Is the “ex-gay” movement over yet? Certainly not at the global level. Though the movement shows signs of weakening in the United States, international organizations like Exodus Global Alliance still pose a serious threat to public health, human dignity, and human rights. It’s time to take a good look beyond our borders at the widespread influence of the “ex-gay” movement and its impact on the lives of LGBTQ people around the world, with the help of a new report from Political Research Associates, which examines the problems caused by Exodus in Latin America.
The American Psychological Association has made clear that homosexuality is not a disorder and warns that trying to “cure” it can lead to “intimacy avoidance, sexual dysfunction, depression, and suicidality.” Exodus International president Alan Chambers recently denounced the idea of a “cure” for homosexuality. But Exodus International is in fact only the U.S. arm of a global network. Exodus Global Alliance, the umbrella group for Exodus affiliates all over the world, continues to push the harmful idea that “change is possible.”
Though it hasn’t been entirely defanged, the “ex-gay” movement has taken some serious hits in the U.S. recently. John Paulk, one of the leading poster boys for “ex-gays” who appeared on the cover of Newsweek and in a national ad campaign touting his “change,” disavowed conversion therapy in the April 2013 issue of a northwest periodical, Proud Queer Monthly. He followed that article with a more extensive public statement that included this quote: “Please allow me to be clear: I do not believe that reparative therapy changes sexual orientation; in fact, it does great harm to many people.”
Other recent “ex-gay” news involves legal efforts to protect minors from the harms of “conversion therapy.” A federal appeals court in San Francisco heard arguments April 17 regarding a 2012 California law banning “conversion therapy” for minors. Similar bills have been introduced in New Jersey and Massachusetts.
Political Research Associates, a think tank devoted to exposing movements that undermine human rights, has been tracking the mutating Christian right’s anti-LGBTQ agenda for some time. In 1998, PRA published Calculated Compassion: How the Ex-Gay Movement Serves the Right’s Attack on Democracy, a report looking at the growing use of the “ex-gay” myth as a “kinder, gentler” face to the Christian right’s anti-LGBTQ agenda.
Since the time that report was written, public opinion has continued to evolve and respect for diversity has increased. But the “ex-gay” movement continues to adapt. In some cases it even has gained more mainstream approval, particularly abroad. In October 2010, Cape Town, South Africa, hosted 4,000 global evangelical leaders from 198 countries for the Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization, the biggest gathering of global evangelical leaders in modern history. Endorsed by major evangelical figures such as Billy Graham and Rick Warren, Lausanne mingled all sorts of evangelicals from around the world for a rare convening. Among them were members of Exodus Global Alliance, a network of “ex-gay” groups. And not only as observers. The alliance was tasked with leading a discussion on “Sexuality, Truth, and Grace.”
No doubt organizers knew the “ex-gay” topic could be controversial. One journalist was told that organizers deliberately left sessions on homosexuality off the schedule “to avoid pre-conference publicity” — yet “each of their daily sessions were full.” It is shocking that this respected gathering provided Exodus Global Alliance with an opportunity sell its discredited ideas to evangelical leaders across the globe, bestowing mainstream approval on the “ex-gay” industry.
Willy Torresin de Oliveira, head of Exodus Brazil, presented his paper “God’s Work to Redeem and Transform People Involved in Homosexuality.” Exodus Brazil is featured prominently in a new briefing paper from PRA's latest research on Latin America, a region where these ministries cause a great deal of damage regarding LGBT rights and acceptance.
Chambers may have repudiated “ex-gay” therapy, but that does not indicate the end of its influence. While his shift — and the ensuing split of the Restored Hope Network from Exodus International — signals rough waters for the American “ex-gay” movement, the embrace by mainstream evangelicals of “conversion therapy” and its influence abroad gives reason for continued concern.
Exodus Global Alliance puts the face of “Christian compassion” on homophobia — and by hiding in “ex-gay” ministries, prevents governments and psychological associations from cracking down on their “religious liberty” to help those suffering from unwanted same-sex attraction. However, the idea that they are offering solicited aid is specious at best. The view of LGBTQ people as sinners is used to justify punishing gays who refuse the “remedies” offered by “ex-gay” organizations. Worse still, based on the conviction shared by many evangelical leaders that Christian therapy can make gays straight, some advocate policies that outlaw homosexuality and even allow forced therapy.
In March 2009 the Ugandan group Family Life Network hosted its now-infamous Seminar on Exposing the International Homosexual Agenda, which lead to the drafting of the Anti-Homosexuality (“Kill the Gays”) Bill. Bringing in speakers from the United States, the seminar featured Scott Lively of Abiding Truth Ministries, Exodus International board of directors member Don Schmierer, and Caleb Lee Brundidge, who is associated with another “ex-gay” therapy organization, the International Healing Foundation. Facing global outrage, these figures later attempted to distance themselves from the bill permitting the death penalty for homosexuality.
The claim that gays can and should be “healed” is repeated by such antigay Ugandan pastors as Archbishop Henry Orombi (chair of the Africa Host Committee of the 2010 Lausanne Congress) and Martin Ssempa, and politicians like David Bahati, the sponsor of Uganda’s “Kill the Gays” bill.
As the Christian right’s anti-LGBTQ agenda continues to spread globally, we must have a unified and vigilant approach to stopping it. Cross-border solidarity among those challenging “ex-gay” ministries is vital and worth additional investment. U.S. advocates can challenge the international “ex-gay” organizations and the companies that benefit from them. In 2011, AllOut.org coordinated an online campaign that led PayPal to cut ties with four organizations that spread hatred and discrimination. While the legal structures of countries vary, advocates from across borders can still learn from each other so that cries of religious liberty do not shroud and justify active homophobia.
REV. CANON DR. KAPYA JOHN KAOMA is an ordained Anglican on the staff of Political Research Associates and produced the report, "Globalizing the Culture Wars: U.S. Conservatives, African Churches, and Homophobia."