“Have you ever had experiences in the homosexual lifestyle?” I asked the 19-year-old man sitting across from me.
Michael (not his real name), was tall and slender; his windswept, dirty blond hair done up in a Flock of Seagulls–style do. His fey appearance and mannerisms might have made such a question superfluous under normal circumstances. But I was speaking with him at an annual retreat of Exodus International, which until last week had been the oldest and largest “ex-gay” Christian ministry in the United States, purporting to help its adherents achieve “freedom” from homosexuality (thus my use of the evangelical argot to describe a state of nature—sexual orientation—as a freely chosen “lifestyle”).
“Yes,” he replied. “I’ve definitely been around the homosexual lifestyle.”
He had lost count of how many men he had slept with, I was half expecting him to say, before one day hearing the Good Word and deciding that a life of homosexual promiscuity was not what Jesus Christ had intended for him. Or, perhaps he had developed a liking for pornography, which, according to one pamphlet I saw displayed at the conference, led its victims into a “Chamber of Death.” Either way, I was anticipating a response a bit more elaborate than the answer he ultimately gave.
"I worked in retail,” he replied.
Retail. This was Michael’s “experience” in homosexuality. Not surreptitiously stalking the men's rooms at the mall, the erstwhile pastime of many an “ex-gay” Christian and family-values politician, but working at the mall itself. “I got to a point in my own life where it was a choice between my desires and what the Lord desired for me,” he said. And so he sought out Exodus on his own. Unlike many of the 700 people (the vast majority of whom were young men) gathered at the Ridgecrest Christian Conference Center in Asheville, North Carolina, that week, Michael’s parents had not forced him to go.
My heart sank not only because this poor boy was telling me that his familiarity with homosexuality wasn’t stealing surreptitious kisses with a boyfriend but working at a clothing store with flamboyant gay colleagues, and that he thought this constituted sufficient “experience” of homosexuality to know that he wanted nothing to do with it. What really saddened (and angered) me was that he found himself in a situation in which living a painfully obvious lie that would cause him and whatever poor girl he ended up marrying enormous heartbreak seemed like the most desirable option available.
I thought about Michael earlier this week when I read a statement by Alan Chambers, the leader of Exodus International, the content of which was summed by the title, I am Sorry. In it, Chambers, who was first a client of Exodus before becoming its president in 2001, apologized to “the people who have been hurt by Exodus International.” Likening his behavior as president of the organization to a “four-car pileup” he caused in 1993, Chambers pleaded:
Please know that I am deeply sorry. I am sorry for the pain and hurt many of you have experienced. I am sorry that some of you spent years working through the shame and guilt you felt when your attractions didn’t change. I am sorry we promoted sexual orientation change efforts and reparative theories about sexual orientation that stigmatized parents. I am sorry that there were times I didn’t stand up to people publicly “on my side” who called you names like sodomite—or worse. I am sorry that I, knowing some of you so well, failed to share publicly that the gay and lesbian people I know were every bit as capable of being amazing parents as the straight people that I know. I am sorry that when I celebrated a person coming to Christ and surrendering their sexuality to Him that I callously celebrated the end of relationships that broke your heart. I am sorry that I have communicated that you and your families are less than me and mine.
Chambers then went one step further, doing what many of his most fervent critics, particularly “ex-gay survivors,” had long called on him to do, and announced that Exodus would shut down.
Though Exodus’s decision to get out of the so-called reparative therapy business came as a shock to many, the signals were apparent at least a year ago. In January of 2012, Chambers publically admitted that “99.9%” of the people he had met who had endured such programs experienced no meaningful transformation in their sexual orientation, and he apologized for Exodus’s erstwhile slogan of “Change Is Possible.” The organization had blared this message widely in full-page newspaper advertisements, luring thousands of people who wished to reconcile “unwanted same-sex attractions” with their deeply held faith. However benign groups such as Exodus might have thought their intentions were, the massive damage they inflicted is incalculable, readily apparent in the lives ruined, families broken, and individuals destroyed by a message that denied their humanity as gay people.
Chambers has much for which to apologize. When I interviewed him five years ago in North Carolina, his mantra was “The opposite of homosexuality isn’t heterosexuality. It’s holiness.” His certainty was unclouded by doubt, or at least public doubt; his righteousness bereft of humility. Indeed, he took to his cause with missionary zeal. When I asked him what he thought of the small group of people who had gathered outside the conference center to demonstrate against Exodus, he replied, “Jesus had protesters, so why should we experience anything less?”
At one breakout session I attended (where a literally limp-wristed man squeezed my arm tenderly as I entered the room), a self-described “Christian psychotherapist” explained, “God only created heterosexuals. We have to be careful about letting our words and language be hijacked by the enemy,” the “enemy” apparently being the gay-rights movement. “Homosexual is an adjective, not a noun,” he said, describing a set of behaviors rather than a person’s innermost identity and desires. To think otherwise is to fall into the trap of secular, fallen America, “this Burger King nation where you can have it your way.”
Acknowledging even then that he was aware of “only a few people who say their attractions have changed exclusively,” Chambers freely admitted his own continuing struggles with same-sex attraction and that being married to a woman was “not my diploma for healing.” At the same time, however, he preposterously asserted, “I don’t think Ted Haggard says anything about the ex-gay movement,” Haggard being the former leader of the National Association of Evangelicals who was exposed that year for hiring a male prostitute. Haggard’s indiscretion, he said, was just “an indication that pastors are human.”
Indeed, they are. But what Chambers and other proponents of the ex-gay myth got wrong was failing to see Haggard’s behavior as a result of the culture of denial and inhuman sexual repression that they cultivated. It was this same collective failure to recognize the naturalness—the humanness—of homosexuality that ultimately brought about the demise of Exodus. Mercifully, there comes a point when even the most committed of ideologues admit defeat. The accumulated evidence of the failure to “convert” gays became impossible to ignore.
When I interviewed him in 2008, Chambers boasted that he expected to have 10,000 Exodus member ministries within the following two years. Instead, as the country rapidly became more accepting of homosexuality, his organization folded in on itself. Ironically, Exodus was founded some four decades ago in response to what many Evangelicals saw as the fire-and-brimstone approach of most religious institutions, condemning homosexuality without any regard for those faithful Christians who felt attraction for members of the same sex. “I would like nothing more than for the Exodus to go out of business because the Church is doing its job,” Chambers told me. He got his wish, but it was due to his own latter-day perceptiveness and conscientiousness—however belated it was in evincing itself—and not because organized religion became any more enlightened on the issue.
I never found out what happened to Michael. I like to think that he came around to realizing there is nothing “unholy” in being gay, and that he was able to find some way to maintain the faith he so clearly loved while also being true to himself. I despair, however, that he still struggles in an evangelical subculture consistently telling him his very nature is immoral.