Editorial: The Ex-Gay Billboard


As of January 2005, the latest little volley in the ex-gay debate may be a billboard somewhere in normally liberal Rockville, MD (I don’t have the exact address), claiming again that gays can “change” and “choose” to become heterosexual.


My first reaction, in a world of free speech, is to laugh at this is just silly and ignore it. Of course, there is a real scientific debate about homosexuality and biology, well documented in the 1996 book by Chandler Burr, A Separate Creation. Religious conservatives then wanted to boycott Disney because its subsidiary Hyperion had published the book. (Yup—in this age of megamergers, if you own a company that does something “bad” you’re responsible.)


The real question is, why would someone care so much about somebody else’s sexual orientation enough to spend money to advertise to “change” it? Of course, there are religious motives.


I think we need to get at the core problem. That is, many middle class families with children are struggling. They may resent the “competition” from people whom they perceive as having shirked family responsibility. Certainly some politicians and religious demagogues will capitalize on this resentment.


Of course, this begs the question about gay marriage and gay parents. More and more, gays are saying they want families and accept the responsibility that goes with them. Of course, we get caught in the arguments about the ideal husband-wife based family. But the deeper point is that many people have a huge psychological investment in the old-fashioned paradigm of courtship, marriage, “tender trap,” “blessed event”—everything that socializes one into blood family and lineage. Modern technological society offers other opportunities that compete with this model and potentially devalue it.


The “abstinence until marriage” paradigm is supposed to guarantee that adults direct their sexual energy—the most personal part of their lives—to procreation, family, and child-rearing, as well as caring for other family members. People used to believe that you weren’t a grownup until you married and had children, and that sometimes, once you did, you were entitled to differential sacrifices from family members who do not.  “Family values” became a way to channel “selfish” energies into taking care of others without the need for much consciousness of the process. Success in this soap opera (“Days of our Lives” – Belle, after all, was a virgin until Phillip got her, or was she??) mating competition was an important source of identity. Obviously, it is not as important as it used to be, so some people are worse off than they would have been in the past. Another important observation is that when a couple plays by “the rules” and produces its own family, it takes the statistical biological risk of winding up with the tremendous responsibility of raising a disabled child. 


Many people see anyone who is “different” as a potential enemy and competitor. But the ex-gay billboard would imply that gay people are not different after all, other than that some of their personal values are different.


What makes the “gay rights” issue so divisive to some people is the very competitive nature of today’s individualistic society. People are not held as accountable as they could be for the way they express themselves. This runs the risk of undermining our ability to raise children and take care of the needy. There is a natural balance: more and more jobs today (especially in the teaching field) require skills (at least in a contingent sense) in taking care of others and may be best filled only by people who have been parents. So even in an individualistic society family values remain important.


The ex-gay movement may also be bottom feeding on the “character card,” the notion that male homosexuality is essentially a kind of adolescent narcissism, and will naturally (especially according to claims from the far right and groups such as the Family Research Council) tend to overlap (perhaps with some disgust at the loss of one’s own youth—the “Oscar Wilde” syndrome) into interest in the youngest men and eventually frank pedophilia. Male homosexuality, especially, may be seen as a way to “celebrate” in adolescent fashion the physical differences that make some men seem more competitive than others (after all, “family” turns out to be the way to give every man a chance!) This kind of gets into a “my brother’s keeper” kind of moral argument.  The right wing has correctly pointed out that mathematically, homosexuals do account for most cases of male pedophilia (that is what one would expect) but it ignores statistics about heterosexual child abuse. But, ultimately responding to this depends upon how much importance one gives to having adult relationships for their own promise of satisfaction, regardless of how they support the societal investment in the family as a broad interest.


You can certainly decide to dismiss theories about the immutability or biological origin of sexual orientation as evasive, duplicitous or morally irrelevant. Still, the next time you hear a demagogue bragging about converting gays to active heterosexuality (yes they want to take it that far), “ask why” it matters so much (to the speaker) to achieve this! Why do other people’s “preferences” and personal lifestyles, even if “chosen”, matter so much at this personal level? The answer, however sloppy, seems to have something to do with the observation that evasion of family responsibility, even for the “non marrying kind” is not as acceptable today as it was perhaps a decade ago. There’s another possible answer, to, is that the speaker may look at another’s homosexuality (mine) as a diminution or humilitation of him (or her) as a person who achieved personal value through family performance but not just on his own.   


The Washington Times has a story about this billboard, Feb 1, 2005, “Billboard Asserts that Homosexuals Can Change,” by Jen Hoffman, at http://www.washingtontimes.com/metro/20050201-110413-8926r.htm


Note: When President Bush nominated Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court on Oct. 3, 2005 he mentioned her association with Exodus Ministries.


NOTE ON EXODUS (from queerpolitics and HRC)

During the announcement, President Bush referenced Miers' affiliation
with Exodus Ministry. This is not the so called "ex-gay" group, but is
"a non-denominational Christian organization established to assist
ex-offenders and their families become productive members of society by
meeting both their spiritual and physical needs."

(http://www.exodusministriesinc.com/ )



 Early reports had confused this with another group http://www.exodus-international.org/  that appears to be associated with the ex-gay movement.


©Copyright 2004 by Bill Boushka, subject to fair use

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