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.