Wayne Besen of Truth Wins Out
In recent years, “ex-gay” ministries and their ostensibly secular counterpart, reparative therapy (a.k.a. conversion therapy), have been widely discredited. The movement's key leaders have either been the subject of scandal or come out of the closet. This undermined their credibility, because these spokespeople were the walking, talking, “living proof” that such programs are effective. Additionally, the industry has lost in court, and laws have been passed in several states and cities prohibiting quacks from engaging in the barbaric practice with minors.
Beyond the fight for marriage equality, efforts to debunk the “ex-gay” industry have been one of the LGBT movement’s most effective campaigns. These organizations came to prominence in 1998, when at least 15 right-wing Christian groups launched the national “Truth in Love” advertising campaign that featured people who claimed to have gone from gay to straight through a combination of Jesus Christ and therapy sessions.
The campaign backfired and proved the opposite: Even highly motivated people aided by Christian psychologists and prayer warriors could not alter their sexual orientation.
Today, most of the once powerful “ex-gay” groups are gone, such as Exodus International, Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality, and Love Won Out. Those remaining exist in shambles, staffed by dead-enders who operate on the far fringes of society. Most right-wing Christian groups that once embraced this movement now avoid doing so. They rightfully fear that promoting “ex-gay” programs, which are highly likely to fail, would lead to public ridicule. And, finally, the media, which once gave “ex-gay” groups millions of dollars in free publicity, are openly skeptical. Having been burned by people who lied about their transformation, news outlets now ignore these groups or accurately report on them as the scams that they are.
Our movement’s victory over the destructive “ex-gay” myth could prove ephemeral with the rise of Donald Trump. Although he has shown no appetite to promote this insidious lie, he has surrounded himself with people who are virulently antigay, such as Vice President Mike Pence, Housing and Urban Development secretary nominee Ben Carson, and Attorney General nominee Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama.
“Ex-gay” propaganda is always an attractive option for such extremists. They latch on to it because the alternative to cynically professing love for LGBT people by offering a cure is outright hostility, which is more difficult in a country that increasingly accepts LGBT people as mainstream.
Indeed, open warfare against LGBT people is politically perilous. As Indiana's governor, Mike Pence was burned when he tried to wage it with the odious “license to discriminate” law. Gov. Pat McCrory was one of the rare Republicans who lost his reelection, which was due largely to his embrace of an anti-LGBT law that stripped civil rights from gay people and denied transgender individuals use of the appropriate bathrooms. A May CNN/ORC poll found that 57 percent of Americans say they oppose laws requiring transgender individuals to use facilities that do not match their gender identity.
To avoid becoming a laughingstock, it is unlikely that shrewder members of Trump’s staff or Cabinet would openly promote such quackery (my guess is that Ben Carson is the most likely). The real danger lies in the contempt for reality and collapse of the quaint notion that “facts” exist. On November 30, CNN’s Scottie Nell Hughes, a frequent Trump surrogate, appeared on The Diane Rehm Show and said, “People that say facts are facts — they’re not really facts. … There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts.”
In such a fact-free environment, you can easily see conservatives arguing to include “ex-gay” viewpoints in textbooks and protecting these groups with new laws. This time, they are less likely to argue the efficacy of such programs. They will probably emulate Donald Trump and declare something like, “I have no idea if these programs work, but some people say they do, so it’s only fair to include their version of the facts.”
“Ex-gay” organizations may also follow the path of white nationalists and claim to be a distinct minority that is in need of protection from discrimination. The noxious group Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays has long used this argument. I would not be surprised to see some conservatives adopt it in the specious name of fairness. They will argue that the exclusion of “ex-gay” propaganda is an example of political correctness.
We will also have to counter the cynical enactment of religious liberty laws, which may give proponents of “ex-gay” programs the right to inflict harm on LGBT people in the name of religious freedom. As Donald Trump and the Republican Senate fill federal courts with conservative judges, such tomfoolery may increasingly gain support from the bench.
The international posture of the Trump administration may also lead to the expansion of “ex-gay” organizations. The U.S. has been a bulwark against global homophobia during the Obama administration. Who will now stand up at the United Nations against Middle Eastern countries and Russia, which may push the “ex-gay” myth?
Finally, I suspect that Trump will give more latitude to states to promote these harmful therapies under the auspices of “states’ rights.” It is conceivable that our “laboratories of democracy” may conduct some very dangerous “ex-gay” experiments on LGBT people during the Trump years.
Fortunately, these organizations have a history of folly and failure. We will need to highlight these disasters, because conservatives may try to revive this dead horse in the coming years.
He is the host of The Wayne Besen Show, airing weekdays from 2 to 5 p.m. Central on WCPT 820 AM Chicago, and a weekly columnist at the Falls Church News Press.
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