Sociological studies of the ex-gay movement
Speaking with Sébastien Fath a few weeks ago convinced me to write posts in English. It is obviously easier to write in French (a language I’m over-confident with), and it takes more time to think in (broken) English, especially when the writing skills are rusty. François Briatte has been writing both in French and English in the same blog, and I will follow his path (and a similar “warning – non-native speaker” at the end of the posts).
This year, two sociological studies of the ex-gay conversion movement have been published. The first one is Be not deceived : The Sacred and Sexual Struggles of Gay and Ex-Gay Christian Menby Michelle Wolkomir and the second one, by Tanya Erzen, is Straight to Jesus : Sexual and Christian Conversions in the ex-gay movement.
The ex-gay movement was born toward the second half of the seventies, and has been trying ever since to convert gay and lesbian people to heterosexuality. It offers a mix of secular self-help programs (such as the A.A. twelve-step structure) and of religious practices (confessions, spiritual introspection, prayer…) to help “men struggling with homosexuality”. Their success rate is quite low, and leaders of the ex-gay movement are regularly found on gay chat-rooms or in gay bars : one does not change easily his or her desires. Neither Wolkomir nor Erzen are interested about the rate of change per se, their studies try to understand the viewpoint, the worldview, of men participating in the ex-gay programs.
Michelle Wolkomir is a social psychologist, and her main interest is identity reconciliation : how do the Christian men she study “reconcile homosexual desires with the religious belief that homosexuality is sinful and damning”. Her two apparently opposed fieldworks — a Bible study group affiliated with a MCC church, and an Exodus group — stress the idea that these identity-struggles are in flux : some gay men become “ex-gay”, born-again Christian, and ex-gay men often stay with homosexual desires, or convert back to “the lifestyle”. Wolkomir shows that the ex-gay group she studied relied on the minimization of homosexual sin :
the men had to learn that homosexual sin was ordinary sin on par with any other. If homosexual sin was ordinary sin, then the men were just sinners like everyone else. They could also more readily believe they could overcome normal sin and be forgiven for it.
Moreover, this sin is believed to have a mundane origin : a defective socialization (weak father, strong mother). And to have a sacred solution : submission to divine will (mainly Jesus as a personal savior).
Tanya Erzen is attentive to the historical context as much as to the small group interactions. In a sense, her work is more ambitious than Wolkomir’s. She studied a residential ex-gay program, “New Hope”, tracing its origin, its relations with other ex-gay programs and with the main Religious Right organizations. Her aim is to describe the worldview of the men and women participating in the “New Hope” program, but also to understand how the Religious Right began to use the ex-gay image. Indeed, toward the end of the 1990s, James Dobson changed his rhetoric, from a rabid antigay discourse to a softer “ex-gay” one.
Erzen’s work is also a political intervention. The sociological enterprise is partly justified by its political results :
The lives of ex-gay men and women demonstrate that sexual and religious identities are never static or permanent. This idea mus become a part of the larger discussion about sexual rights in order to imagine a world in which everyone is entitled to the full benefit of citizenship
Wolkomir and Erzen are “progressive”, or “liberal”. How do they study people they’re not (fully) agreeing with ?
Wolkomir seems to be detached. In the first chapter, she writes that her interest for the subject of identity reconciliation came from curiosity and ignorance. She emphasize her outsider status in her research :
the pastor was worried about the what I intended to do with the information I collected and voiced the concern that I might be “working for the condemners.” In the conversation that followed, I explained […] I was not interested in choosing “a side” in the debate but rather in understanding how these men…”
Erzen seems to be less detached and more involved :
After I explained that I hoped to comprehend the perspectives of men and women in a ex-gay ministry through prolonged fieldwork and interviews at New Hope, Anita informed me that “we are in a battle,” and the battle is between “us versus them”. I was unsure wha she ment, and she clarified that “them” meant Satan. […] Her next question, “Who do you serve?” was calculated to establish where my allegiances lay.
I had never been faced with the choice of God or Satan, but I replied that since I was at the ministry to understand their viewpoint rather than simply to dismiss or ridicule them, I supposed I was on the side of “us.”
Tanya Erzen’s narrative stresses the practical importance of “living with” : she helps with the office work and with the website of the ministry… Engagement, not neutrality, is at the core of ethnographic research.
I will keep from both this books one core idea. One underlying point in these studies is that gay and religious identities and institutions aren’t opposed anymore : the ex-gay organizations and programs include “queer” gay identities (ex-gay ones, with unstables religious and sexual identities) within the conservative Christian sphere… and that is, may be, the strange defeat of the ex-gay movement.I'm a non-native speaker, and English grammar is often confusing. Please help me improve (you can comment, I will correct)