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The internets are abuzz.Some are bemoaning and some rejoicing the announcement of the close of Exodus International.
Some ex-ex-gays (people who tried the conversion tactics of Exodus and other groups but found they didn’t work) are celebrating. Others remain skeptical. Some conservative Christians are aghast that the organization would close its doors, while others are celebrating because they believe Exodus had already gone too far by renouncing claims that sexual orientation can be changed through some combination of counseling and prayer.
Am I grateful Exodus closed? Certainly. Am I skeptical of the extent of their apology and their immediate relaunch under a new ministry? Abso-fuckin-loutely. Do I think this is a shaky-yet-bold step in a long journey? Without a doubt.
I grew up hearing the half-whispered stories of a music minister who left his wife to live with another man. I saw the face of John Paulk on pamphlets proclaiming that “Love Won Out.” I listened to Dr. Dobson invite parents to send kids out of the room during episodes of Focus on the Family that discussed homosexuality. My parents warned me about the men who lived in the pink house at the end of the cul-de-sac. And my father–the youth minister–flipped his wrist and lisped when he spoke disdainfully about “fairies.”
I know a thing or two about how homophobia can come to live inside of you. I’m not talking about the subtle heteronormativity that presents the world to you as if straight and cis-gendered were the only options available. No, I’m talking about the direct messaging that there is something inherently wrong (evil, sinful, sick, underdeveloped, impaired) with who you are at the core of your sexuality and personhood. I’m talking about the fear of violence, abandonment, and hell if you are ever found out.
These messages are deeply harmful. And the environments that generate these messages are toxic to the hearts and minds of queer people. So yeah, I’m grateful that Exodus is closing down. And yeah, I’m skeptical too.
Every day, I wrestle with the messages I grew up with–every day.
I’m grateful for this step forward for Alan Chambers and each person at Exodus, but I don’t for a minute think that this is over for any of them. I know better. If I think Alan isn’t going far enough in his apology; if I expect that he’ll continue to inflict harm in his new endeavor, it’s because I have great compassion for him. I can only imagine the messages that have poisoned his own soul through the years and the added guilt and shame associated with how he has used those messages against himself, his loved ones, and countless others around the world.
In 2003, when I was 18 years old, I became a Resident Assistant of a freshman men’s dorm at the Christian college that I attended–I was in way over my head. Over half my 30 residents were older than me and almost all of them were reveling in their new-found college freedom.
I was a terrified, closeted, college sophomore who had grown up home-schooled and all these rowdy, wild, often-mostly-naked young men were more than I could handle. My two greatest fears were that they would burn down the dorm (I once had to stomp out a fire they started on the kitchen floor) and that they would find out that I was gay.
One of their favorite sports was to take balls from the pool table and bowl them toward my door at around 2 am. It didn’t matter if I took the balls in at midnight, they’d scavenge some from another floor. On one such occasion, after lying in bed, crying for ten minutes, hoping that they would get bored and stop, I was forced to go out into the hall when they began relentlessly pounding on my door.
Furious, I leapt out of bed, wiped my face and threw open the door to confront them, only to be met by my most antagonistic resident, buck naked, doing a handstand in my doorway. If you’re picturing me redfaced, in a rage, almost walking smack into face-level, flopping genitals while 10 young men howl with laughter, then you’ve got the right image.
Immediately, I slammed the door and trembled in the darkness of my dorm room. In a panic, I stormed out of my room about a minute later to confront the resident (now half-clothed), and in my own anger and confusion I did one of the things that I most regret in life. I threatened the young man, saying that if he ever did anything like that again, I’d tell his uncle (one of the college administrators) that he was gay.
What made me say such a thing? Why was this notion wielded like a weapon? Why against this young man?
Like I said, I was terrified. This young man had often teased me, asking if I was gay and why I didn’t like girls. His action that night was designed as a joke that was targeted at what he sensed as my deep insecurity about my sexuality that I tried so desperately to hide (at a school where people were routinely kicked out for being gay).
So I did the unthinkable. I drew the most painful sword in my arsenal and I used it against another person in hopes that I could move myself out of harm’s way. This is the way that oppression works: it gets inside its victims and poisons them until they reinforce the cycle of oppression. It’s rare that those who benefit most from oppression have to do any heavy lifting–instead, they simply dangle token rewards of partial acceptance in front of those who are willing to take up the mantle of oppression in hopes of escaping some of the crushing weight of this system.
I tell this story in order to say, I have compassion for Alan Chambers. I know a taste of the guilt. More, I know the desperation that can make you hate yourself enough to harm others by passing on the poison you’ve ingested. And I know it’s a slow climb out of this place. He (alongside other leaders of the ex-gay movement) is a man whose own sexuality has been used against him and whose ability to live an apparently straight life has been rewarded by half-acceptance from the faith community that he loves. That is a horrifying pedestal to climb down from and I don’t begrudge him (or the others in that position) serious missteps along the way.
In 2006, a group of young people traveled the country in a bus tour of Christian colleges on the first Soul Force Equality Ride (documented in the film Equality U). By that time, I was the chairperson of the Student Leadership Council at my school (our school’s closest thing to a student body president). When we heard that a busload of gay activists were on their way to our campus, I remember being given a copy of Stanley Grenz’s book Welcoming but not Affirming, as well as a number of brochures from Exodus International. By the day that they rolled onto campus, fear was palpable in the air.
I remember working at the desk in our Student Union building that day and someone turning in a student’s lost phone. As was standard procedure, I looked through the phone list on the phone and called the number listed under “Mom and Dad.” Typically, such calls were met with grateful responses from parents willing to help track down the owner of the phone. Not this day. The exasperated father grilled me about who I was, why I had his child’s phone, and “isn’t there a group of gays on campus today?” Shaken, I tried to explain to the man that I was a student worker and that his child’s phone had been found, and all I wanted was for him to call his child’s dorm phone. I hung up from that conversation overwhelmed with the extent to which fear and hate could mess with someone’s mind.
The next morning, I heard the news that the Equality Riders’ bus had been vandalized during the night as they stayed at a local hotel. The pink, spray-painted words proclaimed, “fags mobile.” I recall standing in our student leadership office and something inside me clicking into place–it was the result of several years of theological study that had led me to believe that, just maybe, God wasn’t planning to send people to hell just for being gay.
Mustering the tiniest bit of courage, I talked to a few other student leaders, and then, I went outside (the group wasn’t allowed into our campus buildings) and walked up to Jake Reitan and several of the other leaders of the Equality Ride. In what had to be a hurried stammer, I nervously apologized for what had happened, told them that the students did not support the vandalism, and I asked if we could help them remove the graffiti from their bus.
I was terrified. It was a baby step. A group of us went and cleaned the bus alongside the riders. We prayed together. I left.
It would be a few years later, after marrying a woman, that I’d finally be able to say that not only did I not believe God was sending people to hell for being gay, but that I no longer believed I was going to hell for being gay. It would be longer still before my wife and I decided to divorce so that we could both honor and enjoy the lives we have been given. I am still working on dealing with the layers of homophobic messages that live deep within me. It’s a part of my spiritual journey to confront both the oppression I experience every day and the old messages that have accumulated within my thinking. It is a long, slow process of settling down into grace.
Again, I am grateful for this announcement from Alan and Exodus. It is a step in what I believe is a journey. I pray that they may experience grace along each step of the way and, like all of us, learn and grow in compassion and kindness as we stop harming others through dealing with the harm that has worked its way inside of each of us.
I feel quite certain that the group of folks who have made up Exodus International will continue to harm others. This is the result of their being human. The reality is that many of these people identify themselves as “ex-gay” or “struggling with same-sex attraction” and while they do not own a social identity of being gay, they have lived experiences of sexual attraction that our society and their churches have heavily stigmatized and oppressed.
I have no doubt that, as a result of this oppression, these people, just like people who identify as LGBTIQ, have internalized oppression that is deeply rooted within them.
I know what that feels like. For this reason, I have much compassion. Repentance comes in fits and starts. Sometimes we’re able to apologize to others for the harm we’ve done to them before we can articulate the nature of that harm–largely because it is a painful process of grief and healing to face the reality that the harm that has been done to them has also been done to us and that, at times, by believing the hate we’ve been handed, we’ve colluded with our own oppression.
At least four of us who cleaned the bus that day have since been able to come out. A number of us have theological degrees and work to open up spaces in the church and educational systems for Queer Christians. This hasn’t happened overnight. But it gives me reason to believe that what has happened with Exodus is a step in the right direction.
For now, I will hold hope for Alan Chambers and all involved with Exodus, that the internalized homophobic oppression that has harmed so many will continue to be eradicated from their hearts and that they will grow in their capacity to accept the overwhelming goodness and truth that they are deeply loved and celebrated by God.
Read part 9 here.