The XX Factor

Team Cure vs. Team Closet: There’s a Civil War Brewing in the Ex-Gay Movement

Not praying the gay away

Photo by Michal Cizek/AFP/Getty Images.

For the past year or so, a civil war has been raging within the subterranean right wing of the right wing that is the “ex-gay” community. There was a time when all ex-gays stood shoulder-to-shoulder, firm in the belief that human beings were inherently heterosexual and therefore homosexuality could be “cured” through a process of scientifically implausible faux therapies and a whole lot of praying. But in recent years, the concept of “praying the gay away” has become a nationwide joke and Lady Gaga had a smash hit with “Born This Way.” In response, many in the ex-gay community decided to evolve lest they become obsolete. And now the once united conservative Christian community has split into two.

The point of contention between the warring factions is the traditional claim made by ex-gay groups, which is that homosexuality can be “cured”—i.e. a gay person can be turned into a straight person. Increasingly, ex-gay groups have decided to distance themselves from promising to turn gay people straight, and instead simply offer homosexuals tools to make their new life back in the closet less miserable.

Exodus International, which is probably the largest umbrella group for ex-gay ministries in the country, has decided to take the closet-not-cure route, encouraging gay people to either embrace celibacy or get themselves into marriages with opposite sex partners they don’t find sexually attractive. In essence, they’ve switched from saying, “You can be a straight person!” to saying, “Being in the closet doesn’t have to be that bad, as long as you slowly smother any hopes of having real sexual passion in your life.”

Others in the ex-gay community aren’t willing to give up the claim that they can make gay people want heterosex in just the same way they currently want homosex, which is understandable, because “stick with us and you, too, can have unsatisfying and infrequent sex with a spouse you feel is more like a roommate than a lover” isn’t really the kind of message that sells well to a generation raised on Abercrombie ads and rom-coms. Jeff Johnston, the resident ex-gay “expert” at Focus on the Family, has been leading the fight for Team Cure against Team Closet, and over the summer, he endorsed a new group called the Restored Hope Network, which intends to replace Exodus International as the preeminent group in the country and return the party line to telling gay people that they can become straight.*

Over the weekend, the Restored Hope Network kicked off its recruiting efforts with a conference reiterating the Team Cure position and an endorsement from Focus on the Family, written by Johnston himself, where he explained that he’s not backing off of the idea that gay people are “sexually broken” and incapable of forming real relationships.

What makes this in-fighting all the more remarkable is how little it really matters to the public image of ex-gay ministries. The closet is the closet, whether the public claim to hide your true self is that you’re cured or that you’re successfully repressing. While ex-gay ministries fight over what most people see as a distinction without difference, public acceptance of homosexuality is rapidly rising, with recent polls showing a majority of Americans believing that gay relationships not only should be legal but are also morally acceptable. The ex-gay civil war is best understood as the death throes of a movement that used to represent the beliefs of the majority but is now seen as a peculiar cult pushing an outdated ideology. 

Correction, Sept. 26, 2012: This post originally cited Jeff Johnston as the founder of the Restored Hope Network. Johnston endorsed the Restored Hope Network. Frank Worthen founded it. (Return to the corrected sentence.)