Covering the ‘ex-gay’ movement

An influential organization changed its stance on reparative therapy. What will this mean for media coverage?

In her new column, Minority Reports, Jennifer Vanasco analyzes how the mainstream media covers social minorities.

Recently Alan Chambers, president of Exodus International, an umbrella group ministering to Christians who want to suppress their gay feelings, made a startling announcement: There is no cure for homosexuality. Reparative therapy doesn’t work.

This may not seem earth shattering. After all, most people came to this conclusion long ago - the American Psychological Association stopped classifying homosexuality as a disorder in 1973, though it wasn’t until 2007 that a task force declared that sexual orientation change efforts likely didn’t work. As The Atlantic points out, the APA now “warns that homosexuality is not a disorder, and that trying to ‘cure’ it can lead to ‘intimacy avoidance, sexual dysfunction, depression, and suicidality.’”

In short, reparative therapy harms people, particularly vulnerable adolescents, whose parents might force them into it. A San Francisco State University study [PDF] found that young people who were rejected by their parents because of their gay or transgender identity were eight times more likely to have attempted suicide.

Nevertheless, it is surprising that the leader of Exodus International would see things this way, because the group has spent most of its 37 years being the driving force behind popularizing reparative therapy.

Only four mainstream outlets covered Chamber’s announcement. The Atlantic did a Q&A with Chambers, emphasizing his personal story. The other three (NPR, The New York Times, and the Associated Press) focused on how his new philosophy has led to infighting in ex-gay evangelical Christian circles.

While the infighting is interesting in a sideshow kind of way, it seems incidental—why do we care if groups seen as being on the fringe are wrestling over a discredited theory?

To their credit, the Times added a bit of context, reporting that “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.” And the AP story included responses from gay activists.

But that doesn’t go far enough.

Though writing about the battle between members of a group perceived to be on the fringe of society, or the somewhat sad story of Alan Chambers himself, might seem an alluring way of drawing readers into the story, it’s important to emphasize two things about the ex-gay movement: 1. It hurts actual people, mostly LGBT youth, by making them feel helpless and worthless (see that San Francisco State University study above); and 2. Its theories have had a powerful negative effect on the gay civil rights movement.

For a long time, Exodus didn’t just limit itself to holding conferences or to counseling members on denying same-sex attraction; it was actively involved in politics. The group lobbied legislators and politicians (including an in-person meeting with President George W. Bush in 2006) for passage of the Federal Marriage Amendment, which would have constitutionally limited marriage to a union between a man and a woman, and fought against laws that would protect gays and lesbians from discrimination. In 2006, Chambers (who admits to same-sex attraction, though he is married to a woman) told Terry Gross, of NPR’s Fresh Air, that “One of the greatest myths is that the majority of gay people are interested in … ordinances that would protect them from being discriminated against.”

But most importantly, Exodus and groups like it provide cover for anti-gay legislation. Instead of saying that they don’t want gays and lesbians to be protected because they find them repugnant or scary, legislators can point to Exodus and say that they don’t want gays and lesbians to be protected because there’s no such thing as a gay identity. The “success” of Exodus and other ex-gay organizations “proves” that gay identity can be changed, the same way someone can change careers. In other words, Exodus “shows” that being gay is a choice.

As Wayne Besen wrote for the anti-reparative therapy organization he founded, Truth Wins Out, “Ex-gay programs have never really been about converting gay people into heterosexuals. It has really been a gigantic marketing and public relations campaign used by anti-gay organizations to say, ‘Gay people don’t need equal rights, they need therapy and prayer instead.’”

This reasoning has become the primary driver behind anti-gay legislation not only in the US, but also abroad. Jim Burroway, author of the gay news and analysis site Box Turtle Bulletin, who has closely covered the horrific “Kill-the-Gays” bill in Uganda, noted in an email to CJR that “Exodus Board member Don Schmierer’s participation at [a Uganda anti-gay conference] reinforced the same message Exodus delivered here: if gay people can change, there is no need to rescind laws against homosexuality.” Exodus later disavowed the Uganda bill after a public uproar.

So it is very important that Exodus now seems to be reversing its former policies. Just recently, the vice chairman of the Exodus board supported anti-sodomy laws on a trip to Jamaica, which is seeing rising violence against gays and lesbians. The Times reported that, thanks to Exodus’s new philosophy, he was asked to resign in June.

A statement at the Exodus website now says, “Exodus International has not supported and will not support any legislation that deprives others of life and dignity based on their sexual orientation or the expression of such within the confines of a consensual adult relationship … Finally, we stand with the LGBT community both in spirit, and when necessary, legally and physically, when violence rears its head in Uganda, Jamaica or anywhere else in the world.”

It will be interesting to see what this new policy means in practice. None of the stories that covered this reversal so far have looked into what an Exodus without animus toward gay people will look like. Will they still be able to raise funds? What does it mean to both “stand with the LGBT community” and also support members who wish to suppress their same-sex attraction and act straight? These are questions reporters should consider addressing.

None of this means that Chambers thinks it’s okay to be gay - he doesn’t (though he now says he believes gay people may also go to Heaven). Rather, he seems to be treating homosexuality in a way similar to alcoholism: People will always be gay, but they can act as if they are not, practicing celibacy and finding understanding spouses of the opposite sex. This means that, in terms of how Exodus deals with individuals, its new stance is a smaller step than it may seem at first. Individuals may still be hurt, may still despair if they are unable to channel their sexual attraction into something that’s Biblically acceptable.

Yet if Exodus does what it says it will and speaks out against all forms of violence against gay and transgender people, then Chambers’s change of heart may help modify the evangelical and fundamentalist conversation—and thus the national conversation—around gay and lesbian issues to something that is more moderate and reasonable. And that will be far more important than the sideshow of internecine fighting over whether or not reparative therapy works.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Jennifer Vanasco is a is a news editor at WNYC and the former editor in chief of MTV Network's LGBT news site She writes about social minorities, national politics, and culture. Her award-winning newspaper column on gay and women's issues ran for 15 years. Tags: , , , ,