With the conclusion of Exodus International’s annual Freedom Conference in St. Paul, Minnesota during the last week of June, thirty-seven Exodus Conferences have now come and gone. This is only the second conference I’ve been to, but I think it is safe to say that this conference was probably like no other in Exodus’s history. I’m glad I was there to witness it. My point of reference was the 2007 conference that I attended in Irvine, California. The differences between the two conferences weren’t quite night and day, but Exodus is undeniably a very different organization now than it was then, and the two conferences reflect those differences.
My approach to this year’s conference was a bit different from five years ago. In 2007, I went more or less undercover. Not really undercover — I registered under my own name and wore my name badge everywhere I went, but I didn’t talk about myself or reveal that I was a pro-gay blogger. This time was different. I began all substantive conversations I engaged in by introducing myself and disclosing that I was a pro-gay blogger. It turns out that most of the people I encountered never heard of me and didn’t know anything about this blog. Fortunately, my ego is far too resilient to let a thing like that bother me. (It turns out few had heard of me; when I good-naturedly accused one young woman of just being nice when she said she was a BTB regular, she pulled out her smart phone and showed me that BTB was loaded up her RSS reader.) We had some good conversations, and on a couple of occasions a few hard questions were directed my way, but nothing really at all nasty or confrontational. I was, without exception, made to feel welcome, and I really appreciate those who allowed me to get a glimpse into why they were there and what they hoped to get out of the conference.
I would however add that I did not introduce myself to workshop speakers beforehand. I didn’t want my presence to cause them to modify their remarks. I think I was mostly successful toward that end. The only person who recognized me before his workshop was Mike Goeke (Hi Mike!), but based on the content of his talk, I don’t think he changed anything just because I was there tapping out notes on my laptop.
I wanted to attend this particular conference because we have been noting that Exodus International has made some very substantial changes in its messaging over the past several months. I wanted to see first-hand what those changes would look like on the inside. But before I begin discussing the conference itself, a review of that journey is in order. The first tangible sign of those changes surfaced last January, when Chambers appeared on a surprise panel at the Gay Christian Network’s annual conference in Orlando with the revelation that, “the majority of people that I have met, and I would say the majority meaning 99.9% of them, have not experienced a change in their orientation.” This was a remarkably clear statement from a man who headed an organization with the motto, “Change Is Possible.” On prior occasions, depending on the particular audience he was speaking to, he had mentioned that he personally struggled with same-sex attractions, but this was the first time he acknowledged publicly the reality that people really don’t experience a change in their sexual orientation as a result of entering into the ex-gay movement. With this statement at GCN, he publicly acknowledged what few would only admit privately, if at all. It was a remarkably clear departure from pervious statements.
The reason I removed RT books from Exodus Books is because I don’t agree with using this research as a means to say that “this” is how homosexuality always develops, “this” is the primary means in which to deal with it and this is “the” outcome you can expect. Too, Exodus, as a whole, is not a scientific or psychological organization…we are a discipleship ministry and that is where I think our strength is and energy should be focused.
This, too, was an important development. Reparative Therapy and the particular developmental theories that underlie it have been an important framework for much of what Exodus promoted through the years. It was one of the primary avenues in which change was supposedly possible. Chambers’s decision to distance his organization from RT signaled a break from the National Organization for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), many of whose leaders had been prominent speakers at previous Exodus conferences. Chambers’s move against RT didn’t go unnoticed at NARTH.
Changes at Exodus didn’t end there. Under Chambers’s leadership the organization began to alter its approach to the gay community as well. Just to show you what that difference looks like, it was only a little over a year ago, May 4 to be exact, when Chambers criticized a Google Chrome ad which portrayed ordinary people using YouTube, a Google-owned service, to post videos as part of Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” anti-bullying campaign. Chambers was irked because Woody, a character from “Toy Story,” appeared for about two and a half seconds to say “You’ll be fine, partner.” But after considerable criticism for coming out against the anti-bullying campaign, he retracted that reaction — five months later — saying “I have to admit that I was wrong to question their marketing strategy without expressing my full support for what is the heart of their campaign – encouraging LGBT teens to choose life.”
This year, Exodus has been considerably more pro-active and responsive. They took the initiative last May to condemn the Family Research Council’s awarding its 2012 Watchman Award to Winston-Salem, NC pastor Ron Baity, who compared gays to murderers, said they were “worse than maggots,” and that God had “an urban renewal plan for Sodom and Gomorrah.” And when Exodus board member Dennis Jernigan traveled to Jamaica at the invitation of local anti-gay extremists fighting to preserve that nation’s criminal code defining homosexuality as a felony, Exodus reacted quickly to that controversy with an announcement that Jernigan had resigned from the board. It also reaffirmed its opposition to laws criminalizing homosexuality.
And finally, when a bill began making its way though the California legislature which would ban licensed therapists from providing Sexual Orientation Change Efforts (SOCE) to minors, Exodus issued a statement which, without addressing the bill directly, re-affirmed Exodus’s position that “we do not subscribe to therapies that make changing sexual orientation a main focus or goal.” It’s not difficult to imagine that a year ago they would have probably been allied with NARTH’s effort to defeat the measure.
All of this taken together represents tremendous changes for Exodus in a remarkably short amount of time. And those changes have not been without cost or controversy within the ex-gay movement. In April, Andrew Comiskey, who heads Desert Stream Ministry, one of the more prominent member ministries in the Exodus network, wrote a letter to Chambers calling on him to “continue to uphold change as a reasonable goal for Christians with (same-sex attraction).” Citing Chambers’s comments before the Gay Christian Network, Comiskey worried that “Alan’s comments about change unwittingly played into the enemy’s hands.” Comiskey stopped short of calling for Chambers’s resignation, but he did call for a “reduced role (at best)” and suggested that Chambers should “pray more and facebook less.” By June, we would learn that eleven member ministries had left Exodus’s network, including Comiskey’s DSM and Frank Worthen’s New Hope Ministries in San Rafael, California. New Hope’s exit is particularly noteworthy because it is one of the surviving granddaddies of the ex-gay movement, having been one of the founding ministries of Exodus International back in 1976.
Exodus, Then and Now
Regular readers at BTB are likely bored with this lengthy recital, but I thought that before diving into what I observed at Exodus’s annual Freedom Conference in St. Paul, Minnesota, it was important to remind ourselves how we got to where we are today. Exodus is behaving very differently from Exodus of past years, and I can confirm that many of those differences were reflected in this year’s conference on several levels. What follows are a few thumbnail observations of the differences I saw at Exodus 2012 when compared to Exodus 2007. For example:
Reparative Therapy: In 2007, Reparative Therapists were prominently featured in conference workshops and plenary sessions. Dr. Julie Harren — she is now Julie Harren Hamilton, NARTH’s most recent past president — spoke at the Saturday morning plenary session, and Reparative Therapists Joseph Nicolosi and Janelle Hallman provided workshops. As recently as 2010, Nicolosi offered two workshops, and he was a featured plenary speaker in 2009.
But in 2012, there was not a single Reparative Therapist in the line-up, either in the plenary sessions or in any of the workshops. But while RT may be gone, its underlying theories remain operative assumptions to explain why people are gay. And for some reason, those explanations are still important at Exodus, where they were the focus of the first two workshops listed for Thursday morning. It’s probably unreasonable to expect everything about RT to be banished overnight. It has, after all, been a huge part of the ex-gay movement for decades. But it seems to me that holding onto those unproven developmental theories no longer provides the utility they once did. This deserves a more thorough discussion, and will be the focus of an upcoming post in this series.
Nevertheless, I think this particular change is the mark of growing maturity in the ex-gay movement, and it has its parallels in the history of the gay community. If you were to go to the library and look up old copies of the Mattachine Review, The Ladder or ONE magazine from the 1950s, you will find tons of articles by psychologists and other professionals telling their gay audiences that homosexuality was a psychological disturbance and that they had the means to cure it. And gays and lesbians at that time, while conflicted over those pronouncements, were willing to give those professionals their respect as “experts.” That changed in the early 1960s when pioneering gay rights activist Frank Kameny boldly stood up and declared that gay people were their own experts and it was the (mostly straight) professional community who needed to learn from them. Kameny’s uncompromising brashness is not in Exodus’s genes, but in many ways I can see Exodus International beginning to take a few steps along a familiar path within the ex-gay movement, with politically-motivated anti-gay organiations, and within the Evangelical Church.
On Change: Because Reparative Therapy is no longer supported at Exodus, the expectation that sexual orientation can be changed has also been largely eliminated. Mostly. There are still a few recalcitrant exceptions. But Alan Chambers devoted his entire opening night talk on this subject and it set the tone for the whole conference. The most notable feature of that talk — and the part that everyone was talking about afterwards — was his reading of the account of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego from Daniel 3:16-18 who defiantly told King Nebuchadnezza that “we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” He then went on to say, “I think we’ve made a golden idol out of change.”
He said much more than that, and I will go deeper into it in the next post in this series. But suffice it to say that his opening night talk set a clear benchmark for the rest of the conference. According to several conversations I’ve had, this looks like the most positive change that Exodus has undertaken, as it now appears to me that many attendees no longer feel the pressure to prove that they’ve changed or are in the process of changing their sexual attractions. While its possible that some may feel disillusioned about what they hoped to find at Exodus, I got the sense that the larger overall feeling was one of tenuous relief. And I use the word tenuous to describe that relief because I think a different, more realistic message has sunk in, that they will almost certainly remain “same-sex attracted” for the rest of their lives. That is an undoubtedly daunting prospect. And what Exodus is now offering instead of change is the promise of just “showing up” and supporting them in their daily walk. I sensed a widespread agreement that this was a much more honest and realistic message.
Marriage vs. Celibacy: In 2007, marriage was still the golden idol for many participants at the Exodus Conference. It was evident in many of the testimonies presented during the plenary sessions, and it was assumed to be a desired outcome for many who were there — even if that outcome would be many years down the road. I remember that on arriving at that conference, a local news crew was interviewing an ex-gay attendee who — and I am not making this up — looked like a bleached-blond Rod Stewart clone. The newsperson asked him if his sexual orientation changed, upon which pseudo-Rod shrieked, “Of course! And if you don’t believe me, you can ask my wife!” (My thought was probably the same as yours: “Oh, honey!”) Alan Chambers tried to inject a note of realism on his opening night talk that night where, at one point, he challenged his audience to imagine what their lives might be like if they don’t experience a change in their sexual orientation. But compared to his talk in 2012, that was a relatively minor detour.
But what a difference five years makes. It’s hard to make celibacy an attractive option, but Exodus appears committed to elevating living a single life to an equal footing with married life. This will be a very difficult task in Evangelical culture, where churches routinely operate singles ministries for the purpose of getting members matched up. But I think this time there is a greater commitment to providing encouragement and resources for living a single, celibate life. It was the focus of one of the plenary talks by Jonathan Barry, who also presented a popular workshop on the subject. Christopher Yuan’s plenary reinforced that message, and Exodus vice president Jeff Buchanon called for more emphasis on singleness as a blessing in his workshop on discipleship. It will obviously be a hard sell, but it is at least a much more realistic one.
The Culture War: In 2007, Exodus announced that they had hired Amanda Banks, whose sole job it was to represent Exodus in lobbying against pro-gay measures on Capitol Hill. She gave a detailed talk at that conference on Exodus’s plans for anti-gay lobbying. That was only one example of Exodus’s engagement in the culture wars. Focus On the Family was represented by Mike Haley and Melissa Fryrear, while Michael Brown and Ken Hutcherson provided some rather entertaining culture-war material for the plenary sessions. The conference opened with a special video in which several prominent anti-gay political and religious leaders welcoming participants to that conference. I witnessed first hand the distress that video caused at least one conference participant. At one workshop on the culture war (yes, that was part of the workshop’s title), he angrily denounced several leaders who appeared in that video for their untruthful attacks against the gay community and asked why Exodus would feature such hateful people (his words) whose rhetoric he felt to be so personally harmful. He then broke down in tears, bringing that workshop to an abrupt end. It was a poignant reminder that those who attend these Exodus conferences really are gay people in many respects. It also illustrated how the allure of politics allowed Exodus to lose sight of those they claimed to serve.
In 2012, references to the culture wars was remarkably attenuated. Nobody from Focus On the Family was there that I noticed, nor were there any other notable culture war speakers. Culture war references weren’t completely absent; I noticed that old habits die hard among a few of the more obscure workshop presenters. But this time, I saw several instances when speakers had an opening to go into politics or cultural issues but refrained from doing so. Even among topics that one would expect to be uncontroversial within the setting of an Exodus conference, people generally just didn’t want to “go there.” In fact, I would say that there was, if anything, a general weariness over the whole thing.
Outreach to the Gay Community: This was a relatively new one. Previously, speakers would mention interacting with the gay community, but most of those mentions were more or less in passing. But now, with Exodus’s exit from politics, there were some discussions about engaging gay people directly and what that might look like. One of the best workshops I attended was by Katie Brown, who talked about why the Millennial generation was turning away from anti-gay rhetoric (and, by extension, the Evangelical Church) in droves. I thought her observations were very perceptive, and not necessarily limited to Millennials. Goeke’s talk on reaching out to the gay community was also mostly constructive.
Where they talked about reaching out to the gay community, the talk centered mostly on what to do (and, more importantly, what not to do). But what I didn’t see fleshed out was a sense of what they thought they had to offer that we didn’t already have. One answer I imagine they would supply might be Jesus, but we already have gay-affirming churches and their numbers are growing every day. Goeke pointed out that the Evangelical Church should have been the first to step up with an anti-bullying campaign, but instead offered little but resistance to even addressing the problem. I would add that the church also should have been the first to provide comprehensive help during the height of the AIDS crisis, but was instead a source of condemnation to the gay community for incurring “God’s wrath.” That is something that I don’t think can ever be forgotten.
I would also point out that because of those failures on behalf of the Evangelical church (and religous institutions as a whole), the gay community had to respond with its own version of “ministries” — community based organizations to address the many specific needs of our communities. We had to learn the hard way how to minister to ourselves in the face of unrelenting tragedy and overwhelming adversity. And so we’ve already established the kinds of ministries, if you will, that they should have established. If Exodus members are serious about reaching out, they might consider showing up at some of the many volunteer organizations that already exist in their communities and getting to know gay people on a more personal level. And then, maybe, decide whether they really have anything constructive to offer. And to allow members of the gay community to decide whether they want to buy whatever it is they’re offering.
The Big Picture
But overall, I’d have to say that the biggest difference I saw in 2012 when compared to five years ago is that Exodus 2012 was characterized by a greater humility. In 2007, the married and the “changed” were triumphant, and the strugglers were, well, still struggling. Also, speakers at that conference were the “experts” and the attendees the students. And as in many student/teacher situations, I found several instances when conference participants either snickered at what they heard or (in the case of John Smid’s workshop on masturbation) muttered “this is bullshit!” when they encountered, well, bullshit. In 2007, I was surprised more often than I thought I would be by the frequency at which conference attendees voiced disagreement among themselves over some of the things they heard.
This time, I think there was a greater appreciation for Alan Chamber’s transparency in admitting that he still has same-sex attractions and that sometimes those feelings can be pretty strong. This blurred the divide between the “experts” and the “students” on Day One, and the leaders were made much more human in the eyes of those in the seats. And compared to 2007, there were somewhat more hard questions and somewhat fewer easy answers. I think that this change is something that we haven’t had a chance to see before, and it was unquestionably a positive one in my mind.
Most of the changes that I’ve described can be scored in the positive column, for those inclined toward keeping score. What I haven’t gotten to yet is those areas where Exodus has not changed and probably will never change. Exodus is not, by any means, becoming a pro-gay organization, but they seem to be interested in becoming a less overtly anti-gay one. That will be very difficult for them, mainly because I don’t think the gay community will be willing to see them that way given their theological stance. But what I find fascinating is that some of the ways where Exodus isn’t changing may also wind up presenting a serious challenge to the Evangelical Church as a whole. That, too, will be the subject of a future post. Stay tuned. We’re just getting started.
Part 1: Then vs. Now, Or What a Long Strange Trip It’s Been
Part 2: “We’ve Made a Golden Idol of Change” (Coming soon)
Part 3: The Long Shadow of Reparative Therapy (Coming soon)
Part 4: Sin and Salvation, and the Challenge to the Evangelical Church (Coming soon)
Part 5: Final Thoughts (Coming soon.)
UPDATE: All sorts of events intervened — personal stuff, health stuff, family stuff, work stuff, dental stuff (percocet!) — which got in the way of completing this series. By the time I was ready to resume, Exodus had become such a moving target that much of what I wanted to talk about was no longer relevant. I do hope to touch on a number of these topics in future posts as they become more immediately relevant.