Is Change Possible? Shifting the Ex-Gay Question

Last month, in an interview with The Atlantic, Alan Chambers, president of Exodus International, made it unequivocally clear that the nation’s largest ex-gay organization no longer considers itself in the business of changing sexual orientation.

Chambers acknowledged that most Exodus members are single and remain so, that those who are married are trying to salvage an existing marriage rather than starting new, straight ones, and that homosexual desire stays homosexual desire. “In the past,” he said, “we’ve been aligned with organizations that believe feelings can completely change, temptations can completely go away. We now believe that’s an unrealistic and unhealthy expectation that can cause a lot of damage.” Rather than insisting on change, the organization now claims to help support those who wish to align their sexual lives with their religious faith. “We’re here to support those who are in conflict at the place where their sexual attractions meet their faith,” Chambers said.

While Exodus still believes that homosexuality is wrong (“we have a conviction that same-sex sexual expression is incompatible with a healthy Christian sexual ethic”), it seems that they may be moving toward the position of the Catholic group Courage, which supports gay Catholics in living celibate lives, and away from the ex-gay fantasy of a complete, God-supported redirection of erotic desire.

Can an Ex-Gay Organization Really Change?

This came at the end of a big year in the ex-gay world. Speculation about the state of Exodus International, the country’s largest organization of ex-gay ministries and the movement’s most public face, began in November of last year with suggestions that Exodus was in the midst of a financial crisis and an identity crisis. Once a darling of Christian Right donors, Exodus has been suffering since the recession, laying off staff, burning through money, and facing the possibility of a shutdown. Ex-Gay Watch blogger David Roberts reported on an emergency meeting of the Exodus board where “everything [was] on the table” including an organizational rebranding that might make it more palatable to donors.

In January, Exodus president Alan Chambers made a controversial appearance at the Gay Christian Network, calling the group’s openly gay executive director Justin Lee a “brother in Christ” and admitting that most Exodus members don’t experience a change in their sexual orientation through their involvement with the ministry. (The appearance was controversial on both sides. Chambers’ effort at damage control is here. Lee’s is here.) This admission came between two other important events in Exodus’ faith journey with change. The first was a public break with psychologist Joseph Nicolosi, prominent reparative therapist and National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality board member, and purging of Exodus’s online bookstore of all materials advocating reorientation. The second was Columbia psychiatrist Robert Spitzer’s renunciation of his infamous study arguing that sexual orientation change was possible—a study based on research subjects recruited by Exodus.

In the wake of these events, the “change” question is shifting from whether or not gay people can really change their sexual orientation to whether or not Exodus, and the ex-gay movement, is really changing its position.

Roberts warned his readers back in November that “when you hear of changes from Exodus, or some event that seems heartfelt, spontaneous or whatever this re-branding may eventually consist of, remember what got the ball rolling—money.”

Some gay and pro-gay Christians, like blogger John Shore, maintain that Exodus’ statements are all about PR and that the organization remains as committed as ever to the eradication of gay and lesbian people. Others argue a real change, albeit a limited one, is afoot there and that it should be encouraged. Perhaps the most interesting figure to watch is Exodus co-founder and subsequent Exodus critic Michael Bussee. Bussee maintains an ongoing dialogue with Chambers and has expressed cautious support for the new positions while calling for accountability from Exodus in making amends for harms the ministries have caused and clearly and credibly opposing threats to LGBT life and liberty in the U.S. and abroad. Chambers says that Bussee told him “it seems like Exodus is getting back to the objective they started it for—to be of service for people of faith who want to live differently.” Bussee himself says “Alan has said there will be proofs and amends. We’re still waiting and watching for those.”

Justifying an Opposition to LGBT Civil Rights

The first ex-gay ministries were founded in the early 1970s by conservative, homosexual Christians who wanted to live in accordance with Christian sexual ethics as they understood them. Exodus gathered these early ministries at a conference at the Melodyland Christian Center in 1976,1 an event which established Exodus as an umbrella organization of diverse local ministries and a public voice for a range of Christian efforts at sexual orientation change.

Many early members, inspired by neo-Charismatic movements, the Jesus people and other popular evangelical experiments of the era, had great enthusiasm for total transformation. The possibility of change was a theological affirmation for a movement that literally believed in miracles and wanted to affirm God’s ability to align the world—or at least the lives of his followers—to his will. But it was also a socio-cultural affirmation for a group of de facto gay Christians who were often treated by their evangelical comrades as more gay than Christian, with all the homophobia that implies.

Exodus ministries were initially focused on carving out a livable space for conservative Christians trying to sustain religious commitments that rendered their homoerotic desires sinful and social communities that rendered gay people pariahs. Claiming the possibility of change in that time was a cultural strategy that tempered the admission of homosexuality that ministry membership implied with an affirmation of core Christian values at a time when that possibility was more culturally plausible, both within the conservative Christian world and American culture at large.

For their first decades, ex-gay ministries were largely marginal in the evangelical world, toiling in a ministry backwater with a suspect group of people. Occasionally the healed homosexual made for good Christian television, highlighting God’s healing power for those who believed, but defections (most notably Bussee’s) and scandals kept ministries out of the evangelical mainstream and focused on the lives of their members while staying largely silent on political issues. That began to change as leaders of the Christian right found a salient post-Communism political target in the gay rights movement.

In a time of increased opposition to gay rights by conservative Christian organizations and increased resistance to their anti-gay campaigning, Exodus ministries and their members became attractive partners to Christian right institutions. Supporting people “struggling with same sex attraction” became useful cultural evidence that these seeming haters had a compassionate side. And as these organizations became Exodus’s partners and supporters, the stakes on the change question were decisively raised. Not only were marginalized gay Christians staking a claim to Christian legitimacy by affirming the possibility of change, but well-funded, powerful Christian political strategists were staking their political opposition to gay rights on that possibility as well.

Originally, change had to be possible for ministry members trying to ease the tensions between their desires and their social and religious worlds. It now had to be possible for conservative Christians trying to justify their opposition to civil rights for gay people.

The Personal Is Not Political

The most public sign of these unions was the 1998 “Truth in Love” ad campaign. Sponsored by Christian right powerhouses such as the Christian Coalition, Concerned Women for America, the Family Research Council and others, the ads featured Exodus leaders and ministry members as evidence that orientation change was possible and gay rights unnecessary. The campaign marked Exodus’s political turn. That turn was sharpened with the 2001 hiring of Chambers as president with an explicit mandate for political engagement. Exodus leaders got active testifying against gay marriage, against hate crimes legislation and against pretty much anything related to gay rights.

This political move was always controversial within the Exodus rank and file; many wanted Exodus to remain committed to the personal needs of “strugglers” and opposed the anti-gay positions the organization was increasingly taking. But political power, evangelical esteem and money proved seductive to Exodus’s leaders who pursued a particularly close relationship with Focus on the Family and their notoriously anti-gay founder Dr. James Dobson.

That relationship culminated in the Love Won Out conferences, one-day events sponsored by Focus, hosted by conservative churches, featuring speakers affiliated with Exodus, Focus or both, and forging a coalition between reparative therapists, ex-gay ministries, and Christian right leaders under the banner of change.

Developed for Focus supporters and other conservative Christians seeking Christian support in dealing with their gay children, family members, church members, and students, the programs included reparative therapists like Nicolosi presenting psychological models of sexual orientation change, Exodus ministry leaders like Melissa Fryrear giving personal testimonies of transformation, and political sessions by Focus policy experts providing conservative analyses of gay politics and generating support for anti-gay activism. “Change is Possible” (then Exodus’ slogan) was the ideological lynchpin of this personal, political and organizational exchange. And it did increasingly difficult work trying to contain the tensions and contradictions generated by the awkward fusion of Exodus’ personal and political mandates under Focus’s powerful patronage.  

Perhaps the biggest contradiction in the conferences was between the program’s social messages and its political ones. On the political front, the message was clear: gay activists are dangerous, gay rights more so, and faithful Christians must oppose both. Change is possible, so oppose the extension of political rights. But on the personal front, the conferences gave a message of openness and connection. Faithful Christians, audience members were told, need not abandon their gay children, friends, and neighbors simply because they were gay. Rather, family members and other loved ones should stay engaged in gay people’s lives, get to know their partners and friends, and be present in order to witness to God’s truth about homosexuality.

Change is possible, the idea was, so stay engaged with your loved ones so you can support change when they seek it. Of course, it is widely known that one of the greatest solvents of homophobic attitudes is actual exposure to gay people. The kind of openness to gays and lesbians that the conferences touted always had the potential to erode the political opposition they insisted on. Maintaining relationships would allow both strugglers and loved ones to see up close and personal the limitations of change and the toll that attempts at change take. It’s not surprising that this particular conflation of politics, personal connection, and psychology could not hold.

Exodus Steps Up, Or Does It?

The connection between Exodus and Focus began to unravel. In 2007 Chambers announced that Exodus would withdraw from politics and focus on the personal needs of ministry members (a claim that was put into question when he also acknowledged that both he and the organization would remain members of the conservative Arlington Group). In 2009 Dobson retired from Focus on the Family and his successor, Jim Daly, refocused the organization’s attention away from homosexuality. Focus then bequeathed the decreasingly lucrative Love Won Out conferences to Exodus—who cancelled a recent event due to lack of enrollment.

Without the need to hew to Focus’s political line in the same way, the failures of reparative therapy, failures which only accrue over time, have become easier to admit. With the need to attract supporters independently from larger Christian right organizations in a recession, Exodus has turned to those strugglers, families and friends that have always been the mainstay of its member ministries. These are the very strugglers who have seen little in the way of actual change over time, and their families and friends who, at Exodus’ suggestion, have had their gay loved ones and their partners to dinner, Christmas, Thanksgiving for many years, watched their struggles, seen the results, and are not as receptive to the idea of change that structured the movement’s salad days.

Exodus’ shifts can also be attributed to the influence of its critics. To its credit, and unlike other ex-gay groups, Exodus does stay in engaged dialogue with gay and lesbian Christians and activists and has been shaped by that conversation. An example is their responsiveness, albeit slow at times, to efforts at holding them accountable to their stated commitments to LGBT safety in the wake of dangerous homophobic proclamations by (now former) Exodus board members in Uganda and Jamaica.

In 2009 board member Don Schmierer attended an anti-gay conference in Uganda which served as a precursor to and ideological justification for a proposed Anti-Homosexuality Bill that included the death penalty for homosexuals. Exodus initially lauded Schmierer for his involvement and took a month to condemn the bill when it was introduced in October 2009.2 But it finally did so in part because of the pressure put on the organization by gay critics, including the writers at Ex-Gay Watch and Exodus co-founder Michael Bussee. Recently when another board member, Dennis Jernigan, made statements in support of anti-sodomy laws on a visit to Jamaica, Exodus responded more quickly, securing his resignation within days and issuing a policy statement that claims “we stand with the LGBT community both in spirit, and when necessary, legally and physically, when violence rears it’s head in Uganda, Jamaica or anywhere else in the world.”

This is not to say that Exodus can necessarily be trusted to independently take those and other positions in support of the life and liberty of gay people in a responsible and timely fashion. But it does suggest that Exodus is changing, is engaged in an actual conversation with gays and lesbians, and is receptive to efforts to keep it a little more honest and hold it a little more accountable. That change may be tentative, its direction may be uncertain, it may well be motivated by money, and suspicion, of course, is warranted. But dismissing that change is inaccurate, it minimizes the persistent, effective activism of former Exodus members and other Christian and/or gay critics, and runs the risk of shutting down whatever openness exists for Exodus to play a less damaging role in the lives of queer people.

A similar assessment can be made about the changes regarding their position on reparative therapy. The difference between insisting that sexual orientation can change and recognizing that it doesn’t is a real one. Halting the cognitive dissonance that is reparative therapy is an important move and Exodus should be recognized for making it. Some gay Christians may still want to try to live in accordance with conservative understandings of sexual ethics, but that path will be a lot more honest, and a lot less psychologically harmful, if they’re not expecting a full scale change in sexual orientation and are not blaming themselves or questioning the state of their souls if they fail to achieve it. Exodus’ critics—gay, Christian or otherwise—who have maintained conversation with them should be credited with helping effect this change. And they, like the rest of us, should continue to work to hold Exodus to promises of amends for harm done by their earlier positions.

Exodus is Not the Only Player

If Exodus and its ministries do, in fact, stop dissimulating about the possibility of change, the important thing to watch will be the impact of that shift on ex-gay and anti-gay politics. Will they have the courage to follow their original logic and support gay rights on the grounds that since change is not, in fact, possible sexual orientation should therefore fall within civil rights legislation? Will they find it necessary to maintain clear anti-gay positions on certain issues in order to maintain conservative Christian credibility, opposing gay marriage, for example, or gay adoption? Will they be pushed toward new areas of activism by critics who challenge them to match their words with their deeds—more active opposition to legislation that imperils gay life and livelihood, perhaps? Will we see strange new coalitions of gays and ex-gays opposing homophobic bullying? Or even stranger new dividing lines between gays, straights, and ex-gays who uphold the centrality of marriage as an institution and queers and others who support new experiments in social organization—a possibility recently postulated in a recent New York Times op-ed by former gay marriage opponent David Blankenhorn?

Exodus may becoming more like its earlier self in its focus on the personal struggles of conflicted individuals, but its historic willingness to support anti-gay positions means it can not be allowed to disavow the political implications of its positions, actions, or inactions.

Whatever Exodus does or doesn’t do, another thing to keep in mind is that the ex-gay movement is not Exodus alone. The public perception that Exodus is the movement was fostered by the Exodus/Christian right alliance, the extensive media training it provided Exodus, and momentary coalition of increasingly disparate interests that was brought together in the Love Won Out years. But the ex-gay movement has always been larger than Exodus. More extreme groups like New York’s LIFE Ministries have long criticized Exodus for being too lenient. Exodus has occasionally distanced itself from more problematic ex-gay practices such as touch therapy and its advocates. And many African American ex-gay groups have often kept Exodus at arms length. Since Exodus has been changing its position its internal network has been shifting, with some ministries withdrawing from the Exodus network and new alliances being formed.

One possibly emergent leader in Exodus’ reconfiguration is Andy Comiskey of Desert Stream Ministries. (For a great analysis of the coming smackdown between Comiskey and Exodus see David Robert’s article here). Comiskey, a participant in Spitzer’s now-renounced ex-gay study, has been in the ex-gay world a long time. He’s a popular writer and workshop leader on sexuality issues and is the author of the popular Living Waters curriculum aimed at helping people change their orientation. Shortly after Exodus’ renunciation of reparative therapy, Joseph Nicolosi interviewed Comiskey, establishing the compatibility of their positions, affirming the possibility of sexual orientation change and suggesting the development of a new alliance. Ex-gay Watch has reported that some disgruntled Exodus ministries are shifting their allegiance to Desert Stream. And in recent emails and newsletters, Comiskey has criticized Exodus, announced a revamping of its curriculum, reaffirmed his opposition to gay marriage and announced “a concerted effort to initiate ministry in Catholic parishes throughout the USA.”

It’s a clear sign of changing times when Exodus is approaching the gay celibacy position of Catholic group Courage while Comiskey is gearing up to spread the gospel of change to Catholic parishes around the country. And it indicates that Comiskey may be positioning himself and his organization to be a new pole around which ex-gay practices and anti-gay politics can align, perhaps with some new partners.

Exodus may be changing, as is the field of gay politics more generally. But it is only one part of a wider, and in many ways more extreme, movement. While its changes should be acknowledged and encouraged, Exodus should not be conflated with the ex-gay movement as a whole. That, too, many shift over time, but not without a fight.

***

Since this article was published I’ve been corrected on some important issues by people directly involved in these matters.

1Exodus was founded in 1976, not 1975 as the piece originally stated.

2The article’s statement that Exodus did not condemn Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill for over a year after it was proposed is not accurate. The Uganda conference attended by Exodus board member Don Schmierer took place in early March 2009. The conference generated criticism from many corners, including evangelicals with long-term engagements with Exodus like Warren Throckmorton who publicly questioned the conference, and gay and/or Christian Exodus critics who demanded that Exodus take immediate action regarding the organization’s participation in the event.

Responding to these varied critics, and with Throckmorton’s prodding, Exodus sent an open letter to the president of Uganda in November of 2009 (reprinted here) expressing its concerns about the Anti-Homosexuality Bill introduced a month earlier, and its concern about the impact the bill might have on Exodus-style Christian ministry to homosexuals. The letter was signed by Throckmorton, Chambers, and two Exodus leaders. There is conflicting information about whether Schmierer, the board member in question, signed this letter at the time it was sent (reproductions of the letter on numerous websites, including Throckmorton’s, do not include his signature, while the letter currently on the Exodus site does).

In March 2010, a year after the initial conference, the organization issued a formal public statement opposing the criminalization of homosexuality in Uganda. In contrast to the open letter, this statement was signed by over 50 people in the Exodus network, including all of the board officers, the staff, leaders of local ministries, and controversial board member Don Schmierer. The statement appeared after many prominent evangelical leaders, including Rick Warren, had made public statements against the measure.

Although the open letter was sent earlier than I initially reported, Chambers felt badly enough about the way the organization handled the Uganda situation to offer his own apology for the sluggishness of Exodus’s response, reported here and here.

These details notwithstanding, Exodus was indeed lamentably slow to respond to the Uganda legislation and did a much better job responding to its board member’s comments in Jamaica, thanks, in part, to its varied critics.

Another important critic that the article could have mentioned more directly is Jim Burroway at Box Turtle Bulletin, whose extensive reporting on the Uganda situation is here.

And here is a conservative call for Chambers’ resignation in the wake of the recent statements that I discovered since writing the article.

Thanks to Exodus’s ever-engaged conversation partners—gay, Christian, both and neither—for bringing these issues to my attention.

lgerber@fakeemail.com'

Lynne Gerber is a scholar in residence with the Beatrice Bain Research Group at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of Seeking the Straight and Narrow: Weight Loss and Sexual Reorientation in Evangelical America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011).