Professor Wesley Hill
Australia’s ex-gay movement is almost dead, but out of the ashes have risen those who believe they can live a celibate life, free of all that gay sex, for Jesus.
For decades, Christian groups ran so-called “ex-gay” or “gay conversion” organisations aimed at turning people straight through therapy that at best involved praying very hard and at the very worst involved self-harm or exorcism on the (often unwilling) participants in an effort to get them to stop being gay. In the face of public opposition to gay conversion therapy due to the mental health problems and suicide risk associated with it (when it doesn’t “work”), many of the groups have now shut down or shifted focus.
The largest ex-gay organisation, Exodus International, collapsed in 2013 when leader Alan Chambers issued a strong apology to the gay community for the “pain and hurt” experienced by gay people who couldn’t change their sexuality. An Australian version of Exodus International, Living Water, shut down in 2014, meaning that there are very few organisations left in Australia now openly seeking to turn gay people straight.
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Out of the demise of this movement, however, has come a new approach: gay Christian celibacy, where the church accepts people are same-sex attracted, but only if they don’t act on it and live a single life without sex.
Last week Ridley Theological College and St Hilary’s Church flew Professor Wesley Hill — an evangelical academic from the Trinity School for Ministry in Pennsylvania in the US — to Australia for a set of three talks. The free talks in suburban Melbourne were booked out and focused on Hill’s beliefs about living his life as a celibate gay man, in accordance with his reading of the Bible.
It’s the second time Hill has visited Australia, after Liberty Christian Ministries flew him out for a conference in 2015. Recordings of at least two of the talks are available online and reveal a softer approach to the topic that has haunted some Christian evangelicals, as society has moved towards a growing acceptance of LGBTI people.
Hill talks of not slandering same-sex relationships or giving into homophobia but instead preaches living a “washed” life where gay people can admit that they are gay but just don’t act on it, in the hope that whatever comes after will somehow make up for what they’ve missed out on in this life.
“Same-sex partnerships may be filled with all sorts of virtues. They may be filled with what we Christians say is common grace … but they’re still, at their very best, still contrary to nature. In that they miss that unity and difference that God creates male and female to be,” Hill said.
Sexual purity is key, he said:
“Gay people misinterpret and distort our true selves. If we look inside our attractions and interpret those attractions as same-sex genital expression … We are not wrong to want to love others of the same sex, but we need to love them in a way that is holy.”
Not everyone who attended the lectures seemed to buy Hill’s arguments, however. At one of the lectures this week, Hill was challenged on how much pressure gay Christians face from some in their church to abide by their interpretation of the Bible, while overlooking other aspects, like the length of women’s hair, adultery, or other so-called sins.
To those in the religion who have come to a more progressive view on homosexuality, Hill said that while it might be motivated by compassion, churches “should not be redefining our sexual ethics” and instead be shifting people’s perspectives so that gay people who live celibate lives don’t feel lonely or pressure to be married.
Former Christian preacher Anthony Venn-Brown, who spent 22 years attempting to convert to heterosexuality, now monitors the ex-gay movement and works with victims of ex-gay programs. He set up the Ambassadors & Bridge Builders International in 2013 to train church leaders about LGBTI issues. He told Crikey that this iteration of the ex-gay movement largely preached the same views about homosexuality as its predecessor, but without the part that claimed people can be delivered to heterosexuality.
“Celibacy is the new ex-gay. All those organisations that used to preach that change is possible had to face the reality that it is not, and so they’ve had to change their message, and it’s now ‘I am gay, but I will never act on it’, but the fundamental things about this not being natural, and not part of God’s order remain,” he said. “The thing that really concerns me is what does this message give to young gay and lesbian people in congregations? Or to their parents or their friends? There’s still shame around it in the church.”
Venn-Brown said celibacy was asking a gay Christian to shut down a very fundamental part of human nature, and he believed in many cases, as with conversion therapy, it would not be sustainable.
“When I was attending the final Exodus Conference in the US I developed a friendship with the vice president, Randy Thomas. He was at the same place Wesley Hill is preaching about. In fact, Randy talked with me about celibacy. And preached about it as his own personal choice. Randy was in his early 40s. I can respect people making adult choices. It’s their life, not mine. I can’t accept this being preached to all and sundry. Since that time Randy has moved away from the celibacy teaching. Maybe Wesley will too. For many of us this is a long journey. It took me 22 years to finally accept that I was gay.”
The full ex-gay movement does continue. Groups such as Liberty Christian Ministries and Triumphant Ministries Toowoomba both claim to offer support for leaving the LGBTI life, but they go to pains to say they’re not a gay cure service.
Beyond Egypt is reported to still offer conversion therapy, but it keeps its internet presence minimal and has a rigorous vetting process in place to ensure its methods remain secretive from the public. Many of these groups are now also setting up practices in the Asia-Pacific region where homosexuality is far less accepted.
In January, the Victorian government announced plans to crack down on ex-gay therapists, with those found to be offering ex-gay therapy facing up to two years in jail.