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The Believers

The Believers


Three years after the furor over a teenage boy who was forcibly sent to one of its camps, the ex-gay movement may be losing steam. Meanwhile, ex-gay survivors are gaining strength. But are the two groups really that different? Tim Murphy finds out.

Few who follow the culture wars will forget the summer of Zach. In 2005 the parents of Zach Stark, a 16-year-old Tennessean, forced him to go to Refuge--a two-week day camp run by the Christian group Love in Action, which aims to help people leave the gay life behind them. But before Zach left, he blogged about it unhappily on his MySpace page. His writings spread like wildfire among his friends, caused international outrage, and led to protests outside the Memphis camp demanding that Zach and other teens not be enrolled there against their will.

The uproar brought new attention to so-called ex-gay Christian ministries that promise to deliver people from same-sex behavior or desires--ministries that have existed at least as long as their umbrella group, Exodus International, which was founded in 1976. Zach's story also highlighted the little-known debate between proponents of ex-gay programs and so-called survivors of such programs, who said that they were not only scams but psychologically harmful to those who went through them.

Three years later, Zach is in college, has accepted his gayness, and appears in This Is What Love in Action Looks Like, a new documentary about the controversy. And in the small hothouse world where ex-gays face off with ex-gay survivors (sometimes called ex-ex-gays), changes are afoot. The survivors movement has grown to challenge the claims of ex-gay ministries. And Exodus--an organization that encompasses more than 120 ministries in the United States and Canada and is linked with 150 more affiliated ministries in 17 countries--has modified both its language and its focus in ways suggesting that even though it is far from disbanding, it is sensitive to criticism.

Could the two "sides" of this heated issue be merging? Not quite yet. But as I listened to the often heartbreaking stories of both ex-gays and ex-gay survivors, I realized that their efforts to reconcile gay feelings with their conservative Christian values and near-literal understanding of the Bible created a stronger bond with one another than with much of the rest of gay culture. As Peterson Toscano, a leader on the survivors side, put it, "We're a ship of fools all together."

Shifting Ground?

So what's really changed since the world read Zach's blog? For one thing, the doings of ex-gay ministries are more carefully monitored, as evidenced by a recent Southern Poverty Law Center report, "Straight Like Me," and the website, founded in 2002. David Roberts, one of the site's authors, says its primary mission is "keeping an eye on what [ex-gay ministries] say and do in public," and on "their relations with political groups."

For more than a year, the website has been a virtual gathering point for ex-gay survivors, many of whom now picket ex-gay ministries events and conferences and attempt to share their stories with attendees. Beyond Ex-Gay also holds conferences of its own. "Our primary goal is being a support group for ex-gay survivors," says Toscano. Like Christine Bakke, who runs the group with him, he attended ex-gay ministries for years before finally accepting his gayness. "Our secondary goal," Toscano adds, "is to talk about the harm of reparative therapy" -- therapy meant to de-gay you -- "in ex-gay ministries."

Toscano and Bakke say has had over 100,000 visitors in less than a year, and they're proud of their accomplishments. Last summer they sat down with three Exodus leaders to air views over an informal dinner during Exodus's annual Freedom Conference in Irvine, Calif. The meeting was well-timed since just two days earlier three former Exodus leaders (all now comfortably gay) publicly apologized at the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center for any harm they'd caused. Three Australian former Exodus leaders soon added their names to the public apology.

In late February in Memphis, Beyond Ex-Gay picketed Love Won Out -- an ex-gay ministry sponsored by the conservative Christian group Focus on the Family that has Exodus speakers at its conferences. Members of Beyond Ex-Gay held signs that read christian & gay, "change" at what price? and, addressing the dismayed parents that the conference draws, we know you love your kids. Beyond Ex-Gay later presented Love Won Out leaders with framed art collages they'd made illustrating the pain of going through ex-gay programs.

"It's about people starting to say, 'This has done me more harm than good,'" says Bakke, adding that, because Beyond Ex-Gay has published a growing chorus of such stories, it's shaken up the usual talk-show paradigm. "Before they'd have [Truth Wins Out executive director] Wayne Besen saying 'These programs don't work' and Alan [Chambers, who heads Exodus] saying they do," says Toscano. Bakke adds, "What got lost was the actual people who were doing [the ex-gay ministries]. It's like a kid in a custody battle. We're finally stepping forward, serving as a witness and a warning."

In part because of their actions, Toscano and Bakke say that Exodus has been changing. They point to a June 2007 story in the Los Angeles Times in which Chambers said he wasn't sure he'd ever met a someone who's completely ex-gay. Chambers also admitted that after years of heterosexual marriage he still struggled with feelings of gay desire and that "by no means would we ever say change can be sudden or complete."

A few years ago, in a study Exodus commissioned of about 100 people in ex-gay programs, only about 5% experienced what the study called "conversion" to heterosexuality -- but the study also counted as "change" the larger percentage who reported they managed to abstain from gay sex, if not to overcome gay feelings.

Says Toscano: "They've lost some of the power of their message because they're saying change isn't really possible. So people are saying, 'Why try?'?"

Chambers counters, "That's a mischaracterization of what we're saying. We're not saying change isn't possible. We're just being more honest about what change truly is and isn't."

Another major change cited by Beyond Ex-Gay is undisputed. Last year, Exodus let go of the lobbyist it had briefly hired to work on Capitol Hill against inclusion of gays in the (currently stalled) hate-crimes bill, on the argument that since being gay was not a fixed thing, it didn't deserve protection alongside traits like race or gender. Says Toscano: "We'd said to them, 'We don't understand why Exodus is involved in politics. Why are you trying to deny us the rights we could have that could make our lives easier?"

In an interview with Ex-Gay Watch (yes, the two "sides" are very much in touch), Chambers tried to explain the move away from lobbying: "I felt...conflicted...that we might be alienating people that simply wouldn't call us for help because of the perception that we were becoming a partisan and political organization rather than a ministry for all."

However, Chambers says that he'll remain a member of the Arlington Group, a powerful consortium of conservative political organizations, including Focus on the Family. Does Exodus receive money from Focus? No, according to Chambers, although he would not name which, if any, other large groups give Exodus money -- and as a nonprofit, the group does not have to list such donors on its tax forms. What's more, he said, though Exodus's formal lobbying was over, "if we have an opportunity to share our stories with people on Capitol Hill, we're going to." Toscano counters that Beyond Ex-Gay does no formal lobbying and critiques Exodus's stance: "If they think [that's] not political work, they're deceiving themselves and need to be challenged on it."

Yet another major change in the ex-gay world: Last summer Love in Action closed the controversial teen Refuge camp where Stark had been sent. The ministry now runs an intensive four-day program for kids and parents that is focused more on getting them to communicate better than on making the kids straight, according to John Smid, Love in Action's longtime but departing leader. "Some of the kids will say, 'I'm not going to pursue change, but, boy, my relationship with my parents is a lot better,'?" he says.

Two Parts Of The Same Island

There are other signs that these two worlds, the very same until that moment when some make peace with their gayness and others renounce it, are coming closer. "We're two parts of the same island," says Toscano -- an image that is reinforced by the Gay Christian Network ( Founded in 2001, GCN has found an ingenious way of bridging the divide between ex-gays and ex-ex-gays and putting the focus on spiritual matters: It lets participants choose to belong to what's called Side A--"those who are in gay relationships or hope to be someday" -- or Side B, "those who view their same-sex attractions as a temptation and strive to live celibate lives." Says Wendy Gritter, the straight, married leader of New Directions, a 23-year-old Exodus-affiliated ministry in Toronto: "It's a powerful message to a world that's so flipping divided."

Gritter doesn't view gay relationships as "the perfection of God's creative intent" any more than most straight relationships, even marriage. But when conservative Christians come to her tormented with gay feelings, her goal, she says, is to see them "at peace, living consistently with their beliefs and values."

And if they decide that being gay is OK with God? "It's not our convince them to believe what we believe," Gritter points out. "We wouldn't break off our relationship and say, 'Now that you've embraced your sexuality as a gift from God, we can't relate to you,' but rather 'Hey, we may have some areas where we agree to disagree, but we want to hear how you're growing in your faith and how we can continue to love and serve you.'?"

But doesn't that make her ministry almost, well, gay-affirming? Gritter sees the blurriness, almost seems to welcome it, acknowledging that she's the product of Canada, where Christian culture is far less politically engaged than in the United States. "Why wouldn't a non-Christian gay person, someone who doesn't have a Scripture-informed view of sexual ethics, seek a lifetime [same-sex] partner?" she asks. "It's a no-brainer." In many ways, as warmly as she speaks of Chambers, she seems a hairbreadth from severing her Exodus ties. But she stays, she says, because "I have hope for effective future ministry for Exodus, and I hope to have input in that." Chambers says that he and Gritter are "huge fans of one another" and that Exodus has no plans of cutting ties with her.

Gritter cites a prominent study last fall by the Barna Research Group, which found that an overwhelming majority of young Americans ages 16 to 29 described Christianity as being, among other things, judgmental, hypocritical, and antigay. Because of such perceptions, she says, "I think [Exodus] is going to face a sense of crisis of which path to take, one aligned with the Christian right or one that moves toward a singular focus on mission and ministry." But here Chambers disagrees. "What will be increasingly true and apparent," he says, "is that you can't pin us down and stick us in a box."

My Enemy, My Brother

A personal note: Starting this story, I wanted to stick ex-gays in a box. Reading the FAQs on the Exodus website--"Is there a connection between homosexuality and predatory behavior, like pedophilia?" -- it was hard not to feel enraged. But while talking to Chambers, Smid, and Melissa Fryrear, an ex-gay who heads up Love Won Out, I found myself tearing up at their tales of torment, depression, and drug and alcohol abuse -- just as I did while hearing remarkably similar stories from Toscano and Bakke. It was particularly painful to listen to Fryrear recall how she used to punch concrete walls and cut herself, even though I was skeptical when she said therapy led her to link her lesbian feelings to having been sexually abused by a man as a child. She couldn't remember the man, nor when or where it happened.

Chambers, Fryrear, and Smid had all at one point led gay lives, and their mixed feelings about their former lives were palpable. Chambers called the last two years of high school, when he started having a gay social life, "probably the best time in my life.... I had the most exciting, great friends.... The music takes me back instantly.... I loved Depeche Mode." Fryrear and her live-in girlfriend went back to church together and stayed a couple for nearly two more years before she transitioned into her ex-gay life, which now includes dating a man. Chambers even avows that if an early gay relationship had worked out, "My life could've been radically different.... It's not that I don't believe I could have lived a happy gay life; it's that I thought there was more, and I found out there was." Chambers and his wife of 10 years are now raising two adopted children.

Writing this story, I sensed a yearning on each "side" of the divide to be closer to the other. Karen Keen, a California ex-gay, wrote on her blog about attending Beyond Ex-Gay's survivor conference: "I realize I was drawn [there] because I love these people. In some impossible way I long for camaraderie and unity with ex-ex-gays with whom I have shared so many of the same life struggles and pain. Yet at the end of the day our roads lead us apart, and I wish it wasn't so. I leave the Survivor Conference knowing it will be my last ex-ex-gay conference. I feel an ache in my heart -- the kind of sadness that comes when breaking up with a lover."

In one of my last interviews, I felt a bit of that ache myself. I'd asked John Smid, 54, who's not only married with kids but has grandkids now too, what perceptions of his work he most resented. "The assumption that I hate people who are involved in homosexuality," he said, "that I've turned my back on them. That's not true." He also hated media reports that Love in Action said it could "pray away the gay." He noted, "The headlines are always about changing homosexuality, and I say that we've never said that."

But why couldn't people be gay and Christian? "If you have a conviction that's acceptable, then that's between you and the Lord," he said. "Go find a gay-affirming church. That's up to you. There are plenty out there."

I laid down my reporter's notebook (metaphorically -- we were on the phone). Smid was funny and thoughtful and affable. I told him that I'd like to be his friend, that as a comfortable, happy gay man raised Catholic but now more inclined toward a broadly spiritual liberal humanism, I'd like to meet for coffee and discuss these issues more. And I said I truly had no interest in changing him. Could he say the same thing?

He paused. "No. To be honest." We both laughed. I was both moved and a bit shocked by his candor. "Christians believe there is one truth and one good way -- Jesus Christ," he stated. "A lot of people think that's arrogant, but it's the truth." He then continued, "Why would I say, 'Whatever, Tim, do what you want,' if I really cared about you and loved you as a friend?"

He reminded me that I'd opened up the subject -- that proselytizing was no longer the way of Exodus and the ex-gay movement. "If you want to ask where I think we've been wrong," he said, "it's been by trying to push an issue down somebody's throat."

I joked that he'd better mind his language. But he didn't laugh. "I won't go there," he said.

And I wouldn't either.

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