The Ex-Gay Lecture Letdown

This is part of a series of posts which tackles sexual ethics and debating strategies (but not at the same time). To get an overview of the controversy under consideration, check out yesterday’s summary post of the controversy that erupted when an ex-gay speaker came to campus (which has now been updated to include a link to the explanatory/apologetic letter from the groups that invited him).

The talk was an anti-climax.

Prior to Yuan’s arrival, I’d gotten plenty of tip-off emails from the LGBT groups I belong to on campus as well as everyone who forwarded it to email lists to see if anyone knew if the announcement was a prank (the lecture was scheduled for April 1st, after all).  One email warned that no one attending the talk should dress provocatively or heckle or act confrontational, since Yuan would use any protests in his fundraising pitches (Watch me stand up against the assault of the heathen, you can see how effective I am by the way they rebel, etc).  I should add I haven’t heard anyone substantiate this claim and I didn’t see any recording equipment used by Yuan, but I know this is the financial model used by some preachers who visit liberal campuses.

Right before the talk began, as we noticed the vast majority of the audience were wearing rainbow-colored “Ally” stickers, and my boyfriend and I started speculating that the talk was an elaborate trap.  Maybe Yale Christian Fellowship and Yale Campus for Christ advertised an anti-gay event, knowing liberal atheist types like me would swarm and were about to pull a bait and switch and make a big evangelizing pitch to us.  After all, the fire marshal had just announced that we were pushing legal capacity and that, if anyone left, they wouldn’t be allowed in.  They had a captive audience.

But there was nothing that exciting on the agenda.  Yuan gave a narration of his life prior to conversion (realized he was gay, kicked out of home, fell in with a drug using, promiscuous, risk-taking crowd, began selling drugs, became a sucessful drug kingpin, was arrested and imprisoned).  During this time, his parents converted to Christianity, asked him to come home and reestablish contact, and his mother prayed for him.

While in prison Yuan began reading the bible (since there was nothing else to read), detoxed, and was driven to despair when he found out he was HIV positive.  He didn’t spend a lot of time on what galvanized his conversion, but, after the fact, he decided he had to give up having sex with men to be properly obedient to God’s will.

Yuan explicitly disavowed the extremely wrongheaded ex-gay message I was expecting.  He said he did not believe anyone could “pray away the gay” or that his attraction to men marked him as uniquely sinful or broken.  Although some gay people might want to settle down in companionate marriages (similar to arranged marriages), he did not think that was a healthy or productive goal for gay Christians.  He emphasized that not everyone, whether gay or straight, is called to marriage and that no one is cheated by a celibate life.

Given his theological premises, I thought it was about as compassionate and mild a response as could be expected, and I was surprised how angry my queer, Christian, and queer Christian friends were after the fact. There were specific things in his talk that I thought were offensive or tin-eared, but overall, I thought it was as nice as you could expect from a Christian who believed that God forbade gay sex.  Asking him to say anything more liberal seems unreasonable unless you’re going to pick a theological fight as a fellow Christian or deconvert him during the Q&A.

I’m going to expand on this as a case study in conversations between people of different religious convictions, but I’m interested in your questions/objections/reactions to his approach and the backlash that followed.

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  • Patrick

    Yeah… we had a similar issue at law school. A conservative group brought in a speaker on affirmative action. Unsurprisingly, this speaker's view on racial disparities in academic accomplishment is that these are attributable to failures in "urban culture." This made a lot of people very upset, and afterward the students who brought him in were careful to distance themselves from him.But what did they expect? That's the conservative line. You can't possibly bring in a conservative speaker to discuss the conservative position on affirmative action without expecting him to blame racial disparities on culture. That's exactly the position you paid him to advance!It all felt very surreal to me, like the liberal students were pretending to be shocked and angry, and the conservative students were actually surprised what conservative thinkers think, or at least were pretending to be surprised. It was so weird, and I still don't know exactly what was going on with people there.That being said… I don't have a problem with people being upset about the polite, expected expression of views that carry with them implied hurtful ideas. Polite though the ideas expressed may be, and as expected as they may be, they're still offensive. Its why I don't get upset at religious people who get mad at me about being an atheist. Even just saying "Yeah, I've thought about religion, and I'm an atheist" carries the implied statement "I think your ideas are silly." Just as the statement, "I'm a Christian" carries with it the doctrine of hell, and the vicious hatred (of others, of humanity as a whole, and of the self) implied by it. Fortunately people are remarkably good at being hypocrites, and not only don't always say what they think, they don't even think what they say they think half the time.

  • Elizabeth K.

    "Even just saying "Yeah, I've thought about religion, and I'm an atheist" carries the implied statement "I think your ideas are silly." Just as the statement, "I'm a Christian" carries with it the doctrine of hell, and the vicious hatred (of others, of humanity as a whole, and of the self) implied by it."I have to disagree with both of these statements. First, I know atheists–I've been one in the past–who didn't think religious ideas were silly. I understood why people held them, I was just unconvinced by them. Second, hell means different things to different groups, and to say that it automatically implies hatred is to misunderstand its meaning. I've never gotten mad at someone for being an atheist; I suppose if that's what someone's thinking when I say I'm a Christian, though, it explains why they might be getting mad!

  • Anonymous

    A few months ago Maggie Gallagher asked me if there was a way that she could say her message without it being offensive to gay people. And I was really stumped. I think the answer is no. Yuan's message is similar in that they each say that relationships between men and women are special and privileged as good in ways that same sex relationships are not. From my perspective, this reads as 'your love is not as good as someone else's.' The goodness of my love is one of the few things that I will accept purely on faith. It is something that I know as implicitly true. So I don't think there's a way that Yuan can say same sex love is not 'God's best' for us or that Maggie can say straight couples deserve unique recognition for their ability to produce children without hurting gay people who care very much about their own capacity for love.

  • "I thought it was as nice as you could expect from a Christian who believed that God forbade gay sex."Until the population is moved on whether or not gay sex is wrong, then gays will not be treated equally.From a pro-equality, pro-sex pov, I think the entire problem is a theological one about whether gay sex is wrong in the first place. There are various ways to attack the idea: 1) god doesn't control what is right or wrong, 2) god doesn't really dislike gay sex, or 3) god doesn't even exist.I think all three are valid arguments, but I've always wondered why the equality movement is so gung-ho about secularism only instead of making these three morality arguments.I think the way lots of Christians approach the idea of secularism is, "If one religion advocated random murder, would murder then become a freedom of religion issue? Of course not, because some things are *wrong, like murder and gay sex, and the law should reflect that even if freedom of religion means people have the right to believe that or not."*And what is wrong is ultimately dictated by the bible according to mainstream Christian thought, which speaks to the necessity of rethinking the foundations of morality for many Americans.A gargantuan task to be sure, but with the rise in non-religious folk, I think it could happen quite suddenly. Consequentialist morality spread in Europe after all, and slogans like "Be good for goodness sake" and "Consequences matter" would be sure to resonate with the public.