‘Ex-gay’ group proves that change is possible

—Bernadette Barton

After 40 years of advocating reparative therapy for struggling homosexuals, Exodus International, the world’s largest ‘ex-gay’ organization, made the news recently for the Board’s decision to stop promoting conversion for participants. Reparative therapy uses a psychoanalytic model to explain same-sex attraction as a consequence of arrested gender development in childhood. The efficacy of ex-gay reparative therapies has been denounced by every major scholarly professional organization, including, for the second time in the summer of 2009, the American Psychological Association. Famously, this year, psychiatrist Robert Spitzer, the ex-gay movement’s most distinguished ally, apologized for a study he conducted that resulted in flawed findings that conversion from gay to straight is possible. For Exodus president Alan Chambers and the Exodus Board to reject conversion therapy signals a sea change in the organization and is generating controversy among some conservative Christians.

Exodus International protest in 2009

Chambers, who has made a number of recent media appearances to discuss the organizational shift, explains that the issues are complex, but that one’s faith in and relationship with Jesus Christ is the basis of salvation, not strict adherence to scriptural doctrine. This, according to Robert Gagnon, associate professor at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary is “antinomianism,” a belief that faith alone, not compliance with moral law, is adequate for salvation. Put more simply, by allowing that gay people can be saved through their faith in Christ, Chambers and Exodus International are moving, ever so slightly, from a literal to inspired reading of the Bible on homosexuality.

I attended the 2009 Exodus International annual conference gathering data for my forthcoming book, Pray the Gay Away: The Extraordinary Lives of Bible Belt Gays. I participated in workshops, visited with mothers of gay sons in an afternoon fellowship meeting, and heard both Chambers and Gagnon give keynote speeches. Contemplating the significance of Exodus discarding reparative therapy from their tool kit for struggling homosexuals, I am struck by a number of things.

One, this signals political, intellectual and spiritual progress among United Stated citizens, not just for gay people, but for all of us. Issues of gay rights get a boost, scholarly studies on the inefficacy of reparative therapy are noted, and extreme fundamentalism rejected. Exodus joins a recent stampede of support for gay people: President Barack Obama supporting same-sex marriage, the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in the military, the Pentagon celebrating Gay Pride month for the first time.  Even some conservative Christians are publicly defending gay people and same-sex relationships. For example, David Blankenhorn, the founder of the Institute of American Values, recently told the New York Times, “the time has come for me to accept gay marriage and emphasize the good that it can do.”

Two, in contrast to other former ex-gay leaders like Michael Bussee, rather than repudiating ex-gay ministries completely, Alan Chambers is acting to create change from within. In other words, Chambers is not a single powerful individual rejecting an organization, but working within the organization to create new polices. This allows Exodus International to function as a bridge between conservative Christians and political progressives on issues of gay rights, a role I hope they embrace and relish, and one for which Chambers himself is especially well-suited.

Indeed, some who participate in ex-gay groups already perceive themselves as the progressive wings of their various religious organizations. This was one of the most significant findings from my time spent with Exodus participants. As a self-accepting lesbian, I imagined I had little in common with the other participants, and attended the conference with some trepidation. What I found was more sad than scary. During a support group for mothers of gay sons for example, three of seven mothers cried during our hour long meeting. They worried that their sons would end up in hell, and wondered what they had done wrong. One mother overheard co-workers at her Christian school make hateful, homophobic remarks after her son had come out to her, and shared that he was suffering both bullying and inner pain. This mother said that she felt closeted and silenced around these co-workers, and in her church.

Another mother encouragingly responded, “We understand our sons’ struggles. We’ve seen that they have always been different. We can be our son’s link to God and the church. We all have a personal brokenness.” These mothers were not two-dimensional homophobic caricatures. Among their church communities some were the progressive arms of the various institutions within which they interacted and, as such, are closer allies of gay rights advocates than I had imagined because they experience the stigma of homosexuality, and negotiate painful homophobic attitudes.

Finally, with reparative therapy off the cast list, I wonder what Exodus staff will use to counsel and support those struggling with same-sex attractions who still wish to be rid of them. Conversion therapy was front and center at the workshops I attended. It remains to be seen what will replace it: a greater emphasis on prayer? A bigger commitment to one’s relationship with Christ? A little more wiggle room to heal from one’s personal brokenness? What I hope from Exodus is a gradual change in their construction of same-sex attractions as sin to part of God’s miraculous creation. I’m encouraged that this may happen because, as Exodus has finally and definitively proved this month, change is possible after all.

Bernadette Barton is Professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies at Morehead State University in Morehead, Kentucky. She is the author of Stripped: Inside the Lives of Exotic Dancers (NYU Press, 2006) and Pray the Gay Away: The Extraordinary Lives of Bible Belt Gays, forthcoming from NYU Press in October 2012.

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