The language that conversion therapy groups, especially exgay ministries, can be confounding, confusing, and in some cases frustratingly offensive. Friends suggested that I write a post explaining exgay-speak, seeing as I helped coin some of it back in the day and spoke it for over two decades. So here is an abridged list of phrases, terms, and sayings from that world.
This list is not comprehensive and is entirely subjective. However, this post is also a working document because exgay/conversion therapy language evolves and changes even though the underlying toxic ideology doesn’t. Plus, I am positive the post will continue to be updated with memories or phrases I am not thinking of at present or other’s helpful insights as they come in the comments. I tried to make the list alphabetical, but you can also key “Ctrl f” to search the page if you are looking for a specific phrase.
Let’s dive in.
1 Corinthians 6:9-11 — “And Such Were Some of You” verses deserved a whole post on their own. You can read it here.
“Anointed” — Also “Calling, Being Called, Being Raised Up, and ‘For Such A Time As This.” — Like Queen Esther, the Prophets, and King David in their day, being anointed is to be set apart by God for a specific purpose at a specific time. Many exgay leaders believe that God has set them apart from the LGBTQ+ community to lead people out of that community. It implies the spiritual authority, giftings, and favor of a prophet to speak truth to what they consider a hostile culture.
The word anointed is used to manipulate people who are considered success stories to feel good about the lies they have come to believe as accurate. In addition, it helps push them to modify their story to promote a particular social or political talking point or objective. Especially those that are relevant to the religious right’s efforts to influence culture and public policy.
This phrase manipulates people into thinking they are leaders destined to change the culture, keep people from leaving the movement, convince others to “repent” (sorrowfully change their mind and behavior), and adopt conversion therapy ideology. The truth is, the only place they are “leading” people to is a more profound closet of shame and not into life-saving liberation; the only expansion of the movement is the number of victims in their wake.
“Baal & Ashtaroth” — this is more for the Living Waters crowd (a program that many exgay ministries use) but undoubtedly symbolic of a belief in the movement as a whole. Baal and Ashtaroth (Astarte) were both gods mentioned in the Old Testament. Don’t tune out; it is more relevant than you might realize. In the exgay ministry world, Baal is characterized as penis worship. LOTS of phallic symbols and activity among the followers of Baal. Ashtaroth (Astarte) is considered the female version of worshipping hedonistic sex. Living Waters made teaching along these lines Chapter 9 of their program. They did this to stigmatize normal and natural desires by equating healthy LGBTQ+ sexual relationships with worshipping false gods (demons). This is sin worthy of severe punishment from an angry, jealous god, but because of His love, He is willing to forgive if we gnash our teeth and wail in mourning enough.
The overall exgay movement believes that if you engage in gay sex, you commit spiritual adultery against God by giving yourself, most intimately, over to what they consider demonically inspired sex. It’s hardly ever talked about publicly, but most programs have some sort of process or ritual to manipulate the LGBTQ+ person into believing they have committed spiritual adultery and should pray and repent for “sacrificing” their bodies to these false gods.
This wrong context is incredibly stressful and spiritually traumatizing, considering LGBTQ+ sexuality should be embraced as a gift, not demonized.
“Born Again Believer” — Born Again” means to be indwelt and led by the living Holy Spirit of God. The Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity (Father, Son, and Spirit). Unfortunately, in the exgay ministry world, there is a very myopic self-serving definition of what it means to be “Born Again.” In exgay speak, to truly be born again is to take on a whole new identity, behavior, and worldview, or you will grieve the Holy Spirit who now lives in your heart.
This belief is very much a litmus test (all cults have them) of whether you have submitted to God and are willing to submit to whatever it takes to engage the healing process. For example, if you identify as someone within the LGBTQ+ spectrum, you must not be born again. And, if you have ongoing gay attractions that don’t bother you (i.e., grieves the Spirit) or know and acknowledge you are trans, you must not be born again in their judgment. They also believe that people like myself were never truly Spirit-led or must have kicked the Spirit out of our hearts and worthy of being punished.
In reality, the Spirit led me to the absolute truth that you can be a born-again believer as an LGBTQ+ person because there is no contradiction. The only contradiction is the fiction made up by generations of cultural stigma redefining God’s heart for its bigoted purposes.
“Broken, Brokenness” — this is the result of what original sin theology has brought to us. It is the theological position that we are all born into sin because of Adam and Eve’s rebellion in the garden of Eden. Concerning sexuality, the exgay world believes that everyone is “broken” (always prone to or constantly sinning) and in need of healing that brokenness by genuinely submitting everything to God and the body of Christ (their group and non-affirming churches). It’s a term used to instill a sense of commonality and affirmation even though it is negative. For example, for the hurting and wounded, it is still encouraging to hear exgay leaders say, “We are all going through this. We have all fallen short of the glory of God.”
To convince someone they are broken is the first step of obtaining their power and redirect them to pursue “healing” that is neither needed nor necessary. To convince and instill shame in someone over alleged brokenness makes it easier to persuade participants to pay $1,000 for a 30-week program, support group, weekend retreat, etc. It’s a false construct to instill shame, gain the upper hand, and profit from being the perceived and only source of support who understands and can help.
We are not broken. Don’t give someone else your power. Take your control back. Most leaders honestly believe this and that they are truly helping. Sadly, it’s an incredibly delusional and cultish in its application and implementation.
“Conversion Therapy, Reparative Therapy, Exgay Ministry” — are all shades of the same thing, religious stigma disguised as therapy or pastoral support. These are based on the belief that being LGBTQ+ is against the “natural order” (a disorder) that must be repaired by converting people’s way of thinking and behavior to what the stigmatized religious worldview deems is “biblically” appropriate.
Conversion therapy was first known as reparative therapy. However, many psychologists still believe homosexuality is a damaged person’s psyche trying to resolve childhood trauma inflicted through dysfunctional family dynamics and abuse.
Exgay ministry believes in the same thing. While exgays will do everything they can to distance themselves from the conversion therapy label, they cannot. It takes less than five minutes of reading their materials to see that they have resources, programs, and various forms of therapy/programs/counseling to try and convert LGBTQ+ people into straight people or lifelong celibacy.
“Dark, Darkened, Darkness” — People who question the underlying deadly ideology of conversion therapy or end up rejecting it as I have are believed to have had our conscience “darkened” by the flesh, the world (addressed later), and Satan. They think that questioning the very premise of “freedom from homosexuality” is a sign of demons whispering to our souls to lead us astray. If we reject their religious stigma and toxic theology, then they believe we have walked away from the “light” of Christ and embraced “darkness.”
It’s another way of trying to dismiss and discredit anything that may even look like it would undermine this cultish ideology. The bible also warns against “fellowshipping” with darkness, giving participants an perceived mandate to alienate and reject LGBTQ+ friends and loved ones because they mistakingly believe we live in darkness. It can even destroy some relationships, which is an absolute shame. It’s fear-based manipulation and a destructive tool of stigmatizing outsiders or those who question the groupthink that binds the movement together.
“Fallen, Gone Back, Gave Up” — These sayings take a sinister tone in the exgay world. When we participate in romance or sexual expression or acknowledge as accurate our being gay, they consider that selfish and driven by vain desires. They believe at that moment, we “fall” from grace like Satan, who was cast out of heaven.
But it goes beyond that. If we affirm or believe we are saved and embrace being LGBTQ+ as a gift from God, we are accused of “falling away” from God’s truth and living out of a darkened (demonized) heart. As a result, we are supposed apostates and reprobates (people who have renounced their faith and are now corrupt and immoral).
We are not fallen. We are the apple of our Creator’s eye, just like everyone else. While some may renounce their faith, they shouldn’t be called names and instead embraced and celebrated. We are not reprobates either. I don’t know a single person who finally found congruence with who they are and their spiritual journey who gave up trying to live a good and conscientious life. Satan tried to be something he was not. Maybe exgay leaders should stop doing the same.
“Of The Flesh, The World” — In Christianity, sin is attributed to demonic darkness, the world, and the flesh. We already talked about the darkness, so let’s hit the other two.
The flesh is our bodies and considered evil (again with the original sin) when left to its cravings and desires. The scriptures talk about crucifying the flesh, and in the exgay worldview, it means to white-knuckle it through the temptation and not “give in” to those attractions or desires. This belief leads many to attempt the more extreme cognitive-behavioral types of abuse in the name of therapy (i.e., snapping a rubber band on the wrist, ammonia sticks to stop fantasies, electroshock therapy in the past, traumatizing role-playing at weekend retreats, and other things).
Blaming the flesh is another manipulative redefinition of something that is actually a gift and comes naturally to us. Our bodies are something to embrace and steward as we want to. To be alienated from our bodies creates an unbearable and unsustainable incongruence. Our instincts and need for relationships come from the natural desires within us. God would never want anyone to live with self-loathing because that is an internal hell of its own creation, not God’s.
The world is considered hostile to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and that the “gay agenda” is one handy tool to attack Christians. It’s just another way to alienate exgay group participants from feeling safe among their LGBTQ+ community and confident in their own skin.
Plenty of people have agendas. Movements form around like-minded people with complementary plans and the same overarching goals. But that isn’t a gay formula to attack Christians (there isn’t any plan to attack Christians), it’s just how humans function, and you see that dynamic happening in all forms of advocacy and belief.
“Freedom from Homosexuality; Changed” — this is maybe the most argued about phrase. It has been the main point of division within Exodus the entire time it was running and still a matter of division in the conversion therapy movement. They do believe that you can make a choice (empowered by their version of true devotion to Christ) to not identify as gay, not have gay sex, and not be a part of the LGBTQ+ community. Somehow, that magically means you are “free” from homosexuality which means you have “changed” enough to pursue your “heterosexual potential.“
Which I now know is ridiculous. You can change your behavior, call yourself whatever you want, put yourself in whatever community you want. But, for the LGBTQ+ person, there is no need to be free from or change their LGBTQ+ orientation or gender identity. There is no such thing as heterosexual potential. On the spectrum of bi or pansexuality? Sure. But in my 22 years of experience as a survivor of and an upper-echelon leader within that world, I know for sure that no one truly changes their sexuality or gender identity because God is not asking or expecting them to. The only freedom needed is to be free from toxic theology that seeks to divorce beautiful souls from the truth of who they are is a gift, not a curse.
“Gay Identified, The Gay (LGBTQ+) ‘Lifestyle’“ — is used to distance the participants within the exgay groups from the affirming LGBTQ+ community. They are gay-identified, whereas we are devoted to Christ and will only identify with terms that my church deems are “biblically” appropriate. This term is also evidence of the underlying belief that having or stewarding our sexuality and identity is a choice. They believe to “choose” to identify as gay is choosing to identify with sin and not God. It is also phrasing that caricatures the LGBTQ+ community as simply a group of people who prefer a particular lifestyle instead of seeing the vast complexity of all races and walks of life present within the LGBTQ+ community and our immutable characteristics.
It is superficial and condescending in its assumptions. Still, it effectively strengthens this toxic theology that seeks to alienate people from themselves and the LGBTQ+ community that can provide genuine love and support. It helps them have an excuse not to think about LGBTQ+ people and the communities too profoundly. This phrasing numbs their conscience by reducing identity and community to simplistic choices.
Plus, if you can get people to believe the lies that immutable states of being are actually “choices,” that means you can “choose” to follow their lead back into the closet.
“This is Not God’s Best For Us (me)” — this one is sneaky. Maybe the sneakiest. It is used by people who want to be seen as loving and have the appearance of being affirming when they are far from being an ally. However, they ascribe to the same toxic theology that believes being gay is sinful and our relationships, marriages, and families are not biblical or valid spiritually (i.e., “God’s will”). This phrase is used by folks who won’t call you a sodomite but believe that being gay will lead to a destructive life here on earth and puts eternity into jeopardy. Therefore, they privately or passive-aggressively question the LGBTQ+ person’s salvation and spiritual maturity.
Not being clear about what you believe is true is “not God’s best.” However, offering obfuscated pity and passive-aggressive judgment is just as destructive, or more so, as outright hatred. This phrase is one I am personally unpacking lately, and I will admit, it angers me. I would much rather know exactly where a person is coming from.
“Godly masculinity/femininity, ‘His Design'” — In the exgay world, it is believed that God has only created and endorsed two expressions of gender; male and female. This belief is based only on the Genesis 1 account of creation and the patriarchal stereotypes of ancient Israel that are used as examples in the current canon of the scriptures. Add to that the modern stereotypes of the tough leader male and the nurturing submissive female, and you have a simplistic template that was enforced in so many manipulative ways.
The entire time I was in that world, I was always told I must have more work to “deal with” my mannerisms and expressive emotions. Even as a leader, conversion therapist Joseph Nicolosi would frequently remind me that he would give me free therapy when I get ready to deal with the trauma causing my effeminacy. His insistence ruined our friendship long before we closed Exodus. So many women, nonbinary, and men were subjected to feedback saying they needed to tone it down or “stop rejecting God’s design for your gender.” These assumptions and erasing a person’s true self is religious trauma against a person’s core sense of being.
Did you know that one of the most revered Kings in the Old Testament used to get so swept up in emotion and worship he publicly danced while wearing only priest’s underwear and playing the harp? Yeah, that was King David…and he would have been shown the exit door if he tried that in any of our churches today. Also, did you know that God raised up a female Judge to rule over Israel (before the succession of Kings) and two significant prophets, all the male military leaders and priests respected her and followed her leadership? Unlike most of the judges, Israel prospered and became more cohesive under her leadership. This possibly most successful Judge of all of them was named Deborah. And, finally, in proverbs, Wisdom (one of or the most powerful characteristics of God) is personified as a woman. She cries out to all who will listen to her instruction and learn from her. That would be God choosing to reveal Herself as crying out at the gate, pleading with Her people, to listen so they may have a healthy and authentic life.
God transcends two simple gender templates, so if we are made in Their image, wouldn’t we do the same in varying degrees? Of course, we would, and by forcing the patriarchal binary stereotypes, conversion therapy tries to erase the core of a person’s relational essence. They enforce/impose a hurtful and simplistic view of gender instead of celebrating the unique miracle of the mix of both male, female, and fluidity inherent in some way, shape, or form in all of us.
“Same Sex Attraction (SSA)” — also belongs in the category of exgay speak meant to distance the participants from the gay community. It acknowledges that their attractions are toward the same sex, but they reject identifying as gay or allow themselves to experience and enjoy those attractions. Because the underlying belief is you can make a “choice” on what to do and how to identify regardless of reality, this phrasing empowers the denial of reality that acknowledges sexual orientation as immutable.
Another big no-no in the exgay world is to affirm anything as gay. It is believed that the literal description of same sex attraction is preferred to repeating what they believe is worldly (sinful) language.
“Wholeness” — is a very vague, shifting description used by all forms of conversion therapy that implies that an LGBTQ person inherently lacks something. It’s the flipside of the same coin as “brokenness” I wrote about earlier in the post. If we all start “broken,” we are on a lifelong journey toward “wholeness.” Conveniently, conversion therapy will be all too willing to define what it looks like for the vulnerable people who end up in those offices, groups, or programs. The problem is that these vague terms only point to an unattainable and unnecessary goal that is never clearly defined for individual participants except in generic heteronormative stereotypes that hardly anyone ending up in these groups would ever achieve. It is harmful in that it sets up a tremendous goal and expectation that is never met.
Every human being is growing into who they indeed are at every stage of life. LGBTQ+ people are just like every other human being in history and on this earth who learn and grow. But where others aren’t considered “broken” in their identity and sexual orientation, LGBTQ+ people shouldn’t be either. Wholeness is not becoming a convincing heterosexual. Authenticity is allowing yourself to be who you already are.
This abridged list only scratches the tip of the iceberg. I could expand each of these topics into complete chapters of a book or even their own book. Even though it is abbreviated, I genuinely hope this has been helpful. Then, of course, I would love your insights or feedback in the comments below.
PS. Thank you to all those who have ( or will :)) give feedback including Norman Birthmark. Thanks!