Christian Gay Conversion Camps

Sexual identity has, since the very beginning of human society, been an issue fraught with complexities. Every majority world view over time has tried to align the notion of sexual identity and choice with political and power compulsions. And even though in the late twentieth century, the LGBT community started getting the right to live and love as they chose, there was also the birth of an opposing movement in the form of gay conversion camps.

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Gay conversion camps, including Christian ones, are an example of sexual orientation change efforts which subscribe to the view that homosexuality is a symptom of developmental defect or a moral failing and hence can be ‘treated’. Proponents of sexual orientation change efforts argue that a tendency to same-sex love can be altered by methods like psychotherapy and religious efforts like meditation. According to Exodus International, one of the largest of ex-gay groups, reparative therapy is especially useful in decreasing same-sex desires and gradually leading to conversion from homosexuality to heterosexuality.

One of the most powerful sources of motivation in such sexual orientation change efforts is religious faith. Homosexuality has always shared an uncomfortable equation with mainstream religious teachings, probably because it separated sexual choice from concerns of propagation and hence enlargement of the religious community. At best, same-sex love has been looked upon as something against the laws of nature and at worst it has been compared to practices encouraged by the devil. As a result of this opposing stance from all major religions, homosexuals were forced into a position of religious and social isolation and felt alienated from the mainstream community. What faith-based sexual orientation change efforts like Christian gay conversion camps now do is to buffer and counteract this minority stress and marginalization by offering social support, role models and adopting a new religious discourse or worldview. Many Christian gay conversion camps for instance no longer emphasize homosexuality as a cardinal sin but rather view it as an ordinary sin which can be repented against. This reinterpretation induces hope and desire for recovery in the “sinner” and furthermore casts same-sex love as opportunities for seeking forgiveness and ultimately salvation.

Interestingly one of the first gay conversion groups to make headlines had nothing to do with a religious identity. In 1971 four students of a group named Aesthetic Realism Foundation claimed that they had been able to give up homosexuality by following certain principles of Aesthetic Realism which was actually a philosophy propounded by Eli Siegel in 1941. However few years later the Foundation was disbanded and its theories discredited. The first formal ex-gay ministry to have been set up was Love in Action in 1973. This eventually joined hands with other ex-gay ministries to become Exodus International. The umbrella organization Exodus Global Alliance is today one of the largest ex-gay organizations including around 120 ministries in North America and more than 150 ministries in another 17 countries. Exodus is a Christian gay conversion group which according to their website promotes "the message of Freedom from homosexuality through the power of Jesus Christ." The group does not claim to completely remove all traces of homosexuality from a human being but believes that "reparative therapy - a holistic, counseling approach to addressing unwanted same-sex attraction” - can be a beneficial tool in reducing homosexual desire. Treatments under the reparative therapy include abstinence, strengthening of gender identities like being more masculine or feminine and correcting undesirable styles of relating to members of the same or opposite gender.

Among other Christian gay conversion camps in United States are those organized by ex-gay ministries belonging to specific denominations like Courage for Catholics, Evergreen International for Mormons, Transformation Congregations for Methodists and OneByOne for Presbyterians. The European chapter of Exodus decided to break away from the Exodus Global Alliance in 2007 following which the ex-gay ministries in Europe became part of an organization named LINC or Linked In Christ.

In recent times sexual orientation change efforts like those carried out in Christian gay conversion camps has come under critical scrutiny from the scientific and medical community in almost all developed nations. The broad consensus arrived at by mainstream medical community in the United States is that sexual conversion therapy could be harmful and should be avoided. This is because ex-gay ministries usually exploit guilt and anxiety in order to motivate conversion which in turn may lead to depression and even suicide in an individual undergoing the conversion therapy. Most mental health experts appear to be unanimous in believing that such sexual conversion therapies do more harm than good by disseminating incorrect notions like homosexuality being a symptom of developmental or moral defect and hence liable to treatment. Such notions, claim mental health professionals, undermine the ability of gays and lesbians to lead happy and healthy lives even while exercising their individual sexual choice. In fact in the US, neither the American Psychiatric Association nor the American Psychological Association approve of sexual orientation change efforts and believe that the so called reparation therapy is not only unhelpful but most likely harmful too.

Most Christian gay conversion camps follow a process of persistent orientation on its members, especially the young telling them that they are an abomination to their family, friends, society and God and that if they tried hard enough they could change their homosexuality and turn into normal straight human beings. However what subjects at these camps are not told is that there are plenty of gay men who are leading happy fulfilling lives. Such young men are not exposed to the diversity of gay life by their church which usurps the role of teaching them what it means to be gay and what they teach is anything but a pretty picture. So no wonder that a lot of young men succumb to pressures of their church at these gay conversion camps and declare that they are ready for straight relationships even though they may continue to be gays at heart.

So what is the way out for gays who are keen to follow their faith? The solution seems to lie in gay-affirming churches that allow homosexuals to reconcile their sexual orientation with their religion. Finally one can also look at therapy to cope with minority stress but here one should go for a counselor who is not faith-based and has an objective stance like all professional therapists should.