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5 Reasons the 'Pray Away the Gay' Movement Is as Vile as Ever

While some "ex-gay" leaders say they no longer believe sexual orientation can change, their organizations are just as dangerous as ever.

In late June, Alan Chambers, the president of “ex-gay” organization Exodus International who once identified as gay and is now in a heterosexual marriage, made headlines after announcing that he no longer believes one’s sexual orientation can change. From now on, he announced, Exodus would dissociate itself from reparative therapy, popularly termed “pray away the gay.”

This marked the most high-profile case in what has become a trend among ex-gay leaders. In 2011, John Smid, the former director of ex-gay organization Love in Action, came out as gay and made the same assertion: Sexual orientation is generally immutable. A few weeks before Chambers’ announcement, marriage and family counselor and prominent Mormon blogger Josh Weed, who workswith “clients who struggle to reconcile their sexual orientation with their religious beliefs,” also  came out as gay.

Pundits on both the right and left responded to Chambers’ announcement with coverage that was high on emotion if not fact. Pittsburgh Theological Seminary associate professor Robert Gagnon countered with a 35-page essay calling the announcement “a serious blow to the mission of Exodus, a mission that involves calling the lost to repentance and to true grace, true faith, and true hope.”

By July 23, 13 organizations that had been affiliated with Exodus had cut ties with the group, including ex-gay organization DesertStreamMinistries. Desert Stream founder and former director Andrew Comiskey told the New York Times that the shift amounted to “appeasement of practicing homosexuals who claim to be Christian.” Mainstream and liberal-leaning media, meanwhile, failed to properly contextualize the decision. NPR characterized the shift as a substantive one motivated in part by young evangelicals who “are taking a more open view of homosexuality.”

In fact, the changes at Exodus, along with the coming-out narratives of other ex-gay leaders, may amount to little more than a rhetorical shift. Here are five ways the ex-gay movement is the same as ever, even if it has adopted what ex-gay survivor and activist Peterson Toscano calls a “kinder and gentler” version of itself:

1. The public relations strategy. Toscano, who spent 17 years in the ex-gay world before co-founding a survivors group called BeyondEx-Gay, tells AlterNet that announcements like Chambers’ should be met with some skepticism. He explains, “Here’s the dirty little secret. They’re only saying publicly what they always told us privately. In 1996, John Smid told Love in Action participants, ‘Changing your orientation from gay to straight is not a realistic goal…The reality is that you’re going to struggle with it for the rest of your life….’ Their PR material for so long said ‘change is possible,’ but they were elusive about what that really meant… What we have now is just transparency about what they’ve always said.”

At Religion Dispatches, Lynne Gerber suggests the rhetorical change may be the result of financial struggles at Exodus brought on by the global economic crash. “Once a darling of Christian Right donors, Exodus has been suffering since the recession, laying off staff, burning through money, and facing the possibility of a shutdown.” In November 2011, Ex-Gay Watch blogger David Roberts reported on an emergency meeting convened by the Exodus board of directors in which major rebranding was discussed. He noted that Chambers wanted to change “Exodus into something more palatable to those with funds to give, and the general public alike.”

Chambers tells AlterNet that charges of financial ruin “couldn’t be further from the truth,” claiming that this year’s budget is larger than the last. AlterNet was unable to obtain documentation of this. Between 2010 and 2011, however, the group’s total expenses decreased slightly, from $1.30 million in 2010 to about $1.29 million in 2011, while total revenue went from nearly $1.12 million to $1.097 million. And in May, the organization hadtocancel its annual Love Won Out conference due to lack of interest. Ultimately, it is difficult to assess the group’s overall financial picture because Exodus declined to provide AlterNet with tax records preceding 2010.

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