At the world's largest ministry for homosexual Christians, there's no more talk of "curing" same-sex attraction.
Thirty years ago, Alan Chambers was a Christ-loving 10-year-old with a terrible secret. He knew he was attracted to other boys. He also knew that the Bible called homosexuality an "abomination." After nearly a decade of hiding his feelings (and his love of shopping and decorating) from family and pastors, he discovered a ministry called Exodus International. Today, Chambers is the president of Exodus and the author of the book Leaving Homosexuality. He oversees more than 260 ministries, spearheads large annual conferences, and is married to a woman.
Christians who consider themselves "ex-gays" have become a source of ridicule in popular culture. Although the evangelical leader Ted Haggard isn't affiliated with Exodus, it didn't help the cause when he was outed by a male prostitute he'd been frequenting for years -- and then deemed by his pastors, after just three weeks of therapy, to be "completely heterosexual." For many, though, these stories represent something deadly serious. The American Psychological Association warns that homosexuality is not a disorder, and that trying to "cure" it can lead to "intimacy avoidance, sexual dysfunction, depression, and suicidality."
Founding Exodus leader Michael Bussee says he witnessed those harrowing outcomes firsthand. Bussee, who left the group in 1979 and now lives an openly gay life, recalls watching his Exodus clients descend into despair, mutilating their own bodies or driving their cars into trees. "By calling ourselves ex-gay," Bussee says now, "we were lying to ourselves and hurting people."
But Bussee has cautious praise for Chambers. "Alan himself is personally more progressive than any Exodus leader has ever been," he says. Under Chambers's guidance, for instance, Exodus canceled its sponsorship of the 2010 "Day of Truth" -- an event that asks high schoolers to wear t-shirts promoting "the biblical truth for sexuality." Gay teenager Tyler Clementi had just committed suicide, and Chambers told CNN that "all the recent attention to bullying helped us realize that we need to equip kids to live out biblical tolerance and grace."
More recently, Chambers publicly rejected reparative therapy -- a school of counseling that aims to make gay people straight. At the Gay Christian Network Conference in January of this year, Chambers told the audience that "99.9 percent of [Exodus participants] have not experienced a change in their orientation." Around the same time, he pulled all reparative therapy books from the Exodus bookstore. His actions irked a number of therapists, including one marriage counselor, improbably named David Pickup, who argued that Exodus had "failed to understand and effectively deal with the actual root causes of homosexuality."
The question is whether Chambers's changes will filter down through the rest of his organization. One of Exodus's policy statements promises that the group will "stand with the LGBT community both in spirit, and when necessary, legally and physically, when violence rears its head in Uganda, Jamaica, or anywhere else in the world." It's no coincidence that those particular countries are mentioned. Just last month, Exodus board member Dennis Jernigan traveled to Jamaica, where homosexuality is a crime, and urged the country not to change its laws. In 2009, another board member gave a speech in Uganda that inspired a Christian campaign to make homosexuality punishable by death.
"Alan has said there will be proofs and amends," Bussee told me. "We're still watching and waiting for those." (On Friday, the day after we spoke, Exodus sent out a press release distancing itself from Jernigan's statements and announcing his resignation from the board.)
Chambers is candid about his own evolving views and the suffering inflicted by the church. But he remains firm in his conviction that the Bible prohibits homosexuality, and that followers of Christ can learn to resist temptation -- even if their same-sex attractions never go away. I spoke to him on the phone as he prepared for the 37th annual Exodus conference in St. Paul, Minnesota, next week.
What drew you to Exodus? Tell me a bit about your story.
I grew up in a Christian family, in a very traditional Southern Baptist church in a conservative area. When I was nine or ten years old, I realized I was struggling with same-sex attraction -- which really was an answer to a lot of questions I had even before that. Why do I feel this way? Why do I act this way?
Once I had a name for my struggles, I realized very quickly that the church was not great at addressing them. I had no clue what to do other than bloody my knees every night praying that God would cure me. I wanted Him to understand how deeply sorry I was for whatever I might have done to deserve the kind of wrath I felt would be leveled against me if my pastors were correct.
That's all I ever knew until I found out about the ministry of Exodus. That's when I realized there were a lot of other people like me. They weren't red-faced and shouting. They were compassionate, kind, and understanding. After all, our ministries are made up of people who have been personally impacted by same-sex interaction. How could we be angry and arrogant toward people who are just like us?
Can you clarify the goal of Exodus? You've said that you're not trying to make gay people straight.
No, not at all. We're here to support people who are in conflict at the place where their attractions meet their faith. The majority of the people we serve are single and remain single. Forty percent are already married and are struggling with same-sex attractions in the context of that heterosexual relationship.