Another Exodus Conference Is Upon Us. Let’s Review.
June 18th, 2013
If this post rambles a bit, it’s because Exodus Internatonal’s history has been rambling over the past six years. I’ve been doing a bit of comparing and contrasting of Exodus today with Exodus of yore, when I attended my first “Freedom Conference” at Concordia University in Irvine, California in 2007. I also spent part of that weekend attending the very first gathering of ex-gay survivors for a Beyond Ex-Gay conference at the University of California, Irvine, just a couple of miles down the road. At that time, Exodus was in full culture-war mode. Organizers of the second conference invited Exodus President Alan Chambers and members of the board for a private dinner for dialogue before the conference. But Exodus characterized that gathering of ex-gay survivors as a “protest”, declined to attend, and made an announcement from the main stage at the start of a plenary that if any other ministry leaders or anyone else had received an invitation, they were requested to see Alan Chambers personally. Three ministry leaders did end up meeting for dinner with two ex-gay survivor organizers and two survivors themselves. (It was a private meeting, I wasn’t privy to the details and I don’t know whether they were there with or without Chambers’s blessing.) That weekend was also notable for the fact that three former Exodus-affilated leaders had issued a formal apology to those who were harmed by their participation in ex-gay ministries.
Five years later, I attended another Exodus “Freedom Conference” in St. Paul, Minnesota. That was a tremendous year of transition for the organization, and it showed in some of the confusing unevenness of that conference. On the positive side, the expectation of changing sexual orientation was gone — mostly, although traces of it continued to linger and re-appear here and there. One plenary speaker, Ricky Chelette of Arlington, TX-based Living Hope Ministry, all but proclaimed his heterosexuality in the way he talked about his wife. Executive vice-president Jeff Buchanan’s workshops struck me as particularly hard-nosed, and I recall that one workshop speaker, Marc, Dillworth, gave a rather blistering classic culture-war talk before parents of gay kids before describing his therapeutic techniques for “winning over the prodigal son.”
But I think those examples, in retrospect, can be seen as examples the proverbial exceptions which proved the new rules. It was the way in which they seemed to stick out, somewhat defiantly, that made the contrast to the overall conference all the stronger. It was as if we needed, from time to time, an archaic reminder of the way things used to be. Or, looked at another way, it was also as though a few people either didn’t attend some key pre-conference meetings or came away disagreeing with the requests being made.
But despite those hold-outs, most were on board. The message of change was mostly gone, replaced with a commitment to either living a celibate life or, for those who might be capable, marrying and remaining faithful to an opposite sex spouse — with emphasis on the former being perhaps the more realistic “default” for most people. Change was out, faithfulness to Christ (as they understand him) was in, and we’re all just here to support one another. And there were some rather honest and self-critical examinations, both formally and informally, of the many ways that Exodus has failed in the way that approached gay Christians in particular and gay people generally.
And Randy Thomas and I even declared something of a detente over green smoothies — two things I thought I’d never experience.
And yet, there were still elements of that conference that I found confusing. Even though here were no more talks about changing sexual orientation or methods for developing attractions toward the opposite sex, and books on Reparative Therapy were banned from the Exodus bookstore, a few stubborn vestiges of the old ways remained. The first morning of the conference featured two talks on a topic that was always a mainstay of Exodus conferences: “Understanding Homosexuality & Gender Development In Males” given by Chelette, and a counterpart workshop for women by Living Hope’s D’Ann Davis. Both of those talks hewed closely to developmental theories based on Reparative Therapy, which, without delving into details, poo-poo’ed the idea that there was any sort of biological basis for homosexuality and that it was all dependent in how you were raised.
Now I can write a whole series of blog posts delving into the science of sexual orientation development. There are hints of all kinds of things going on: environmental, in a few cases perhaps, but also genetics, epigenetics (the process by which identical twins have different fingerprints, iris patterns, and even some other features that can make them much less than identical), pre-natal hormones, birth order, bilateral asymmetry in the brain — all sorts of things. The picture that appears to emerge is that there are many contributing factors, and that those factors, in combination and various permutations, can be very different for many different people. What made you gay is probably quite different from what made me gay.
But none of that complexity was present in those workshops. Instead, they insisted that it all about childhood experiences, and that nobody was born gay. To throw more confusion into the mix, “temperament” was recognized as a factor, but that, somehow, was in no way innate, except, I guess, it’s somehow always there. Whatever. Yes, that’s was confusing, but let’s pull out to the bigger question: If changing one’s sexual orientation was no longer a realistic expectation, then what did it matter whether someone was born gay or were, according to their argument, made gay by their parents? What could it possibly matter either way?
Another year has passed, and things continue to change at Exodus. Buchanan left Exodus just three months after last year’s conference, a former Exodus president formally split from the organization in favor of a much more hard-core rival, Restored Hope Network, Exodus announced its withdrawal from the Exodus Global Alliance, and this week, Alan Chambers will appear on Our America, with Lisa Ling where he will listen to several ex-gay survivors and offer an apology.
And they are gathering, once again, at Concordia University in Irvine this week for another annual conference, with this year’s theme being “True Story.” I don’t know whether this conference will mark the completion of a transition, but I strongly suspect it will. Those talks about the development of sexual orientation are gone, for the first time, I suspect, in the history of the ex-gay movement. Instead, the emphasis appears to be on establishing more realistic expectations. I’m told that one workshop , “Let’s Talk: Masculinity,” and it’s counterpart, “Let’s Talk: Femininity,” will take a much more open-ended interactive approach to discussing masculinity and femininity, rather than relying on the imposition of rigid gender roles of old.
That’s not to say that Exodus is suddenly becoming a pro-gay organization, at least not how I would define it and not according to how Exodus’s more conservative detractors now characterize it. Sexual activity outside of a one-man-one-woman marriage is still a sin, although that message is now tempered with the theological understanding that all sinners who accept Jesus and are saved will go to heaven, which might be a very important, life-saving distinction for gay Christian kids if it can sink in. That seems, to me at least, to be a big “if” in light of contemporary conservative Christian culture, but it would at least represent the limits of a best-case scenario. More realistically, however, it still risks being seen as a conditional acceptance of a kind which can still place a huge burden on gay teens and young people — and, let’s be frank, adults also. They suffer, too, even if they aren’t often seen as being so vulnerable.
So this is my way of catching up to where Exodus is today. Once again, I will be attending the Exodus conference this week in Irvine. I really wanted to go to this one because I do believe that it will be a truly historic one for many reasons, including some that I can only speculate about now but hope to go into in further detail as events unfold. I don’t know if this conference will itself be earth-shattering, or wither it’s significance will grow only in retrospect. But I do know it will be like no other, and I want to be a witness to that. Six years ago, Chambers didn’t sit down with ex-gay survivors to hear their stories, but this week we will see him listening and offering an apology. Times really are changing.