‘Pray Away the Gay’ No More: ‘Ex-Gay’ Ministry Closes, Leader Apologizes to Gay Community

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‘Pray Away the Gay’ No More: ‘Ex-Gay’ Ministry Closes, Leader Apologizes to Gay Community

Martha Kempner

One of the organizations responsible for promoting the slogan "pray away the gay" and the practice of reparative therapy is closing its doors, and its leader has apologized to the LGBTQ community.

Exodus International, once one of the leading voices in the “ex-gay” or reparative therapy movement, announced Wednesday that it will close its doors for good.

In a statement, the organization’s president, Alan Chambers, said:

Exodus is an institution in the conservative Christian world, but we’ve ceased to be a living, breathing organism.  For quite some time we’ve been imprisoned in a worldview that’s neither honoring toward our fellow human beings, nor biblical.

The board voted unanimously to close the agency.

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Though surprising, there were signs change was coming for at least the past few years.

Exodus International was founded in 1976 to promote reparative therapy—therapy which aims to change someone’s sexual orientation. The organization once described its mission as encouraging “freedom from homosexuality through the power of Jesus Christ.” As of last June, it had 260 affiliated ministries around the world that  were said to “help conflicted Christians rid themselves of unwanted homosexual inclinations through counseling and prayer.” In 1998, Exodus International was one of 15 prominent conservative groups that paid for a million-dollar ad campaign telling people they could “pray away the gay.” More recently, the organization’s slogan has been, simply, “Change is Possible”; Chambers and his wife starred in an ad with that tagline.

In the late ’90s, Exodus sponsored the Day of Truth in high schools across the country. The event was designed as a direct attack on the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network’s (GLSEN) Day of Silence. Exodus claimed it started the protest to “counter the promotion of homosexual behavior and to express an opposing viewpoint from a Christian perspective.” On that day, students were asked to hand out cards that said, “It’s time for an honest conversation about the biblical truth for sexuality.”

As Rewire has reported, the reparative therapy movement has taken a few big hits over the past few years. Two of the founders of Exodus International, Michael Bussee and Jon Smid, have come forward and publicly admitted that they don’t think reparative therapy works and that they are still gay. Bussee also apologized to the gay community.

In 2009, the American Psychological Association released a report that looked at 83 peer-reviewed studies conducted between 1960 and 2007 and found no evidence that sexual orientation can be changed through therapy. However, it did find evidence that reparative therapy could be harmful.

Last summer, Robert Spitzer, a psychiatrist whose work was used to support reparative therapy, also apologized to the gay community, saying his study was flawed and that he realized it has done damage.

And, along the way, a number of leaders of the ex-gay movement have been caught in compromising positions.

The change of heart that led to this week’s decision may have started in 2010, when Chambers announced that the organization would no longer sponsor Day of Truth events.  At the time he explained the decision by saying, “All the recent attention to bullying helped us realize that we need to equip kids to live out biblical tolerance and grace while treating their neighbors as they’d like to be treated, whether they agree with them or not.”

Last summer he made an even more shocking announcement when he declared that there is “no cure for homosexuality and that reparative therapy offered false hopes to gays and could even be harmful.” He expanded on this in an interview with the Associated Press:

“I do not believe that cure is a word that is applicable to really any struggle, homosexuality included. 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.”

He said that Exodus would no longer support the practices, but did not give much detail about what the organization would focus on instead. He also did not go so far as to say that homosexuality is OK or that same-sex relationships are morally appropriate. In fact, he said that the only options for homosexual Christians are celibacy or marriage to someone of the opposite sex, in spite of any urges they might feel.

Others in the “ex-gay” movement criticized Chambers. David Pickup, an officer of the National Association of Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH) said getting rid of reparative therapy would be damaging for people who are unhappy with their sexual orientation by “making them feel that no change is possible at all.” The president of a group called Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays said, “I think Mr. Chambers is tired of his own personal struggles, so he’s making excuses for them by making sweeping generalizations about others.”

Whatever his motivations, Chambers has continued reconsidering his past behavior and his future actions. Wednesday, he published a detailed apology to the LGBTQ community on Exodus’ website. It reads, in part:

Please know that I am deeply sorry. I am sorry for the pain and hurt many of you have experienced. I am sorry that some of you spent years working through the shame and guilt you felt when your attractions didn’t change. I am sorry we promoted sexual orientation change efforts and reparative theories about sexual orientation that stigmatized parents. I am sorry that there were times I didn’t stand up to people publicly “on my side” who called you names like sodomite—or worse. I am sorry that I, knowing some of you so well, failed to share publicly that the gay and lesbian people I know were every bit as capable of being amazing parents as the straight people that I know. I am sorry that when I celebrated a person coming to Christ and surrendering their sexuality to Him that I callously celebrated the end of relationships that broke your heart. I am sorry that I have communicated that you and your families are less than me and mine. More than anything, I am sorry that so many have interpreted this religious rejection by Christians as God’s rejection.

In the statement announcing the closing of Exodus, Chambers concluded, “From a Judeo-Christian perspective, gay, straight or otherwise, we’re all prodigal sons and daughters. Exodus International is the prodigal’s older brother, trying to impose its will on God’s promises, and make judgments on who’s worthy of His Kingdom. God is calling us to be the Father—to welcome everyone, to love unhindered.”

To this end, he and the board plan to open a new ministry designed to “come alongside churches to become safe, welcoming, and mutually transforming communities.” It is not yet clear what this new ministry will do. It’s also not clear, whether those ex-gay ministries which were affiliated with Exodus will continue to operate. According to the statement, these ministries were always autonomous and can choose to stay operational but “not under the name or umbrella of Exodus.”

Here is Alan Chambers’ opening address at the 38th Annual Exodus Freedom Conference: