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"Ex-Gay" Group Exodus International Mounts Conference, Draws Counter-Educational Efforts

by Kilian Melloy
Wednesday Jul 16, 2008
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The annual conference of Exodus International, a group that claims to "help" gay people "reject" their homosexual urges and identity, is underway in North Carolina.

The NC newspaper Citizen-Times carried several stories on the conference, one from July 14 and two from July 16.

The July 16 article depicted the scene at which participants convened for the start of the conference, complete with a Christian rock band, a fog machine, and slides of miserable-looking people with captions expressing their thoughts: "Do I have to be this way?" and "Is change possible?"

Change, claims Exodus, is what they are all about.

Exodus is a leading organization in the business of blending faith and the message that not being gay is simply a matter of resisting sexual urges that tell gays they want to be with someone of their own gender; in the July 14 article conference attendee Jaye Thomas, a Rutherfordton resident who works with a group called Truth Ministry in Spartanburg, SC, and claims to be a heterosexual man who once was gay, goes so far as to characterize being gay as "the bondage of sex addiction."

That message leaves a lot about gay life--family, children, deep and abiding devotion to a life partner--out of the picture, which is focused sharply on sex.

The area’s GLBT population find that message inadequate, and have responded to Exodus coming to town with programs of their own. Banding together as Equality Asheville, gay and secular Christians, various pastors, and supporters of GLBT equality have created a compendium of alternatives to the Exodus program. The gay-friendly counter-program is called "You’re Fine Just the Way You Are," reports the Citizen-Times.

One organizer of Equality Asheville, Noel Nickel, was quoted in the Citizen-Times as saying of Exodus that the group’s "intentions are harmful, because it’s cloaked in the message of love."

Equality Ashville, said Nickel, is "trying to make sure that there is a full spectrum of educational aspects. People who are coming to this community need to know the whole spectrum."

Alan Chambers is the president of Exodus International. Chambers says that he, too, was once gay, and explains, "There is right to choose one’s passage in life."

Adds Chambers, "I didn’t choose those feelings, but when I was old enough, I did choose my [mode of sexual] behavior."

Jaye Thomas says that he endured years of sexual abuse; Chambers claims that more than three-quarters of those attending conferences put on by Exodus were similarly abused, which might raise questions about whether attendees are looking to become heterosexual, or rather seeking some form of solace and safety in the wake of their abusive experiences.

Either way, Exodus International seeks to serve victims of molestation with workshops, the Citizen-Times reported.

But it’s the claim that gays looking to "convert" to straights can pray their way to heterosexuality that concerns, even alarms, mental health professionals.

Exodus, however, claims that the notion that they offer some form of so-called "reparative therapy" is incorrect, the Citizen-Times reported.

Randy Thomas, executive vice president for Exodus International, was quoted in the Citizen-Times as saying, "We have 30 Exodus-affiliated counselors across the country, and even though reparative therapy informs them, so do many other forms of therapy."

Added Randy Thomas, "We get lumped into the groups that do reparative therapy, when it’s just not true."

Another myth is that Exodus claims that God sends gay people to Hell simply for their sexuality. Chambers refuted that, saying, "The truth is that homosexuality does not send people to hell. Gay people live in heaven."

Added Chambers, "It’s not about fire and brimstone, it’s about an alternative option."

But is that alternative option realistic? And does it mean that gay people can in some sense "transform" themselves into straights?

Said the president of the Asheville chapter of Parents and Friends and Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), Catherine Carmichael, "Sexual behavior can be altered, but it does not change that sexual identity," the Citizen-Times reported.

Carmichael said that when people who have internalized the idea that being gay is somehow bad or inferior to being straight hear "claims that group support can help change one’s sexual orientation, another perspective needs to be seen."

Continued Carmichael, "For people who identify as GLBTQ, I think it’s very emotionally-stressful" when religious organizations send the message that gays and lesbians ought to re-format their sexual identities.

"It’s invalidating their orientation. It’s also hard to hear from anyone that what they are doing is wrong in the face of God... especially for Christian GLBTQ members," Carmichael added.

But not all Christians think alike about gays. Whereas Billy Graham’s daughter, Anne Graham Lotz, spoke at the conference, and Exchange Ministries’ Eric Didia, who claims to have left homosexuality behind at age 25 after contracting hepatitis B, says that, "you can’t be Christian and live as a homosexual," others are less willing to view gay people as living outside of God’s plan by definition.

Said First Congregational Church of Christ pastor and Equality Asheville contributor Joe Hoffman, "If you are GLBT, you’re OK the way you are, and you are welcome in churches throughout Asheville."

Even as people associated with Exodus International were struggling to covert themselves into heterosexuals, Hoffman was questioning the messages he’s been given that gays and God were somehow not on the same side.

Said Hoffman, "I grew up being taught that being gay was wrong within the church from wonderful loving people," adding, "but that’s what they had been taught."

Said the pastor, "I had to rethink that."

Hoffman added, "We all start from a particular context, where it says it’s wrong, and some stay there."

But Randy Thomas saw the issue in starkly different terms, saying, "There is a culture war going on, and people need answers to their faith because the pro-gay side says embrace and accept," the Citizen-Times reported.

Added Thomas, "The church hasn’t had an answer to it, and we fill that void. Their feelings do not define them."

Others view homosexuality as part and parcel of other aspects of their lives they don’t wish to continue living with, such as Rodney Hicks, in whose mind being gay was bound up with his unhealthy relationship with drugs and alcohol.

Said Hicks, "It would be foolish of me to say that everyone that lives that lifestyle wants out, but a lot of people do."

Added Hicks, "The conference is great because you get to learn what caused you to become gay and helps you to have freedom from that."

Most scientists argue that homosexuality is at least partly genetic. Studies have also suggested that gays and lesbians may have differences in their neurophysiology that might help account for their deep connection and attraction to people of their own gender.

In another of the articles from July 16, the Citizen-Times reported that gay writer and advocate Wayne Beson was also in town, and that he had addressed a crowd at Asheville’s Firestorm Café on July 16, the evening of the start of the Exodus International conference.

Beson is the founder of Truth Wins Out, an "ex-ex-gay" group that advocates for former "ex-gays."

"Ex-gays" are people who believe that, with prayer and, possibly, some form of psychological intervention, they have "converted" into heterosexuals.

What is unclear, and disagreed about, is whether "ex-gays" have actually changed their natural sexual desires, or whether they were truly gay to begin with.

There is some evidence suggesting that, for some people at least, sexuality may be fluid, and re-focusing desire from one gender to the other may be a matter of practice... or, at least, learning to suppress and ignore sexual urges sparked by someone of the same gender.

Beson frequently appears at the same locales as Exdodus conferences, reported the Citizen-Times, and he also makes appearances at conferences mounted by Focus on the Family, a group that condemns gay and lesbian family units.

The Citizen-Times quoted Beson as saying, "If we’re not there to set the record straight, they’re very adept at twisting the facts to suit their agenda."

Added Beson, "Exodus exists to scare people into thinking they have to change or they’re going to be unhappy or go to hell."

However, added Beson, "They are not creating heterosexuals."

The Citizen-Times reported that Beson displayed a photo of John Paulk, former head of Exodus International, that showed Paulk exiting a gay Manhattan night spot.

The photo, reported the Citizen-Times, dated from 2000.

Beson claimed to know of a number of "ex-gays" in leadership roles for that movement who have said that their inclinations are still directed sexually toward others of the same gender.

Said Beson, "You cannot change who you are."

Added the former "ex-gay," "They use double-talk, made-up statistics and outdated, outmoded studies that they repackage and call new."

Said Beson, "They don’t use peer-reviewed studies, and they use a lot of anonymous sources in their publicity."

Beson continued, "They’re happy to show you the wedding pictures, but they don’t show you the divorce papers."

Earlier this week, EDGE reported on just such uses of flawed "research" purporting to show that gay men live shorter life-spans, a claim that has been around for decades and that is often regurgitated in a variety of "new" and different reports and studies despite having been discredited and reviled by most scientists--including scientists who have reacted angrily to having their own research appropriated and distorted to promote such stories.

Last year, in a special four-part expose, EDGE publisher David Foucher investigated claims that gays could "convert" and live happier, more fulfilled lives as straights.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network’s Assistant Arts Editor, writing about film, theater, food and drink, and travel, as well as contributing a column. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association’s Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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