36Title: Straight to Jesus: Sexual and Christian Conversions in the Ex-Gay MovementAuthor:
Tanya Erzen Genre:
Sociology, anthropology, ethnology, queer studies, religion. Etc. One-sentence summary:
Tanya Erzen spent close to a year studying New Hope, an all-male residential "ex-gay" program based on the premise that homosexuality is inherently antithetical to living a Christian life and that homosexuality can be "cured" with the help of their program. This book, which was originally her dissertation, puts forth what she learned there with the sensitive but dispassionate attitude of a good social scientist. Why did you get this book?
I read about it on salon.com ages ago and was really struck by the tone of the Salon article: I was so used to liberals having nothing but knee-jerk scorn for the ex-gay movement, and yet the Salon article really took the trouble to explore the nuances of the issue. Since Salon is often not given to terribly nuanced or original analysis when left to its own devices, I was really interested in reading the book that had spurred that review. Do you like the cover?
It's fine - a bride and groom walking into a church. It's a photo from gettyimages.com, so maybe I'm reading into it too much, but there seemed to be a subtle tension in the posture of the bride and groom as they stand side by side that's in keeping with the content of the book. Did you enjoy the book?
Tremendously. This is a really, really
interesting piece of sociological research, guys. What I loved most about it was that Erzen didn't go in to prove a point. She had enough theoretical grounding in sociology/anthropology in general and in queer studies in particular that she knew what she was doing, but she went in to learn, rather than to find evidence to support an already-developed viewpoint. As such, this isn't a book about how the ex-gay movement is horrible and it lies to people and it damages people's psyches irreversibly and it should be shut down immediately, like some of the books on the subject
. Nor is it a piece of propaganda for the ex-gay movement; it's not politically motivated at all. It's a thoughtful exploration of an issue that's much more complex than most people see it as being. The question, of course, is whether gays can change; the program answers "yes," while most contemporary gay activist programs say "no". I will insert my own viewpoint here and say that queer theory would give a pretty unequivocal "yes" as well: if we assume that sexuality and gender are both fluid and exist on a continuum, why *wouldn't* people be able to change? Erzen looks at the scientific background of the ex-gay movement and explains that the treatment at New Hope, the specific program where she did her fieldwork, is based in the idea that homosexuality exists as the result of "gender deficits" - i.e., that the men in the program were raised with insufficient models of masculinity and that they need healthy male-male relationships and retraining in masculine behavior in order to exist as straight. That, to me, is where the program falls down - the assumption that homosexuality is the result of a deficit of masculinity (or femininity, in women) has been pretty well disproven (the person who developed the theory hadn't actually done any direct research - it was all strictly theoretical). It seemed to be focused on teaching men not to be attracted to other men, rather than on teaching men to be attracted to women, and to me that's backwards. But what I loved about the book was that Erzen was able to divorce her analysis of the inadequacies in the "science" behind the ex-gay movement from her perception of the people in the program. She was able to accept that the men in the program had made a choice to abandon their previous lifestyles because they felt their faith was more important. She made it clear to the men that she wanted to learn from them, and as they warmed to her and came to understand that she wasn't there to judge them, they opened up to her. In the end, she doesn't give you any predetermined conclusions, except for a strong final chapter in which she demonstrates how the ex-gay movement has been hijacked by hardcore fundamentalists like James Dobson and how much that upset a lot of the men in the program, who felt their personal struggles were being misinterpreted and twisted into propaganda for an anti-gay movement that they didn't necessarily support: many of them were not interested in trying to convert other people, they were just trying to live their own lives as best they knew how. I don't mean to imply that she whitewashes the fact that many of these men grew up in stern fundamentalist homes/atmospheres that colored their thinking about the issues, because that's in the book too. The thing is that in the end, Erzen leaves it up to the reader to decide what they think of the movement and of the choice these men are making. What she's doing is providing us with a really complex and well-researched portrayal of what the ex-gay movement looks like from the inside, and I found it incredibly valuable and thought-provoking. Was the author new to you and would you read something by this author again?
Yes. She hasn't written anything else yet, but I'd be interested to see what else she publishes. If it's on a subject I'm interested in, I'm there. Are you keeping it or passing it on?
It's a library book, but I may get my own copy at some point. Anything else?
The only thing that I wished Erzen had done more of in this book would have been to put direct transcriptions of interviews with program members in the narrative. I don't know if it really would have fit, but I would have liked to get to know each of the men in the program a little better. We got to know them somewhat, of course, but I would have liked to read case studies on each of them, honestly. I got to wondering if I should work on something like that. Number of pages:
293Total pages for the year:
10697Scale of 1 to 10: