Calculated Compassion

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How The Ex-Gay Movement Serves The Right's Attack on Democracy
by Surina Khan

A report from Political Research Associates the Policy Institute of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and, Equal Partners in Faith

Copyright 1998, Surina Khan and Political Research Associates


The growing prominence of the ex-gay movement is the result of a strategic shift within the Christian Right: the new packaging of an old message. The claim that gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people can be "cured" has more to do with the Right's political objectives and its bitter opposition to equal rights than with genuine caring. This report examines how the Christian Right has adopted the ex-gay movement in response to increasing pressure to soften its homophobic rhetoric.

While a vast array of religious denominations and a growing majority of the public is increasingly supportive of equality and fair treatment for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, the ex-gay movement is gaining media attention and increasing legitimacy by promoting a discredited therapeutic practice known as "reparative therapy" and by claiming to act in the name of religion. Reparative therapy has been repudiated by prominent psychological and psychiatric organizations. The religious principles promoted by the ex-gay movement are part of a fundamentalist Christian agenda that has caused concern and opposition from within virtually all mainstream communities of faith.

Our three organizations have come together to raise critical questions about the motivations, claims, and objectives of the ex-gay movement. We believe the public needs to see the truth behind the mask of compassion. The new softer face of the Christian Right merely hides the old, vicious homophobia. The ex-gay movement, like the Christian Right of which it is a part, is intolerant of anyone who does not conform to its ideals of family, marriage, moral values, and sexual orientation. It exploits and misuses the language of faith, presenting a face of Christian caring while simultaneously condemning gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people outright, and denying them their full humanity and equal rights. In attacking gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people, the ex-gay movement, like its parent, the Christian Right, promotes an agenda for all Americans that is profoundly anti-democratic and exclusionary. We stand in opposition.

Rev. Meg Riley Co-Chair Steering Committee Equal Partners in Faith

Urvashi Vaid Director The Policy Institute National Gay and Lesbian Task Force

Jean Hardisty Executive Director Political Research Associates

Executive Summary

The ex-gay movement gained national media attention in July 1998 when full-page ads promoting the movement appeared in major newspapers across the country. Millions of people were exposed to the ex-gay claim that homosexuals can heal themselves of their "lifestyle choice" through a Christian fundamentalist religious conversion or through "reparative therapy." These ideas are refuted by the medical community and mainstream religious organizations.

The widespread media coverage garnered by the ad campaign focused on the "human interest" issue: can lesbians and gay men "convert" to heterosexuality? But there is another side to this story-told for the first time in this report.

Calculated Compassion is a comprehensive examination of the political character and role of the ex-gay movement. And it paints a disturbing picture. While publicly portraying itself as a haven for "hope and healing for homosexuals," the ex-gay movement serves as camouflage for a retooled and reinvigorated assault by the Christian Right on the legal protections against discrimination for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons. Furthermore, the ex-gay movement is an integral part of a broader right-wing movement that poses a grave threat to democracy and diversity in the US.

Based on three years of research, the report shows conclusively that:

      n The ex-gay movement provides political cover for a significant new phase in the Christian Right's long-running anti-gay campaign. For more than two decades, a coalition of "family values" organizations have used anti-homosexual propaganda to organize and mobilize conservative Christian constituents, recruit new followers, and raise money. But vitriol is no longer working the way it was, because of increasing public distaste for demonizing rhetoric, growing public tolerance of homosexuality, and an increase in the number of state, county, and city ordinances outlawing anti-gay discrimination. The Christian Right has seized the political opportunity offered by the ex-gay movement to repackage its anti-gay campaign in kinder, gentler terms. Instead of simply denouncing homosexuals as morally and socially corrupt, the Christian Right has now shifted to a strategy of emphasizing personal salvation for homosexuals-through the ex-gay movement. Behind this mask of compassion, however, the goal, remains the same: to roll back legal protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people and enforce criminal laws against them. The evidence suggests that the Christian Right is pursuing this goal with renewed vigor.

      n The ex-gay movement is a potent tool for undermining the rationale for lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender rights. Ex-gay leaders and their Christian Right partners claim that homosexuals need not be "that way" since theirs is a voluntary lifestyle choice that can be abandoned through religious conversion or therapy. By this reasoning, legal protections for homosexuals are not necessary. This latest refinement of the Christian Right's "no special rights" argument has already been "field-tested" with ominous success. The "ex-gay" message was employed extensively in a referendum campaign that overturned Maine's gay rights law-the first time an existing state law of this kind had been reversed. Anti-discrimination laws in other states will undoubtedly now be targeted.

      n Most mainstream religious leaders and religious organizations in the US do not share the views of the ex-gay movement and the Christian Right about homosexuality. Ex-gay and Christian Right leaders have routinely sought to identify their opposition to gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender rights with broader religious beliefs and traditions. But their perspectives on the issue do not correspond with the position of mainstream communities of faith, including the Roman Catholic Church, the National Council of Churches, the United Methodist Church, the American Jewish Congress, and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. Furthermore, by asserting that homosexuality is a sin that can be overcome, the Christian Right is at odds with many mainstream faith-based communities which not only advocate equal rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people, but also affirm their full religious equality.

      n The ex-gay movement is part of a broader social and political movement that is authoritarian and anti-democratic. The ex-gay movement is an integral part of the Christian Right which promotes Christian nationalism, an ideology that seeks to use government laws and regulations to impose fundamentalist Christian values on the entire nation. If the Christian Right has its way, the constitutional walls separating church and state would be eliminated. The ex-gay movement is also located within the political Right's larger social change movement, which is pursuing an anti-democratic and authoritarian agenda of sweeping social, political, cultural, and economic changes.

Tolerance and pluralism are bedrock principles of American society. Yet, as this report shows, the ex-gay movement and the Christian Right are attacking these principles and furthering a divisive political agenda which offers fundamentalist Christian dogma and heterosexuality as the only acceptable norms. Challenging the leadership of the ex-gay movement is essential if equal rights for all people, regardless of sexual orientation, are to be defended. To be effective, such a challenge must take into account the broader theocratic agenda of the Christian Right which the ex-gay movement is being used to promote.

Calculated Compassion:

How The Ex-Gay Movement Serves The Right's Attack on Democracy

by Surina Khan

October 1998 - Revision 1

"I see the ex-gay movement rising as an answer to the calamity that has hit our nation. The ex-gay movement is a way out of this plague that has hit our families. It's time to let faith take over."1

-Robert Knight, Family Research Council

"This [the national ex-gay ad campaign] is the Normandy landing in the larger cultural wars." 

-Robert Knight, Family Research Council,
Detroit Free Press, July 17, 1998

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