I am frequently asked if the big screen comedy depicting a wacky ex-gay camp, "But I’m a Cheerleader," accurately reflects these conversion groups. People are surprised to learn that the hilarity and hijinx portrayed in the movie, starring drag diva RuPaul, is not farfetched from reality. Sometimes it is hard to tell if the zany movie is art imitating life or the other way around.
For example, this week we have learned that Exodus International, the largest ex-gay organization, has partnered with a Christian group, Ignite Student Outreach, to produce the campiest ex-gay camp America has ever seen. The featured speaker at the summer retreat is Justin Lookadoo, a peroxide blond who looks like punk rocker Billy Idol on crack.
If you click on Lookadoo’s webpage, he poses bent over while grabbing his tush. He lists among his favorite singers "Ricky Martin, when he was still Latino and Michael Jackson, when he was still black."
Lookadoo and other "wholesome" figures will lead four summer camps this summer in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina. Ostensibly, they cater to all Christian youth, but if you delve below the surface, it appears to be a thinly-veiled front for ex-gay recruitment and the indoctrination of young Christian leaders.
What is particularly disturbing about Ignite Student Outreach is that it does not explicitly claim to be ex-gay and focuses on "close encounters" with God. However, even a cursory look at their webpage reveals that it is laced with a dangerous ex-gay message, lists Exodus Youth as its only affiliate (at least until my blog publicly revealed the camp this week) and features ex-gay speakers.
Indeed, Alan Chambers, the president of Exodus International, is scheduled to speak at the camp, as is his hunky Exodus Youth deputy, Scott Davis.
This camp appears to be a stealth strategy for Exodus to get a foothold into summer camps and mold impressionable minds. The way they are trying to accomplish this is by appearing "cool," utilizing trendy graphics, innovative CDs and featuring hokey hipsters such as Lookadoo. The camp is also actively recruiting gay youths at colleges in the south through targeted e-mail campaigns.
While Ignite Student Outreach has lavished resources on seeming hip, has it focused the same attention on keeping out hypocrites? What measures has the camp put in place to ensure that youths are safe from predators?
Even Exodus claims no more than a 1/3-success rate and compares the transition to homosexuality as a constant "struggle." In a candid moment, Chambers told me in an interview for my book, Anything But Straight, "I don’t think [change is] going from gay to straight. Just saying that doesn’t sound like an accurate representation of what Exodus facilitates or proclaims."
Given the admitted failure rate, the inability to achieve complete transformation and the constant battle against "sins" of the flesh, it seems that it is exceedingly unhealthy for Exodus to be in the youth business.
We know from dealing with Catholic priests that men who try to suppress their sexuality often fail and look for easy targets to satisfy their urges – like youths in a summer camp. Given this parallel, why would a "struggling" ex-gay be admitted to lead a summer camp?
Indeed, Exodus has already encountered problems with leaders preying on vulnerable children. According to the Los Angeles Times , in 1998, one family sued Desert Stream, arguably Exodus’s premier ministry, alleging that a minister had sexually abused a teenager while the youth was undergoing therapy to turn him straight. According to the article, the family settled its lawsuit for an undisclosed sum.
I’m sorry, but this is totally unacceptable behavior for an organization that is working to get into pup tents with youth in the woods. If Exodus wants to expand into camps, they must come clean on what really happened in California and explain what actions were taken against the alleged molester. They must also reveal all other such episodes that may have occurred since this incident.
There is the additional concern that Exodus will admit teens into these camps against their will. Just last week, I spoke to a distraught father whose daughter was taken from him by his ex-wife and placed in a desert bootcamp in the Southwest where she was forbidden from bathing. The father rescued her, but said he wanted to "burn her clothes" because they were so fetid.
While ex-gay groups promote theories that belong in comedies like "But I’m a Cheerleader" the damage and mental abuse perpetrated by their leaders is nothing to cheer.