The president of the world’s largest “pray away the gay” ministry, Alan Chambers, made headlines by proclaiming to major media outlets that there is no cure for homosexuality. He also condemned so-called “reparative therapy,” which seeks to change the sexual orientation of clients by delving into their family dynamics.
While at Exodus’ annual conference last week in St. Paul, Chambers told Associated Press reporter Patrick Condon:
“I do not believe that cure is a word that is applicable to really any struggle, homosexuality included. For someone to put out a shingle and say, ‘I can cure homosexuality’ – that to me is as bizarre as someone saying they can cure any other common temptation or struggle that anyone faces on Planet Earth.”
On Saturday, Chambers reiterated his change of heart to Eric Eckholm of the New York Times:
Mr. Chambers said that virtually every “ex-gay” he has ever met still harbors homosexual cravings, himself included. Mr. Chambers, who left the gay life to marry and have two children, said that gay Christians like himself faced a lifelong spiritual struggle to avoid sin and should not be afraid to admit it.
He said Exodus could no longer condone reparative therapy.
There are critics who claim that what Chambers said does not matter because he still believes that homosexuality is sinful. They point out that the “ex-gay” activist’s new spiritual remedy is celibacy or marrying an understanding opposite sex partner, as Chambers has done. These skeptics conclude that such advice to LGBT teenagers is just as damaging as the old promises of “freedom from homosexuality through Jesus Christ.”
I disagree with this assessment and believe such critics are missing the big picture. Ex-gay programs have never really been about converting gay people into heterosexuals. It has really been a gigantic marketing and public relations campaign used by anti-gay organizations to say, “Gay people don’t need equal rights, they need therapy and prayer instead.”
In exploiting the “ex-gay” industry, our opponents have positioned homosexuality as a sinful, unnatural behavior that could be altered, rather than being an integral and immutable part of a person. This message has either directly or indirectly been used as a club in which to bash LGBT people in referendums for the past fifteen years and serves as a wedge issue to fire up their base in election cycles. Embracing these groups also allowed the Religious Right to smarmily and cynically claim they “loved” LGBT people and were just trying to help them.
Without holding out the magical promise of change, Exodus has little value to the Religious Right’s political ambitions. While some evangelical voters may see celibacy or sham marriages as reasonable options, most Americans will consider such demands as cruel, unrealistic, and potentially damaging to both the gay person and their spouse. In other words, pushing the impractical idea of turning millions of LGBT people into sexual ascetics won’t play beyond the extreme right’s base.
Exodus’ new message will also fall flat with most LGBT youth, even ones from evangelical or fundamentalist backgrounds. Just a couple of years ago, Exodus offered flashy ads that exploded with hope. One ad for their national convention confidently screamed: Revolution, radically change your world. Freedom from homosexuality is possible.
What is Exodus’ new message to teens? “Live a life of hell on earth so you can get to heaven when you die?” Or, maybe their new recruitment brochure might say: “A life of sexual frustration and loneliness has never been so fun!”
Clearly, this despairing message will have a limited audience, especially when Exodus is competing with the Internet and an increasingly accepting culture. New York Times columnist Frank Bruni summarized the new cultural tide that Exodus’ is fighting:
Look at the last few weeks, even the last few days. The high-profile wedding in the news over the weekend was of the retiring Congressman Barney Frank and his male partner. Thehigh-profile wedding the weekend before that was of the Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes and his male partner.
A male hip-hop star just came out; a prominent pray-away-the-gay advocate just conceded that sexual orientation is Psalms-resistant; Google just announced that it would promote gay rights worldwide, even in countries where homosexual acts are now criminal.
That’s not to mention Anderson Cooper’s recent acknowledgment that he’s gay, which elicited more yawns than gasps. The reaction befit a world in which Ellen DeGeneres is a pitchwoman not only for CoverGirl but also for J.C. Penney, whose catalogs this year included same-sex couples.
Exodus needs both shame and sorcery to seduce society and attract new clients. At the moment they have neither and ironically will need a miracle to survive and remain relevant in these rapidly changing times.
Wayne Besen is a columnist and author of the book “Anything But Straight: Unmasking the Scandals and Lies Behind the Ex-Gay Myth.”