The End of Exodus International is Not the End of the Ex-Gay Movement

imagesAlan 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.

An Undesirable Role Model Prays for the Boy Scouts (And Does Their Paperwork)

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My own experience of local Scouting organizations has been very positive. The church I pastor is a charter organization for two Boy Scout units, a Boy Scout Troop and a Cub Scout pack. The parents are great, the kids are enthusiastic, and the leaders are hard working. And I know a lot of them disagree with the current national stance of the Boy Scouts of America.

Every year, though, that policy hits home for me in a particular way. There are forms that each adult leader must fill out in order to be an official volunteer. As the pastor of my church, the chartering organization, I have to sign off on each one attesting to their moral fitness to serve as Scout leaders or badge counselors.

But the funny thing is that while the Boy Scouts trust that I have the moral fitness to determine the moral fitness of others, they do not trust that I have the moral fitness to be a Scout leader myself. The reason, simply, is because I am gay. And, as the Boy Scouts argued to the Supreme Court in 2000, “homosexuals do not provide a desirable role model for Scouts”.

Does anyone else see the irony here?

My LGBT friends give me a hard time for being willing to work with the Boy Scouts. And, I get why. But, I also believe that for the boys and the young men of my area, this program has changed lives in positive ways. I do not wish to stand between the young people I know who love Scouting and the opportunities that Scouting offers to them. So each year I sign that paper and feel the bittersweetness of it all.

Part of the Boy Scouts resistance to leadership from gays and lesbians comes from the old, long disproven, idea that LGBT people will sexually abuse children. Despite all the scientific research to the contrary, despite the fact that most same-sex pedophiles identify as straight, and despite the fact that if that’s the real fear then lesbians shouldn’t even be a part of the discussion, the Scouts have refused to evolve.

Meanwhile, conservative religious movements and political groups have turned the Scouts into a political football, and celebrated them as their idea of a moral organization. But I don’t believe a moral organization would turn gay parents away from volunteering with their kids. And I don’t believe a moral organization would teach young people to work hard and then not treat them the same as everyone else. And I don’t believe a moral organization would make kids feel like they were second-class citizens. A lot of other people don’t either. But that hasn’t been enough to persuade the Boy Scouts. At least not yet.

And so, young men like Ryan Andersen, a Scout in California whose record is impressive enough that any Troop should be proud to claim him, finishes every requirement to be an Eagle Scout and then ends up being denied because he is gay. And young men like Zach Wahls, an Eagle Scout with two lesbian moms, is forced to demonstrate the leadership skills he learned in Scouting by calling out his beloved organization over their policies. And in troops and packs across the country, boys and young men have to choose between hiding who they are in order to participate, or coming out and getting booted out.

The sad thing is that, at their core, I believe the Boy Scouts are better than this. I believe that because I have seen Scouting at a local level, and it is a positive movement. Which means that when it comes to the real moral issues of our day, questions of respecting everyone, ending bullying, promoting service to others, and building up community, the national leadership of the Boy Scouts could be drawing upon their core values to help lead the way. Instead, they have stopped fighting for young people and have instead been fighting for an old, outdated, and dangerous policy.

And in the end the Boy Scouts will either change, or they will become a hopelessly out-of-touch anachronism. The decline in national membership (42 percent over the past 40 years by some figures) might be a harbinger of what is to come. When you lose sight of the mission, when you lose sight of the fact that you exist in order to strengthen the lives of all the kids that you serve, you lose your legacy, no matter how storied it might be. The Scouts don’t have much time to either do the right thing and claim that legacy, or to lose it forever.

In the meantime, this pastor who in the world of Scouting “does not provide a desirable role model” will just keep doing the paperwork and praying for change.

When Pride is Not a Sin: The Season of Ending Gay Shame

In 10th grade my history teacher insisted we memorize the Seven Deadly Sins for an exam. Unlike most of the other things I tried to remember at age 14, years later I can still list them all: pride, greed, lust, gluttony, anger, envy, sloth.

In high school I thought those sins must have come from some sort of Biblical list. Years later I found out that the development of a listing of the Seven Deadly Sins was actually a gradual, fairly random, process across centuries of Christian thought. Like all traditions handed down through the centuries, they have taken on a life of their own and, for many, become an accepted, unquestioned part of Christian tradition. We caution those who are “too prideful”, labeling their actions un-Christian.

It was the Seven Deadly Sins that made the budding theologian in me question my first gay pride parade at age 18. I wasn’t questioning the morality of LGBTQ people and their relationships. I was questioning the claiming of “pride”, a sin that, if Christian tradition is to be believed, is the root of all destruction.

Of the Seven Deadly Sins pride has sometimes been called the worst. It is often seen as the root of the six other deadly sins. Even the 20th Century mainline theologian Paul Tillich, sometimes criticized as “too liberal” by conservative Christians, wrote that pride was the occasion for all sin. As I queued up for my first march in a pride parade I wondered, “Shouldn’t we find another name for this? Solidarity, maybe? Celebration? Something not on a “sin” list?”

Years later in seminary I though more about the “sin” of pride. I was reading Tillich and responses to his work. I was also taking Greek, a requisite for ordination. The wonderful thing about learning Greek was that it allowed seminarians to go back to the original sources of Christian thought, the Scriptures, and read them as they were first written. It made us go deeper and learn the contexts of the traditions we held onto hundreds of years later.

I learned that what the Seven Deadly Sins calls “pride” is actually more correctly “hubris”. In Greek the word for hubris has less to do with feeling good about one’s self, and more to do with shaming another through abuse and violence. Hubris is arrogance brought about by the shaming and victimization of another. It is, rightfully, named as sinful.

Applied today to the status of LGBTQ people in this country, hubris is not demonstrated in the pride parades held across the country each June. It’s not in the waving of a rainbow flag or marching with a banner. It’s nowhere to be found in the crowds gathered to proclaim their pride in who they are and in those whom they love.

Instead it’s here:

It’s in the pastor who preached in North Carolina that gays and lesbians should be rounded up, placed inside an electrified fence, and held until death.

It’s in the parents who taught their child to sing a hateful song about LGBTQ people at a Maryland church that included the words, “ain’t no homos going to make it to heaven” and then broadcast it, complete with the cheers of their fellow parishioners.

And it’s in the clergy who condemn committed LGBTQ relationships as they hide the sins of other clergy against children. Or who preach a Gospel of hate that encourages the bullies who force LGBTQ kids to the point they feel life has no hope.

These are sins. And they are deadly.

Paul Tillich’s insistence that pride was the root of all sin was later challenged by a growing field of women who were theologians. They pointed out to Tillich that for those who have been traditionally oppressed, pride is not an occasion for sin. Instead, the absence of pride, the failure to see one’s self as a good creation of God, was the real occasion for sin. The shame that kept one from doing the things God was calling them to do became sinful.

I want to be careful there to not label those who are mired in the shame created by an often homophobic world as sinners. They are not. Rather, the culture that creates that shame in young people growing up LGBTQ is, and that must be changed. A culture whose hubris comes from making LGBTQ people second-class citizens, who makes criminal in some states the very mention of the word “gay” in the classroom, who allows so-called reparative therapy practitioners to keep their licenses, is a sinful one because it is a soul-destroying one. It must be challenged. It must be changed.

And this is how LGBTQ people and their allies change it: they claim their pride. They claim it in parades. They claim it in front of wedding officiants. They claim it in the face of bullies. And they claim it on everyday that God has given to them.

43 years ago this month, at a bar called Stonewall, a group of LGBTQ people who were being attacked claimed it. After years of systemic degradation, violence, and victimization at the hands of hubris, they refused to live in shame anymore. That’s why each June we who are LGBTQ gather in their honor, and in memory of them and of everyone else who has ever stood up and refused to be ashamed anymore.

It is a good act. It is a holy act. And it is an act of faith. An act of claiming the life and the future that God has created for us. And when one is trying to live into the calling God has given them to live, and to resist those who would deny that calling, it can never be called a sin.