Science, Compassion, and Ex-gay Ministries: Understanding the Logic of Antigay Activism in the 1970s

Saturday, January 3, 2015: 2:50 PM
Murray Hill Suite B (New York Hilton)
Emily Suzanne Johnson, University of Tennessee
In the late 1970s, Anita Bryant became well known as the face of a forceful backlash against a nascent gay liberation movement and the proposal of gay rights ordinances in localities across the country. Gay rights activists quickly labeled Bryant’s crusade a “campaign of hate,” based on a “backward” view. In 1978, Bryant founded a ministry to help people “escape from the homosexual life,” part of a developing network of “ex-gay” programs that presented opposition to homosexuality as both compassionate and scientific.

When they were first founded in the early 1970s, ex-gay counseling programs provided justification for Christian opposition to gay-rights initiatives by offering a counter to the two most common criticisms leveled against gay-rights opponents. First, by using the language and practices of psychotherapy, ex-gay ministries attempted to take on the mantle of medical authority and scientific modernity. Engaging in still-hot debates over the American Psychological Association’s 1973 decision to declassify homosexuality as a mental illness, ex-gay counselors attempted to situate themselves not as backwards moralists, but as experts in a changing field. Second, these ministries helped to cement the idea that Christians could “hate the sin” of homosexuality, but still “love the sinner.” And they took as their central principle the idea that this love was best shown not through social acceptance of homosexuality but through encouraging individuals to change their sexual orientation.

Ultimately, these arguments had little impact on outside perceptions of ex-gay or anti-gay movements, but they had a profound effect on conservative Christians’ theological and political responses to homosexuality in the decades to come. This paper examines the significant ways in which ex-gay ministries shaped the debate over gay rights, as well as the ways in which they failed to do so.