What went wrong with the conversion ministry, according to Alan Chambers, who once led its largest organization
In 2001, Alan Chambers was hired as the president of the world’s largest ex-gay ministry, Exodus International. That same year, U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher issued a report that stated, “there is no valid evidence showing that sexual orientation can be changed.”
Like most conservative Christian leaders at the time, Chambers considered the countercultural nature of his work a point of pride. During the latter part of the 20th century, Exodus and similar conservative groups promoted the idea that gay people could—and should try to—become straight. Ex-gay leaders traveled to churches and appeared on television news programs citing a litany of examples of happily married “former homosexuals” to demonstrate that sexual orientation is a choice and that change is possible.
But Chambers would undergo a radical change of heart. In 2013, he publicly apologized to the LGBT community for the “pain and hurt” Exodus had caused and announced that the ministry was permanently shutting down. Chambers’s decision effectively delivered the deathblow to the beleaguered ex-gay movement. And his story of transformation, detailed in a new memoir, My Exodus: From Fear to Grace with a foreword by CNN’s Lisa Ling, will likely resonate with many traditionalists who are searching for new ways to think about LGBT issues.
Chambers, 43, was raised by an ex-military father in a Southern Baptist home and realized he was attracted to other males at a young age. Most of his early sexual encounters with men were anonymous, which bred in him a deep self-hatred. At 19, he connected with an Exodus-affiliated ministry where he hoped to rid himself of same-sex attraction once and for all.
While the ministry did not make Chambers straight, he claims that it saved his life and many others because it provided a “safe space for many” to talk about their sexuality. At the time, there was no national network for LGBT Christians and most churches were not places of sexual transparency. But, he says, Exodus’s emphasis on “change” made it “fatally flawed.”
In 1998, Chambers married his wife, Leslie, with whom he adopted two children. In My Exodus, he recounts his inability to consummate the union for eight months, but he says their sex life is now “good.”
“While many relationships are built on sex, ours just includes sex,” Chambers says. “We love it and value it because we worked hard for it.”
As a former Exodus participant who once lived a “gay lifestyle” but was able to achieve a successful straight marriage, Chambers was the perfect candidate to lead the organization. And by 2001, Exodus needed all the help it could get.
At its peak, Exodus International had an annual operating budget of more than $1 million, had 25 employees, and served as an umbrella organization for more than 400 local ministries across 17 countries. But over the years since its founding in 1976, many of the leaders Exodus’ touted as success stories had become cautionary tales instead.
Cofounder Michael Bussee left the group in 1979 and entered a relationship with another Exodus leader, Gary Cooper. Bussee would later admit, “I never saw one of our members or other Exodus leaders or other Exodus members become heterosexual, so deep down I knew that it wasn’t true.” Throughout the 1980s and ‘90s, many former Exodus members became vocal critics of the ministry, claiming it had caused them psychological distress. And in September 2000, Exodus’s chairman John Paulk was photographed cruising for men at a gay bar in Washington, D.C. He was ousted from his position and later confessed, “I do not believe that reparative therapy changes sexual orientation; in fact, it does great harm to many people.”
The movement traditionalists believed would be their saving grace in the fight against LGBT rights was quickly becoming their Achilles’ heel.
Being chosen to lead Exodus in 2001 was like becoming the ex-gay Pope following the Catholic sex-abuse scandals. The ministry’s board knew it could not survive another public scandal, so it questioned Chambers rigorously before deciding to hire him. During the interview process, Chambers recalls a board member asking him what success would look like under his leadership. He replied, “It looks like Exodus going out of business because the church is doing its job.”
Chambers words would later seem prophetic, but he first needed to travel a long road. In 2005, he called homosexuality “one of the many evils this world has to offer.” And in 2006, he lobbied for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. But Chambers admits that during the same year his thinking began to evolve.
“As I heard more stories and evaluated my own realities,” Chambers said, “I realized change in orientation was not possible or happening.”
Though the ex-gay leader was stewing on the inside, he seemed as resolute as ever on the outside. He advocated for California’s Proposition 8, which sought to ban gay marriage in the state. In 2009, he published a book called Leaving Homosexuality: A Practical Guide for Men and Women Looking for a Way Out. He admits to immediately regretting the book’s title and some of its content.
Chambers’s thinking continued morphing until his dramatic announcement that the ministry would shut down in 2013: “Exodus is an institution in the conservative Christian world, but we’ve ceased to be a living, breathing organism. For quite some time, we’ve been imprisoned in a worldview that’s neither honoring toward our fellow human beings, nor biblical.”
By this point, the ex-gay movement was already in shambles. A 2013 Pew Research poll showed that only 36 percent of Americans believe a gay or lesbian person’s orientation can be changed. As Satcher reported, modern science had delivered crushing blows to the ex-gay movement with peer-reviewed research showing that its ideology was bunk. And a national movement to ban reparative therapy for minors was taking shape and had already been successful in several states.
The closing of Exodus International became the “tipping point” in conservative Christians’ conversations about the nature of sexual orientation. Today, even top Southern Baptist leaders have denounced ex-gay therapy, and the school newspaper for the Jerry Falwell-founded Liberty University has editorialized against it.
“Shutting down Exodus dealt a fatal blow to the whole idea that orientation can be changed and that God somehow loves you more because of the choices you make,” Chambers says. “Some ministries still promote this idea, but they are not going to achieve the same level of success that Exodus had. That position is more of a minority than it has ever been.”
The release of Chambers’s memoir this month marks another step in the leader’s evolution. He has voiced his support for President Obama’s effort to ban orientation-change therapies for minors and celebrated the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize gay marriage. And now he even admits that he believes committed, monogamous same-sex relationships can be holy.
“I look at gay and lesbian people who are in committed relationships and I believe they can reflect the image of God,” Chambers says. “That belief has continued to evolve, but heterosexuals don’t have a corner on the market of healthy, holy relationships.”
While many culture-warring conservatives will undoubtedly see Chamber’s openness as a cowardly capitulation, others will call him courageous. The former ex-gay leader chooses to focus on just being honest, instead. As he said in a chapter intended for his memoir but cut by the publisher, “Every part of my life, all of my compartmentalization is reconciled. My message and story are no longer different depending on the group to whom I’m speaking.”
Chambers describes his current sexual orientation as “complicated.” While he is still attracted to men, he also says that he and Leslie have a healthy marriage with a robust sex life. But he no longer claims that every person with same-sex attraction should follow his path.
“For those who cannot reconcile their faith and sexuality, they can be affirmed in their choice of celibacy and devote their lives to causes more life giving than ‘ridding themselves of the demon homosexuality,’” Chambers says. “And the gay Christian community can be affirmed in who they already are: beloved.”
Nothing raises my hackles more than watching any documentary on ex-gay conversion therapy! It is bad enough when adults submit themselves to this degrading process, brought about almost inevitably by peer and social pressure. However, when parents send their below age-of-consent children to places like a Love In Action/Refuge conversion therapies, one really has to wonder just how shallow parental love can be! These so-called ex-gay conversion therapies by a whole range of organisations that fell under the Exodus International umbrelladisplay everything that is wrong, and evil, about Christianity: hypocrisy, prejudice, discrimination, stigma, deceit, misinformation, guilt, manipulation, and out-and-out lies to force an antiquated system of belief on teenagers at a difficult and confusing time of their lives, a time where personalities and sexuality are running rampant through rapidly changing bodies. We know, for a fact, that gay people cannot be turned straight. You’ve just gotta love how some of these ‘ex-gay” members love to flaunt their wives, kids and marriages as proof that the therapies work! Denial can be a strong motivator in some people’s lives. Both the 30% suicide rate amongst ex-gay conversions…probably motivated by the so-called therapy apparently not working…and that there are ex-ex-gay groups for those who attended therapy sessions and yet still found themselves with gay inclinations would seem to say all that needs to be said about the high failure rate of conversion therapy.
Obama’s call to ban the practice reflects a tectonic shift within the community that once championed it.
Throughout the 1980s and 90s, the Christian right poured money and muscle into promoting the message that homosexuality was a curable disorder. It advocated conversion therapy, which promised to turn gay men and women straight. But last week, when President Obama announced his support for a national ban on such therapies, few voices on the Christian right spoke up in protest. The announcement confirmed the evaporation of support for these approaches among the communities that once embraced them. As Alan Chambers, who once ran America’s largest ex-gay ministry, told me, “sexual orientation doesn’t change.”
It was a shift rooted in the accrual of evidence and experience. After she came out as a lesbian in high school, Julie Rodgers’ conservative Christian parents urged her to join a ministry in Texas to help make her straight. Ministry leaders promised her that if she continued praying, reading the Bible, attending meetings, and of course, refusing to identify as gay, her sexual orientation would eventually change and she could even marry a man. Rodgers didn’t want to go, but she did want the food, shelter, and love her parents offered. So she agreed.
The program worked great—except that it didn’t. After a decade of compliance, neither Rodger’s orientation nor those of her fellow group members budged toward straightness. And worse, the empty promises and feeling that she was “less than” normal left her drowning in a sea of shame.
It’s a sad story, but one that grows gloomier when you consider that Rodgers is one of the lucky ones. Countless LGBT youths have been subjected to much worse, not just in Christian ministries, but also at the hands of licensed counselors who perform what is known as “reparative” or “conversion therapy.” These controversial mental health practices, intended to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity, are ineffective and often drive participants to depression, anxiety, drug use, or suicide.
In recent years, however, conversion therapy has been much maligned if not completely discredited. Almost all major medical and public welfare organizations oppose it, and even conservative Christians—once counted among its strongest supporters—are changing their minds. New Jersey, California, and Washington, D.C., have already outlawed ex-gay therapy for minors. By all accounts, therapies attempting to cure gayness appear to be going the way of the buggy whip.
But this hasn’t always been so. According to Kenneth Lewes, in his book, Psychoanalysis and Male Homosexuality, some began to view same-sex erotic behavior less as sin than as a mental-health disorder as early as the 19th century. This was true of other “sinful” behaviors as well—for example, drunkenness morphed into alcoholism and demon possession became schizophrenia or a personality disorder.
The shift was spurred on by the work of Sigmund Freud in the early 1900s, even though the iconic neurologist was pessimistic about either the possibility or desirability of changing homosexual orientation to heterosexual. Freud’s belief that human beings are born bisexual and can move along a continuum of sexuality formed the basis of the belief that homosexuals could be “cured.”
This way of thinking about sexual orientation persisted into the mid-20th century as many Americans fantasized about an idyllic “traditional family” in the Father Knows Best and Leave it to Beaver molds. By the start of the American cultural revolution in the 1960s, many mental-health professionals, clergy, and politicians supported the idea that homosexuality was a mental-health disorder that could be cured through some combination of prayer and “therapy,” which included electroshock therapy, masturbatory reconditioning, and giving patients nausea-inducing drugs while forcing them to view homosexual erotica.
“One reason why homosexuals are so rarely cured is that they rarely try treatment,” proclaimed a 1965 Time magazine article. “Too many of them actually believe that they are happy and satisfied the way they are.”
But the late 60s and 70s brought on a blitzkrieg of social change. Women’s liberationists energized the feminist movement, the conflict in Vietnam provoked an anti-war movement, a growing awareness of ecological degradation brought on the environmental movement, and an increasingly mobilized LGBT community morphed into a powerful gay-rights movement.
In 1974, the American Psychiatric Association voted to remove homosexuality from its list of mental health disorders. This inflamed many conservatives, especially the Christians among them, who were now mobilizing in the public square against what they believed was a growing tumor of secularism.
Christian pastors promoted anti-gay messages from their pulpits, even advocating the idea that HIV/AIDs was a special form of God’s wrath and judgment against human sinfulness. Christian funders helped bankroll ex-gay ministries like Exodus International, which grew into a coalition of more than 80 ministry partners across 34 states. In 1998, Christian political groups even spent $600,000 on pro-conversion therapy ads in The New York Times, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, and other publications. Robert Knight of the Family Research Council called it “the Normandy landing in the culture war.”
As a result, ex-gay therapy experienced something of a resurgence in the 1990s. Newspapers often treated it as a medically viable option, and Newsweek ran a sympathetic cover story in 1998.
But the foundations of this effort began crumbling at the turn of the 21st century. While peer-reviewed evidence for the efficacy of aversive therapies was lacking, a growing body of scientific studies indicated that it was not effective in altering subjects’ sexual orientations and was potentially harmful. (The main study cited in support of conversion therapy was conducted by Robert L. Spitzer, who later apologized and admitted his data was tainted, unreliable, and misinterpreted.) After reviewing such studies, major medical organizations—the American Medical Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Counseling Organization, National Association of Social Workers, World Health Organization, and others—systematically repudiated these practices as harmful.
While science was discrediting conversion therapy, high-profile ex-gay leaders were either apologizing and defecting to the other side or being exposed as frauds. John Paulk, a man who had been a vocal and visible supporter of gay conversion for more than a decade and claimed to be happily married to a former lesbian, was photographed in a Washington, D.C., gay bar in 2000. Three years later, it was discovered that Michael Johnston, founder of “National Coming Out of Homosexuality Day,” was having unprotected sex with men he’d met online despite being HIV-positive. In 2006, Ted Haggard, a fiery opponent of gay rights and then president of the National Association of Evangelicals, admitted to having gay sex with a male prostitute after unsuccessful attempts to change his orientation through counseling. A few years later, John Smid, former executive director of the ex-gay advocacy group “Love in Action,” apologized and said he “never met a man who experienced a change from homosexual to heterosexual.” These names are only a sampling.
By the second decade of the 21st century, the scientific foundation of reparative therapy had eroded, every major medical association had repudiated it, the movement’s leaders were falling away, and viral horror stories from former participants were popping up across the web.
But the death-knell sounded in July of 2013 when Alan Chambers, president of Exodus International, America’s largest ex-gay Christian ministry apologized to the LGBT community and shuttered his organization. Chambers once claimed he knew “tens of thousands of people who have successfully changed their sexual orientation.” But last week, he told me “99.9 percent of people I met through Exodus’ ministries had not experienced a change in orientation.”
Chambers’ announcement seemed to unleash a broader shift among conservative Christians, the last defense against reparative therapy’s demise. Julie Rodgers, the ex-gay ministry survivor from Texas, now serves on the ministry staff at Wheaton College, one of America’s most prominent evangelical universities, where she has spoken against ex-gay therapy. Russell Moore, the political pointman for the Southern Baptist Convention, has publicly repudiated the practice. Even the opinion editor at the school newspaper for Liberty University, founded by the late Jerry Falwell, editorialized against it.
In 2011—roughly half a century from gay conversion therapy’s heyday—only 24 percent of Americans said they believe it works. The number is presumably even lower today.
While some disparate pockets of support remain, they are waning. The day when ex-gay therapy enjoyed legitimacy in mainstream medicine, media, religion and society is now heading for the history books. And in its place, there is a growing consensus that such practices are distasteful, irresponsible, unethical—and perhaps should be illegal.
Religious Faith Linked To Suicidal Behaviour In LGBQ Adults
(Reuters Health) – Although religiosity is generally tied to reduced suicide risk, the opposite may be true for some young lesbian, gay and questioning adults, researchers say.
Based on data from more than 21,000 U.S. college students, researchers found that greater religious feeling and engagement was tied to increased risk of suicidal thoughts and actions for participants who identified as LGBQ.
“Religion has typically been seen as something that would protect somebody from thoughts of suicide or trying to kill themselves, and in our study our evidence suggests that may not be the case for everyone, particularly for those we refer to as sexual minority people,” said one of the study authors, John Blosnich of the Injury Control Research Center at West Virginia University in Morgantown.
Previous research suggests that belonging to a religious faith reduces risky behavior in young people, such as substance use and unsafe sex, Blosnich noted in a telephone interview. Religiosity has also been linked to a lower risk of suicidal behaviors, but there is some evidence to suggest that the impact of religion may be different for lesbian, gay, bisexual and questioning (LGBQ) individuals.
The study team analyzed survey data from the 2011 University of Texas at Austin’s Research Consortium on 21,247 college-enrolled 18- to 30-year-olds, including 2.3 percent who reported being lesbian or gay, 3.3 percent who identified as bisexual and 1.1 percent who were questioning their sexuality.
All participants rated the importance of religion in their lives on a 1 to 5 scale, from “not important” to “very important.” Between 21 percent and 28 percent of LGBQ participants rated the importance of religion to them at a 4 or 5, compared with 39 percent of heterosexuals, researchers report in American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
Questioning youth had the highest rate of recent thoughts about suicide, at 16.4 percent, compared with 3.7 percent of heterosexuals, 6.5 percent of lesbian/gay individuals and 11.4 percent of bisexuals. Lifetime suicide attempts were reported by 20 percent of bisexual youth, 17 percent of questioning youth, 14 percent of gay or lesbian youth and 5 percent of heterosexuals.
For bisexual youth, the importance of religion was not associated with suicidal behavior, while religiosity was protective against thoughts of suicide and suicidal attempts in the heterosexual youth. But lesbians and gays who reported that religion was important to them were 38 percent more likely to have had recent suicidal thoughts. For lesbians only, religion was associated with a 52 percent increased likelihood of suicidal thinking.
Questioning individuals were almost three times as likely to have attempted suicide recently if they reported that religion was very important to them.
Among lesbians and gays who said religion was not important to them, there was no association between sexual orientation and recent suicide attempts. But being homosexual did significantly increase the likelihood of recent suicide attempts in people who said that religion was very important to them.
“Some sexual minority folks are really at odds. They feel very confused or they feel that they are in conflict with their faith because of who they are. That’s a very scary place to be in,” Blosnich said.
“We are definitely not saying that religion, period, is bad; it’s not,” he added. “There are many sexual minority people who find great strength and great sources of support in their religious communities, but unfortunately we hear many stories about people who do not.”
Faith-based partners in public health suicide prevention and intervention services “should be willing and equipped to assist all people who seek their services, regardless of sexual orientation,” the study authors write.
atizing views of sexual minorities, the authors note. Because the study population was drawn from an academic setting, it may not represent the general population, they add.
“We want to engage religious and faith-based providers in a way that benefits all people,” Blosnich said. “Faith-based communities are major participants in suicide prevention. We just want to make sure that the services that people provide through faith-based organizations or through community faith partners reach everyone who comes to them for help, regardless of sexual orientation.”
SOURCE: bit.ly/2qt3gYC American Journal of Preventive Medicine, online March 15, 2018.
Former Love In Action Leader Marries His Same-Sex Partner
John Smid, the former director of Memphis-based ex-gay ministry Love In Action, has announced his marriage to partner Larry McQueen. The two married in Oklahoma on Sunday, November 16th.
Smid has been living as an out gay man for several years now, and he’s been in a relationship with McQueen for one year. Gay marriage just became legal in Oklahoma last month. The couple live in Paris, Texas, where Smid moved from his Memphis home in the summer of 2013.
Smid’s journey from ex-gay leader to happily out gay man has been a long one. He was promoted to the role of executive director of Love in Action in September 1990, and in 1994, the organization moved its ministry to Memphis. Love in Action operated here quietly until 2005, when protests over a youth “straight” camp called Refuge sparked a national media firestorm.
In early June 2005, Zach Stark, a White Station High School student, posted these words on his MySpace page: “Today, my mother, father, and I had a very long ‘talk’ in my room, where they let me know I am to apply for a fundamentalist Christian program for gays.”
That fundamentalist program, described by Stark in a later post as a “boot camp,” was Refuge, a two-week day camp where gay kids were taught how to become straight kids. After Stark’s MySpace post, local LGBT equality advocates held a week of protests outside Love In Action, and the Memphis ministry made national headlines, including a story in The New York Times.
Love In Action eventually discontinued the Refuge program and moved to an adults-only conversion therapy model. All the while, Smid was struggling with his own beliefs. During the week of protests in 2005, Smid met Memphis filmmaker Morgan Jon Fox, who was working on a documentary about Love In Action. Smid told the Flyer in a previous interview that it was Fox’s influence that helped open his eyes to the fact that conversion therapy was doing more harm than good.
“As we got together, we were willing to lay aside our agenda and get to know one another as people,” Smid said of Fox. “That was very instrumental in my processing where I am today.”
Smid eventually resigned as director of Love In Action in 2008, and he founded Grace Rivers, a monthly fellowship for gay Christians. At the time, he remained married to his wife. But they eventually divorced in 2011. Earlier this year, Smid told The Lone Star Q, a Texas LGBT news organization, that he couldn’t continue living the rest of his life in a marriage that didn’t feel right.
“I’ve believed in faith that something was going to happen, and it never did, and so at my age, right now in my life, I don’t have that many good years left in me, and I can’t live like this for the rest of my life, so I said no I’m not willing to keep pushing after something that’s not going to happen,” Smid told The Lone Star Q, regarding his divorce.
Smid met McQueen three years ago, but they were just “acquaintances with common friends,” wrote Smid in his Facebook announcement of their marriage Sunday.
“I gradually got to know him over time until we reached a place in our lives that we saw we wanted to get to know one another through a dating relationship. As we dated we shared our vision for life, our personal philosophies, and our faith values. We found a compatibility that was comfortable and exciting,” Smid said.
He went on to say, “I realized this week that my relationship with Larry is a mirror I see in every day. For most of my life, the mirror I saw reflected my mistakes, shortcomings, and failures. The reflection I see today with Larry shows me the positive things in my life, my strengths, gifts, and talents. I see how I can succeed at a mutual intimate and loving relationship. For this, I am truly grateful.”
Ex-Gay Group Exodus International Shuts Down, President Apologises
Exodus International, a group that bills itself as “the oldest and largest Christian ministry dealing with faith and homosexuality,” announced June 19 that it’s shutting its doors.
Exodus’s board unanimously agreed to close the ministry and begin a separate one, though details about the new ministry were unavailable at the time of the organization’s press release.
The announcement came just after Exodus president Alan Chambers released a statement apologizing to the gay community for many actions, including the organization’s promotion of efforts to change a person’s sexual orientation.
“I am sorry we promoted sexual orientation change efforts and reparative theories about sexual orientation that stigmatized parents,” Chambers said. “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.”
The announcement comes at a critical point for gay rights, as the U.S. Supreme Court prepares to issue two potentially decisive rulings on gay marriage and public opinion shifts rapidly in favor of gay rights and even gay marriage.
A recent Gallup Poll showed that 59 percent of Americans now view gay or lesbian relations as “morally acceptable,” a 19-point swing since 2001 and the biggest change seen on any social issue, including divorce, extramarital affairs and other issues.
Chambers disavowed reparative therapy at the annual Gay Christian Network conference in January 2012. “Alan has been moving this way for awhile … but this apology is much more explicit and leaves no room for support for change therapies or demonizing gays.” said Warren Throckmorton, a psychology professor at Grove City College who has long observed the ex-gay movement.
“Exodus has been a lighting rod for Christian discussion about homosexuality over the years and with today’s events will probably continue to be for awhile.”
John Paulk, who was spotted at a gay bar in Washington D.C. in 2000 and left his role as chairman of Exodus, also recently apologized for the reparative therapy he once promoted.
Chambers announced the closure of Exodus at the ministry’s 38th annual conference in Irvine, Calif. Local affiliated Exodus ministries, which are autonomous, will continue, but not under the name or umbrella of Exodus.
Exodus began in 1976 by a gay man, Frank Worthen. “Perhaps nothing has brought Exodus into the mainstream of evangelicalism more than its embrace by James Dobson’s Focus on the Family,” wrote Christianity Today in 2007. The ministry has faced some challenges in recent years, including a split with Willow Creek Community Church outside Chicago and dissolved partnerships.
In his apology, Chambers acknowledged stories of people who went to Exodus for help only to experience more trauma.
“I have heard stories of shame, sexual misconduct, and false hope,” he said. “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.”
On Thursday, journalist Lisa Ling’s program “God & Gays,” which features Chambers among others, will air on The Oprah Network. “The organization needs to shut down. Shut down!” a man in the trailer tells Chambers.
For most of the twentieth century, homosexuals were considered mentally ill by the psychiatric profession. This diagnosis was due entirely to prejudice and was not backed by legitimate science. Studies on homosexuality were poorly conceived, culturally biased and often used institutionalized mental patients as study subjects.
After reviewing the evidence, in 1973 the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), which is its list of mental disorders. There was simply no logical or coherent reason to stigmatize gay and lesbian Americans. Not long after, every respected mainstream medical and mental heath association followed the APA’ lead.
Only four years before this monumental decision, the Stonewall riots in New York City’ Greenwich Village ushered in the dawn of the modern gay liberation movement. For the first time, GLBT people began to receive media visibility and coming out finally seemed like a viable option.
As more people chose to live honestly and openly, and gay communities began to flourish in areas such as New York and San Francisco, this presented a challenge to conservative churches, which had long believed that homosexuality was sinful behavior. Many conservative gay Christians were deeply conflicted between their beliefs and their sexual orientation. Their answer to this heart-wrenching dilemma was starting ex-gay ministries. Influenced by the miracle-seeking Jesus Movement, the ex-gay ministries adopted name and claim theology. Essentially, this meant if you kept repeating you had “changed” — even if you had not — God would eventually grant you the miracle of heterosexuality as a reward for your faith.
Love In Action was the first contemporary ex-gay ministry and was founded in 1973 in San Raphael, CA, by three men: John Evans, Rev. Kent Philpott, and Frank Worthen.
Evans ultimately denounced Love In Action after his best friend Jack McIntyre committed suicide in despair over not being able to “change.” Today, Evans assists people in healing from the psychological damage incurred by the ex-gay industry. Frank Worthen still remains with the ex-gay ministries.
Philpott, who is straight, wrote “The Third Sex? ” which featured six people who supposedly converted to heterosexuality through prayer.
Eventually, it was revealed no one in his book actually had changed, but the people reading it had no idea about the unsuccessful outcomes. As far as they knew, there was a magical place in California that had figured out the secret for making gays into straights.
As a result of Philpott’ book, within three years more than a dozen “ex-gay” ministries spontaneously sprung up across America. Two leading “ex-gay” counselors at Melodyland Christian Center in Anaheim, California – Gary Cooper and Michael Bussee – decided to organize a conference where members of the budding ex-gay movement could meet each other and network.
In September 1976, Cooper and Bussee’ vision came to fruition as sixty-two “ex-gays” journeyed to Melodyland for the world’ first “ex-gay” conference. The outcome of the retreat was the formation of Exodus International, an umbrella organization for “ex-gay” groups worldwide.
The group was rocked to its core a few years later when Bussee and Cooper acknowledged that they had not changed and were in love with each other. They soon divorced their wives, moved in together and held a commitment ceremony. In June 2007, Bussee issued an apology at an Ex-Gay Survivors Conference to all of the people he helped get involved in ex-gay ministries.
The Expansion of the Ex-Gay Industry
In 1979, Seventh Day Adventist minister Colin Cook founded Homosexuals Anonymous (HA). But Cook’ “ex-gay” empire crumbled a few years later after he was scandalized for having phone sex and giving nude massages to those he was supposedly helping become heterosexual.
As acceptance for homosexuality grew in the late 1970′, the “ex-gay” ministries had trouble attracting new recruits and growth of these programs stagnated. With the advent of AIDS, however, the ex-gay ministries found fertile growth potential from gay men who were terrified of contracting the virus.
Nonetheless, even as the epidemic spurred new growth, the “ex-gay” ministries remained relatively obscure in mainstream society. This dramatically changed in 1998 when the politically motivated Religious Right embraced the “ex-gay” ministries. Fifteen anti-gay organizations launched the “Truth In Love” newspaper and television ad campaign, with an estimated one million dollar price tag.
But the ad campaign soon backfired after University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard was murdered because of his sexual orientation. Americans began to see the Truth In Love campaign as discriminatory and debated whether it had contributed to a climate of intolerance where hate could flourish. Due to withering criticism in the media, the anti-gay coalition ended its campaign prematurely.
Additionally, “ex-gay” poster boy John Paulk, who the ad campaign sponsors placed on the cover of Newsweek under the large headline, “Gay for Life?,” was photographed in a Washington, DC gay bar in 2000. In 2003, Michael Johnston, the star of the Truth In Love television campaign, stepped down after allegedly having sex with men he met on the Internet. He has since moved to a residential sex addiction facility in Kentucky.
Today, the main financier and facilitator of ex-gay ministries is Focus on the Family, which hosts a quarterly symposium called Love Won Out. Exodus International has also grown to more than 100 ministries and has a Washington lobbyist. Recently, the Southern Baptist Convention has entered the fray by hiring a staff member to oversee ex-gay programs.
Sadly, as long as people are made to feel ashamed for who they are, these groups will exist. The best way to counter their negative influence is showing an honest and accurate portrayal of GLBT life. When people learn that they can live rich and fulfilling lives out of the closet, the appeal of these dangerous and ineffective groups invariably wanes.
The Abominable Legacy of Gay-Conversion Therapy
Joseph Nicolosi, one of the pioneers of the practice, died last week. But his contribution to the field of psychology lives on.
“I don’t believe anyone is really gay,” Joseph Nicolosi told the New York Times in 2012. “I believe that all people are heterosexual, but that some have a homosexual problem.” Nicolosi, a psychologist, had by then written four books, with titles like Healing Homosexuality and A Parents’ Guide to Preventing Homosexuality. In 1992, he founded the National Organization for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, or NARTH, an organization of psychologists that aims to help gay people “realize their heterosexual potential” through a practice that is alternately known as “conversion therapy,” “reparative therapy,” and “reorientation therapy.” Nicolosi died on Thursday, March 8, at age 70; NARTH’s announcement said that the cause of death was the flu.
Before NARTH’s founding, there was a small but violent history of gay conversion attempts by doctors and psychologists. In the early 20th century, Freud made attempts using hypnosis. In the 1950s, Edmund Berger advocated a “confrontational therapy” approach to gay patients, which consisted of having practitioners yell at them that they were liars and worthless. Other attempts to convert LGBT people to heterosexuality throughout history have included methods like lobotomy, electroshock to the hands, head, and genitals, testicle transplants from dead straight men “bladder washing,” castration, female circumcision, nausea-inducing drugs, and beatings. But it was Nicolosi who brought gay conversion therapy into the mainstream, popularizing it among religious communities and the American right, and turning what was once a scattered practice of abuse into a multi-million-dollar worldwide industry.
Nicolosi grew up in New York; he received a master’s degree from the New School and spoke in a thick Long Island accent. But he spent his career in Los Angeles. He received a PhD in clinical psychology from an obscure school there, and opened his own clinic in Encino in 1980. He seems to have focused his practice entirely on gay conversion attempts. The time was ripe. The social movements of the 1960s and the gay rights activism that flourished after the Stonewall Riots in 1969 ignited profound fear on the American right. Nicolosi found an eager audience for his claim that heterosexuality and traditional gender conformity were not only superior, but that deviations from them were pathological.
What Nicolosi offered was a way for homophobic parents, patients, and psychologists to validate their anti-gay feelings as being legitimated by nature, science, and psychological evidence.
The field of psychology had never been particularly welcoming to queers, but by the time Nicolosi began practicing, attempts to convert gays had already been relegated to quackery. Freud wrote that the prognosis for heterosexual feeling in homosexual patients was grim (though he did believe that gay impulses could be reduced under some circumstances). In 1932, Helene Deutsch published her study “On Female Homosexuality,” which recounted Deutsch’s attempts to instill heterosexuality in a lesbian, only to find that her patient had begun a relationship with another woman while the study was ongoing. In her conclusion, Deutsch noted that a straight relationship would have been her preferred outcome, but also seemed to acknowledge her patient’s lesbian partnership as psychologically healthy.
In 1948, just a year after Nicolosi was born, Alfred Kinsey published his groundbreaking report Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, which found that homosexual tendencies were much, much more common than had previously been assumed. In 1978, the American Psychological Association removed homosexuality from its list of clinical disorders in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. Anti-gay stigma and bigotry were still rampant, both within the culture and within the field, but establishment psychologists had given up conversion attempts as a lost cause.
What Nicolosi offered was a way for homophobic parents, patients, and psychologists to validate their anti-gay feelings as being legitimated by nature, science, and psychological evidence. He established NARTH in 1992 alongside Benjamin Kaufman and Charles Socarides, two other obsessively anti-gay psychologists, explicitly in reaction to the removal of homosexuality from the DSM. They spoke in appealingly professional jargon, using phrases like “trauma” and “bad attachment.”
The organization became a network for homophobic psychologists, as well as a link between the industry and the growing number of ex-gay ministries and “pray away the gay” programs on the Christian right. Nominally secular, NARTH and Nicolosi frequently embraced religious rhetoric and prayer tactics, and were listed as ministry partners by a number of homophobic Christian organizations. The Thomas Aquinas Psychological Clinic, where NARTH is headquartered, is named after a Catholic saint. “We, as citizens, need to articulate God’s intent for human sexuality,” Nicolosi told Anderson Cooper in 2007. That same year, he told an ex-gay conference, “When we live our God-given integrity and our human dignity, there is no space for sex with a guy.”
Nicolosi’s treatments often involved multiple one-on-one sessions per week. According to accounts given by former patients, he seems to have used a mix of Berger’s “confrontational therapy” methods of emotional abuse with what’s known as aversion therapy. Aversion therapy applies pain or discomfort to patients in conjunction with homosexual impulses or behaviors: Everything from snapping a rubber band around a patient’s wrist to giving them electric shocks to making them vomit. He believed that gay people had bad relationships with their parents in absolutely all cases, and spent a great deal of therapeutic time probing patients for incidents of humiliation, neglect, or contempt in their childhoods.
In his books, he instructed parents to monitor their children for supposed early signs of queerness, including shyness or “artistic” tendencies in boys.
For unclear reasons, he also believed that viewing pornography could cure homosexuality, an idea he repeatedly defended to professional gatherings. Programs associated with NARTH have been found to administer beatings to their patients. The majority of Nicolosi’s patients, like the majority of conversion therapy victims generally, were children and adolescents, forced into his care by parents who were bigoted, sadistic, or merely scared. Nicolosi encouraged these impulses; he claimed to be able to identify and reverse homosexuality in children as young as three. In his books, he instructed parents to monitor their children for supposed early signs of queerness, including shyness or “artistic” tendencies in boys.
But even before Nicolosi died, NARTH was facing a host of challenges. It lost its nonprofit status in 2012, and an important accreditation from the California Board of Behavioral Sciences was revoked in 2011. Prominent members of the group have been embroiled in controversy, including George Rekers, a conversion therapy psychologist who was discovered to have hired a 20-year-old male sex worker in 2010. California outlawed the practice for minors in 2012, cutting deeply into NARTH’s L.A.-based operations; New Jersey, Illinois, New York, Vermont, and Oregon have since passed their own bans. But the group and its imitators continue to harm both children and adults.
Discovering that you are gay, or that your child is gay, is frightening. It means confronting a future that will not look like the one that you expected, and it means realizing that you and people you love will be subjected to stigma, discrimination, harassment, and the punitive whims of the state. It means staring down a life with fewer certainties and more vulnerabilities than a straight person’s. Scared and misguided people went to Nicolosi for help, and he exploited their fear to perpetuate hate, inflicting horrible pain and incalculable psychological damage on his victims in the process. It is unfortunate that his legacy won’t die with him.