This blog post about ex-gay ministry is an extended version of the article in the Gay News Network Ex-gay Away
It began with Alan Chambers, director of ‘ex-gay’ ministries umbrella organisation Exodus, honest admission to a gay Christian conference in January that 99.9% of people he’d met had never actually changed their sexual orientation. Eleven ministries defected and some evangelical leaders called for Chambers resignation.
In April this year, Dr Robert Spitzer renounced his often ‘ex-gay’ quoted study that sexual orientation change is possible and apologized to the gay community.
Last month Exodus issued an official statement that it no longer supports reparative therapy. “In the past, we’ve been aligned with organizations that believe feelings can completely change, temptations can completely go away. We now believe that’s an unrealistic and unhealthy expectation that can cause a lot of damage.”, Chambers said in an interview.
And at the opening address at the Exodus conference last week Chambers, in very contrite and sober tones, burst the bubble for many attendees admitting that Exodus had it wrong on many levels.
What about Australia’s Ex-gay ministry?
A little know fact is that several years before Exodus came into existence in 1976, Australia had an ‘ex-gay’ ministry operating both in Sydney and Brisbane in the late 60’s which was run by Moombara and Bundeena Christian Fellowships. I know, because in the early 70’s I spend six months in the residential program that promised me I could become heterosexual within two years if I prayed and was committed enough to rid myself of my homosexuality.
Australia and New Zealand’s ‘ex-gay’ ministries have been in decline for some time. Research by Ambassadors & Bridge Builders International discovered that over sixty percent of ministries and support groups offering help for those with ‘unwanted same sex attraction’ have shut down in Australia and New Zealand in the last decade. At this rate, they should completely non-existent by 2020.
The evolution of the ex-gay ministry message
There has been a progressive white-anting of the Exodus ‘change is possible’ message. Initially, the Exodus message was simply God can do a miracle and freedom from homosexuality comes if you pray hard enough or have a demon cast out of you. The magic wand approach. That was phase one. When this clearly was not successful for people, ministries moved into a more therapeutic model endeavouring to bring people to a place of healing for their ‘sexual and relational brokenness’. The term ‘reparative therapy’ was created at this time. Heterosexuality was still the goal.
The most recent phase has been to admit that those with ‘unwanted same sex attraction’ would experience a life long struggle. It will never go away, or as one Australian ‘ex-gay’ leader amusingly put it to a seeker of straightness, ‘you will always walk with a limp’. Not much hope in that message, is there? Especially to those wanting so desperately to be ‘normal’ and accepted.
While we are talking about strange terms. What’s with this ridiculous term ‘unwanted same sex attraction’ or sometimes abbreviated USSA? This term began to gain popularity during phase three in the 90’s. I believe this was introduced for two reasons. Firstly, to distance people from the increasingly popular scientific term ‘sexual orientation’ and secondly to disconnect people from a gay identity and the shame loaded word homosexual. Playing semantics doesn’t change the reality though. It’s not an attraction honey it’s an orientation. It’s in your brain wiring and hormones. It’s not just a thought/temptation in the mind it’s who you are and unwanted because you fear rejection of others and God if you accept it. I might have unwanted left-handedness but it doesn’t change the fact that I am.
In 2000, the most prominent ‘ex-gay’ organisation in the UK, Courage, run by Jeremy Marks, walked away from Exodus and became gay affirming. The same thing happened with New Directions Ministries, run by Wendy Gritter, in Canada in 2009.
The Australian ex-gay ministry story
Australia’s ‘ex-gay’ movement had a brief love affair with Exodus from 1978 to the late 80’s and it looked like they had joined the growing band of ministries raised up by God to cure homosexuals. But all was not well. When the US based Exodus became more and more political in the 90’s, Australian ‘ex-gay’ leaders felt increasingly uncomfortable with this and began to distance themselves. They stepped down from international positions and rarely attended conferences. They were still happy to be on the referral list though.
I’ve been de-constructing the ‘ex-gay’ myth in Australia for some time now. It began when I launched a support group for ex-gay survivors in 2000 and came into the media spotlight after the release of my autobiography A Life of Unlearning in 2004. An entire chapter had been devoted to my experience in the worlds first formal ex-gay program.
In 2007, I approached five former Australian ‘ex-gay’ leaders for apologies and statements about their past experience and new understanding. One of those was John Meteyard, who had just stepped down as the Exodus Asia Pacific leader. He had also been a Living Waters leader and on the International Advisory Board of Exodus. Maybe Meteyard was saying in 2007 what Chambers is saying today when he said ‘ In the past I have been ardent in my opinion that homosexual orientation was unquestioningly a result of the ‘fall’ and God’s intention was therefore always to heal the same-sex attracted believer and help them to be ‘whole’. In the past, I have frequently spoken publicly in support of these views. However, my position is now somewhat different. I now believe that it is crucially important that we all learn to respect the rights and choices of gay and lesbian believers as they work through the complexities of their unique situation with God in their own way and in their own time’.
I guess in many ways Meteyard was saying in 2007 what Chambers is saying now in 2012. Maybe because Meteyard had already resigned from his leadership role in the organisation it didn’t have as much impact. It didn’t stop him from getting lots of criticism from his former colleagues in the ex-gay world though just as Chambers is now.
Various journalists have gone undercover to get inside stories with varying degrees of success. One in Australia had his cover blown twice but others got through. The most successful of these overseas was Patrick Strudwick. After Strudwick’s exposé of his experience, Lesley Pilkington, the counsellor in the story, had her membership revoked by the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP). Another well-known example was the exposure of Marcus Bachmann’s counselling clinic. Bachmann, husband of presidential contender Michele Bachmann, had repeatedly denied accusations that he practised ‘ex-gay’ therapy. Undercover investigations proved otherwise.
These activities in Australia has made ‘ex-gay’ leaders a little gun shy and find themselves now having to grill inquirers deeper just to make sure they are not another wolf in sheep clothing who will write yet another incriminating story.
Another contributing factor has been the highly successful documentary, ‘The Cure’, which presented an in-depth insight into the Australian ‘ex-gay’ world. Not only did it have heartfelt personal stories from those who have been damaged by ‘ex-gay’ programs it included an interview with Ron Brookman, leader of the Living Waters program. Mr Brookman’s performance was not very convincing. When asked if he still has homosexual thoughts, he seemed to get unnecessarily sidetracked talking about a recent incident when he noticed an attractive young man. According to Mr Brookman, it was the thigh that got the most attention. But it was only a thought and didn’t mean he was actually gay. When Mr Brookman appeared before the Senate Same-Sex Marriage Inquiry committee, to speak against marriage equality as a ‘former’ homosexual, he neglected to mention the thoughts and temptations he experiences. Instead he boasted of the ‘former’ homosexuals he recently performed marriages for and those who now had fathered children. I cringed, knowing the predicable path these married couples have embarked upon.
‘Ex-gay’ leaders present the most insidious and complex forms of denial that exist, as they jump between two positions;. the public persona and the reality of what is happening internally. I know because I lived in that place myself for 22 years, never really acknowledging to myself the reality that nothing was changing it was only suppression of my ‘unwanted same sex attraction. When my gayness reared it’s ‘ugly’ head I completely justified it as just thoughts, temptations or desires that would, one day, completely disappear. Like them, this was my hope.
Finally a story broke in the Sun Herald in 2008. This Easter, after considerable reporting on ‘The Cure’ The Melbourne Age did a front-page story and the Sun Herald a double page spread the same weekend on ‘ex-gay’ ministries. It wasn’t pretty. Previously reluctant to talk to the media, ‘ex-gay’ ministry newsletters revealed they had further closed ranks and were licking their wounds. A newsletter released by Living Waters after the Easter weekend stated.
“The articles, ‘Healing’ the Gay Worshiper’, (Sun Herald) and ‘Ministries Preying on Gay Shame’ (Sunday Age), were a mixture of ignorance, half-truths and outright lies about our ministry”.
When the ABC did a radio program on ‘ex-gay’ ministries in 2011, a media statement from Hillsong Church said, “it’s never been the church’s official position to support ‘ex-gay’ ministries” and “will not refer people to such programs”. Another journalist, was told by an ‘ex-gay’ ministry leader that Hillsong continue to have a good relationship with his program and makes referrals. When she approached Hillsong for comment she immediately got this response. “Under Pastor Brian Houston’s leadership, it has been made clear to all the pastoral team that they are not to refer people to such programs, We are unaware of what they are referring to” a Hillsong spokesperson said.
Where does this leave the dwindling number of ‘ex-gay’ ministries in Australia? Hanging on for dear life like the proverbial shag on the rock while the rest of society, gay Christians and a growing number of churches and denominations move on to more enlightened understandings of sexual orientation.
It’s not over yet
Don’t think that it’s the end just yet though. Institutions always rise when they feel threatened but it is a sign the end is nigh.
Haydn Sennitt, pastoral worker for Liberty Christian Ministries, after attending the recent Exodus conference in the USA wrote on their blog “No discerning person can say that Exodus’ latest changes are not having an egregious impact” If you are not sure what ‘egregious; means, it is conspicuously and outrageously bad or reprehensible; flagrant; glaring; gross; rank. In the lengthy article Sennitt sides with those who are distancing themselves with Exodus. After what appears to be a rap over the knuckles from Chambers he has mellowed a couple of incorrect comments but reaffirms his and other Australian ‘ex-gay’ ministry positions. Sennitt writes on his blog Exodus Sinking or Sailing,
“Within Exodus and its affiliates there are many people whom I have a close and incredibly cordial relationships, such as Shirley Baskett of Exodus Asia-Pacific. Not all, but many believe that change in sexual desire is possible and are living proof of it, as exceptional as that is; as such it is no secret that many regional and affiliated leaders are at odds with the new direction pioneered by Chambers and believe that it is not representative of their own position”.
I have often reminded people that we need to focus on the real problem. ‘Ex-gay’ ministries are the symptom not the cause. Here in Australia they have seldom, if ever, really promoted their programs. They exist because vulnerable, tormented Christians seek them out or are referred to the programs by churches and ministers holding on to an outdated belief that homosexuality is a choice and sin not an orientation. I just heard the story tonight of a 40 year old man who openly shared his story with a Pentecostal pastor in Brisbane. The comments made by the pastor were ignorant, cruel and destructive and sent the man into a downward spiral that included thoughts of taking his own life. I hear stories like this too regularly.
In essence the enemy we fight is not ‘ex-gay’ organisations or churches, it’s ignorance. We create change by focusing our energies into changing the latter instead of attacking the former.
The most insidious thing that definitely needs attention is the online ‘ex-gay’ ministries. These are being accessed by young people in Australia. All this is done anonymously both by the seeker and also the person providing advice and support. We don’t know what qualifications these people have, if any. There is no duty of care. No reporting. No-one they are accountable to. They are so dangerous, I know of one young man in Sydney, Ben Gresham, who went into deep depression and attempted suicide whilst going through Door of Hope – Setting Captives Free 60 day program. Ben now tells his story in the hope that other gay and lesbian youth don’t go down the same path .Another one that should be shut down is Living Hope Ministries.
So it is wonderful that 17 of the 27 ‘ex-gay’ previous ministries in Australia and New Zealand have closed down but obviously there is still much to do.
Shortly I will be releasing another statement by a founder and former leader of one of Australia’s Exodus affiliates.