Group That Sought ‘Cure’ for Same-Sex Attraction Does an About-Face

Alan Chambers gives his apology and Exodus closing announcement at the organization's final 2013 Freedom Conference saying, "We are not going to control people anymore... that is not our job."

Exodus International, the oldest and largest institution in the Christian ex-gay movement, is shutting down and the organization’s president, Alan Chambers, has issued a formal apology for harms resulting from the ministry’s work.

“I am sorry for the pain and hurt that many of you have experienced,” Chambers said in an interview on Our America with Lisa Ling. “I am sorry some of you spent years working through the shame and guilt when your attractions didn’t change…”

Though watchdogs have noted a softening of Chambers’ stance on ex-gay ministry in the last few years, the announcement that the 37-year-old organization is closing still leaves many with questions about how the decision came about, how it will impact the thousands who participated in Exodus-affiliated programs promising a cure for homosexuality, and if the announcement will discredit former partner organizations like Colorado Springs-based Focus on the Family.

Focus on the Family President Jim Daly responded to Chambers’ apology and announcement that Exodus would close with the following statement:

“Exodus’ closing is being hailed by some as a victory and indication that Christians are abandoning long-held convictions that living with God’s design for sexuality is possible through the power of Jesus Christ – that change is possible.

The reality is that while Exodus will no longer exist, there are numerous Christian ministries that continue to provide excellent help to those struggling with unwanted same-sex attraction, including the Restored Hope Network, Desert Stream Ministries, and Katharos Integrity Alliance.”

Up until 2009, Exodus and Focus routinely co-hosted the “Love Won Out” conference geared toward pastors and parents with gay people in their lives. Exodus, like Focus, publicly asserted that complete conversion to heterosexuality is possible. In the last two years, the organization and its president Alan Chambers changed their position, admitting that the vast majority of participants will still feel same-sex attractions and further that gay people can have a relationship with Christ.

After the firestorm these pronouncements caused in the ex-gay and conservative Christian community, many organizations including Focus pulled away from Exodus. This week, Chambers apologized to gays and lesbians, particularly former participants in ex-gay ministry who identify as survivors, for the hurt Exodus has worked through its affiliate organization and ministries.

“Issues of integrity, honesty and humility led Alan as person and we as organization to make this choice,” said Randy Thomas, vice president of Exodus International. “We had to be very specific about what we need to apologize for and how to present that apology in complete honesty.”

Issues with ex-gay ministering came to the organization’s attention as individuals shared their experiences with Exodus leaders.

In the summer of 2007, when Exodus was still heavily involved in politics, two program survivors and the founders of the Denver-based organization Beyond Ex-Gay, Peterson Toscano and Christine Bakke-O’Neill, flew to Florida to speak privately and openly with Thomas and Chambers.

A college of Christine Bakke-O'Neill's experience with ex-gay ministry is included in the handmade book of ex-gay survivor stories she gave to Alan Chambers in 2007. Click to see other stories on the Beyond Ex-Gay website.

“I had made all these digital collages of peoples’ stories and compiled them in a handmade book which I left with Alan and Randy,” said Bakke-O’Neill, a Denver resident who shared her personal story with The Colorado Independent in 2007.

Toscano and Bakke-O’Neill confronted Chambers and Thomas about the effects of Exodus’s political work on the lives of gay and lesbians across the country. They also expressed concerns about the violations occurring at Exodus’s affiliate program, a pray-away-the-gay camp called Love in Action based in Memphis, TN. Both advocates felt participants in ex-gay ministry programs desperately needed an independent organization to report to in case of abuse.

“At the time there was a lot of really awful things going on at the Love in Action program and we brought it up to Alan and Randy. We said, you know about this, you’ve been told, why is nothing being done? They had teenagers in there with adults who had committed crimes,” Bakke-O’Neill said.

In his statement of apology this week, Chambers acknowledged, “I have heard many firsthand stories from people called ex-gay survivors. Stories of people who went to Exodus affiliated ministries or ministers for help only to experience more trauma. I have heard stories of shame, sexual misconduct, and false hope.” He goes on to say, “In every case that has been brought to my attention, there has been swift action resulting in the removal of these leaders and/or their organizations. But rarely was there an apology or a public acknowledgement by me.”

“I read that statement and thought really? that’s not the case,” said Bakke.

“My experience was absolutely negative,” said Sarah Musick, who attended an Exodus conference with her parents in 2005 and was sent to the Focus on the Family Institute for therapy after coming out at a Christian college. “I had a suicide attempt and I fully wanted to succeed because I was so at a loss about how to live an unacceptable life. The same ministry that is trying to turn a gay person straight is also fostering the family’s position that it’s wrong, it all works together against the individual …  I had to recreate family because my birth family still believes all that stuff.”

Read more about Musick’s experience in The Colorado Independent.

Stories like Musick’s appear to play a large role in the decision to close Exodus and in Chambers’ apology.

Chambers asserted in an Exodus release that, “For quite some time we’ve been imprisoned in a worldview that’s neither honoring toward our fellow human beings, nor biblical.” He has furthered these sentiments at the organization’s annual Freedom Conference in Irvine, CA.

Jim Burroway, editor of Box Turtle Bulletin, which reports on anti-gay organizations, is currently attending that conference. Burroway has attended two other Freedom Conferences, one in 2007 and another in 2011, and has seen Exodus’s gradual shift from offering a hard-line cure for homosexuality to an acknowledgment that such therapies are ineffective and potentially damaging.

“I heard through the grapevine that there would be some major announcements this year,” Burroway said of his decision to attend the 2013 Freedom Conference. “I knew I had to come to this one, that it was going to be historic.”

On Wednesday night, Burroway was in the audience as Chambers announced that Exodus would close.

“It was quiet, you could have heard a pin drop,” he said.

In his speech, Chambers recounted the experience of hearing ex-gay survivors’ stories as excruciating and unforgettable. He expressed hope for a church open to all those in need and apologized for the harm caused by ex-gay ministry in general and Exodus in specific, including instances of assault and abuse within Exodus-affiliated ministries.

For many, an apology from Chambers and even the closing of Exodus is only a step on a much longer road to acknowledging, much less addressing, the shame, self-loathing and feelings of isolation many experienced during and after ex-gay ministry.

“I believe the head of Exodus got it right this week when he said, ‘There have been people that we’ve hurt,” wrote executive director of One Colorado, Brad Clark. “One Colorado sees that hurt and pain every single day as we work to build a safe and welcoming environment for LGBT youth and for all Coloradans in our schools, in our workplaces, in our healthcare system, and yes — in our communities of faith.  That work must and will continue, and the decision by Exodus International to close its doors is a step forward for anyone who knows what it’s like to be told they must live in the shadows.”

Former participants, or survivors, of ex-gay ministry caution against overestimating the shutdown’s impact.

“To me it’s just another ex-gay leader finally realizing that their programs harm people. It’s nothing new to me. Yes it’s a high profile leader, but there have been other leaders in the past who have come to the exact same conclusions,” said Denver resident Daniel Gonzales, an ex-gay survivor of non-religious therapies directed by the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH).

Gonzales explained that although the end of Exodus is a big public relations win for ex-gay survivors and activists, the closing really amounts to the silencing of a single, albeit loud, national voice. As Daly alluded in his statement, the hundreds of ministries and programs once grouped under the Exodus umbrella are mostly still in operation — including two in Colorado — as is NARTH and more radical splinter groups like the Restored Hope Network.

Bakke-O’Neill said it will be interesting to see if and how relationships form between institutions like Focus on the Family and the new organization Chambers and Thomas have in mind, a project currently known as Reduce Fear.

“There aren’t really a lot of ex-gay leaders who have held out long term, and having been in that world for years I know you seek each other out because you feel so excluded by both gay groups and religious ones. These leaders tend to form close relationships regardless of what their parent organizations are saying and many of the people Randy has been friends with and worked with for years are now with splinter groups or with Focus. It doesn’t necessarily mean that those organizations are working together.”

Chambers and Thomas have indicated that the new organization, regardless of whether or not it is ultimately called Reduce Fear, will differ from Exodus in a number of ways including scale, approach and even organization as a ministry.

“We are Christians who come to the table with a particular set of beliefs about what God says about homosexuelty,” said Thomas. “But the approach now is that we won’t come at people and tell them what to do. We want to be mutually and reciprocally caring for each other. We want to be able to love and live with our gay and lesbian neighbors, even if we disagree. There’s so much more that can be done for the common good. That’s change for us, we’re no longer going to allow ourselves be part of the culture war.”

For many ex-gay survivors Chamber’s apology and promised shift in approach indicates progress, but actions will continue to speak louder than words.

“When a person is leaving the ex-gay movement, it’s never a clean or sudden break. For many, it takes years,” said Gonzales. “This is just the start of Alan’s change.”

“There’s a part of me who heard that apology and thought, that’s great but how many people died because of your work,” said Musick. “There’s also a part of me that hopes the future is better in part because of this; that the youth a generation or two behind me won’t have to deal with what I dealt with, no matter where they come from. We want our wounds to mean something.”

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About the Author

Tessa Cheek

She writes and makes photos about communities. Her book, Great Wall Style, a monograph-profile-lyric essay, is out from Images Publishing. tcheek@coloradoindependent.com | 720-440-2527 | @tessacheek

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