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The fall of the ex-gay movement has coincided with a widespread shift in public opinion about specific LGBT policy issues, and homosexuality in general. While support for same-sex marriage has reversed in the past decade, with a growing majority of Americans supporting same-sex couples’ right to marry, general acceptance of homosexuality has risen to new highs. A Gallup poll conducted this year found the number of Americans who believe consenting same-sex relationships should be legal increased from about 45 percent just a decade ago to 64 percent. The number of Americans who believe people are born gay has also changed dramatically. Around the advent of the ex-gay movement in 1978, only 13 percent of Americans believed sexual orientation was biological. Today, that number stands at 47 percent.
The shift in public opinion has come as the LGBT-rights movement has racked up a series of significant legal victories, with the Supreme Court striking down laws prohibiting consensual relations between people of the same-sex in 2003 and, 10 years later, striking down the federal government’s definition of marriage as between a man and a woman. It has also taken place at a time when LGBT-rights advocates have been making a quiet but effective push to change the hearts and minds of people in communities where religion is deeply ingrained. Shortly after voters in 11 states approved same-sex marriage bans in 2004, the Human Rights Campaign created a program specifically focused on religion and faith.
“It was widely perceived that the LGBT community had lost in that election due to the ‘value voter’ and that was perceived as mostly Christian, but also as a kind of religious-right position,” says Sharon Groves, director of HRC’s Religion and Faith Program. “And what we would see is often religious leaders on the right being the voice opposing LGBT equality and they were countered often on the other side by lawyers or activists.”
Groves, who has been with the program almost since its inception, says an effort was undertaken to highlight the voices of religious leaders who support LGBT equality in order to combat a perception that religion was by definition antagonistic to LGBT people. “People have been doing this work since before Stonewall, but there hadn’t been a public recognition of that work and it needed to move to another level,” she says.
The program set out to amplify pro-LGBT religious voices in jurisdictions where issues such as marriage equality or workplace protections were being considered, while doing what Groves calls the “quieter work” of engaging communities that are more conservative. “Where religion goes is where the country goes,” says Groves. Pro-LGBT religious leaders played critical roles in each of the four states where voters either approved marriage equality or rejected same-sex marriage bans at the ballot box last November.
Scripture, however, isn’t quite as fluid as legislation and is grounded in centuries of religious doctrine. Nevertheless, signs that even some of Christianity’s most conservative sects are evolving has been on full display in recent months following the naming of the new Roman Catholic pope. Six months into his papacy, Pope Francis has made comments that have stirred the church and given hope to those working for a more inclusive Catholic Church. Asked about gay priests in July, Pope Francis responded, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” While the pope is not advocating for a change in church doctrine, Groves says his comments illustrate a growing trend among religious people who are returning to the core principles they care about.
“Religious people are saying, ‘Not in my name anymore.’ And that’s what’s really making the difference,” she says.
For the contemporary ex-gay movement, the struggle between religious identity and sexual identity has always been at the center. “The ex-gay industry relies on people feeling ashamed of themselves,” says Besen. “And the market is shrinking.”
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