically important phrase--to "pervert the gospel as it relates to homosexuality."

The real perversion with which people of faith should concern themselves is not the imaginary perversion of their brothers and sisters whom God has made gay.  It is the perversion of the gospel, the good news of God's all-embracing, salvific love for everyone through Jesus Christ.  When it comes to their brothers and sisters who are gay, the churches have all too frequently proclaimed an anti-gospel, the antithesis of the good news of Christ.  As Smid himself admits, what he has taught about the bible in his "ex-gay" workshops never even made sense to him: he was repeating what he read in the works of others about the scriptures' condemnation of homosexuality.

6. The final step: if people of faith want to make the good news of God's all-embracing love for the world concrete in the lives of those who are gay, they need to begin affirming and supporting the committed, loving relationships of gay people.

In an important section of his reflection, Smid contrasts a heterosexual person who has been married five times with a gay couple who have lived in a faithful, loving, and committed relationship for thirty years.  Which, he asks is worse?  He concludes that one can't or shouldn't judge either--not judge them in the ultimate sense that belongs to God alone.

But he wonders: isn't it entirely possible that the loving and committed gay couple "could be more faithful in their walk with Christ than the person married five times . . ."?  And if this is true--if the faithful, loving, committed unions of those who are gay can exemplify sanctity for the rest of the Christian community, then doesn't a church whose mission is to enflesh the all-embracing love of God in the world have an obligation to foster, support, and bless those relationships?

Smid writes,

Commonly when a homosexual finds God’s amazing love for them as they are, their perversion diminishes, their promiscuity decreases or goes away completely, and at times they accept being single or they may find a God centered relationship that also seems to be healthy and faithful.

Blessing, accepting, and affirming those who are gay, along with their loving relationships, helps and heals.  It helps those who are gay avoid falling into the deep pit of self-condemnation, guilt, and destructive behavior that claims so many gay lives in a culture in which outright hostility and violence towards those who are gay is commonplace.  

Blessing, accepting, and affirming those who are gay is, in short, what love in action is really all about for members of faith communities whose concern should be to make love abound in the world--not to snuff it out.  That is, whose concern should be making love abound, if what they're about is really proclaiming the gospel . . . .

Smid is on the way towards some important recognitions here.  By implication, evangelical Christians in general are on the way through reflections such as his.  They're on the way towards reversing some ugly theological principles and attitudes and programs flowing from those principles that have done serious harm to their gay brothers and sisters.  And which have perverted the gospel. 

The next step on the road to conversion on which Smid has placed his feet (and the feet of conservative evangelical Christians in general) should be this: why does the question of homosexual repentance continue to loom so large for people of faith, and why does it occupy so much of their attention and eat up so much of their energy, when Jesus never once mentions homosexuality?  And when the handful of five or six proof texts from both the Jewish and Christian scriptures that people of faith continue to hurl at their gay brothers and sisters are ambiguous, exegetically problematic, and nowhere near the center of Judaeo-Christian biblical concern--which is focused on love, mercy, and justice?

For valuable commentary on Smid's article, see Jim Burroway at Box Turtle Bulletin, Zack Ford at Think Progress, and Dave Rattigan at Ex-Gay Watch.

And I've been framing this discussion as if it's a discussion uniquely applicable to conservative American evangelical Christians.  I've focused on that aspect for two reasons: first, Smid himself stands within that tradition; and, second, various polls and surveys continue to show that, of all groups within American culture, it's conservative evangelicals who remain most resistant to full inclusion of gay persons in church and society.

I don't want to give the impression, however, that the politically and culturally powerful Catholic church is exempt from the kind of considerations Smid raises in his latest Grace Rivers posting.  Catholics have developed their own unique form of small-minded fundamentalism that refuses to hear the testimony of their gay brothers and sisters, ignores findings endorsed by the vast majority of scientific professionals, and perverts the gospel, when it comes to those who are gay.

If any proof of these claims is necessary, have a look at what a Catholic reader of this blog posted here only yesterday.  My point here is not to single out an individual who is, after all, only repeating what he hears the official teaching of his church saying to those who are gay.

And it's all so simple, isn't it?  You who are gay have been given a special cross to bear.  All you must do is repent each time you fall.  Keep going to confession, keep avoiding the occasions of sin (as in, keep avoiding all friendships that might embroil you in intimacy), and live a life of lifelong chastity.

All so simple, and so interesting to hear from a brother Catholic who is himself, as his comment tells us, heterosexual and married . . . . All so simple and so utterly cruel . . . . Even though it's formulated in those elegant, abstract, compassion-claiming and experience-denying aphorisms that the magisterium and its supporters love to use when they talk about consigning others to a life of shouldering up their crosses, forgoing human intimacy, and accepting perpetual chastity that they haven't chosen and to which they are not called, since the human heart is made to love. . . .

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