Data Type: Journal Article

Wrestling with the angels of meaning: The revisionist ideological work of gay and ex-gay Christian men

Wolkomir, M. (2001). Wrestling with the angels of meaning: The revisionist ideological work of gay and ex-gay Christian men. Symbolic Interaction, 24(4), 407-424.

This study seeks to understand how marginalized groups can change their ideologies, and what factors are likely to make such a change successful. While Wolkomir tries to answer these questions broadly, she focuses in on a group of gay Christian men and a group of “ex-gay” Christian men in order to take lessons from how each group adapted Christianity (a dominant belief system that traditionally regards homosexuality as sinful) to their respective sexualities. For example, gay Christians revised the emphasis of Christianity to focus on God as an inclusive entity (who would not condemn them for other sins like telling a white lie, and thus should not condemn them for homosexuality either), while “ex-gay” Christians focused on their roles as righteous strugglers against sinful temptations.

Wolkomir conducted this study using a grounded theory approach on both interviews and fieldwork. Fieldwork was conducted with two groups participating in very different dialogues about homosexuality and Christianity. One group (consisting of gay Christians), labeled “Accept,” consisted of the members of a network of churches from the United Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches. Wolkomir attended group meetings, social functions, and Bible studies of “Accept” as part of her 15 month-long participant observation of the group. The second group (consisting of “ex-gay” Christians), labeled “Expell,” [sic] consisted of members from a ministry with affiliations to “Exodus International, an organization begun in 1976 to help individuals ‘cure’ their homosexuality” (409). Wolkomir also conducted loosely structured, in-depth interviews with 16 “Accept” members, and 14 “Expell” members. Wolkomir ultimately finds that, despite believing in a dominant ideology (which would be very difficult to dismantle wholesale), members of both the “Accept” and “Expell” groups were able to revise their belief systems in order to feel less psychologically distressed. Based on both of the groups observed, Wolkomir suggests that their ideological revision followed the following pattern: “(1) selective dismantling of existing ideology to open new interpretive space; (2) constructing a new affirming ideology; and (3) authenticating new self-meanings.” (408)

This article contributes to knowledge about queer theory, sexuality, and psychotherapy because it directly studies a minority sexual group and the different ways in which two different subsets of that group altered a dominant ideology (Christianity) in order to better fit their lifestyles—and helped to relieve psychological distress. While it is first relevant to see that both groups, despite being very different, were successful in adapting mainstream Christianity to their needs, Wolkomir’s study may have greater implications for minority groups at large (sexual or otherwise). She suggests that more generally, minority groups seeking to change a dominant ideology share the following attributes: they need a safe place in which to come up with an alteration of that ideology, they use ideologies that justify their oppression (which serve as sub-sets of the dominant ideology), and that the dominant identities that the revised ideologies stem from tend to resist such revisions (e.g. “mainstream” Christians tend to resent the alterations to Christianity made by homosexual groups). Wolkomir suggests that this area warrants further study because the alterations of dominant ideologies by minority groups can have positive psychological implications for those groups, and can help create cultural diversity.

Categories: Queer Theory/Sexuality Studies, Social Construction, Sociology of Mental Health and Illness, Symbolic Interaction
Publication Date: 2001