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

Human Rights

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 works with “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 Desert Stream Ministries. 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 Beyond Ex-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 had to cancel 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.

No major mainstream media outlet has focused on this aspect of the story to date.

2. The “happily hetero-married gay” ideal. In his open letter, Chambers wrote that although he still experiences what he calls “same-sex attraction,” he is currently in a happy heterosexual marriage. Weed is also in a heterosexual marriage. He insists that honesty and intimacy in his marriage have “resulted in us having a better sex life than most people I personally know. Most of whom are straight.”

So, even if orientation cannot change, the message remains the same: Heterosexual marriage is the ideal. As Toscano puts it, “I don’t question that these guys have enjoyed being married. The problem is that they stand up as models, saying, ‘This has worked for me, and it can work for you too.’ That’s what becomes deceptive and dangerous -- this idea that being heterosexual is superior to being anything else -- that it is God-ordained and natural. What they’re not telling you is that this has failed miserably for the vast majority of people who have tried it. So, you’re not getting truth in advertising at all.”

The issue is not whether or not certain LGBT individuals are “happy” in heterosexual marriages. The problem, as Toscano puts it, is that “they are offering people a way to destroy a part of themselves that they say is harmful, dangerous, sinful, and inferior.”

As for Exodus, Chambers claims the “focus has never been about making people straight. We understand that people are going to experience different things…I got married…because I fell in love with my wife. I am attracted to her. I do love her in every aspect of the word. Our relationship is very healthy and very normal. And for me that’s my reality.” He admits that people entered Exodus under false pretenses in the past, but equivocates over whether or not Exodus had a direct hand in misleading them. Now, he says, he hopes to make sure people come in with more realistic expectations.

3. The anti-gay politics. Toscano is adamant: “At its core, the ex-gay movement has been, and continues to be, an anti-gay movement.” Indeed, Exodus International was a prominent supporter of California’s Proposition 8. Chambers tells AlterNet, “Four years ago, we decided to leave public policy and anything related to it behind.” But in fact, Chambers lamented the judicial overturn of Proposition 8 just two years ago, saying, “It’s disappointing that a judge would rule against the will of the people. That’s the greatest tragedy.” Exodus also receives charitable donations from Chick-fil-A, whose president recently doubled down in his opposition to same-sex marriage.

Exodus’ anti-gay activism goes back even further. As Toscano points out, “This is a system that has organized and funded the oppression of queers for this past generation.” As the Christian right became highly politicized over the past three decades, Gerber explains at Religion Dispatches, “Exodus and their members became attractive partners to Christian right institutions. Supporting people ‘struggling with same-sex attraction’ became useful cultural evidence that these seeming haters had a compassionate side.”

Of course, the assertion that “homosexuality is a choice” has been central to nearly every anti-gay movement in the United States over the past 20 years. It bears a lot of responsibility for state-mandated discrimination against LGBT people, including the various anti-gay marriage constitutional amendments that have popped up in 37 states over the past few decades. The claim was also a central talking point in May among supporters of North Carolina’s nationally maligned Amendment 1, which was considered one of the most extreme anti-gay pieces of legislation in the country.

At this point, Exodus has offered only the bare political minimum. It has spoken out against bullying, hate crimes, and anti-gay legislation in countries like Uganda and Jamaica. In other words, the group does not support violence against LGBT people. But nor have Exodus or similar ex-gay organizations participated in LGBT civil rights amendments or spoken out about the importance of second-parent adoption rights. On that issue, Chambers says only, “We don’t get into the issue of legal or political ramifications with regards to gay marriage or any other thing, so as far as that goes, I don’t have a public comment on marriage.”

In February, Truth Wins Out reported on what it called a cynical strategy at Exodus meant to “create a façade that will marginalize LGBT advocates that criticize the group’s work.” Then, Besan argued that the group and its affiliates maintained a stridently anti-gay perspective in their own house, but presented a more moderate take to the public and in the media.

4. The “sin” issue. Ex-gay leaders are still very straightforward in their belief that “homosexual behavior” (i.e., sex) is sinful. In his open letter, Chambers writes:

Exodus does not believe SSA [same sex attraction] is sinful. However, sexual expression resulting from SSA is. Making such clear distinctions has been a failure of the Church that is slowly being realized and changed. At Exodus International one of our primary missions is to communicate that we all have propensities that if indulged can lead us into sin, but those attractions or inclinations are not sinful.

Chambers tells AlterNet that it would be disingenuous for him to describe himself as gay or bisexual because, even though he continues to have same-sex attractions, he experiences sexual attraction only for his wife. But there may be something more sinister at work in phrasing. As Dave Rattigan points out at Ex-Gay Watch, Exodus still appears to be “at pains to distance itself from another big bad something: The word GAY.” Rattigan writes that this refusal to adopt an LGBT identity -- to couch everything in ambiguous language about “same-sex attraction” -- is part of Exodus’ long-term pattern of insisting that, “[S]imply accepting the word ‘gay’ as an accurate description of oneself means assuming a political identity that takes precedence over every other aspect of a person.”

In other words, there is only “same-sex attraction” and sinful “homosexual behavior” (sex). This helps preclude conflict with anti-gay organizations like Focus on the Family which insist that there is no such thing as LGBT orientation. Instead, the “gay agenda” is all about normalizing a “perverse” sexual order.

Though Weed and Smid do identify themselves as gay men, they are equally frustrating on the issues of “homosexual behavior” and sin. As Weed recently told Gawker, “I believe the doctrine of the Mormon Church is true. One of the key doctrines of the church is that ‘marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God and that the family is central to the Creator's plan for the eternal destiny of His children.’” Though he claims not to judge other LGBT people, Weed says little about the LDS role in supporting Proposition 8 and other anti-gay legislation.

In 2011, Smid at least acknowledged some of the harm that he and his former organization, Love in Action, had done to LGBT Christians. But even he did not account for the magnitude of what he had done to LGBT children and their parents -- who were often taught that they were to blame for their child’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Nor has he come clean about whether or not he thinks so-called “homosexual behavior” is a sin.

5. The characterization of LGBT life as drug- and sex-addicted. Toscano tells a fascinating story about the way in which “homosexual behavior” was often denigrated at the Love Won Out conferences he attended. He says, “They would always have someone come forward to tell their testimony. And that always included what a miserable person they were as a gay person -- how being gay meant that they were drug addicted and sexually promiscuous, but then they gave their lives to Jesus.” Then, he says, they delivered “the money shot,” a “before” photograph of a heavily accessorized, stereotypical-looking gay man.

It’s an amusing anecdote, but also a symptom of the fact that Exodus and other ex-gay groups continue to thoroughly denigrate LGBT life. Exodus’ own Web site features several personal testimonies in which drug and sex addiction figure heavily. Before his own transformation, Marcus Mitchell writes, “I medicated my wounds and loneliness with alcohol, drugs and sex.” Linda Carter writes about breaking off an abusive same-sex relationship, saying, “The pain I felt after our breakup began to show itself in my obsessive drinking and partying. I did not want another lover, so I started going to gay bars and house parties.” The “gay lifestyle,” Toscano notes, never included happy LGBT people, families, children or committed relationships in his experiences. The de facto assumption was -- and is -- that LGBT people are “lost.”

Toscano doesn’t discount the possibility of real change among these ex-gay leaders. But ultimately, he says, “My stance has been with John Smid -- and will be with Exodus [if the group apologizes]: I’m not going to accept or reject your apology. I’m going to take a ‘wait and see’ position on it, and if you are sorry, I will know that in ten years. You show me how you’re going to undo the misinformation and damage that you have been personally responsible for, not just in North America but throughout the world… If they really turn around, I expect they’re going to stand up for homeless youth who are LGBT. I expect that they are going to do what they can to speak out to other evangelical people. And I expect them to stand up for marriage equality and raise money for queer civil rights efforts.”

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