CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The nation’s largest “ex-gay” organization, which had said for years that LGBT people could change their sexual orientation, announced on Wednesday that it was shutting its doors. The reaction to the news has grabbed national headlines and one gay Christian organizer in North Carolina is warning that the work to heal old wounds is not yet over.
Exodus International President Alan Chambers made his announcement to shutter the organization at Exodus’ annual conference in Irvine, Calif. The group, he said, would re-organize and re-brand, though he gave no details about the plans for a new organization.
Before the announcement, Chambers issued an apology to the LGBT community.
“Please know that I am deeply sorry,” Chambers wrote in the apology, posted to the organization’s website. “I am sorry for the pain and hurt many of you have experienced. I am sorry that some of you spent years working through the shame and guilt you felt when your attractions didn’t change. I am sorry we promoted sexual orientation change efforts and reparative theories about sexual orientation that stigmatized parents. 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.”
Chambers’ apology and Exodus’ closure comes after years of defections and coming out stories for former “ex-gay” leaders and spokespeople since its founding in 1976. Michael Bussee, one of the group’s founders, and Gary Cooper, an Exodus leader, left the group in 1979 and held a commitment ceremony as partners in 1982. One-time spokesperson John Paulk was caught at a gay bar in Washington, D.C., in 2000; this year, he issued a public apology for his statements, renounced Exodus and admitted his sexual orientation had never changed. Self-proclaimed “ex-gay” survivors often denounce the group and similar ministries.
Justin Lee, whose Raleigh, N.C.-based Gay Christian Network offers LGBT-affirming resources for faith communities, told qnotes he believes Chambers’ apology is sincere.
“I really do think that he is genuinely sorry,” Lee said in an interview via phone on Thursday. “Obviously, no amount of apologizing can make up for all the damage that has been done to LGBT individuals and to the LGBT community as a whole by ex-gay groups. So, by saying that I think his apology is genuine, I don’t mean to let Exodus off the hook, as it were, but from my knowledge of Alan, I believe he is sincere in his apology.”
Lee and Chambers have a long history. The two have been on polar opposites on the religious debate over homosexuality and sexual orientation. Chambers and Exodus International have preached conversion and reparative “therapy” they said could help gay people change their sexual orientation. Lee, who founded his organization in 2001, has countered that message, offering networking opportunities, resources and support for LGBT Christians and their families.
In January 2012, Lee hosted Chambers for a three-and-a-half hour public discussion on their differences at Gay Christian Network’s conference in Orlando, Fla. During the conversation, Chambers admitted that “99.9 percent” of people Exodus has encountered have not changed their sexual orientation.
“I’ve sense for a while that he’s been interested in having a better conversation with LGBT people,” Lee said. “He recognizes that a lot of damage has been done and really wants to improve things. Now, that said, these are things I wish would have been said and done many years ago and it reamins to be seen what happens next.”
The decision to shutter the organization leaves dozens of affiliated “ex-gay” and reparative therapy ministry groups across the country without a national affiliate. What the new Exodus will become is also a mystery.
“I don’t know what this new thing is going to look like,” Lee said. “What happens to the rest of the movement? Much of Exodus’ work has been done through these member ministries around the country which have kind of official ties to Exodus but aren’t really bound in any sense to Alan’s apology.”
Former or current Exodus-affiliated ministries are scattered around the Carolinas, though several phone numbers qnotes attempted to call were disconnected, one contact hung up when this writer introduced himself and two churches said they weren’t aware of or no longer offered their “ex-gay” ministries.
Lee is concerned many groups will fly under the radar or affiliate with newer, more rigidly anti-gay therapy groups like the Restored Hope Network.
“Exodus shutting down does not prevent these groups from continuing to operate under another name,” he said. “What do they do next? Do they stay affiliated with this new organization [which Exodus is creating] or do they join up with one of these other ex-gay groups like the Restored Hope Network?”
The Network, Lee said, split off from Exodus because its organizers felt like the organization was heading in a more affirming direction. That group is broadcasting the old anti-gay rhetoric and Lee feels it’s tone could become harsher.
Those messages, Lee said, cause damage to youth, LGBT adults and families alike.
“It’s a shrinking movement; it’s a dying movement, but it is still strong enough that it has a huge impact on the thinking of a lot of churches and a lot of families, particularly in more evangelical parts of the country,” Lee said. “We are hearing all the time from individuals whose lives are being impacted by these groups.”
Lee said a new staffer at his organization, an 18-year-old who just came on full-time two weeks ago, was as late as last year “being driven by his parents to join an ex-gay organization and being put through therapy he did not want.”
“These groups still exist and have an influence, even when the groups themselves stop operating,” Lee warned. “The impression they give in evangelical circles — that sexual orientation is just a matter of people’s personal choice — is really damaging.”
Lee said the Gay Christian Network will continue to work toward countering those messages.
“We want Christians who are LGBT themselves or who have friends or family members who are LGBT to come to us for resources and information on how to support LGBT folks, rather than going to an ex-gay organization,” Lee said. “We are willing to respect the views that they have and still offer LGBT-affirming resources in a way that a group like Exodus wouldn’t do because it is contrary to what they’ve always been about.”
info: Learn more about the Gay Christian Network at gaychristian.net.