by Erik Eckholm for The New York Times:
For more than three decades, Exodus International has been the leading force in the so-called ex-gay movement, which holds that homosexuals can be “cured” through Christian prayer and psychotherapy.
Exodus leaders claimed its network of ministries had helped tens of thousands rid themselves of unwanted homosexual urges. The notion that homosexuality is not inborn but a choice was seized on by conservative Christian groups who oppose legal protections for gay men and lesbians and same-sex marriage.
But the ex-gay movement has been convulsed as the leader of Exodus, in a series of public statements and a speech to the group’s annual meeting last week, renounced some of the movement’s core beliefs. Alan Chambers, 40, the president, declared that there was no cure for homosexuality and that “reparative therapy” offered false hopes to gays and could even be harmful. His statements have led to charges of heresy and a growing schism within the network.
“For the last 37 years, Exodus has been a bright light, arguably the brightest one for those with same-sex attraction seeking an authentically Christian hope,” said Andrew Comiskey, founder and director of Desert Stream Ministries, based in Kansas City, Mo., one of 11 ministries that defected. His group left Exodus in May, Mr. Comiskey said in an e-mail, “due to leader Alan Chambers’s appeasement of practicing homosexuals who claim to be Christian” as well as his questioning of the reality of “sexual orientation change.”
In a phone interview Thursday from Orlando, Fla., where Exodus has its headquarters, Mr. Chambers amplified on the views that have stirred so much controversy. He said that virtually every “ex-gay” he has ever met still harbors homosexual cravings, himself included. Mr. Chambers, who left the gay life to marry and have two children, said that gay Christians like himself faced a lifelong spiritual struggle to avoid sin and should not be afraid to admit it.
He said Exodus could no longer condone reparative therapy, which blames homosexuality on emotional scars in childhood and claims to reshape the psyche. And in a theological departure that has caused the sharpest reaction from conservative pastors, Mr. Chambers said he believed that those who persist in homosexual behavior could still be saved by Christ and go to heaven.
Only a few years ago, Mr. Chambers was featured in advertisements along with his wife, Leslie, saying, “Change is possible.” But now, he said in the interview, “Exodus needs to move beyond that slogan.”
“I believe that any sexual expression outside of heterosexual, monogamous marriage is sinful according to the Bible,” Mr. Chambers emphasized. “But we’ve been asking people with same-sex attractions to overcome something in a way that we don’t ask of anyone else,” he said, noting that Christians with other sins, whether heterosexual lust, pornography, pride or gluttony, do not receive the same blanket condemnations.
Mr. Chambers’s comments come at a time of widening acceptance of homosexuality and denunciation of reparative therapy by professional societies that say it is based on faulty science and potentially harmful.
A bill to outlaw “conversion therapy” for minors has passed the California Senate and is now before the State Assembly. Earlier this year, a prominent psychiatrist, Dr. Robert L. Spitzer, apologized for publishing what he now calls an invalid study, which said many patients had largely or totally switched their sexual orientation.
Defenders of the therapy say that it can bring deep changes in sexual orientation and that the attacks are politically motivated.
David H. Pickup, a therapist in Glendale, Calif., who specializes in the treatment, said restricting it would harm people who are unhappy with their homosexuality by “making them feel that no change is possible at all.”
Mr. Pickup, an officer of the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, composed of like-minded therapists, said reparative therapy had achieved profound changes for thousands of people, including himself. The therapy, he said, had helped him confront emotional wounds and “my homosexual feelings began to dissipate and attractions for women grew.”
Some in the ex-gay world are more scathing about Mr. Chambers.
“I think Mr. Chambers is tired of his own personal struggles, so he’s making excuses for them by making sweeping generalizations about others,” said Gregg Quinlan, a conservative lobbyist in New Jersey and president of a support group called Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays & Gays.
Exodus International, with a budget of $1.5 million provided by donors and member churches, is on a stable footing, Mr. Chambers said. He said the shifts in theology had the support of the Exodus board and had been welcomed by many of the 150 churches that are members in North America, which increasingly have homosexuals in their congregations. More opposition has come from affiliated ministries specifically devoted to sex-related therapies, with 11 quitting Exodus so far while about 70 remain.
In another sign of change, the vice chairman of the Exodus board, Dennis Jernigan, was forced to resign in June after he supported anti-sodomy laws in Jamaica. The board pledged to fight efforts anywhere to criminalize sexual acts between consenting adults.
Robert Gagnon, an associate professor at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and author of books on homosexuality and the Bible, last week issued a public call for Mr. Chambers to resign. “My greatest concern has to do with Alan’s repeated assurances to homosexually active ‘gay Christians’ that they will be with him in heaven,” he said in an e-mail.
Gay rights advocates said they were encouraged by Mr. Chambers’s recent turn but remained wary of Exodus, which they feel has caused enormous harm.
“Exodus International played the key role in planting the message that people can go from gay to straight through religion and therapy,” said Wayne Besen, director of Truth Wins Out, a group that refutes what it considers misinformation about gays and lesbians. “And the notion that one can change is the centerpiece of the religious right’s argument for denying us rights.”
Many of the local ministries in Exodus continue to attack gays and lesbians, said David Roberts, editor of the Web site Ex-Gay Watch, and they often have close ties with reparative therapists. He speculated that Mr. Chambers was trying to steer the group in a moderate direction because “they were becoming pariahs” in a society that is more accepting of gay people.
Mr. Chambers said he was simply trying to restore Exodus to its original purpose when it was founded in 1976: providing spiritual support for Christians who are struggling with homosexual attraction.
He said that he was happy in his marriage, with a “love and devotion much deeper than anything I experienced in gay life,” but that he knew this was not feasible for everyone. Many Christians with homosexual urges may have to strive for lives of celibacy.
But those who fail should not be severely judged, he said, adding, “We all struggle or fall in some way.”