By Timothy Jones, La Trobe University
Exodus International, the world’s largest “ex-gay” organisation announced this week that it will shut down. Founded in the United States in 1976, for most of its life Exodus sought to help gay people become straight. Over 37 years Exodus grew into a global organisation with over 270 local branches worldwide.
The announcement was made at Exodus’s annual conference in Irvine, California. It came a day after Exodus issued a formal apology to the gay community for years of undue judgement and for the pain, hurt and shame it has caused.
Alan Chambers, Exodus president, apologised for promoting “sexual orientation change efforts and reparative therapies”.
Reparative or “conversion” therapies offered by ex-gay groups have largely been derived from self-help techniques, such as the twelve-step program pioneered by Alcoholics Anonymous. They are based on the premise that homosexuality is unnatural: that people are born straight and only become gay when some trauma interferes with their sexual development. Reparative therapy aims to repair that trauma, and teach people how to perform “normal” gender roles.
There is no evidence that reparative therapy is effective. It is condemned by major health, psychiatric and psychological organisations around the world. In recent years conversion therapy has begun to be banned in law.
The closure of Exodus concludes an 18-month scandal in the organisation, beginning with Chamber’s admission last year that homosexuality cannot be “cured”.
Chambers has been president of Exodus since 2001, and is himself an “ex-gay”. Married, with two adopted children, he rocked the ex-gay movement at last year’s conference by admitting that he continued to experience homoerotic desires.
Exodus then officially changed its long-held view that sexual orientation can be changed through therapy. It released a statement saying, “we do not subscribe to therapies that make changing sexual orientation a main focus or goal.”
Chambers went even further in his speech at this year’s conference. “It is our fear that keeps us straight,“ he said, adding:
“my true story is that I spent the majority of my life pretending that I was something I was not because I was afraid of the Church… 99% of the people that I have met continue to struggle with or have same-sex attraction … those things don’t go away.”
He apologised for not standing up to Christian homophobes, and for failing “to share publicly that the gay and lesbian people I know were every bit as capable of being amazing parents as the straight people that I know”.
Exodus’s board of directors unanimously voted to close and to begin a separate ministry, Reduce Fear. Exactly what form this new ministry will take is unclear. Its website currently has no content.
Local branches of Exodus will continue as autonomous ministries, but not under the umbrella of Exodus. There are eight ministries affiliated with Exodus operating in Australia.
The closure does not mark a change in Exodus’s views on Christianity and homosexuality. It still regards homosexual activity as sinful. Yet it has acknowledged that the ex-gay movement has “ceased to be a living, breathing organism”.
In an emotional speech, Chambers said the closure of Exodus was a way to end the war on sexuality. It was necessary to close in order to stop fighting and end the hurt caused by conservative Christian opposition to sexual equality. It’s “time to get back to the business of serving and loving people in need”; “It is time our message changed to be one of hope and love and grace.
While gay groups have welcomed the decision to close, some are sceptical about the move. Confronting Chambers on Oprah Winfrey’s OWN network, a group of ex-gay “survivors” suggested the move was just putting the ex-gay movement back in the closet.
At the very least, the apology to the gay community and closure of Exodus is an admission that the movement was supporting homophobia and religious aggression to GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender) people. It is also a sign that community attitudes to homosexuality have shifted. As Chambers said in his speech, “We’ve fought the culture and we’ve lost”.
Timothy Jones receives funding from the Australian Research Council for the project ‘Whose Family Values? The Christian Right and Sexual Politics in Postsecular Australia’.
photo credit: Mktp