In 1979, Michael Bussee left the conversion therapy organization he co-founded.
At first, he wanted to heal in private: Bussee himself is gay, and had left to be in a relationship with Gary Cooper, a man who also belonged to the Christian-based organization known as Exodus International. Together, they tried to forget about Exodus, which went on to become one of the most influential conversion therapy organizations in the world until its 2013 closure.
But at some point in the 1980s, Bussee finally came to terms with what Exodus had done—and it nearly destroyed him.
“When the full extent of what Exodus had done to people hit me, I must have sobbed for days,” he told The Daily Beast. “It was just gut-wrenching. The guilt was overwhelming, crushing guilt. I thought, ‘How am I ever going to deal with this guilt?’”
Today, Bussee has found his answer in part by creating another group: a confidential online discussion group for former ex-gay leaders—call them ex-ex-gay leaders—that he set up in 2015.
That online forum now contains some of the most powerful voices in the continuing fight against conversion therapy organizations—the people who used to lead them.
Bussee told The Daily Beast that, since its founding four years ago, the confidential group has more than doubled its membership from eight to about 18 people.
Back in 2014, Bussee—along with other ex-gay leaders like his friend Bill Prickett, who ran the organization Coming Back in the mid-1980s—signed a powerful letter in support of the National Center for Lesbian Rights’ Born Perfect campaign to end conversion therapy. Together, they wrote from their own experience: “We know firsthand the terrible emotional and spiritual damage it can cause, especially for LGBT youth.”
Five years later, as Bussee told The Daily Beast, the online group of former ex-gay leaders is in the process of “seeing if it needs to be revised.”
“More former leaders are willing to sign it,” he explained.
Perhaps nothing else could be more impactful in the fight against conversion therapy than even more former leaders coming forward to testify to the harm of trying to change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
“The moment a former conversion therapist chooses to become public about their true feelings, it debunks everything,” Born Perfect co-founder Mathew Shurka told The Daily Beast. “It’s so powerful—and it’s the most powerful from a social perspective.”
Their voices, Shurka believes, are especially persuasive.
Medical associations can say—as many of them have—that conversion therapy hurts people in addition to being ineffective at accomplishing its stated aims.
LGBT advocates can argue from a legal perspective that the practice should be banned for licensed professionals dealing with minors, as it has been in 15 states and D.C.
But because conversion therapy bans don’t preclude adults from seeking to change their sexual orientation and gender identity through religious organizations, social arguments against the practice remain vital. On that front, few voices pack a bigger punch than conversion therapy survivors like Shurka.
But those accounts are powerfully complemented by the stories of former ex-gay leaders like Bussee and Prickett. They are often survivors themselves who now feel a duty to demolish what they helped build.
“I think we have a moral and ethical responsibility to do that,” said Bussee. “I think all of us feel that way.”
Prickett, another member of the confidential group, agrees that some of his advocacy is about righting past wrongs: “Part of it may still be an attempt at redemption,” he told The Daily Beast. “I need to make up for this.”
Prickett was the executive director of the Alabama-based ex-gay ministry Coming Back from 1986 to 1988. Once married to a woman, the closeted gay man ordered ex-gay literature to a rented P.O. box so his wife wouldn’t discover his identity. He eventually told his wife and his church about his attraction to men, starting a support group that became the Coming Back ministry. But his time leading Coming Back was brief.
“I left because I was coming to the realization that it just wasn’t working for me,” he said. “I had been trying for four years at that point, trying everything that anybody suggested to me.”
By “everything,” Prickett means everything: “I had hands laid on me, I was anointed with oil, I had demons cast out of me, I prayed prayers confessing the sins of generations past—the sins that my fore-parents may have committed. I would try anything because I wanted to overcome these temptations.”
Separated from his wife, living alone in a single-room apartment, Prickett hit rock bottom: “I had a bottle of bourbon and I just started drinking—and I drank about half of that bottle and then I pulled out a pistol and I decided that I had failed everybody.”
Prickett deliberated suicide, feeling like a failure for not having become heterosexual, but he was saved in the end by the effects of the bourbon: “I must have sat there for a couple of hours and eventually fell asleep, I was so drunk.”
“The next day, I woke up and I just kind of admitted to myself and to God that it wasn’t working,” said Prickett. “I screamed out into the emptiness of that room, ‘I’m done!’”
Prickett filed for divorce, stopped attending his church, moved to Southern California, and tried to put everything behind him. (Bussee calls this the “detox period that a lot of former leaders go through” during which they leave their faith communities and focus on personal issues.)
But then one evening, at a bar in Laguna Beach, Prickett saw a flyer for an affirming gay and lesbian Christian discussion group, the existence of which he found “bizarre” because he didn’t think one could believe in Christ and not be straight.
Prickett attended the group—and was surprised by what he heard.
“One night, the conversation turned to people who had been involved in [ex-gay] groups,” he recalled. “I listened to the most horrible stories of the harm—one person had tried drinking Drano—and just the trauma and the abuse and the torment that these people were in.”
That’s when it clicked: “It hit me. I was a part of that. I was involved in that. And it re-traumatized me all over.”
Bussee, who has watched this process play out many times among former ex-gay leaders, knows that there is often a time delay before the guilt hits.
First, they go through the inward healing, often coming out as gay or lesbian in the process.
Then comes the denial: “You don’t want to believe that you hurt anybody. You want to believe that your intentions were good.” And indeed, as both Bussee and Prickett told The Daily Beast, they genuinely believed at the time that they were helping people.
“I was just as deceived about the process, about the promises,” said Prickett, while noting that this doesn’t excuse his actions. “I never intentionally stood up in front of anyone knowing that I was lying to them. I believed it with all of my heart.”
But ultimately, according to Bussee, you realize what you’ve done—and apologize.
“You have to eventually stop feeling sorry for yourself and do something about it, because in the meantime other people are continuing to be hurt,” said Bussee. “The people that you ‘ministered to’ are suffering so it’s time to stop licking your own wounds and start speaking out.”
That’s what Bussee and Prickett—who call themselves the “granddaddies” of the group—have been doing for decades. One function of the group, they say, is to provide a safe haven for newly-exiting ex-gay leaders to process their feelings away from the vitriol that can get thrown their way when they exit. (Recall, for example, the social media furor over David Matheson, the Mormon conversion therapist who came out as gay in January of this year.) Handling that backlash in front of survivors, Bussee said, is not helpful. In the group, they learn to deal with that anger without getting defensive.
“I had people who said that they wished my child would die a painful death and that I had blood on my hands that I could never wash off and that I was an evil, heartless monster,” Bussee recalled. “And I certainly don’t see myself that way but I understand where that anger is coming from and I don’t think it’s illegitimate.”
Prickett, too, adopts a similar stance: “My personal policy is I never try to defend it. I let people express their anger and their hurt. They can call me the names that they need to call me. But in my own heart, I have to tell myself, I didn’t know what I didn’t know.”
Shurka, who has been outspoken about surviving conversion therapy for the Born Perfect campaign, knows what it’s like to be on the other side of this equation. At first, he told The Daily Beast, “I was just as angry and just as reactive” as some of the people he has seen speak out against newly-exiting ex-gay leaders.
Now, he understands that many conversion therapists are LGBT themselves—and often became leaders as a way to perpetuate their own denial. “They need to convince themselves,” Shurka explained. “And you convince yourself by becoming a therapist and continuing the work.”
That knowledge has helped Shurka take the edge off his earlier anger: “Today, I’m in a place where I [understand] this is systematic. There are very few therapists who have no connection to the LGBT community who are doing this.”
Today, both Bussee and Prickett have built much better lives for themselves. After leaving Exodus, Bussee became a therapist helping people with drug and alcohol problems. He is now retired in California, where he sings in a chorale, and volunteers at local museums.
Prickett enjoyed a long career in public relations and moved to Texas, where he now lives with his husband and continues to write.
Both men are thrilled that the harms of conversion therapy have recently come into the national spotlight thanks to the efforts of Born Perfect and films like Boy Erased. They know that their voices remain essential—and that the chorus of ex-ex-gay leaders is only going to grow.
“More and more leaders are abandoning the ship,” said Prickett.
And when they do, they’ll have someplace to go.