Contrary to what the Christian right proclaims, ex-gay programs operate more like 12 Step regimens than like psychiatric treatments for, say, depression or bipolar disorder. Worthen and other gurus of reparative therapy often speak of homosexuality as a form of addiction, and just as AA holds that an alcoholic is never really “cured,” only “sober,” they caution that relapses or “sexual falls” remain an ever-present threat to the devout ex-gay. AA members refer to themselves as alcoholics even when they’re not drinking, and, Erzen believes, “ex-gay” is a similar identity group, an unsettled and perilous condition rather than a firm relocation to heterosexuality.
“Recovery and relapse are built into the creation of an ex-gay identity,” she writes, “and sexual falls are expected. Rather than becoming heterosexual, men and women become part of a new identity group in which it is the norm to submit to temptation and return to ex-gay ministry over and over again.” That’s one reason why the sex scandals involving Exodus leaders don’t discredit the therapy in their eyes.
Nevertheless, because the ex-gay movement is deeply invested in the possibility of change, it needs to believe that homosexuality is a matter of nurture, not nature. As a result—and this is an irony that Erzen points out repeatedly—their belief that almost every aspect of conventional masculine and feminine roles is inborn lives alongside their conviction that homosexuality is purely the product of a dysfunctional family environment. For gay men, this rationale holds that boys who insufficiently bond with their fathers suffer from an unfulfilled longing for a masculine identity that mutates into an erotic desire for men.
Reparative therapy’s prescription for correcting this condition is to concentrate on forming strong platonic relationships with other men. Conventionally manly behaviors like sports and camping are mandatory. This results in a program that tries to cure men of same-sex desires by installing them in all-male, dormitory-style housing, decorated (in one memorable detail Erzen offers) with posters of Jesus wearing short hair, blue jeans and a workshirt, and punctuated with expeditions in which the men sleep together in tents. Such a plan would strike anyone comfortable and familiar with gay culture as laughably daft and self-defeating—“curing” homosexuality by piling gay men together in close quarters with Village People depictions of the Son of God—but that’s their story, and they’re sticking to it. Needless to say, affairs, relapses and defections are pretty common, despite the Big Brother-style surveillance imposed on all residents.