Ex-gay, no way: Sexologist Dr. Jallen Rix talks about surviving the ex-gay movement, part 1
By Justin Juul
Dr. Rix, preaching the word
In every great film about post-college urbanites in America, there is a scene in which the hip gay character’s erratic behavior is explained through a montage that looks something like this:
The character -- we’ll call him Rickie -- is seen as a young child singing in a church choir with another boy. Fast forward two years and Rickie and the other boy – let’s call him Jordan -- have become very good friends. They are shown eating lunch together at school, playing football, watching “The Birdcage,” and eventually listening to rock-n-roll music on a record player. This is when “Walk on The Wild Side,” by Lou Reed starts to play. Soon we see Rickie and Jordan --older teenagers now-- running out of a school building as hundreds of other students are walking in. The camera follows the boys as they walk to Rickie’s house and then fades out when Rickie opens the door to his room and then slams it behind him. At this point, the POV suddenly switches to Rickie’s mother, a wholesome, but meddling schoolteacher who is inexplicably not at work. She responds to the noise by picking up the phone to call her husband who works at the local church. This is when the song gains momentum and when the images in the montage grow more rapid.
First we see the boys sitting side by side on the bed. Then we see the father grabbing his keys and rushing out the door. Back in Rickie’s room, a cigarette is lit. Mischievous glances are exchanged as the smoke billows and then, just as Lou Reed’s colored girls start to go “do duh do duh do duh do,” we see Rickie’s father kicking down the bedroom door. By the time the next verse of the song starts, it’s two months later and we see Rickie sitting in a classroom. He’s holding a picture of Jordan, and as he twirls it around, we see the words “Jordan RIP” scrawled on the back. Jordan has committed suicide and Rickie has been sentenced to two years at gay camp where he learns to hate himself. The final scene of the montage shows Rickie purchasing a greyhound ticket. He’s finished hiding from himself and from others. He is leaving his family, his church, and his town behind. Cut to Rickie as a young adult. He has just told this story to his best friend, Angela, and they are both crying silently and smoking their fifteenth cigarette of the day.
Very sad stuff, and a little on the dramatic side, but there’s a reason this type of scene occurs so frequently in movies and that’s because it really does happen. Gay kids from small-town religious families really do get sent to ex-gay camps or assigned to ex-gay ministries. And then afterward, when they realize the whole deal is complete bullshit, they really do move to big cities to avoid getting beat up every time they leave the house. The problem with the portrayal of the ex-gay experience in movies is that it’s always either given a comic slant (dorm rooms full of young gays who not-so-secretly enjoy each other’s company immensely) or heavily dramatized (see above). But haven’t you always wondered what it’s really like? Well, we have too.
The Guardian sat down sexologist and Ex-Gay survivor, Dr. Jallen Rix, recently to find out what happens when people stop being ex-gay and start living their lives the way god intended.
SFBG: I read on your website that your parents are Southern Baptists, but then I noticed you went to college in Santa Barbara. Where did you grow up?
Dr. Jallen Rix: I grew up near Sacramento actually, and believe it or not, there are a lot of Southern Baptists out there. It’s a white trash/farmer kind of place and growing up there was like growing up in fifties suburbia, culturally. So, even though I was close to San Francisco, I had no idea what it meant to be, like, part of “the gay community.”
SFBG: So your parents were super religious then?
Rix: Yeah, Definitely. I always joke that I was born on a Saturday and then sent to church the very next morning. My parents gave me a very wholesome upbringing. It probably kept me out of trouble, but it was also extremely sheltered. I mean, I was 14 years old when Harvey Milk was assassinated and I had no idea who he was. I have a vague memory of hearing that someone was shot, but I didn’t learn about the gravity of the situation until way later. My parents were so religious that I wasn’t even allowed to go to my high school prom because Christians aren’t supposed to dance. I would never say this to my parents, but sometimes, I’m like “Come on, what do you think made me this way?!” I’m joking of course.
SFBG: Damn, it sounds like you grew up in “Footloose.” Do you appreciate having that kind of background at all or are you totally over it? Do you carry any of the religious stuff with you?
Rix: I’m glad I was raised with a deep appreciation for things that go on behind the five sense; let’s put it that way. It was just unfortunate that my parents’ brand of spirituality relied so much on this idea of “us vs. them.” When I became aware of my sexuality, I became a secret “them,” and that was hard. I’m not religious in a strict sense these days, but I am into some pagan stuff, you know, the radical faeries and all that.
SFBG: No way! I’ve been hearing a lot about radical faeries lately. More on that later. First, did your parents ship you off to gay camp at some point?
Rix: No. I didn’t really begin to face up to my sexuality until I was in college. But at that point, religion was still a huge part of my life. I was a musician and the church was my bread and butter, you know? It was my life. So what happened was that I actually sought out the ex-gay experience. I found an ex-gay ministry in LA and spent the majority of my first years in college shuttling back and forth. I just wanted to be straight so bad!
SFBG: What was it like?
Rix: It was really moving at first because here were all these other people dealing with the same issues I had been struggling with for years and it was in the context of my normal church environment so I was pretty comfortable. We would sing god-oriented pop songs and sit around talking in groups and stuff like that. I was like “finally, I’ve found my people!” The weird thing about it was that the people in the ministry actually seemed gay, yet supposedly we were all there to overcome our “problem.” It seemed really strange in that way, but whatever. I just figured, “well, if they’re here, then there’s hope for me.”
Eventually I found an extension of the LA ministry operating in Santa Barbara. It was a much smaller operation, kind of a subdivision of the regular church, and I soon found myself in charge of my own little ex-gay ministry.
SFBG: Weird. How did that happen?
Rix: It happens a lot, actually. When ministers realize they have a few people dealing with LGBT issues, they usually just find someone they trust to be the head. That happened to be me.
SFBG: It doesn’t seem like a very good plan.
Rix: No. It’s not. I mean nothing fishy happened if that’s what you’re thinking, but I was eventually asked to leave because it became very obvious that I wasn’t counseling the boys the way the church wanted me to. I wasn’t telling them to shape up and ship out; rather, I was just trying to make them feel ok with themselves. The head minister eventually found out about my methods and my position ended rather abruptly.
SFBG: So you were kicked out of your church?
Rix: Yeah. And that’s a typical cycle that most ex-gay ministries go through. The head minister will realize he has a couple gay people in his church so he’ll just round ‘em all up. What usually happens is that the people who get put in charge of the ministries realize how screwed up the idea is and so they either leave or they get kicked out of the church for not acting the way they’re supposed to. Ex-gay survivors joke a lot when they hear about new ministries, like “oh, give it some time, everyone will come out soon.” It just becomes very obvious to everyone involved that the programs don’t’ work at all.
SFBG: When you were going through the experience did you ever buy into it? First, did you ever believe that your sexual inclinations were evil? And then second, did you ever think you could be cured of them?
Rix: I desperately wanted to be accepted was really the thing. As far as homosexuality being evil, that’s not really the idea. It’s more that you’re totally in the dark about your options. I grew up believing that sex was something between a man and a woman who were married and that was basically it. I felt like I didn’t fit into that so, yes, I felt like I was wrong somehow. But I had always felt like that, even outside of the church setting, so it was nothing new. I mean, the first time I ever felt anything sexual was on a trip to Golden Gate Park with my parents when I was about four years old. I remember driving by a statue of naked woman and just thinking, “oh, that’s just a woman, whatever.” I felt nothing. But then we drove by this statue of a guy working a printing press. He was all muscley and straining hard to pull some lever. I remember thinking “Wow. What a man!”
Rix: Yeah, I was really young and so it didn’t make me feel weird right off the bat, but those kinds of feelings became more pronounced over time and I eventually realized they were unusual. I remember when I was ten, a friend and I were making a comic book and for some reason he wanted to know whether I liked drawing men with muscles or girls with tits. Obviously, I was into the men. That’s when I began to feel like my inclinations were wrong somehow. I began to put a name to them and soon realized that that name was bad. I think I knew I was gay, but I was convinced I would grow out of it, you know.
SFBG: Did you go through a period where you tried to date girls and stuff?
Rix: Oh god yeah. I kissed a girl when I was 16. We got naked too. It was exciting just to be naked, but it wasn’t what I wanted.
SFBG: How did your parents respond when you came out?
Rix: It was pretty crazy. I was still heavily affiliated with the church at that time and I was slated to perform for my hometown ministry. It was a real “local kid done good” situation that just went completely haywire. The day before the concert, my parents and I were talking about ex-gay ministries over dinner and my mom was like, “How do you know so much about this, Jallen?” So I took a deep breath and just let it all out. They freaked, man! The concert was cancelled, everyone was crying. It was just a total nightmare. But they’ve come a long way. We’ve gone through all the usual phases: arguing, crying, silence, etc.
Next Week: Jallen talks about leaving the ministries behind to become an Ex Ex-Gay activist and a doctor of sexology.