The camp that ‘cures’ homosexuality
“How many of you are in need of some hope here tonight?” A murmur passes through the dark auditorium, pleasing the man with the microphone. Heads nod. “How many of you are at the end of your rope?” he continues. “How many are ready for an encounter with the Lord?” The man on stage, dressed in chinos and a crisp white shirt, is Alan Chambers. The clean-cut, married father of two is the leader of Exodus International, an organisation that believes it can help people to “find freedom from homosexuality through the love of Jesus Christ”.
Exodus is one of the ministries of the so-called “ex-gay” movement, a controversial fundamentalist Christian campaign that encourages gay people to renounce their sexuality. This, its annual conference, promises “an amazing week of breakthroughs, transformations and healings”. A Christian rock band begins to play and the 800 men and women who moments earlier seemed to have only awkwardness in common begin singing and clapping in unison. Eyes closed, they raise their hands above their heads, uplifted by the hope of being reborn.
“The opposite of homosexuality is not heterosexuality,” says Chambers, sagely. “It’s holiness.” Speech over, he asks people to come forward to be prayed for. A boy of no more than 16 steps up, hanging his head. When he returns from the stage to the sound of applause, his stony-faced father nods in approval. His mother weeps.
Welcome to ex-gay boot camp.
The belief that homosexuality can be overcome has been fuelling controversy in the US for decades. Although research supporting SSA therapy has been discredited, “ex-gay” ministries are expanding worldwide, even in the UK, where a discreet network practises SSA therapy under the umbrella of “Christian counselling”.
Consider the crisis within the Anglican community over homosexuality, and Exodus begins to offer a strangely seductive solution to reconciling faith and sex. Yet it has been claimed by critics, many of whom have undergone treatment themselves, that some same-sex attraction therapy can exacerbate anxiety and depression, in extreme cases leading to suicidal feelings.
Some of my classmates are veteran Exodus followers attending the annual conference for a “willpower top-up”, like recovering alcoholics going to AA meetings; others are boot camp virgins. Everyone has paid $600 (?340) for the privilege. Chatting before his “Breaking the Myth of Masculinity” class, Riccardo, a doctor from Illinois, explains that he has come here for “encouragement and moral support” after tiring of anonymous encounters with other men.
Each evening, a roll-call of “former homosexuals” hold up their husbands and wives like kitemarks of their newfound heterosexuality. We are told repeatedly that marriage is evidence of healing. Stereotypes are the ex-gay currency, and the heterosexual ideal is practically ringed by a white picket fence. Christine Sneeringer, the compere, jokes that her recovery is going so well that she has given up car mechanics (“it trashes my nails”). Exodus vice-president Randy Thomas, on the other hand, delights the crowd with his campness: “Just because I stopped being gay 16 years ago doesn’t mean I can’t be fabulous,” he says. Clearly, gaydar has yet to be invented on planet Exodus.
It could be comical were it not for the teenager shaking in the corner, and the man sobbing as he prayed. Excusing herself from a session, Michelle goes to her room and cries. “I don’t think I want to willpower right through it,” she confides before going to sleep. “Where’s the change in that?” Later I find her surfing the website of the protesters who have been picketing the campus. They are led by Wayne Besen, an ex-gay-camp-attendee-turned-campaigner (an ex-ex-gay, so to speak).
In a furtive conversation by the car park, one protester, Sara, tells me: “We just want them to know that you can be gay and happy – and that there is a supportive community out there.”
“I’ve been through all the arguments, like ‘If it’s love, how can it be wrong?’” says Michelle the next day. “And if I’m being honest, I’d love to be openly gay and have a completely satisfying relationship with God. But I don’t know how that can be done. All I know is that it makes more sense to listen to the God who created the Universe than to my puny human emotions.”
If the Exodus experience seems far-fetched – the sort of thing that could happen only in America – then think again. A number of organisations are believed to offer same-sex attraction therapy, albeit more discreetly, in the UK. These including God’s Healing of Broken Emotions, in Inverness; Living Waters, in Central London, and Exodus’s official UK partner, Re-alignment (slogan: “reinventing people”), another counselling service based in London. If the directors of these organisations are prepared to comment, then it is only to dismiss the term “ex-gay”. But they neither confirm nor deny use of same-sex attraction therapy.
There appear to have been no complaints about the activities of any of these organisations and websites report many success stories, but there are those who claim that their involvement with other therapists has been a far-from-positive experience. Peterson Toscano spent 17 years and ?20,000 in the US and UK trying to suppress his identity as a gay man. “It is a far more subtle seduction over here,” he says. Toscano claims that therapists in Britain – who he says tried to exorcise his gay demons in Kidderminster, in the West Midlands – nearly drove him to suicide. “There is no question about that. I became severely depressed and contemplated suicide on several occasions,” he says.
Toscano, who now runs the Beyond Ex-Gay support group, believes that, far from being living proof of being a changed man, Alan Chambers is simply promoting celibacy by stealth.
“You walk out on this cloud of ex-gay glory,” says Toscano, “but you end up intimate with no one, becoming more and more isolated until it’s just you alone on this little ex-gay island … so many people are hurting and living this half-life.”
On my return from America, I asked Alan Chambers about his organisation. Referring to himself as “a walking example of God’s redemption”, he said: “Exodus exists so that individuals can live in congruence with their own faith-based beliefs. There are many who do not share our beliefs, nor are they in conflict living as homosexuals. We respect this human right to self-determination. In the spirit of tolerance and diversity, we ask only for the same as well.”
He said he could not comment on allegations that SSA therapy could cause psychological damage without knowing specific details about an individual’s personal experience. But he said: “Plenty of people start with a process or a programme and then decide it isn’t for them. I do understand this to be a very impassioned and difficult subject. I am truly heartbroken for individuals who continue to experience confusion and sadness in their lives.”
He pointed out that a 2007 US study indicated that sexual orientation change was possible for some individuals going through religiously mediated programmes such as Exodus, and did not cause psychological harm. He said that “these conclusions directly contradict the claims of critics … that change in sexual orientation is impossible and attempting to pursue this alternative is likely to cause depression, anxiety or self-destructive behaviour”.
This month, Save Me, a small-budget fictional film about an ex-gay ministry, opens at cinemas in America. “I tried not to portray its leaders as two-dimensional monsters,” explains the director, Robert Cary. “Many genuinely believe that they are helping people to live good lives. But they believe that you’re born with your religion and choose your sexuality, when that is the opposite of the truth.”
Ruth Gledhill is religion correspondent for The Times. See also her blog at The Times Online, Articles of Faith.