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The Transnational Ex-Gay Movement

Source: Association for Women's Rights in Development - Fri, 20 Dec 2013 09:46 PM
Author: Friday Files
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Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

FRIDAY FILE - AWID interviewed feminist researcher, Annie Wilkinson[i], about her research on sexual orientation change efforts in Ecuador and the transnational ‘ex-gay’ movement she describes as a multi-million dollar industry.

By Rochelle Jones

In June 2013, United States (U.S) evangelical Christian organization Exodus International, principally associated with the promotion of sexual orientation change efforts, announced that it would close its doors, with President Alan Chambers issuing a public apology to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans gender and intersex (LGBTI) community for its past actions. Beyond the delegitimized U.S ex-gay movement, however, the same reparative or ‘conversion’ practices have adapted, diversified, and taken root in other parts of the world.  The Scott Lively vs. Sexual Minorities Uganda case, for example, highlights the role of the evangelical Christian ex-gay movement in the persecution of LGBTI persons in Uganda, but in other parts of the world as well, such as Ecuador, the ex-gay movement is alive and well.

According to Annie Wilkinson’s research[ii]  - the “the ex-gay movement has now become a transnational, multi-million dollar industry that includes large-scale (international) conferences and workshops, pseudo-celebrities, a vast literature, and hundreds of ministries around the world. It is capable of mobilizing and distributing millions of dollars to sustain its activities.”

AWID: Your work has focused specifically on the ex-gay movement and their 'reparative' practices. Can you tell us about these practices in more detail and how the ex-gay movement operates?

Annie Wilkinson (AW): I use the term “reparative practices” interchangeably with the term “sexual orientation change efforts” - seeking to transform attractions to people of the same sex to those of the opposite sex. These practices have their genesis in the “ex-gay movement”, a very particular set of institutions, practices, and beliefs that originated in the United States in the 1970s.

In the past, [reparative practices] have included a variety of aversion therapies, psychotherapy, cognitive behavioral techniques, pharmaceutical and/or medical techniques, and rigorous, structured, residential (and often explicitly religious) rehabilitation programs. In some settings, all of these practices continue, but broadly speaking, there has been a shift in the locus of power involved in these practices—from the heavy-handed practices more common in the past to subtler practices that privilege the internalization of discipline led by the patient or client him or herself. This shift represents adaptations in response to opposition of the ex-gay movement and is mirrored in the language used by those affiliated with the movement, who now refer to “unwanted same sex attractions” (SSA) and patients’ rights to seek voluntary “help” or “support”.

The ex-gay movement continues to draw support and membership almost entirely from religious organizations—mostly Evangelical Christian or Catholic, as well as Mormon, Jewish, and other religious groups, but also several supposedly non-religious “scientific” groups, like NARTH (National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality), which often have strong personal affiliations with conservative religious organizations. The movement is predominantly organized as loosely affiliated but “independent” local ministries that usually align themselves with a handful of formal organizations, like Exodus International or Exodus Global Alliance.

AWID: How has the LGBTI community in Ecuador responded?

AW: For more than ten years, the LGBTI community [in Ecuador] has been focused on the more public phenomenon of private drug and alcohol rehab clinics conducting forced sexual orientation change efforts on LGBTI persons, which I also write about. Even though the ex-gay movement rejects these violent practices and is not part of these clinics, it does publicly support and promote the explicit underlying assertion that sexual orientation can (and implicitly—should) change.

Last year, I spent several months with one ex-gay ministry affiliated with Exodus Global Alliance in Ecuador. In its 15-year history, the ministry says it has reached up to 500 individuals. Despite this kind of reach, I found that the LGBTI community in Ecuador did not know about the ex-gay movement or its presence in the country - partly because the ministry operates privately, confines itself to the Christian community and seldom engages openly in public debate. Last year, in response to my research findings, a coalition of LGBTI activists organized a rally in opposition to the ex-gay movement in Ecuador outside its annual national conference in Guayaquil and filed a complaint at the Public Defenders Office, arguing that the conference and the ministry’s activities and publications constitute hate speech, which I think has potential to succeed in this particular context. These activists have joined a growing resistance movement across Latin America challenging reparative practices.

AWID: Do you think that the Scott Lively case, if successful, could have an impact on the transnational ex-gay movement?

AW: Yes, in fact I think it already has. Above all, the Scott Lively case may lead to new international precedents in support of certain sexual rights and protections for LGBTI individuals. Scott Lively hasn’t shown much remorse or a change of opinion himself. In fact, he continues his international campaign to spread hateful messages in other regions of the world, particularly in Russia and Eastern Europe. But the case has brought unprecedented public scrutiny to the ex-gay movement and to Exodus International in the U.S, where the legitimacy of the ex-gay movement has fallen deeply into question.

This hasn’t been the case in Uganda, [however], where public sentiment has hardly shifted and most of the population has still to hear anything about the case. I fear that we have a long way to go in other contexts to truly prevent the kind of damage that Scott Lively has helped spearhead in Uganda. The ex-gay movement is diffuse, decentralized, flexible, structured from the bottom-up, and plugs easily into the already well-supported networks of evangelical Christian ministries. These are exactly the characteristics that make the ex-gay movement so adaptable and resilient and that make challenging it so difficult. Those opposing the ex-gay movement will have to organize to challenge it in every local context where it exists.

AWID: Since Exodus International closed its doors, what has been the impact on these affiliated ministries?

Exodus International was actually an American member ministry of Exodus Global Alliance, which continues supporting and connecting hundreds of ministries around the world. Exodus Global Alliance’s official position is that it disagrees with Exodus International's new perspective (i.e. sexual orientation cannot be changed). Thus, it continues as it did before promoting "help" for what it claims are 55 million homosexuals in need around the world under the motto "change is possible". 

The closing of Exodus International had a material impact mostly within the U.S. where it has served as the umbrella and catalyst of the ex-gay movement. Its symbolic impact - which certainly did reach across the world – has been more muted outside the U.S., where Exodus Global Alliance continues to operate as it has for the past decade. This includes Camino de Salida, the ministry in Ecuador I write about. I was with the Ecuadorian ministry when the news reached about the "closing" of Exodus International. They were surprised and disagreed and simply moved on.

They, like many others, categorize the closing of Exodus International as a victory of the "gay lobby" or the "gay agenda", rhetoric that reflects its ties to the American ex-gay movement and the related “Christian Right”. Camino de Salida, like many Exodus-affiliated ministries, was founded by American evangelical missionaries but is now run by Ecuadorian volunteers and contributes as well to what the global ex-gay movement is becoming as it continues to evolve. The ex-gay movement has truly globalized. Portraying the transnational ex-gay movement as simply a malicious, paternalistic export from the United States would be to deny its truly global, diverse, multilateral, and decentralized contemporary nature.

AWID: Do you think using the law is a pathway to lay the groundwork for further LGBTI legitimisation and normalisation? 

AW: Yes, absolutely, and again, I think that it already has. Legal challenges are a necessary part of the multi-faceted strategies that we must develop to challenge the negative impacts of the ex-gay movement. In my opinion, Scott Lively and his collaborators should be held liable for their direct actions supporting the creation of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill and its accompanying campaign in Uganda.

But such direct damage sufficient for making a legal case is usually more difficult to demonstrate or trace. This is particularly true because, unlike Scott Lively, most of the ex-gay movement condemns violence or discrimination as reactions to same-sex attractions. Many ex-gay ministries also often strategically strive to operate within the boundaries of the law—they offer voluntary services, and there may be little that the law can do to prevent an ex-gay ministry with unlicensed professionals from offering private “spiritual services” at no cost to freely-acting clients. Many ex-gay ministries have adopted (or coopted) the language of anti-discrimination, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion to protect themselves from legal challenges and to ensure their ability to function. This is why I think that legal challenges around hate speech like that pursued by my colleagues in Ecuador may be among the most successful. That said, continued public education and dialogue and cultural/attitudinal change is the other necessary—but insufficient—ingredient to challenge the ex-gay movement in the long term, and to put a final end to the damage it has caused in Ecuador, the United States, and beyond.

[i]Annie Wilkinson is a feminist researcher focused on gender and sexuality issues internationally. She holds a Masters in Gender and Development from FLACSO-Ecuador and currently supports human rights researchers and activists in Eastern and Southern Africa, Latin America, and elsewhere in her role as Human Rights Project Manager at Benetech. Formerly, Annie worked as a Development Officer at the Global Fund for Women.

[ii]Her forthcoming books are titled Sin sanidad, no hay santidad: las prácticas reparativas en Ecuador (Cleanliness is Holiness: Reparative Practices in Ecuador) to be published by FLACSO-Ecuador, and Transgressing Transgenders: Exploring the borderlands of national, gender, and ethnic belonging in Ecuador in Queering Paradigms (Peter Lang, in print).

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