Born Again, Again: The Ex-Gays

Last Monday I posted an article comparing born-again Christians to born-again furries, those of us who found their life’s ear-and-tail-filled path at a more mature age. The discovery of something so important and personal often leads to born-again furries (and Christians) to be evangelical about their revelatory experience.

I used this to introduce a rough truism – a closely-held extreme belief often belies a transformative personal experience.

We have all met furries who hold extreme opinions on various topics. These opinions are regularly infuriating – however there is often a personal story behind the opinion. And that story will help cast the extreme opinion in a new, more understanding, perspective.

This is a theme you’ve heard from me before and will likely hear in the future: that it’s important to be tolerant.

I want to continue the theme by talking about the so-called ex-gay movement. It is a great example that has an equivalent resonance within the furry community.

The ex-gay movement is largely Christian-driven, based on the idea that homosexuality is a learned behaviour that can be treated. There are a couple of big problems here:

  • Modern psychology has proven beyond any doubt that sexual preference is innate and essentially immutable.
  • The movement reinforces the destructive idea that there is something wrong with homosexuality. Worse, many teenagers are cajoled or forced into a programme. Predictably, this can reinforce internalized homophobia and lead to mental health problems. The ex-gay movement is very probably indirectly responsible for many suicides.

Moving on from the moral failings of the ex-gay movement, the experience of people who attend and claim conversion is worth examining. Just like born-again Christians and born-again furries, ex-gays can be evangelical: they believe that they’ve had a life-changing experience.

For some of the ex-gays, this will be true. These are the ones who were never fundamentally homosexual: they were heterosexuals who were experimenting, or possibly hetero-leaning bisexuals.

Many furries have had a similar experience. There is no stigma on gay sex in furry, and most furries are not exclusively heterosexual. In this environment, many fundamentally heterosexual furries will have had gay sex. (The opposite of the non-furry world, where many fundamentally homosexual people will have had straight sex.)

Some straight furries will realise their sexuality later in life, perhaps after falling in love with a member of the opposite sex. Like the ex-gays, this can be a revelatory experience. And some of those furries will become evangelical about their experience, resenting the furry community’s complicity in stymieing this revelation.

Consider an ex-gay-furry – let’s call him StraightFox – who decries the community for pushing homosexuality on new members. StraightFox is convinced that vulnerable young people in the furry community are being placed at risk by established gay members. (I expect that most people reading this post have been exposed to someone like StraightFox at some stage.) StraightFox is probably going to get shouted down for trolling. This is wrong: StraightFox is misguided, but so is the furry – let’s call him GayWolf – calling for his head.

Here’s why StraightFox is wrong:

  • Nobody in the furry community turned him gay. He was straight at the beginning; he is still straight now.
  • He is assuming that everyone else has the same experience. StraightFox may have had a negative experience but he is neglecting those that have had positive experiences. Furry’s enthusiastic acceptance of sex is manna to the repressed, the closeted, and the shy.

Here’s why GayWolf is wrong:

  • StraightFox has been damaged by the furry community. He deserves respect (for finding his true self and for being brave enough to voice a contrarian opinion) and pity (for his difficult experience).
  • GayWolf, being gay (and a wolf), should think of his life in non-furry world, where he is a member of a minority. GayWolf should know that it hurts to have a personal and important belief shouted down.

Like StraightFox, those people who have “successfully” been treated through the ex-gay movement are worth talking to. They will have fascinating stories to tell. They might be in complete denial; they might be struggling to fit into a world that doesn’t accept their sexuality; they might have an interesting perspective on sexual experimentation. And just like everyone else, they are probably a good person struggling to manage their human failings.

Ted Haggard is a high profile, oft ridiculed ex-gay. Haggard was a high-profile evangelical pastor who was caught buying methamphetamines and sexual services from a male escort. In the ensuing scandal, Haggard resigned or was fired from his various religious posts.

And we all enjoyed the sweet, sweet taste of schadenfreude: someone who supported anti-gay legislation was publicly shown to be a hypocrite.

Following the scandal, Haggard underwent ex-gay counselling and was declared “completely heterosexual” just three weeks later. This claim was met by general disbelief, derision, and laughter.

It is easy to conclude that Haggard is a deluded and/or calculating individual: that he is trying to fool either himself, his family or the general public into believing that he is straight. It’s easy to disregard him as a caricature: a fake, greedy, self-promoting hypocrite masquerading as a community leader.

Yet it is wrong to cast Ted Haggard in such a simplistic way. In 2011, a journalist, Kevin Roose, went on a camping trip with Haggard and his two sons. Late night, over the campfire, Haggard put a different spin on his situation:

“I think that probably, if I were 21 in this society, I would identify myself as a bisexual.” After a weekend of Ted trying to convince me of his unambiguous devotion to his wife and kids, I’m at first too surprised to say anything.

“So why not now?” I ask finally.

“Because, Kevin, I’m 54, with children, with a belief system, and I can have enforced boundaries in my life. Just like you’re a heterosexual but you don’t have sex with every woman that you’re attracted to, so I can be who I am and exclusively have sex with my wife and be perfectly satisfied.”

This is not to say that Haggard should not be criticised. But it’s easier to see him as a flawed human being who deserves pity for his situation. Like the ex-gay furries, he’s in a situation he didn’t choose and he didn’t foresee.

The story of the ex-gays is different from last week’s born-again furries but the general conclusion is the same: people are interesting and vulnerable, but this is rarely evident on first impressions. This is why tolerance is a great virtue: it gives people a chance to show themselves in all their complexity.

So be friendly and respectful towards the people you disagree with. You might be surprised.

About JM

JM is a horse-of-all-trades who was introduced to furry in his native Australia by the excellent group known collectively as the Perthfurs. JM now helps run [adjective][species] from London, where he is most commonly spotted holding a pint and talking nonsense.

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9 thoughts on “Born Again, Again: The Ex-Gays

  1. Sorry, JM, but Ted Haggard gets no respect from me. This has nothing to do with his flip-floppery on his own sexuality, about which I don’t much care. It has to do with his vicious hypocrisy in using his once huge amount of evangelical clout to condemn gays and blame them for “choosing” to be who they are. Leaders like that do immeasurable harm to society. After his experience, Haggard should know better than to just lay low as he has done. He should be correcting the injustices he committed, and that he knows very well he has committed. I see him doing nothing at all to even attempt that.

  2. “So be friendly and respectful towards the people you disagree with. You might be surprised.”

    That’s very refreshing!

    It could lead to actually listening to people rather than presupposing you already know where they’re coming from and what their motivations are. In other words, it has the potential to restore communication by removing the pre-judgements.

    I admit to finding this difficult, myself. Only because, the vast preponderance of times, my original assessment turns out to be correct. Most of the people I encounter are, for the moment at least, utterly simple creatures in the ways that matter. It’s difficult to abandon an approach that is nearly – but not quite – always accurate. Do you have any suggestions?

    Be well,

    – Satori

    1. It sounds like you’re probably already there. It’s a very natural thing, to be defensive towards people you disagree with. You’re aware of this and you’re trying to be a good person.

      You can’t ask for much more than that.

  3. In the main, I agree with this sentiment, but there’s an aspect of it that you’re not capturing. GayWolf and StraightFox do not have the same level of social influence, and their words impact people differently. I agree that GayWolf is not taking StraightFox’s pain seriously, and that is a failing. However, I find it far outweighed by StraightFox’s failing to recognize that he is, in essence, now a spokesperson for the Mainstream Majority dressed up the trappings of membership. His actions are going to have an outsized impact because he’s accepted as a member of one minority but expresses Mainstream Majority views about the other, and that’s going to have a much greater impact and likely cause more lasting harm than GayWolf’s spittle-flecked invectives against that backstabber StraightFox could have.

    People come to minority gatherings, whether physical or virtual, with an expectation of being able to let down their barriers and relax, and in that state, it becomes more emotionally draining to have to keep up some barriers but not others. A devout homosexual who goes to a Bible Camp but has to stay in the closet is going to have a harder time of things. The same would be true if said person went to Leather Mardi Gras and had to stay closeted about his faith. In that state, a mainstream-style assault is likely to be more damaging than if the same were to happen in the outside, because those barriers are down, and even if they’re not entirely down, people will be compromised trying to keep only some up.

    Consider the recent flap at Pantheacon, when Z Budapest publicly spoke out against transwomen participating in her mysteries. Yes, she has every right to conduct her rituals according to the principles of her faith, and she has every right to defend her beliefs. That said, the harm she caused far exceeded the damage she would have done outside that setting, because her line “transwomen are just men castrating themselves to invade female spaces” is precisely the kind of attack that the Mainstream Majority has used to oppress transsexuals in the first place. Coming from the position of trusted insider, her assault is doubly grievous.

    In general, whenever there is a mingling of minorities, as we do in the furrygay crossover or in Ms. Budapests’s transpagan flap, there will be people who are a member of one minority who are not a member of the other. This is unavoidable, and more to the point, this is okay. The problem comes in when people who are in this position use it to speak out against against other minorities, because those assaults are going to be seen as coming from “inside the gates.” The damage from that kind of internal attack is excessive compared to the same attack from the Mainstream Majority, where it’s expected and emotional defenses are already in place.

    This is not to say that people who are only members of some minorities should not have permission to speak. They can and must be allowed to have their voice as well as everyone else. However, they need to understand the power they wield as perceived insiders. GayWolf’s demand for StraightFox’s tail on a spike is wrong; let’s not mince words. I maintain, however, that it isn’t anywhere near as harmful as StraightFox’s accusations of corruption, and the community should respond as such. Yes, GayWolf needs a stern talking-to about tone and messaging, but to equate it to StraightFox’s broadsides against gay furries is inappropriate, and StraightFox needs to be made aware in no uncertain terms of the damage he’s doing.

  4. HI Kristina, thanks for the comment. I know it’s taken a while for me to respond, but this is one of the more insightful things I’ve read for a while and probably worthy of a post in itself. Your thoughts have provoked a few conversations, and not just amongst contributors to this site.

    I completely agree with you. You’ve hit onto something important that I missed when writing the article.

    StraightFox’s behaviour is clearly worse than GayFox’s. Like the awful Pantheacon example you gave – which I hadn’t heard about but it’s terrible – StraightFox’s righteousness is blinding him to the harm he’s doing. And he needs to be told.

    But I don’t think it’s ever useful to engage someone on purely combative terms. None of us change our opinions because we’ve been attacked by someone who disagrees. If anything, being attacked tends to reinforce to original opinion.

    I mentioned Haggard, who is someone who has done harm. Altivo, in his earlier comment, won’t look past his crimes to see the person underneath. (Although that’s a crude representation of Altivo’s opinion.) I respect Altivo’s point – Haggard has done harm and is in the wrong – but I also think that even someone like Haggard deserves to be treated with respect. So does StraightFox, so does Z Budapest.

    Family and friends of perpetrators of despicable crimes usually stand by the criminal. For them, the criminal is not defined by his act. For everyone else, of course, that’s all they know. It’s hard to look past that and accept that there is complex person underneath a horrible act.

  5. I’m curious about the statement that sexual preference is immutable and would be interested for some references to the science behind this.
    It seems to me that sexuality is a fluid thing. There are people who life a happy heterosexual lifestyle, only the come out as gay many years later. They may then claim that it became obvious to them that they were really gay the whole time.
    There are also those who went from straight to gay and back to straight again. Probably making the same claim at each step of the way.
    This sounds to me like mutability.

    It may be that usage of empirical, objective tests, such as brain-wave pattern responses to sexual images, shows that sexual attraction is something that is set and innate (though I’d like to see a reference studying this), but I think sexuality is much more complex.

    This is all something of an aside to the point of your post. I agree with the concept that people who engage with a topic strongly, later in life, will tend to be evangelical about it. Those who reject it strongly may well have an interesting reason why. But it’s the comments on sexuality that I don’t buy.

    Perhaps I’d like to see a future post with further information and commentary on sexuality in general and the mutability or lack-thereof.

  6. I think Altivo’s point wasn’t “I won’t forgive Haggard,” but “I won’t forgive Haggard until Haggard demonstrates that he understands what he did wrong and apologizes for it.” Ted Haggard has had a very rough life, and as long as he continues to be a male-biased bisexual trying to live a heterosexual lifestyle, it’s going to be hard for him. I feel for him, because I know what it’s like to have to suppress one thing you want in order to have something else you want more. That sucks, and I do feel bad for him.

    Haggard, however, has continued to insist to people who have different value judgments that his decision is the universally right one. That’s why there’s a lack of forgiveness. He’s still preaching the same hurtful messages as some kind of moral absolute, without the recognition that other people have the right to choose different priorities. And it’s that lack of treating others with respect that in turn leads people like Altivo to disrespect him.

    I like to say that intolerance is transitive. That is, I do not extend the olive branch to anyone who does not in turn extend the olive branch to others. Tolerance and mutualism cannot co-exist with monoculture. Practitioners of monoculture will inevitably demand that tolerance of their beliefs requires accepting their right to be intolerant of others. This is a self-negating position for the tolerant party, and no philosophy long survives a self-negating position.

    This all still begs the question of how, then, to address GayWolf and StraightFox in ways that are more likely to lead to positive outcomes. With GayWolf, his heart is in the right place, but his approach is flawed. He is, if you will, wrong for the right reasons. Explaining to him that this is the case is probably sufficient and, with any luck, can be done in an informative but supportive fashion so that future StraightFoxes will not bit so vigorously in the ass.

    It’s StraightFox that remains the problem for me, because he’s wrong for the wrong reasons, and dealing with that is hard. We don’t want to tell him his beliefs are unacceptable, but we need to make clear that he cannot use his position as a member of one minority to oppress or denigrate other minorities. There has to be an understanding that no, we’re not telling him that he can’t believe what he wants, without giving him the freedom to abuse his standing. I fully confess that I’m not sure how to do this, but any suggestions would be more than welcome.

    Ultimately, I think the community has to decide what price it’s willing to pay for comity. There may come a time when ostracizing a member who refuses to play nice towards other minorities is less damaging than would be continually playing nice towards someone who refuses to return the courtesy.

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