Alan Chambers, president of prominent ex-gay ministry Exodus International, made headlines this week with his public statement of apology and announcement that his organization will close. The closure of Exodus has elicited celebrations from the LGBTQ community and allies who have long known the harm being done in God’s name by groups like this. And while there is indeed cause for rejoicing, we must also remember that the struggle is not over.
Exodus was probably the most well-known reparative therapy ministry in the country. Exodus taught that gays and lesbians could either change or repress their sexual attractions through a process of prayer and counseling. So its disappearance is a major change in the ex-gay ministry landscape.
But in the cities and towns of this country, the ideas behind Exodus’ ministry continue to thrive. In my own community there are churches that teach that gays and lesbians can change their sexual orientation. Or, they argue that being gay is like having an addiction: you can just choose not to partake in the thing that causes you to “sin”.
Even fairly mainstream groups like “Celebrate Recovery”, a resource created by Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church that is used in many churches and billed as a Christian alternative to Twelve Step programs like AA, teaches that gays and lesbians can change. Exodus may have closed, but their ideas are still going strong, and they may even be thriving in your hometown.
In some ways, this is even more dangerous than Exodus International. While Exodus remained in business, those of us in the LGBTQ community could point to them as a clear example of dubious practices. Their assertions that being gay was a choice, or the result of childhood trauma, or distant fathers, were fairly easily disputed. Their practices of teaching gays and lesbians to put rubber bands around their wrists and flick them when they experiences a same-sex attraction were ridiculous. In a way, they were so public and so easy to dismiss that they did those of us who believe ex-gay therapy is deadly a huge favor. They were their own worst press.
Now reparative therapy has gone underground. But it hasn’t gone away. Not yet, at least. But it needs to, or else it will kill more LGBTQ youth and young adults.
One of the favorite quotes of those who believe in reparative therapy is that God “loves the sinner but hates the sin”. The idea is that God loves the gay or lesbian person, but hates their “sin” of acting on their same-sex attraction. So, a gay or lesbian person who engages in relationships with others of the same-sex are much like an alcoholic who continues to drink. God may still love that alcoholic, but God hates their drinking.
It has always struck me as an odd analogy. Because when I think about the best comparison between gays and alcoholic it is not between an active alcoholic and a gay person who accepts themselves. Instead it is between an active alcoholic and a gay person who is doing everything they can to reject themselves. In both cases the person is doing all they can to destroy who they are, and to bury their true selves.
Recovery comes in many forms. And that’s why true health, and truly living into God’s love for us, comes when we stop trying to destroy ourselves, through addiction or through a refusal to accept ourselves, and instead come out. We come out of addiction. We come out of the closet. We come out of the secret places where we have been kept, and come into a world where we are no longer kept captive by fear or addiction.
This is the business of “change” that I wish more Christian churches would claim as their work. Instead of the pastor telling the gay high school kid that he just needs to pray harder, what would it look like if the pastor instead affirmed them and talked about loving themselves enough to make healthy relationship choices? Instead of pressuring the young woman who felt attracted to other women into a loveless marriage that will end in divorce, what if Christian counselors instead supported a marriage to which she could actually commit herself? And instead of telling the parents of a gay kid that there was hope because their son could change, why not tell them that there is hope because they have a kid who knows who he is in the world?
When I was 18 years old I walked into the office of my college chaplain expecting nothing but judgment. The fact I expected judgement is not surprising: I had grown up just outside Orlando, the headquarters of Exodus International. But when I told him I was gay the first thing he did was tell me that he affirmed me, just as I was, and that God still loved me. All these years later, I know that first time coming out to a Christian clergyperson made all the difference in my journey. I have often thought about what might have happened had I walked into a different clergyperson’s office. I’m thankful that I didn’t. And I mourn for all the LGBTQ people who did, and who ended up at places like Exodus.
We can’t let this happen anymore. One giant of reparative therapy may be gone, but the movement is not. Now the struggle has come close to home, and you and I are on the front lines.