Exodus International is one of the most powerful forces in the ex-gay movement–a movement aimed at “healing” homosexuals through Christian doctrine, prayer, and “therapy.”* Similar to the ways that certain groups of Christians promoted teaching “intelligent design” in schools alongside the theory of evolution, parts of the Christian Right have used the claim that homosexuality is not innate to contest legal protections for lesbians and gay men. The ex-gay movement goes a step further, however, and argues that if homosexuality is not innate then what’s stopping people from ridding themselves of “it.” Through prayer, ex-gay camps, and therapies designed to “help” gay men and lesbian women (through “sexual reorientation”) lead “normal,” “healthy,” heterosexual lives, Exodus International–and the many movements with similar tactics and tenets–is a group that has long sought the “cure” to homosexuality through “reparative therapy.” This is significant, as Robinson and Spivey (2007) note, as “Today, nearly every major Christian Right organization uses the existence of ex-gays to argue that homosexuals can change. This notion is fundamental to their argument that unlike legal protections based on immutable traits such as race or sex, those based on sexual orientation are unnecessary” (here: 651).
The president of Exodus International, Alan Chambers, recently publicly challenged some of Exodus’ core practices, including questioning whether “sexual orientation change” is truly helpful or even possible (see here for the NYT summary of the alleged “rift in the movement”). Chambers has been spokesperson for the group as well as president and stated that despite leaving a gay life to marry a woman and have children, he still struggles to “avoid sin,” but also believes that he—and others like him—should not be made afraid to admit this. In earlier interviews, Chambers had been increasingly hesitant to make a claim surrounding the success of conversion therapies. Part of this has led Chambers to reject the previous Exodus slogan, “Change is Possible!” (see here for a long panel discussion addressing this among other issues).**
Some have suggested that Chambers’ new position was his attempt to “steer the group in a moderate direction… in a society that is more accepting of gay people.” There is certainly some legitimacy to this. The group was founded in 1976. According to Gallup (here and see the above graph), at the time, just over 10% of Americans believed that homosexuality was something individuals were “born with,” while over 50% of Americans believed homosexuality to be the result of “upbringing/environment.” Society was ripe for a discourse on “reparative therapy” at that time, particularly as we believe that aspects of our identities that are caused by the environments in which we grew up are more easily changed. In 2010, the percentages of Americans who stated that homosexuality was something individuals are “born with” (36%) vs. something due to “upbringing/environment” (37%) have become competing discourses on sexuality. Yet, what Exodus International, in addition to other ex-gay groups, is often conspicuously vague when stating what precisely they mean by sexuality in the first place.
His recent public statements have stressed his belief that “reparative therapy” is not effective at ridding people of sexual desires. Social scientists have known for a long time that sexuality is tricky to measure once you get into the specifics (see here for a brief explanation of some of the difficulties in measuring sexuality). Should we classify people by their sexual behavior? Should we classify them by sexual desires? Should we classify them by the sexual orientation labels that prefer? We often casually assume that these things line up neatly for everyone, but a look at any survey data on the topic illustrates just how complicated this picture can become. In fact, when Edward Laumann and his colleagues (1994) were putting together one of the first nationally representative surveys dealing primarily with sexuality and sexual practices, they stated the following in the chapter discussing homosexuality:
To quantify or count something require unambiguous definition of the phenomenon in question. And we lack this in speaking of homosexuality. When people ask how many gays there are, they assume that everyone knows exactly what is meant. (290, here)
Chambers himself is incredible at steering conversations in ways that situate his claims and those of Exodus in the least offensive light (see here for some commentary). Michelle Wolkomir found this kind of “ideological maneuvering” to be common among ex-gay as well as gay Christians (see here and here). Yet, Chambers’ recent comments challenge the discourses on sexuality that the Christian Right has come to rely on to support an anti-gay agenda from things like the Defense Against Marriage Act, to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” to legal recognition of same-sex couples’ families, and protections from discrimination on the basis of both gender identity and sexual orientation.
Recently appearing on MSNBC’s Hardball(here), Chambers was given a chance to clarify his statements. He leaves us with a statement that has become par for the course for Exodus International (and ex-gay groups more generally): “If someone hears my message — that those feelings are going to go away and their lives are going to be anything like my life, I am sorry for that. That has never been my intention.” (Translation: If anything I’ve said has been interpreted in a way other than the way I’m talking about it right now, it’s not my fault for being unclear or irresponsible with my public statements; it’s your fault for not reading my mind.)
The ex-gay movement has consistently adopted a combination of essentialist and constructivist conceptualizations of gender and sexuality. This is what allow groups like this to simultaneously frame heteronormative gender roles as “natural” (essentialist) at the same time that they argue that individuals can come in and “learn” to better play their “natural” roles (constructivist). If heterosexuality is as “natural” as they argue, why then does it take so much work to produce?
Chambers’ “new” stance on what Exodus purports to be providing men struggling with homosexual desires is actually consistent with how they’ve navigated an anti-gay agenda for some time. For instance, in an in depth study with an Exodus ministry, Wolkomir (here) found that that they argued that they worked to frame homosexuality as a sin—but as a sin no better or worse than any other. This allows them to argue that they are not singling homosexuality out and treating it as a special sin. Rather, Wolkomir’s ex-gay group argued that people have distorted the biblical significance of homosexuality, but (significantly) not its status as “sin.”
My feeling is that Chambers’ recent comments are consistent with Exodus discourse surrounding homosexuality and that this is less sensational than some have been treating it. Chambers stated that he still struggles as many “sinners” do with all sorts of sins, that he shouldn’t feel bad about that, and that Exodus ought to be honest with people about this fact. This statement is actually consistent with the anti-gay rhetoric the group has promoted from the beginning. I think Chambers believes that through “normalizing homosexuality” (by which they mean putting it on par with other “sins”), then perhaps Exodus ought to be immune from being labeled anti-gay or homophobic. Through couching their sexual prejudice in liberal ideals and rhetoric, however, they merely create a more dangerous form of sexual prejudice: one that doesn’t frame hate, prejudice, and discrimination for what they are.
* I put therapy in quotes here as ex-gay sponsored “reparative therapy” is not supported by any scientific organizations. This is the central reason that the ex-gay movement established its own pseudo-scientific organization—the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH). Big Tobacco had a similar organization for a long time studying the potential negative effects of tobacco use.
** The slogan “Change is Possible” is ironic as Exodus International has heralded the research of sexologist George Rekers who, despite believing that homosexuality could be prevented, argued that once childhood gender and sexual identities were established, they were “impossible to change.” (see here p. 281, and here).