Ex-Gay Politics on Campus

by Christine M. Robinson, Ph.D.Assistant Professor of Sociology and Interdisciplinary Liberal Studies James Madison University 


CW: conversion therapy/ex-gay therapy; mental abuse


Has your LGBTQ Resource Center been contacted by PFOX (Parents and Friends of Gays and Ex-Gays) requesting distribution of ex-gay literature? Have you seen advertisements from ex-gay organizations in your student newspaper or heard an ex-gay speaker on campus? Is the ex-gay movement becoming more vocal in your school board meetings? High schools, colleges, and universities (and society in general) have become more LGBTQ-friendly. However, the ex-gay movement has become more visible and vocal in response, both off and, increasingly, on campus.

What is the ex-gay movement?

The ex-gay movement is a network of religious, scientific, and political organizations that advocate “change” (through religious and/or therapeutic interventions) for people who are attracted to members of the same sex or exhibit a non-normative gender identity or expression.  The movement promotes religious and societal condemnation of homosexuality and gender transition  and advocates anti-LGBTQ public policy (Robinson and Spivey, 2007).

The ex-gay movement formed in the United States in the early 1970s as a countermovement,  a “conscious, collective, organized attempt to resist or to reverse social change” (Mottl 1980, pg. 620). In recent years, it has become wedded to the larger religious and political countermovement in the United States frequently referred to as the Christian Right. It has developed over the last thirty years in response to the increasing social acceptance of homosexuality and gender diversity and the rise of LGBTQ liberation movements around the world.

In thirty years, the ex-gay movement in the United States has erected an enormous institutional scaffold that is proliferating globally, and seeks to advance an ambitious social agenda that includes undermining legal family recognition of same-sex relationships and adoption by LGBTQ people, opposing hate crimes legislation, and permitting discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. In the United States, the impact of the ex-gay movement is being felt in nearly every social institution today – including education.

The ex-gay movement has arrived on campus. For many years, ex-gay organizations have worked primarily with student religious groups, such as Campus Crusade for Christ, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, or Intervarsity, to host ex-gay speakers presenting testimonials of “change.” These events have historically been hosted by and for religious student populations, but now the ex-gay movement has sought to move beyond religious audiences and religious rhetoric. Increasingly ex-gay organizations are invoking scientific arguments (I call it “sanctified science”) to justify their anti-LGBT perspectives, and in educational contexts they are using a combination of “diversity discourse” and “rights rhetoric” to argue for their “inclusion” in curriculum and programming in high schools, colleges, and universities.  They are also litigating.

Administrators and students leaders of LGBTQ services and programs on campus should take this very, very seriously.

I am a sociologist. Since 2004, I’ve been systematically studying the ex-gay movement, assessing the social impact of the ex-gay phenomenon, as well as its ability to proliferate globally in the span of about thirty years. I have analyzed hundreds of books, articles, websites, and other materials created, promoted, sold, and distributed by a variety of ex-gay organizations, past and present. What began in the early 1970s as an evangelical Christian phenomenon has grown into an enormous global social movement in the 21 century.  Few seem to be paying attention to its increasing visibility, both on and off campus, and its potential to undermine years of social progress.

In my lifetime, I have witnessed enormous social change. In 1973 the American Psychiatric Association declassified homosexuality as a mental disorder. By law or by policy, discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity or expression is prohibited by many universities, corporations, and state and local governments in the United States. In 2003 the US Supreme Court ruled in Lawrence vs. Texas that consenting adults have a right to private intimate relationships. Domestic partner benefits, civil unions, and even marriage have become a reality.  I have also been a fierce advocate for these changes.

During this same period, the ex-gay movement developed a number of organizations — religious, scientific, and political – to counter the social acceptance of homosexuality and increasing gender diversity. The largest among these include Exodus International, the largest network of Christian ex-gay ministries in the world, founded in 1976; the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, founded in 1992, a professional organization that views homosexuality and being transgender as developmentally disordered; and Parents and Friends of Gays and Ex-Gays (PFOX), a political advocacy organization. In 1998, Focus on the Family, a Colorado Springs, Colorado-based international organization founded by James Dobson began sponsoring the “Love Won Out” ex-gay conferences as well as a public policy division on ex-gay issues.

Since the founding of Exodus International, ex-gay ministries have sought to “heal” and to “cure,” invoking both religion and science; some ministries have focused exclusively on religion, while others have incorporated psychological theories and methods (Besen 2003, Erzen 2006). Since 1973, several professional medical and mental health organizations in the United States, including the American Psychological Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Medical Association, the American Social Work Association, and others have issued public statements discouraging their members from practicing these therapies or making referrals to clinicians who do.

The Ex-Gay Movement Gains “Legitimacy”

In 1992, nearly twenty years after the APA’s historic decision, a scientific arm of the ex-gay movement was formally established in the United States with the founding of the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH). Besen’s research (2003) documents how NARTH has provided much needed scientific legitimacy to the practice of reparative therapy and the ex-gay movement, both of which appeared to be in decline. Although NARTH is a very small organization compared to other mental health associations, it has enabled like-minded professionals to become visible to one another and to organize. NARTH sponsors its own conferences and its members are frequent speakers at Exodus International and Love Won Out conferences. Their virtual existence on the Internet has enabled NARTH to propagate psychological theories consistent with its stance that homosexuality is a mental disorder.

Nearing the 21st century, the ex-gay movement was further bolstered by the development of an educational/advocacy arm with the founding of Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays (PFOX) in 1998, modeled after its enormously successful parallel organization in the LGBTQ movement, Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG). As a national organization with chapters all over the country, PFLAG has given parents, family members, and friends of LGBTQ people a place for support as well as a platform for advocating for their loved ones. PFOX’ motto is “supporting the right of homosexuals to choose change” and its stated purpose is to “provide outreach, education, and public awareness in support of the ex-gay community and families touched by homosexuality” (www.pfox.org).

PFOX’ strategic location in Washington D.C., its clever mocking of PFLAG (in name and function), and its strategic use of a discourse of rights for ex-gays have made it a successful addition to the ex-gay movement. Like other ex-gay organizations, PFOX has a website with links to other ex-gay organizations, and has been able to establish chapters in several states of the US and the District of Columbia. PFOX has been particularly creative in characterizing ex-gays as a beleaguered minority group, denied “equal access” in educational institutions to have their “diversity” appreciated, and victimized and oppressed by society, primarily by “intolerant” LGBTQ rights organizations that want “special rights.” Sociologists call these rhetorical tactics “framing.”

PFOX has been at the forefront of efforts to promote ex-gay ideology in the context of educational organizations and public schools, and its efforts have been successful in some respects. Furthermore, they have effectively used the media and its website to issue press releases criticizing educational institutions and organizations for “excluding” ex-gay issues. . In part, as a result of PFOX’ advocacy, the National Educational Association now recognizes an ex-gay caucus (it has recognized a gay and lesbian caucus for years); however, the national Parent-Teacher Association refuses to allow ex-gay organizations to distribute literature at annual PTA conferences.

Look Out for Ex-Gay Politics on Your Campus

PFOX literature and its website encourages young people to form extracurricular high school ex-gay student clubs, modeled after the Gay and Straight Alliances found in thousands of high schools in the US today, and to demand that schools provide ex-gay speakers whenever the topic of homosexuality is treated in schools. As yet, there are no officially sanctioned ex-gay clubs in high schools, although PFOX provides information on its website to encourage students involved in religious clubs such as Campus Crusade for Christ and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes to sponsor ex-gay speakers.  Ironically, PFOX’s own actions reveal that their agenda is not about “equal access.” In 2005, PFOX supported a bill (that was defeated in committee) in Virginia’s General Assembly that would have been used to ban gay-straight alliances in the state of Virginia.

In 2005, PFOX made national news when it successfully sued Montgomery County’s (in Maryland) school district, costing them thousands of dollars, to stop a controversial sex-education curriculum that included a discussion of homosexuality, and successfully lobbied to have a PFOX representative on the county’s sex education curriculum committee. Regardless of PFOX’s lack of success in getting ex-gay viewpoints in the curriculum, the ability to successfully litigate against curricula they oppose may curtail efforts to educate about homosexuality in public schools. In 2007, PFOX successfully sued to have ex-gay literature distributed in public schools. The ex-gay movement has been emboldened by these events – and this is only the beginning.

Works Cited

Besen, Wayne R. 2003. Anything But Straight: Unmasking the Scandals and Lies Behind the Ex-Gay Myth. New York: Harrington Park Press.

Erzen, Tanya. 2006. Straight to Jesus: Sexual and Christian Conversions in the Ex-Gay Movement. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Fetner, Tina. 2005. “Ex-Gay Rhetoric and the Politics of Sexuality: The Christian Antigay/Pro-Family Movement’s ‘Truth in Love’ Ad Campaign.” Journal of Homosexuality 50(1): 71-95

Mottl, Tahi L. 1980. “The Analysis of Countermovements.” Social Problems 7(5): 620-34.

Robinson, Christine M. and Sue E. Spivey. 2007. “The Politics of Masculinity and the Ex-Gay Movement.” Gender & Society 21(5): 650-675.


This entry was posted in . Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.