When the impending closure of Exodus International was announced on June 19, it felt as if the staggering giant of ex-gay “reparative therapy” ministries had finally collapsed. Exodus International was an institution among evangelical Christians; a 37 year old ministry that offered hope of sexual reorientation. Of course, what was received as hope by some was considered a destructive falsehood to others. Justin Lee, founder of the Gay Christian Network, writes, “Ex-gay ministries have resulted in broken relationships and destroyed lives, promising orientation change but not delivering on that promise. Yet to this day, many Christians still believe gay people can become straight through prayer and therapy.” In the gay community the reductionist shorthand for reparative therapy is “pray the gay away”. Whether reorientation is necessary for spiritual wholeness has been a subject of debate within the church for some time. In recent years, the conversation has shifted to a new question: is reorientation even possible? In January of 2012 the president of Exodus International, Alan Chambers, spoke at a Gay Christian Network conference and said,
“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…The vast majority of people that I know will experience some level of same-sex attraction.”
If that’s the opinion of the director of an organization that has, for decades, been offering “freedom to grow into heterosexuality” one might well ask why it took another year and a half for the ministry to call it quits.
Those who follow the news of ex-gay ministries know that this is the latest in a series of white flags from those who have preached orientation change as the answer to same sex attraction, and that the apology letter that Alan Chambers wrote was one in long string of apologies. They’ve come from Jon Smid (former director of Love in Action), John Paulk (founder of Love Won Out), Michael Bussee (one of the original founders of Exodus International) and other Exodus leaders.
What should be remembered is that the leaders of ex-gay ministries have been, for the most part, “ex-gay” themselves. They are people who have committed wholeheartedly to the idea that sexual orientation can be changed, and it hasn’t been a theoretical issue for them. Their own lives, relationships and reputations have been on the line. And it is these people, having spent years in the trenches of ministry to the LGBT community, who are now saying to the church at large: it doesn’t work.
But it’s more than that. The problems cited by the veterans are far more troubling than the persistence of same sex attractions. Reparative therapy often resulted not in healing but harm; and the history of the movement is full of stories of depression, failed marriages, loss of faith, addiction and suicide. Michael Bussee, one of the original founders of Exodus shares what he observed:
I need to say that some had a positive, life-changing experience attending our Bible studies and support groups. They experienced God’s love and the welcoming fellowship of others who knew the struggle. There were some real “changes”—but not one of the hundreds of people we counseled became straight.
Instead, many of our clients began to fall apart – sinking deeper into patterns of guilt, anxiety and self-loathing. Why weren’t they “changing”? The answers from church leaders made the pain even worse: “You might not be a real Christian.” “You don’t have enough faith.” “You aren’t praying and reading the Bible enough.” “Maybe you have a demon.” The message always seemed to be: “You’re not enough. You’re not trying hard enough. You don’t have enough faith.”
Some simply dropped out and were never heard from again. I think they were the lucky ones. Others became very self-destructive. One young man got drunk and deliberately drove his car into a tree. Another (a fellow leader of the ex-gay movement) told me that he had left EXODUS and was now going to straight bars – looking for someone to beat him up. He said the beatings made him feel less guilty – atoning for his sin. One of my most dedicated clients, Mark, took a razor blade to his genitals, slashed himself repeatedly, and then poured drain-cleaner on the wounds—because after months of celibacy he had a “fall.”
The outcomes for the leaders themselves are not all identical. Jon Smid and Alan Chambers both remain married to women but acknowledge ongoing same sex attraction. John Paulk divorced his wife earlier this year. Michael Bussee left his wife and entered a relationship with another Exodus leader, Gary Cooper. Cooper died of AIDS in 1991 and Bussee is now in a relationship with another man. Many of the “ex-ex-gay” leaders still identify as Christians and many have become involved in more gay-affirming organizations like the Gay Christian Network, Beyond Ex-Gay, Courage, and Soulforce.
The news from Exodus was naturally welcomed by most advocates for gay rights, although some think the statements haven’t gone far enough and worry about the intent for Reduced Fear, the new ministry that Chambers has already announced. Even some gay Christians who choose to remain celibate have responded positively to the end of Exodus. The reaction from the rest of the church has been mixed, and perhaps confused. As with the recent change in Boy Scout policy, this announcement shows that the evangelical church no longer speaks with a united voice on homosexuality, if it ever did. Words of criticism and condemnation sit alongside positive responses from other evangelical leaders. And, no, this is not the end of ministries which seek to free people from “homosexual confusion”. Restored Hope Network was founded just last year for that purpose, and as one article on their site says, “We’re here. We used to be queer. Get over it.”
So has anything really changed? I hope so. I believe so. The conversation about what it means to be gay, Christian, and faithful continues. But perhaps the response of the church to our gay friends, neighbors, children and fellow congregants will shift. After decades of telling them that change of orientation is the answer, emphasizing heterosexuality and straight marriage as the end goal for everyone, perhaps we’ll listen to the voices of experience and seek a better way.
Correction: John Smid divorced his wife in 2011. In 2014 he married his longtime partner, Larry McQueen.