“We Did Everything Right”: An Ex-Gay Tragedy
July 3rd, 2013
This talk by Rob and Linda Robertson is going viral a second time, this time after having been posted on Huffington Post, which is augmented by a video of the Robertson’s speaking before Exodus International’s final conference in Irvine, California two weeks ago. As I wrote at that time, I thought the talk was remarkable due to the fact that the Robertsons described doing everything “right” when they learned their son was gay — “right” according to what Exodus had taught parents at the time — only to find it all lead to unspeakably tragic consequences. This was precisely the kind of talk that never would have been allowed at prior Exodus conferences.
I had the privilege of meeting the Robertsons the night before they gave their talk. That say behind me in the last row as Chambers was announcing Exodus’s closure. They introduced themselves and said that they were going to speak the next morning, and were rather nervous about it because they knew that their message wouldn’t be the traditional Exodus message. They were there because of a surprise invitation from Chambers himself to come and speak, and he gave them carte blanche to say whatever they wanted to say. The result is not only what you see above. If you’re eyes are moist after seeing this, so were most of the eyes in the audience at Exodus. It truly struck a nerve. What’s more, the Robertson’s talk was followed by a remarkable round table discussion which included the Robertsons, other ministry leaders and pastors in a pretty frank discussion of many of the problems in Exodus’s approach to gay people.
Rob and Linda Robertson are also supporters of BIOLA Queers, a quasi-underground student group at the extremely fundamentalist BIOLA University in the LA area. You can find Linda’s blog here. They are truly amazing people. I can’t speak too highly of them.
Exodus Conference Day Two: A Move To the Gray
June 21st, 2013
Exodus International’s apology and announcement that it was shutting down is still provoking commentary all over the news media and Internet-o-sphere. That chatter got an additional boost with last night’s airing of Our America with Lisa Ling on OWN featuring a group of ex-gay survivors confronting Exodus president Alan Chambers with stories of the traumas that they experienced as a result of their trusting Exodus and other similar orientation change programs’ promises that they could change.
I haven’t been able to keep up with all of those reactions very well, as I’ve been continuing attend the Exodus Conference in Irvine, California which, despite Exodus’s demise, is still continuing through Saturday. This conference is shaping up to be very different from years past. I would describe the those prior conferences as a cross between a lively contemporary praise revival and a convivial summer camp. But this year, Chambers’s somber opening night talk on Wednesday, with its surprise revelation that Exodus was going out of business, seemed to really take the wind out of the audience’s sails yesterday. The worship services were somewhat more subdued and the chatter in the cafeteria was quieter than normal. There’s a kind of grieving taking place here, with some people feeling abandoned and perhaps a touch betrayed, although I don’t think I’ve heard anyone use that particular word. While some are encouraged that Exodus has finally taken the steps that it has, others are not on board and are sorely disappointed. To understand that latter reaction, I think it’s important to remember that the people coming here, unlike many who have left the ex-gay movement, don’t feel they’ve been harmed by Exodus (not yet, anyway, and some perhaps never will), feel that they have a home and community here, and turn to Exodus as perhaps the only place where they feel safe, surrounded by other people who understand them. Some of them are taking the news rather hard.
And if things weren’t somber enough, the tough Thursday morning sessions only added to the discomfort. The morning plenary was given over to Rob and Linda Robertson, Seattle residents, avid recyclers, their car had a “Hate is Not A Family Value” bumper sticker on their car in support of Linda’s gay brother. They are parents of four children including a son, Ryan, who came out to them as gay when he was twelve years old. As is true with many parents, their live-and-live attitudes crashed straight into their religious principles when they were confronted with the reality that Ryan was gay. Their reaction, which was perfectly in line with what Exodus had taught, was:
We love you. We will ALWAYS love you. But if you are going to follow Jesus, holiness is your only option. You are going to have to choose to follow Jesus, no matter what. And since you know what the Bible says, and since you want to follow God, embracing your sexuality is NOT an option.
Basically, we told our son that he had to choose between Jesus and his sexuality. We forced him to make a choice between God and being a sexual person. Choosing God, practically, meant living a lifetime of loneliness (never to fall in love, have his first kiss, hold hands, share intimacy companionship, experience romance), but it also meant the abundant life, perfect peace and eternal rewards. So, for the first six years, he tried to choose Jesus. Like so many others before him, he pleaded with God to help him be attracted to girls. He memorized Scripture, met with his youth pastor weekly, enthusiastically participated in all the church youth group events and Bible Studies, got baptized, read all the books that claimed to know where his gay feelings came from, dove into counseling to further discover the “why’s” of his unwanted attraction to other guys, worked through painful conflict resolution with my husband and I, and built strong friendships with other guys – straight guys – just like he was told to. He even came out to his entire youth group, giving his testimony of how God had rescued him from the traps of the enemy, and sharing – by memory – verse after verse that God had used to draw Ryan to Himself.
The Robertsons did everything that Exodus taught them to do, or, as Linda told the crowd yesterday morning, “We did everything right.” But as she emphasized the word right, it was as if she had uttered unspoken scare-quotes around the word. What came next was tragic: Ryan became disillusioned and exhausted with trying to change, dropped out, started self-medicating with pot, cocaine, heroin. He left home and disappeared completely for eighteen months, cutting off all contact.
When he finally resurfaced and called home, he asked if they could still love him after all he had done. Could they still live him even if he had a boyfriend. Linda responded, “We’d love you even if you had fifteen boyfriends, just come home.” They reconciled, met Ryan’s boyfriend Devon, helped Ryan through rehab, but when things were going well, Ryan one night decided to go and visit his old friends — his old, still using friends — for a movie. That night, he O.D’d, went into a coma, and died.
And we lost the ability to love our gay son… because we no longer had a gay son. What we had wished for… prayed for…hoped for.. that we would NOT have a gay son, came true. But not at all in the way we used to envision.
I had the privilege of meeting the Robertsons the night before they gave the talk. They said that they were surprised to be invited to the Exodus conference, let alone invited to speak. They spoke on the condition that they could say whatever they wanted, which was important because the lesson behind their story was unmistakable: following Exodus’s advice led to a tragic end. This is the kind of story that never would have been told in prior Exodus conferences.
The round table discussion that followed was similarly impressive. The Robertsons were joined by several Exodus and affiliated ministry leaders and pastors. The consensus that emerged was that people need a safe place to work out their beliefs, rather than having “truths” thrown at them. Julie Rogers, who works with inner city kids in West Dallas, put it this way: “So many young people are getting ‘truth grenades’ thrown at them from afar from the church. But truth grenades don’t change people. It’s been relationships that affect people. If we want people to meet Christ then it’s going to have to be through relationships. Because if people treat me more as a project than a person, then I’ve been left, alone. It leads to a lot of shame and heartache.” Rogers also emphasized that the need was not to change people but to be “restorers”. “We need to be more concerned with kids being bullied, entering into their pain and being with them rather than just telling them what we believe.”
Jill Rennick, of Milwaukee-based Grace Place ministry, described the unorthodox (for Exodus) approach she took in her ministry. She emphasized that their approach was not to try to coerce people’s behavior. “It’s easier to run a ministry like that” without taking on the burden of that responsibility. She encourages people to explore the Gay Christian Network as well other more traditional resources. She summed up her approach this way: “The Gospel has no asterisks.”
All of this is to say that the conference on Tuesday morning took a much more serious, thoughtful turn. Contrary to prior conferences, there is a lot more willingness to dwell in the grey areas. If that’s an uncomfortable position for almost everyone, you can imagine how difficult that is for an audience that had been raised in the black-and-white. Exodus International’s message had always been about change — about changing sexual orientation or identity. Exodus’s reason for existence was in the acknowledgment that the process of change that they had been talking about was very difficult. It seems kind of fitting to me to observe that now that Exodus itself is now going away to become something else (and what that will be exactly is still not clear) — in other words, undergoing a profound kind of change of a different kind — the conference’s attendees are exhibit A for how difficult change really is.
So yes, yesterday was, in many ways, a rather somber day. We still have two more days to go.
Liveblog of Exodus Conference
June 19th, 2013
7:00: I’ve never live-blogged before, mostly because I really am not good at thinking on my feet. I’m the kind of person who needs to ruminate a bit. And ordinarily I wouldn’t consider it appropriate to do it at this setting, but since this is going out live via webcast for free, I’ll do it this one time. This will be the only time I live-blog this conference. Click here for my pre-conference impressions.
You can watch the live webcast here. It looks like you have to register, but the free code for tonight only is “TrueStory.”
By the way, my good friend Anthony Venn-Brown, of Australia’s ex-gay survival organization Freedom2B, is here, sitting in the pew next to me. It’s so good to see him again. You can read about him here.
All times Pacific.
7:09: Alan Chambers is doing a few introductory remarks — general announcements, introductions, things like that. He’s loose and funny, as usual. Hints at a “very important message tonight.”
7:15: A Contemporary Christian Music band is playing. Never mind the content, just as a matter of style CCM is just not my thing. But they seem like they’re having fun.
7:21: This is definitely a smaller crowd. In years past, the opening night had more of a major concert hall kind of a feel. Tonight, we’re in a chapel that’s about half the size of previous venues. It’s definitely more “churchy” and much less of a large scale production as before. I hear that attendance is now a little over 300, compared to I think somewhere like 700 or 800 last year.
7:25: “Shout it out and life up one voice, in worship.” They’re still singing.
7:35: They do like to sing. I think this will probably continue until about 8:00, if past experience is any guide. I will say, the drummer is pretty good.
7:46. “You’re going to hear some true stories this week, and they’re going to be good.” Chambers is welcoming the live-streamers and introducing Aaron Harris for his testimony. This is a standards feature of plenary sessions, and a common feature of Evangelical worship in general. He’s definitely gay, or, as the program says, “he uses his personal story and struggle with SSA (same-sex attractions) to address hard subjects like addiction and abuse in order to bring light into dark areas often ignored.” Was abused by someone “inside the church.”
The last thing I want to do is diminish what he’s telling the crowd. These are real people, after all, talking about some very tough, personal, intimate, frank, and humiliating things. It’s easy for those outside the evangelical culture to mock the institution of “testimony,” but it is more than just a powerful form of story-telling. It’s cathartic for many of those listening, as well as for some of the speakers.
8:00 “I still struggle. In the past three months have been the most intense struggle of my life.” But God is “using my story to help others.” This is not a typical testimony of ultimate triumph, but one that strikes me as humble and honest.
8:02: Also, “Is my goal to lead people to Christ, or is my goal to change them? If it’s to change them, then I need to step away.”
8:03: Alan Chambers is back at the podium, leading a prayer. From here on out, a paraphrase of his comments:
“We’re grateful that you take us as we are, that you love us as we are.” Prays that “we turn off the tapes that tell us things that are not true.”
8:06: Why are we here this week? Most of us here … are here as Christians with same-sex attractions, who believe that sexual expression is reserved for one man and one woman in marriage. … this will be a safe haven for us. We live in a messy reality. Everyone lives in a messy reality, but God would rather he had messy children than no children at all.
8:09: Our stories have not changed. But there are things that happening in current headlines that we need to address.
8:10: Exodus International’s website has announced that Exodus is shutting down.
Exodus is an institution in the conservative Christian world, but we’ve ceased to be a living, breathing organism,” said Alan Chambers, President of Exodus. “For quite some time we’ve been imprisoned in a worldview that’s neither honoring toward our fellow human beings, nor biblical.”
Chambers continued: “From a Judeo-Christian perspective, gay, straight or otherwise, we’re all prodigal sons and daughters. Exodus International is the prodigal’s older brother, trying to impose its will on God’s promises, and make judgments on who’s worthy of His Kingdom. God is calling us to be the Father – to welcome everyone, to love unhindered.”
For these reasons, the Board of Directors unanimously voted to close Exodus International and begin a separate ministry. “This is a new season of ministry, to a new generation,” said Chambers. “Our goals are to reduce fear (reducefear.org), and come alongside churches to become safe, welcoming, and mutually transforming communities.”
8:14: Chambers: For the past 18 months, I’ve been embroiled in scandal, but only because I am sharing things that I’ve never shared before. Never did I believe that the things that I’ve shared would have ripped our ministry apart the way it has. Therefore I am convinced that the “scandal” is of God’s making.
8:16: Eighteen months ago, I spoke at the Gay Christian Network conference, and that was the beginning of the scandals. What I said was that 99% of the people that I met continue to struggle with same-sex attractions. Those things don’t go away. People say I am a heretic for saying that, but it is the power of God that permits me to stand in that reality.
(The audience doesn’t know the announcement yet.)
8:18: No matter how we behave, we have a irrevocable relationship with Jesus Christ. They say I’ve given people a license to sin, as if I have that power.
8:20: Speaks of “fear that keeps us acting a certain way, living a certain way, living like a child of an angry God. I was living my life pretending I’m something I’m not because I was living in fear of the church. It has been the most amazing journey to come to the realization that my Father in heaven will never abandon me. There is nothing I did to earn his love. My relationship is secure. I long for the day for people to live their lives to live in a way that pleases God, not because they have to but because they can. And so they will live in all kinds of ways, in ways that you may not agree with. He alone will judge. He didn’t call us to be prosecutors, but witnesses.
8:23: Exodus was formed in 1976 as a safe haven for gay people in a church where it wasn’t safe. I believe it was the work of God. It saved my life when I joined in 1991. I needed a place to take my mask off. But over time, like the church, Exodus has become entrenched in rules. Rather than being the father standing at the gate waiting for the son to come home. While there has been so much good at Exodus,there has also been bad. There have been people that we’ve hurt. There are horror stories. In 37 years we haven’t done anything right. We’ve helped people, but we’ve hurt people. One of the scandalous things that we’ve done is acknowledge that.
8:27: He’s talk about the show tomorrow night on Lisa Ling, where Chambers was confronted by ex-gay survivors and offer an apology. “It was excruciating. They told their true stories in a way that I will never forget. They told stories of abuse, pain, missed opportunities, from the church and even from Exodus.
8:30: I can’t just take responsibility for the good things. I have to take responsibility for the bad as well. (Speaking of the apology) And I’ve already heard from people that won’t be my friend anymore because of the things that I said.
8:31: When I was hired, I was asked What will like like success for Exodus. I said success for me will look like Exodus going out of business because the church is doing it’s job. In January 2012, after spending a lot of time with other leaders, we got together for a leadership conference and came with an agenda. We’re at a crossroads. We have only 4 options:
1. Stay the same. For us that wasn’t an option.
2. Rebrand, which is common. Let’s put lipstick on the pig. Wasn’t an option. When they changed Kentucky Fried Chicken to KFC, they still sold fried chicken.
3. Modify, the goal we tried. But to completely modify, it’s risky and potentially deadly. Exodus has suffered, been ridiculed, maligned, scorned. Life has been incredibly difficult. I begged God to let me be a decorator. He said no.
4. What we realized was that God does not want us to modify Exodus further. We are at option 4, to shut down. I knew this option would come to pass. It’s the fulfillment of what I was hired to do.
(The crowd is very still.)
8:36. This will leave a void, one that I hope will be filled by nothing but the church. I long for the day when the best place a kid can call is the church. Exodus was created in a void. There has been good that’s come out, but God is calling us home to the church, the imperfect, messy, sometimes mean church.
8:38: We’re going to leave a void. What do we do with all of you? We’re not abandoning you. We wouldn’t do that. My hope is you will do what I did, share the reality that we shared. Be change for the church. Bring change to the church. That is what God is calling us to do. If we don’t do that, we will fail to live up to what God has called us to be: Jesus with skin on to a lost and dying world. To a church that says, I don’t care what you wear or what you’re doing, just come home. We want at all costs for everyone and anyone to come home to the church.
8:41. We’re not going to control people anymore. We’re not going to tell them how to live. I am not the Holy Spirit. We are called to proclaim the truth of who God is. My beliefs haven’t changed, but there is nothing more important than winning people to Christ with the love of Christ.
8:43: Exodus became something it wasn’t intended to be. Exodus’s major failure is that it became a religious institution focused on rules of behavior, and not focused on what we believe. It’s time our message changed to be one of hope and love and grace. For these reasons that we believe it’s time for Exodus to close.
(He is now reading this statement. The room is utterly silent.)
(They have announced a new web site: Reducefear.org.)
8:48: Exodus has been like the ring in Lord of the Rings. While we have all been friends, there is something about Exodus that needs to be put to rest.
8:50: We fought the culture, and we’ve lost. But I think we lost for a good reason. It’s time for peace. We are the culture. Culture doesn’t exist without people. God doesn’t want us to fight people anymore. We believe it’s time for the church to open its doors and let the marginalized in. Let the spiritual refugees find a home in the church.
8:52: Ends with John 16:33.
I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
Christ died to give you peace. The King is on the throne and you can trust him. We need to learn the serve. We must be a beacon of hope, and we must be different.
While this is a painful thing, something better is coming. There is more. This doesn’t negate our stories or what God is calling you to do. It’s just simply a new time. My prayer is that we have an amazing last Exodus conference. We have good news to share, and it’s time we shared the good news.
8:55. He’s now offering a closing prayer. It’s been one of the most remarkable, humble talks I’ve ever heard him give. This talk had none of the swagger of prior conference talks, but it was a confident one. At least that how it came across to me.
But make no mistake about it. This is the end of an era, and major milestone in the history of the ex-gay movement. I imaging we’re going to hear a lot of reactions over the next several days to come, but tonight, Exodus has come to a quiet and — dare I say it — a very dignified end.
First Impressions Ahead Of Exodus 2013 Conference
June 19th, 2013
The conference hasn’t started yet, but I’m all signed in, badged, and already meeting friends from last year, which I guess is what happens when you become something of a semi-regular. I’m not sure there are enough people yet to get a sense of the “buzz,” but there are a couple of observations that I think I can go ahead and report.
First, this conference is greatly scaled back in size and scope from previous conferences. I asked one of the volunteers at the registration area how many people had signed up. She gave a number that was fewer than 300. I don’t know how many walk-ins would be expected, but it does seem to be shaping up into a much smaller conference than last year’s in St. Paul, Minnesota, where I think the attendance was somewhere in the 700 or 800 range (I can’t find the exact figure in my notes from last year). Clearly, some of the controversy surrounding Exodus’ change in messaging has had a significant effect.
Second, because the conference is seeing lower attendance this year, the schedule has been significantly re-organized from what had been originally posted online. The newly updated online program shows that Mike Haley, who had formerly been at Focus On the Family and was a regular speaker at Love Won Out conferences, had been scheduled to speak at a plenary session, but is no longer on the bill.
Other changes to the schedule may still be in work. In my printed booklet, only one hour on Tursday and Friday is devoted to workshops, although this page (as of 5:00 p.m.) appears to reflect a much larger selection of workshops that had been originally planned. The blocks of time that had previously been set aside for workshops are now devoted to a set of forums, which I understand to be intended for a more open, interactive discussion rather than the more traditional lecture being given by a leader or guest speaker. Forum topics are “Let’s Talk Homosexuality,” “Sharing Your Story,” “God’s Created Intent,” “Embracing Your Story,” “Restoration and Forgiveness,” and “Empowering Your Story.” My booklet shows “Free Time” on Saturday from 3:15 to 7:00, but the online program says “SIGs, Refuge Groups.” I don’t know what “SIGs” are, but Refuge Groups are what they call the small group activity and discussion groups geared toward parents, men, women, young adults, couples, and students. I expect that tonight we’ll hear about more changes to the program schedule.
And finally, I’d have to say that Exodus president Alan Chambers’s apology has generated a lot of interest, both inside and outside the conference:
— Peter LaBarbera (@PeterLaBarbera) June 19, 2013
— Dan Savage (@fakedansavage) June 19, 2013
LaBarbera’s reaction, of course, is to be expected. It’s probably shared by those who are watching from Oklahoma City, where the rival, hard-core Restored Hope Network will begin its conference on Friday. But I think the reaction among many gay activists and ex-gay survivors will disappoint many of those attending the conference. I can’t say I’m surprised, nor can I say I’m disappointed at the reaction. I think it’s to be expected, actually. I don’t think just a single sorry has ever solved a problem, but if there is ever to be steps taken in that direction, it always begins with saying that word. And for more serious transgressions it will take saying it repeatedly, over and over, along with a resolve to fix what was broken to whatever extent may be possible. I think one of our BTB commenters put it nicely:
Although I am no longer a Catholic, it seems to me the concept of confession & reconciliation as taught by the Catholics is instructive here. When confessing an apology would be the beginning, not the end, of the reconciliation. Alan has expressed himself well here, but it will be his future actions that truly indicate whether he has really changed and is willing to do the hard work of making up for the hurt he has caused.
And finally, I think there will be a major announcement at tonight’s plenary session. I don’t know that for a fact, and I could easily be wrong about this, but I have a feeling that there’s going to be much more to talk about before the day is done. If I can live-blog it, I will.
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.
Exodus 2012, Part 1: Then vs. Now, Or What A Long Strange Trip It’s Been
July 9th, 2012
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.
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.
A Few Hickups In Exodus’ Message Machine
July 16th, 2008
Exodus International’s annual conference went under way in Asheville, North Carolina yesterday, and their messaging machine was rolling along. We’ve often noted before how Exodus carefully tailors their message for different audiences, and ths time is no exception. Exodus President Alan Chambers told the Ashevile Citizen-Times, “The truth is that homosexuality does not send people to hell. Gay people live in heaven. It’s not about fire and brimstone, it’s about an alternative option.”
Chambers’ most recent comment is a drastic turnaround from just ten months ago, when he labeled the push for equality under the law an “evil agenda” last fall. But we’ve seen twists and turns in Chamber’s message before. Exodus is very good at modifying its message depending on the audience. You may recall that Alan Chambers had a similar charm offensive in advance of last year’s Exodus conference in Irvine, where he downplayed “change,” a statement from which he appeared to have backtracked somewhat a few days later. And his charm offensive turned decidedly ugly with his snide remarks in response to heartfelt apologies from former Exodus leaders.
While Chambers has nice words for the newspapers, Exodus vice-president Randy Thomas, like many vice-presidents, takes the roll of attack dog:
Thomas countered, “Exodus is no stranger to opposition, but neither was Jesus. Exodus is not in the business of converting anyone. We just offer a hand to walk beside people who want freedom from the bondage of sexual addiction.”
Sexual addiction Randy? Is that what this is all about? I thought it was homosexuality.
Actually, this is another key component of the Exodus message machine: painting all gay people as sex addicts. I don’t know what choices Randy Thomas has made in his life, but it’s time he recognized that the rest of us bear no responsibility for his past choices.
Randy, this message is especially for you today.
Alan Chambers: Exodus “Backing Out of Policy Issues”
March 5th, 2008
Last summer, we reported on Exodus International’s political lobbying activities, specifically the hiring of Amanda Banks as Exodus’ Director of Governmental Affairs. Ms. Banks spoke at the Exodus Freedom conference in Irvine about the many irons they had in the fire to try to make life more difficult for gays and lesbians who chose not to follow the ex-gay path.
There have been some rumblings that some Exodus-affiliated ministry leaders were dissatisfied with this latest move. Some felt that this political involvement was a unwelcome distraction to Exodus’ core mission as a ministry. And more to the point, a few worried that by maintaining such a public anti-gay posture, Exodus might actually interfere with a few of their member ministries’ efforts to engage in non-confrontational and non-judgmental outreach efforts.
Believe it or not, there are a few such ministries — perhaps a precious few, but they exist nonetheless — who really want to try to work in a less confrontational and judgmental manner. In fact, according to Exodus co-founder Michael Bussee, this was a key part of Exodus’ original vision.
More recently, Wendy Gritter, Executive Director of Toronto-based New Directions, gave a keynote address (MP3: 28.9MB/1:03:07) at an Exodus leadership conference in January. She urged her audience to put an end to its political lobbying, to stop emphasizing “change,” and to show genuine respect for those who are comfortable with their sexual orientation. She also joined several former ex-gay leaders with an apology of her own posted at Ex-Gay Watch:
I want to begin by saying I’m sorry. I’m sorry for the pain that some of those who follow this site have experienced from leaders like me and ministries like the one I lead. I’m sorry that some of you connected with this site who identify as Christian have had your faith questioned and judged. I’m sorry there is a felt need for a site like XGW. I’m sorry that it feels like legitimate concerns have not been listened to. I am sorry for the arrogance that can come across from leaders like me.
And now Exodus International president Alan Chambers talked with Ex-Gay Watch’s Dave Roberts and said that he has backtracked from his original decision to take Exodus in a more explicitly political direction. Last August, at about the same time we were reporting on Amanda Banks’ new job with Exodus, Alan “decided to back out of policy issues and our Director of Government Affairs took a position with another organization.”
But to the question of whether these changes were permanent, Alan replied:
One area that we found to be incredibly beneficial was simply sharing our stories with lawmakers. If and when there are opportunities to do that we will.
As for lobbying, promoting policies, etc., I don’t see us being involved in the near or distant future. Will we ever feel the need to get involved? Maybe — as a ministry we care about religious freedom and we are always watching to see how changes in policy might negatively impact our freedom.
They’ve used the “religious freedom” meme as an oft-repeated objection to hate crimes legislation — even though the proposed legislation only addresses violent crime and not speech, religion, or any other Constitutionally protected right.
This is good news indeed and comes after much work on the part of folks both within and outside of Exodus to help the leadership to consider backing away from getting tangled in debates about LGBT rights.
Back in July during the Ex-Gay Survivor Initiative sponsored by Soulforce, ex-gay survivors shared their stories around the country with a recurring theme about harm, but also with a call to ex-gay leaders and church leaders to consider pastoral care and people’s lives before politics.
It’s not just former ex-gays who feel this way. While I was attending the Exodus conference in California last June, I ran into a few “strugglers” there who also disagreed with Exodus’ political activities. A few of them voiced to me some rather sharp of anti-gay statements made by prominent religious leaders, some of whom taped video welcome messages which were played at the start of the conference. There were a few names and faces which flashed on the screen which prompted scattered pangs of anguish and hisses among a very few members of the audience. And particular disgust was registered at those who were known for having used HIV/AIDS as a cudgel against the gay community in the past.
These changes at Exodus are long overdue and will be welcome by many both inside and outside the movement — assuming these changes are lasting and substantial. Whether that happens, only time will tell. I suppose we all will be putting together our own personal litmus tests over the next few months. Here’s mine: maybe this will mark the end of Alan’s appearances like his recent showing at the Family Impact Summit. That would be welcome news indeed.
Video: Inside The Exodus International “Freedom Conference”
Box Turtle Bulletin editor Jim Burroway discusses attending Exodus' 2007 annual conference
February 21st, 2008
Jim and I are jetting off to Memphis later today and Timothy is skiing in Tahoe so here’s something to hold you over till I can start blogging from Memphis tomorrow.
In this video Jim recounts the attitude parents at the Exodus Freedom Conference with gay and lesbian children. Jim likens their level of emotion to a death in the family. I’ll let Jim elaborate:
How Can My Child Be Gay?
John Smid’s Vagina Monologue
February 19th, 2008
I’ve wanted to post about this ever since I attended the Exodus Freedom Conference last summer. But to be perfectly honest, I was so flabbergasted by Love In Action Director John Smid’s workshop on masturbation that I was never able to figure out how to approach it.
Watch this, especially at the point about halfway through the video when he talks about respecting his wife while talking about her vagina. When someone like this projects so many of his issues onto everyone else, do you think he’s qualified to teach anyone about sexuality?
So now that you’ve heard that, read the rules that the residential clients at Love In Action are expected to follow. It takes your breath away, doesn’t it?
Video: Inside The Exodus International “Freedom Conference”
Box Turtle Bulletin editor Jim Burroway discusses attending Exodus' 2007 annual conference
January 27th, 2008
Last week Exodus debuted a youtube video advertising this year’s “Freedom Conference” so what better time for Box Turtle Bulletin to release the first few videos examining what went on at last year’s conference. Editor Jim Burroway attended and offers commentary on the use of camp humor, what it’s like to be “accepted as someone who’s gay and hates it,” and the struggle for those who can at best hope for a life of celibacy.
Trust me, you don’t want to miss Alan Chambers singing “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina.” I’m not going to say which video has that so you’ll just have to watch both of them.
Celibacy, What If Change Doesn’t Occur?
My Expectations Were Blown Away