Back in the olden days, people thought that was possible. How quaint.

Back in the olden days, people thought that was possible. How quaint.

“Bike away the gay.”

That’s one of the first methods that was used in the so-called “treatment” of homosexuality, back in the late 1800’s, as explained by this excellent piece in Metro Weekly, which chronicles the rise, and ultimately, “The Decline and Fall of the Ex-Gay Movement”:

According to a history of ex-gay therapy published by The Gay and Lesbian Review, one of the first medical professionals seeking to treat homosexuality was American neurologist Graeme M. Hammond. In 1892, Hammond recommended extensive bicycle riding as a treatment because he believed homosexuality was caused by nervous exhaustion. Treatments soon grew progressively more cruel. Throughout the early part of the 20th century, treatments often included forced intercourse with the opposite sex, at times aided by hypnosis or large amounts of alcohol, and trips to brothels. In the 1920s, castration was a treatment; widely applied by the Nazis in the 1940s.

It was a few years after the American Psychiatric Association listed homosexuality as a sociopathic personality disorder, in 1952, that one psychoanalyst reported homosexuality could be cured through beatings, doses of methyl testosterone or trips to brothels. He also recommended one hour of such therapy daily for up to five years. In 1962, a British psychologist injected a man with nausea-inducing drugs while playing audiotapes of men engaging in sex and surrounding the patient with glasses of urine in an attempt to “overdose” him with homosexuality so he would switch to women. In the 1960s, electroshock therapy was also used in certain cases.

The article explains that such treatments went out of style when the APA and virtually all other major medical and mental health organizations declassified homosexuality as a mental disorder, decisions that were not greeted well by the Religious Right. Then, during the 1970’s, the modern “ex-gay” movement was born. Wayne Besen is quoted in the article, explaining how the movement became a perfect foil for a Christian Right that saw its influence starting to wane as people began to perceive them as hateful and nasty:

“After having their support erode because they became too mean and nasty over several years — a lot of people had been coming out and people were beginning to know gay people — the whole fire and brimstone was beginning to backfire,” Wayne Besen says of the Christian right.


Facing public backlash for their demonization of gay people, religious conservatives looked to the ex-gay movement and made a calculated political decision. After decades of condemning gay people, they strategically shifted their message to salvation. “They had to appear to be more loving and mainstream and so they jumped on this ex-gay bandwagon, which they had previously rejected,” Besen says.

The Religious Right’s partnership with the “ex-gay” movement was most prominent in 1998, with the launch of the infamous ad campaign featuring John Paulk and his then-wife Anne:

“I’m proof that the truth can set you free,” proclaimed a woman wearing a diamond engagement ring and wedding band featured in an ad in The New York Times. Her name was Anne Paulk, and, according to the ad, her homosexuality had been caused by molestation during her childhood. She had found Jesus Christ, however, and married John Paulk, who also identified as ex-gay and had worked as a drag entertainer and male escort in college before finding salvation.

Similar ads soon followed, with professional football player Reggie White, who called homosexuality a sin, featured in USA Today and a group of ex-gay leaders displayed in The Washington Post. Other ads ran throughout the summer in The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune. Television ads also began airing. At the time, Robert Knight of the Family Research Council declared the ad campaign the “Normandy landing in the larger cultural wars.”

“They thought this was the way they were going to destroy the gay movement,” Besen says.

Robert Knight was, as usual, incorrect. The article details how the “cracks” in the movement started to appear not long after that infamous ad campaign, beginning with Wayne photographing John Paulk in a gay bar in 2000, and tracing the story all the way to where we are today:

Paulk left the ex-gay movement in 2003, but did not publicly apologize until April 2013. Announcing that his marriage to Anne was ending, Paulk renounced the movement he had been part of for nearly a decade.

“Today, I see LGBT people for who they are — beloved, cherished children of God,” Paulk said. “I offer my most sincere and heartfelt apology to men, women, and especially children and teens who felt unlovable, unworthy, shamed or thrown away by God or the church.”

Countless other defections would follow. Perhaps the most important, however, came just this summer when Alan Chambers, the president and face of Exodus International during its rise to becoming the world’s “largest Christian ministry dealing with faith and homosexuality,” issued a lengthy apology to the LGBT community for any harm he may have caused while at the helm of Exodus. Hours after his apology, the organization’s board of directors announced Exodus International would shut down. In subsequent interviews, Chambers, who himself is still married to his wife despite admitting to a continued struggle with his same-sex attractions, would disavow ex-gay therapy for minors. At the time, Besen described the closure as “an earthquake that is shaking the very foundations of the ‘ex-gay’ industry.”

I don’t want to spoil it by quoting too much from it, so read the whole thing. It truly is an excellent piece of research, both from a historical perspective and in its appraisal of the current state of the “ex-gay” industry, with states starting to ban reparative therapy for minors with bipartisan support and the Religious Right unsuccessfully suing to stop those bans at every turn.

The fight isn’t over — hardly — but things sure are different from how they were fifteen years ago.