By Trudy Ring
Originally published on Advocate.com June 19 2013 11:50 PM ET
The nation’s most prominent ex-gay group, Exodus International, announced on its website late Wednesday that it will shut down and reemerge as a new ministry.
The group had for most of its existence insisted gay people can be turned straight. Exactly what its newest iteration will become is unclear from the announcement, and a new website called "Reduce Fear" hasn't even been completed.
Decades after leading U.S. mental health organizations agreed that being gay is not a disorder, a small segment of American society, driven largely by religion, has persisted in saying homosexuality is something that can and should be “cured.” While there has always been ample skepticism about the “ex-gay” movement, recent developments indicate the movement is becoming more marginal than ever — it’s not dead, but it’s certainly in critical condition.
Stories are legion of those who’ve gone through so-called reparative therapy, seeking to turn from gay to straight, only to find the therapy is not only ineffective but downright harmful. Mainstream mental health professionals have condemned it. One state has outlawed it, and others are likely to follow. Even the president of Exodus International has renounced such therapy and says Exodus is no longer part of the ex-gay movement.
That man, Alan Chambers, appears Thursday night on Our America With Lisa Ling, on Oprah Winfrey’s OWN network, delivering an apology (of sorts) to LGBT people who’ve been harmed by ex-gay efforts. It's timed with a written apology issued this week via the Exodus website. The shift by Chambers and Exodus, however, raises the question of just what the movement is about now — if it doesn’t profess to make gay people straight, is it offering only celibacy or the closet?
A year ago, at Exodus’s annual conference, Chambers announced that the organization was renouncing reparative therapy, saying it offered false hope to those who undergo it and even harms them, while treating homosexuality differently than other “sins.” But he continues to believe that sex should be confined only to monogamous heterosexual marriages.
Recently, Chambers, who had been interviewed for Our America’s “Pray the Gay Away?” episode in 2011, contacted Ling to say he wanted to make a return appearance to issue an apology for the hurt caused by ex-gay therapy. She suggested that people who had left ex-gay groups be present. “I was really surprised that Alan agreed,” she tells The Advocate.
It resulted in a three-hour meeting that “was exhausting emotionally,” Ling says, and that is readily apparent in the portions featured in the new Our America episode, “God and Gays.” Chambers and his wife, Leslie, met with 10 survivors of ex-gay programs, including Michael Bussee, an Exodus founder who eventually left the group and became an out and proud gay man; Jerry, a former pastor who came out of the closet after a 26-year marriage; Catherine, who was a counselor with an ex-gay ministry and calls it “the greatest regret of my life”; Art, who believes his bipolar disorder was brought on by ex-gay therapy; and Christian, whose experience attests to the gender stereotyping and misconceptions about gays that permeate such therapy efforts — he was urged to give up his found-object art projects and pursue more “masculine” activities such as sports and gym workouts. They and the others were enlisted from an online support group run by Bussee.
They gathered in the basement of Hollywood Lutheran Church in Los Angeles, a congregation affiliated with the LGBT-affirming Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The ex-gay movement is largely a phenomenon of fundamentalist Christianity, with mainline Protestant Christian denominations accepting gay people as they are. There is also at least one Jewish ex-gay group, and the Roman Catholic Church has a ministry that seeks to help gay people lead celibate lives.
Chambers says of Exodus, “Today we cease to be an ex-gay organization.” He apologizes for the hurt it has caused by promoting efforts to change sexual orientation, and he tells the survivors of ex-gay therapy, “You haven’t ever been my enemy, and I’m sorry I’ve been yours.” He says he recognizes the right of LGBT people to campaign for equality. But he also says he will not apologize for his beliefs about biblical constraints on sexual behavior.
The others in the room confront him about just what Exodus is. “My cynical side would say it’s the recloseting ministry,” says Jerry. He sees Exodus’s new message as “We cannot change you, we cannot give you a happy life, but we can help you get back into the closet more comfortably.”
“No matter what you change, you’re still selling that lie [about changing sexual orientation], and you know it, that’s the worst thing,” says another, Sean, who had been told he was demon-possessed and contemplated suicide because of the pain caused by ex-gay therapy. “You know, deep down inside, Alan, that it is still a bald-faced lie.”Alan Chambers and his wife, Leslie, respond to survivors of ex-gay therapy.
Chambers responds that Exodus remains “a Christian ministry” that will serve a demographic in need — Christians with same-sex desires who nonetheless want to adhere to biblical teachings about sexuality by being celibate, and the small number, like himself, who will enter a heterosexual marriage.
But that demographic, it appears, is diminishing. Exodus’s annual conference, which is going on now, was expected to draw fewer than half the attendees it had three years ago. Some other ex-gay groups have split off from it, finding Chambers’s position too conciliatory.
“As long as there’s prejudice and discrimination, there will be some form of these groups,” says Wayne Besen, executive director of Truth Wins Out, an organization that seeks to combat the ex-gay movement. But Besen (who is not involved in the Our America episode) sees the movement as being significantly weakened, at least in the United States.
In addition to Exodus’s renunciation of reparative therapy, Besen points out, other blows to the movement include psychiatrist Robert Spitzer’s apology last year for a study he did that was used to justify such therapy, research he now says was scientifically unsound; onetime ex-gay spokesman John Paulk’s recent announcement that he is no longer ex-gay; a law enacted last year in California to bar state-licensed professionals from performing reparative therapy on minors (it is currently being challenged in court); and a similar law under consideration in New Jersey. More states will approve such legislation, he says: “I guarantee it.”
Besen, who says the ex-gay movement is now being run by a mix of “charlatans” and “true believers,” spoke with The Advocate as he was on his way to join other LGBT activists to counter an ex-gay conference in Oklahoma City, sponsored by the Restored Hope Network, which broke off from Exodus. Restored Hope Network’s leader is Anne Paulk, the estranged ex-lesbian wife of John Paulk.
“We are winning this battle, indisputably,” Besen says. “We have discredited them.” He adds, however, that the ex-gay movement is gaining strength overseas, particularly in Russia and in many nations of Africa. In Brazil, evangelical lawmakers are pressing to overturn a ban on so-called conversion therapy.
But stateside, he says, “our opposition is weak.”
Ling, a straight woman who has been an LGBT ally since she saw a gay friend bullied and beaten in middle school, says the ex-gay movement “is in the midst of an identity crisis.” She’s not sure what its future holds, but with even onetime advocates like Chambers acknowledging the ineffectiveness of reparative therapy, the movement could fade away.
She calls the “God and Gays” episode “one of the most important shows I’ve ever done” and says she “was honored to be in the room” with the survivors. “I want people who are watching this to understand what these survivors have gone through,” she says. She found them inspiring, and she’s impressed with how some have even strengthened their religious faith after accepting their gay identity. “Watching this episode,” she says, “you’ll have no doubt that people can be gay and Christian at the same time.”
Our America’s “God and Gays” airs Thursday at 10 Eastern/Pacific on OWN. Watch a preview below.