Leanne Payne and Gendered Cannibalism in the Ex-Gay World, 1970-1990

Chris Babits (The University of Texas)

By the mid-1980s, Leanne Payne, a Christian pastoral counselor, was a prominent authority on treating homosexual men and women, even though her methods were not always what clients expected. In counseling sessions, Payne displayed a knack for asking unorthodox questions. One of her favorites was about cannibals. “Do you know why cannibals eat people?” she often queried. “Cannibals eat only those they admire,” she shared, “and they eat them to get their traits” (Crisis in Masculinity 28).

After years of experience, Payne believed she knew what caused homosexuality. It was not simply an attraction to the same sex. Rather, an insufficient gender identity—men not feeling masculine enough, women lacking femininity—served as the root cause of same-sex attractions. Deficient gender identity had a cannibalistic quality when it came to homosexual object-choice. Payne posited that gay men and lesbians look for “their own unaffirmed characteristics [and] those from which they are separated” in sexual partners (Crisis in Masculinity 28). Like the cannibal who ate a fierce, yet respectable foe, gay men choose partners who exude masculinity. Lesbians, on the other hand, consume the femininity of their lovers.

Payne’s understanding of gendered cannibalism borrowed from a rich psychoanalytic tradition that depicted cannibals as savage, uncivilized, and other. In “The Dissection of the Psychical Personality,” Sigmund Freud wrote about the cannibalistic incorporation of others in the sexual identification process. By the middle of the twentieth century, psychic, sexual, and gendered cannibalism became culturally associated with male homosexuality and pedophilia, particularly in social guidance films. In Boys Beware (1961), for instance, filmmakers warned male youth that homosexuals were sexual predators on the prowl for the innocence and athletic prowess of adolescent boys. Payne drew from this popular conception of gendered cannibalism as she continued to produce the image of the homosexual as an illegitimate other.

Payne’s cannibal analogy also explains an intellectual transformation taking place in the 1970s and 80s. In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) removed “homosexuality per se” from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), the powerful designator of mental illnesses (Bayer). Reflecting on this decision years later, Payne charged that the world of professional psychiatry had abandoned its moral obligation to homosexuals (The Broken Image 13). At the same time, she pointed to the APA’s inclusion of “gender identity disorders” in DSM-III (1980) as evidence that gendered cannibalism was possible. The APA’s nomenclature committee determined that people uncomfortable with their birth sex could be treated for a psychological disorder. With this new diagnostic category in place, some therapists and counselors tried to correct their patients’ gender identities. The treatment of women with a gender identity disorder included a range of behaviorist remedies, like replacing one’s wardrobe of jeans and t-shirts with flowing dresses (The Broken Image 111). Men with a deficient gender identity might have to join an intramural sports team, hit the gym, or be more assertive in the workplace. Counselors like Payne hypothesized that these changes would eliminate the cannibalistic urges of lesbians and gay men.

In the early 1970s, the emerging ex-gay movement underwent a confusing period of bricolage as ministers and counselors combined neo-Freudian ideas about psychosexual development with Christian healing techniques. In this period of trial and error, many counselors found answers in psychiatric understandings of the family. Like the ego psychologists of the mid-twentieth century, these ministers and counselors, some of whom had overcome their own homosexual attractions, asked counselees to locate emotional trauma in their childhood experiences. This included questioning how the counselee related to his or her parents. For ex-gay ministers, an overbearing mother—or a distant, unloving father—often served as the root cause of same-sex desires. Mainstream forms of counseling, like individual and group therapy, and intense prayer could heal the pain that accompanied these unmet childhood needs, effectively curing homosexuality. Some ministries, like Love in Action, located in San Rafael, California from 1973 to 2012, thought that residential programs, where clients lived on-site, provided the necessary surveillance to help men and women from falling back into the “homosexual lifestyle” (Erzen).

Payne’s writings and ministry work provided some intellectual and ideological coherence to the ex-gay movement. In her May 21, 1979 newsletter, she asked readers to pray for her to finish a book on healing homosexuals (Leanne Payne Papers, Wheaton College Special Collections, Box 2). That book, published in 1981 as The Broken Image: Restoring Personal Wholeness through Healing Prayer, made her a sought after speaker and counselor. Her influence expanded when she traveled to the annual meeting of Exodus International in 1982. As a nonprofit, interdenominational ex-gay Christian organization, Exodus connected Payne with like-minded individuals—lay persons and clergy alike—as well as men and women uncomfortable with their same-sex desires. For the most part, the people affiliated with Exodus were like Payne, meaning that they were conservative on issues of gender and sexuality (Erzen; Gerber).

Payne argued that recent political developments had not only increased homosexual activity but also caused a form of gender confusion—emasculation in men, quasi-masculinity in women. Although gay rights activists were certainly to blame, Payne reserved her harshest criticisms for second-wave feminists. Payne accused feminists of creating fear and hatred of men. Since men were not to be trusted, women had to step out of the home and into the workplace to make ends meet. As a result, women abandoned their roles as homemaker-mothers. Payne insisted that leaving the home opened women’s minds to lesbianism (The Broken Image 113). All of this, Payne contended, had a deleterious effect on the so-called natural gendered order.

Payne’s cannibal analogy helped counselees understand how the collapse of traditional gender roles influenced their same-sex attractions. Rather than laboring over those attractions, Payne tried to help counselees discover the root cause of their trauma. Oftentimes, it was simple: fathers had failed to teach their sons how to be patriarchs, whereas mothers never modeled womanly care for their daughters. The shortcomings of the previous generation (or sometimes that of several generations) explained same-sex sexual object choice. Homosexual attractions, in turn, became a way to repair this unmet need from a child’s formative years. Or, in Payne’s words: “Homosexual activity is often merely the twisted way a person tries to take into himself—in the mistaken way of the cannibal—those attributes of his own personality from which he is estranged” (Crisis in Masculinity 28). This form of self-love (or even narcissism) came about because a patient’s parent had not passed on his masculinity or her femininity to their son or daughter.

When counselees could not remember traumatic moments from their childhoods, Payne harnessed the healing power of prayer to call on God and His son, Jesus Christ, for help. With the assistance of the Divine, Payne pushed the boundaries of memory, as counselees remembered trauma from their time in the womb. During one prayer session, for instance, a young man remembered seeing a small circle of light. Within a moment, he knew what it was: the light was the world outside his mother. The situation, however, turned dire. “His shoulders worked desperately to push his head through to the light,” wrote Payne. “Then he was choking, face down, the cord around his neck, while at the same time his chest was being crushed.” The suffering was unbearable. Payne, still counseling the young man, saw “each terrible moment,” ministering “as if the birth were actually occurring.” After reliving his last moments in the womb, the man emerged into the world. Payne asked “the Lord to wrap the little one in the blanket of His love, and this the man experienced as the healing of those memories began.” He cried, imitating the sound of a newborn. Initially astonished by the sounds, Payne recognized that the man had started a new journey. At that moment, he had been reborn (The Broken Image 79-80).

Payne’s counseling methods not only pushed the boundaries of memory but also analyzed gendered cannibalism in an effort to understand the psychic and sexual dimensions of same-sex desires. By the early 1990s, her writings and ministering practices had transformed conversion therapy. Payne continued to stress how an insufficient gender identity caused same-sex attractions. Others incorporated this therapeutic and counseling insight, including Dr. Joseph Nicolosi, the author of Reparative Therapy of Male Homosexuality. As the culture wars became more vitriolic, Payne remained adamant that feminists had destroyed the natural gendered order. Women had entered the workforce in ever-increasing numbers, leaving their children to flounder in the care of others. As a result, homosexuality was on the rise and, with it, so was the cannibalism that Payne proposed as a core part of same-sex desires.


American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III). Third edition. Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association, 1980.

Bayer, Ronald. Homosexuality and American Psychiatry: The Politics of Diagnosis. New York: Basic Books, 1981.

Davis, Sid. Boys Beware. Sid Davis Productions, 1961.

Erzen, Tanya. Straight to Jesus: Sexual and Christian Conversions in the Ex-Gay Movement. Berkeley, CA: U of California P, 2006.

Freud, Sigmund. “The Dissection of the Psychical Personality.” New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis. Edited by James Strachey. New York: W.W. Norton, 1965.

Gerber, Lynne. Seeking the Straight and Narrow: Weight Loss and Sexual Orientation in Evangelical America. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2011.

Newsletter. Leanne Payne Papers, 21 May 1981. Box 2, Special Collections, Wheaton College, Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois.

Nicolosi, Joseph. Reparative Therapy of Male Homosexuality: A New Clinical Approach. Lanham, MD: Jason Aronson, 1991.

Payne, Leanne. The Broken Image: Restoring Personal Wholeness through Healing Prayer. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1981.

-----. Crisis in Masculinity. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1985.

Quarterly Horse 3 (2019), http://www.quarterlyhorse.org/2019/babits.