Religious fundamentalists and secularists alike force queer people to choose between sexuality and community
Katie Toth — The Dalhousie Gazette (Dalhousie University)
Queer people shouldn't have to choose between their sexuality and their communities.
HALIFAX (CUP) — When Tyson Skriver of Lethbridge, Alta. discovered he was attracted to men, his first instinct was to fight it.
“At that very moment, I thought, 'I'm going to hell,' ” he said. “[I] basically just grew up trying to suppress any feelings that I had.”
At 21, while on a missionary trip, he learned about Exodus International. For a while, he was hopeful that his battles against being gay might finally be won.
“I was like, ‘This is what I want,’ because everything that everyone told me about being gay, I found in my own life. They say that — I was actually told this straight to my face — that gay people are unhappy,” he said.
“I thought … of course if that's what's causing me to be unhappy, then I don't want that in my life.’ So I felt that Exodus would be the way out of my sadness, of my grief for being the way that I was."
Skriver came out to his family. In the letter he wrote his parents, he said he struggled with homosexuality. "As if to say it’s something mutable ... I’m just struggling with this, but eventually it will be overcome.”
That “overcoming” didn't work so well — and that should be no surprise.
According to “Changing Sexual Orientation: A consumer's report,” by Ariel Shidlo and Michael Schroeder, only 8 of 202 study subjects said that ex-gay programs had made them fully heterosexual. Meanwhile, 155 felt that the so-called "conversion" had done long-term harm, with 23 attempting suicide during therapy and 11 attempting suicide after therapy.
Exodus is one of the best-known anti-gay ministries, promising young, often desperate youth, “You don't have to be gay!” Its workshops, often shrouded in secrecy, charge people hundreds of dollars only to attend with no promises about outcomes. Often, they don't work — and why would they? In their ineffectiveness, these businesses can reap the benefits of the shame they’ve instilled in people as they keep returning.
When you look at the statistics, it’s pretty easy to see that ex-gay workshops don’t change a person’s orientation or even their behaviour. Instead, they act as catalysts, fostering an existing cycle that often begins with “relapse” and ends with self-harm, shame, abuse or suicide.
So why do people keep signing up?
It would be easy to say religion, but religion means way more than a disapproving and nebulous finger pointing from above — as scary as the thought of that might be. If the ex-gay movement was merely a question of correct theological praxis, it would never survive.
Rather, Skriver says, “It was a choice between being gay and being part of a community.” Ex-gay ideology threatens people: By being true to your sexuality, every single bond you’ve built will be taken from you.
"The church was my entire life," said Skriver. "The people I grew up around, the people that I visited, that came to our house and that we ate with, that were our friends. Of course I'm going to choose community over this other thing, because this other thing, it would seem, just popped into my head.”
Queer Christian youth are told they must decide between their faith communities and their sexuality by secularists and fundamentalists alike. In Out In The Country, Mary Gray notes that our urban-centric gay-rights movement often demands of queer youth to “come out, come out wherever you are,” to renounce faith traditions or communities, which are perceived as non-affirming.
Folks who find themselves asking this of people should note that they, too, are forcing people to choose between their sexuality and the others they love. Dan Savage would be wise to keep this in mind the next time he tells someone to forcibly introduce their parents to their partner.
In perpetuating the idea that queer people should have to choose between organized religion and their sexuality, we perpetuate the “Love Won Out” myth that Exodus tries to sell: That being attracted to folks of the same sex is merely an issue of “natural sexual inclination,” a challenge of human perversity, something that has nothing to do with real love. By holding on to the traditions they feel connected to, queer people refuse to be pushed out of a community to which we have the same right of access and spiritual welcome as anyone else.
Eliminating the ex-gay movement means fighting the ideology that allows it to happen. This cannot only be achieved through secularism. Although a certain separation of state practices from religious influence is important, it doesn’t serve those who enjoy being part of their faith communities. Rather, it means refusing to let a few homophobes bar the doors to the spaces that should be open to all.
Challenging the ex-gay movement within Christianity means no longer accepting flawed, often-violent interpretations of the Bible as religious truisms. When secularists insist that Christianity is inherently homophobic, they allow religious fundamentalists to continue peddling their wares of hate as accurate depictions of religious thought. This maintains a dichotomy where people who identify with their spiritual traditions are told that they have to choose.
Ex-gay workshops wouldn’t be possible if people stopped allowing secularists and fundamentalists alike to hold homophobia up on a float and parade it around as their “religion.”
Skriver now organizes with the Lethbridge Gay and Lesbian Alliance, and has worked with his local United Church congregation to make affirming, pro-gay policy.
“That was such a good feeling, to be involved with that, because growing up I always thought these people would never accept me," he said. "Suddenly seeing the opposite of that, something I never expected to happen ... this is definitely something to pursue, and keep striving for.”