For two decades, McKrae Game was a top-tier figure among ex-gay Christians and a leading advocate for conversion therapy, a counseling practice with the goal of helping LGBTQ people suppress their homosexuality and become “straight.” But Game, 51, now disavows the movement and acknowledges he has been gay all along.
Game’s announcement comes as the ex-gay Christianity movement is struggling to survive. The most prominent ex-gay organizations have shrunk or shuttered; leaders have defected; and many churches now fear that being associated with such widely discredited techniques will cast them as unwelcoming or bigoted. Additionally, the Internet is rife with stories of LGBTQ people who have reported suffering psychological harm as a result of participating in these programs and ministries.
Some prominent Christians are quietly trying to resurrect ex-gay Christianity, and the new incarnation is hipper and perhaps more evolved. Yet beneath the cosmetic tweaks sits the same message that has damaged many lives over many decades: If you’re a Christian with same-sex attractions, change is both possible and necessary.
The first wave of American ex-gay Christianity in the 1970s coalesced around ministries and organizations specifically devoted to the cause. But the current wave is far more decentralized, being led by independent authors and personalities who are embedded in the conservative Christian world rather than segregated into an issue-specific niche.
Their views differ ever so slightly from the next while orbiting tightly to similar themes, such as the possibility of “former homosexuals” having a healthy heterosexual marriage, differentiating between one’s behavior and identity, and a ubiquitous, if obligatory, nod to churches’ historical failures to love people who identify as LGBTQ.
One of the movement’s most articulate leaders is Rosaria Champagne Butterfield, a former women’s studies professor at Syracuse University who says she “adopted a lesbian identity” in her 20s as a result of being influenced by feminist philosophy. In 1999, she converted to Christianity and swore off lesbianism after she realized that “how I feel does not tell me who I am.”
When I spoke with her, I asked if she considers herself “ex-gay,” and she said she does not use that label to describe herself but then proceeded to describe how she was once, but is no longer, a lesbian. When I asked if she believes in conversion therapy, she said she does not and then said it is “in part because heterosexual sin is no more sanctified than homosexual sin.”
When I pointed out the definition of the term “ex-gay,” she pivoted to talking about how Christian churches have failed to minister to and love LGBTQ people. But then Butterfield added that she discourages the usage of the term “gay Christian” and even opposes “Side B” Christians who accept their LGBTQ identity but are committed to celibacy for religious reasons. Such a position, she said, is “biblically untenable.”
Butterfield avoids the rhetorical triggers of ex-gay Christianity’s earlier iteration. But she presents a message that will ring familiar to the many LGBTQ people who have survived ex-gay ministries and therapy: Through the power of Jesus, same-sex desires can and should be overcome. For Butterfield, homosexuality is not an identity that describes who a person is but, rather, a sinful action that a person does — but can stop doing.
She preaches her gospel of change through her popular books, speeches at Christian conferences and churches, and it is the unmistakable message of the life she now lives. Butterfield left her female partner after her conversion and is now married to her husband, Kent.
Spoken-word artist Jackie Hill Perry is another rising ex-gay star who formerly identified as a lesbian and is now married to a man. She told me, “That was an identity that I used to walk in and actively choose, but now I don’t.”
When I pressed her, the author of “Gay Girl, Good God: The Story of Who I Was and Who God Has Always Been” said that she has never met anyone who has experienced a complete change in sexual orientation, but she added that she has read stories about people who have. Perry also recoils at the term “ex-gay” because that gives the impression that someone will instantly eradicate their homosexual desires: “I love my husband, but I also experience same-sex attraction. But I live a heterosexual life.”
Several lesser-known leaders are ostensibly part of the second wave of ex-gay Christianity, even if they do not identify with it. This includes people like Matt Moore, a writer who was highlighted in a piece that was originally published in 2013 (later updated in 2016) reporting that he had an active profile on the gay dating app Grindr. He said he was looking for men instead of sex, repented of his ways and was recently engaged to Talitha Piper, daughter of popular conservative Christian pastor John Piper.h
Then there is the confusing Tennessee pastor and social media influencer Kegan Wesley. His Instagram account is filled with staples of gay culture, from “Golden Girls” memes and underwear recommendations to flowy Versace silk prints and ab-revealing cropped tops. But he doesn’t want you jumping to any conclusions. The hipster pastor told me that he is absolutely, positively, unequivocally, 100 percent not gay. At least not anymore.
Wesley claims that his parents’ divorce and an experience of sexual assault created same-sex desires in him at a young age, but he preaches that Jesus is helping him overcome his homosexual desires.
When I spoke to him, he said he “had to make a choice of my faith over my feelings.” His church, the Refuge, believes that “we don’t let people’s issue become their identity,” Wesley told me. “I want the world to know if you don’t quit, you win.”
When I ask Wesley whether he still has intimate encounters with men, he said, “That depends on what you call an encounter.”
I asked again, and he said homosexuality is an “ongoing struggle.” I asked again, and he responded with “no comment,” saying, “I don’t want that to be a question people can ask.”
Ex-gay Christianity began in part as conservative Christians’ reaction to the gay rights movement surging in America’s urban centers. Many Americans believed at the time that homosexuality was a mere matter of choice, and worse, a sin that would endanger one’s eternal destiny.
In their minds, same-sex-attracted Christians who wanted to live a life of holiness could suppress their sexual desires through some mixture of prayer, spiritual discipline and therapy. Ministries and organizations rose up and preached the ex-gay gospel.
But eventually the movement was plagued by shifting public opinion, and ex-gay Christianity’s most prominent leaders began repudiating the movement and telling the truth about its failures.
Michael Bussee, an early ex-gay pioneer, left the movement in 1979 and entered a relationship with another ex-gay leader, Gary Cooper. On his way out, Bussee confessed he never witnessed an LGBTQ person become heterosexual. Ex-gay icon John Paulk was ousted as chairman of Exodus International, the world’s most prominent ex-gay ministry, after being photographed at a gay bar in 2000. He later declared that instead of helping anyone, the movement had done “great harm to many people.”
Then in 2013, the movement’s most visible leader seemingly sounded the death knell. Alan Chambers, then the head of Exodus International, announced he was closing the organization and apologized for the “pain and hurt” it had caused. Chambers, who once called homosexuality “one of the many evils this world has to offer,” lobbied against marriage equality and touted examples of happily wed “former homosexuals,” said that 99.9 percent of ex-gay ministry participants he had met had not experienced a shift in sexual orientation.
But Bethel Church, a mega-congregation based in Redding, Calif., with a popular worldwide worship music brand, may be trying to fill that void. It recently launched its “Changed” ministry for “friends who once identified as LGBTQ+.” Bold letters on its sleek website’s homepage claim, “We Believe: Changed is Possible.” The site includes a shop complete with T-shirts, stories from people who purport to have been converted from homosexuality, a coffee-table book and, of course, a donation tab. The ministry is poised to launch a series of events and is using #OnceGay to identify supporters online.
Today, many of the once-thriving ex-gay ministries are gone. But that doesn’t mean the ideas aren’t still taking hold in churches across the country and, thereby, endangering the lives and well being of a new generation of Christian young people.
Jonathan Merritt is an award-winning contributor for the Atlantic and author of “Learning to Speak God from Scratch: Why Sacred Words are Vanishing and How We Can Revive Them.”
Clarification: This piece has been updated to clarify that an article about Matt Moore was first published in 2013 and later updated in 2016.