Challenging the Transnational Ex-Gay Movement

by lydia Alpizar-Duran | | Association for Women's Rights in Development
Friday, 31 January 2014 12:09 GMT

* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“Legal challenges are a necessary part of the multi-faceted strategies we must develop to challenge the negative impacts of the ex-gay movement”

AWID recently interviewed feminist researcher, Annie Wilkinson*, about her research on sexual orientation change - or conversion - efforts in Ecuador and the transnational ‘ex-gay’ movement she describes as a multi-million dollar industry. The ongoing Scott Lively vs. Sexual Minorities Uganda case, highlights the role of the evangelical Christian ex-gay movement in the persecution of LGBTI persons in Uganda, but Wilkinson’s important research in Ecuador and beyond shows us a broader picture of the ex-gay movement worldwide – a movement that includes “large-scale (international) conferences and workshops, pseudo-celebrities, a vast literature, and hundreds of ministries around the world… capable of mobilizing and distributing millions of dollars to sustain its activities.”

In 2013 we saw a delegitimization of the ex-gay movement in the United States (U.S) when evangelical Christian organization Exodus International, principally associated with the promotion of sexual orientation change efforts, announced that it would close its doors. President Alan Chambers’ public apology to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community appeared to be a breakthrough of sorts for the recognition of LGBTI rights, but reparative or ‘conversion’ practices have adapted, diversified, and taken root in other parts of the world.  

Wilkinson says that “these practices have their genesis in a very particular set of institutions, practices, and beliefs that originated in the United States in the 1970s [and] have historically included a variety of aversion therapies, psychotherapy, cognitive behavioral techniques, pharmaceutical and/or medical techniques, and rigorous, structured, residential (and often explicitly religious) rehabilitation programs.”

Within the contemporary ex-gay movement - which continues to draw support and membership almost entirely from religious organizations - Wilkinson says “there has been a shift in the locus of power… —from the heavy-handed practices more common in the past to subtler practices that privilege the internalization of discipline led by the patient or client. This shift represents adaptations in response to opposition of the ex-gay movement and is mirrored in the language used by those affiliated with the movement, who now refer to “unwanted same sex attractions” (SSA) and patients’ rights to seek voluntary “help” or “support”.”

Based on research in Ecuador and elsewhere, Wilkinson characterizes the ex-gay movement as “loosely affiliated but “independent” local ministries that usually align themselves with a handful of formal organizations, like Exodus International or Exodus Global Alliance.” It is this diffuse nature of the movement that has important implications for challenging it.

“The Scott Lively casemay lead to new international precedents in support of certain sexual rights and protections for LGBTI individuals… Portraying the transnational ex-gay movement as simply a malicious, paternalistic export from the United States [however] would be to deny its truly global, diverse, multilateral, and decentralized contemporary nature.”

Despite Scott Lively failing to show much remorse and continuing his international campaign to spread hateful messages in other regions of the world, such as Russia and Eastern Europe, Wilkinson argues the case “has brought unprecedented public scrutiny to the ex-gay movement and to Exodus International in the U.S, where the legitimacy of the ex-gay movement has fallen deeply into question.”

In contrast in Uganda, Wilkinson says public sentiment has hardly shifted and most of the population has still to hear anything about the case: “I fear that we have a long way to go in other contexts to truly prevent the kind of damage that Scott Lively has helped spearhead in Uganda.” This brings our attention back to the structure and operations of the ex-gay movement. As Wilkinson explains, the movement is “diffuse, decentralized, flexible, structured from the bottom-up, and plugs easily into the already well-supported networks of evangelical Christian ministries. These are exactly the characteristics that make the ex-gay movement so adaptable and resilient and that make challenging it so difficult.”

This can be seen by looking at the closing of Exodus International and the very limited impact it had on affiliated ministries worldwide. Wilkinson says this is because the ex-gay movement has “truly globalized”. She explains: “The closing of Exodus International - an American member ministry of Exodus Global Alliance - had a material impact mostly within the U.S. where it has served as the umbrella and catalyst of the ex-gay movement. Its symbolic impact - which certainly did reach across the world – has been more muted outside the U.S., where Exodus Global Alliance continues to operate as it has for the past decade… promoting "help" for what it claims are 55 million homosexuals in need around the world under the motto "change is possible". 

The role of legal challenges

Wilkinson believes that using the law is a critical part of laying the groundwork for the legitimization and normalization of LGBTI rights and is following the Scott Lively case closely. She says: “In my opinion, Scott Lively and his collaborators should be held liable for their direct actions supporting the creation of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill and its accompanying campaign in Uganda… [However], unlike Scott Lively, most of the ex-gay movement condemns violence or discrimination... Many ex-gay ministries also often strategically strive to operate within the boundaries of the law [and] many have adopted (or coopted) the language of anti-discrimination, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion to protect themselves from legal challenges and to ensure their ability to function.”

With this in mind, Wilkinson suggests that legal challenges around hate speech may be the most successful, like in Ecuador where, in response to Wilkinson’s research findings, “a coalition of LGBTI activists organized a rally in opposition to the ex-gay movement in Ecuador outside its annual national conference in Guayaquil and filed a complaint at the Public Defender’s Office, arguing that the conference and the ministry’s activities and publications constitute hate speech.” These activists have joined a growing resistance movement across Latin America challenging reparative practices.

In addition to using the law, Wilkinson advocates for continued public education and dialogue and cultural/attitudinal change to challenge the ex-gay movement in the long term – with a focus on the local: “Those opposing the ex-gay movement will have to organize to challenge it in every local context where it exists”.


* Annie Wilkinson is a feminist researcher focused on gender and sexuality issues internationally. She holds a Masters in Gender and Development from FLACSO-Ecuador and currently supports human rights researchers and activists in Eastern and Southern Africa, Latin America, and elsewhere in her role as Human Rights Project Manager at Benetech. Formerly, Annie worked as a Development Officer at the Global Fund for Women. Her forthcoming books are titled Sin sanidad, no hay santidad: las prácticas reparativas en Ecuador (Cleanliness is Holiness: Reparative Practices in Ecuador) to be published by FLACSO-Ecuador, and Transgressing Transgenders: Exploring the borderlands of national, gender, and ethnic belonging in Ecuador in Queering Paradigms (Peter Lang, in print).