(To read part I, click here. To read part II, click here. To read part III, click here.)
Today, I attended an all-day ministry equipping event hosted by Exodus International at the West Shore Evangelical Free Church in Mechanicsburg, PA. Exodus equipping events are meant to teach religious leaders, educators, counselors, and other figures how to respond to people dealing with "unwanted same-sex attraction." The event comes before Exodus International's next Love Won Out conference, scheduled for the same location on September 22nd. (See exodusinternational[dot]org/exodus-events/exodus-equipping-events/)
Before I describe the equipping event itself, I'd live to provide some background on Exodus International, especially in light of executive director Alan Chambers' recent public rejection of conversion therapy. Exodus International is a Christian ex-gay organization with numerous ministries under its aegis. The organization claims to help people "struggling" with "same-sex attraction," and it frames homosexuality as diametrically opposed to Christian faith. As of late, Exodus has rejected the idea that people can be "cured" of homosexuality, although the language I heard at the equipping event insisted that faith in Christ can "transform" people with same-sex attraction and help them transcend their old lives. Exodus looks askance at queer theology and LGBTQ-affirming churches. Until 2010, the organization supported the so-called Day of Truth, a nationwide event meant to counter the pro-LGBTQ Day of Silence.
Exodus International's approach to LGBTQ persons has come under scrutiny for a long time. Several high-profile controversies, including the defections of Michael Bussee and Gary Cooper and the downfall of John Paulk, have given LGBTQ activists plenty of fodder for questioning Exodus' efficacy. Former Exodus leaders Michael Bussee, Darlene Bogle, and Jeremy Marks have since issued a public apology for the harm they committed. .In 2011, Exodus' iPhone app was pulled by Apple after thousands of people signed a Change.org petition opposing the app. Progressive blogs such as Right Wing Watch, Truth Wins Out, Good As You, and Ex-Gay Watch have meticulously documented Exodus International's homophobia and inconsistencies. Survivors of ex-gay programs such as Peter Toscano have blasted Exodus for the destructive impact they have had on LGBTQ people's lives.
Exodus International has received attention from the media and blogosphere due to recent statements by Alan Chambers. According to a July 6th article in the New York Times, Alan Chambers contradicted several core beliefs of the ex-gay movement at the 2012 Exodus annual meeting. Chambers reportedly said that there was no cure for homosexuality, adding that reparative therapy could even cause harm. In a phone interview with the New York Times, Chambers reportedly said that almost every "ex-gay" person he had met still retains homosexual feelings, adding that gay Christians face a "lifelong spiritual battle" against sin. However, Chambers did not condone homosexuality, stressing that “I believe that any sexual expression outside of heterosexual, monogamous marriage is sinful according to the Bible."
During a July 9th interview with MSNBC's Hardball, Chambers said that Exodus International's focus is changing. (Hat tip to Human Rights Campaign.) He cast doubt on the efficacy of conversion therapy in making people straight.
"So much of that type of technique and therapy is focused on changing attraction or changing temptation when I don't find that there's a Biblical reality that says people will necessarily change their temptations or change their struggles."Chambers admitted that he still has "same-sex attractions" but insists that "I still hold to a Biblical sexual ethic where homosexuality and other forms of sexuality are concerned." When bluntly asked if people can "pray away the gay," he called the phrase a "lazy stereotype" that ignores the complexity of sexuality. He insisted that his chief attraction is to his wife, rejecting the idea that he is trapped in their marriage.
"I'm not trapped in that marriage. I married my wife fifteen years ago because I was in love with her. I remain in love with her today."Last year, Our America with Lisa Ling on the OWN network explored the world of "ex-gay" therapy and featured an interview with Chambers. Lisa Ling conducted a follow-up interview with Chambers during the August 21st edition of Our America with Lisa Ling, during which he made similar statements (see above). Again, Chambers cast doubt on the efficacy of conversion therapy.
"The vast majority of people that I've met would say that there is some level of struggle or temptation or attraction that's resident there, whether it's a little or a lot, and I don't know whether someone can say that therapy changes that."When Ling asked Chambers about his own sexuality, he replied, "Am I heterosexual? I don't know. I'm not gay. I have Leslie attractions." He admitted to feeling attracted to members of his own sex but stressed that he loved and desired his wife Leslie.
"I have to be honest and say of course I have temptations. Of course I have attractions related the same sex, but for over fifteen years since I've been in relationship with Leslie, my attraction has been towards her."Chambers argued that Jesus does not promise to make Christians straight, and that the Christian community has a lot of work to do with regard to connecting with diverse populations.
"Jesus didn't say 'come to me and I'll make you straight.' He said, 'Come to me." We need to do a better job in the church of supporting people who might not fit with our religious worldview as Christians."The Exodus International controversy has caused deep rifts in the so-called "ex-gay" community. Multiple "ex-gay" ministries have broken ties with Exodus over Chambers' new position, as documented by Ex-Gay Watch. The New York Times reports that Desert Stream Ministries abandoned their partnership with Exodus earlier this year. Desert Stream Ministry founder Andrew Comiskey was quoted as condemning Chambers for his "appeasement of practicing homosexuals who claim to be Christian." First Stone Ministry also terminated its partnership with Exodus, according to a statement on their website. (See www[dot]firststone[dot]org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=348&Itemid=604) Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays (PFOX) accused Exodus of "openly supporting sodomy rights in foreign countries which do not legally recognize sodomy," a reference to the forced resignation of Exodus board member Dennis Jernigan, a supporter of anti-sodomy laws in Jamaica. (See www[dot]pfox[dot]org/Has-Exodus-evolved-Obama.html)
Some LGBTQ activists remain doubtful of Chambers' intentions. For example, in a June 27th commentary, Wayne Besen of Truth Wins Out warns observers not to take Chambers' change of heart at face value. He reminds readers that Chambers and Exodus International have a long history of homophobia.
"...[I]t 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 ... 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.”"Besen recognizes that Exodus' new rhetoric has come under fire from other "ex-gay" organizations because it undermines their facade.
"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."Chamber's change of heart, lukewarm as it might be, does not erase his long history of unhealthy messages about LGBTQ sexuality. Nor does it mean that Exodus International's ongoing message is any less homophobic. As I will demonstrate in upcoming posts, today's equipping event may have avoided claims that homosexuals can be turned straight, but its homophobic rhetoric was deeply problematic nonetheless.
Survivors of so-called "ex-gay" therapy can find help through Beyond Ex-Gay. For additional commentary, visit the following links.
RH Reality Check: Exodus International Won’t Practice Conversion Therapy Anymore but That Doesn’t Mean It’s Accepting of Same-Sex Relationships
Religion Dispatches: Is Change Possible? Shifting the Ex-Gay Question
Peterson Toscano's A Musings: Exodus sets the record straight–We don’t provide an ex-gay cure!
John Shore: As Exodus’s Alan “Pray Away the Gay” Chambers ties his tongue in a knot...