A major Associated Press story came out today with an encouraging headline: “Christian group backs away from ex-gay therapy.” According to the well-written and informative story by Patrick Condon:
The president of the country’s best-known Christian ministry dedicated to helping people repress same-sex attraction through prayer is trying to distance the group from the idea that gay people’s sexual orientation can be permanently changed or “cured.”
That’s a significant shift for Exodus International, the 36-year-old Orlando-based group that boasts 260 member ministries around the U.S. and world. For decades, it has offered to help conflicted Christians rid themselves of unwanted homosexual inclinations through counseling and prayer, infuriating gay rights activists in the process.
This week, 600 Exodus ministers and followers are gathering for the group’s annual conference, held this year in a Minneapolis suburb. The group’s president, Alan Chambers, told The Associated Press on Tuesday that the conference would highlight his efforts to dissociate the group from the controversial practice usually called ex-gay, reparative or conversion therapy.
“I do not believe that cure is a word that is applicable to really any struggle, homosexuality included,” said Chambers, who is married to a woman and has children, but speaks openly about his own sexual attraction to men. “For someone to put out a shingle and say, ‘I can cure homosexuality’ – that to me is as bizarre as someone saying they can cure any other common temptation or struggle that anyone faces on Planet Earth.”
Chambers has cleared books endorsing ex-gay therapy from the Exodus online bookstore in recent months. He said he’s also worked to stop member ministries from espousing it.
Chambers said the ministry’s emphasis should be simply helping Christians who want to reconcile their own particular religious beliefs with sexual feelings they consider an affront to scripture. For some that might mean celibacy; for others, like Chambers, it meant finding an understanding opposite-sex partner.
Exodus has seen its influence wane in recent decades, as mainstream associations representing psychiatrists and psychologists have relegated reparative therapy to crackpot status. But Exodus and groups like it continue to influence many evangelicals and fundamentalists, and gay rights activists said the damage they inflict on individuals can be deep and lasting.
“We appreciate any step toward open, transparent honesty that will do less harm to people,” said Wayne Besen, a Vermont-based activist who has worked to discredit ex-gay therapy. “But the underlying belief is still that homosexuals are sexually broken, that something underlying is broken and needs to be fixed. That’s incredibly harmful, it scars people.”
Besen said Truth Wins Out is unveiling a campaign this week to encourage lawmakers in all 50 states to ban reparative therapy from being performed on minors. The California state Senate passed a bill to do that last month, and Besen said similar legislation is likely to be introduced soon in at least three other states.
The two big questions everyone is now asking:
1) Has Exodus turned over a new leaf or is it peddling new lies as a PR stunt to revive itself from financial and programmatic failures?
2) Will Alan Chambers survive the St. Paul conference or will he be dislodged as Exodus’ leader by reactionary extremists within his ranks?
To answer the first question, it is critical remember that Alan Chambers has traditionally been an oleaginous fellow who tends to pander to various audiences and tailors his shifty message to please the crowd or reporter he’s with. This has led to a career of wild inconsistency, semantic back flips, duplicitous double talk, and the widely held belief that Chambers’ word can’t be trusted.
What Chambers says often has little in common with what he actually does. He breaks promises, rarely follows through, pretends to love while actually bashing LGBT people, fabricates statistics, and paints a false portrait of LGBT life as depraved, shallow, and dangerous.
In 2002, when I interviewed Chambers for my book, Anything But Straight: Unmasking the Scandals and Lies Behind the Ex-Gay Myth, he claimed to abhor the idea of mixing “ex-gay” programs and politics. He harshly criticized the Center for Reclaiming America for flying a huge banner over Gay Days at Disney with the offensive slogan: “FREEDOM FROM HOMOSEXUALITY – JESUS CHRIST.”
“One of the things that certainly the Center for Reclaiming America did was, they kind of separated themselves from Exodus,” said Alan Chambers in my book, who at the time ran Exchange, an Orlando “ex-gay” ministry. “I think it was a direct result of some people like me who were outraged at the things that went on. Obviously, we’re not partnering with these ministries anymore.”
Yet, as President of Exodus International Chambers fell in love with politics, with his efforts culminating in a June 2006 trip to Washington to meet President George W. Bush and lobby Congress to consider passing the notorious Federal Marriage Amendment. Under his leadership, Chambers formalized ties to Focus on the Family, a culture war organization, and had Exodus speakers join Love Won Out, Focus’ traveling “ex-gay” carnival.
Chambers even appeared (far left) on billboards headlined: “We questioned homosexuality, the truth brought freedom.” This was hypocritical, considering his vehement opposition to the Center for Reclaiming America’s banner with essentially the same message he was now touting.
After enduring withering criticism by LGBT advocates for these efforts, Chambers promised in early 2008 that Exodus was through with politics. Then he promptly reversed course and endorsed California’s Proposition 8, a referendum that banned marriage equality in California.
Chambers is also not above fabricating statistics when it suits his purposes. At various times he has claimed that there are thousands, tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands of “ex-gays.” The scope of this big lie became quite apparent when Chambers admitted to a gay Christian audience earlier this year that the number of his clients that had actually transformed from gay to straight was infinitesimally small.
“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 or have gotten to a place where they could say that they could never be tempted or are not tempted in some way or experience some level of same-sex attraction,” Chambers told the Gay Christian Network’s Justin Lee in front of a live audience at the group’s annual conference in Orlando.
Despite saying how much he loves LGBT people, Chambers has produced shameful and mean-spirited propaganda while at Exodus. The group’s cable television program repeatedly referred to gay LGBT individuals as sexually broken, perverse, and seemed to imply that homosexuality was of “the enemy.”
The organization also trafficked in crass stereotypes, trying to scare young gay people into their program by claiming that once they aged and their tan faded, they lost their hair, and no longer worked out, they would be discarded by the LGBT community.
Another one of Exodus’ sorry and manipulative techniques is to tell clients that Exodus does not heal people, but God can. By engaging in such head games, Exodus absolves itself from the failure of its own programs while positioning itself as the middleman between its clients and God. When the miracle does not occur, and it never does, the clients often believe that God has abandoned them. This can create a dangerous psychological situation where people become depressed and often contemplate suicide. Sometimes they leave the program mired in shame, and while their self-esteem is at rock bottom they engage in self-destructive behaviors, including unsafe sex or drug and alcohol abuse.
The point of this post is to warn people not to take Chambers’ pronouncements with a grain of salt, but enough salt to fill the Dead Sea. In the past, his word has essentially been meaningless. Even as he claims to be taking Exodus in a new direction, many of Exodus’ local ministries, where the actual “pray away the gay” programs occur, still engage in the old lies, gender stereotyping, and bizarre practices that Chambers now claims Exodus no longer engages in.
On the other hand, by speaking so candidly earlier this year to the Gay Christian Network and now the Associated Press, Chambers has boxed himself in a corner. If he reneges on his very public promises of reform Chambers will forever lose the tattered shard of credibility he now clings to. So, this better be a fresh paradigm, not a new public relations stunt designed to cast a veneer of moderation over an extreme program.
There is some evidence that Chambers might be serious about reforming Exodus. For instance, in 2009, Exodus International board treasurer Don Schmierer traveled to Uganda to keynote a conference which served as the launching pad for that nation’s Christian Right campaign to make same-sex relationships punishable by death. It took more than a year for Exodus to issue a weak retraction and a commitment to oppose the criminalization of homosexual persons.
On May 29, 2012, Exodus board vice chairman Dennis Jernigan blogged about his work the previous week in Jamaica to defend that nation’s antigay laws and criticize President Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron for their support of Jamaican LGBT human rights. This time, however, Chambers acted swiftly to condemn Jernigan’s foreign junket and as a result Jernigan resigned from the Exodus Board of Directors. This was very encouraging and gives hopes that the Exodus leopard may finally be, at least trying, to change its spots.
Now, on the second question: Will Alan Chambers survive the St. Paul conference or will he be dislodged as Exodus’ leader by reactionary extremists within his ranks?
There are many “ex-gay” activists and reparative therapists who have a vested interest in keeping the scam alive. Some have profited handsomely by engaging in consumer fraud and promising a miracle cure that does not exist. Others have desperately held on to the lie that they have overcome homosexuality for ideological reasons. Exodus’ alleged new direction is a direct threat to these charlatans and zealots who now see Chambers as a heretic selling out their cause.
Ex-gay watch reported that up to 20-percent of Exodus ministries have recently quit or disappeared, many as a result of the shift in tone and substance. At the Exodus conference opens this week in St. Paul, will the group’s board members and local ministry affiliates stand behind Chambers? Will a number of “ex-gay” activists walk out in protest and form a competing organization comprised of extremists? Or, will dissent be quelled, with a majority of member ministries falling in line with Exodus’ possible new direction?
If Chambers is to be believed, Exodus is moving from a group that embraces Sexual Orientation Change Efforts (SOCE) to one that embraces Sexual Orientation Management Efforts (SOME). The former promises miraculous healing, while the latter essentially tells clients to embrace celibacy or marry a spouse he or she is not attracted to because that’s what God wants.
The truth is, celibacy is boring and doesn’t sell. If Exodus embraces this idea and no longer holds out false hope for a miracle cure it will lose most of its future clients. Gay people refraining from sex also has little luster for the media. And an “ex-gay” group that does not engage in politics will inevitably lose funding from anti-gay foundations and right wing donors.
Is Exodus really willing to surrender clients, media, and money for the sake of honesty? I certainly hope so, but let’s not underestimate the pressure on Chambers as he allegedly tries to transition his group. It will be a tough road and incredibly difficult for him to survive in his current post if he goes down this path.
Perhaps, the next step for Exodus is addressing the many victims who were harmed over the years by their false promises, deceptive ads, and misleading claims. These individuals (the ones who did not commit suicide) will never get back the years of their life and money wasted as they chased a mirage.
“I guess I’d like to see some sort of apology from leaders of Exodus for all the people they misled,” said Jeffry Ford to the AP. Ford is a St. Paul psychologist who worked for an Exodus-linked group in the 1970s and ’80s before splitting with his wife, coming out and strongly disavowing his past work.
To fully move towards the future, Exodus will need to address those whose lives were shattered by its inauspicious past. A new leaf or new lies? The world is watching the St. Paul conference to find out.