Throughout the 1980s and 90s, the Christian right poured money and muscle into promoting the message that homosexuality was a curable disorder. It advocated conversion therapy, which promised to turn gay men and women straight. But last week, when President Obama announced his support for a national ban on such therapies, few voices on the Christian right spoke up in protest. The announcement confirmed the evaporation of support for these approaches among the communities that once embraced them. As Alan Chambers, who once ran America’s largest ex-gay ministry, told me, “sexual orientation doesn’t change.”
It was a shift rooted in the accrual of evidence and experience. After she came out as a lesbian in high school, Julie Rodgers’ conservative Christian parents urged her to join a ministry in Texas to help make her straight. Ministry leaders promised her that if she continued praying, reading the Bible, attending meetings, and of course, refusing to identify as gay, her sexual orientation would eventually change and she could even marry a man. Rodgers didn’t want to go, but she did want the food, shelter, and love her parents offered. So she agreed.
The program worked great—except that it didn’t. After a decade of compliance, neither Rodger’s orientation nor those of her fellow group members budged toward straightness. And worse, the empty promises and feeling that she was “less than” normal left her drowning in a sea of shame.
It’s a sad story, but one that grows gloomier when you consider that Rodgers is one of the lucky ones. Countless LGBT youths have been subjected to much worse, not just in Christian ministries, but also at the hands of licensed counselors who perform what is known as “reparative” or “conversion therapy.” These controversial mental health practices, intended to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity, are ineffective and often drive participants to depression, anxiety, drug use, or suicide.
In recent years, however, conversion therapy has been much maligned if not completely discredited. Almost all major medical and public welfare organizations oppose it, and even conservative Christians—once counted among its strongest supporters—are changing their minds. New Jersey, California, and Washington, D.C., have already outlawed ex-gay therapy for minors. By all accounts, therapies attempting to cure gayness appear to be going the way of the buggy whip.