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Are Ex-Gay Conversion Groups Modern Day Cults?
Whether they perfectly meet the criteria for being a cult, or not, they all have cult-like destruction in their wake...
Lately, whenever I turn around, I hear the word “cult” bandied about in some of the most unexpected places. I have been meditating on whether Exodus was a cult a LOT, so to hear so many people talking about it in various contexts leads me to believe it is time to share my thoughts.
And I am ready. Here are my experiential opinions, not expert sociological analysis…lol.
It does seem that there are a lot of documentaries about various cults on various streaming platforms. I think I have watched almost all available and have left each one even more disturbed than I expected.
Why am I disturbed? Because I keep remembering how Exodus would do or have similar group dynamics, manipulation, behavioral modification, and rewards vs. consequences. The worst part is that you can find all those same cultish dynamics in many conservative evangelical churches every Sunday.
Oh yes, I said it.
Before I jump into my application of all this to Exodus and the current ex-gay conversion therapy movement, I want to explain my context for this post. The link in the word cult below goes to ideas put forward by MasterClass. I am assuming FBI agent John Douglas wrote the article for them since he is featured as one of the teachers on this topic:
Cult — The term “cult” refers most often to a group of people with usually atypical beliefs living in relative isolation from the world. They tend to centralize around one charismatic person—the cult leader—who orders the beliefs, behaviors, and customs of all the other members. Many cults stand in as de facto new religions for their followers, but some are irreligious in nature.
Cult-ish — Exhibiting cult-like behavior but while some aspects of a cult are clearly on disply, they don’t easily check all the boxes of Authortarian control, Extremist beliefs, Isolation from family society, and Veneration of a single individual.
Even ten years after Exodus closed, ex-gay conversion “Extremist Beliefs” seem to be all the rage nowadays…
Exodus International and current ex-gay conversion groups didn’t create their extremist beliefs, and yes, it is extreme to believe a person can change their sexual orientation or offend God and go to hell if they don’t (among many other things).
Western conservative, politically motivated evangelical churches created these extreme beliefs. Truly, the theology underlying the ex-gay world is the same as what is taught in conservative evangelical churches every time they talk about sexuality or gender identity. That is the true scope of the problem, not one group or organization.
That said, ex-gay conversion groups are hyper-focused on that particular issue every day. I believe this, in turn, creates a stigmatized, isolating worldview that sucks the vulnerable into an ever-deepening vortex of self-loathing and denial. The professional counseling world has thoroughly denounced all attempts to change sexual orientation. There are peer-reviewed credible studies that show not affirming a person’s gender as they know themselves to be is harmful, sometimes to the point of death.
Ex-gay groups aren’t a few hypocritical closeted bigots conning people out of their money, as many gay advocates mistakingly believe. There are a few people in it for the money, but the other 95% are true believers. Remember the 80+ million who voted for Trump? I am 100% positive their churches believe the exact same things as the ex-gay conversion groups concerning LGBTQ+ people and our relationships, our personhood. This is why ex-gay conversion efforts continue to survive and have plenty of resources to perpetuate their power over and abuse people. This is why Exodus used to be able to raise so much money and grow in influence as it did.
Ex-gay toxic ideology is mainstream religious belief in almost 1/3 of the 300 million people in the United States. That is the scope of our task at hand to end conversion therapy. We basically have to change the hearts and minds of 80 million people.
And we can! I have always been an idealist :)
The “Charismatic Authoritarian” Cult Leader
My boss at Exodus was very popular, charismatic, and assertive. But I wouldn’t say he was an authoritarian cult leader. Trying to coordinate 250+ member agencies (at Exodus’ height) was like herding cats, and we faced rebellion every time we did something, anything.
But we did have a charismatic authoritarian leader of another kind. Our authoritarian, charismatic leader was an ideology known as “the inerrant word of God.” Conservative evangelicals invented this ideology masquerading as the love and atonement of Jesus. As a universalist Christian, I now know that the Bible is not the fourth person of the Trinity. Jesus was not the incarnation of only those words in the hundreds of translations/interpretations of a book.
Yet, in that world, to not believe in the inerrancy of scripture, well, that had VERY high consequences. It taught that any pro-LGBTQ+ thoughts and beliefs were sinful. To participate in showing love and sexual activity to someone of the same sex wasn’t just sinful; it was believed to be an abomination… a direct insult to God and defilement of his temple, our bodies. As a result, God would curse the “fallen one” with a terrible life in the present and eternal torture in the next life. We were not allowed to hang out with gay people without it having detrimental effects. To consistently communicate or be in a relationship with LGBTQ+ people was seen as a sign of compromise of our basic beliefs, and our salvation would be questioned. We talked about grace, but basically, if you were in any kind of relationship with an LGBTQ+ person, it had to be about trying to convert them to Christ and become a “true” Christian. Otherwise, you are fellowshipping with darkness (evil) and in danger.
Some ex-gay leaders would threaten their group members with hell and damnation. Others would never be overtly arrogant but still believe in the same “consequences.”
No, we didn’t have a singular charismatic authoritarian cult leader except for the invisible one created in the image of an unloving, wrathful God who created an entire worldview out of a handful of scriptures that stigmatizes every aspect of LGBTQ+ life.
I can’t believe I used to be one of the truest of true believers. I am glad I finally met Jesus for who He truly is.
When an LGBTQ+ person believes in this ex-gay ideology, it isolates them in every sense of the word isolate. Yes, there is the church community they are a part of, church “family” even, but there they are not truly a part. They will never be because they are isolated from themselves to believe they are someone they are not and can never be. That will always create an air of inauthenticity, even if it isn’t recognized. But as long as they toe the line and keep working on their “sexual brokenness,” they become part of the church family. A church family that is still not going to treat them as equals because of fear that the LGBTQ+ person would fall back into abominable sins or bring theological error into the church to turn away others from the faith.
From experience, even churches who think they are moderate will walk the LGBTQ+ person out the door with open arms.
Ex-gay ideology isolates a person from themselves, from their family in many cases, and from society as a whole. The ex-gay may be smiling and quite the hoot at a Sunday potluck, but I know there is loneliness behind the smile, an ache to be free. Many will refuse that yearning for authenticity by reframing it as an evil temptation, not the Divine calling them into who they truly are as an LGBTQ+ person. It’s a lonely and desperate place, and my heart aches to see people be free from that impossible performance-based life.
So, was Exodus a cult? Are current ex-gay conversion groups a cult?
No, in the sense they are not serving literal poisoned Kool-Aid to participants. But yes, they are cult-ish in that the soul-imprisoning poison is delivered through what I believe is a spiritual contagion that holds vulnerable LGBTQ+ people hostage with devastating consequences.
Like COVID deniers who only allowed themselves to see and accept the truth that the pandemic was real after a loved one died of COVID, many ex-gay leaders will not allow themselves to see the effects of the spiritual contagion they are spreading until it is too late.
That’s what happened to me. I thought I believed in God’s truth and fulfilling his calling on my life. All the professional denunciation and personal heart-breaking reports of devastation by survivors didn’t break through because I didn’t allow myself to see the truth and that I was personally affected and completely wrong. My eyes didn’t open until a good friend committed suicide because of the ex-gay belief that God was punishing him for divorcing his wife and dating another man.
Another reason I believe Exodus and current ex-gay efforts are cultish is the sheer willingness to blind and isolate ourselves from reality until tragedy overwhelms the situation.
There is a way out…
If you are currently an ex-gay leader or caught up in that world and don’t see a way out. I promise you, you can trust the Divine or your heart if you aren’t a believer. Authenticity will lead you into a healthy and affirming place of who you are as an LGBTQ+ person. In my journey, Christ’s Spirit did that for me to self-actualize, and others found their authenticity by simply embracing reality. Beware of ex-gay “experts” or eloquent ex-gay ideologues. There are bigger, more gracious communities to be a part of than behind the four walls of anti-LGBTQ+ churches. Do not let fear drive your decisions and keep you from your own sense of being, loving as you were built to love, be in a family if you can, and chosen family. You have every right to be an equal and out member of society, a family, and a faith (or some other interest) community.
If you have questions or need help, please email me privately and confidentially at randy(at)randyscobey(dot)com. Also, check out my resource page for help across a number of issues.
I won’t lie. It sucks moving from that world to the real world, but you can. I am here to walk with you if it would help.
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