Hugging a stranger might be a little awkward but, in this case, Alan didn’t feel like a stranger anymore. So, in usual fashion, I wrapped my arms around him and gave him a hug. It’s a very Pentecostal thing to do and I do it with all my gay friends and sons-in-law anyway. Just be yourself I thought.
Alan could have resisted the warm public display of affection and put a stiff arm out in front to keep me at a distance…. others have….. but he didn’t. There was a little awkwardness though. I mean, Alan Chambers, with same-sex-attractions, hugging an openly gay man like me wouldn’t look right. We shouldn’t/couldn’t/didn’t linger. Alan looked around.
“Leslie” he called in a voice that everyone could hear, “this is Anthony Venn-Brown, my favourite Australian gay activist”. Oh my, am I destined forever to correct the label “activist”. Within minutes I’d been labelled. I was hoping to be less conspicuous. How is that going to pan out for me for the next four days.
Leslie was lovely. Warm and friendly, but I could see she had a lot on her mind being a major organiser at the conference. I’d read a couple of her articles before and already had an admiration for her and a respect for their “mixed orientation marriage“.
The other person I needed to connect with at this stage was my friend Jim Burroway (Box Turtle Bulletin), the only other openly proud gay person I knew would be there. I felt we had both been afforded a great deal of trust being invited into the Exodus space; particularly considering what was about to happen. I moved into the auditorium. As far back as possible would be the wisest thing. Jim obviously had the same idea.
Alan was right when he said in his email “I think it will be a year like no other“. Numbers were down. Looked like about 250 – 300 people maximum compared to the 1,000 of previous years. Interesting atmosphere as well. The day before the conference, Alan had released a formal apology to the LGBTQ community. Everyone at the conference would have known about it. It was on every major news network and had set the internet abuzz. You’d have to be living in a cave to not have known. Imagine how unsettling this would have been for young and old alike who had come from all over the US with their struggles of “unwanted-same-sex-attraction”. They’d come looking for hope and encouragement only to read hours before Alan’s words, essentially saying ‘we were wrong’:
“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.”
How do you deal with that when you have believed, up till now, everything Alan has said, and Exodus has stood for?
You could feel the confusion and unease in the air. But worse was yet to come.
The band struck up and the meeting commenced with a time of singing and worship. It was easy for me, I’m a Pente (Pentecostal) from way back. Jim, on the other hand, from a Catholic background, was finding it a bit more challenging and seemed more pre-occupied with his computer than singing. Later I would find out why.
Announcements, preliminaries, a musical item from the band and then a couple of testimonials. The conference theme this year was “True Stories”. There was an authenticity and at times an almost brutal honesty expressed by those who spoke. Certainly no testimonials like “God has healed me” or “I’ve been set free from homosexuality”. Not like previous ex-gays such as Sy Rogers, and from Alan himself. For nearly four decades people had proclaimed to the 10,000’s of faithful followers at Exodus conferences, ex-gay groups in America and other parts of the world, that they must keep “fighting the battle”, “overcome”, “believe in God’s power” and eventually, like them, they would turn from gay to straight. Years of believing this “change is possible” message, struggling, suppressing thoughts and feelings, produced tragic results for many, such as mental health issues, thoughts of suicide and some tragically taking their own lives. The actual number will never be determined.
For years I have been endeavouring to communicate the belief that LGBT people from faith backgrounds are one of the highest risk groups in our community in several areas: one being suicide. To me there were obvious reasons but considering the space that I work in, I had wondered at times if I was getting a distorted perspective. Ministers and churches seemed oblivious to or disinterested in the harm being done to individuals. Creating awareness of this in the often anti-religion LGBT community itself is challenging. At last people are beginning to research specifically in this area and separating the participants into faith and non-faith and my theory is proving to be true. The latest study, “The Role of Help-Seeking in Preventing Suicide Attempts among Lesbians, Gay Men, and Bisexuals”, by The Williams Institute, has revealed some chilling data. Counselling from a religious or spiritual advisor was associated with worse outcomes. Compared with individuals who did not seek help at all, those who sought help from a religious or spiritual advisor were more likely later to attempt suicide.
Religion in itself is not a bad thing. A review of 850 research papers concluded that people with religious involvement and belief system have better mental health outcomes. They have higher levels of psychological well-being such as life satisfaction, happiness, positive effect, and higher morale and less depression and suicide. If, however, you are gay or lesbian, in the closet or your sexuality/belief system unresolved, it can drive you crazy or kill you.
So while there are some who would say they got help from ex-gay ministries like Exodus and they saved people’s lives, there are far more whose experience has been the exact opposite.
Alan was introduced. He mounted the stage to the applause of the audience. The enthusiasm in the applause could mean several things. Honouring, respecting or please give us hope. Or maybe a combination. It was genuine, they all liked this man……a lot…..to some he was a hero.
I’d never heard or seen Alan speak publicly before…………
Copyright © Anthony Venn-Brown