On Wednesday afternoon, the president of Exodus International, one of the largest “ex-gay” organizations in the world, issued an apology to the LGBT community. “I cannot apologize for my beliefs about marriage,” Exodus President Alan Chamber wrote in a sincerely worded letter. “But I do not have any desire to fight you on your beliefs or the rights that you seek. My beliefs about these things will never again interfere with God’s command to love my neighbor as I love myself.” Hours later, Chambers announced that Exodus would be closing its doors permanently, after 37 years in operation. I felt two distinct reactions to this news: relief for LGBT people who have felt attacked and abused by the social and political messages perpetuated by Exodus, and hope for what this change means for both gay and “ex-gay” people alike.
I have some first-hand experience with Exodus – not as a participant, but as an observer. In November 2007, I attended the organization’s North Atlantic Regional Conference in upstate New York. At the time, I was producing a short documentary film, “Just As I Am,” which explored the “ex-gay” movement through two opposing perspectives: an active Exodus ministry leader, and an ex-”ex-gay” minister who belonged to Exodus in the 1980s. BK, the ministry leader, was going to the conference to lead the music during the worship services, so she brought me along.
I was excited, if a bit nervous, about the experience. Having grown up in a liberal Boston suburb, I wasn’t used to being around people who disagreed with my views on LGBT equality. The one choice I made beforehand was to not disclose my sexual orientation to anyone while I was there. I didn’t want to lie, but I also didn’t want my personal life to distract from the reasons I was there. I’ve never been interested in becoming heterosexual, if such a thing is possible, so my sexuality was irrelevant.
I was allowed at the conference under one very reasonable condition: promising to protect the anonymity of the rest of the participants. However, even though most of the Exodus members I met declined to be interviewed, all of them were incredibly welcoming and friendly. They were happy to speak off the record, and they didn’t seem interested in finding out personal details about my political, social, or religious views. On an individual basis, the people I met were not set on proselytizing. They just wanted me to respect their right to have their own views. Despite this friendliness, I still kept parts of my own identity anonymous. If they weren’t asking, I wasn’t going to tell.
Everything started to change on Saturday night, when an Exodus representative asked to speak with me privately. A worship service was in process, so we stepped outside and stood on a porch. The representative’s demeanor quickly changed from one of kindness to one of suspicion. “I want to know what your agenda is,” he demanded.
I was shocked. “I’m making a film about BK and her journey in the ex-gay movement. I have permission to be here.”
The representative wasn’t satisfied. “People have made films about us before. They’ve lied to us and distorted our messages. I have no reason to believe that you’re any different.”
I doubted whether I could change his mind. Still, this seemed like the time to be direct. “Well, I’m Jewish,” I started, “so I don’t believe in Jesus. I’m bisexual, so I don’t believe that being gay is a sin. And I’m a student at a socially liberal college in Boston. None of that matters, though. I’m not here to tell my story; I’m here to tell BK’s.”
That didn’t help. Everything I said made the representative more convinced that I was hiding a secret agenda. Our conversation became more heated as it continued. I listened patiently as he told me about the plight of Christian children in public school systems across New England. “They’re being persecuted for their morals,” he said.
“That may be,” I said, fighting the lump growing in my throat, “but that doesn’t excuse the abuse inflicted upon LGBT youth on a daily basis. That doesn’t excuse what happened to Matthew Shepard.”
The representative had a talking point prepared for that one. “Matthew Shepard’s death wasn’t a hate crime,” he declared matter-of-factly. “He was killed because of a drug deal gone wrong. Didn’t you see the ’20/20′ interview?” The irony was astounding. Here was a man who was asking me to tell the “truth” about his organization and not bias it through my liberal, Jewish, queer perspective. Yet, he was one of the only people I’d met all weekend who actually embodied the stereotype of the ultra-conservative ex-gay person.
I knew now that my secret was out: an openly queer person had infiltrated the conference. Fearing what might happen if I continued to be silent, I approached BK and another woman who had coordinated my participation. I told them what had happened, and as I came out to them as bisexual, I started to cry. I apologized in case they felt deceived.
When I looked at BK, she was crying, too. “It’s okay,” she told me with authentic compassion. “That doesn’t change anything.”
BK’s sincerity was reflected in Alan Chambers’ open letter this week. Both sentiments say: We don’t agree on everything, but that’s okay. I still accept your right to be you. That strikes me as one of the most truly Christian attitudes anyone can have.
Whether or not sexuality can be changed is not of interest to me, because I don’t believe that anyone’s sexual orientation needs to be changed. Sexuality is fluid and evolves over time for some people, but no sexual orientation should produce so much shame and anguish as to make someone want to intentionally change. Still, if I want my identity respected, I need to respect the identities of others. I’m not talking about respecting the identities of people who politically advocate for anti-LGBT policies or create physically and emotionally dangerous spaces for LGBT people. That’s not mutual respect. But BK has always respected my views, my choices, and my identity. I need to offer her that same respect.
You won’t see the representative in my documentary. And in any case, based on my experiences with BK and others who I met, I believe that people like him are the exception. With Exodus no longer existing as a politically influential entity, my hope is that people like him become even more of an exception. Instead of deepening existing divisions with anger and aggression, my hope is that all of us can follow Chambers and BK’s lead and choose to respect each other’s lives, even when we would make different choices. I can’t imagine G-d objecting to that.
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