My heart skipped a beat when I received a text that read, "Exodus International just announced they are shutting down!" I was so excited that I had to reread the article several times. After 37 years of "conversion therapy" or "reparative therapy," the leadership of Exodus International announced that they would be closing their doors on July 1, 2013. An apology was issued for the "damage that has been caused," and an official statement was made that after four decades of working with countless people from the gay community, it was clear that sexual orientation cannot be changed.
Well. Who would have ever thought that a day like this would come? Some say that this is nothing short of a miracle. As I read about the organization's closure, I can't help but look at the indisputable evidence that begs -- screams -- for our attention. According to recent polls, 40 percent of our homeless youth are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT). Per Trevor Talks, suicide rates are three to four times higher among LGBT youth. In addition, reparative therapy patients are not likely to "convert," but they do often suffer psychological damage and deep shame surrounding their sexuality. The American Psychological Association states that reparative therapy is in fact harmful, and that it "reinforces stereotypes and contributes to a negative climate for lesbian, gay, and bisexual persons." The state of California is actively working to ban conversion therapy for minors. And the list goes on.
I was sickened when I first began to learn of the heartbreaking history of how gays have been treated. It was disheartening to read about the stance that the early psychological community had taken on the subject. In the 1920s Sigmund Freud documented unsuccessful attempts at conversion therapy. During the World War II era in Germany, it was acceptable to experiment on and torture gays. In Nazi concentration camps there were gay prisoners who were forced to wear upside-down pink triangles, castrated, tortured and murdered because of their sexual orientation. Outside the German camps, America was allowing hospitals and doctors to perform shock therapy and lobotomies and exchange the testicles of gay men for the testicles of straight men, all in the name of "curing the gay." The American Psychiatric Association listed homosexuality as a mental disorder until 1973. The removal of homosexuality as a diagnosis invalidated many secular forms of reparative therapy, but religious-right groups, including Exodus International, persisted in their efforts to change sexual orientation. It is truly impossible to measure the damage that has been done to the people who had the misfortune of falling prey to such abhorrent treatment.
Exodus International and similar organizations may not be performing frontal lobotomies to try to alter one's sexual orientation, but the psychological damage that has been inflicted on countless people is indisputable. It cannot be overlooked that, in addition to the unfortunate individuals who have undergone such conversion efforts, there are innumerable people who have been influenced by this message of rejection and intolerance. From the small-town pulpit to the large-scale impact of Christian icons such as James Dobson and the ministry Love Won Out, a message has reverberated throughout the nation: "You can in fact pray the gay away." The deceptive concept that gays either have too little masculine (or feminine) influence in their lives or were molested as children has fueled the unrelenting prayers of many tearful mothers, fed the hatred of the intolerant, and given life to the perception that an openly gay person must repent and be converted.
The concepts taught by Exodus International have been backed by flawed scientific "evidence" that the anti-gay community has used to justify its agenda. In 2003 Dr. Robert L. Spitzer produced a study claiming that in interviewing 200 graduates of reparative therapy, all claimed to have had a decrease in or a complete reversal of homosexual attractions. Exodus International, Focus on the Family and other Christian-right group have clung to this slim shred of documentation that "gays can be cured." Even after Spitzer renounced that position and admitted that the study was not conclusive on the matter, these groups have continued to base their damaging treatments on his flawed and incomplete data. Exodus International has been revered by the Christian right as the leading reparative therapy group in the nation, spurring many splinter groups to crop up and follow in its likeness. Christian organizations have relied heavily on the work of Exodus International to fuel the misconception that homosexuality is a choice and a sin, and that it can and should be changed.
For just a sampling of the works of this organization, one can watch One Nation Under God. This documentary was released in 1993 and sheds light on the opinions and motives of the organization. The film shows the realities of the damage that has been caused by the false advertisement that sexual orientation can be changed. Prayers for Bobby documents the real-life experience of religious intolerance and the resulting loss that a mother experiences when she rejects her son based on the flawed programming she has received about homosexuality and spirituality. Both of these films are but mere glimpses of the far-reaching effects of the doctrine of intolerance.
Exodus International has tormented the minds of youth and adults alike who have struggled to come to terms with their sexual identity in the face of such unforgiving religious scrutiny. How many people have pored over the teachings of this organization, pleading to God to show them how they can change and become worthy of salvation? How many parents have rejected their children, justifying their stance of tough love through the ideals of this organization? For forty years individuals, families, churches and communities have been impacted by the false and egregious teaching that homosexuality is a choice and that those who have enough stamina, enough tenacity, enough spiritual commitment, can change. The damage is irreversible.
So no, I do not think that the closure of Exodus International is a miracle; I think it was long overdue. While I applaud and celebrate the downfall of such a damaging organization, it is evident to me that merely closing the doors of Exodus International hardly begins to soothe the colossal damage that four decades of false teaching has caused. The message has been engrained in our sanctuaries and reverberated throughout our culture that being gay is a choice. This is the time when all those who celebrate the ending of the existence of Exodus International must dig their toes in and promote organizations that are actively seeking to repair the relationships destroyed by misconception. It is imperative at this moment that the LGBT community, the open-minded Christian community, and straight allies alike rally behind movements that are working in an effort to change the tide and erase the deep-seated hate toward gays that has been harbored in many pockets of communities all across our nation. Now is the time. Now is the moment. Stand up, speak out and fight for equality and acceptance for all.
Photo from a Pride parade by the I'm Sorry Campaign
Here are links to some pro-equality organizations that are striving to repair the damage that has been done by reparative therapy, promote tolerance and create support systems for those who have been impacted by the flawed concepts of organizations like Exodus International. Please feel free to add links to organizations that you recommend as well.