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God started putting me back in touch with my inner self and my emotions. It was very important to God that I go through this [ex-gay] process. — TRISTAN
I attended part of a Healing Revelation Ministries (HRM) workshop in a suburban Cape Town Dutch Reformed Church in 2004. Herman, an Afrikaans longtime ministry member, gave his testimony that night to get the workshop started. Although married with a child and "out of the [gay] lifestyle" for thirteen years, he explained to the rapt second-year Bible school students that he still needed to see himself as an "addict." Herman explained, "I will never say I am over it [same-sex attraction]. When I say it, Satan takes control." Ex-gay Pentecostal work on the self is similar to the labor that many alcoholics, despite years of sobriety, perform. Some ex-gay men like Herman even use the language of addiction. After Herman gave his testimony, he cautioned the students, many who were training to be Christian counselors, not to expect "healing from homosexuality" to be instantaneous because "recovery is a long-term process" and "one must work for it and work to keep it." At the beginnings of the new democratic nation in a new millennium, the ministry provided ex-gay men with the language and tools to be "who God made them to be" and to help them in discovering their "true [heterosexual] selves." Ex-gay men were supposed to be always working hard on themselves, something they shared in common with other groups of South African citizens, discussed in detail below. Herman's language and practices of self-work did not take place in a cultural vacuum.
HRM offered one-on-one counseling, as well as support groups, workshops, and classes for church members and leaders. Their classes all offered a form of "freedom" from preconversion problems and pasts: family and adolescent struggles, addictions, pain and anger, and same-sex attraction. All the classes presented natal familial relations and childhood trauma as the root of later dysfunction. Ministry classes discussed the development of codependency and shame because they were seen as the "roots" that explained how many adults ended up in bad relationships and had poor self-esteem. HRM used biblical passages to reinforce psychological theories. Attendees at courses, counselees, and ministry members were taught to see their pasts differently, rereading life stages for key points of crisis and trauma.
Classes ran between eight and twelve weeks. The class format was two one-hour segments. The first hour was a testimony and lesson; this was followed by a second hour of small group discussion and prayer that was divided up by gender, though men sometimes led a women's group due to the small number of women leaders. As an observer at a variety of ministry classes and the small groups that met afterward, I saw how participants were taught to be emotionally vulnerable, a key piece of the exgay process. Men were taught that they had to learn to "yield" to God in order to receive His love. HRM leaders said that this was more difficult for men and did not come "naturally" to them like it did with women, whom the ministry saw as "naturally" more emotionally intuitive and open to receiving the love of others and God. Men were encouraged to confess shame publicly, ask God for His forgiveness, cry in front of their small groups, and engage in charismatic worship as ways to "yield." HRM taught that men would be unable to move forward in the ex-gay process without emotional vulnerability because it was receiving God's love that allowed them to learn to be open, which I discuss in detail in the next chapter.
For ex-gay men, classes and workshops, like the one where Herman gave his testimony, were locations to perform their new selves. These selves had a historical and cultural context. This chapter looks at the ways that ex-gay ministry HRM drew on the language and tools of emerging and converging social projects in South Africa at the turn of the millennium in their self-making work. Such projects included American-originated twelve-step movements, particularly AA (Alcoholics Anonymous), and postapartheid political institutions like the South African TRC (Truth and Reconciliation Commission). The rise of movements like AA and the TRC were two convergences that provided HRMcultural legitimacy and a larger framework for their work.
HRM drew on AA and the TRC's existing discourses and practices of self-work, employing the confessional as a way to assist people in forming morally and ethically superior selves and initiating new subjectivities through self-conscious work. Invoking the familiar rhetoric of the TRC and AA made HRM's work to transform sexuality and the way it sought to do so seem less foreign to South Africans. I begin by identifying specific strategies and rhetoric employed by AAand the TRC and the ways they were taken up in HRM's self-making projects. Then I address two other strategies central to HRM's work: sexual addiction meetings and faith-based counseling. I end the chapter by highlighting HRM's ideas about the causes and cures for homosexuality and their understanding of what constituted "success" and how they sought to achieve it.
Twelve-Step Programs and Self-Work
It bears noting that HRM's founder, Brian, disavowed twelve-step ideology completely, claiming it was unchristian. However, I found that despite his position, the ministry was flooded with twelve-step rhetoric and practices. Twelve-step ideas of "codependency," the "inner child," and "dysfunction" had the same definitions in the ministry, though terms were sometimes altered, for example codependency was called "relational idolatry." HRM used the popular discourses of the American recovery movement on self-esteem, self-worth, and learning how to grow. For example, at the end of one HRM leadership training session, everyone was given a list of positive daily affirmations like "I am worthy of love." We were instructed to recite them in front of a mirror twice a day to increase our self-esteem. Despite Brian's negation of twelve-step practices, I think they are essential to understanding the work that HRM asked men to perform in their journeys toward heterosexuality. I detail this history below.
Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) developed a global identity based on discourses of self-control and self-surveillance (Warhol 2002). AA was founded in 1935 in the United States and it marked the beginning of a new kind of self-help culture. The innovation of AA was that individuals with the same addictive behavior became experts on their own disease, which is also present in the ex-gay movement, where leadership and expertise are based on "recovery" from "sinful" same-sex attraction. Accountability and confession to other alcoholics, seeing themselves as powerless over addiction, and constant reliance on God all came together to form a new kind of self in twentieth-century American culture — the alcoholic. Twelve-step discourses and healing methods have traveled globally, including to South Africa; although people who followed them were often unfamiliar with their lineage. These discourses have been popularized to international audiences through talk show hosts like Oprah Winfrey, who provided resources for healing through her choice of experts, audience participation, and the sharing of stories by guests (Illouz 2003; Wilson 2003). HRM drew on self-help culture and shared with twelve-step groups like Alcoholic Anonymous the cultivation and care of the subject, work to move toward becoming an ideal person, and a community to help with self-formation.
Although it claims to be "spiritual," not "religious," AA relies on Christian, specifically Protestant, theologies and social practices. AA and other twelve-step groups use the language of spirituality and a "Higher Power." The word "God" is used in popular slogans like "Let Go and Let God" and in the original twelve steps. Ernest Kurtz writes, "Whether presented as 'serenity' or as attained adult life, the sobriety promised by Alcoholics Anonymous was clearly salvation" (Kurtz 1979: 183). Group members are born-again as self-aware alcoholics who know they have an addiction that needs to be worked on. Twelve-step programs construct subjects who constantly work, evaluate, and correct themselves. They believe that a new and better self emerges through suffering, sharing details of personal failures in a public forum, self-surveillance, and repeated confessionals to get rid of shame. Second-generation twelve-step recovery groups like Co-Dependents Anonymous and Sex Addicts Anonymous popularized ideas about dysfunctional families and explained the roots of addictions in childhood trauma (Denzin and Johnson 1993). HRM's mobilization of self-help and twelve-step ideas was clear in their focus on trauma, sex addiction, and emotional codependency, which were standard parts of most testimonials.
Twelve-step programs are focused on the individual, particularly the self's development, growth, and constant care. This self involves hard work, clear in slogans like "Keep Coming Back ... It Works If You Work It" and in the Serenity Prayer, which reads, "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference." For people in twelve-step programs, changing the self is key to a better life. According to Leslie Irvine, the subjects of twelve-step discourse and the self-help industry are "allegedly entitled to happiness, high self-esteem, and personal satisfaction" (Irvine 1999: 5). Twelve-step members share a disease that affects their ability to develop a healthy sense of self, or a sense of self at all. The past is negative in these twelve-step groups, and the present becomes a focus of life — the everyday maintenance of recovery and various forms of sobriety means putting oneself under constant surveillance. The group offers recovery and hope for the development of a new, more socially appropriate, and healthy subject who can have intimate and boundary appropriate relationships with others. This subject is an individual who focuses on personal integrity and self-control.
Twelve-step members discursively constitute new subjectivities through the construction, performance, and repetition of testimonials. Nikolas Rose writes, "In the act of speaking, through the obligation to produce words that are true to an inner reality, through the self-examination that precedes and accompanies speech, one becomes a subject for oneself" (Rose 1999 : 244). Subjectivity is not represented vis-à-vis testimonials but created through them. In his work on voluntary counseling and testing in faith-based organizations in Burkina Faso, Vinh-Kim Nguyen discusses how HIV-positive people are taught a new vocabulary and framework to see and discuss themselves. He writes, "These confessional technologies, ostensibly used to help people 'come out' with their HIV positivity, in effect trained them to talk about their innermost selves in public" (Nguyen 2009: 360). Although confession is often thought of as spontaneous outpouring of one's feelings and desires, it is also a form of learning that, like testimonials, assists in constructing the self. A new, improved self emerges through telling narratives of subjectivity.
Testimonies become more standardized over time, a well-noted phenomenon in twelve-step movements (see for example Carr 2011; Brandes 2002; Warhol 2002; Holland et al. 1998). This standardization often leads to greater connection among group members, as they are able to easily see themselves in other people's scripts (Travis 2009: 130). I also found this process in my research on ex-gay Pentecostal men, whose testimonies of "recovery" to heterosexuality became more uniform the longer they were involved in the ministry. In HRM, testimony was key to self-making. It was a way for ex-gay men to prove their changes in subjectivity and, similarly to other twelve-step movements, a way to be accountable to the community and have them bear witness to their (hopefully) dramatic self-transformation. Edwin, a twenty-four-year-old Afrikaans man, shared his testimonial with me soon after joining the ministry. As a new ministry member, he had not yet been integrated into ministry discourse. He never employed ex-gay terms like "the [gay] lifestyle," "same-sex attraction," or "homosexual tendencies." Instead, he discussed himself repeatedly as "gay," a term frowned upon in HRM because it referred to selfhood, not a behavior or desires. He soon left the ministry and was never socialized into their language and framework.
Over time, men altered their testimonials to integrate ministry ideas into their explanations for same-sex attraction. I often observed that when men first came to the ministry for counseling, they began their testimonials describing their reasons for being there with an explanation of their first sexual experience with a man, the first time they realized they felt sexually attracted to a man, and/or started to watch gay pornography. This later shifted to men beginning their testimonials with childhood pain and trauma, particularly stories about negligent or absent fathers. Men learned how to reframe their selves and their reasons for same-sex attraction to fit into ministry-provided structures. For example, white ministry leader Tristan explained to me, "God started putting me back in touch with my inner self and my emotions. It was very important to God that I go through this [ex-gay] process. I think it was the first thing I sort of realized ... it's important for God the Father to affirm me in my masculinity as a man, the way my father didn't. I wasn't able to connect with Father God at all until he took me through the process ... I think the biggest thing is learning to meet my needs through healthy relationships in the church instead of through addictive sexual thoughts or practices. So as I learned to have healthy relationships and healthy friendships, the need to meet my [emotional] needs through sexual contact or fantasies diminished and diminished until they were very little." For Tristan, learning how to see men in a new light was key to his desire work. He was able to replace his same-sex desires and practices with "healthy" thoughts and relationships through work that was facilitated by his deep emotional relationship with God.
The ministry also offered the men tools like "accountability partners," known in twelve-step rhetoric as sponsors. This was one person or a group that ex-gay men were supposed to be in constant communication with about their "struggles." Men were encouraged to spend social time together to embolden a culture of confession. Everyone in the ministry, including me, was expected to have an accountability partner. This person was to be one's main confessor, and one was supposed to get together with them at least once a month to admit sexual thoughts, ask for prayer, and get help in reframing one's desires. Besides this ministry-sanctioned relationship, men also used other ministry members as a way to be accountable on a daily or weekly basis. For example, coloured leader Damon explained to me that when he was stressed or things were going negatively in his life, he would begin to "compulsively masturbate," which would then lead to "cruising" to find another man to engage in sexual activity with. He was able to stop some of this behavior through using the supportive community that HRM provided and its carefully cultivated culture of confession. For Damon that meant that he had three prayer partners that were also involved in the ex-gay process whom he could rely on when he was "struggling." He told me that he would send them text messages when he felt like "acting out," asking them for prayer and encouragement. The ability to be honest about his "struggles" led him to have a decrease in his "sexual falls."
The ministry's focus on accountability was one part of a culture of confession where men learned that they should not only share their sexual thoughts but also share them in intimate detail. HRM employed twelve-step language and methods in its program of change, melding the twelve-step idea that the self can be improved with the Pentecostal belief that all things are possible after becoming born-again. HRM's success and cultural legibility was directly tied to the presence and growth of twelve-step groups and self-help ideology in Cape Town. Though twelve-step groups in South Africa have fewer people attending than in the United States, where the groups have a longer history, their core ideas have been popularized through international media. Ex-gay men who attended twelve-step and HRM meetings were involved in processes of change that they believed initiated a working on the self that led to its transformation and improvement.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Desire Work"
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Table of ContentsPreface ix
Introduction: Adrian's Desire Work 1
1. Cultural Convergences 39
2. Building Godly Emotional Intimacy 63
3. Becoming Spiritual Warriors: Learning How to Fight Demonic Sexual Desires 87
4. Mastering Romance and Sexual Feelings 115
5. "I Didn't Fall, I'm Free": Leaving Healing Revelation Ministries 139
What People are Saying About This
“Melissa Hackman makes an important contribution to existing literature on global Pentecostalism and gender and sexuality studies with this analysis of the technologies of gendered, sexual, religious, and racial self-making in postapartheid South Africa. Hackman astutely observes that postapartheid constitutional recognition of LGBT rights created an environment for this ministry of predominantly white men to come out and self-identify as ‘ex-gay,’ thus realigning themselves with a persistent apartheid social hierarchy that privileges white heterosexual males.”
“One of Desire Work's great contributions is Melissa Hackman's ability to put a human face on the men who try but fail to convert to heterosexuality. I very much enjoy her personal touch in relating stories about her experiences and her subjects, and she has done an extraordinary job of eliciting extremely personal insights from her subjects, in some cases letting them hang themselves with their own words, and in others, allowing us to share their pain, confusion, and cruel optimism. I love this book.”