Yesterday Exodus International, the umbrella group for what used to be called “ex-gay” ministries, announced that they were closing up shop after almost forty years. That announcement came one day after Exodus president Alan Chambers issued an apology to gays and others for the harm done to them by the ministry model they had built based on changing sexual orientation. The message, I think, is that sexual orientation doesn’t change, just as “ex-gay” critics have been saying for many years. Exodus was wrong to offer programs claiming that it does, and wrong to hide the fact of the leaders’ own continuing sexual attraction to their own gender.
Not everybody agrees. For example Andy Comiskey, a leader in the movement for many years, posted an article that vaguely compared Chambers to a snake–yes, that snake. (Comiskey and other affiliates left to start a new umbrella organization more than a year ago.)
Even Chambers’ apology, if you read it carefully, doesn’t apologize for believing that the Bible teaches homosexual practice is wrong. Chambers still believes that Exodus helped many people, himself included. His main impulse seems to be to operate from grace, not guilt; to stop fighting against people who don’t agree with him; and to be transparent about what really happens to homosexuals who try to change.
It has been years since I reported on Exodus, but I’ve had quite a bit of exposure to the ministry over most of its history, including a number of in-depth interviews. An important caveat for anything I (or anyone) may say about it: Exodus was always a very floppy umbrella over dozens of tiny organizations. Practically the only thing they all agreed on was to have an annual conference. They never shared funds or organizational control between their affiliates (which, by the way, have not gone out of business). Naturally given this lack of structure, there’s tremendous variation.
One thing I will say is that it was never a deep secret that homosexual feelings persisted. I had a number of Exodus leaders say as much to me over the years. It’s true that they didn’t necessarily mention that fact when first meeting with desperate, guilt-laden, deeply closeted men and women who came to them for help.
Most of the Exodus leaders were Christians of a charismatic or pentecostal persuasion. They believed in transformation. They wanted to offer hope, not uncertainty, the same way charismatics do someone coming to them for healing of brain cancer. However, none of the people I interviewed spoke of transformation as a simple, magical, pray-once-and-it’s-done business.
As I reported in 2007, “An older, wiser ex-gay movement is certainly clearer about what it has to offer. Early hopes for instant healing have given way to belief that transformation occurs through a lifetime of discipleship.”
I had attended the annual Exodus conference. I wrote, “This conference features little motivational hyperbole. Alan Chambers, the low-key opening-night speaker, emphasizes that there is no step-by-step formula for overcoming homosexuality. ‘Hear me loud and clear: You’re not going to get cured this week. … We don’t choose our feelings, but we do choose how we are going to live. I choose every day to deny what comes naturally to me. … I have to rely on Jesus Christ every day.'”
What many ex-gay critics failed to note was that Exodus wasn’t started by preachers or psychologists in order to minister to benighted homosexuals. It was launched by homosexuals who, because of their Christian faith, sought help and rarely found it in the church. So they started tiny, starving organizations that offered understanding and hope. Most of the time churches kept these organizations at arm’s length, as though homosexuality might be catching, while at the same time directing to them the regular flow of agonized Christians struggling with their homosexual identity. The closest parallel is AA–a grassroots organization run by victims for victims. Whenever I talked to Exodus leaders I was struck by the gallows humor, the lack of triumphalism. I wrote in 2007, “This may be the only group in America that realizes all the way to the bottom that when you decide to follow Jesus, you don’t always get to do what you want to do.”
But yes, they did sometimes talk and write triumphalistically, and seemed sometimes to promise great transformation of sexual orientation. They publicized apparent successes, and ignored transparent failures. Backsliding and moral failure were frequent, especially in the early days. Most importantly, most of those who joined their programs failed to experience lasting and meaningful change of sexual desire. For many, such failure was shattering.
Homosexuality is defined by erotic desire for your own gender. Despite much thinking and theorizing, it remains unexplained. Homosexuals do not choose their desires any more than heterosexuals do. But where do these desires come from? They make no evolutionary sense.
Homosexuality is not exactly “like” anything else, but I think it is helpful to put it into the context of other forms of desire and our attempts to control or change them. Alcoholism is an example: the desire for alcohol is persistent and unexplained, and it is very difficult to change. AA has some success, as does the Betty Ford clinic, but also lots and lots of failure.
The prevalence of obesity, and the general failure of all dieting programs, should equally warn us against any suggestion that we understand desire or know how to transform or control it. If food desires are that strong and resistant to change, surely sexual desires are more so.
But this should not lead to a counsel of despair. Change is difficult; change is not impossible. Some people do lose weight. Some people channel or sublimate their homosexual desires. The current ethos of sexual liberalism would suggest that any attempt to limit sexual expression is inherently stifling if not damaging. But Christians (and others) are likely to find this an unproved assertion, and to regard the legacy of sexual liberalism as highly questionable. Granted that there have been improvements in our lives since the beginning of the sexual revolution, is the overall impact really positive?
Exodus is gone, and with it any sense that Christians have a “cure” for homosexuality. A lot–not all, by any means–of homophobia has gone too, largely because a generation of homosexuals had the courage to come out and give the rest of the world a chance to know them as ordinary human beings. It’s clear that homosexuals are being visibly integrated into mainstream American life–into the military, into marriage, into sports. They have always been there, of course, but not visibly so.
Christians have to figure out how to deal with this. The impulse to love and accept is strongly embedded in our Scriptures. But so is the belief that homosexual expression is a distortion of God’s intended sexuality. This poses a terrible dilemma. Exodus seemed to point a way out of it: homosexuals can change. Now we know that homosexuality is part of the human condition, that it persists. We know that homosexuals are not “them” but “us.” Difficult? Yes, but not unprecedented. So many aspects of human life are unexplained, persistent and contrary to what we believe should be so. We are creatures of such contradictions, seeking to live in our present reality with love and acceptance, yet also with the powerful urge for transformation. That is why I lie awake at nights. That is why I pray.