The New Ex-Gay

While observing the conversation about faith and sexuality over the past few years I have witnessed a depressing number of harmful and untrue words come out of someone’s mouth right after the preface, “Well, as someone with a conservative ethic…” or “As someone who is ‘side-B’…” (Side-B being clunky shorthand for a more traditional sexual ethic, for those who hadn’t heard it before.)

I understand that some of these people are new to the discussion, are becoming more aware of something that they used to not even have to think about. But…

It’s hard, sometimes, to watch people who are insulated from the consequences of their words keep saying the same harmful things over and over. And it becomes harder when these words are used by others as the example of a “traditional sexual ethic.”

“These words” range from banal prejudices that cast all gay people as exceptionally promiscuous or obsessed with any number of threatening agendas to more contextually specific comments like “Shouldn’t we, as Christians, not have to talk about this so much? Can’t they just keep it between them and a few friends or a counselor? We all have problems; can’t they just find their identity in Christ and stop whining?”

And they’re being heard.

Over the past few weeks there has been a rash of articles “introducing” the internet to celibate gay Christians. The responses have been, unsurprisingly, mixed. The most common reaction I’ve seen has been a reflexive categorization of “side-B”* beliefs as “the new ex-gay,” as nothing more than the next tool of homophobic fundamentalists to marginalize gay people.

These “response” articles – and particularly the subsequent comments – are often uninspiring, caustic, and full of caricature. I also don’t think they are entirely wrong.

Rant with me, please?

"I can admire your rampage against the hegemony much better from here, thank you."

“I can admire your rampage against hypocrisy much better from here, thank you.” “Ugh, whatever Darcy.”

As I’ve engaged the conversation surrounding faith and sexuality, one of the main sources of frustration has been the persistent sense that most conservative straight Christians are more passionate about gay people not having sex than they are about gay people flourishing in church communities and in society at large. Put more witheringly, I get the sense that when people say things like “Why do they even have to ‘come out’ at all?” what they mean is that it would be better if gay people simply didn’t exist.

This is why the ex-gay narrative was (is) so attractive – it literally removed the “problem” of gay people. As that narrative continues to unravel some people are searching for a new way to pursue their unchanged desire to pray the gays away.**

Some may balk at that claim, and maybe it’s ungracious – there are some important differences in rhetoric, and I get that. But here’s what I see: one way or another, championing ex-gay ideology or appropriating a ravaged shade of the “traditional sexual ethic,” these particular people are looking for a belief that demands nothing from them and everything from sexual minorities.

Given that the ex-gay narrative placed all the weight of “faithful response” on the gay people themselves, it makes sense that prior supporters of that ideology would continue to focus exclusively on what the gay person needs to do, just in different language. Unless the switch from the ex-gay narrative to the “side-B” narrative of celibacy/chastity coincides with a shift in one’s understanding of church community and personal responsibility, then the “traditional sexual ethic” becomes a rather cruel farce, a perpetuation of unequal power structures and shame.

Those highly critical articles are responding in part, I think, to this ultra-lame permutation of a conservative ethic. So, I understand the hate; ex-gay ideologies have left so many scars on beloved people, and to see the phantoms of those ideologies take on new skins merits unequivocal response.

I’m not naïve enough to think that everyone, or even most people, will accept the differentiation of what we are trying to do at Spiritual Friendship from the ex-gay narrative in all of its forms. Or, even if they do see the difference, that it will matter at all.

But, well, here we are.

One of the things that I find beautiful about the “traditional sexual ethic” as I see it expressed by people who have thought through it extensively is how it is about so much more than just what certain people do or don’t do with certain parts of their bodies.

Rather, it is a sweeping yet grounded reimagining of what it means to be embodied beings in mutual communion with each other for the sake of human flourishing and the demonstration of the gospel in our particular contexts.

In other words, it is just as much about churches and communities addressing their trenchant sins of inhospitality and marginalization as it is about an individual’s stewardship of her mind and body.

For me, such a reframing provides motion and purpose and is far more true to the reality of the gospel than the one-sided and apodictic platitudes that characterize the rhetoric of those interested primarily in maintaining the status-quo and keeping this “problem” at a distance.

What kills me is how these Christians think they are preserving the witness of the church, but because many of them are blind to the actual lives of gay people they are unaware of the destructive character of their words and actions, how they are so profoundly corroding the beauty of the gospel*** and, in a very real way, making all expressions of a “traditional sexual ethic” culturally equivalent to ex-gay ideology and homophobia.

And I hate how I can’t escape saying “these people,” as if “they” aren’t often friends and family who I know and respect, or how, even still, my brain gets so caught up in the distressing tension of it all and becomes paralyzed by weariness and the most boring kind of despair.

But then, when I’m tempted toward total apathy, I encounter beautiful moments of community done well and am reminded how much there is to be gained from pursuing, together, a better way forward.

So I guess I want to end with this: would you, whoever you are, just examine the underlying character of your beliefs about sexuality, whether or not they have been formed in relationship with gay people, whether or not they are also concerned with whole church communities becoming more tightly knit and hospitable and responsibly sexual beings, and whether or not they manifest the fruit of the Spirit in their expression?

Because, honestly, it often feels as if the church is asking gay people to walk through a minefield as everyone else just stands back and yells instructions, and I don’t think I’m the only one who has grown a bit tired of being one of its human minesweepers.


* I will give my holographic Charizard to anyone who can institute a better-yet-still-pithy phrase to communicate “side-B” beliefs without having to actually use that arcane label.

** High-five!

*** I’m not unaware that most affirming Christians feel the exact same about me.

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20 thoughts on “The New Ex-Gay

  1. Thank you Matt! I am becoming ever-increasingly frustrated with side-B folk. You are a breath of fresh air, without which I would be coming very close to writing-off the side-B contingent altogether. Your voice is important, please keep blogging.

    • Thanks Sam! Sorry for all the bad experiences. There are some really great writers and thinkers out there who inspire me daily.

    • You’ll find it in the upper right-hand drawer of my desk back in my parents’ house… just waiting for its new owner to reveal him- or herself.

  2. I just don’t think you get why many of those who are not celibate see this as the new ex-gay movement. One many of us have seen the real damage this damage has done to flesh and blood people. We have seen it manifest itself in depression and even death in some people. Your message is basically one where you tell GLBT youngsters that they cannot have the same thing as their straight counterparts. In fact the message of celibacy may even be more dangerous. At least with the ex-gay movement there was hope even though it was a false one that they would be able to spend their life with someone.
    There are many within the Side B movement who identify as gay and yet fight against GLBT rights. One just needs to read the blog of Matt Moore or read the post by one of your fellow contributors at Spiritual Friendship Julie Rodgers where she argues that religious beliefs should allow to discriminate against the wrong type of gay people(non-celibate). So for many in the GLBT community we see them using their gayness to oppose our rights. No wonder we see little difference between the messages of the ex-gay movement and the new celibate movement.

    • Not that you have or would want to read much else by me, but I’ve written about those very sentiments in more than one of my previous posts (one of which I linked above). I get it more than you’re probably aware and don’t generally expect anything different in response, really.

      And for what it’s worth there is a significant range of opinions among side-b people over supporting gay marriage in the civic arena, with many supporting it, but I understand that that isn’t all that you’re referencing.

      Anyway, have a good day, Tim.

      • Well not to belabor the point, but I think Tim is right here, that you are missing some very important things… it’s probably due to your age, and not having been around in “the game” quite so long. But you see, Matt, this “re-imagining” and this depth of thought and vision you think is so profound is, in fact, the exact same ish the ex-gays were peddling back in the 80’s and 90’s…they’ve simply replaced a philosophy about change with a philosophy about terminal celibacy. But it’s nothing new. Not at all. They were talking about the same inhospitality of the church, and a need for there to be an alignment with the LGBT’s personal sin with the Church’s corporate sin, and blah, blah, blah. And because this is the same story with a new book cover, it’s really still just as dangerous, and not any better “thought out” than I think you think it is. But hey, we all have to make our mistakes…I hope you don’t make yours as long as I made mine and need a trip down suicide lane to snap you out of it…

        • Hi DJ, thanks for the comment.

          One thing I don’t quite understand is how critics so often talk about how damaging these beliefs are for young people and all that, but then when a young person weighs in favorably they generally wave it off as the naivete of youth and remind him or her that there is only darkness ahead. I readily acknowledge that I am young and have much to learn that will only come with the passing of time. But what am I supposed to do until then, force myself to be miserable rather than enjoy life and minister in whatever capacity I can?

          Also, as I said in the article, I don’t expect everyone to believe there is a difference (but keep in mind ex-gay advocates certainly think there is one), especially those who have been hurt by abusive practices advocated in the earlier ex-gay days. The church has a lot of sins to repent of, and I’m sorry you were mistreated.


          • Matt,
            I need to disagree with you about those who were abused in the ex-gay days disagreeing that the messaging isn’t the same. Ask someone like Michael Bussee or John Smid or Darlene Bogle if the messaging is the same that they advocated when they were leaders in the ex-gay movement. They are part of a movement called Born Perfect that is trying to make a real difference.

          • Hey, Matt. I totally appreciate that. I’m sorry if I come off as completely dismissing your experience or your point of view. But you have to look at this from my perspective, as I am someone who is not all that much older than you (I’m 34). From my vantage point, I had many people tell me (when I was your age) that I was doing a lot of damage to a lot of people… and I couldn’t see it. I defended my point, my experience (which was, in fact, quite good at that stage of my life), and was nearly the next Exodus Youth poster child. But you see, this is the sort of thing that often doesn’t rear it’s ugly head until years down the line. So I do not deny that your experience right now is good… perhaps even seemingly healthy. But the real proof is in the pudding of time. For all I know, you may be perfectly well-adjusted as a celibate gay Christian until the end of your days, many, many, many years from now. But as you say, I don’t want you to fall prey to the very naivety I held for many years, thinking that I had found this wonderful new “re-imagining” of sexuality that was ultimately freeing for God’s gay children. I look back now and regret the great harm that I caused countless gay adults and youth, many (most?) of whom I never even met nor had the chance to apologize to in person. I do hope that 5 years from now you don’t look back and have the same regrets that I do. Perhaps being silent and living your life out in peace isn’t such a bad idea… you seem to think your practice of celibacy isn’t worth it unless you’re spreading it like wild fire. Why? Why does “ministering in whatever capacity you can” have to include spreading a message that may be potentially harmful? You recognize the damage that the church and ex-gaydom has done to folks like me, but have you searched for and talked to the folks who’ve been similarly damaged by the celibacy message?

            At the end of it all, my point is this: you are free to do what you feel called to do. Far be it from me to stop you. I am simply here to provide a voice of love, compassion, care, and dissent to say that I see this differently than you because of the experiences that I’ve had. And I can say undeniably that there is significant overlap (and nothing “new” or “re-imagined”) between the old ex-gay message and the “new” (except not) spiritual friendship message. As such, I see its potential for harm. Perhaps not to you or to everyone who travels that path (just as not everyone who went the ex-gay route was harmed by it)… but as a mental health professional, I am sure that this message going viral within the church (like the ex-gay message has) will do damage to countless gay youth struggling to grow and mature in healthy ways. Terminal celibacy will be a death sentence developmentally, psychologically, spiritually, and perhaps even physically for so many of them. I do my due diligence by giving you the freedom and the space to choose what you think is best for your life, but offering a wise voice of dissent for those reading along so that they may know that there are many out there who love Jesus fully without the guilt and shame that is often attached to the myriad ways the church has thought of to make gay people accept the role of faulty, less than, or otherwise “disordered” individuals.

  3. Great post, Matt. I’m glad I chose today to check back in on the celibate Christian blogosphere. As I often have been before, I’m touched and grateful to see the mildness and humanity you display in tackling these topics,

    I was actually pretty encouraged by the comments and response on my piece. I know how afraid the mainstream LGBT community is of the Christian Right, which has always led the charge of intolerance, bigotry, and oppression against gays and lesbians (and is rapidly making up ground against transgendered people, these days). We’re so used to holding ourselves in this angry defensive posture at the mention of anything to do with Christianity that I was braced for an absolute torrent of anger at the mere thought that we should take you folks as individuals and make room for your voices in our community. I found the mild stream of anger mixed with positive responses and attempts to understand pretty encouraging.

    • Vanessa I am curious. Do you see any correlation between GLBT teens being taught celibacy is there only option and suicide? I truly believe that telling GLBT kids that they are to never to share their lives with a significant other leads to some gay kids feeling lost and alone. It is why many of us within the GLBT are fighting hard so no kid needs to face this.

      • Tim,

        I don’t believe that gays should be forced to choose celibacy. I also don’t believe most gays will do so, of they’re given the option in a society that recognizes and affirms gay relationships. I’m not particularly convinced by any arguments that lust is a sin or that consensual, mutually pleasurable sex is harmful or unnatural, and I definitely do not believe that celibacy is right for me.

        All that being said, I don’t believe that people like Matt are destined to feel lost and alone forever. I don’t believe that romantic love is the be all and end all, or that everyone needs a romantic partner to be happy. I don’t believe that having sex or romance in your life is necessary to happiness for all people, or that having sex and romance makes everybody better or more well rounded, in all cases.

        I think that it is possible that Christian traditions may find ways to welcome and affirm gay people without significantly changing their doctrines, and that for some people a celibate life in a Christian tradition that welcomes and affirms them may be better than any other alternative. I also think that children naturally distance themselves from the beliefs of their parents in the course of normal maturation, and that parents who love and affirm their gay children won’t irrevocably harm them, even if they have beliefs about sex that the children don’t continue to hold to in adulthood. A great many straight people have rejected their parents religious beliefs in adulthood without being particularly harmed by them. My own parents were ex-Catholics, and while their parents weren’t thrilled that they left the church in early adulthood, there was no rift, no drama, no damage.

        If traditional Christians can come to accomplish similar sorts of transitions with their adult gay children, then I don’t believe there will be any further need for worry. Everyone does not have to share the same beliefs in order to affirm and love each other.

        • I can agree with pretty much everything you say here. What I don’t think is on your radar is a good cultural sense for how conservative Christian communities think and operate. I don’t think you understand how psychologically powerful those communities are on youth who grow up in them.

          Folks like Matt are perfectly wonderful, kind, beautiful people. And I certainly appreciate the more gentle tone of gay celibate voices… but the real concern is how those voices will be co-opted by the powers that be. Conservative Christian leaders take their stories, and hold them over the heads of gay youth who are struggling to come to terms with their sexuality and say “see, these folks aren’t giving into the sin of their lustful desires, and you shouldn’t either!” And I don’t think you understand how f’d up in the head that makes people feel – how miserable, lonely, and dirty it makes them feel. And I don’t think you understand how far into the future these young folks will carry those messages.

          But perhaps you have the wonderful benefit of not having to deal with folks like that…perhaps they’re not in your world, so it’s quite easy to rely on fluffy ideas about how society changing will make it easy for everyone to just up and love everyone else, even though they have different beliefs. That’s true for quite a few people, but it shows, I think, a vast misunderstanding of how Christian communities operate. (This is no accusation, mind you. I have no idea who you are, what world you operate in, or how close you are to devout Christian communities… but from what little I’ve read from you, it seems to me as if you are not well-connected with the conservative Christian world… please correct me if I’m wrong.)

          People like me have to help these poor folks pick up the pieces of their lives at the age of 20, 30, 40, 50, even 60 – after they’ve wasted their youth on guilt and shame and the denying of all pleasures (even the healthy ones).

          True, not everyone needs love and romance to be happy. But that is only a relevant statement if we are talking about plain, simple celibacy. But that’s not what the Spiritual Friendship folks are talking about…. they’re talking about GAY celibacy… celibacy because it’s the only choice you have since God doesn’t like your sexuality. No matter how much lovey fluff you throw at that, it’s a terribly damaging message to vulnerable gay Christians who don’t know any better (particularly youth).

          I agree with you that we do not need to vehemently beat the SF folks into submission. To each their own. And in all honesty, I do like quite a lot of what their community forces the Church to look at and come to terms with. They’re not evil folks. They’re kind, intelligent, thoughtful, sincere, devout, and in many ways admirable. I have good friends on all sides of this spectrum, Side A, Side B, and Side X. Yet, I think you terribly underestimate how much damage the gay celibate message can cause LGBTQ religious people on the macro scale.

  4. It’s amazing how the church seems to ask so much of the LGBTQ yet has no desire to think through what weight their words have, let alone to walk with them through the trials of self discovery and reconciling their sexuality to their spirituality. One of the number one reasons I want to go into ministry.

    Your words are encouraging. Coming from someone who is leaning toward celibacy (still in high school so I’ve got some time to process through it), I can say that it is an amazing feeling to know I am not alone. I’m out with a few close friends/ mentors, but voices like yours from a person who is A) living a side B, celibate life and B) constantly growing and humble enough to be open to whatever may come in this gigantic debate that is homosexuality has been vital to my own growth and self discovery.

    So thanks.
    And sorry if some of those ^ run on sentences made absolutely no sense.
    Who needs punctuation anyway? 😉

    • Danny! Thanks so much for this, I really appreciate the kind words. I mean, really, it’s a needed reminder as to why I’m doing this in the first place.

      As an over-punctuater, run-ons are also a great weakness of mine. No need to apologize :P.

      Feel free to shoot me an email if you need to.


  5. Matt I went back and read some of the links you provided of past writings. I think this is what you don’t get and why many of us consider Side B to be extremely dangerous. You talk about the church emphasizing marriage and not embracing singleness etc. What you neglect to talk about is the rules are different from straight and gay people so you are comparing apples and oranges.
    When you talk about celibacy you are not coming at from equal angles. A straight person may be single and celibate but they always have the opportunity to date, love etc. (while remaining celibate). They are allowed to have a romantic relationship as long as that relationship stays chaste. And if they want to take that relationship further they have the opportunity to marry.
    Gay people have no such option. The church does not even allow them to date, hold hands, hug, kiss etc. And it gives them no way to express themselves sexually. This is why it is so dangerous to vulnerable gay teens. The argument that all Christians are called to celibacy is smoke and mirrors. In fact there are 2 different sets of rules. Gay teens are told they cannot have any romance at all. So when you and others on your side try to frame it differently it is a bunch of BS.

  6. Matt, you’ve nailed it: There are people who simply don’t want or believe that we gay people should even exist – whether we are celibate or not, Christian or not. That is exactly, unfortunately, what is happening in Uganda, Russia and many other countries. We see how individuals with their governments’ approval proceed to forced conversion therapy, discriminate, persecute, imprison, rape, torture, and murder gay people.

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