In 1976, Michael Bussee helped found one of the most divisive organizations to ever confront the LGBT community. Exodus, International started as an offshoot of the Jesus Movement and was based on the idea that a Christian could only be “ex-gay,” since fundamentalist Christianity and homosexuality were incompatible. Three years later, Bussee quit the organization when he began to see the devastating impact it was having on its participants.
“I got a call one night from a man in our group who had taken a razorblade to his genitals and then poured bleach on them. It was all because he couldn’t stop ‘falling’ [having sexual encounters]. I knew this idea [of ex-gay] wasn’t working,” he said.
Bussee was certain Exodus would quickly die out on its own with its dismal results, poor leadership, and small town thinking. In fact, two years after his departure a friend told him the ministry had indeed closed. With no Internet and no way of checking to see if this were true, Bussee sighed in relief telling his friend, “Thank God, they won’t be able to hurt anyone else.”
He was shocked when, in 1990, Bussee and his partner of 10 years, Gary Cooper, a former Exodus participant, sat in their apartment watching the news. “On came Lou Sheldon of the Traditional Values Family Coalition,” Bussee explained. “He was trying to get rid of all the gay teachers in California. One of the interviewers asked Lou Sheldon, ‘When you say homosexuals can change, can you give us an example of a program that’s successful?’ ‘Oh yes, there’s this wonderful organization called Exodus International and they have a tremendous success rate.’” Bussee recalled.
Cooper, recently diagnosed with AIDS and knowing his time was short, looked at Bussee and asked, “Can we stay silent?” They knew they couldn’t.
Bussee and Cooper contacted an attorney friend and put together a news conference at his office. Only one reporter from the local paper covered the story. They assumed this would be their only statement and their lives would resume. But when the story got picked up by the Associated Press, Bussee said, “The phone started ringing off the hook and interview requests started coming in because we were speaking out against Exodus.”
Just two years earlier, in 1988, a young John Smid moved from his home in Omaha, Nebraska to join ex-gay ministry Love in Action, based in San Rafael, California. It was one of the founding ministries of Exodus International, and hosted a residential program for men and women trying to live a straight life. Smid came on board as the residential ministry director.
Additionally, in that same year, a 24-year-old former drag queen from Columbus, Ohio attended the Love in Action program as a participant. He’d captured the hearts and attention of the gay community as Candi on the drag queen circuit. Already used to life under the spotlight, John Paulk had no idea how his stage presence was a mere training ground for a career that would change history.
When Paulk and his “ex-lesbian” girlfriend, Anne, announced their engagement, phones at the Love in Action office began ringing off the hook. John and Anne became the poster children for the entire ex-gay movement. Their simple tale of love stood as a pillar of evidence among conservative Christians and the fundamentalist political movement already snaking its way through the highest offices in the United States
In 1990, I, too, attended Love in Action’s one-year residential program. Six months later, in June of 1991, I joined the ministry staff as the outreach director. I had no knowledge of Michael Bussee, or his efforts to intervene in the work John Smid, John Paulk and I had signed up to do. With the release of The Gay Agenda video in 1992, John Smid and John Paulk, along with a handful of other ex-gay ministry leaders, took center stage with interviews on, among other shows, Oprah Winfrey, Good Morning America, and World News Tonight with Peter Jennings.
The Christian right created and then latched on to the belief that “thousands” of men and women had changed from gay to straight and were all part of the Exodus message: “There is freedom from homosexuality through Jesus Christ.”
Wearing our fundamentalist faith like uniforms, we spread the message in churches, schools, college campuses, and news media, believing millions of men, women and children depended on us to keep them from the flames of hell. And we believed that message with all of our hearts. We believed that we, ourselves, had changed.
In fact, we had each married women. In the ex-gay world, marriage was a badge of healing and proof that the ex-gay message worked.
More joined our ranks through the years, including Randy Thomas who eventually became the last Executive Vice President of Exodus International and worked as a special guest of the religious right to block legislative protections of LGBT people. Catherine Chapman, a pastor’s daughter, worked as the women’s ministry director of Portland Fellowship in Portland, Oregon after nearly losing her own family because she had fallen in love with another woman.
Brad Allen came on staff at Exodus, International in 2007 to work as the church network coordinator. His purpose was to create and maintain connections with new churches and their leaders, proliferating the message of Exodus throughout the country.
Yvette Cantu Schneider, first hired as a policy analyst for Family Research Council, later served as the women’s ministry director for Exodus International. Yvette famously lobbied, along with other “ex-gay” leaders, to get Dr. Robert Spitzer to produce the controversial paper, “Can some gay men and lesbians change their sexual orientation?” Dr. Spitzer is credited with removing homosexuality as a mental disorder from the diagnostics and statistics manual (DSM III), in 1973. In 2012, recanted that paper, which has been a blight on an otherwise stellar psychiatric career.
There were many other well-known and outspoken leaders along the way, including Rev. Bill Prickett, Rev. Darlene Bogle, and Jeremy Marks, founder of the UK ministry, Courage. Each of us were replaced by younger, enthusiastic and eager versions of ourselves, prepared and ready to take the spotlight in the name Christian fundamentalism, and declare themselves delivered. Each eventually faded into the shadows to be replaced, again, by more believers feeling they had discovered the true way of freedom.
One by one, however, once out of the spotlight and away from the “ex-gay machine,” many of us sat in silence, unable to escape the very real struggle that led us to the ministries in the first place. Gradually moving away from the beliefs and ideologies that kept us self-deceived, each former leader went through his or her own personal metamorphosis. Some experienced divorce; others faced life-threatening diagnoses. In the process, most lost families and churches; all lost their social standings and esteemed positions among the still famous religious right. Some of us hid in shame for many years, failures of our own theology.
Our religion turned on us. There was no escaping the self-condemnation, self-hatred, and self-loathing. In a different light, our embarrassment consumed us. We had judged. We had spoken emphatically. In the process, we condemned an entire generation with the fear mongering of our fundamentalist theology. And the weirdest part, is that we didn’t even know we were doing it.
One by one, we felt the need to set the record straight. We slowly emerged from out of the shadows to tell our stories. Though cathartic, we have been painfully aware that the damage done can never be erased.
In 2015, we joined forces to become the Former Ex-gay Leaders Alliance (FELA) with the mission to end conversion therapy, provide education to anyone willing to listen and create a safe place for people harmed by the sexual orientation change efforts (SOCE). Working with The National Center for Lesbian Rights, FELA released a statement in support of the Born Perfect campaign. We aligned with the Southern Poverty Law Center, creating a list of stories as former leaders and founders of conversion therapy vowing to stand against the powerful political machine of Christian fundamentalism.
There are many who would like to see us go away. But here we are. This time our message isn’t based in fear, hatred, misunderstanding or arrogance. We are not pretending or believing to be people we are not. Our confidence isn’t based on a self-righteous interpretation of a book we presume to understand better than everyone else. Our message is simple and clear.
Freedom comes through living honestly, authentically, and unashamedly. We are never meant to be any more or any less than who we are. Love is bigger than sexuality. Sexuality is complex. And if God does indeed exist, God is too big to be contained between the pages of a book; God’s grace knows no bounds. All are worthy of love, acceptance, belonging and respect, just because we are here.
Let Me Explain – Behind the curtains of ex-gay ministry
How to Listen to an Ex-Gay Testimony, by Bill Prickett
Photo – Catherine Chapman