The Gayest Place in Orange County
June 24th, 2010
He leaned in and whispered, “I love her! She’s so funny. She’s just like Ellen DeGeneris!”
My new acquaintance was right. She was very engaging and had us all in stitches, which might at first seem incongruous for a workshop on dealing with discouragement. But that was the approach Christine Sneeringer took at the Exodus Freedom Conference in Irvine, California. I decided to attend that conference in June 2007 because I wanted to get a first-hand look at what Exodus International looked like to those who seek to change their own sexuality. So there I was, listening and laughing at Christine’s talk about her difficulties in “coming out of lesbianism” before becoming director of Ft. Lauderdale-based Worthy Creations, an Exodus member ministry. A lot of her tips consisted of a steady stream of Bible verses, which my friend dutifully called up and notated on his brand new first-generation iPhone’s Bible app. My new friend, who had moments ago plopped himself down in the seat next to me, exuded an easy charm and likability that blew away every image of a cowering, sniveling and self-loathing “struggler” (that’s what they call themselves and each other; I never heard the word “ex-gay” at the conference) that I was burdened with when I decided to attend the conference. In fact, he was not much different from any other young gay man who you’d run into in West Hollywood or the Castro.
The same was pretty much true for most of the 700 people who attended Exodus’ signature annual conference. As you would find in WeHo or the Castro, the conference attendees tended to skew younger (twenties and thirties mostly), were mostly white, and predominately male. And the Exodus conference had another thing in common with WeHo and the Castro: For five nights and days, Concordia University, a private Lutheran-affiliated (Missouri Synod) campus, was transformed into the gayest gathering in all of Orange County. And I don’t mean that in a condescending, snarky sense, but rather in a revelatory sense, one that I hadn’t expected.
I began to draw this conclusion early on Tuesday evening as people filtered into the main hall for the opening plenary session. I quickly determined that there were two broad categories of people taking their seats. The first group consisted of veterans of previous conferences. They had made lots of friends at those conferences and they were eager to meet up again. It was sort of like a summer camp reunion. Every once in a while, you’d hear someone let out a squeal of excitement when they suddenly spotted a friend from across the room. They’d then race over to hug and greet their friends and excitedly catch up on old times, jazz hands and all. I was surprised at how quickly they let their guard down. As all gay men come in so many varieties, so do the strugglers. Some are more butch while others are more effeminate. But here, it seemed that no one bothered to hide whatever embarrassing mannerisms or speech that would otherwise come naturally to them and cause no end of grief among their outside peers. This was another surprise, because it contradicted the emphasis on gender-conforming appearances and behaviors that many ex-gay programs strive to instill.
The second group filtering in were the first-timers. They were easy to spot because they had that look of fear in their eyes that we all have experienced — the fear and shame that they would be discovered as being gay. They were visibly nervous, and you could tell that they remained on guard until the opening program was underway.
But then something magical happened. When Exodus Vice President Randy Thomas took the stage as M.C. you could see a sense of relief wash over this second group. If you’ve never seen Thomas in the flesh, well let me just say that he’s not exactly the most masculine man I’ve ever seen. And for this crowd, that worked wonders. Thomas was very confident, campy and genuinely funny — a natural-born entertainer. He really did a great job at setting these first-timers at ease. Thomas deliberately mixed his sports metaphors to signal to the crowd that he couldn’t have possibly cared less about any of it. He joked about show tunes, fashion, Project Runway, shopping – you name it, as the audience roared with laughter in self-recognition. He even made a few gentle lesbian toolbelt and softball jokes, all in very good fun and affection. And as the evening wore on, I could sense a wave of relief washing over the first-timers. It was as if half the room collectively exhaled.
I found it easy to identify their sense of relief. It reminded me of the first time I walked into a gay bar. It appeared to have dawned on them that – finally! – this is a place where they can be themselves. They no longer had to worry about where their wrists went or how they crossed their legs or what expression or tone escaped from their mouths. For many of them, this was probably the first time in their lives that they were surrounded by so many people who were exactly like them! Which was the same thought I had during my first visit to a gay bar. I remember looking around and thinking to myself, “They are all gay, just like me!” When these first timers warmed to the conference, they appeared to have a similar yet critically different thought: “They are all gay and don’t want to be, just like me!”
There was one other thing that surprised me – and I don’t know why this should have surprised me either. The conference was, on balance, actually a lot of fun. I can’t say that I had that much fun exactly. I was there to just be quiet and learn what the conference was all about. For me, it was more of a work assignment, a sort of an anthropology project. But the live music (Yes, Christian Broadcasting Network personality Sheila Walsh even sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”!) the jokes, the camaraderie between sessions, and the surprisingly honest conversations that took place between and among the strugglers during meals and breaks told me that this wasn’t going to be the gloomy and punitive event I expected to find.
Exodus International presents many faces to the world. To those who are outside of the ex-gay movement, Exodus is best known for its engagement in the culture war. I had experienced that face first hand when I attended their Love Won Out conference five months earlier in Phoenix. Parts of that face crept into the Freedom Conference from time to time, particularly in workshops that were aimed at parents and at those who were of a more activist bent. Some of the parents’ workshops I attended were particularly egregious. One workshop leader, a San Fransisco-based therapist by the name of Robert Brenan, was very good at confirming every fear and angry thought that crossed those parents’ minds. “Every young man or woman out there who is seeking that fulfillment of a homosexual relationship is depressed,” he confidently told them. I guess Exodus and their affiliated speakers wanted to make sure they stayed in line. And Michael Brown spoke at a plenary session in which he exhorted the crowd to fight against “pitched attack from hell” against the moral fabric of the culture at large, saying that a Christian should value the cause more than he values his own life. It was a message that these strugglers took to heart. It seemed to give their sense of deprivation a divine purpose and gave them a means of shouting out their frustrations against those who saw no reason to struggle as they did. Which goes to show that rabbles can be roused anywhere.
But those were exceptions, and they were so glaring because most of the conference appeared to steer clear of culture-war rhetoric. This was particularly true in programs which were tailored for strugglers themselves – and this was the vast majority of workshops and events of the conference. This is where Exodus presented a very different face from what I had seen before.
And again, this shouldn’t be too surprising. As longtime readers of this web site know, Exodus is very good at adapting its message to different audiences. And with this particular audience, when you strip away all the layers – the Christian commitments, the shared belief that homosexuality was morally deficient, the internalized shame for being gay – they were still in the end a gay audience, and often a savvy one at that. That meant that Exodus has much less room to bullshit them than they would their parents or the general public. That’s not to say that the strugglers weren’t laboring under a lot of false expectations. Many of them were, and those expectations were reinforced at that conference. But there were limits as to how far Exodus could go.
And so, for example, they had a workshop on AIDS. Exodus understands that because this audience is, fundamentally, a gay one, some of them are living with HIV/AIDS. So any hint of AIDS stigma was completely forbidden. I didn’t attend that particular workshop, but in talking with others who did, they said that it was generally very good and sensitive, albeit from a distinctly Christian point of view. These were guys who themselves were involved with health care and HIV/AIDS, so I tend to believe their assessment is probably reasonably accurate. They said it was devoid of condemnation, although the safe-sex advice was relegated to how you might protect your future spouse should you someday marry. (One struggler said he was disappointed that they didn’t talk much about effective outreach and care for people with AIDS in the gay community. But since I wasn’t there I can’t say whether I would have agreed with that particular criticism.) While AIDS might be brought up in other venues as a reason why one should become ex-gay, that was never mentioned here, at least as far as I was able to observe.
But you could really see the limits of how far Exodus could push whenever a workshop flopped. John Smid’s workshop on masturbation – about how you should never masturbate again for as long as you live – had the jock sitting next to me slamming his notebook shut and muttering under his breath, “This is bullshit!” Another struggler brought Randy Thomas’ workshop on “Warring World Views and our Redemptive Response” to a screeching halt when he angrily denounced some of the anti-gay preachers who were featured on a compendium of video greetings that was shown on opening night. “When I was in the lifestyle, they were the ones that caused the most harm, the most anger, the most pain between me and my family.” He couldn’t finish, and instead broke down crying. All talk of “warring world views” suddenly became moot. The only thing that mattered now was comforting this young man who had experienced so much pain from his own church, pain that came flooding back at him during the workshop. This was a shared pain that everyone in that group could identify with. Myself included.
And there were other, much lighter notes that reminded me that the conference attendees were very much my people. Take poor Tim, for example. I have no idea whether he’s actually gay or not, but he should be. He was the divinity grad student who was called upon at the last minute to deliver a workshop called “Secrets of Men: Understanding Masculinity.” God was he hot! He spent a lot of time in the gym, and he knew how to buy clothes which, modestly yet snugly, showed off his hard work in the best possible light. And this stud was going to talk about the “secrets of men!” Bonus!
Needless to say, the room was packed to overflowing. And poor Tim, someone forgot to set up the A/V projector, which meant that he couldn’t show his PowerPoint presentation and videos. After about a half hour, he sheepishly announced that they would have to reschedule the workshop. He was so cute. He apologized profusely and everyone, of course, forgave him. When Randy Thomas later announced an alternate time during what should have been a break period, we selflessly sacrificed our break and again filled every seat, this time in an even larger room. I guess word had spread. The presentation itself turned out to be extremely silly: videos of football players patting each other on the butt while Tim solemnly announced, “That is an example of an appropriate, non-sexual masculine touch.” But that was secondary to the real attraction of the workshop: his arms, his chest, his own inappropriately-pattable butt in his tight-fitting Dockers. I think if he had needed to reschedule again, nobody would have minded.
And that brings me right back to the point I really want to make. Regardless of whatever images we’ve conjured of what an ex-gay “struggler” looks like, those images are often more a product of fiction than fact. They are also often products of ex-gays who go on to try to publicly proclaim their own heterosexuality, a proclamation that is typically less than credible. Yes, I saw that too. On opening night before the conference, there were news cameras roaming the grounds. And standing before one of them was a man in his mid-fifties who looked like an aged Rod Stewart clone from 1978, but with the mannerisms of Paul Lynde. “Of course I’m straight!” he squealed as he leaned into the camera. “If you don’t believe me, ask my wife!”
Fortunately, those examples were mercifully rare. Most of the people I talked to were full of hope, but they also recognized the very serious challenges that lay ahead of them. And so the best way to regard these strugglers is to think of them as our gay brothers and sisters, because that’s really who they are. And for most of them, that is what they ultimately will be. If the research that was paid for and supported by Exodus International has any validity, then of the approximately 700 people who attended that conference three years ago, a quarter to just under half of those strugglers are no longer struggling today. And in a few years, the dropouts and “failures” will reach two-thirds of the group that I saw that year.
I saw quite a few strugglers there who I’m sure have come out of the experience just fine. There are others however who I still remember and worry about. I worry about the handsome young man from Sacramento who, at age 25, was an unmarried father and a drug addict. “I only feel gay and act out when I’m high,” he told me. “Acting out” is ex-gay parlance for having gay sex. He hoped that if he could get a handle on his addiction that his homosexuality would somehow disappear. “I’m only gay when I’m high,” he kept repeating.
I think about the young man from Chicago who was there with his wife. They had two small children, the youngest just a few months old. On opening night, Exodus International president Alan Chambers raised the possibility that some people’s sexual orientation might not change and challenged them to persevere anyway. I asked him what he and his wife thought of that. “She’s very scared,” he said. “She cried all night. She kept asking me, ‘What if you don’t change?’ I don’t know. There aren’t any guarantees. All I can do is try.”
I worry, too, about an older gentleman who said that he wasn’t ex-gay, but was a church volunteer accompanying two other ex-gays from New Mexico. I asked him how he became interested in the ex-gay movement. I don’t recall his answer, only that he said that he spent so much time in this ministry that his wife divorced him. “That’s okay,” he said without a hint of regret. “God freed me so I can spend more time in the ministry.” That was odd. I’d never heard anyone credit God for their divorce before, let alone be grateful for it. That conversation left me with way more questions than answers.
And I think about the father from St. Louis who was there with his teenage son. His son had come out to him a year earlier. Since then, the father had read every Exodus- and NARTH-recommended book he could get his hands on. He had just finished one of Joseph Nicolosi’s books. Nicolosi believes that male homosexuality is caused by a poor relationship between the father and the son. The father was wracked with guilt. “It cut through my heart like a knife,” he confided, with his eyes welling up with tears. Because I was there to observe and not participate, I had made a rule for myself that I would not try to offer any advice. I broke that rule here. I reminded him that his son loved and trusted him enough to come out to him, and to share with him perhaps the most personal and potentially embarrassing aspect of his still-young life. He took a huge risk in doing that. I told him that my father had died when I was in college, long before I was able to come out to him. In one very key way, this father and son were no longer strangers, and that he was lucky that they shared that kind of trust. He told me he really hadn’t thought of that, and it seemed to give him a better perspective on his relationship with his son. I wonder how they’re doing now.
It’s three years later, and today is the first full day of the 2010 Exodus Freedom conference. This year’s conference is a day shorter than it was when I attended. For this conference, they have returned to Concordia University in Irvine, and once again, the campus will be the gayest place in Orange County. I really wanted to go. Maybe I, too, could catch up on old friends and acquaintances, just to see how they’re doing – if they’re still around. I wonder if my friend’s iPhone still has his Bible app, or if that app has now been replaced with Grindr. Unfortunately, commitments conspired to make such a trip impossible. Oh well, maybe next year.