In 2008, I left the ex-gay world and came out. Last year, I wrote this open letter on an anonymous blog. For those who don’t know, the ex-gay movement tries to lead people out of a homosexual orientation through prayer and therapy.
Dear Ex-Gay Community,
I remember the day I left all of you. It was one of the scariest days of my life. I would like to talk about that soon, but first, I need thank you – you gave me a lot. You gave me love, a sense of direction, and an incredible sense of comfort – of being home. You pointed me to the love of Jesus, and at times you helped carry me towards Him when I was too weak and too bloody, when my cross had become too heavy. I was surrounded by a nest of deep, deep warmth: a cozy place where all my questions had answers.
But you gave me other things as well.
For years after I limped away from you, the rage blinded me. The hurt felt like it threatened to crush me. There were many days and weeks when suicide hung heavily over me, threatening to take me away.
And the guilt would never leave. The guilt of being one of them: one who was too weak to keep going, one who bailed when it got too hard. You told me that if I left your warm little citadel I would be walking in error, I would be choosing the wrong path and leading a life of destruction. I still believed that, even when the pain got too terrible to bear. I continued to believe that, even after the agony forced me out of your ranks like a naked child into the cold, harsh streets of the wide, unfeeling world.
I was 17 when I first entered the ex-gay fold.
Seventeen. A child. I was vulnerable, naive. I didn’t know how to discern right from wrong, I didn’t know up from down. All I wanted was to live a good life, to make my family happy, and to follow God. All I wanted was to do what God wanted me to do. I didn’t want to be gay. Looking back, there are so many things you told that 17, 18, 19 year old that make me furious, so many things that have left deep, ugly scars.
You told that 17 year old kid that he had his attractions because his dad was absent or abusive and because his mother was overbearing. Those words turned me against my parents – parents who loved me: a dad who loved me and played with me when I was a boy. A mother who nurtured me. A father who canceled international business trips to spend time with me. A mother who attended every single concert and play and cross country meet I was ever in. A dad who, even as I grew grew into my teens, would wrap his arms tightly around me and not let go and say, “Stephen, I love you so, so, so much.” A mother who made sure that every detail of my life – financial, academic, health – was set in place so that I could lead a happy and confident life. A dad who would come home every evening and cook dinner, a dad who read all the Narnia Chronicles and The Lord of the Rings and George MacDonald to me before bed.
My relationship with my parents was beautiful, but you convinced me that it was ugly, and that hurt me. It hurt my parents. It hurt my family.
Now, I look at my family and wish I knew how to tell them: this isn’t your fault. You gave me the greatest gifts I could ever have. You taught me to follow Jesus, to be a good, confident person, and more than anything you loved me the best you could. You weren’t perfect, but you did more than enough. I wish I could take back all those words, all that heartache, all those feelings of, “What did we do wrong? Why did he turn out this way?”
You told me that anything that detaches me from other men could cause homosexuality. You told me that anything that helps heal that connection – affection, companionship, friendship – would eliminate the feelings. I remember when I read that in a book – I was suddenly flooded with overwhelming joy. It’s so simple, I thought. Could it really be that simple?
All of you all told me it was. Back then, everyone in my life believed it was true. Everyone I prayed with, every pastor I talked to, every support group leader, every Exodus affiliated ministry told me with confidence that, if God were to heal that masculine bond I was supposed to have with other men, than everything would be better.
The joy was deep, but the disappointment was deeper and darker than words can express when I found out that it wasn’t true.
It didn’t go away – it got stronger.
It didn’t become simpler – it became more complicated.
It didn’t heal – the wound went deeper.
I experienced crushing disappointment and savage despair. I felt an overwhelming flurry of emotions: why had I been lied to? Why didn’t it work? What was wrong with me? Did God still love me?
You told me that homosexuality is caused by sexual abuse. You asked me, over and over and over again, if I had been abused as a child.
Perhaps because I hungered so much for an answer, or perhaps because I wanted so much to please you, I searched deep within myself. I came up with a vague impression of abuse. I latched onto that. And then I thought I could remember it. Someone close to me had sexually abused me.
But it wasn’t true. It was a fabricated memory. It was a lie. The consequences of this false memory were very, very real. I took on the shame of an abused person when I was never abused. I took on the identity of someone who was used when I hadn’t been used.
You treated me like a sex addict, like I had no control over myself. You talked to me like I had no moral self-restraint, as if the “addiction” had so consumed me that I was helpless. You convinced me that without your help, I would be lost.
You led me into an identity of shame, not out of one. You led me to see myself as more broken that I really am. I didn’t have an addiction to sex, or to drugs. I had never even slept with a guy, but that didn’t seem to phase you.
I felt like a cripple, or a man with a terrible debilitating disease which kept him from living his life – from running, breathing, dancing, laughing, singing. I was convinced that I could not live my life – not life as it should be – until God touched me and I was healed.
So I went from prayer ministry to prayer ministry, church to church, support group to support group, ex-gay leader to ex-gay leader, hoping against hope that someday God would touch me, and I would be free.
That day never came, because I was already whole. I know that now – I could already run, dance, and laugh and sing. Nothing was keeping me from any of those things. Nothing but the wheelchair I had convinced myself that I needed.
C.S. Lewis tells us that it is only in the present that we are the most in touch with eternity. I spent the present fighting for a different future – a future where I didn’t have to have these feelings, a future where I didn’t have to feel inferior to other men, a future where I didn’t have to feel like a disappointment to the whole universe.
Because I missed the present, I missed the eternal. Because I missed the eternal, I missed God: Jesus of Nazareth, the God of the lost sheep of Israel, who opens his arms and says, “come as you are.”
The moment of change came when a dear ex-gay friend of mine looked at me and said, with deep sadness in his eyes, “I’m living half a life. I did the ex-gay thing expecting resolution. There has been no resolution for me. And now I just keep myself busy. I’ve stopped searching for the answers, because at this point in my life, they wouldn’t matter anymore.”
That was the breaking point. That was the end. I knew that if I kept going, if I didn’t act, I would end up in that same place – a place where the answers didn’t matter anymore.
So I outed myself on Facebook, to every one. I assured everyone that this didn’t mean I was actually going to do anything. It didn’t mean I was going to change my life of chastity. All it meant was that I was going to stop living in the ex-gay world, and stop trying to change this part of my life.
My world blew apart on that day, and nothing has been the same since. There have been moments when all I had was my love for God, and the confidence that, at the end of the day, despite all the questions and pain and loneliness, He loves me.
Honestly, I just want you to say that you are sorry. I want you to say that you messed up, that you will try to do better next time, that you acknowledge my pain. I just want you to admit that you are like every other human being on this planet: people with good intentions who can, on occasion, make heartbreaking and life-destroying mistakes. Welcome to the human condition. I don’t hate you – I think you are good people who have made some very misguided and damaging choices.
Instead of an apology, I hear all sorts of waffling and avoiding. I hear you say things like, “my experience in the ex-gay world has been very positive,” and you then leave it at that. I hear you avoid ever acknowledging that people like me exist. I hear you make excuses and cast blame and shift uncomfortably and then get on with business as usual.
So I guess I will cut to the heart of the matter: I forgive you. All that pain, all that agony, all that rage that your words instilled in me: I no longer hold that against you.
It is only in the embrace of our Father who knew complete abuse and rejection where we – forgiveless creatures – can learn to forgive. It is only in the heartbeat of our crucified Lord that our hearts come alive and can love again.
I know that embrace now, and I know that heartbeat. I understand now that He is making all things new, drawing all things to Himself. I understand that I am a great sinner and that He is a great savior. And so I forgive you.
P.S. In March of 2013, Alan Chambers, past president of Exodus International, apologized to me personally for the harm done by Exodus. Also, since writing this piece in the spring of 2012, a huge number of ex-gay leaders have given official apologies.