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A woman who worked in religious-right ‘ex-gay’ ministries for years renounces the movement. She’s only the latest.

Yvette Cantu Schneider came out as a lesbian as a young woman, then converted to Christianity in the 1990s and spent more than a decade working with rabidly anti-LGBT groups like the Family Research Council (FRC) and Focus on the Family. She also was active in the Proposition 8 campaign in California, which resulted in the outlawing of same-sex marriage in that state in 2008. (The ban has since been overturned by the Supreme Court.)

Schneider, who eventually married a man, was for years one of the key voices anti-LGBT activists cited as “proof” that people can change their sexual orientation. But in 2009, she began to question her beliefs and, in July 2014, she joined eight other founders, leaders and promoters of the “ex-gay” movement — a largely religious movement that claims therapy can “cure” people of their homosexuality — in joining the National Center for Lesbian Rights’ call for a campaign to end so-called “conversion” or “reparative” therapy within five years. Schneider is also donating some of the proceeds from her latest book, Never Not Broken: A Journey of Unbridled Transformation, to GLAAD, an LGBT rights group.

Yvette Cantu Schneider
Yvette Cantu Schneider

The first ex-gay ministry, Love in Action, opened in 1973, followed by several others, including the large umbrella group, Exodus International, started in 1976. Religion fused with pseudo-science in the National Association for the Research and Treatment of Homosexuality, which opened in 1992 and is made up of academics and therapists who tout falsehoods such as the claim that people become gay because of childhood sexual abuse or because they didn’t “bond” properly with a same-sex parent. A variety of practitioners have used techniques ranging from the bizarre (banging on pillows with tennis rackets) to the cruel (physical, sexual and emotional abuse) to basic talk therapy.

All of the nation’s leading professional medical and mental health associations have rejected conversion therapy as harmful and unnecessary. In spite of that, it is currently legally available for adults in every state. Two — California and New Jersey — have banned it for minors, although the New Jersey ban is being challenged in court.

Anti-LGBT groups have used the ex-gay movement as ammunition for decades in their war against LGBT equality, holding it up as “proof” that people can be “cured” of homosexuality. But over the years, numerous people—including prominent spokespeople and leaders—have left the movement and renounced it, admitting that ex-gay therapy doesn’t work. Others have been revealed to be engaging in same-sex affairs or relationships. Just last year, Exodus International closed its doors and its president, Alan Chambers, issued a formal apology for the pain many people had experienced through ex-gay therapy.

Yvette, you identified as a lesbian early on. What caused your radical change in direction?
When I was growing up, I had a long string of crushes on girls and young women. I never expressed my feelings to any of them. Then, when I was studying at the University of Delhi in India as part of an education abroad program, I had my first lesbian relationship. I remember thinking that if I had any doubts about the morality of this relationship, it was because of what I had learned from my oppressive, controlling Judeo-Christian culture. In that moment, I felt the first spark of activism. A few months later, when I came out to my mom, she told me I needed “extensive psychological help.” This time, the spark felt more like a burn. In response to what I saw as disrespect, I came out to everyone I knew, knowing instinctively that to be seen was the first step to acceptance.

After a three-year relationship, I had a string of disappointing experiences dating women. I was stuck in a dead-end job that I didn’t enjoy. And another project I was working on fell apart. As this was happening, I worked with a Christian who shared Scripture with me about how God had a plan and purpose for my life. Even though I found him irritating, the Scriptures piqued my interest because they provided hope for a meaningful life.

When I went to church with him for the first time, I met dozens of young adults with the same desire. To be told week after week that our lives could be significant was like a drug. But, as with all drugs, there was a price. That price was to leave your individuality at the door and conform to what church leadership expected of you, to do as you were told, all in the name of serving the omniscient, omnipotent God.

When I converted to Christianity in 1992, I had been through a series of stressful circumstances and was looking for some stability in my life, and a sense of purpose. The church movement I joined preached that not only were we a family of believers who would be together in this world and for eternity, we were “called” by God for a purpose. That purpose was to establish God’s kingdom on earth.

How did you get involved in anti-LGBT groups? 
I spent my early years as a Christian working in college campus ministry in California. There wasn’t much reason to mention my lesbian past, except on rare occasions when talking to students on campus who took issue with our interpretations of biblical passages condemning homosexual sex.

A church friend of mine who was politically active mentioned me to a friend who produced a cable TV show. He invited me to participate in a panel to talk about homosexuality and changing from gay to straight. I did, and the producer recommended me to a Christian group as a speaker for one of their events. After hearing me speak, I was asked by a large donor to pro-family groups to make a video of my speech for Gary Bauer [former director of the Family Research Council], and for Focus on the Family. I was invited to D.C. for an interview with FRC after Gary Bauer saw this video. While at FRC, I wrote policy papers, spoke at conferences and other events, participated in state and national congressional briefings, lobbied swing voters and did TV, radio and print interviews. 

And how did your views come to change?

From time to time, I was plagued with prickly feelings of unease. I remember speaking at Dartmouth College in 2000, I think it was, and feeling that I didn’t want to be there. A student group had invited me to speak, which outraged other members of the student body. I understood their indignation. I understood that when I said I used to be gay and wasn’t anymore, I was insulting LGBT students by implying that they could change, too. And even though I cried in my hotel room that night, this life of an evangelical Christian, “pro-family” activist was my identity. It’s where I fit.

A few years later, I had occasional bouts of free-floating anxiety, seemingly unrelated to anything in my daily life. It was as if something was “off,” but I couldn’t identify what it was, or I refused to identify it, a sort of willful denial. Then my husband and I discovered that the church movement we were a part of was terribly corrupt. We had seen the manipulation and control that were a staple of how the leaders kept the followers in line, but we didn’t realize that the financial corruption ran deep, as well. We blew the whistle on this organization, but churches aren’t subject to much financial accountability, so nothing happened. After that, it was impossible for me to trust another church leader.

Then, in the spring of 2009, my 5-year-old daughter was diagnosed with leukemia. After she spent a month in the hospital before returning home for 28 months of treatment, I went to a psychologist for help with the overwhelming anxiety I felt. She told me that anxiety can also arise when you are living incongruously from your true self, and living according to someone else’s expectations of you. At that point, I started on a personal journey to figure out who I really was.

Yvette Cantu Schneider
Yvette Cantu Schneider

Have you had conversion therapy?
I never sought therapy from a licensed professional in an attempt to change my orientation. Professionals were considered unnecessary by the church movement I was a part of.

When I first became a Christian, I was assigned a “discipler,” or a mentor who held me accountable for reading the Bible and praying, attending church and Bible studies, and for appropriate behavior. Several months later, I was assigned a new discipler who told me she saw a “spirit of homosexuality” in me.

She and my previous discipler confronted me and accused me of deceiving them by not admitting the depth and extent to which I had been involved in sinful homosexual behavior. Together they laid hands on me and cast out the spirit of homosexuality, replacing it with a spirit of purity. I was then told that I was under “quarantine,” that I couldn’t leave the house where I lived with other young women from the church. I was only allowed to go to work, read my Bible, and pray until they decided I wasn’t a threat to any of the other young women.

In your experience, is ex-gay therapy effective?
I spent 20 years in the Christian world and I have never seen anyone’s sexual orientation change. I’ve seen men and women with same-sex attractions marry people of the opposite sex, and even have children. But no one I knew personally ever lost their attractions to the same sex.

Why, in your experience, is ex-gay therapy so important to the religious right?
You’re not going to convince people that LGBT rights should be denied based on someone else’s religious beliefs; evangelical Christian activists know this. So it became convenient to come up with arguments based on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was meant to prohibit discrimination by establishing protected classes based on race, ethnicity, national origin, religion or sect, and gender.

What gives these classes the right to protection, according to analysts, is a history of discrimination, economic disadvantages, and immutable characteristics. (That last can’t, of course, be said for religion. But freedom of religion is already guaranteed under the First Amendment.)

If some people could change from gay to straight, then same-sex attractions can’t be considered immutable, which means that gay men and lesbians don’t fit into the civil rights category of unchangeable characteristics. Their romantic and sexual behaviors can be considered a choice, not an inevitability. If religious-right activists can show that it’s not only possible to change from gay to straight, but that many people have done it and are living happy, healthy heterosexual lives, or even lives that aren’t gay, then they’ve made their point that rights are not necessary for sexual minorities.

What’s your take on ex-gay therapy now? 
Ex-gay therapy is a political tool of the so-called pro-family organizations to deny LGBT rights, and it’s also a way to convince the Christian faithful, those who fill the pews every Sunday, that while denying LGBT rights seems unfair, it’s actually the best thing for what they consider to be “sexual deviants.”

What makes ex-gay therapy so devastating is that people are taught to believe that there is something wrong with them that needs healing. The message that resounds like a relentless drumbeat is that you aren’t good enough, and you need to change. It isn’t hard to imagine the effect this has on LGBT people, which is why all the major mental and medical health organizations have deemed sexual orientation change therapy efforts not only ineffective, but damaging.

Has anyone from the organizations with which you worked spoken with you since your most recent public statements?
Some people have been supportive, while others have lashed out against me. It’s something I knew would happen, so I was prepared for every type of reaction. The difficult part has been losing friends and losing a way of life I had known for 20 years.

The prevailing response, however, has been one of sadness and regret for what they perceive to be my recalcitrant views. One woman sent me an E-mail imploring me to re-think. Then she invoked my daughter’s cancer, saying, “The God of the universe has rescued your child. He has mercy on us all, and that is our constant hope.” I’m not sure what she meant by that, but I found it subtly manipulative, as if implying that God could easily take my daughter’s life if I chose not to comply with evangelical fundamentalist dogma.

To suggest that God might decide to kill my daughter if I don’t march in lockstep with patriarchal, misogynistic and homophobic interpretations of the Bible is not only spiritually insulting, it is morally outrageous.

What do you feel is the future of the ex-gay movement?
I think the ex-gay movement will be dead within the next 10 years. As churches become more gay-affirming, parents and church leaders won’t seek parachurch ministries to “fix” in gay Christians what isn’t broken. The fact that the ex-gay movement has been a monumental failure with no real, lasting change in those who have sought to negate same-sex attractions and become heterosexual will become more and more apparent to the average lay Christian. This is especially true in the age of social media, when information spreads like wildfire and can’t easily be suppressed. I’m sure there will be pockets of people here and there who will still try to change someone’s orientation. But the movement as a relevant entity in the push for LGBT rights will be defunct.