July 21, 2005 | On the front page of the Exodus International Web site is a photograph of several dozen men and women. The allegedly changed homosexuals, or newly minted ex-gays, are beaming at the camera, apparently celebrating their newfound freedom from homosexuality. Standing in the center of the photograph is 29-year-old Shawn O'Donnell, who was enrolled in Exodus programs on and off for 10 years.
Exodus is the umbrella organization, information clearinghouse and referral service for "ex-gay ministries." These organizations claim they can help gays and lesbians become heterosexual. Exodus was founded in 1976 as part of a backlash against the American Psychiatric Association's 1973 determination that homosexuality is not a mental disorder. Exodus leaders are embraced by the religious right, including the politically influential Focus on the Family, which holds conferences touting the success of the "ex-gay movement."
The only problem with the Exodus photo is that O'Donnell is still gay. In fact, he is out of the closet and says he is the happiest he has ever been in his life. The efforts to change him from gay to straight were what sank him into despair. At age 21, in his bedroom at his parents' house, O'Donnell slashed his arms. "No one was home," O'Donnell says. "I was in my room and just started cutting. I definitely did not want to live anymore. I bled through my clothes. I had pretty deep cuts." O'Donnell's parents rushed him to the hospital, and he spent a week in a psychiatric ward. At the time, he was getting counseling from a group called Overcomers Ministries.
Mental health professionals fear there may be many stories like O'Donnell's. They say that efforts to change a person's sexual orientation, notably through therapy programs modeled on boot camps, with Draconian regulations, can be psychologically destructive. The American Psychiatric Association has asked ethical psychiatrists to refrain from "reparative therapy" that is supposed to change gays. "We are finding that the numbers of people claiming to be harmed by reparative therapy are increasing," says Dr. Jack Drescher, chair of the American Psychiatric Association's Committee on Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Issues. "I don't know about the suicides because it is hard to determine why somebody killed themselves afterward. But the harm is increasing."
O'Donnell grew up Elgin, Ill., about 40 miles outside Chicago. He mostly attended Pentecostal churches as a kid. As for his sexuality, he says he knew something was up at age 6. But he was told that being gay was a sin. At age 18, he began counseling to overcome homosexuality at Leanne Payne Ministries, which he visited once or twice a week for two years.
In 10 years of therapy, O'Donnell was told that a bad relationship with his father may have made him gay, that he may have been sexually abused, and that his mother was overbearing. He says none of those things are true. "At times I was told that I just wasn't praying hard enough or reading the Bible enough," he says. But O'Donnell says his sexual orientation did not change. Like a half-dozen gay Christian men I interviewed who participated in ex-gay programs, O'Donnell felt trapped between his faith and his sexuality. "At the time, I could not be gay and I could not be a Christian," he says. "I could not stop being gay and I did not want to give up my faith."
Even after his first suicide attempt, O'Donnell tried to change from gay to straight. For three years, he went through therapy with New Hope Ministries. This time, O'Donnell was an inpatient, so he could get round-the-clock help. And again, the therapy didn't work. While he was there, he made a second suicide attempt, although this time the slashes to his wrists didn't require him to be hospitalized. He eventually gave up trying to change. "After three years, I finally went AWOL," O'Donnell says. He adds that he now happily attends a church that welcomes him and his sexuality.
Recently, O'Donnell asked Exodus president Alan Chambers to take his photo off the Exodus Web site. But Chambers, O'Donnell says, told him that Exodus owns the picture and it still signifies that people can change. "I said, 'How can you say that is true when I know there are at least three people in that picture who have not changed?'" Exodus did not return my calls seeking comment about the photo.
Earlier this summer, I went to a New York screening of "Fish Can't Fly," a documentary about Christian gays struggling with their faith and sexuality. The film profiles seven men and women, including O'Donnell, and their futile efforts to change from gay to straight.
You can read the rest at: http://www.salon.com/news/feature/2005/07/21/ex_gays/index.html
Even when you can get a member of the religious right to agree that it is not curable, they then simply say one has to live an abstinent life void of relationships. Sure, you try it and set an example for us all.
Obviously my conclusion is that we are what we are, that morality is not in who we have a relationship with (as long as it's an adult) but rather the quality of love and respect that we conduct it with. We'll all find out who was right and who was wrong on the other side...
edited to note that later in the article the point is made that if the glbt community was more welcoming to Christians, the ex-gay ministry would go out of business. Let's do what we can to be more accepting and supportive of our Christian brothers and sisters. We need to walk our tolerance talk, don't you think?