Part 5: “Love Won Out”: A Candid Explanation For “Change”
August 2nd, 2007
As I said in previous posts, most of the people who attended the “Love Won Out” ex-gay conference in Phoenix on February 10 were not gay or lesbian “strugglers” seeking change. That audience was mainly made up of concerned parents, family and friends of gays and lesbians. In fact, the whole purpose of the all-day “Love Won Out” conference was to introduce people to the world of ex-gay movement and the idea that “freedom from homosexuality is possible.”
But the very people most affected by this message — gays and lesbians themselves — were largely absent. There was just a small smattering according to one show of hands. And so most of the concerned parents, family members, and friends of gays and lesbians who made up the bulk of the audience were typically unaccompanied by the very people everyone was talking about. This meant that as these people heard speakers from Exodus, NARTH and Focus on the Family (some of whom described themselves as “former homosexuals”) talking about what it meant to be gay, but most of these audience members didn’t have their own children or loved ones with them to talk about the things they heard. So the speakers were free to characterize these loved ones’ lives without fear of contradiction.
And this, I believe, was one of the worst shortcomings of the whole experience. During breaks between sessions, I heard several parents project what they heard onto their own children — sometimes without any evidence that what they heard actually applied to their child’s experience. I personally witnessed one parent break into tears with the new-found certainty that her son must have been molested. “You heard her. That lady (Melissa Fryrear) said so,” she said between tears. I also heard other parents who had already had these conversations with their children but didn’t believe them because what they heard from the “experts” at the conference. “Well, she said nothing ever happened, but…”
And if the abject fear that one’s child might have been molested wasn’t bad enough, there were the fathers who blamed themselves for their sons’ homosexuality. My heart sunk when I heard them groan on hearing NARTH Presdient Joseph Nicolosi saying, “We advise fathers, if you don’t hug your sons, another man will.” I talked to quite a few fathers who seemed to take Nicolosi’s theory quite personally, and they were greatly burdened by it. More recently, I spoke with a father who attended a different Love Won Out conference. He referred to Nicolosi’s talk and confided, “I can only hope that someday Jesus will forgive me.”
The other main focus of the conference — when it wasn’t focused on the presumed “causes” of homosexuality — was on the meaning and nature of “change.” As speaker after speaker promised a “complete and radical change,” these parents pinned their hopes on each of these promises. And for every one of the featured speakers in the general sessions, the nature of change was simple: a very specific change in sexual attractions or orientation.
Joseph Nicolosi was the keynote speaker that morning, and he described a succession of clients who had “no more homosexual attractions” and whose homosexuality became “nonexistent.” Immediately following Nicolosi’s talk, we heard Exodus Board Chairman Mike Haley give his life story as a former homosexual, complete with pictures of his beautiful wife and children on the large multimedia screen behind him. Soon after that, we heard Focus On the Family’s Melissa Fryrear declare her infatuation with red-headed men who would look good in a kilt. (She jokingly declared, “That movie Braveheart changed my life!”) And later that afternoon, we heard Nancy Heche, actress Anne Heche’s mother, describe a special blessing that delivered her daughter from a “lesbian affair” with Ellen DeGeneres.
A Candid Exception
While I believe most of the descriptions of change were either misleading or unrealistic, there was one candid exception that I wish more of these parents could have heard. It would have given them a better idea of what their sons and daughters would be up against in pursuing “change” — especially the sort of change promised by the featured speakers.
During the first set of breakout sessions just before lunchtime, Exodus president Alan Chambers gave a talk titled, “Hope for Those Who Struggle.” As the title suggests, this workshop was targeted towards the few who were struggling with their sexuality — although undoubtedly there were a number of parents and family members there as well. But only about 75 people attended his session, a tiny fraction of the 800 attendees at the conference overall. So generally speaking, this was a relatively “safe” audience, safe enough for Alan to try to set realistic expectations for change and describe what change really means.
Alan began his talk by describing his own unrealistic expectations for “change.” When he first began to attend an Exodus-affiliated ministry at the age of eighteen, he thought that his sexual attractions would change from gay to straight in pretty short order. But after a few years in the ministry, he learned that his goals were unrealistic, and he warned his small audience that they needed to adjust their goals as well:
And I’m going to shatter your world here: heterosexuality shouldn’t be your number one goal. Whether that’s for yourself or for your kid or for your loved one or your friend or your family member. Heterosexuality shouldn’t have been my number one goal. The opposite of homosexuality isn’t heterosexuality. It’s holiness.
And I think we in the church often get that wrong. We think, okay, the best thing for this person who’s involved with homosexuality or involve with lesbianism is that they come out of that lifestyle and go into heterosexuality. If that’s all we think is necessary, we’re setting people up for a terrible fall. The opposite of homosexuality isn’t heterosexuality. It’s holiness.
Part of this statement reinforces a larger theme of the conference, that homosexuality is incompatible with Christianity. Here, he sets it as being “opposite” of holiness, which only adds to the burden of those who were there. After all, wickedness is more commonly understood as being the opposite of holiness. So casting homosexuality on the same side of the spectrum as wickedness is a terribly damaging way to characterize the lives of gays and lesbians everywhere. Besides, heterosexuality is not, in and of itself, holy either. But that went unsaid, which was pretty much on par for Love Won Out.
But most of this statement represents a dramatic departure from the rest of the conference in terms of the nature and likelihood of change. It certainly stands at the polar opposite of Dr. Nicolosi’s absolute confidence that homosexuality becomes “nonexistent” once an emotional connection is made. According to Allan, same sex attractions may not necessarily diminish no matter how hard one tries or how many prayers are said. Instead, the “change” that takes place is not a change in sexual orientation; it’s a change in faith. The “conversion” is not sexual orientation conversion, it’s a religious one.
“I Deny What Comes Naturally To Me”
More specifically, this change is actually the exchanging of one’s identity from gay to Christian, since the two identities cannot coexist in the worldview of Exodus or Focus On the Family. This emphasis on a change in identity is at the very heart of the ex-gay message. But even with this new identity as a Christian, merely forsaking the old identity of gay or homosexual doesn’t mean that one’s homosexuality will actually go away:
… Second Corinthians 5:17 says those who are in Christ are a new creation. The old is gone and the new has come. And again in the Christian community — I’m pointing my finger at myself too — we often hijack that verse to mean those who come to Christ, those who come to Jesus are perfect. Everything’s gone, the old life is gone, and the new has come and it’s all going to be wonderful from here.
And I think again, we do a disservice to people that we share that Scripture with, that we explain that Scripture to when we say that once you have a relationship with Jesus Christ that it’s all going to be better and you’re never going to struggle again. And the truth is, you’re going to dash your expectations that way. If that’s what we expect of ourselves and what we expect of other people, we’re going to be endlessly disappointed.
And this is where Alan’s talk turned very personal. He cited Matthew 16:24 (“Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.’”) before getting to the very heart of the matter of “change” in his own life:
…In the early days of when I started speaking and debating and doing all sorts of things related to the issue of homosexuality and took my position with Exodus, people used to say, “Oh Alan, you’re just in denial.” I used to get so mad when they’d say, “You’re just in denial. You’re just denying who you’re really are.” And I’d say, “No I’m not. I’m not in denial! I’m not in denial!”
And then I came to the place where I realized, you know what? God calls us as Christians to a life of denial. I love that today I realize that I do live a life of denial. Not denial of who I used to be, not denial of who I could be today, but I deny what comes naturally to me.
…And so every single morning — this is a ritual for me — I wake up and I say, “Dear Lord, I can’t make it today without You. I choose to deny what comes naturally to me. I choose to submit my will to the Lordship of your Son, Jesus Christ. And I choose better. I choose to follow You, I choose to allow Your Holy Spirit to walk before me, to guide me, to speak for me.”
… And if we think we can get up one day and decide we don’t have to pray about it anymore, then we’re mistaken. So expect a life of obedience. Expect a life of denial.
Only 75 people heard this message that day, which is a terrible shame. This was, I think, the most honest, honorable, and vulnerable talk I heard the entire day. It seems to me that this was the message that everyone should have heard at Love Won Out.
Two Audiences, Two Messages
But it appears that this reservoir of truth and vulnerability is rationed only to safe, like-minded listeners. How else to explain this talk talking place in a small breakout session instead of one of the main plenary sessions?
If everyone had heard that talk, they would have understood without question what “change” was all about. So why was this talk reserved for a small, safe audience of “those who struggle”? Were they afraid that parents would become disillusioned on hearing what the reasonable expectations for change should be? Did Love Won Out organizers not want the larger audience to know that their sons and daughters faced a lifetime of struggle? Were they afraid of shattering those parents’ dreams of weddings and grandchildren?
One thing’s for certain. If most of the Love Won Out audience wasn’t safe enough for Alan’s message, then the general public certainly isn’t. Four months before the Phoenix conference, Alan Chambers appeared on NPR’s “Fresh Air” and told Terry Gross:
I have talked with and met people who say that they have walked completely away and will never struggle with that again or have never struggled with that again. I believe it’s …. there’s everyone on the continuum. I often like to use the phrase that I will never be as though I never was. I can’t forget where I used to be and I can’t deny the fact that I’m still human and that I could be tempted in every way.
But today where I live my life, and I believe this is true of those who would say they have successfully left homosexuality, homosexuality isn’t something that controls them anymore. Where at one point in our lives, in my life, I could not resist homosexuality. I could not resist the urge. I could not get those thoughts out of my mind. I was exclusively attracted to members of the same sex and acted out on that on a regular basis. Today I have what I would describe as a Garden of Eden relationship with my wife and that she is the object of my desire. She is who I am attracted to…
Then, just a few days before this Love Won Out conference took place, Alan Chambers appeared on CNN where he denied trying to control his thoughts, while at the same time repeating the oblique phrase, “I will never be as though I never was.”
But just a week before the 2007 Exodus Freedom Conference, in Irvine, California, it appears that Alan decided to test the waters by giving the larger world an explanation more consistent with what he had been telling his much smaller Love Won Out audience. The Los Angeles Times reported:
With years of therapy, Chambers says, he has mostly conquered his own attraction to men; he’s a husband and a father, and he identifies as straight. But lately, he’s come to resent the term “ex-gay”: It’s too neat, implying a clean break with the past, when he still struggles at times with homosexual temptation. “By no means would we ever say change can be sudden or complete,” Chambers said.
And yet this small concession — which focused mainly on what sort of language to use for describing “change” — appeared to be too much. After mounting pressure from fellow anti-gay activists, Alan issued a partial retraction through an American Family Association web site:
“['Ex-gay' is ] something that comes across as confusing,” he says. “And while I understand why people have used it over the years — it’s easy to use in a soundbite — to say that someone is primarily described by the behavior that they used to be involved in I think is a disservice to the people who have found freedom from homosexuality.”
And that includes himself, says Chambers. “[R]eally, more accurate labels for me would be, ‘I’m a man. I’m a Christian. I’m a husband. I’m a father. I’m a son.’” Chambers says he is considering whether to ask the newspaper to issue a clarification of his remarks.
Exodus and Focus On the Family appear to provide two distinct faces when they talk about change. There is the public face, the one that is given to the general population through billboards, radio commercials and web sites which promise that “change is possible.” A radio commercial promoting the Exodus conference in Irvine promised a “sudden, radical, complete change.” At Love Won Out, parents, friends and family members heard specific, clinical language in which homosexuality becomes “nonexistent.” And whenever Exodus and Focus On the Family speakers appear before the cameras and microphones of major media outlets, they are very careful to leave the definition of change to the assumptions of the audience: a change in sexual orientation, even if they rarely say it explicitly.
But in a small workshop targeted specifically to “those who struggle,” we get to see a far more private message about “change.” And Alan repeated and expanded on this message during the opening night of the Exodus Freedom conference in June. There, before another “safe” audience of more than eight hundred people (unlike at Love Won Out, the overwhelming majority of this audience was “strugglers”), Alan repeated and expanded upon the remarks he made during that tiny breakout session at Love Won Out. And here, he challenged his audience to think about how they might respond if their orientations didn’t change:
And the truth is, what if circumstances never change? I think you have to ask yourself that question. What if your circumstances never change, like my friend that I said her feelings haven’t changed much in twenty years? What if your feelings don’t change? What if your circumstances don’t change? What if it’s still difficult in a year as it is today? Are you going to stand on the promises of God? Are you going to choose to fight? Or are you going to give in?
Michael Bussee was one of the original founders of Exodus before leaving the organization and later becoming one of its sharpest critics. He described one current ex-gay Exodus leader as saying they were just “Christians with homosexual tendencies who would rather not have those tendencies.” Alan appears to be inching towards that candid assessment.
But I have to wonder if he can maintain this message for larger audiences while still holding out hope for a “complete, radical change.” And I have to wonder if he can sustain that message when Exodus’ political lobbying on Capital Hill depends on the assertion that if “real change” is possible, gays and lesbians don’t need equal rights. It seems that too much is at stake to allow too many doubts to creep in on what change really means.
We already saw the howls of protest when Alan made his comparatively innocuous remarks to the Los Angeles Times. While we can hope that the two-audiences, two-messages may fall by the wayside, only time will tell whether abandoning that approach will be compatible with the broader cultural and political goals of Exodus and Focus On the Family.
Prologue: Why I Went To “Love Won Out”
Part 1: What’s Love Got To Do With It?
Part 2: Parents Struggle With “No Exceptions”
Part 3: A Whole New Dialect
Part 4: It Depends On How The Meaning of the Word “Change” Changes