Social Psychology of Social Movements: Exploring Ex-Gays as a Social Movement


Jeramy Townsley

Sept 2007

Social Movement Theory

Imagine yourself as a lifelong Evangelical Christian with a spouse and children, and your entire family actively participates in the life of your local church. While most parts of your life are going well and you are generally happy, one piece of your emotional and cognitive life is causing you dissonance and frustration: you experience same-sex sexual attraction. Your spouse is aware of your feelings, and you consider yourself a “struggler” in an ongoing resistance not only to your own feelings, but to the increasing cultural acceptance of homosexuality. Your church accepts you as a struggler, and you draw strength and tools of resistance from other Evangelicals in your city who meet regularly to share each others’ journeys in this struggle. You motivate each other, provide social and emotional support for successes, as well as failures, and reaffirm a cognitive framework that allows you to understand your somewhat paradoxical position of simultaneously rejecting the legitimacy of homosexuality as a godly way of life, while admitting that you cannot rid yourself of same-sex attractions.

The phenomenon of the ex-gay has been recently studied in several insightful and sensitive works, from Erzen’s immersion in an ex-gay half-way house in Straight to Jesus (2006), to Wolkomir’s study of several ex-gay support groups, including “wives of ex-gays” support groups in Be Not Deceived (2006). While many of these studies provide views of what it is like to be ex-gay, as well as placing the movements into larger historical and cultural contexts, none look specifically at the groups as social movements. This paper seeks to examine the umbrella organization for Protestant ex-gay movements, Exodus International, in terms of social movement theory, specifically focusing on social psychological approaches.

Social movement research and theory was historically rooted in a social psychological approach (Stryker, Owens and White 2000, 1-3; McAdam, McCarthy and Zald 1988, 695-97), in the study of collective behavior. This broad approach includes many types of mass actions, and the study of social movements is a sub-type of this larger field. Topics such as hysteria, collective unconscious, and irrational actor approaches, such as can be found in Le Bon’s analysis of the French Revolution, grounded much of this early work in individual alienation, manipulation by a charismatic leader, and loss of self. Another feature that many of these early ideas share is the belief that movements form in reaction to grievances, such as perceptions of relative deprivation, and the breakdown of civil society (Cohen and Arato 1994, 496). Blumer, representing the Chicago School in an early description of social movements, characterizes them as grounded in “unrest, and derive their motive power … from dissatisfaction with the current form of life” (Crossley 2002, 3). He assumes that most of our actions are based on following social rules we have incorporated into our symbolic worlds, deciding rationally between various choices. However, in moments of mass discord we tend to simply mimic those around us since such chaos gives us few cues for making rational choices (Jasper 1997, 21). In this sense collective behavior is more like a contagion that subverts the normally rational actor. These represent early social psychological, or microsociological approaches because they tend to focus on the individual participants’ traits and motivations for joining movements.

One series of reactions to these approaches formed in the U.S., representing a shift to a macrosociological focus. They grew out of the growing number of studies that found little correlation between real or perceived strain and the formation of social movements, nor did there seem to be a correlation between the perception of larger collection action formation and individual decisions to join movements (McCarthy and Zald 1977, 1213). The civil rights movement, for example, was preceded by generations of severe racial inequality with little widespread, consistent, coherent resistance. The development of the full civil rights movement in the 1950’s did not follow a dramatic increase in oppression, as might be predicted by the earlier collective action models. The resource mobilization (RM) advocates propose structural explanations for the development of successful social movements, focusing on those groups’ internal ability to organize and access resources. Specifically in the case of the civil rights movement, southern blacks had seen a steady increase in financial resources, organizational networks, and leadership development in the early to mid-1900s, all of which gave this group the internal resources necessary to mount effective anti-racist campaigns in the 1950s-1960s.

A second U.S. macrosociological trend built on the RM model, but expanded the scope of macrosociological analysis to incorporate larger political realities, aptly described as the political process model (PM). McAdam’s classic study of the civil rights movement (McAdam 1999) looks at trends external to the civil rights movement itself that facilitated the success of the movement. First, at the same time that the U.S. government was condemning the communist system during the Cold War, it was supporting a very public and ingrained system of racial oppression here at home. The equally vigorous condemnations of the U.S. in regards to these human rights abuses forced the administration (and the U.S. culture) to reconsider these civil rights issues. This regime crisis made the larger institutions more amenable to change. Second, there already existed politically contested arenas within U.S. discourse. In this case, the tension between our purported values of equality and justice were in contrast to the reality that blacks were not beneficiaries of these values. The civil rights movement represented a continued political contestation around this discussion. Third, blacks gained increased political opportunities as a voting bloc due to the collapse of the cotton economy in the south which led to the mass migration of blacks to the north which did not have the anti-black voting restrictions that existed in the south. Finally, blacks saw the decreasing success of anti-civil rights groups and repressive techniques. Part of this was the decrease in lynching preceding the civil rights movement, as well as the decreased ability of the state to enforce racist policies due to the aforementioned regime crisis and cultural awareness of the brutal treatment of blacks.

A different series of reactions to the emphasis on social psychological methods occurred in Europe, with the development of “New Social Movement” (NSM) theory. Retaining a focus on the individual, they make revisions to the “collective behavior” models, such as accepting that not all movements begin with grievance, social disorganization, or irrational actors. With RM and PP models, they share the perspective that sudden eruptions of particular social movements do not necessarily represent the formation of de novo collective action occurring in response to social change. Rather, they often represent an increased convergence of like-minded actors in ongoing, previously existing political and social dialogues (della Porta and Diani 2006, 61). NSM theorists reject traditional Marxist views that social movements are primarily about class revolutions. Contrasted to Marx’s description that the proletariat will rise up in reaction to their economic oppression to overthrow the bourgeoisie, NSM theory suggests that change can involve the construction of new shared norms and collective identity (Cohen and Arato 1994, 510).

This proposal leads to one of the distinctive features of NSM theory contrasted to PM and RM--a focus on culture and identity. While RM and PM tend to see culture and identity as means to ends in terms of participation and outcomes, NSM models propose that these can be ends in themselves (Crossley 2002, 152). While many of the previous analyses of social movements emphasized ways that participants interacted to change political and economic realities, post-WWII movements seem to work less towards changing the state, and more towards shaping collective consciousness, and creating new ways of living. For example, discourse used by feminist movements, queer movements, ecology movements, and anti-nuclear movements encourage new patterns of interacting with each other and with the environment, rather than working directly on structural features like regime change. In this sense, the NSM models share Blumer’s core understanding of social movements as actors revising norms, recreating culture, and restructuring identity.

Touraine represents an early voice in the description of NSMs. He emphasizes that social movements are adversaries struggling “to modify the social mode of utilizing important resources and cultural orientations that are accepted in the society under consideration” (Touraine 1997, 57). In this case, both sides are utilizing the same cultural field. Especially as applied to civil society, NSMs do not attempt a radical change of government, or the social milieu, which, for Touraine, would be a military resolution, or similar level of crisis. The previous emphasis on strategy, such as RM and PM, exclude the importance in civil society of collective identities and the construction of norms. Such struggles for identity and norm construction result from attempts to adapt to larger social changes, such as modernity and technology. While he utilizes a social psychological model, he rejects several pieces of the older collective behavior analyses (Cohen and Arato 1994, 514): the idea that social movements come from social breakdown; the idea that social movements are abnormal; and that cultural orientations are “incontestable givens, seamlessly transposed into social norms and institutions.” In this sense, social movements represent self-reflexive constructors of social meanings and norms, just as all other social actors in civil society participate in meaning construction.

Not everyone agrees that NSMs are new (Pichardo 1997). Many argue that identity and creation of norms has always been critical features of social movements. Similarly, one cannot deny that NSMs participate in the political arena: working to increase rights for gays, seeking legal limits on ecological destruction by businesses and communities, and vigorously lobbying against candidates who oppose their goals. It is also not clear that previous social movements were only revolutionary, and were only focused on “the one” hegemonic fault-line within society: i.e., class inequality according to the traditional Marxist analysis (Crossley 2002, 151). We see in many cases that the class-based, revolutionary, and political movements also relied on collective identity and culture to mobilize participants, as well as engaged in cultural and identity transformative actions.

Social Psychology of Social Movements

It is not only in European theory that we see a return to social psychological analysis. Several researchers have explored the ways that social psychological approaches help us to understand individual participation in social movements, as well as the life-cycles of movements. While the structural analyses of RM and PM have contributed to our understanding of the larger forces that contribute to the success or failure of movements as well as movement life-cycles, they typically ignore the individual participant, and how individual participants contribute to the life-cycle. Further, as criticized by NSM theorists, they frequently ignore the contribution to culture and identity, both collective and individual, which are important features of movements. Finally, while on the one hand structural analyses incorporate political processes such as regime crisis, and certain cultural openings that allow for the development of movements, they frequently do not have a strong analysis of culture itself, nor of identity. Further, neither tend to analyze how both culture and identity are integral to movement formation, maintenance and decline.

A number of recent studies have explored social psychological analysis as it applies to social movements. Five distinct, yet interrelated trends emerge from the literature: framing, emotion, identity, agency, and culture. Each represents a form of analysis that contributes to how we understand individual participation in movements. Additionally, we see that framing and culture contributes to our understanding of the life-cycle of movements as the movements interact with larger civil society. Both of these approaches are ways to link movements to larger society, especially in terms of power struggles in the contestation of symbols, and the social saliency and receptivity to symbolic changes. The other three, emotion, identity and agency, focus more clearly on the individual, but each also draws from framing and culture to guide how they are performed, experienced and utilized by the individual, the movement, and society at large.


Framing has a strong tradition in social psychology, exemplified in Goffman’s classic work, Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience (1974). Subsequent to Goffman there has been an explosion of research in the application of framing to social movements--“so much so, in fact, that framing processes have come to be regarded, alongside resource mobilization and political opportunity processes, as a central dynamic in understanding the character and course of social movements” (Benford and Snow 2000, 612). In this sense, one might describe framing as the core of the social psychological approach to social movements. It is this approach that, if successful, will draw culture to the individual, and vice versa, making salient and relevant the movement’s goals, methods, and worldview to individuals and the larger society. Doing so draws in the individual’s emotions, shapes identity, and gives one a sense of agency to engage forces much larger than the individual. At the same time, as resistance to the movement arises, successful counter-framing can limit a movement’s effectiveness. These reciprocal processes of framing and counter-framing could be described, in a Habermasian sense, as the process of communicative action which then shapes the lifeworld. Additionally, and equally as critical, framing potentially represents a way of “linking together the social psychological and structural/organizational factors” (Snow et al. 1986, 464), thus bridging the macro and micro perspectives.

Benford and Snow describe framing as primarily meaning-making and reality construction (Benford and Snow 2000, 614). Specifically,

by frame alignment, we refer to the linkage of individual and [social movement organizations’] interpretive orientations, such that some set of individual interests, values and beliefs and [social movement organization] activities, goals, and ideology are congruent and complementary. … By rendering events or occurrences meaningful, frames function to organize experience and guide action, whether individual or collective. (Snow and Benford 1986, 464)
So frame alignment, as well as counter-framing, is the process whereby movements try to make their interpretation of the world, typically values, events or issues in contention, relevant and meaningful to themselves and to the larger society. Once these frames become accepted, they gain power to guide the way individuals make sense of these symbols, and motivate them to action. In this way, the analysis of frames seeks to bridge two distant aspects of sociological theory, namely, agency and structure (Gamson and Meyer 1996, 276).

In Tarrow’s Power in Movement, we see the importance of framing in social movements as he incorporates framing into the very definition of social movements: “those sequences of contentious politics that are based on underlying social networks and resonant collective action frames, and which develop the capacity to maintain sustained challenges against powerful opponents” (Tarrow 1998, 2). We see a number of things in this definition. First, the focus on contentious politics reflects the trend not to see social movements in terms of aggrieved actors, social strain and social disorganization, as did the early collective behavior models we see in Blumer’s descriptions. Rather, the trend here is to see social movements as extensions of continuous social and political discourse. Second, social movements are seen as actions by existing social networks. This idea is described as early as Blumer, who recognizes the necessity of a social context of like-minded individuals with whom to create shared meanings, but fails to elaborate on the nature and mechanisms of these social networks (Crossley 2002, 36). Newer models of social movements emphasize the importance of existing social networks, as is seen both in RM and PM. The same is explored in NSM, especially considering their focus on collective identity.

Third, Tarrow defines the collective action frame (CAF). Benford and Snow believe the function of CAFs is to perform the work described above in their definition of frames, with the intention “to mobilize potential adherents and constituents, to garner bystander support, and to demobilize antagonists” (2000, 614). Much of this work requires creating a cognitive framework for decision-making, primarily for making sense of complex issues. In doing so, the frame is not simply a logical argument, but ties the argument to culture in a way that can potentially convert the hearer into a supporter, as well as make the opponent’s arguments seem less meaningful.

Gamson, another key developer of the collective action frame idea, describes three components of the collective action frame: injustice, agency and identity (1992, 7). The injustice component provides the sense of “moral indignation” that motivates action. He points out that this is not merely an intellectual judgment, but a “hot cognition” that is embedded with emotion. This moral outrage component is explored in Nepstad and Smith’s analysis of the Christian involvement in Central American peace movement (2001, 158-174), especially as it pertains to the recruitment of U.S. citizens who might normally never involve themselves in actions so far away and so contrary to their natural allegiance to their own country. As they describe, the realization of the horrific torture deaths of numerous fellow Catholics in Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador, as well as the assassination by militant, U.S. sponsored groups of Archbishop Oscar Romero, provided a key impetus for U.S. Christians to begin involvement in the peace movement.

The injustice frame is closely related to the emotional component of the social psychology of social movements, as are his second two components, agency and identity, which will be discussed below. Suffice it to say at this point that, for Gamson, agency is the “collective consciousness that it is possible to alter conditions or policies through collective action,… that ‘we’ can do something,” and identity is “the process of defining this ‘we,’ typically in opposition to some ‘they’ who have different interests or values” (Gamson 1992, 7). In Talking Politics, Gamson uses these frames to analyze four contentious topics: affirmative action, nuclear power, troubled industry, and the Arab-Israeli conflict. He performs a discourse analysis of group discussions between individuals on these topics, exploring how people utilize media discourse, common wisdom and experiential knowledge to make sense of and become engaged with the issues. Specifically, in regards to the three CAF components, he shows the “mobilization potential in popular understanding of these issues and … the contribution of media discourse in nurturing or stifling it” (1992, 8). For example, he describes how media frames may emphasize an injustice component of an issue, and how his subjects utilized that frame as they discussed the issues with others, thus describing a series of ways that citizens “talk politics.”

Benford and Snow describe CAF formation as a dynamic process and not a static event. While noting the action-oriented function of the CAF, in other words, to propel groups into action, they also note that a common characteristic of CAFs is that they involve a continuous creation process whereby the members engage one another to define and emphasize relevant frames. As they describe it, “Collective action frames are constructed in part as movement adherents negotiate a shared understanding of some problematic condition or situation they define in need of change, make attributions regarding who or what is to blame, articulate an alternative set of arrangements, and urge others to act in concert to affect change” (2000, 615). As the movement interacts with external groups, engages in social action, and encounters resistance, the CAF will be modified, or at times possibly even abandoned. This process itself can be broken down into three sub-processes: diagnostic framing, prognostic framing, and motivational framing.

Della Porta and Diani relate the diagnostic frame to Gamson’s injustice frame, for in making an issue morally salient, i.e. appearing unjust, one engages a process of diagnosing a problem (2006, 75). However, Benford and Snow disagree with two assertions Gamson makes regarding the injustice frame, namely that “all collective action frames are injustice frames,” and that “all collective action frames contain an injustice component” (2000, 615). They note that religious and self-help movements are not necessarily reactions to an injustice, yet mobilization and framing still occur. Despite this disagreement, they still affirm that the injustice component is found in many movements, especially those that seek larger social change. All agree that part of the diagnostic frame involves converting an issue into a “social problem” and identifying a specific source for the problem, namely, responsible individuals or groups. Pointing to specific actors also involves identifying who is qualified to speak to the problem: experts, opponents, state agencies, media, etc. (della Porta and Diani 2006, 75).

The prognostic frame relates to how a movement proposes to solve any given problem, claiming that this component frequently distinguishes movements from each other. For example, Benford and Snow point to Haines’ study of the anti-death penalty movement. While such movements contain the same diagnostic and motivational frames, their approaches to the problems differ. The abolitionist branch had the goal of abolishing capital punishment. The litigator branch attempted to save one person at a time using the legal process either to free, or induce stays of execution for prisoners. The third process, the motivational frame, describes how a movement creates a “call to arms” as such, providing members with a rationale for engaging in collective action (2000, 617). They relate this frame to Gamson’s agency component of CAF, since it gives members the sense that they can do something about the situation.

Finally, it is important to look at how frames are made to make sense to individuals, and how the frames get linked to values. While Gamson provides some clues in the injustice, agency and identity frameworks, other factors seem important for a frame to be successful, for example, creating individual resonance (della Porta and Diani 2006, 81). Resonance itself is composed of both credibility and salience. Credibility has to come from numerous directions, whether it is the credibility of the source, the empirical credibility of facts, or the consistency of the message (Benford and Snow 2000, 619). Salience describes how important a movement’s ideas are to the individual’s values and beliefs, how relevant the movement’s goals are to the individual’s daily life, and how the movement’s own description of reality matches the individual’s own cultural narrative(s). Each of these factors is important in understanding how well a frame is able to mobilize individuals to join a movement.

Framing can be seen as an overarching paradigm for the study of social movements, which incorporates several ideas that are important to social psychological approaches. Three of these, emotion, agency and identity, can potentially be seen simply as sub-processes, or sub-frames. However, they can also be seen as unique approaches themselves, as ways of understanding various stages of a movement’s lifecycle and power: its mobilization, organization, decline, or general cultural saliency. Each has become important in sociological analysis, not just as lenses through which to view structures, processes, conflicts, etc., but as distinct fields. For example, the sociology of emotions has recently had an upsurge in research, from Turner’s Human Emotions: A Sociological Theory (2007), Davidson’s Emotional Geographies (2005), and Barbelet’s Sociology of Emotions (2002); to a flurry of work in applying our rapidly increasing understanding of the neurobiology of emotions to psychological theories of emotions (Antonio Damasio, Joseph LeDoux, Susan Greenfield, Candace Pert et al). Similarly, identity and agency have strong histories within sociology and are being increasingly applied to the study of social movements.

Emotions, Identity, Agency

Emotions play a critical role in our daily lives as well as our decision-making processes. Contrasted with popular mythology that decisions devoid of emotion are more rational and stable, we recognize that we cannot divorce ourselves from our emotions, nor is there a value-neutral decision-making process. Mansbridge makes the point that “cognitive and emotive processes mix together, as an emotion focuses a cognition and a cognition triggers an emotion” (2001, 5). She goes on to describe that emotions and cognitions are not antonyms as is frequently conceived, but that this conception can impede our understanding of our cognitive and emotional processes. As Damasio proposes in Descartes’ Error, cogito ergo sum probably is not the best description of human nature, since not only are we thinking beings, but also feeling beings, and any attempt to divorce or downplay the latter for the former constructs a faulty picture of individual and social life (1994, 248).

As described above, Nepstad and Smith argue that emotions were the core of the moral outrage that drove the U.S. Christian involvement in the Central American peace movement. In Nepstad’s analysis of the movement in Convictions of the Soul, she describes how emotions acted as catalysts to recruit members and mobilize participation (2004, 148). She describes how Father Bourgeois was not only able to “reignite anger by focusing attention on the Jesuit murders, he also amplified it by pointing a finger at one of the institutions responsible for the slayings—the School of the Americas.” Part of mobilizing recruits is not only emotionally engaging them, but focusing on a “they” as was described above by Gamson. If an abstract principle or process is seen to be the culprit of suffering, there is little that individuals feel they can do to ameliorate the situation. But if a guilty party can be isolated, then plans can be made, and emotions can be engaged.

Nepstad continues by tying rituals to the production, maintenance and reenergizing of emotions. In this case, an annual gathering at the School of the Americas acts to consolidate and reinvigorate the movement. As she describes,

By focusing the group’s attention on the martyrs, this commemoration also strengthens the feelings of solidarity by reinforcing a Christian collective identity. The martyrs embody the values, beliefs, ad moral commitments of the group. … By ritualistically remembering the martyrs, Father Bourgeois not only evokes outrage and solidarity with the victims, he also has revived the transcendent meaning of protest. In commemorating the slain Jesuits, activists reflect on the ultimate meaning in life: having a belief, a faith, a moral vision for which on is willing to die. (152)
This liturgical preparation is followed by many activists with civil disobedience, trespassing on the base as a very public and sacrificial act of protest. The emotional engagement prepares them for imminent arrest and potentially brutal treatment. As Tarrow explains, “Because it is so reliable a source of emotion, religion is a recurring source of social movement framing. Religion provides ready-made symbols, rituals and solidarities that can be accessed and appropriated by movement leaders. The same is true of nationalism: lacking the fine mechanical metaphors of class dialectics, nationalism possesses a much greater emotional potential” (1998, 112).

Jasper describes a similar process, where leaders attempt to focus emotions onto specific targets in what he calls “attack mode” (1997, 107). Creating a specific enemy, he believes, is a classic way to energize activists and mobilize participation. When people have generalized feelings of anxiety or anger, those emotions do not necessarily facilitate engagement in protest, unless they are channeled to a specific target, and the individuals are made to feel like they can do something about the problem (agency). Nationalism makes for an easy consolidator, since, “positive feelings toward one’s home and surroundings, coupled with strong negative affect toward a proposal that seems to threaten these, are common raw materials for protest” (107). Further, in tying emotions to rationality, he proposes that “even the most fleeting emotions are firmly rooted in moral and cognitive beliefs that are more stable, … [helping] us define our goals and motivate action towards them” (113).

Taylor and Whittier describe several other features of the emotional approach to social movements (1995, 176-177). Building on the importance of emotions in ritual, they draw on theorists as diverse as Goffman, Garfinkel, Durkheim, Hobsbawm and Wuthnow, describing the importance of ritual in eliciting specific feelings based on the symbols involved, as well as the solidarity that comes from the shared meaning of the symbols, reenacting their meanings in performance. Such performances solidify the components of identity and agency, as well as requiring a shared culture. Another piece of Taylor and Whittier’s analysis of emotions is their use of Hochschild’s feeling rules and emotion cultures. By creating shared feeling rules in gatherings, groups help consolidate identity, and both identity and emotion reinforce the individual’s participation in the movement, as they demonstrate from their analysis of the feminist movement and the cultures that they create between their members.

Oliver, Cadena-Roa, and Strawn add to this formulation by proposing that emotional expression itself can be a useful tool, and can be framed as requiring management (2003, 16). In public, emotions can be perceived by activists to be detrimental to a cause, making it seem desperate or irrational, thus King’s insistence on calm, nonreactive civil disobedience. In other settings, however, public displays of emotion may make it appear passionate and determined. Creating rules for projecting an emotional image becomes part of the shared negotiations of the movement. Goffman’s description of front-stage and back-stage can be utilized as ways to understand how groups decide where and when to display emotions, as well as types of emotions that are appropriate or expected on either stage.

Identity is another approach to how individuals relate to social movements, and how organizers recruit and consolidate members. Even more, pulling together the study of identity and social movements is also an exploration of how social movements shape the construction of a person’s identity. Sociologically, each of these components is exciting. Each of these components has a strong research foundation. Many theorists believe that the NSMs especially have utilized identity as their core project (Johnston and Klandermans 1995; Stryker, Owen and White 2000). At the same time, there are multiple types of identities that NSMs construct.

Cohen and Arato propose that “the salient feature of the new social movements is not that they engage in expressive action or assert their identities but that they involve actors who have become aware of their capacity to create identities and the power relations involved in the social construction of those identities” (1994, 511). The identity that is constructed is a group identity forged out of a larger collective identity, in a struggle simply for the democratic power to do so, the meanings and boundaries implicit within their new group identity, and challenging the boundaries between public, private and political. This not only evidences multiple, shared identities, but also a strong engagement with civil society, even if that engagement is conflictual.

Jasper similarly proposes that collective identity, as such, is not an accurate description of the focus of NSMs, but rather, personal and movement identity (1997, 404-405; with some exceptions such as the women’s movement, and GLBT movements). In making this distinction, he draws boundaries between these three type of identities. The most local, personal identity, is the fundamental sense of self, one’s own biography, including one’s identification with larger collectives (85-86). Collective identity draws from the largest social boundaries: caste, class, religion, gender, race, etc. According to Jasper, the collective and personal identities are strongly linked, since collective identity typically has an ascribed component, so relies not only on the individual’s choices, but the perceptions of the rest of society.

Movement identity in contrast, “arises when a collection of groups and individuals perceive themselves (and are perceived by others) as a force in explicit pursuit of social change” (86). Movement identity has the potential for considerable flux, since movements are frequently dynamic groups, with each individual having her own sense of what the movement is about. As members renegotiate their shared group meanings, as they are challenged by external groups, and as situations change that force changes in the movement, the movement identity can also change. Further, Jasper describes three levels of movement identity: “people can identify with a particular group … (organizational identity); with using a particular tactic like direct action or being in some wing of a movement, like the radical vanguard (tactical identity); or with a broader activist subculture that might nourish several distinct movements (activist identity)” (87).

Stryker also describes the persistence of multiple identities as an important feature of social movements, and especially the NSMs. He describes that these multiple identities will compete for expression to produce social behavior (2000, 21). Building on current trends in identity theory, he proposes that this competition between selves will evidence identity salience as these identities become dominant in different contexts (28). First, we use cognitive schemas to help us make decisions. These are transsituational, but different contexts may make different responses seem more reasonable. So in a classroom context, the student identity may have a better framework to make sense of certain circumstances than a parent identity. Second, identities and salience are self-reinforcing--the more we utilize an identity in a given context, and especially if we experience success, it becomes much more likely that we will utilize that identity in similar contexts in the future. Third, each identity not only utilizes its own rationality, but it also has its own set of motivations. An identity that is salient in one context may propel us to act in a way that we might not otherwise, namely, in a different context that makes another identity more salient. For example, having a salient parental identity when confronted with a strange rambunctious child may lead us to a different set of behaviors than if we simply have a by-stander identity.

To a degree, the idea of identity salience requires the prior existence of various identities, and we use these in an almost Swidlerian sense of an identity toolbox. Snow and McAdam, in contrast, describe the ongoing process of identity construction: in this case as identity construction proceeds by participation in the movement. They describe this as the “process through which personal and movement identities are aligned, such that individuals regard engagement in movement activity as being consistent with their self-conception and interests” (2000, 49). First, identity embellishment involves strengthening an existing identity, altering a person’s identity salience hierarchy in response to the movement values, thus making commitment and participation more likely. Second, identity consolidation involves merging two distinct identities that would otherwise seem incompatible. For example, as demonstrated in the research below, there are multiple paths of consolidating one’s anti-gay religious identity with a gay identity: pursuing the ex-gay path, or pursuing a gay affirming religious path. Third, identity extension involves merging one’s personal and movement identities to the extent that the movement identity becomes a master status. Snow and McAdam’s example is that “being a ‘good Christian’ is not something that is done just on Sundays within the confines of a church; it extends to home, to work, to recreation, to all individuals encountered” (51). Finally, identity transformation, unlike the other three, does not involve building on an existing identity. Rather, it involves the complete deconstruction and reconstruction of an identity, such as those “European intellectuals who converted to communism in the 1930’s and then became disillusioned and, so to speak, fell from grace” (52).

In doing these kinds of identity work, we may create our own frames of reference to elicit or construct certain identities, or the movement leaders may be actively creating collective action frames in order to push us to do certain kinds of identity work that benefit the movement. As Klandermans and de Weerd point out, movements engage in framing work in order to define their own movement identity, the personal identities of their members, the identities of their opponents. Doing so creates solidarity among the in-group, and motivates action against those in the out-group (2000, 78). Doing this also reconstructs public/private boundaries. In essence, the slogan “the personal is political” can be seen as a framing of the vigorous right to personal identity construction as a democratic imperative (Johnston and Klandermans 1995, 173; Klandermans and de Weerd 2000, 70; Cohen and Arato 1994, 511).

Agency is another component of the social psychological approaches. Jasper describes agency as artfulness, or the ability of the individual to rise above the accepted cultural symbols to creatively engage culture and ideas (1997, 65). It is tied strongly to the other two, emotion and identity. In creating an emotional frame of action, as we saw in Nepstad, the individual feels empowered to engage in behaviors that may be socially and physically risky. Similarly, the construction of movement identity empowers the individual to act since it creates a sense of group strength and solidarity. Long-described processes, for example Durkheim’s collective effervescence, while drawing on heightened emotions, are also related to identification with a group that motivates action that might otherwise be inhibited. But beyond the ties to emotion and identity, agency emphasizes that people are aware of the world around them, “aware of what they are doing, they make plans and develop projects, and they innovate in trying to achieve their goals” (Jasper 1997, 65). In this sense, the agency approach to social psychological social movement analysis most clearly assumes a rational actor (Crossley 2002, 67).

Within the larger framework of sociology, the study of agency is growing increasingly important, given the continued attempts to tie together agency and structure. Classically, the study of structures has represented a macrosociological approach, and the study of agency, or the individual, has represented a microsociological approach. The problem that has been broached in the last several decades is the question of how to create a theory that incorporates the individual into larger society and vice-versa. The conversation of agent versus structure has been explored by major theorists such as Giddens (structuration), Bourdieu (habitus and field) and Habermas (colonization of the lifeworld), as they attempt to elucidate a unifying theory for these two historically disparate approaches. While exploring these attempts is beyond the scope of this paper, an introduction to the topic can be seen in the agential approach to social movements.

Both Nepstad and Jasper seek to put “people at the center of our analyses and give serious attention to activists’ beliefs, emotions, moral commitment and sense of purpose” (Nepstad 2004, 26). In Nepstad’s analysis of the Christian peace movement in Central America, she looks at how individuals utilize cultural knowledge to promote social change: why individuals join movements, why they maintain their involvement, the methods they use, why they withdraw, all depend on the meanings that these acts and the issues have for them. Understanding these meanings requires that one understand the cultural biographies of the participants (one factor of a five-factor model that she proposes), because only at the level of narrative can meanings be consolidated, as well as the knowledge of how one applies cultural knowledge to various problems (82, 85). She contrasts her approach to culture and agency with Christian Smith’s, whom she believes neglects the agential component of the Central American peace movement, and neglects culture to emphasize a structural view (23). This emphasis on culture she draws from Jasper, and to his model she adds a special focus on agency (21).

Jasper also describes the importance of biography, tying together identity and agency. He proposes four irreducible dimensions of protest: resources, strategies, culture and biography (1997, 43; seen also Nepstad 2004, 18). Focusing only on the last (and culture later), Jasper proposes that understanding biography is core to understanding why individuals participate in a movement. While biography is intuitively about identity, Jasper believes that it is one’s sense of self and experiences that enable individuals to feel empowered to act. Talk about collective identity can reduce individuals to clusters of copies, rather than groups of individuals, each with unique backgrounds: “this kind of individual diversity means that protestors participate out of different bundles of motivations, interpret leading symbols and rhetoric in slightly different ways, and have varying aspirations for their actions” (1997, 55). In addition to tying identity to agency, biography also ties culture to agency. A person’s historical life within a particular culture, subculture, community and family gives that individual different sets of human and social capital with which to potentially make changes. Having a fluency in the symbols important to a culture provides levels of power that will be different depending on one’s biography.

Gamson similarly sees agency as a core approach to understanding participation in social movement, describing it as the three components of the collective action frame (1992, 7; injustice, agency, identity). In his analysis of political discourse in small groups, he notes that culture and media frequently impede a sense of agency by making problems seem intractable. What created a sense of agency for his subjects was a working knowledge of successful collective action against specific targets, or on specific topics (82-83). Media, while it can be a useful way for society to gather information, frequently did not portray a favorable picture of social movements, making it less likely that viewers would feel empowered to join such a movement. Similarly, Gamson found that political discourse is so permeated with cynicism that it discourages people from participating in civil society (60-61). He indicates that possibly the only civil participation that capitalist societies encourage is that of consumerism, the individual’s imperative to buy.

Tarrow calls this the “problem of agency” (1992, 181)--how a movement overcomes the various impediments to action to engage potential recruits into participation. He describes the differences between social mentalities, “popularly held values and practices about private life and behavior” (176), political cultures, “more clearly molded points of concern about social and political relations, containing both system-supporting and oppositional elements,” and collective action frames, “purposively constructed guides to action created by existing or prospective movement organizers.” He believes that agency cannot be derived from mentalities because of its ubiquitous embeddedness in the fabric of our daily lives, possibly invoking an image of hegemony, with every citizen being complicit in the production of the current system. He seems to be more optimistic that political culture can generate some agency, but it is collective action frames, he indicates, that is the strong generator of a sense of individual and collective agency. Specifically, “movement framing is a tool for detaching people from their habitual passivity, [and] is founded on a preference for action” (191). In this sense, Tarrow brings us back to the larger structure of framing as a core component of social movements, which is critical for generating a sense of agency.

Finally, in their analysis of right-wing extremism in Europe, Klein and Simon tie agential power to collective identity:

Collective identity signals that one is not alone but can count on the social support and solidarity of other in-group members. Consequently, as a group, one can be a much more powerful and efficacious social agent. … The agency function should also be particularly relevant in the political arena where people try to exert influence and engage in a power struggle to reach their goals. Indeed, collective identity as a “Republikaner” was associated with the wish and felt responsibility to do something about “problems,” such as immigration and unemployment, as well as with the expectation that one could actually do something about them. (2006, 236)
In their interviews, they found that even though participants may not feel that society at large would accept their solutions, their belief was that by concerted action and strength of commitment they would eventually create change towards their goals. In this sense, creating a sense of agency did not require guaranteeing social approval of the movement, or radical culture change to “look like” the movement--but simply the idea that their action will contribute to larger change. Further, even when their subjects saw that things were not changing the way they would like, their sense of pride in knowing they “did something” was an important motivator (237).


The final section in this review draws in each of the above approaches. The study of culture will help explain the context of successful frames, the identity of the participants, their emotional experiences, and their construction of themselves as agents of change. Wuthnow’s definition of culture is useful as a basis for our application of culture to social movements: “the symbolic-expressive aspect of social behavior” (1987, 4). As he goes on to say, culture cannot be studied in isolation as if it were a structure, since it “penetrates all aspects of social life” (5). In one sense, the study of social movements sheds light on the study of culture itself, especially cultural change, since that is the nature of social movements. In this case, however, culture can be used as a way to broaden our understanding of the development, progress, and eventual decline of social movements.

Swidler describes three foci in the study of culture: public symbols, practices (habitus), and power (Swidler 1995, 27). Each of these can be used by a social movement’s “tool kit”, as well as transformed by social movements. Public symbols, such as the idea of a woman’s body as her own, the ritual of a democratic election, or framing sex as a sacred act between a man and a woman, are particular ways that societies see each of these three more fundamental social objects: woman, authority, sex. The unique cultural context will allow a movement limited ways of “stretching” these social objects. Pointing out conflicts between symbols can provide a frame that a movement might use to crystallize sympathy for their cause, as in the pro-choice vs. pro-life frames of the abortion debate. To the extent that a movement can make these frames resonant within their cultural narratives, or myths, they represent their potential level of success. As Campbell explains,

The cultural material most relevant to movement framing processes include the extant stock of meanings, beliefs, ideologies, practices, values, myths, narratives, and the like, all of which can be construed as part of Swidler’s metaphorical ‘tool kit’, and thus which constitute the cultural resource base from which new cultural elements are fashioned, such as innovative collective action frames, as well as the lens through which framings are interpreted and evaluated.. From this perspective, movements are ‘both consumers of existing cultural meanings and producers of new meanings.’ (2002, 629)
Couched in the discourse about public symbols are values. Della Porta and Diani describe values as influencing “how actors define specific goals, and identify strategies which are both efficient and morally acceptable” (2006, 67). They make several points about the relationship between culture and social action. First, evidencing a social constructivist influence, they propose that issues are not sui generis, in that they are issues independent of being constructed as such by culture at large, or individual movements (65). They describe that the problems we face from globalization existed long before the antiglobalizers crystallized our collective consciousness around such problems. But until individual issues were brought to our attention, and then framed as being tied together by the larger concept of globalization, there was no public symbol of “the crisis of globalization.” Second, they point out that the construction of these public symbols is a process of reciprocal and ongoing contestation, not a static or simple event of announcing the existence of the problem (66). Third, the saliency of these newly created public symbols is grounded in shared values, which of course are other public symbols. Directionality of values seems to go both ways: while the movement is partially constrained by the values it shares with society at large, some movements also have the power to shape social values. To some extent, the question of directionality is embedded in the larger discussion of agency and structure—in what ways do structures constrain our agency (material and culture), and in what ways does agency produce and reproduce structures?

Cultural practices, like public symbols, are tools that a movement can utilize to act on their society, which may later become incorporated into general cultural practice. At the most obvious level, the existence of subcultures of protest contribute practices of protest for other movements. The labor movement has had several traditional tools for protest, such as the strike, and the picket-line. Letter-writing campaigns and mass marches in Washington DC have become popular methods for protest in contemporary U.S. protest movement culture. As activists see the effectiveness of these practices, they become incorporated into their own repertoires (McAdam 1994, 44). Swidler describes Bourdieu’s point that habitus, as it applies here to cultural practices, is “not a set of rules, but … deeply internalized habits, styles and skills that allow human beings to continually produce innovative actions that are nonetheless meaningful to others around them” (Swidler 1995, 29). But, as was mentioned above regarding biography, it is clear that an individual’s fluency in cultural symbols will depend on her cultural origin, which will in turn largely determine the effectiveness of the practices that are utilized (Zald 1996, 267).

Swidler believes that emphasizing cultural practices leads to an analysis of institutions, drawing on Foucault: “for example, the practices that, after the sixteenth century, came to differentiate the sane from the mad—exclusion and confinement in asylums, or the diagnostic criteria later used by psychologists and others in the human sciences—are sets of cultural rules made real by being used to categorize and control human beings” (Swidler 1995, 29). Almost as a bridge between the cultural foci of practices and power, Swidler describes how institutions create rules that construct our social world. But it is not just institutions external to movements that are builders of practices and thus wield power over individual lives. McAdam proposes that movements become subcultures in themselves that create enforce emotional, behavioral, and identity rules, as well as ideologies and material culture (McAdam 1994, 47). In fact, the more radical the countercultural changes the members demand, the greater the demand on the individual members to reshape their own lives to conform to movement goals. For example, the utopian communities in New Harmony, Indiana, demanded a rigorous lifestyle for all members, and were committed to communal goals contrasted to rapidly developing capitalist values. As McAdam explains, “the more thoroughgoing the changes proposed, the more the tendency to conceive of the movement as an oppositional subculture—a kind of idealized community embodying the movements alternative vision of social life” (46).

McAdam’s larger point in describing movement subcultures is that these subcultures sometimes develop a saliency in the larger culture and become part of society’s habitus. The organic food movement, whether framed as an opposition to non-sustainable agricultural practices, a desire to live simply, or the belief in hazardous chemicals and dangerous biological externalities of non-organic products, has grown substantially. As the movement expands, practices become embedded in the local and national supply chains. As awareness is raised about organic products, consumers are created, and thus a new market is developed. Other movements, such as democratic or communist movements, can become master frames, from which collective identity can be derived, as well as entirely new sets of practices and lifeways (McAdam 1994, 49).

This institutionalization of practice leads to power, both for the movement, and groups against which movements compete. This third emphasis of cultural analysis recognizes that culture itself is neither benign nor static, but is a site of active struggles for power. Swidler refers again to Foucault, who describes knowledge itself as a form of power, and our cultural affirmation of disciplines such as psychoanalysis, criminology, sexologists, academics and physicians provide individuals in these disciplines with power that seems natural and uncontestable. Contrasted with Gramsci, who proposed an intellectual class who consciously constructs ideologies that maintain hegemonic dominance, Swidler explains that Foucault’s position “eliminates the question of who has power, leaving aside the role of interested agents, to emphasize instead that each cultural formation, each technique of power, has a history of its own, and that different actors adopt these techniques for different purposes” (Swidler 1995, 30). She concludes this section by describing Bourdieu’s contribution, who emphasizes social inequalities, in that, similar to the descriptions of biography above, one’s background differentially grants access to various types of capital that subsequently determine a person’s effectiveness in the social world, including social movements and political discourse.

The Ex-Gay Movement

The ex-gay movement might be said to have begun in the early 1970s, shortly after the growing acceptance of homosexuality in the United States. Almost a century earlier (1893) Raffalovich described the inability to cure homosexuals (“inverts”) in a French neurology journal (Spencer 1995, 291). Subsequent attempts by clinicians and psychologists document varying levels of success at “curing” homosexuals. But it is not until 1973 that Frank Worthen started Love in Action, an ex-gay self-help group. Taking the message that “there is a way out of homosexuality” to church groups and in newspapers, Worthen began organizing groups of people who experience same-sex attraction, but did not want to act on those feelings. In the same year, homosexuality was removed from the DSM as a psychopathology.

Shortly after Worthen started his ministry, he helped found Exodus International (EI) in 1976 (Erzen 2006, 32) which later became the umbrella organization for a large group of ex-gay ministries. EI refers to itself as “the largest information and referral ministry in the world addressing homosexual issues” (Exodus International Web site), claiming to oversee over 150 ministries in 17 countries, 120 of which are in the United States. While several other organizations claim to assist people in pursuing an ex-gay lifestyle, such as Courage, a Catholic ministry with over 110 chapters worldwide, and Homosexuals Anonymous, a 14-step program with 37 chapters, EI seems to represent the largest of the groups. In addition to simply distributing information, they host annual conferences, and grant affiliation status to local ministries. EI maintains official affiliation with organizations such as the National Association of Evangelicals, as well as the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), the primary mental health organization that seeks to treat homosexuality.

In the following content analysis I utilize the online testimonies from ex-gays posted on the EI Web site. As represented on their Web site, these are statements “from real-life people who have struggled with homosexuality,” and specifically, the testimonies from which I draw come from the section labeled, “stories from men who have overcome homosexuality” (EI Web site). Of the 38 men’s testimonies on the site, I use the first 20 for this analysis. I will seek neither to condemn nor condone the paths taken by these individuals. Rather, my singular purpose is to view them through the social psychological lenses described above, and apply them to identity movements. In doing so, it should become clear that the ex-gay movement can be seen as a “new social movement,” especially in terms of its emphasis on identity and culture.

I do not attempt to parse or highlight attempts by EI to shape a particularistic vision of the ex-gay, or to present a positive image of the ex-gay movement. Undoubtedly such an attempt would have been part of the testimonies they chose, and possibly editorial revisions to the testimonies. However, even assuming that such processes were part of the collecting of these testimonies, it should not subvert the application of the framing, emotion, identity, agency, and culture lenses to the content of the testimonies to demonstrate their applicability. If anything, each of these processes would likely be more pronounced. Since EI leadership is represented by dominant figures in the ex-gay movement, they likely will be fluent in each of these ideas (if not consciously) and would find it beneficial for the testimonies to reflect these salient features on their Web site—the public face of ex-gays.

My coding method is based on a reading of the testimonies to pick out the following ideas: framing, emotion, identity, agency, and culture. I distinguish framing from culture by finding references to claims that seem to be specific attempts at meaning creation by the individuals (framing), from beliefs that seem to be more generally drawn from larger cultural values and ideas. Since successful frames usually draw from existing cultural trends, the distinction can seem somewhat arbitrary. However, there are some claims that seem to be unique to EI, like the coining of the term “homosexual struggler.” This label draws from a 12-step model (Alcoholics Anonymous), applying it to this new category of people (people who continue to struggle to repress or change homosexual feelings) with the assumption that, like the alcoholic who will always be at risk to regress back into drug dependency, the ex-gay will always be at risk to regress back to homosexual obsession or behavior. The coding of agency, identity, and emotion is somewhat clearer, and should be obvious from the descriptions below.


As has been described by other studies of the ex-gay movement, and Evangelicals more broadly, emotions play a critical role in their decision-making processes. In many such movements there is a renewal of “God’s Spirit” working through God’s people, expressing Spirit-self through affecting the emotions of the individual (or group), and frequently bringing to mind vivid spiritual images. This emphasis can be so powerful that the structures of the church may be asked to bend to new movements of the Spirit (Webber 2002, 139). Similarly for ex-gays, the presence of sudden and powerful emotions (especially in the context of prayer) or recurring and bothersome unease, is frequently understood as a sign from the Spirit that must be interpreted and obeyed (Wolkomir 2006, 54). For the ex-gay these feelings can point to a mismatched identity--one’s ideal identity (as created by God) versus one’s lived identity (as a gay man)--and drives the individual to seek authenticity. As Wolkomir puts it,

… the men knew, from their own biographies as gay men who had staged heterosexual identities, that performance could be faked and therefore was not enough to signify a real transformation. As a result, they focused on the experience of spontaneous “right” feeling as a barometer of authenticity. An Accept member [the ex-gay group in her study] explained the importance of emotional experience this way: “Sometimes people do and say all the right things; they talk love and pretend acceptance, but they are still angry or hurt and don’t feel it. Being a good Christian means changing in your heart; you have to feel it.” For these reasons, the men relied heavily on feelings as evidence of authentic transformation to a gay or ex-gay Christian. (2006, 141-142)
The men in the online EI testimonies exhibit this same reliance on emotion to confirm for themselves the decisions they had made. In general, there were many references to emotion in their testimonies, as is common in the telling of sexual stories (Plummer 1995, 154-155) and identity movements (Nepstad 2004, 152; Taylor and Whittier 1995, 176-177). These stories tend to revolve around two types: unease or depression while living in the “gay lifestyle”, and joy and peace now that the man had become a Christian. There were explicit references to the desire to become authentic in some of the stories. While exploring a genealogy of the construction of these stories is beyond the scope of this paper, the similarity is striking. An existing community narrative could be one explanation for the commonality between these stories, and such is seen in many movements; another explanation could simply be selection bias by the EI editor(s).

The first pattern, unease or depression about one’s previous life takes several common forms. In one type, the individual has attempted to deny one’s same-sex sexual attraction (SSA), and may be involved in an heterosexual marriage. One man describes “I hated who I was. … My self-hatred extended to the deepest recesses of my being. There was literally nothing about me that I considered good or worthy of any consideration or affection” (Quattlebaum). Another describes his “feelings of homosexuality, depression and loneliness” (Oyloe) since he felt he could not discuss his feelings with anyone in his community or church. A third, also married (though temporarily separated), says, “As determined as I was, I had no peace” (Goeke).

The other primary set of cases, characterized by unease with one’s former way of life, are those who self-identified as gay, but for whom it never “took.” Many of these stories have several common characteristics, like the self-loathing and depression common in the first set of cases. However, since these men did not try to repress their feelings by jumping into marriage before adequately dealing with their feelings, many of them share a pattern of behavior they consistently label as self-destructive and promiscuous, what they seem to collectively call “the gay lifestyle.” One describes a time when he was about to “hook-up” (engage in anonymous sex): “feeling disgusted with myself but hopelessly needy, I was suddenly overcome by the presence of the Lord” (Fountain). A second describes an early sexual relationship with a male friend: “I remember hating and feeling disgusted by what we were doing” (Ensley). A third, who was also involved in a long-term relationship with another man (three months), says that though he believed (at the time) that he was “born homosexual,” he “just became more miserable” in the relationship (Jernigan).

Both case sets tend to share psychoanalytic and cultural descriptions of homosexuality, whether trying to make up for love they felt they did not receive from their father, or for not being able to truly express their masculinity. One says, “As I continued to mature, this need to be loved as a man by a man was not met. … I would fall into utter despair for weeks at a time, seeing little or no hope” (Ballinger). Another says, “I never remember receiving physical affection from my father. I found it hard to believe that he loved me, and I felt worthless” (Jernigan). A third describes that “longing to have male acceptance drove me into insecurity and depression” (Fountain). Two others describe their association between male homosexuality and the feminine, the first describing himself as being an “emotional female” (Cluse), and a second saying he was “labeled ‘sissy’ by other boys” (Jernigan). In all of these cases, there is the assumption that their emotionally distant (or absent) father caused them to lack something, whether it was a masculine role model to teach them how to be heterosexual, a father with whom to emotionally bond, or a male to teach them how to love other males in an emotionally appropriate way (as opposed to a sexualized way), all common foundations for therapeutic intervention for ex-gays (Erzen 2006, 137-138).

Moving from the before to the after, we see a dramatic change in the emotional descriptions from the ex-gay. Each of the stories bear a remarkable similarity after abandoning “the gay lifestyle,” or putting his faith in God, not dissimilar from standard salvation conversion stories (Snow and Machalek 1984, 170-174). Most describe a tremendous healing, joy, clarity or lifting of a weight. Many also describe a reversal of the loneliness or feelings of lack of masculinity. One says, “I felt, for the first time, that I was loved and accepted even without my façade. … God began to heal my heart of much of the damage that had been inflicted up on it from feeling like I was not as good as the other guys” (Ballinger). A man with a similar testimony says, “For the first time, I saw myself as forgiven and cleansed” (Jernigan). As confirmatory evidence for their beliefs, several men describe the salience of their feelings. One says, “I experienced the single most powerful experience I have ever had in my life aside from salvation” (Thomas). Another says, “God became more real to me than I had ever imagined! … I knew that He was right beside me” (Jernigan). Still another, having been given a book by his father about coming out of homosexuality, explains the force that overcame his resistance to reading it: “I believe that the Holy Spirit physically caused my hands to open the book” (Goeke). A fourth man says “I had a total peace and confidence that this was God’s leading,” referring to his decision to marry his wife, despite his “homosexual struggles” (Davies).

In all of these emotional descriptions, the patterns seem to indicate a phenomenon typical of social movement participants—the construction of histories that have a useful explanatory framework, micromobilizing potential, and a solidarity rooted in a shared identity. While I will hold the framing and identity discussions until later in the paper, micromobilization is an important idea for understanding why individuals would participate in a movement. As we have seen in Nepstad above, the engagement of emotions was important for many U.S. Christians to become socially and politically engaged in the oppression and torture of individuals in Latin America. Similarly, as described by Taylor and Whittier, the creation of common feeling rules help to consolidate shared identity (1995, 176-177). In this case, we can see that some of the commonality in their emotional stories may derive from the therapeutic literature, as in the case of reparative therapists and psychoanalysts who describe the necessity of a strong father-figure with whom to emotionally bond, or model masculinity, or a general cultural belief that gay men are emotionally closer to women than men. The sharing of common stories, energizing these stories with emotion, linked to an heuristic of truth-discernment (a leading of the Spirit) with the experience of “right emotions,” provides a powerful source of solidarity and mobilization for the ex-gay.

Agency and Identity

Social movement participants need to feel that their actions can effect change, whether in the political world, the social world, or in themselves. A movement’s emphasis on the latter two is characteristic of new social movements. While emotions can frequently propel action, and can be self-justifying for an individual, rational actor models assume that individuals make conscious decisions to act based on the information available to them, and based on benefits they believe they will derive from their actions. If a participant feels that her involvement in a movement is beneficial, either to herself or to the community at large, she will be more likely to participate. In the online testimonies from the ex-gays, we frequently see references to agency. In this case we do not typically see the ex-gay wanting to change society or laws. Instead, we see the ex-gay feeling like he has the ability to accomplish his goals, whether it is to live a life of celibacy, to experiment with intimate relationships with women, to grow in his relationship with God, or to become authentic to his true self. Another commonality is that the ex-gay frequently expresses dissonance between his experienced self and his ideal self. He may believe that God does not intend for him to “be gay”, or he simply may be dissatisfied with the nature of his relationships with men, specifically, a lack of emotional connection with men, or feelings of dissatisfaction with the “hook-up lifestyle.” These latter issues are questions of identity, which we see discussed in the testimonies.

Several testimonies refer to the individual’s decision to take control of his life and make a change, specifically, to deal with his same-sex sexual feelings and actions. The larger context is that the ex-gay typically feels his is trapped by homosexual feelings, framing his struggle either as addiction, a spiritual battle, or the result of childhood sexual abuse. Coincident with the capitalist value of self-determination, the testimonies that ex-gays construct frequently include references to taking the first step themselves, or actively taking the initiative to seek help:

  • …I decided to take action and seek out help. (Quattlebaum)
  • My choice to entrust my heart to [God] has been the most healing choice of my life. (Quattlebaum)
  • I began to initiate contact with Christian guys in Campus Crusade for Christ (Ballinger)
  • We attended our first Exodus freedom conference … and were filled with hope for change. (Goeke)
  • I knew I was meant for better [than hook-ups and feeling disgusted with myself], and for the first time dared to believe my life could change. (Ensley)
  • The choice was difficult, but I chose to walk away [from homosexuality]. (Rapp)

Frequently the ex-gay will describe agency given by God or God’s Spirit, who empowers the ex-gay to accomplish his goals. This attribution is not mutually exclusive from those individuals who take individual initiative to make a change in their lives. Many testimonies evidence the belief that God further empowers change in his life, after the individual makes the first step. Assigning freedom from sexually-unwanted feelings and behaviors to God often is contextualized as a victory over a spiritual battle with personified evil, Satan. We see each of these types of external attribution in these testimonies:

  • [God] would then ask me to take steps of faith, to do something that I felt inadequeate to do so that He could affirm His character in my life. I grew as God used me through my weaknesses and my fears. … God gave me the courage to speak openly and honestly… He could use my experiences and my story to bring healing and hope to others… (Ballinger)
  • Lord Jesus, I cried inside, I can’t change me or the mess I’ve gotten myself into—but You can. (Jernigan)
  • … if I confessed my past freely, Satan would have no ammunition against me. (Jernigan)
  • …with God nothing is impossible. … the blood of Jesus delivered me and set me free. (Cluse)
  • … God brought it all about. I am delivered, and I know God can deliver others too. (McClurkin)
  • God has given me the strength to fight and regain the ground that Satan tried to take from me. (Fountain)
  • …the Lord has helped me push past these automatic [superficial homosexual feelings] to cultivate a real relationship with the real person behind the appearance. (Ensley)

As with most new social movements, issues of identity become a dominant feature of discourse. Several aspects of identity construction can be observed in the ex-gay testimonies, and in them we can clearly see a before and after picture. On the one hand, the men have constructed stories about their previous identities, such as caricatures of “gay men,” caricatures of “femininity,” false or distorted identities, wounded selves, and of the “sinful life.” On the other hand, the contrast is what they became after they sought to change those old identities. Most of the men framed their new identities in terms of an authentic self, or a godly self. Few called themselves heterosexual, but saw themselves as strugglers, using the discourse of self-help and 12-step movements. Crucial to this transformation was their first step of reaching out to God, and God healing them from these distortions and woundedness, both aspects of agency as we saw above.

It is clear from the testimonies that ex-gays experience emotional distress because of their sexual attractions that they believed were contrary to God’s will, or were contrary to their own expectations for their sexuality. Whether these feelings came from religious stigma attached to deviations from the “one man-one woman” formula for intimate relationships proposed by many Christian denominations, internalizations of negative stereotypes about homosexuals, a desire to have the “ideal family” (characterized by the 50s “Leave it to Beaver” model, as described by Coontz 2005), or fear of social stigma (or any of several other possibilities), the desire to “become straight” can be extremely powerful. We will explore some of these in more detail when we look at culture and framing.

Helen Ebaugh describes the process of “becoming an ex” in her book with the same title (Ebaugh, 1988). While her framework is too elaborate to apply in detail to this brief analysis of changes from the gay to ex-gay identity, her research on the process of role exit can provide insight into exiting the role of homosexual. However, not all of the ex-gays who have online testimonies refer to ever entering the role of homosexual. Some of them simply experienced same-sex attraction without ever acting on those feelings, so may not be best described as having inhabited the role of gay man. In either case, in the online ex-gay testimonies we can see several of Ebaugh’s explanations for why individuals leave roles (or more specifically, what causes people to have “first doubts” about their current role), especially the category of explanations she calls burnout.

A central theme of why many individuals exit roles is “the discrepancy between an idealized image of the role and what it was like in reality” (65). Ebaugh relates this to burnout, and which she describes as (quoting Dworkin), “an extreme form of role-specific alienation characterized by a sense that one’s work is meaningless and that one is powerless to make it more meaningful” (54). This understanding can be seen in the testimonies of many of the ex-gays. While straying somewhat from Ebaugh, I want to sub-classify the burnout descriptions as push and pull factors. Push factors more explicitly follow Ebaugh’s definition of burnout, in that alienation provides motivation to exit a role. Pull factors describe one’s expectations of what the new role will offer, or what Ebaugh calls “seeking alternatives”, where one “seeks out and evaluates alternative roles” (87). In this case there is typically only one clear role to assume, that of the heterosexual. However, as we see in the testimonies, many ex-gays find that “heterosexuality” may not be achievable, and so must become satisfied with the identity of struggler, retaining the perpetual label of ex-gay.

Several push factors are evident in the testimonies. One is the description of a sinful and or wounded life, with gay feelings simply as one part of broader patterns. One ex-gay says, “My life revolved around sex, drugs and rock and roll. That milieu was the locus of my distorted, shaky identity, … a stormy, unstable season in my own life” (Paris). Later he describes the start of his “sexual awakening” when he experimented sexually with two male friends (starting at age 11), and being molested by two male teachers as a teenager. Another says

At the age of 10, some boys at camp gang raped me. This experience compounded the deep-seated hatred and anger I already felt toward men. Yet it was a twisted way to receive some of the affection I craved, so I embraced it as a tool. In junior high, I had sex with a number of other boys and some adult males. Even while engaging in such behavior, I did not see myself as homosexual. [Several years later] I became involved with some drug use, [and eventually] I was taking drugs all the time to stay as numb as possible. (Cluse)
Most of the testimonies do not lump their sexual feelings into broader sinful patterns, but frame their identities specifically as caricaturizations of boys destined to become gay men, or the “gay lifestyle.” These form the bulk of the push factors in the testimonies. In the first set of descriptions, we see adult ex-gays who remember growing up feeling different, or exhibiting non-stereotypical masculine roles. One man describes a common claim of the ex-gay: “From my earliest memories, I felt different from the other boys. I was gifted musically, and labeled ‘sissy’ by the other boys” (Jernigan). A similar sentiment is expressed by another man: “I had been an emotional female for as long as I could remember” (Cluse). A third says, “I was called a ‘fag’ for the first time in the sixth grade at my Christian school” (Goeke). Similarly, the stereotype that masculinity is characterized by athleticism and “toughness” is expressed as a deficit by another man: “I always felt different from the other boys, isolated because I couldn’t play their sports or act tough” (Ensley). As we will see later, when discussing cultural aspects to the ex-gay movement, we will see that early gender non-conformity is typically believed to herald “sexual identity confusion” as an adult, and is frequently associated with psychoanalytic predictors, such as an emotionally or physically absent father.

The second set of common descriptions that form push factors are the caricaturizations of the “gay lifestyle.” Here, we see ex-gays who fully embrace what they believe to be “the gay identity,” and engage in the roles they expect from that identity, but experiencing dissatisfaction with that identity. One man attempted a meaningful relationship with another man, but did not find joy. After first attempting suicide, then shortly thereafter breaking up with his girlfriend, he “fully embraced [his] homosexuality and plunged into a three-month relationship with another man. ‘This is who I am,’ I told myself. ‘I was born homosexual, and this kind of life is what God intended for me.’ But, instead of finding happiness, I just became more miserable” (Jernigan). Another man, after being in an unfulfilling, several-year relationship with a man, says, “I started drinking and smoking pot to deal with the depression. I broke up with Doug and entered the gay ‘fast lane’: all-night parties, plus lots of sex and chemicals. The depression only deepened. I knew it was only a matter of time before I would commit suicide” (Shores). A third man, after having a bad experience with an older sexual predator at his church, describes his life. “When I finally left the church in disgust, I left home and plunged headlong into the gay lifestyle. The sight of men dancing with each other and publicly kissing made me feel so good. I felt like I was finally in a place where I belonged. I was new on the gay scene; soon everyone was asking who I was and who I was dating. I went to house parties, orgies, got hooked on ‘poppers’ and started drinking. I was like a kid in a candy store with no parents around!” (Foster).

Pull factors are those idealizations of what one is looking for in their new role. In these testimonies we are given narratives of individuals who are much happier with their new identities, some of which match their idealizations, some of which do not. The most common themes which characterize the ex-gay narratives of their lives after entering their new role as ex-gay, are individuals who now see themselves as living their authentic selves, and those who are living as they believe God originally intended for their lives. We see the latter in many testimonies. One man says, “I no longer identity as ‘gay’, but rather as a man of faith and a proud citizen of the United States” (Thomas). Another says, “I no longer walk around confused about my identity. God has given me the wholeness and healing that I was so desperate for” (Fountain). While at the start of their ex-gay journey many may believe their end-goal is heterosexuality, many discover they find joy in the identity of a “child of God,” regardless of a change in sexual identity. A third man exhibits this when he says, “Heterosexuality isn’t the goal, holiness is. And I’m getting there!” (Ensley).

Living authentically is also an important pull factor for the ex-gay. This theme is characteristic of many new social movements, as the individual seeks to find her “true self” amidst the imposing and corrupting forces of modernity, bureaucracy, and oppressive cultural regimes such as racism, sexism, classism, nationalism or heterosexism. One sees the same in the motivation of the ex-gay to find his true self, which he can presumably not attain by accepting the gay identity. Often this is coincidental with the previous pull factor, finding one’s identity as a child of God. One man says, “[God] helped me unpack my true identity – as a man and a child of God” (Goeke). Another says, “The process of discovering and reclaiming myself required self-examination, brutally honest confession to God and others, and a passion to realize the identity and destiny I knew God had for me” (Quattlebaum). A third, describing his life as a gay man says, “Such a me-centric worldview was stifling my true self, the one that's created to be in relationship with our Creator and His creation” (Thomas). A fourth talks about his same-sex struggle as one of “false identity, and false perceptions” (Fountain).

Culture and Framing

Culture and framing represent the final two analytical lenses through which we will examine the ex-gay movement. As mentioned above, both are intertwined with each other, and neither can be fully disentangled from emotions, agency and identity. However it is possible to see shades of emphasis for both of these. Framing, in this analysis, will refer to the process of meaning creation by Exodus International, and the ex-gays themselves. Culture, here, refers not to the culture created by the ex-gay community, but refers to ideas and values the ex-gay uses to help her explain and justify her lifestyle and choices.

Culture provides all individuals, families, groups, and institutions with a framework for understanding the world, giving us patterns of behavior, and providing many other tools (physical and abstract) for our daily lives. Ex-gays draws from this toolkit (in a Swidlerian sense) to help them understand their experiences. Several specific sources provide ex-gays with resources. One important source is the church. There are several denominational affiliates from whom ex-gays claim to come, from Judaism (JONAH), Catholicism (Courage), Mormonism (Evergreen), and many specific groups that appeal to Evangelicals (Love Won Out, Living Waters, Desert Stream, PFOX). Most of these groups cite traditional interpretations of key Biblical texts to support their view that homosexuality is a sin, and that God’s intent for all people is to marry one person of the opposite sex. Says one ex-gay, “Growing up in the church, I heard that homosexuality was an abomination, attendant with remarks like, ‘God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve’” (Quattlebaum), and similarly from a second man, “No one talked about homosexuality in small town North Dakota, especially not at church, except to say that gays were all going to hell” (Oyloe). Another ex-gay, who identifies more as an ex-transsexual, describes his beliefs about what God wanted from him after he had surgically become a woman: “My family and I were very involved in our local church and I set out to recreate myself again - into the perfect Christian wife and mother. … No one knew that I was transgendered; they knew and accepted me as a Christian woman raising a family” (Cluse). Another man says he believes that, “homosexuality was an illegitimate way to meet a legitimate need. The Lord taught me that sex was not created to meet my needs—only He, my heavenly father, could do that” (Chambers).

Beliefs about gender come from both tradition and the church. Whether one blames patriarchal heterosexism, or laws of nature (though cross-cultural studies would seem to refute the latter), the contemporary West has ingrained models of masculinity and femininity that are difficult to ignore and transgress. As we have already seen when looking at identity, many ex-gays saw themselves as “feminine” as children, and experienced that femininity as a negative quality. Teaching and enforcing stereotypes of how men/boys act and how women/girls act have even become part of therapeutic techniques for helping ex-gays better perform their sex-typical roles as adults, and prevent the development of homosexuality in children (Rekers 1995). In the same way, Ebaugh describes several processes that must occur when exiting a role and taking on a new identity, one of which is becoming resocialized into new sets of role prescriptions (Ebaugh 1988, 4).

In addition to the gender-related quotes relating to identity, other examples evidence the importance of sex-typed expectations and behavior of the ex-gay men. One man describes his experiences with the women of his church, who try to teach him how to be a man, since his boy’s father was not present in his life.

Sister Kitty Braizley in particular – would even teach me how to carry myself like a man. When I wanted to sing soprano, they would say, “Get some bass in your voice!” Or, “Men don’t sing soprano!” Sister Braizley even taught me how to walk. If I held my hand up in a feminine way, she would hit it and say. [sic] “Put your hands at your side. Men don’t hold their hands like that!” (McClurkin)
Another man says, “I always felt terribly insecure in the company of other boys. I wasn’t good at sports” (Davies). A third man, describes how the “beauty of the feminine was unveiled and I was overwhelmed with awe” (Oyloe), highlighting an inherent quality of women that he should have seen earlier, but failed to because of his woundedness. Another man describes qualities normally considered feminine, and associates those with “red flags often associated with homosexuality,” saying, “I was sensitive, insecure and artistic” (Goeke).

Framing processes can involve utilizing existing cultural codes, as well as creating new codes and relating them to salient cultural codes. If successful, the movement will have powerful rhetorical tools available for the media, for individuals, and for society at large to accept the validity of the movement. Ex-gays draw heavily on gender-specific roles to inform their worldview, as well as the assumption that homosexuality is a sin. In addition, ex-gays use many codes that come into greater cultural acceptance. For example, the 12-step model of the alcoholic is one that assumes that the individual with a drinking problem will always be an alcoholic, or a struggler. Similarly, many ex-gays frame their feelings as a battle that will never be won, and so their identity will perpetually be an ex-gay struggler. One man describes hope he experienced, “in light of my homosexual struggle – a struggle that dated back to at least age 8” (Quattlebaum). Another says, “My hurt was real and a struggle-free life is not what I have found. What I have found is freedom in the hope that after this short life, God will fulfill His promise of healing to completion” (Chambers). Rather than seeing themselves as gay, or “cured”, the ex-gays with testimonies on Exodus seem emotionally and spiritually satisfied with the success of being ex-gays. Even prior to the transformation of their sexual identity, many do not talk about “being gay”, but still reference the struggler language, referring to their “struggles with homosexuality.” In fact, the rhetoric of the struggler can be found in most of these 20 testimonies, is one of the primary themes, and appears 98 times in these testimonies (in terms of important words, struggler is surpassed only by derivatives of Christ/Christian at106 times, homosexual at 129 times, and church at 131 times).

Another common frame for the ex-gay is that of psychoanalysis. In tension with Freud’s perspectives on Christianity, in an ironic twist, the Christian ex-gay movement draws from Freud’s ideas about the relationships between men and women, and parents and children to explain their feelings. Reparative therapy is the dominant psychological paradigm for ex-gays, spearheaded by NARTH, a group of counselors, psychologists, psychoanalysts and psychiatrists who reject their licensing boards’ official statements about homosexuality (all of which affirm the mental health of gays and lesbians), and ex-gay therapy (most of which caution against the dangers of ex-gay therapy) to try to help people change their sexual identity. Despite having little published, peer-reviewed data to support their claims and methods, they provide a foundation for how many ex-gays understand the development of their own homosexual feelings. Some common themes (for the male ex-gay) are the absence of a father, a domineering mother, sexual abuse (or sexual experimentation with other youth), and failure to emotionally attach to one’s father. Within this paradigm, male homosexuality develops from the drive to make up, as an adult, for the lack of masculine attention one failed to receive as a child. Thus the goal of reparative therapy is to “repair” this damaged emotional drive for emotional intimacy.

Feelings of emotional distance from the ex-gay’s father are extremely common in ex-gay testimonies. The word father is used 50 times in these testimonies, while mother is used only half that amount. Many ex-gays describe growing up without a father, and recall an emotionally distant father. One says,

I was used to living without a father because when I was very young my parents divorced. The sudden death of my dad at age eight simply made his absence permanent, leaving me with a hole in my heart and unequipped to live in a boy’s world. I didn’t have a clue how to do things I would have learned from dad, like playing baseball, shooting hoops and relating to other boys. (Quattlebaum)
This same man describes sexual abuse, although it “didn’t feel like a violation – I finally felt special and close to a father figure.” Similarly, when he entered adolescence, he says, “I sought out others sexually to recapture those feelings of closeness, which helped me medicate the pain of rejection and abandonment.” These themes are relayed repeatedly in the testimonies.
  • I felt further and further removed from the world of masculinity. … I wanted to feel loved by my dad even though I was different from him, and I wanted to feel accepted by the boys at school even though I was different from them. … my desire for masculinity led to a physical attraction towards other men. (Ballinger)
  • We were not an affectionate family and I never remember receiving physical affection from my father. I found it hard to believe that he loved me, and I felt worthless. … I began to yearn for intimacy with other men in perverse ways. Because of this wrong thinking, I came to believe that I was a homosexual. (Jernigan)
  • [Due to being born three months prematurely,] they whisked me away to the hospital nursery to be in isolation for the next six months. … I am convinced that the separation and isolation I experienced at birth helped to set the stage for the direction my life would take in years to come. … I had strongly negative feelings about both men and women, and perceived that women were stronger and more in control than men. Desiring that strength, I believed that I needed not only to play the sexual role of female, I needed to actually become female. (Cluse)
  • I know what it is like to be so emotionally hungry for male love, affirmation and attention that the dirtiest of acts satisfies a portion of my hunger. (Chambers)
Another frame commonly used by the ex-gay relates back to the idea of agency and identity. As described already, many ex-gays believe that once the ex-gay takes the first step to “follow God’s will”, that God will then facilitate his healing. Like the concept of the struggle, healing is also an important ex-gay rhetorical device, being used 51 times in these testimonies. The medicalization of their feelings (thus the term healing) can be seen as the absorption of the medically-based psychoanalytic paradigm. The construction of a new identity for the ex-gay, therefore, while still a struggle to maintain purity, is a healed identity. One man says, “there were many issues to confront as I started down the road to total healing” (Foster). He goes on to relate his new-found non-sexual relationships with men as healing “his feelings of self-worthlessness,” acquired from his past wounding from his lack of emotional attachment to his father. Another describes his journey: “God blessed these steps of faith by surrounding me with Christian guys my own age who knew my struggles and who loved me the same as any other man. As I experienced this, God began to heal my heart of much of the damage that had been inflicted upon it from feeling like I was not as good as other guys for so many years” (Ballinger). Yet another says, “What I have found is freedom in the hope that after this short life, God will fulfill His promise of healing to completion” (Chambers).

A related theme is that of the “wounded healer,” the idea that God uses the emotional struggle of one person, in this case the struggler with issues of sexual identity, to help God heal others with emotional pain. One man describes this belief in this way: “Not only so that He could use my experiences and my story to bring healing and hope to others, but also because He desired to continue to challenge me, to continue to reveal Himself to me, and to continue to transform my heart” (Ballinger). Similarly, building on this belief that God uses the struggles of one to help another, another man says “I know from His Word that he allows struggles in our lives so that his [sic] power might be displayed in us and so that He will receive glory” (Goeke).


Social movement theory, in some ways, represents the core of sociology, in that it describes how society changes and organizes itself (Buechler 2000). Removed from social movement theory for decades, social psychological approaches have regained favor as a supplement to macrosociological theories such as resource mobilization and political process models. Several key approaches within social psychology have particular benefit, such as the influence of emotions, agency and identity on micromobilization and continued participation. Approaches such as frame and cultural analysis can tie emotions, agency and identity into broader macrosociological perspectives, and all five are profoundly interactive with each other. Together, they can help us understand some of the dynamics of new social movements, since new social movements are frequently characterized by issues of identity and agency. The ex-gay movement, as a contemporary example of a new social movement, seems to yield much information to these social psychological approaches to social movement analysis.

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