How A Former Advocate Of Ex-Gay Therapy Is Working To Protect Others From Harm

CREDIT: TIM RYMEL
CREDIT: TIM RYMEL

“The religious right continues to tout, ‘We have thousands of ex-gay people,’ and they don’t exist. The thousands do not exist.”

Earlier this year, a group of former ex-gay leaders — individuals who made a career at some point in their lives promoting or administering ex-gay therapy — published an open letter decrying all forms of sexual orientation change efforts (SOCE). “It is our firm belief,” they wrote, “that it is much more productive to support, counsel, and mentor LGBT individuals to embrace who they are in order to live happy, well-adjusted lives.” The letter helped launch the National Center for Lesbian Rights’ #BornPerfect campaign, which calls for more laws protecting people from the harms of reparative therapy.

Among the signatories was Tim Rymel, who at one point in his life was an evangelical Christian minister and a vocal advocate for ex-gay therapy, offering his own personal testimony to support his cause. From 1991 to 1996, Rymel served as Outreach Director for Love in Action (LIA), a residential facility for ex-gay therapy based in Memphis, Tennessee. If the name sounds familiar, it’s because after Rymel’s time there, LIA began a youth program called Refuge that in 2005 became the center of a big controversy after a young man named Zach Stark blogged on MySpace about how he was treated in the facility, which he was forced to attend by his parents. Love In Action eventually closed its youth program, but still serves adults under the new name “Restoration Path.”

Rymel now identifies as gay and is working against the harms of ex-gay therapy. He details his journey of self-acceptance in a new book called Going Gay, and he spoke with ThinkProgress about what he learned along the way and what he’s now trying to teach others about homosexuality and Christianity.

Are Conservative Christians Willing To Listen?

In Going Gay, Rymel writes, “I’m not out to evangelize God-fearing Christians and make them gay, as though that were possible, or destroy their theology.” Instead, he hopes to “draw people into relationship with their God and with each other.” But, he says, many of the conservatives he was hoping to reach can’t get past the title or the picture of the Pride Flag on the front. “As soon as they see the title, it is — you know, as somebody said, ‘Why don’t you go straight instead?’ — and then they don’t read the book.” But some are asking more questions, and Rymel has a lot of answers to offer them.

He’s been writing about his journey out of ex-gay therapy to correct “20 years of silence.” He said it took that long to come to terms with what had happened — including not only coming (back) out, but also divorcing his wife and the mother of his two children. In turn, he’s mostly been hearing from others who’ve gone through a similar process. “The audience seems to be the middle aged — late 40s, early 50s — people who are saying, ‘That was my experience,’ or, ‘That’s what happened to me in the church.’”

Still though, Rymel is committed to having these important conversations with his detractors. In the book, he concedes, “We will never come to terms on arguments based solely in beliefs, so we may choose to agree to disagree. Whatever our beliefs, however, we are all driven by the same desires for love, belonging, and acceptance.” He hopes that if people are at least wiling to listen, he can meet them where they are and help them better appreciate what it really takes for people who are gay to feel that acceptance.

Stepping From One World To Another

Perhaps the most compelling aspect of Rymel’s story is the juxtaposition he draws between his understanding of his own sexual orientation and the very different process of understanding who gay people are culturally. Religion influences how people see gender and hierarchies, he explained to ThinkProgress, and those ideas are reinforced in ex-gay therapy. “When you’re in those movements, it is said, ‘Well this is how men act, this is how women act,’ and the reason you didn’t act this way is because of a broken relationship with your father or an overbearing mother.”

Letting go of those gender roles didn’t automatically happen when he came to terms with being gay. “I took that with me into the gay culture… I took on that role, and kept perpetuating that role.” As he began to study more about sexuality, particularly the research of Lisa Diamond, he began to better appreciate the fluidity of gender. “You have people who come in all shapes and sizes,” but it takes removing that “cultural overlay” to see who people really are. Doing so helped him arrive at self-acceptance, appreciating his own authenticity, even if someone suggests, for example, that something he says or does is effeminate.

“When you come from that environment and you step into the gay community, there is no place that you feel more insecure,” he recalled, noting that his perspective reflects entering a culture focused on youth as a middle-aged man. “I think there’s a lot of shame in the gay community because we feel like we have to be something that we’re not, so for me, stepping into the gay community as a Republican evangelical Christian with these ideals of very traditional family roles… I never felt like I belonged.”

Now, though, Rymel says he feels perfectly comfortable in both gay and straight worlds. “I’m being who I am,” he explained. “As I dealt with my own shame of trying to hide from everyone, all of that went away… Now I don’t feel the shame, and I feel like I belong.” He described that process as a difficult “unraveling,” unpacking his preconceived notions so that he could then “reassemble who I’m supposed to be.”

On His Time In The Ex-Gay Movement

Though Rymel spent many years working for an ex-gay ministry, he spent very little time administering therapy himself. Instead, his job was to promote the ministry’s message in the media.

In the book, he recounts a radio interview he did with “two activist, angry lesbians,” to discuss the work of Love In Action. “We accept people as they are and allow God to change them as he changes all of us,” he told them. When one of the women then asked if that meant that they did not accept gay people as they are, he offered, “No, we do, but God loves them too much to leave them that way.” The other woman forebodingly responded, “What are you going to do 20 years from now when you come to realize you are gay, nothing’s changed, and you have no place to go?!”

At the time, Rymel told himself that “the most important thing was that we got the message out.” Now though, as he told ThinkProgress, “I certainly regret having delivered that message,” but he explained that, “We absolutely believed what we were saying was true.” He joined LIA because he believed in its mission. “We saw things quite differently and we honestly truly felt with all of our hearts that we were doing the right thing, that we were serving God. We were doing what we were supposed to be doing.” As far as he knew, the men were coming willingly, so he never felt anyone was there involuntarily.

He unequivocally now says, “I feel bad about what the message we gave out. We were wrong. I was wrong.” And he also wants people to know that he takes responsibility for the harm he might have perpetuated, adding, “I certainly apologize to people who have been affected by my words or what we have done in the past. I hope that they’re able to pick up and move on and pull their lives back together as we have tried to do.” He hopes his first-hand experience in the ministry helps others understand what’s actually taking place in them.

What To Do About Ex-Gay Therapy

As was said in the open letter, Rymel opposes any ex-gay therapy for minors: “I have no qualms about saying that’s wrong and that that needs to be stopped,” because he worries about “a parent forcing a child into something that is ultimately going to harm them.” Laws have already passed in New Jersey and California protecting young people from being enrolled in the treatment, and conservatives’ attempts to challenge those laws have failed.

But Rymel is a little less sure about how best to go about regulating conversion therapy for adults, recognizing that there could be religious liberty issues at stake. “Having been a conservative pastor,” he explained, “We’re not qualified. You think you are, but you’re not. But how do you stop that?” While he’d be fine with laws governing psychological and medical professionals, it’s harder to stop religious leaders from taking it upon themselves to try to pray away the gay through pastoral ministry.

He cited his own experience pursuing ex-gay therapy to demonstrate why laws alone won’t bring an end to ex-gay therapy. “Even if it had been outlawed,” he admitted, “I still would have gone somewhere and found help because my beliefs were so strong at the time that the law was not going to stop me. You can put any kind of law you want, but it doesn’t matter; it’s not going to change morality.”

That’s why he wants to help conservative Christians who might be inclined to try to change a person’s sexual orientation. He wants them to know, “We’ve never changed anybody’s sexual orientation. It’s never been documented anywhere,” and his next project is dedicated to telling other such stories.

Rymel is now connecting with people who attended Love In Action while he worked there to tell “Ex-Gay 25 Years Later” stories. Of the 15 he’s reached out to, only three of them still identify as ex-gay, and only one of those three has been willing to talk to him on the record. What he’s already found is that those who now identify as gay are doing well, while those who still identify as ex-gay continue to struggle with their identities. He’s combining their stories with a meta-analysis of the available research to try to paint a picture of what the ex-gay movement actually looks like and debunk the myth that there are thousands of ex-gays out there. “The thousands do not exist,” he told ThinkProgress.

“There is no such thing as ex-gay,” Rymel now asserts, but he acknowledges that beliefs don’t change so easily. He hopes that conservatives can they see themselves in his story: “I was one of you… I was as far right as you can get as a Republican, so I completely understand religious liberties, I completely understand where you’re coming from and faith and all of those things, but this doesn’t work. So now what do we do? What are our other options?”