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Exodus International, 'Ex-Gay' Christian Group, Backs Away From Reparative Therapy

Alan And Leslie Chambers

PATRICK CONDON   06/26/12 06:10 PM ET EDT  AP

MINNEAPOLIS -- The president of the country's best-known Christian ministry dedicated to helping people repress same-sex attraction through prayer is trying to distance the group from the idea that gay people's sexual orientation can be permanently changed or "cured."

That's a significant shift for Exodus International, the 36-year-old Orlando-based group that boasts 260 member ministries around the U.S. and world. For decades, it has offered to help conflicted Christians rid themselves of unwanted homosexual inclinations through counseling and prayer, infuriating gay rights activists in the process.

This week, 600 Exodus ministers and followers are gathering for the group's annual conference, held this year in a Minneapolis suburb. The group's president, Alan Chambers, told The Associated Press on Tuesday that the conference would highlight his efforts to dissociate the group from the controversial practice usually called ex-gay, reparative or conversion therapy.

"I do not believe that cure is a word that is applicable to really any struggle, homosexuality included," said Chambers, who is married to a woman and has children, but speaks openly about his own sexual attraction to men. "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."

Chambers has cleared books endorsing ex-gay therapy from the Exodus online bookstore in recent months. He said he's also worked to stop member ministries from espousing it.

Chambers said the ministry's emphasis should be simply helping Christians who want to reconcile their own particular religious beliefs with sexual feelings they consider an affront to scripture. For some that might mean celibacy; for others, like Chambers, it meant finding an understanding opposite-sex partner.

"I consider myself fortunate to be in the best marriage I know," Chambers said. "It's an amazing thing, yet I do have same-sex attractions. Those things don't overwhelm me or my marriage; they are something that informs me like any other struggle I might bring to the table."

Exodus has seen its influence wane in recent decades, as mainstream associations representing psychiatrists and psychologists have relegated reparative therapy to crackpot status. But Exodus and groups like it continue to influence many evangelicals and fundamentalists, and gay rights activists said the damage they inflict on individuals can be deep and lasting.

"We appreciate any step toward open, transparent honesty that will do less harm to people," said Wayne Besen, a Vermont-based activist who has worked to discredit ex-gay therapy. "But the underlying belief is still that homosexuals are sexually broken, that something underlying is broken and needs to be fixed. That's incredibly harmful, it scars people."

The cultural battle over ex-gay therapy drew national attention last year, after an activist with Besen's group, "Truth Wins Out," went undercover in a counseling clinic co-owned by U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, at the time a GOP presidential contender, and run by her husband, Marcus. The activist, John Becker, released footage seeming to show a counselor at the Minnesota clinic offering to help him overcome homosexual urges.

In earlier interviews, Marcus Bachmann had denied his practice seeks to "cure" gay people but said it was open to patients who wanted to talk about their homosexuality.

Besen said Truth Wins Out is unveiling a campaign this week to encourage lawmakers in all 50 states to ban reparative therapy from being performed on minors. The California state Senate passed a bill to do that last month, and Besen said similar legislation is likely to be introduced soon in at least three other states.

While Exodus has officially shied away from reparative therapy, the practice still has adherents.

"To hold out the idea that one's homosexual attractions can diminish, that the possibility of heterosexual attractions coming forth over a period of time – those things are possible," said David Pruden, chief operating officer with the National Association of Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, a professional association made up of about 2,000 therapists and others who still espouse such treatments.

Chambers acknowledged some Exodus affiliates might still offer reparative therapy. But he said "99.9 percent" of people he's encountered in two decades with Exodus were not able to completely rid themselves of same-sex attraction. He believes the organization must be honest about that when people come looking for help.

"I guess I'd like to see some sort of apology from leaders of Exodus for all the people they misled," said Jeffry Ford, a St. Paul psychologist who worked for an Exodus-linked group in the 1970s and `80s before splitting with his wife, coming out and strongly disavowing his past work.

Ford and other gay activists have planned a Thursday news conference to criticize Exodus for holding its conference in Minnesota just months before a statewide vote on a constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage.

"These kinds of conferences help put fears in the world about what it means to be lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender," said Monica Meyer, executive director of OutFront Minnesota, the state's chief gay rights group. "For people who are questioning or LGBT, it sends them a message that there's something wrong with them."

Chambers said the timing is coincidental and Exodus isn't looking to influence Minnesota voters. While the group holds that any sexual activity outside a heterosexual marriage is sinful, he said he wants Exodus to disengage from politics.

"For those that don't hold to the same Biblical ethic that I do, I think there's room for further discussion without a culture war that has really served no one," Chambers said. "I think it's time for us in the church to move on from that fight."

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  • Bachmann's Alleged Involvement

    In July,gay advocacy group Truth Wins Out released video footage allegedly shot undercover at the Christian-affiliated Minnesota clinic owned by Michele Bachmann and her husband, and claimed to find evidence of conversion therapy being performed on the premises. "Michele Bachmann wants to be in the Oval Office and wants to be the president of the United States," Wayne Besen, "It's important to know what her true beliefs are and what goes on in this clinic."

  • 'Gay Barbarian Horde' Invades Bachmann's Clinic

    Last July activists dressed as "gay barbarians" traveled to Bachmann's clinic to protest its alleged "pray the gay away" practices. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/07/21/michele-bachmanns-glitter-prank_n_906165.html" target="_hplink">A press release issued by the group reads:</a> <blockquote>Today a horde of gay barbarians descended upon Michele and Marcus Bachmann's "pray away the gay" clinic and demanded that Marcus come out and discipline them for their "deviant" behavior. Marcus Bachmann, who conducts "reparative therapy" at the clinic intended to convert homosexuals, has said that gays are "barbarians who need to be disciplined." The horde requested to speak directly with Bachmann and experience some "discipline" for themselves. When Marcus was no where to be found, the barbarians glittered the empty waiting room and reception area while chanting, "You can't pray away the gay -- baby, I was born this way!" The action was organized by the same young man who threw glitter on Newt Gingrich, starting a national trend in political protest of anti-LGBT sentiments from political candidates and campaigns. "Michele and Marcus Bachmann think gay people are barbarians?" asked LGBT activist Nick Espinosa. "I think its clear to everyone who the real barbarians are, based on the Bachmanns' archaic views on LGBT equality."</blockquote>

  • Gay Conversion Therapy Victim Comes Forward

    Earlier this month, "I'm From Driftwood" featured a video interview with Samuel Brinton, who was raised in rural Iowa and subjected to forced Christian conversion therapy. "We then went into the 'Month of Hell,'" Brinton explained. "The 'Month of Hell' consisted of tiny needles being stuck into my fingers and then pictures of explicit acts between men would be shown and I'd be electrocuted."

  • Prominent 'Ex-Gay' Doctor Retracts Claims Made In Key Gay Conversion Therapy Study

    This week the psychiatrist who published a controversial 2001 study proclaiming that "highly motivated" gay and lesbian people could change their sexual orientation <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/11/robert-spitzer-ex-gay-psychiatrist-retraction_n_1417679.html?ref=gay-voices" target="_hplink">retracted his initial claims.</a> Psychiatrist Bob Spitzer, who had ironically led the effort to declassify homosexuality as a mental illness in 1973, told American Prospect that he now wants to retract his study, while addressing several of the ample criticisms against its findings. "In retrospect, I have to admit I think the critiques are largely correct," said the 80-year-old Spitzer, who is now retired and suffering from Parkinson's disease. "The findings can be considered evidence for what those who have undergone ex-gay therapy say about it, but nothing more."

  • John Smid Discusses 'Praying The Gay Away' With Chris Matthews

    The former director of the ex-gay Christian ministry Love in Action <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/20/john-smid-former-ex-gay-minister-sexual-orientation-_n_1022417.html#s423190&title=Gay_Conversion_Therapy" target="_hplink">came forward last October</a> to say that not only that he is gay, but that he believes it is impossible to change one's sexual orientation. Though Smid admitted he did "experience homosexuality" on the show, he arguably stopped short of embracing his sexual orientation. "I would say predominately, I am attracted to men," he said. "At the same time, I've chosen to be married [to a woman] and a lot of people make that choice."

  • Not Born This Way?

    Richard Cohen, director of the International Healing Foundation and author of "Coming Out Straight" and "Gay Children, Straight Parents," believes that people can change. "There is no credible scientific evidence to suggest either a genetic or biologic basis for homosexual desires in men or women," he said. "So people are not born this way...it's always a confounding of many different factors that lead people to experience these desires...people don't choose this, the choice is: do they want to lead that life, or do they want to change?"

  • Gay To Straight With Prayer?

    In an appearance on "Dr. Drew" earlier this year, psychologist Joseph Nicolosi -- a founding member of the National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH) -- said he continues to support conversion therapy: "People can change, people have a choice, people should be given a choice," he said. "If a person chooses to exercise his heterosexual potential...we provide that therapy...it doesn't work for all people, but it works for some."

  • Pat Robertson Advises Father To Seek Conversion Therapy For His Gay Son

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