Ex-gay movement dealt blow after group's apology

America’s largest ex-gay ministry, Exodus International, announced June 19 it would close its doors in the coming year. The announcement followed an apology from Alan Chambers, president of Exodus, for harm that had been done to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transexual and queer (LGBTQ) people involved with Exodus affiliated ministries in the past.

“For quite some time,” said Chambers, “we’ve been imprisoned in a worldview that’s neither honoring toward our fellow human beings nor biblical.”

The decision to close Exodus’ doors follows a long process of soul-searching and deliberation on the part of Exodus leadership. During the past year, Chambers has been involved in dialoguing with the gay community, particularly those who identify as “ex-gay survivors.” These are people who were involved in ministries like Exodus who felt shamed, traumatized or scandalized by their experiences. Chambers has also become more vocal in claiming his own continuing same-sex attractions, and has admitted that in his years of ministry he has not encountered evidence to support the notion of orientation change.

End of ex-gay movement?

This reversal is one of a series of recent setbacks that seem to many observers to signal the end of the ex-gay movement. John Paulk, formerly a leader in both Exodus and Love Won Out — another ex-gay ministry — apologized for his involvement in ex-gay ministries earlier this year after revealing he has same-sex attraction. In January, the California Legislature enacted a resolution banning conversion or orientation change therapies for minors. Although many former Exodus ministries will be continuing under the banner of the Restored Hope Network, it seems unlikely that the ex-gay movement will be able to recover.

One of the major complaints of people formerly involved in ex-gay ministries is that they were made to feel that their ongoing same-sex attractions were evidence of a lack of faith. Chambers himself apologized for having denied his own ongoing attractions for many years. “I was afraid to share them as readily and easily as I do today. They brought me tremendous shame, and I hid them in the hopes they would go away.”

Other ex-gays have reported feeling pressure to claim a higher degree of change than actually experienced. Many felt that homosexual attraction itself, even if not acted upon, made them displeasing in the eyes of God.

Chambers addressed those concerns in his apology, but stood firm in his beliefs about same-sex attraction.

“I cannot apologize for my deeply held biblical beliefs about the boundaries I see in Scripture surrounding sex, but I will exercise my beliefs with great care and respect for those who do not share them,” he wrote. “I cannot apologize for my beliefs about marriage. But I do not have any desire to fight you on your beliefs or the rights that you seek. My beliefs about these things will never again interfere with God’s command to love my neighbor as I love myself.”

‘Objectively disordered’

There are significant differences between the Church’s approach to homosexuality and that of Exodus.

Key differences between Catholic teaching and the ex-gay approach include the following:

◗ The Church does not teach that homosexual attractions are sinful or that they must be eliminated to achieve sanctity.

◗ Celibacy has a long tradition in the Church, and Catholic ministries do not see heterosexual marriage as the best or most likely outcome for most homosexual persons.

◗ The Church consistently acknowledges that for many people homosexuality is a lifelong cross.

Father Paul Check, executive director of Courage, the Catholic apostolate that ministers to people with same-sex attraction, told Our Sunday Visitor, “Courage does not consider itself an ex-gay organization ... [This language] is not consistent with our anthropology; neither is the idea of entirely vanquishing homosexual inclinations consistent with what we would regard as a prudent understanding of same-sex attraction.”

Within Catholic theology, homosexual sexual desire is considered to be objectively disordered, however, it is not considered to be exceptionally disordered. It is simply one of innumerable manifestations of concupiscence, a spiritual disorder that affects all human beings as a consequence of the Fall.

Potential harm

This does not mean, however, that Catholics and other Christians have always been able to avoid the errors of ex-gay ideology. Warren Throckmorton, a Christian psychologist and expert in the ex-gay movement, observes that the politics of the culture wars can make these narratives very attractive.

“If gays can change, then the whole idea of orientation being fixed and immutable, which is an important political point, then that would be undermined,” he said. “You hear this still sometimes ‘every ex-gay is proof that change is possible,’ meaning that legal claims involving gay rights should not be held to strict scrutiny.”

These misunderstandings always are dangerous, but they are particularly harmful to relationships between parents and their homosexual children. Chambers acknowledged that one way in which Exodus had caused harm was by promoting therapies that stigmatized or blamed parents. Many of the most heart-breaking stories from ex-gay survivors are those of children who were forced into therapy by their parents and who felt that they could not receive parental love unless they were able to overcome same-sex attractions.

David Pruden, vice president of operations for the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, which provides therapeutic treatment for unwanted homosexual attraction, describes these situations as “a car wreck.”

“There couldn’t be anything less likely to help,” he said. “When we have the occasional parent call our office, we try to say there is nothing more useless in the world that you could be doing right now than pushing them into counseling. We don’t support that and we don’t encourage it and we do everything that we can to help them understand that this is destructive.”

In a statement after the Exodus announcement, NARTH emphasized its commitment to helping individuals with unwanted same-sex attraction.

“NARTH continues to affirm that the experience of thousands of clients with unwanted homosexual attraction and the licensed therapists who serve them demonstrates that trained, experienced and ethical professional clinicians play a vital role in successful treatment processes,” the statement said.

“There is no cure for people’s thoughts or feelings or attractions or emotions,” Pruden said. Ethical therapies are not intended to make a person “straight,” but rather to heal emotional trauma and help resolve the conflicts between deeply held beliefs and sexual desires. 

Melinda Selmys is the author of “Sexual Authenticity: An Intimate Reflection on Homosexuality and Catholicism” (OSV, $15.95).