It’s about economics. More specifically, it’s about economic sociology.
Consider: the social cost of coming out and living openly as a gay person continues to decline rapidly. (In modern America, it’s increasingly rare for a gay person to lose their job, get cut off from family and friends, or be discriminated against in housing for being gay; non-discrimination has not been codified into existing federal law, but the social market is ahead of legislation here. I’m not saying there is no social cost to being out–there is still the prospect of random violence, subtler forms of discrimination, strangers calling you “faggot,””dyke,” etc. In aggregate, social costs are shrinking but will always exist in some form).
Meanwhile, the private costs and psychic costs of the other choices a gay person faces, including a) remaining in the closet, b) living a double life, or c) pursuing an ex-gay path, remain as high as they have always been. (The main cost of these choices is the toll of constant vigilance. There is little evidence that most people can successfully change their basic sexual programming. Even optimistic ex-gay organizations claim only a 30% success rate–and they define “change” fluidly).
What we call “society,” is simply a social market. On balance, as the cost of living openly shrinks while the cost of being closeted or ex-gay remains high, fewer and fewer people will choose the expensive path. Already we see that the ex-gay movement is strongest in arenas where the social costs of coming out are still high–in smaller towns across the U.S., in the Bible belt, and within conservative religious communities.
If the ex-gay Movement (capital-M) is to continue to exist, it will largely be dependent on keeping the social costs of living as an openly gay person high–at least as high as the psychic costs of living as an ex-gay. To that end, their recent efforts have been attempts to maintain and increase the social costs of being gay: fighting gay marriage, blocking anti-gay bullying initiatives in schools, fighting federal non-discrimination law, encouraging the idea that gay people choose to be gay. However, I think it is too late for them to turn back the clock. As I’ve already noted, the social market has far outpaced legal protections as a mechanism for reducing the social costs of being gay.
What the Movement Ex-gays fail to appreciate, I think, is that the social cost of being gay needn’t be less than the social benefit of passing as straight for most gay people to choose the former. That’s because there are real associated benefits to being “out,” including the prospect of lifelong monogamous coupling (or a great sex life as a single person, depending on one’s inclination), having one’s sexuality become a non-issue, dealing honestly at all times with family and friends, etc. These are important benefits for many people, and they outweigh associated costs.
If I’m right, we can expect to see anti-gay rhetoric get more heated in years to come. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the fringe right advocate things like criminalization, imprisonment or castration for gay people. It’s important to remember that this extreme rhetoric will be a reaction to the fact that social costs for being gay are actually falling. The rhetoric will necessarily become more extreme as they attempt to swing the balance back in their favor. This will be the harbinger of the collapse of their Movement.
I want to be clear: I am talking about the diminishing influence of the Movement, not about prospects for individual ex-gays. There will always be individuals who choose the ex-gay path–those who dislike being gay so much, or who have such a conservative religious dogma, that the cost/benefit equation will never fall in favor of coming out. For them, the choice to live as ex-gay always will be–and always should be–available. And rather than deserving our scorn, I believe they deserve our sympathy and solidarity.
Indeed, I think the ultimate goal for all of us is to have the right to choose whichever path we want, and walk it happily.