Last month, Alan Chambers, president of Exodus International, the largest ex-gay organization in the world, had a coming out of sorts. That is, he posted a letter at the organization’s website distancing the group from so-called “ex-gay” therapy — and claiming that the idea of conversion therapy as such has never worked. Or, as Erik Eckholm put it in last week’s New York Times, in the course of a phone interview, “He said that virtually every ‘ex-gay’ he has ever met still harbors homosexual cravings, himself included.”
On the surface, it sounded like a striking shift. As recently as 2006, Chambers after all told Rachael Maddow that, “The lives of thousands of former homosexuals, like me, verify that homosexuality is not an immutable trait, [and] therefore marriage is not a civil right to be casually granted to any group who demands it.” It was a pretty quintessential illustration of the way in which the claim that “homosexuality is a choice” has often figured prominently in efforts to deny LGBT people basic civil rights. And surely it must mean something really big that Chambers is dispensing with the old rhetoric.
In light of a cultural discussion which tends to frame so-called “immutability” as a liberal talking point when it comes to LGBT folks, the Christian Right, as well as mainstream and progressive media, acted predictably — that is, with simplistic coverage that completely lacked nuance and misconstrued what has actually happened.
Large and influential groups of constituents within the Christian Right still claim that homosexuality is nothing more than a “chosen behavior.” On that basis, they have demonized LGBT people and fought civil rights gains at all levels of government. That a prominent anti-gay leader like Alan Chambers has come out and stated that “same sex attraction,” in his words, is more or less immutable after all was interpreted as a striking blow, something on the level of John Roberts supporting “Obamacare.”
Pittsburgh Theological Seminary professor Robert Gagnon wrote a 35 page diatribe not so subtly titled, “Time for a Change of Leadership at Exodus? Alan Chambers Assures ‘Gay Christians’ that Unrepentant Homosexual Practice Is no Barrier to Salvation …Among Other Gospel Distortions and Bad Moves.” His main argument? Chambers seems to soft-pedal conservative Christian teachings on punishment and hell. And Greg Quinlan of the anti-gay group Parents and Friends of Gays and 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.”
Leftwing and, to some extent, mainstream media outlets, meanwhile, greeted the news with varying levels of euphoric congratulations. At NPR, Barbara Bradley Hagerty suggested that this had ushered in a new era for relations between LGBT people and the conservative evangelical movement. She claimed that, “Increasingly, science and the evangelical community, particularly young people, are taking a more open view of homosexuality, which bodes ill for ex-gay ministries and conversion therapy.”
At the LGBT advocacy site, Truth Wins Out, Wayne Besen breathlessly wrote:
The truth is, Alan Chambers has grown up and finally become a man… Chambers does deserve credit for going out on a limb and taking hits from his bombastic base. His newfound honesty may cost him his livelihood and has made him powerful enemies. It would have been easier for Chambers if he had kept playing politics and cashed the checks at the bank. Instead, he risked it all. In this instance, he demonstrated personal integrity by shouldering the responsibility and taking the criticism that comes with rocking the boat.
Wow, right? It sounds like a powerful and important shift, doesn’t it? What may happen now? Will Alan Chambers join the fight for LGBT equality and renounce his longtime anti-gay activism? Will he do something to make amends for vocally supporting California’s Proposition 8? Is he responsible for some kind of sea change about to happen right before our eyes? Might he influence the Christian Right to end is long persecution of LGBT people in the United States? Something big must be afoot.
Except for the fact that it isn’t. The Exodus International that exists today has not changed in any fundamental way over the past month. So, to the Christian Right and to my fellow equality advocates, I have to say to you both: Calm the fuck down. I mean, seriously, you need to calm down.
Exodus, International may not be calling itself an “ex-gay” movement anymore, but it is still very much an anti-gay organization. “Ex-gay” survivor and activist Peterson Toscano calls it a “kinder and gentler” form of “ex-gay” organization, but one that has not changed in any fundamental way.
This new model of “ex-gay lite” therapy and activism may in some ways be more sinister than the older, meaner versions. This is because it casts itself as more accepting and more liberal than it has been in the past. It’s a savvy public relations move inasmuch as it delighted the liberal media and distanced Exodus once and for all from hate group extremists like Fred Phelps, Scott Lively and Bryan Fischer.
It was genius, really. As rightwing media rants and leftwing media celebrates, it seems like no one has bothered to read the content of Chambers’ open letter. Buried several paragraphs down, the letter states:
We respect everyone’s right to pursue their own course as it relates to seeking resolution for struggles. No one is ever coerced, forced into therapy, nor do we seek to ‘pray away the gay’ as many have suggested. In fact we are no longer an organization that associates with or promotes therapeutic practices that focus on changing one’s attraction. I found the greatest amount of freedom when I stopped focusing on my sin and struggles and started focusing on the grace and peace found only in Christ and the man He created me to be. This life isn’t most about sin management but about living daily as the sons and daughters of God. In part, it is the peace and rest found in that identity alone that transforms us daily.
Exodus does not believe SSA [same sex attraction] is sinful. However, sexual expression resulting from SSA is. Making such clear distinctions has been a failure of the Church that is slowly being realized and changed. At Exodus International one of our primary missions is to communicate that we all have propensities that if indulged can lead us into sin, but those attractions or inclinations are not sinful.
Sin sin sin sin sin sin sin sin. LGBT “sexual expression” is still a sin. And maybe God can’t make us straight, but surely he can make us more whole than he supposes we are right now. Maybe we’ll be the lucky ones who — like him — can manage to get by in heterosexual marriages even if we’ll always “struggle with temptation.” This is, after all, the ideal for Exodus, just as it ever was. Straight marriage. The difference is simply that we stop using the phrase, “ex-gay.” We stop talking about so-called “conversion therapy.” We just trust God and, um, find an opposite sex best friend to marry. Happily hetero-married gays. Just like God intended.
We may not “choose” our sexual orientations after all. But we better learn how to follow the rules so we can most effectively repress them. As it turns out, that popular claim that we’re “born this way” has little political content to recommend it. It doesn’t particularly matter. Alan Chambers may still be gay — ah-hem, “have same sex attraction” — but that sure as hell doesn’t mean we’ll see him on a pride float next year.