An exorcism can be an exciting thing to watch. No doubt, like many spiritual experiences, it is a phenomenon that taps into intense psychological manipulations to produce a result that can be traumatic both mentally and physically, making it jarring to witness. Because many conservative Christians believe that homosexuality is an abomination, some extreme believers will use exorcism to try to expel the gay “demon” from an individual. These sensationalized experiences serve as juicy bait for both viral videos as well as daytime talk-show intrigue. An abridged clip of Reverent Bob Larson exorcising a gay man — then selling his services — is making such rounds on the internet this week:
A similar, more timely, video went viral in 2009 when a Connecticut church tried to exorcise a young gay man, so traumatizing him that he writhed on the floor, seeming to seize and even vomit. Conservatives defended the church, and its leader even had to take to CNN to defend her religious practices. A few months later, the teenage victim appeared on Tyra, proclaiming that the exorcism had worked and he was now ex-gay.
There’s no doubt that exorcisms are dangerous and harmful, bordering on brainwashing as religious leaders stigmatize young gay people to their very cores. But because of how extreme — and for many viewers, so absurd as to be ridiculous — this phenomenon is, it desensitizes the public to the much more common and just-as-harmful practices of ex-gay therapy.
Often, ex-gay therapy is treated in both LGBT and mainstream media as somewhat fringe and perhaps even discountable. When a controversy erupts, like California’s recently passed law to ban ex-gay therapy for minors, the practice is acknowledged for a moment, then allowed to fade back into obscurity with the assumption that no one really believes something as silly as changing a person’s sexual orientation. But even though the number of people promoting ex-gay therapy may be low, the number of people who believe in it is much higher. The most prominent anti-gay organizations, including the Family Research Council, Focus on the Family, and even the National Organization for Marriage have all defended the practice and testified to its viability.
Consider the mindset required to oppose LGBT equality. To believe that being gay is “wrong” demands the belief that being gay can be “chosen.” Certainly, the “Born This Way” understanding of sexuality has effectively permeated the culture, but for some, the inherent, unchanging quality of a person’s sexual orientation simply reinforces the idea that more effort must be undertaken to accomplish the desired change. Exorcisms are easy to shrug off as extreme, but the nagging belief that people must turn away from homosexuality is quite a different story. Given that youth are the most vulnerable targets of ex-gay therapy or simply family rejection — as dictated by their anti-gay parents, influenced by anti-gay organizations appropriating Christianity for their cause — the harm caused by these ideas is as yet immeasurable. As survivors of ex-gay therapy have testified, the daily reinforcement of stigma and self-hate induces a trauma considerably more extensive and difficult to repair over a lifetime than can be conveyed by a viral video of a fringe religious practice.
Exorcism videos excite viewers as a form of spiritual pornography, but they should serve as reminders that the harmful anti-gay beliefs used to justify them are much more widespread and affect many more victims.