'Ex-Gays' and the Ninth Circle of Hell

It is high time that the leaders of the "ex-gay" movement come out of the closet -- both metaphorically and literally -- and repent of their sins of betrayal.
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Who are the worst sinners of all? The answer may surprise you. According to the fourteenth-century writer Dante Alighieri, the most egregious sinners are traitors, or those people who have betrayed their families, nations, guests, and leaders. As punishment, these individuals are frozen in ice and are condemned to the ninth, or lowest, circle of hell, where Satan himself resides. All this is vividly described in cantos XXXI through XXXIV of Dante's Inferno.

Theologically speaking, betrayal is the worst of all sins (according to Dante, anyway) because not only does it involve the infliction of violence -- physical or spiritual -- upon others, but it also involves the active use of the faculties of the intellect in order to turn against those very individuals who have trusted and relied upon you for help. Indeed, as John Milton describes in the first book of Paradise Lost, Satan himself was a fallen angel who had committed betrayal by rebelling against God.

The recent fall of George Alan Rekers, the virulently anti-gay Baptist minister and long-time advocate of reparative therapy, has highlighted the ways in which the "ex-gay" movement has profoundly betrayed lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people. Rekers, a founding board member of the anti-gay Family Research Council and a former officer of the National Association for the Research and Therapy of Homosexuals (NARTH), was photographed in April by the Miami New Times returning from a ten-day trip to Europe with a 20-year-old gay escort who had advertised his very explicit services and physical attributes on Rentboy.com.

Rekers, a married man and father, has denied the fact that any sexual activity had occurred between him and the escort. He also denied that he has ever been gay. Specifically, Rekers claims that he hired the escort to be his "travel assistant" for purposes of handling luggage due to a back injury (despite the fact that Rekers was photographed handling own his luggage at the Miami airport while the escort looked on), and that he used the trip as an occasion to bring the gospel to such escort.

The escort, on the other hand, has told the Miami New Times that his duties during the all-expense paid European vacation (and twice before the vacation) included giving Rekers daily nude massages with provocative names such as the "long stroke." He also said that Rekers instructed him to "just say no" to the press about the allegations. In fact, reporters from the Miami New Times were physically present at a post-vacation speakerphone conversation between the escort and Rekers, during which Rekers asked the escort several times not to speak to the press, and the reporters have documented the conversation.

The Rekers scandal would simply be a humorous occasion for schadenfreude but for the sad fact that Rekers has made a career of making life a living hell for numerous LGBT people who have been told that they can and must change their sexual orientations and gender identities. As early as the 1970s, Rekers conducted Pavlovian-like experiments to encourage gender non-conforming children to abandon their behaviors. One such experiment involved directing the father of "Kraig," a four-year-old "effeminate" boy, to "swat" or spank the boy after he had engaged in gender non-conforming behaviors. Sadly, "Kraig" tried to commit suicide at the age of 18.

Just recently, Rekers was paid over $120,000 by the attorney general of Florida to testify in favor of upholding the State of Florida's categorical ban against adoption by LGBT people. (Ironically, Rekers is himself an adoptive father of a young man who is around the same age as the "travel assistant" that he had hired.) Rekers had testified as an expert witness in a similar lawsuit in Arkansas. And just before leaving on his European vacation with his "travel assistant," Rekers was involved in a mass mailing to school superintendents across the country about the purported effectiveness of reparative therapy for LGBT youth.

Rekers is not the only fallen angel of the "ex-gay" movement to have betrayed his family, clients, benefactors, and the LGBT community. A few years ago, John Paulk, a self-proclaimed "former" gay man and drag queen, was caught in another "ex-gay" scandal. Paulk, along with his "ex-lesbian" wife Anne, had proclaimed to the world in the late 1990s that he had been cured of his homosexuality. The Paulks appeared in full-page ads and on the cover of Newsweek as part of the "Truth in Love" campaign sponsored by Focus on the Family. Unfortunately for Focus on the Family, Paulk was photographed while cruising gay men at Mr. P's, a well-known gay bar in Washington D.C.'s very gay Dupont Circle neighborhood, which ultimately led to his forced departure from the "ex-gay" movement.

Ironically, the "ex-gay" movement has been quick to cannibalize its own. The movement has rapidly turned on people like Rekers and Paulk, causing such anti-gay groups to fall even deeper into the sin of betrayal. For example, Rekers' name already has been scrubbed from the websites of a number of organizations with which he was formerly associated, despite his decades of work with such organizations. And yet these groups continue to spread their toxic "ex-gay" propaganda that results in the spiritual -- if not physical -- deaths of numerous LGBT people. Wayne Besen, in his book Anything But Straight, and his organization, Truth Wins Out, have documented many of these examples of betrayal by the "ex-gay" movement.

The good news, however, is that Christian theology teaches us that it is never too late to repent. Michael Bussee and Gary Cooper, the two founders of Exodus International, one of the earliest and most prominent "ex-gay" organizations, ended up falling in love with each other. They have acknowledged that, as a result of their "ex-gay" ministries, many of their former clients had become "suicidal" or resorted to "self-mutilation." They repudiated their views publicly, separated from their wives, and abandoned Exodus International. They exchanged vows and remained together for another nine years until Cooper passed away.

I have written elsewhere about the sin of the closet and the grace of coming out. For me, it is high time that the leaders of the "ex-gay" movement come out of the closet -- both metaphorically and literally -- and repent of their sins of betrayal. It is time that they publicly acknowledge the incredible harm that they have inflicted on numerous LGBT people and their families and loved ones. It is time that they publicly repudiate the junk science and dubious theology upon which the entire "ex-gay" movement is based.

Nobody knows for sure if traitors are in fact consigned to the lowest circle of hell, as Dante vividly described in the Inferno. I am certain, however, that the grace of God is available even to those who have betrayed their loved ones, the LGBT community, and even themselves through the "ex-gay" movement. It is time for people involved in the "ex-gay" movement to repent of their sinful ways and to proclaim the real "truth in love," which is that all authentic love between people -- queer, straight, or in-between -- should be supported and encouraged as a wonderful blessing and unmerited gift from God.

The gospel teaches us that true repentance and conversion is always possible through God's grace. I believe that this holds true even for the most hardened of sinners, including those deeply closeted and self-loathing people who have betrayed so many people through their involvement in the "ex-gay" movement.

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