Analysis Sexuality

Exodus International Won’t Practice Conversion Therapy Anymore but That Doesn’t Mean It’s Accepting of Same-Sex Relationships

Martha Kempner

The head of Exodus International, an umbrella group for ex-gay ministries around the world, recently said that conversion therapy does not work and that there is, in fact, no "cure" for homosexuality.  While this seems like a step in the right direction, the organization still says that any sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage is wrong. So, now what?

A few weeks back, I included a piece in my sexual health roundup about a psychiatrist who apologized for his role in advancing conversion therapy. Also called reparative therapy, conversion therapy is the process by which homosexual individuals are “cured” of their sexual orientation. In the seventies, Dr. Robert Spitzer was part of the American Psychiatric Association panel that ruled that homosexuality was not a mental disorder as it had been categorized up until that point. Yet after being part of one of the biggest advances in gay rights, he was also part in one of its biggest setbacks, publishing a peer-reviewed study in 2001 of 200 individuals who underwent some kind of conversion therapy. The study found that such therapy worked to change the sexual orientation of those who participated. Gay rights activists and many in the psychiatric field were upset by Spitzer’s research which they felt was methodologically flawed and open to misinterpretation and abuse by those with an anti-gay agenda. Not surprisingly, the research was pounced on by conservative groups promoting reparative therapy as proof that it worked; after all Spitzer was a friend to gay rights activists so if he thought this worked, it must. 

More than a decade after the study was published, Spitzer admitted that he agreed with his critics—the study was flawed because it simply asked individuals whether they felt that their sexual orientation had changed which meant that they could be lying not just to him but to themselves as well. As Spitzer told the New York Times recently, “The simple fact is that there was no way to determine if the subject’s accounts of change were valid.”  He went on to apologize:

I believe I owe the gay community an apology for my study making unproven claims of the efficacy of reparative therapy. I also apologize to any gay person who wasted time and energy undergoing some form of reparative therapy because they believed that I had proven that reparative therapy works with some “highly motivated” individuals.”

While this better-late-than-never apology surprised many, it was not nearly as startling as the recent proclamation from the head of Exodus International, one of the many organizations that had used Spitzer study as proof that “curing” homosexuality was possible. Exodus is an umbrella organization for ex-gay ministries. It was founded in 1976 specifically to promote reparative therapy. In the past, the organization described its mission as encouraging “freedom from homosexuality through the power of Jesus Christ.” The organization has 260 affiliated ministries around the world and “for decades, it has offered to help conflicted Christians rid themselves of unwanted homosexual inclinations through counseling and prayer…”.   But that may all be changing with a new announcement by the group’s president, Alan Chambers, who “declared that there was no cure for homosexuality and that reparative therapy offered false hopes to gays and could even be harmful.” This is a far-cry from what the organization was saying just a few years ago. 

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What Exodus Used to Say
In 1998, Exodus was one of 15 prominent conservative groups that paid for a million-dollar ad campaign telling people they could “pray away the gay.” More recently, the organization’s slogan has been, simply, “Change is Possible.” In fact, Chambers and his wife starred in an ad with that tagline.

I first became aware of Exodus International when the group co-sponsored the National Day of Truth in middle schools and high schools as a response to the Gay and Lesbian Education Network’s (GLSEN’s) annual Day of Silence. GLSEN’s annual event asked students to take “a vow of silence to bring attention to anti-LGBT name-calling, bullying and harassment in their schools.” A few years later, Exodus International and colleagues called on students across the country to observe a Day of Truth instead. This event “was established to counter the promotion of homosexual behavior and to express an opposing viewpoint from a Christian perspective.” On that day, students were asked to hand out cards that said “it’s time for an honest conversation about the biblical truth for sexuality. (In what may have be the precursor to its most recent change of policy, Chambers announced in 2010 that Exodus would no longer sponsor this event saying:

All the recent attention to bullying helped us realize that we need to equip kids to live out biblical tolerance and grace while treating their neighbors as they’d like to be treated, whether they agree with them or not.

Exodus also played a role in a 2005 controversy involving a teenager in Tennessee. Zack Starks, who at the time was 16, used his “My Space” page to tell the world about his experience in an ex-gay camp with ties to Love in Action an affiliate of Exodus International. The program was described as lasting two to six weeks. During the day, participants attend sessions in a “park-like setting.” At night they’re sent to a hotel with a legal guardian. In an email to Starks’ parents the leaders of the program described details including “solitary confinement, isolation, and extreme restrictions of attire, correspondence, and privacy sanctioned by biblical quotations.” Starks, who was forced to attend the program by his parents, wrote: “Even if I do come out straight, I’ll be so mentally unstable and depressed it won’t matter.” 

Love in Action and other Exodus affiliates ran similar programs across the country aimed at both teens and adults. Exodus also runs the traveling road show “Love Won Out,” which was started by Focus on the Family in 1998 “to educate and equip Christians on how to respond to the issue of homosexuality in a biblical way.” The management of the event was transferred to Exodus in 2009. The event caters to parents and young people who are told that homosexuality is the result of bad parenting but that it can be overcome. It’s website explains that attendees:

will be equipped to minister in truth and compassion to a loved one who deals with same-sex attractions, respond to misinformation in our culture and defend biblical beliefs with grace and understanding.

The website Truth Wins Out, however, says that attendees are instead treated to information designed to paint homosexuality in the worst light possible. It quotes one of the event’s speakers as saying: “I’m telling you homosexuality, homosexual impulse, is always prompted by an inner sense of emptiness. It’s not about sex.”

All this may change, however, with Chambers’ recent announcement, which he made at the organization’s annual meeting in Minneapolis and has since been discussing with media outlets around the country in an effort to dissociate the group with the practice of reparative therapy. 

Chambers told the Associated Press, for example:

I do not believe that cure is a word that is applicable to really any struggle, homosexuality included. For someone to put out a shingle and say, ‘I can cure homosexuality’ – that to me is as bizarre as someone saying they can cure any other common temptation or struggle that anyone faces on Planet Earth.

Chambers said similar things to the New York Times

He said that virtually every “ex-gay” he has ever met still harbors homosexual cravings, himself included. Mr. Chambers, who left the gay life to marry and have two children, said that gay Christians like himself face a lifelong spiritual struggle to avoid sin and should not be afraid to admit it.

The Seeds of Change
This change may have been brewing for a while as the organization and the ex-gay movement as a whole weathered criticism and scandal. In 2009, a special committee of the American Psychological Association released a report finding that there was no evidence that sexual orientation can be changed through therapy. The committee looked at 83 peer-reviewed studies conducted between 1960 and 2007 and found that most had serious methodological problems and that none adequately focused on the potential harms of this kind of therapy. According to the committee’s chairwoman: “At most, certain studies suggested that some individuals learned how to ignore or not act on their homosexual attractions. Yet these studies did not indicate for whom this was possible, how long it lasted, or its long-term mental health effects.”

Perhaps more damning, however, were the numerous incidents in which leaders in the ex-gay movement (men who had proclaimed they were cured of their homosexuality) were caught in or seeking same-sex relationships. In 2000, John Paulk, a Focus on the Family employee and board member of Exodus North America, was placed on probation by Exodus after being photographed in a well-known gay bar in Washington, DC.  In 2003, an actor whose photographs were used in the “pray away the gay” ads because he too claimed to have been cured of homosexuality was found to be meeting men on the internet.

A few years later the national media seized on the story of George Rekers, an anti-gay “expert” who co-founded the Family Research Council and was frequently called to testify on why same-sex couples should not be allowed to adopt children. Rekers was found on vacation with a male escort he had hired on Rekers rather lamely claimed that he had hired the young man to lift his heavy luggage. In a later statement, Rekers tried explained: “I deliberately spend time with sinners with the loving goal to try to help them.”

Wayne Besen, founder of Truth Wins Out, suggests that because of these scandals, the movement has had to change its message from promising a cure to promising to guide individuals through a process. 

The thought of a lifelong ‘struggle’ defined by sexual frustration and loneliness was significantly less appealing for potential clients than the magic remedy that had previously been promoted.

Some argue that this less promising future along with an increasing acceptance of same-sex relationships in society as a whole has led to the waning influence of these groups and ultimately to comments like those Chambers has been making recently. David Roberts, editor of the Web site Ex-Gay Watch, “speculated that Mr. Chambers was trying to steer the group in a moderate direction” because as homosexuality became more accepted these groups were “becoming pariahs.”

Changes of Heart
Yet Chambers is far from the first ex-gay leader to do an about-face and if you listen to what these men say when they do change their minds it sounds much more personal than that. In 2006, Michael Bussee apologized for his role in the ex-gay movement saying “to those I may have harmed by my involvement in EXODUS, I am truly sorry.” Bussee, who helped found Exodus International in the early seventies, fell in love with Gary Cooper, another anti-gay counselor, whom he met while traveling the country for the ministry. The men later left the agency and their wives and married each other in 1982. In his public apology he describes growing up hating his gay feelings and beginning a search for his own cure as young as 12.  His search took him to the church where he was told:

 If I had enough faith, I would eventually be “set free.” I wanted it more than anything and sincerely believed it would come true.

He says that he and a friend founded the first ex-gay ministry, EXIT, to help other people in their positions because we they wanted more than anything for faith to cure them. Eventually though he realized that:

Not one of the hundreds of people we counseled became straight. Instead, many of our clients began to fall apart – sinking deeper into patterns of guilt, anxiety and self-loathing.

Bussee now describes himself as an “evangelical Christian and a proud gay man.” He believes that eventually:

“Groups like EXODUS will go out of business when people no longer feel that they must deny who they really are, to attempt to become what they really are not.”

Last year, John Smid, the former director of Exodus affiliate Love in Action, told Chris Matthews that he is gay and that it actually impossible to change one’s sexual orientation. Smid explained that Love in Action taught its audience that “any homosexual choices were against God’s will, and they were sinful and wrong. We were very straightforward about that.” His new message is quite different as he now runs Grace Rivers, a monthly Christian fellowship group for “those who call themselves gay and want to seek a relationship with God in a place where they’re free to do that.” This message seems a bit more like what Bussee says he envisioned when he started EXIT in the 1970s and similar to what Chambers has said in recent months. 

He told the New York Times, for example, that “gay Christians like himself faced a lifelong spiritual struggle to avoid sin and should not be afraid to admit it.” Moreover, though, Chambers said “he believed that those who persist in homosexual behavior could still be saved by Christ and go to heaven.”

In fact, in answer to accusations that his change of heart is politically motivated Chambers has argued that he is just “trying to restore Exodus to its original purpose when it was founded in 1976: providing spiritual support for Christians who are struggling with homosexual attraction.”

What’s Next for the Movement
While this seems like a step in the right direction, some gay rights activists say we should still be wary of Exodus as it has stopped far short of advocating acceptance of same-sex behavior or relationships. In fact, while Chambers says that reparative therapy may be harmful because it makes people feel “sinful for their natural inclinations,” he still believes “that any sexual expression outside of heterosexual, monogamous marriage is sinful according to the Bible.”  

As Zack Ford points out on ThinkProgress no one has really pushed Chambers on what’s next for Exodus. If the organization is no longer promoting curing homosexuality but still sees sex outside of heterosexual marriage as a sin, what does it want for people? Chambers hinted at the answer in the New York Times article when he said, “many Christians with homosexual urges may have to strive for lives of celibacy.”  Similarly, he told NPR, “gay Christians must either be celibate, or if they want to marry, it must be with someone of the opposite sex.”  Ford argues that “Sin, celibacy, and fake marriages do not constitute progress from ex-gay therapy. The difference between “don’t be gay” and “don’t act gay” is merely semantic, negligible in practice and unsupported by any scientific research.” Wayne Besen agrees that this is only a small step: “We appreciate any step toward open, transparent honesty that will do less harm to people. But the underlying belief is still that homosexuals are sexually broken, that something underlying is broken and needs to be fixed. That’s incredibly harmful, it scars people.”

Moreover, other ex-gay ministries and organizations continue to insist that a cure is possible and are fiercely opposed to the new direction of Exodus.  David Pickup, an officer of NARTH (the National Association of Research and Therapy of Homosexuality) said getting rid of reparative therapy would be damaging for people who are unhappy with their sexual orientation by “making them feel that no change is possible at all.” Others claim that Chambers is just using is public platform to make politically and personally motivated decisions. The president of a group called Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays said, “I think Mr. Chambers is tired of his own personal struggles, so he’s making excuses for them by making sweeping generalizations about others.” Thus far, though, only 11 ministries formerly associated with Exodus have left. 

Still, the future of Exodus International and the ex-gay movement seems up in the air.  In addition to Spitzer’s apology and Chambers’ denouncement of reparative therapy, the movement is up against political pressure.  The California Senate recently passed a bill prohibiting reparative therapy for minors and advocates hope to push for similar bills in other states.  While NARTH and others continue to vehemently oppose such legislation the power of these groups seems to be on the decline and this widely publicized rift—between those in the movement who embrace reparative therapy and those who admit it can never truly work—can only serve to weaken them further.   Perhaps we are not that far from the day Bussee imagined when Exodus and those that followed go out of business. 

In the meantime, however, we do still have to keep a close eye on these groups because the messages they are sending—even the new-and-improved ones—continue to be based on the flawed premise that homosexual behaviors are morally wrong. Until that message disappears, these groups can and will continue to do harm.  

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