Seeking the Straight and Narrow: Weight Loss and Sexual Reorientation in Evangelical America
By Lynne Gerber
University of Chicago Press, 2011
Last month, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a law that banned so-called “reparative therapy” for gay children. The law prohibits state-licensed therapists from conducting “reorientation therapy” or other attempts to change the sexual orientation of children under the age of 18. While the value of this form of therapy has long been questioned both inside and outside the therapeutic establishment, it was only in April of this year that psychologist Robert Spitzer repudiated his 2001 psychological study of 200 men and women who had been treated by “reparative” therapies for homosexuality. That study had been used as part of an increasingly tattered foundation for therapy in such organizations as Exodus International, the most famous “ex-gay” organization. The story of Spitzer’s renunciation was poignant, but the cultural tide had turned against such research and any argument in favor of reparative therapy long before.
On the surface then, it seems like an odd moment for Lynne Gerber’s Seeking the Straight and Narrow, a remarkable book that examines Exodus International alongside a Christian evangelical dieting organization called First Place. Gerber pairs these two apparently disparate organizations in order to examine the logic of personal change. The belief that people can re-make themselves is deeply rooted in American culture in ways religious and non-religious. Cultural forms as diverse as beer commercials, Oprah’s empire, self-help books, commercial magazines, as well as evangelicalism and more New Age forms of religion, all rely on the idea that we can bring about desired changes in ourselves through proper belief and hard work. Gerber wants to challenge how we understand “change” in both moral and physical forms, and in doing so, she is taking aim at one of our society’s most deeply held convictions. She uses Exodus International as a foil for Christian weight loss organizations and ultimately as a foil for her readers’ own likely belief in self-propelled transformations in the name of health.
Both of the programs that Gerber studies seek to make fundamental changes in their adherents. For First Place, the desired change is primarily physical: participants want to lose weight. For Exodus International, the change is aimed at desire itself, or if that proves impossible, at the more superficial level of lifestyle and practice. One kind of change (weight loss) is almost universally acknowledged as good and necessary; the other (changing one’s sexual orientation) is almost universally disparaged, except in very specific evangelical Christian communities. But Gerber claims that the two are tied together by a logic of personal transformation that doesn’t belong to evangelicals alone.
Gerber begins by telling her readers that she is “fat” and “neither a lesbian nor a Christian.” Despite the strangeness of these statements, they orient her analysis helpfully. I am not accustomed to knowing whether the author of a book I am reading is fat or thin. But once I know that Gerber is “fat,” I read her critique of First Place in light of that experience. When she talks, for example, about the way that fat people are targeted in our society for ridicule, I can assume that she is speaking as both a cultural critic and from personal experience. It also helps to interpret her skepticism about First Place’s claims to success.
This self-description—fat, non-Christian and non-lesbian—also meant that the individuals she interviewed oriented themselves to her accordingly. First Placers thought she might find the health and diet principles of the program helpful, even if she rejected the Christian overlay. Exodus International participants imagined that she would not be able to follow their logic or the “power of their process.” First Placers thus allowed her greater access to their meetings and members, while Exodus International members consented to individual interviews, but did not welcome Gerber into small group settings.
Participants in both groups played with the language of sin and health to describe their “conditions”—either homosexuality or obesity. In the case of First Place, sin was rarely used to talk about the condition of being fat itself, but the concept hovered in the background. Most participants settled for the language of weakness; they turned to God to be strong where they were weak. At the same time, participants were clear that God desired them to be thin, and that choices they made to be fatter or unhealthier were against God’s will. “Sin” just seemed too harsh to incorporate into this dynamic.
If fatness involved some ambiguity about sin, this was not the case for homosexuality. For the most part, people did not sign on with Exodus International with much moral ambivalence about homosexuality. They believed that the Bible forbids homosexual activity and that disobedience to God’s commands brings terrible consequences. Homosexuality thus was “sin.” But Exodus participants were willing to make a distinction between desire and action. They conceded that desire itself may not be within the realm of individual control. Since one can choose one’s actions, “sin” was largely reserved for the realm of action.
In evangelical Christianity, recognition of one’s sin and weakness gives reason to turn to God. This turn to God for salvation is interpreted in both Exodus and First Place as a turn toward “health.” Gerber notes that health and salvation can get easily conflated. For First Placers, health is decidedly a moral issue, something, Gerber argues, is true for the broader culture of health discourse as well. Gerber argues that the medical establishment, in combination with consumer culture, has facilitated a full-scale shift toward “individual health practices and personal responsibility for health status.” Failure to attend to our own individual risk factors can be perceived as a moral failing, not simply a physical one.
Likewise, Exodus International participants used the language of health, focusing somewhat on sexually transmitted diseases and AIDS, but far more on the elusive category of emotional health (“fat” is also read emotionally by First Placers). Exodus is undergirded by a group of clinicians who have attempted to develop a religious-scientific discourse for the understanding and transformation of homosexuality using the language of emotional health. (Key in this field are figures like Joseph Nicolosi, who is the therapist that reporter Gabriel Arana’s family consulted for five years during his adolescence. Arana’s description of his experience in an April article for The American Prospect is illuminating for Gerber’s point.) “This clinical model,” Gerber writes, “has the paradoxical effect of rendering homosexuality both normal and pathological, healthy and unhealthy, legitimate and illegitimate. It is normal because it is seen as a natural response to unfortunate circumstances safely beyond one’s control, but it is pathological in its outcome. It is healthy in that feelings of same-sex attraction are generated in an effort to repair damage, but the expression of those feelings is inherently diseased.”
In First Place, the accomplishment of change is obvious to everyone. Participants come to sessions and step on a scale. If the number on the scale goes down, they are succeeding in accomplishing change. In Exodus, the definition of “change” is looser, less tangible, and has changed over time. Participants are no longer promised a full-scale shift in sexual orientation. They are promised a shift of identity from “homosexual” to “Christian.” While sexual desire can remain, the individual’s response should not. “The goal,” one participant told Gerber, “is a decrease in homosexual response.” In fact, recently, Exodus International spokespeople have begun to claim that looking for a change in desire is a “worldly goal,” not a spiritual one. Frank Worthern, one of the founders of Exodus International, has recently tried to recast the organization’s relationship to evidence for change. He wrote in a newsletter, “God never uses lust to change us, so if the world demands lust as proof of change, we should not be caught up in such deception.”
Both First Place participants and Exodus International participants end up, in Gerber’s analysis, with essentially the same problem: the vast majority do not experience the promised results. The few who do become spokespeople for the organization itself. Their cheerful testimonials can be found on the Internet, at conferences, and packaged with promotional materials. But many more remain on the edges of these organizations or leave altogether as they face “one central, increasingly unavoidable fact—that the condition persisted.” In the system of personal change embedded deep in American culture, the only person to blame for this failure is the person who has failed to make the change happen. The system, itself, remains unquestioned. Success is thus institutionalized while failure is individualized.
Gerber’s study uses Christian evangelicalism as its test case, but her real target is the broader cultural logic that is constantly preaching the gospel of personal transformation. Some people go to First Place for their moral and physical transformation; others go to Weight Watchers. Still others congratulate themselves on the superiority of their own physiques, convinced they provide evidence of their obvious moral superiority as well. Often underlying these behaviors is an assumption that people are fat because they are morally weak. When most of us hear the correlation between morality and transformation in relation to homosexuality, we reject it. When it comes to weight loss, many of us believe it.
Amy Frykholm is the author of See Me Naked: Stories of Sexual Exile in American Christianity and associate editor of The Christian Century.