National Commentary

The ‘Exodus’ Factor

nfbentonpicOvershadowed by the Supreme Court decisions on LGBT equality last week, but perhaps more profoundly significant to that cause was the stunning decision last week by “Exodus International,” the powerful religiously-based “gay conversion therapy” movement, to shut down, and to apologize for the suffering its efforts caused to many LGBT youth and their families by their tortured efforts to turn gay people straight since its founding in 1976.

For many who’ve opposed this “conversion therapy” movement all along, this was long overdue. Not only has the evidence been overwhelming demonstrating the futility of such “reparation therapy” approaches, it has proven so damaging to the mental health of young LGBT people that some states have begun passing laws outlawing such practices and making them liable to lawsuits.

While voting unanimously to shut down last week, the board of “Exodus International” did far more than admit they were wrong all along, and its sincere apology points to something even more profound.

That is, if the “Exodus International’s” zealous and persistent efforts over three dozen years were understood as a grand scientific experiment, then there has never been more conclusive scientific proof that gays cannot be turned straight. That is, “Exodus” proved the very opposite of what it intended.

Clearly, there are gay-oriented people who, if unhappy, can live non-gay lifestyles, and no doubt there are a lot of those (it was the norm for eons). But what “Exodus International” confessed last week was that, whereas lifestyles can be matters of personal choice, core sexual orientations can’t.

The damage caused by raising false expectations of unhappy people – certain gay youth and intolerant parents, in particular – can’t be overstated. Both the youth and the parents suffer from a promised hope turning into a disappointing “failure.” The youth or young adult deepens feelings of self-loathing for the failure, and the parents blame their children for not trying hard enough to make the “conversion” work.

The misery caused by this knows no bounds. The youth are driven to self-destructive behaviors, including suicide, and that is compounded as the parents’ reaction to the “failure” is to become angry and estranged from their own children.

Operating in a right wing church or other environment where others believe the same falsehoods about “reparation therapy,” the parents’ alienation from their children is reinforced, and the result can be enormously tragic.

A classic illustration of how terrible it can be was deftly portrayed in a rare “coming of age” film classic, Peter Weir’s “Dead Poets Society.” This 1989 film about life in a private school in the late 1950s depicted a youth who, with the encouragement of a teacher who espoused the liberating power of poetry, found the courage in defiance of his tyrannical father to try out for the school play. He was a natural, and won the role of Puck in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

When the father found out, he angrily ordered his son out of the play. The son, having just discovered what he really loved, became so despondent that he took his own life.

Groups like “Exodus International” have been enablers of such oppressive family dynamics for decades, not just in relation to homosexual orientations, but in demanding obedience to authoritarian parental demands for conformity, more generally.

Surely, the fortuitous coincidence between the conclusion of the “Exodus International” exhaustive “scientific experiment” and the Supreme Court’s affirmation of gay marriage in the past days opens wide enormous new potentials for the full actualization of all who may be, in the eyes of some, “different.” (I, for one, thank God for my “difference”).

We all, gay and straight, now stand on the precipice of the dawn of a new age, one set loose by the explosion of energy and passion of the Stonewall Revolution of 1969. It stumbled through a difficult infancy, learning great lessons in compassion and humility from enormous pain and loss, but has persisted to find itself now coming to a higher affirmation of the sacred nature of human love and nurturing, armed with a fresh concept of marriage as its garland.