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.

Scarier Than Westboro Baptist: Confronting Quiet Anti-Gay Rhetoric in Churches

In the wake of the recent shooting in Newtown, the Westboro Baptist Church, perennial anti-gay provocateurs, reached a new low. The group announced their intention to picket at the funerals of the children who had been killed, and blamed their deaths on Connecticut’s legalization of same-sex marriages.

The nation recoiled at the group’s plans, just as we have when they have shown up to picket at the funerals of Marines killed in Afghanistan or those who have died of AIDS. What they do is, all but the smallest fringe of us agree, absolutely reprehensible. Even those who oppose full civil rights for LGBT people can agree that what Westboro does goes far past the pale of what is socially acceptable.

The Westboro Baptist Church is the closest this country comes to agreeing on something that is “wrong” in America. And I agree that they are absolutely detestable. But the ironic thing is, when it comes to anti-gay rhetoric from churches, I am far less afraid of the Westboro Baptist Church than I am of little-known congregations all across the country. Maybe even one that’s in the town where you live.

You see, Westboro Baptist Church puts their prejudice right out there. It’s up there on the vulgar signs and in the press releases. It’s stated loud and clear in everything they do. They don’t hide their contempt for LGBT people. It’s right there.

But imagine this. Imagine you are a LGBT person who is looking for a church that will accept you. And so you find yourself looking at the webpage of a congregation down that street that says they “welcome all”. Maybe you even go to the church and talk to the pastor and ask if LGBT people are welcome there, and the pastor says “of course! We love everyone!”

Now, there’s a chance that they really mean you are welcome. As in, welcome to come in and be who you are and be accepted and affirmed. That’s true of a growing number of Christian churches.

But there’s another possibility too. One that far too many LGBT people face. After being initially welcomed by a congregation, it doesn’t take too long for the truth to come out. They are still welcome to worship, but the church believes that their sexual orientation, their “lifestyle” or “choice”, is a sin.

In one-on-one counseling with the pastor they are told that their homosexuality is the same as an alcoholic’s addiction. They aren’t sinners for being attracted to others of the same sex, but they must learn to not act on those feelings, the same way an alcoholic may obtain sobriety. Maybe they’ll even be referred to so-called “reparative therapy” meant to change their sexual attractions. And all the while, they are told that the church loves them. That they are called as Christians to “love the sinner” but “hate the sin”.

In happens all the time. When a church not far from me moved to town they wrote on their blog that part of their draw to Vermont was that other churches here were “embracing liberal theology such as universalism and homosexuality”. Yet on the ground, this isn’t mentioned, even when they try to recruit LGBT people to attend their services with a “we welcome all” attitude.

And, unlike the Westboro Baptist Church, I believe that they really believe that they love gay people. And that’s why they’re so dangerous. Because it’s often the harm that churches do to gay people out of a misguided “love” that becomes truly dangerous.

Most of us can look at the Westboro Baptist Church and know that they are preaching a distorted Gospel. But when it comes to the gay kid being raised in a “love the sinner, hate the sin” church or the adult woman who finally works up the courage to talk to their “welcoming” pastor about being a lesbian, there is a real danger of pastoral malpractice with potentially deadly results.

I want my anti-gay preaching right out there in the open. I hate what the Westboro signs say, but I appreciate knowing that anyone who sees them will know exactly what they are dealing with when they see them. I want these churches that proclaim a “welcome” to gays and lesbians to be really clear about what the conditions of that welcome actually entail. I want them to tell the truth: we will never affirm who you are, we will never officiate at your marriage, and we will never accept that God made you who you were and wouldn’t want you to be alone. That’s just basic honesty, and that’s the least that one should be able to expect from our pastors.

For now, though, plenty of us who are pastors practice a sort of downstream ministry. Once the harm has been done by churches that claim to be welcoming, and once the people who they have harmed have recovered just enough to go out on the limb and try to explore faith again, we open the doors and say “no really…you really are welcome and affirmed here…just as you are.”

It’s amazing how long it takes until people who have been badly wounded by a church in the past actually believe it. But when they do, it often feels like coming home. I just wish more of them could find that home without being misled on their journey there.