Monday, September 4, 2006

Tanya Erzen's Straight To Jesus

As I mentioned previously, I finished Tanya Erzen's book, Straight To Jesus: Sexual and Christian Conversions in the Ex-gay Movement, last week. This is the second recent book on the ex-gay movement I've read in the last few years. The other, Wayne Besen's 2003 book, Anything But Straight, was written from a critical activist's perspective and focused on the many ex-gay scandals. Erzen takes a more ethnographic approach that tries to understand ex-gays' perspectives. She spent over a year studying Frank and Anita Worthen's New Hope ministry, its 15 live-in male participants during 2000 and 2001, and the 2000 Exodus International conference.

Here are a few of the interesting and entertaining things I learned from Erzen's book:

  • New Hope drop-outs and drama: Ex-gay ministries rarely release statistics or discuss success rates. So it is very unusual for New Hope to allow Erzen the ability to personally witness the progress of their live-in participants and interview past participants. Seven participants did not make it through the program [page 217] who either voluntarily left or were asked to leave after confessing some violation. I don't believe the book explained all of the departures, but I may have lost track of all the people Erzen named.

    In addition, "Curtis" the youngest participant and frequent subject in the book purposely overdosed on Vicodin so he could be hospitalized and temporarily get out of the program. He claimed it was not a suicide attempt [page 102] and did complete the program; however, Erzen reveals early in the book that he accepted his gay identify after leaving the program.

    Disturbingly, another participant and leader in training, "Paul", was found dead in his hotel room while on a business trip. Paul was a former drug user who followed his ex into New Hope. While Frank and Anita Worthen claimed his death was caused by a heart attack, there was no autopsy. Erzen seemed frustrated by the lack of details regarding Paul's death and puzzled by New Hope's muted reaction. [Pages 123-124]

  • F.A.G.: Exodus International was originally named Free All Gays but "was quickly scrapped after the organizers realized the potential contradictions of its acronym" [page 33]. I have a hard time believing this, but Erzen doesn't seem to be joking. (This too-good-to-be-true naming mistake reminds me of the Film Actors Guild in the movie Team America).

  • "Lots of Action": Frank Worthen admits that Love In Action and Exodus experienced many sexual scandals in the 1970s and 1980s. He even joked that LIA meant "Lots of Action" [page 27]. Erzen does mention many of the early ex-gay scandals such as Michael Bussee and Gary Cooper's affair [pages 34-35]. She also notes that there were media reports claiming men that promoted ex-gay change "had sex with each other at night during Exodus conferences" [page 163]. Erzen questions Worthen about Exodus' early problems: "Frank [Worthen] was vague and uncomfortable talking about this period in Exodus's history. 'We had a terrible time the first few years. One of the reasons I wanted Exodus to become an organization was because I wanted to set a standard of ethics for that kind of ministry. Most of the people were in it for their own needs. They were lonely, they felt guilty and stayed on the fence and started ministries that should never have been started. We had a terrible time--a terrible time, initially'." [page 35]

  • Smid Abruptly Moved LIA: In 1994, while Worthen was building ex-gay ministries outside of the country, Smid abruptly relocated the ex-gay ministry Worthen founded, Love In Action, from San Rafael, CA, to Memphis, TN. Worthen returned to the U.S. and continued the San Rafael ex-gay ministry under the New Hope name. Understandably, Worthen and Smid's relationship was strained after the split [page 38-40]. Now, as LIA's current executive director, Smid is infamous for another heavy-handed tactic: forcing gay teens into ex-gay programs like Zack Stark [page 50].

  • Worthen Was LIA's Landlord: In re-counting LIA's abrupt 1994 relocation, Erzen explains that Frank Worthen personally owned the LIA live-in program properties and lived off the rents. Erzen doesn't explore this unusual arrangement or how Worthen came to own the apartment complexes. While Worthen stresses the importance for ex-gay ministries to have oversight and standards, it's hard to believe any nonprofit or church board of directors would allow an organization's executive to also act as its landlord. This could be a contributing factor to Smid's decision to relocate LIA out of Worthen's control. [pages 38-39]

  • Spitzer Admitted to Skewing 2001 Study: Erzen met Dr. Robert Spitzer in 2000 while he was working on his 2001 study of ex-gays. She recounts: "Over lunch, he had admitted to experiencing difficulties in finding respondents for his study, and he had warned ex-gay leaders that if they did not refer more people, he would be unable to write a positive study for them" [page 130, bold added]. Erzen also echoes many of the criticisms raised about the study's methodology such as: "Inevitably, Exodus had sent him the names of men and women who direct ministries, which raised questions about how people represent themselves if they feel a responsibility to legitimate the ex-gay movement" [page 131]. While I've heard (and expressed criticism) about Spitzer's study's methodology, bias, and significance, this is the first I've heard Spitzer blatantly admit to fixing his own study's outcome.

  • Spitzer's view on homosexuality: While she acknowledges Spitzer's leadership role in removing homosexuality from the DSM in 1973 and his support of gay civil rights, he also did not believe that homosexuality was normal and called it "suboptimal" [page 142] even after the landmark DSM decision.

  • "homodysphilia" and "dyshomophilia": Spitzer coined a new term that would seem to describe "ex-gays": "In 1975 Spitzer developed another term, 'homodysphilia', that applied to homosexuals who were distressed by their sexual orientation . . ." [page 142]. Spitzer later changed the term to dyshomophilia "lumping it with fetishism, zoophilia, pedophilia, voyeurism, and sexual sadism" [page 142]. I'm surprised the Religious Right and Exodus have not yet adopted these terms. Since no one on either side of the pro-gay/anti-gay debate seems to really think "ex-gay" is an accurate term, homodysphilia or dyshomophilia would seem to solve some terminology issues.

While Erzen does mention many ex-gay scandals that have occurred since the ex-gay movement's origins in the 1970s, these are not the book's main focus. So if you're seeking a book about ex-gay scandals, you may be little disappointed. Rather, the book tries to convey what it is like to be in an 24/7 ex-gay ministry, and the history, psychology, religion, and politics surrounding the ex-gay movement.

The book did remind me of my own ex-gay experience and provides a glimpse into the internal conflicts of ex-gay life. The ex-gay lifestyle is certainly confusing, frustrating and humiliating while at the same time there are spiritual moments and camaraderie. I certainly empathizedd with the participants described in the book and Erzen seemed to as well.

As an ex-exgay, I admit my own bias against the ex-gay movement. So, I was a little frustrated by Erzen's seemingly objective approach. That's not to say the book was naive or did not question ex-gay claims and methods, but it didn't demand answers to the questions I would have asked. Overall, though, I think this book provides probably one of the most objective and accurate views inside the ex-gay movement.

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