Historical essay
Desire Work, Gender, and Sexuality in South African Ex-Gay Ministries: A Conversation with Melissa Hackman

Desire Work, Gender, and Sexuality in South African Ex-Gay Ministries: A Conversation with Melissa Hackman

In her new book, Desire Work: Ex-Gay and Pentecostal Masculinity in South Africa, Dr. Melissa Hackman examines the experiences of Pentecostal men in “ex-gay” ministries in post apartheid Cape Town. Published in 2018 by Duke University Press, Desire Work explores the belief systems, daily activities, and complicated processes of transformation that take place at the intersection of sexuality and national redemption within an ex-gay ministry. Hackman is the Librarian for Sociology & Development Studies in the Robert W. Woodruff Library at Emory University, and I recently had the opportunity to interview her about her book.

Emily: For those not familiar, how do you define “ex-gay” and “ex-gay ministries,” and how would you characterize this community in South Africa?

Melissa: Ex-gay ministries offer themselves as “solutions” to the “problem” and “sin” of homosexuality. They claim to be able “to heal homosexuality through the power of Jesus Christ.” Ex-gay is its own identity category as people in these ministries work on altering their sexualities from homo-to-heterosexual. In South Africa, this community was male.

Emily: Mainstream discussions of “conversion therapy” seem to employ a primarily religious frame. Your research demonstrates how ex-gay Pentecostal men’s experiences of self-making drew from a host of sources, including “psychology, theology, NGOs, literalist readings of the Bible, and self-help,” as well as national concerns regarding a crisis of masculinity.1 How does your research inform our understanding of how these programs function in specific contexts, the harm they cause, and the ways that participants respond to them?

Desire Work. (©Duke University Press)

Melissa: Context is so important. Whatever the hegemonic masculinity framework is for a particular place, it shapes the ex-gay movement, so it looks different in Latin America versus Africa versus the United States. But there’s a transnational component because it’s mostly Americans who go abroad and start ministries. What often travels is an American version of the ex-gay movement, but the staff and members of the ministries are locals, so that changes the inflection. The Americans who start these ministries often have very little understanding of the local culture. What’s more, they say what they are doing is counseling, even though they’re not trained in psychology, which gets reframed within 12-step sort of language. There’s a self-help reframing. It’s an amalgamation of all these different pieces that come together. That’s why we need more local studies, especially in Latin America, and it’ll be different in Mexico than in Ecuador. It’s hard to do this research though. I had to sign an accountability contract with the ministry where I worked. It was a list of sins, some of which I did do, others not. But that’s the power of social science. Who the researcher is really matters and can totally change the study.

To the last part of your question, these ministries are complex to study because they are part of the Religious Right and often put forth ideals and practices that can cause trauma and long-term self-esteem consequences for participants. However, as an anthropologist, it was not my project to cast judgment on these ministries. I saw my work as attempting to understand these ministries and their participants in context. I was interested in the hows and whys of men’s experiences in attempting, mostly unsuccessfully, to alter their sexualities and masculinities.

Emily: “Desire work” is a key intervention in your book. How do you define this concept, and how does it function in your project?

Melissa: We often think that desire is a natural and universal part of one’s identity, that everyone has it and experiences it in the same, organized way. People in the ex-gay movement thought of desire as natural and God-ordained, but they also viewed it as pliable and manipulable. They made me think about how desire is something that needs to be unpacked as naturalized. They taught me that desire has a history, has a cultural context (informed by the intersection of race, class, and gender), and that it changes over time — and in people over time. Desire also changes the way we see ourselves over time. I called the book Desire Work because the effort of these ex-gay Pentecostal men was indeed work. (I also thought of it as “werk” in the drag sense, as in “werk it.”) It was a way to denaturalize desire and to lend credibility to their gender identity. In post apartheid South Africa at the beginnings of democracy, masculinity was considered “in crisis” and in need of work. The ex-gay community is a small population, but they tell us something larger about South Africa and about masculinity, which is always up for discussion and debate.

Melissa Hackman, PhD, Sociology and Development Studies Librarian.

Emily: As a scholar who hasn’t done extensive fieldwork myself, I was fascinated by your discussion about negotiating not only local politics, but also your own identity throughout the research process. You also draw from C. J. Pascoe’s concept of a “least gendered identity.” How did you navigate this identity, and how did it shape your research?

Melissa: The thing about doing fieldwork is you don’t realize that people speak back to you. They don’t teach you that in your methods course. These men had this idea of “sexual brokenness” that’s the result of being traumatized by family, by gender’s demands, or by social context. When I was in the field, I had longer hair and dressed more femininely, so that I’d be seen as a woman who was worth talking to. If I presented as more butch, I’d be viewed as suspect. A lot of what I learned in the field was hard on me and my self-esteem. I was told that I wasn’t attractive, that I was fat, that I wasn’t feminine enough. When I came back from the field, it was hard to deal with all these ways that these men had been speaking back to me. It’s important in terms of working through the material; it’s not about me, but it is what my body meant in a social system where to be othered is to be considered dangerous. These men wanted to be heterosexual, so they would practice it with me. They wanted to be attracted to me. My body became a conversation piece in their own desire work.

Emily: Since I took the graduate course “Anthropology of Gender and Sexuality” at Brown University from you, I can see how your research overlaps with what and how you teach. How have you found the experience of teaching your research?

Melissa: With undergraduates, I’ve have good discussions about ethics. I wasn’t out (as a lesbian) in the field until the end of my fieldwork. I didn’t explicitly lie. If I was directly asked, I answered, but I didn’t openly talk about it. Undergraduates like to discuss if that was ethical or not. That gets at the ethics of fieldwork and what we owe people — “the truth of who we are” — when we go out into the field. The whole book is about this idea that we don’t have authentic selves. We’re all always engaged in “work” on our identities, which has lots to do with aspiration. It’s a much more complicated exploration of identity in the field than the one line scholars often include in their books: “I am [X] and it shaped my research in [Y] ways.” I had to navigate my gender and my sexuality. I also had to navigate my whiteness in a majority black country that’s been oppressed by white people. It’s important for us to think about the work we do and who we are as we do it. The ex-gay movement gives us lots to think with about what we think the world looks like, and should look like.

Emily: Lastly, “success” is such a fraught goal, outcome, and metric in your book. Chapter Five — lyrically titled, “I Didn’t Fall. I’m Free” — chronicles the stories of the many ex-gay men who “fell” from their pursuit of heterosexuality, but speak of their time in the ministry as productive and transformative. How do you reconcile these contradictions in your book?

Melissa: We do talk about how people have these supposedly successful or failed identities. In other studies or on ex-gay blogs, people tend to say predominantly negative things about their experiences. I was shocked that these men I met had productive and positive experiences. But the truth is we are always successful and failing in our identities. Ex-gay men provide a good lesson for all of us to push back against this all or nothing language about what identity is and is not. We use stark language to talk about things like lesbians who have sex with men, or gay men who are married to women.

In each of these cases, they’re not declaring a single identity; they’re working on their identities and denaturalizing what identity is. For my book, there’s no moral to the story behind that identity is about work and it’s an ongoing aspiration. Most men I met had a hard time figuring out how to be gay and what it meant for them because they were taught it was demonic and bad. They struggled to see gayness in a certain way. So I ultimately begin and end the book with this concept of work and the exploration of success and failure. We need to move past this rigid language of success and failure in talking about identity, and in our research too. We need to write more about how we fail in the field — and to look at what stories that can tell us.


  1. Melissa Hackman, Desire Work: Ex-Gay and Pentecostal Masculinity in South Africa (Durham: Duke University Press, 2018), 164. Return to text.

Emily Contois is Associate Professor of Media Studies at The University of Tulsa. She is the author of Diners, Dudes & Diets: How Gender & Power Collide in Food Media & Culture (2020) and co-editor of Food Instagram: Identity, Influence & Negotiation (2022). She completed her PhD in American Studies at Brown University and holds an MA in American Studies from Brown, an MPH focused in Public Health Nutrition from the University of California, Berkeley, and an MLA in Gastronomy from Boston University.