Camping it Up?

The London Times yesterday ran a feature about the recent Exodus Conference in North Carolina. You can read it here. This is one of the opening paragraphs that sets the scene:

Exodus is one of the ministries of the so-called “ex-gay” movement, a controversial fundamentalist Christian campaign that encourages gay people to renounce their sexuality. This, its annual conference, promises “an amazing week of breakthroughs, transformations and healings”. A Christian rock band begins to play and the 800 men and women who moments earlier seemed to have only awkwardness in common begin singing and clapping in unison. Eyes closed, they raise their hands above their heads, uplifted by the hope of being reborn.

Where to start? The problem with Lucy Bannerman’s piece is that she betrays her non-objectivity from the start. The language of "renounce their sexuality" displays very clearly that Lucy believes that sexual attraction isn’t a fluid thing, and that the very idea that someone might see a (dramatic) change in their sexual orientation is simply beyond her radar. This combined with the use of emotive language – for example, the North Carolina based Freedom Conference is described as an "ex-gay boot camp", which is a bizarre way to describe a gathering that not only includes men and women struggling with issues of sexual attraction and identity, but also pastors and counsellors – delivers a critique that is less interested in getting inside the real human stories and is more concerned with a sensational headline. Her use of expressions like "evangelism psychotherapy" demonstrates that she hasn’t even done her basic groundwork (the word she is looking for is "Evangelical", not evangelism – a religion reporter who doesn’t even know the difference between "evangelical" and "evangelism" isn’t off to a good start in anybody’s books).

That isn’t to say that Bannerman doesn’t put her finger on one or two of the more unfortunate aspects of ex-gay ministries. She is absolutely right to comment on the perceived goal of such ministries:

Each evening, a roll-call of “former homosexuals” hold up their husbands and wives like kitemarks of their newfound heterosexuality. We are told repeatedly that marriage is evidence of healing. Stereotypes are the ex-gay currency, and the heterosexual ideal is practically ringed by a white picket fence.

This visual display of victory seems to contrast with the words of Alan Chambers, the current Director of Exodus:

“The opposite of homosexuality is not heterosexuality,” says Chambers, sagely. “It’s holiness.”

There are also examples given of some more questionable seminars on offer:

The timetable is packed. A class on “True Femininity”, which concludes cryptically that true femininity “is the ability to receive”, would probably have reduced Germaine Greer to tears. Another features an Angela Lansbury lookalike who manages to link her gay ex-husband’s death from an Aids-related illness to his father’s links with the “Serbian mafia”.

Bannerman shares some of the journey of her room-mate (though Bannerman’s criticism of the sharing of rooms at the conference strikes me as odd, as though she’s suggesting that it’s simply impossible to keep your pants on in the presence of anybody of the same sex that you are attracted to) but these aren’t ever really followed up and explored. Rather, they are presented in a format that is designed to cast scorn upon her decisioning:

Back in her room, Michelle has had an epiphany. “I’ve realised that I’ve been looking for satisfaction in all the wrong places – food, drugs, sex,” she says, firmly. “My homosexuality is just one of many things to come from this place of pain, and all it gave me was a heart full of ache"

If the Exodus experience seems far-fetched – the sort of thing that could happen only in America – then think again.

Perhaps for me though, the most disappointing part of the piece was the failure to engage with anybody in the UK who has had a positive experience of these kind of ministries. While Bannerman was happy to talk to Jeremy Marks whose Courage ministry did a complete volte-face on the issue a few years ago, given that the piece was finished off by Ruth Gledhill (the Times’ wonderful religion correspondent and blogger), and given that Ruth is fully aware of myself and my availability to comment on these issues, the blatant failure to speak to anybody in this country who has seen dramatic changes in their sexual attraction through this kind of approach (and other approaches) is at best a journalistic failure and at worst, an obvious and unfortunate sign of the bias of the author.

The final paragraph of the piece sums up the myopia of Bannerman’s approach:

Packing her suitcase, Michelle feels that she has found an answer. “To focus on sex is missing the point,” she says. “It’s not about gay or straight. It’s about holiness and my relationship with Christ.” She wants to marry but admits that she may never be attracted to men. “Then it means I’ve been called to singleness.” And lifelong celibacy? “I’m surrendering to God’s way.” And she leaves, ready to face a new life in which love and sex are reduced to the sound of elevator music.

One is left wondering that if Bannerman feels that any life would be empty and pointless without sex, and that one cannot love in any meaningful way without coitus, then perhaps she needs to book herself into chatting with someone about that, and maybe this time she won’t need to lie about her reasons for being there.

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