I am in my last year of undergraduate studies in creative writing at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul. I am taking an advanced writing class this summer in which my first major project is a multigenre work covering a particular subject. Choosing to write about my experiences in the ex-gay movement, I would be remiss if didn’t also chronicle the rise and fall of Exodus International within the work as well. Given the news of the past week, I am going to have to do some revision of my writing.
Exodus International, an umbrella organization dedicated to providing support for those with “unwanted same-sex attraction”, announced on Wednesday at their annual conference that they are shutting down their ministry. The news hit all the major media outlets. Though I knew something was in the works–Exodus president Alan Chambers had been intimating “big news” for some time–I didn’t expect the news to look quite like this.
The reaction of most of the people I know is simple ecstasy. Though they may not have been personally affected by Exodus or by the ex-gay movement, they are aware of Exodus’s role as the world’s oldest and largest ex-gay organization. They know that many lives will be spared, as “reparative therapy” treatments have been indicated to induce depression and even suicide. They may even personally know others who have suffered under the pseudotherapy.
However, those of us who are close to the issue are not quite so optimistic. First off, Exodus isn’t really shutting down. The name is being retired, and from a legal standpoint, it will cease to exist as a non-profit organization. However, at Wednesday’s conference, Mr. Chambers announced that he and the other leadership would be launching a new initiative called Reduced Fear. Thursday night, the OWN network broadcast a feature from Lisa Ling’s Our America series, in which Alan Chambers offered his official apology to the ex-gay survivor community, and several ex-gay survivors confronted Mr. Chambers regarding how much his organization had damaged their lives. As a precursor to that broadcast, HuffPost Live featured Ms. Ling and Mr. Chambers, as well as Michael Bussee, Exodus cofounder who became perhaps its harshest critic, and Sean Sala, an ex-gay survivor. During that webcast, I asked Mr. Chambers what the aim of Reduced Fear was specifically, and he couldn’t give the audience a straight answer (no pun intended). [See the whole half-hour webcast here.]
Many ex-gay survivors, well acquainted with the slippery rhetoric of Exodus International, are reading between the lines and guessing that Reduced Fear will work with churches in encouraging them to “let” LGBT peopole into the pews whilst maintaining that same-sex relationships and gender variance are still “sinful” and “wrong”. In other words, a leopard trying to change its spots.
And there is the critique that the “apology” doesn’t really go far enough. John Shore offers an outstanding indictment, pointing out Chambers’s lack of contrition or desire to do the hard work of making amends, and that, in lieu of this hard work, he instead is using the “apology” as a platform to advertise his new organization.
If only leopards were our only concern…
Just like the mythical hydra, we know that even if every vestige of Exodus disappeared, this beast has many heads, and they reproduce.
In January 2011, Alan Chambers was part of a panel at the Gay Christian Network annual conference in Orlando. The story of how he ended up in perhaps the last place you’d expect him is quite convoluted, but irrelevant to the impact of what that visit meant. At the conference, he made two statements that served as a death knell to Exodus International. First, he admitted that “99.9%” of Exodus clients did not change their orientation. If you think that would be enough to bring down the organization, it wasn’t. His second statement was considered far more shocking: that there would be gays in heaven. As word got out of his statement, Exodus affiliates left the organization in droves, along with some Exodus leadership, and together they founded Restored Hope Network, who have since Mr. Chambers’s statement considered Exodus “apostate“.
Then there is the Exodus Global Alliance, an organization operating outside the United States who at one time was considered a sister organization to Exodus International. They are not disappearing anytime soon.
And then of course, bear in mind that Exodus International is an umbrella organization. It has provided to its affiliates, and to the public at large, literature, speakers, and media spokespeople. However, none of the organizations who until now were part of Exodus are going away. Some may hop on Reduce Fear, but my bet is that many will join Restored Hope. (Wow, Mr. Chambers certainly wasn’t pulling any punches in choosing the new name, eh?)
I don’t want to undercut the significance of the end of Exodus. Indeed, I personally know a number of activists and ex-gay survivors who have fought for years for this day. Much of that time was spent in direct dialogue with Mr. Chambers. And though it may be construed that the end of Exodus is symbolic, I’ve learnt to never estimate the power of symbols. Still, if we think this is the end, it’s really just one step of many to go.
So many steps until we all recognize each other’s equality and humanity…
EDIT: Corrected oragnization names: “Global Exodus Alliance” to “Exodus Global Alliance”, and “Reduced Fear” to “Reduce Fear”.
Another one of the debates that I forgot to post yesterday regards age:
“The top programs are only interested in students who are younger, in their twenties, because they’re seen as more malleable.”
“But I started my MFA at a top school when I was well into my forties.”
So it’s another thing that I have to go with my gut on.
Some think I’m on a fool’s errand going into writing degrees at my age. They think I should go into STEM fields, since that is what is needed and therefore have better chances at earning a good living. But I think that it would be a fool’s errand going into fields in which I have proved that I have zero aptitude no matter how hard I work in them. I think it’s a fool’s errand to assume I am going to be able to amass considerable wealth in what years I have left–that is best left to those who have a twenty-year head start. Plus, I think that the recession proved how reliable conventional wisdom is–look at all the people who bought houses because they were an “investment.”
I lost nearly two decades of my life. I spent the first decade in ex-gay “therapy.” When you are given an impossible goal, and are told that that goal is the most important thing in life, everything else–education, career, relationships–ends up on the back burner, and because you’re investing all your effort into doing the impossible, you get nowhere. You are frozen. Everyone else around you is moving forward with their lives–finishing school, getting married, starting families–whilst you remain a teenager.
The past decade has been spent undoing the damage of the first decade. It meant working with real, actual, licensed, trained therapists, rather than just going to anyone with an ichthus on their shingle. It meant years thinking hard on who I am, what the world is, what is necessary, and what I want. It meant playing catchup with my peers, some of whom are at the leading edge of grandparenthood, whilst I am still seeking a BA and am still extremely single.
They call this phenomenon of being out of synch with your peers “developmental dyssynchrony,” and it’s where I live my life. I think I’ve made great strides in the past years to approach where my peers are, but I’m not there yet.
At the conference this weekend, I ended up spending more time talking with the authors and presenters than with the students who dominated the audiences, because we discovered that we are all almost exactly the same age. Spending time with them gave me a glimpse into my life five or ten years from now. Hopefully five. I want to keep closing that gap.
I originally posted this story to I’m From Driftwood in May 2010. It seemed an appropriate follow-up to yesterday’s stories.
This is hard for me to write. I risk incriminating people with whom I am making peace. I now recognize that they, as well as I, were operating out of ignorance. Yet I must tell my story on behalf of those with similar stories. Many of them are unable to speak for themselves, either because they live in fear, or because they have already lost their lives.
I realized I “had homosexual temptations” during my senior year of high school. I had no one to turn to with it. I felt uncomfortable discussing it with church leaders, and the other youth group members spoke gleefully of “flamers” going to hell. My last week of church camp before heading off to Bible college, I opened up to one of counselors. He recommended I let the authorities at my college know about my “issue” so they could help me through it, so I could grow closer to God and be a witness to others, so that they might not go to hell.
I did so almost immediately after arrival. They said I’d best not let other students know about my temptation, as I might upset them, and they strongly recommended counseling to help me overcome my attractions. However, I convinced myself I could conquer my temptations on my own. I’d read that I was probably just going through a phase. God had the power to conquer any sin, and I was a Christian, a child of God. This would ultimately be as simple as staying close to God.
However, it burdened me to hear other students speak of their own issues with sex, alcohol, and so on, whilst I was to remain silent. I decided to confide in a few students I deeply trusted, for advice and spiritual support. I fell in love with one of them. Try as I might to guard that information, it leaked to the authorities. They informed me that if I was to remain in school, I must attend regular counseling to overcome my “issue”.
The first two counselors claimed their technique could conquer any “sin issue” in six to eight weeks. This proved to be wildly optimistic. Making simple behavioral changes did not alter what went on in my mind and my heart. It didn’t change my thoughts, desires, and hopes. It didn’t change the dread I awoke with whenever I dreamt of holding hands with a man.
I then met for about two years with a counselor who had previously held a position of authority over me and with whom I still had some connections outside counseling. In secular practice, this is forbidden. The counselor is to approach the client with a clean slate, and influence outside the office taints the delicate nature of the counseling relationship. However, in the church, authority figures routinely counsel those under them.
Those sessions proved difficult for me. Despite my following my counselor’s advice to the letter, I still thought about men. I wanted to hold hands with them, to kiss them. I would fantasize about sharing my home with a man for the rest of my life. Interestingly, thoughts of sex with men were rare. I tried to shut down my sexual drive in order to avoid the inevitable guilt and shame.
All the while, my mental health spiraled out of control. My lifelong depressive state began alternating with rapid, uncontrollable thoughts—paranoia, terror, self-destruction. I felt that my evil homosexual desires were destined to be known regardless of what I did, that my Christian witness would collapse and I would cause people to go to hell.
One night, a random comment from an acquaintance tipped the scales. I realized that I was a Christian, but I was also gay. I had always been told that Christians go to heaven and gays go to hell. I was thus a contradiction, and in my whirlwind mind, contradictions couldn’t exist. I had to do something. I had to end the contradiction.
I almost did it. I almost flattened myself from a leap off an overpass. But at the last minute, I called a suicide prevention line.
I spent ten days in the hospital. They determined what others had suspected, that I had bipolar disorder. I struggled to put my life together after my stay, but ultimately, it was best for me to move back to my hometown to recuperate.
Once home, I thumbed through the Yellow Pages and discovered an ad for a counselor who promised to deliver clients from homosexuality. I leapt at the opportunity. Here was a specialist, someone who would understand exactly what I was going through, someone who had helped others overcome their temptations. Perhaps now I could conquer my shame. Perhaps I could one day walk down the streets without strangers yelling, “Hey, faggot!” at me. Perhaps now I would not cause someone to go to hell.
For two years, I got the same message. “You have homosexual temptations because your father was distant and your mother was smothering.” But my mother was pretty lenient. Also, why didn’t my brothers have this issue? “Well, it wasn’t that your father was distant and your mother was smothering, you just perceived it that way, and your brothers perceived it differently.” We argued a lot. If I was doing what he told me to do—stay devoted to the Bible and pray—and it didn’t have the desired result, he would tell me I just wasn’t doing it right or doing it enough. If I fell away from the practice, he berated me for not staying close to God, that I clearly wasn’t serious about being healed of homosexual temptation. He began demanding that I attend the same church as he, since his was the only local congregation who had ascribed to his therapeutic practices. In the end, he closed his practice owing to finances.
Looking back over my journals from that time, I see I was already expressing doubts about these treatments. I had had no results in nearly eight years. But the message of the counselors and churches remained—I simply needed to work harder. Until the point that I had no doubts that I was in fact a heterosexual, I would not have a close relationship to God, I could hold no position that even looked like a leadership role in the church, and I would be a “stumbling block” to others—I risked causing others to go to hell.
Two more years I continued with counseling from different leaders at church. They told me nothing I hadn’t already heard. Any doubts I had were quashed by the proclamation that I was not right with God. Yet one reality grew clearer to me: the more I tried to draw close to God in the way these counselors had told me, the further from God I grew. It is said that the definition of insanity is to do the same thing repeatedly expecting different results. By this definition, I was insane.
I approached one of the counselors. I told him it was clear to me that what he was telling me to do was actually pulling me further from God, not drawing me closer. What if I were to remain in the congregation admitting that I was a homosexual—that I was gay—and that that was okay? I didn’t even bring up whether I thought it would be okay to date or have sex or anything—I hadn’t reached those conclusions yet. He told me that I would always be welcome in the congregation, but because they loved me, they would constantly warn me of the error of my ways. I decided I could not live in that kind of unbalanced relationship. That was the last day I attended that church.
It has been quite a journey since then. I moved to Minneapolis, “The San Francisco of the Midwest.” I have affiliated with religious groups who audaciously claim that God loves me—and everyone else—just as I am. I am not beholden to mere human opinion. My relationship with God is much closer than it was in my younger days, though its shape is much different from what I expected a close relationship with God would look like. God is replacing bitterness with grace, resentment with reconciliation, and despair with hope. Perhaps one day I will build a home with another man—or perhaps I will be single the rest of my life. Regardless, I know that the love and acceptance I sought in God’s representatives, I have found in God.
Interestingly, in the 1 1/2 years since I wrote this, I’ve grown increasingly agnostic.
ETA: I have been challenged by a friend to expound and improve upon what I wrote. I’m learning….
I had said in my post earlier today that I wanted to speak briefly about how Matthew Shepard’s murder affected me personally. I was going to wait until tomorrow to write this, but I didn’t want to give myself the opportunity to forget to do so, and I didn’t want the palpability of the anniversary to escape me before I could write of it.
It is funny how the memory can play tricks on you, because, for the longest time, I had misremembered his death as having occurred whilst I was still living in St Louis, but this is impossible, as I moved from St Louis to Bloomington, Indiana in May 1998. So, I had been living in Bloomington, but not for long.
I understand why I had got confused about the timing, as the year 1998 was a confusing year for me. I began the year living in St Louis, my residence since 1992, when I began Bible college. I had had to leave school the September previous for financial reasons, but was bound and determined to remain in St Louis, believing that to return to my hometown would indicate I had failed at life. I set up my life in a little apartment in the suburb of Florissant, and thought I was living life well, but I was not. I could not hold a job as I drowned in depression. Then, waves of peripatetic paranoia left me unable to take care of myself at all. By April, I had decided–as best as one can decide when one’s mind is racing a mile a second–that, if to be gay and Christian was a contradiction, and that contradictions ought not to exist, I should therefore cease to exist. One call to suicide prevention led to a hospital stay, which led to a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, and in May 1998, about to lose my apartment for lack of rent–though I had convinced myself I could make the money somehow, I most reluctuantly returned to Indiana to live with my mother.
For most of the time that I had been in Bible college, I had participated in what is commonly called “ex-gay therapy”, but which the counsellors themselves call “reparative therapy.” [Tomorrow I will repost the story of how that came about.] Upon flipping through the Yellow Pages randomly, I came across an essentially one-man organisation called Freedom Through Christ Ministries. Their sole purpose was to convert gay* people into heterosexuals, unlike my previous counselling experiences, which carried out their work under the more generic umbrella of “Christian counselling”.
So, I moved back to my hometown, which for some reason thinks of itself as gay-friendly. (Sorry, but if I’m frequently harassed for just walking down the sidewalk by myself, I’m not going to presume I won’t be harassed walking hand-in-hand with my boyfriend). I began almost immediately thereafter a “therapy” designed specifically to make one not be gay (or, as I like to call it, to turn into a giraffe, because it’s just as likely and just as necessary). And then, right after that, I read of the murder of a gay man in the national headlines. You can understand that these three factors, simultaneously, were in and of themselves enough to keep me in the closet for several years thereafter.
*They do not use the word “gay” because they do not believe that there is a such thing as a gay person, or a homosexual person. All people are heterosexual, some just have “homosexual temptations”