As Exodus International, the network of “ex-gay” ministries which promotes “freedom from homosexuality through the power of Jesus Christ,” finishes its annual conference in California today, former ex-gay survivors line-up to tell their own stories.
The Ex-gay Survivor Conference, which takes place at the University of California this weekend, has sent an open letter inviting Exodus leaders to attend.
Written by Peterson Toscano and Christine Bakke, two former Exodus members, it condemns the work of the ministries as emotionally and spiritually damaging.
“Many of us have spent months and years under your care in your ministries.
“Sadly our ex-gay experiences caused more harm than good, and for many of us we have needed years to recover.”
Amongst the ex-ex-gays there to share their experiences is Michael Busse, one of Exodus’ founding members, and now one off their most outspoken critics.
Today a licensed marriage and family therapist and ordained Presbyterian elder, Busse converted to Christianity in the early 70’s.
Despite only being sexually attracted to men, he married a woman as part his beliefs.
While working on the suicide prevention hotline at the Melody Land Christian Centre in Anaheim, Busse first encountered the concept of “ex-gay”.
Admitting to the hotline’s Director his gay desires, Busse was told that there was “no such thing as a Christian homosexual. If you’re a Christian, you would be…an ex-gay.”
“With time, with prayer, with sticking with the Faith, God will change your orientation.”
Volunteer counsellors on the help-line regularly told gay callers, “you have the demon of homosexuality inside you and we can cast it out over the telephone.”
Shocked by their approach, Busse created EXIT, the Ex-Gay Intervention Team, travelling around the country and talking to churches.
Here he encountered other similar teams, and in 1977 arranged the first annual conference for such organisations under the name Exodus.
While Busse had a daughter with his wife however, and continued to travel the country speaking as part of Exodus, he fell in love with another ex-gay, Gary Cooper.
“I thought, wait a minute, this ex-gay thing isn’t working very well,” he recalls.
Despite attempts to deny their feelings, knowing that they would be rejected by their Church, friends and families, the pair felt forced to leave Exodus in 1979.
“My sister called me and said she was going to pray to God to make me miserable for the rest of my life,” says Busse.
Holding a commitment ceremony in which they exchanged rings, the couple lived together happily unconcerned with the movement until 1991.
Hearing Lou Sheldon, head of right-wing anti-gay organisation, Traditional Family Values, proclaim that Exodus could cure homosexuality, Michael and Gary felt compelled to speak out.
Originally organising just a small press conference, their statement was reported nationally, leading to bookings on talk shows across the country and the telling of their story as ex-ex-gays in a film, One Nation Under God.
Sadly Gary died of AIDS shortly after this.
While Busse’s story may be one of the first in Exodus’ history, it hasn’t been the last.
Darlene Bogle, recent author of A Christian Lesbian Journey, was another prominent member of the movement who directed an ex-gay ministry for over ten years.
She says that for a time her sexual feelings towards women disappeared because, “I was so busy trying to help other people I just shut down my emotions inside myself.”
Then in 1990 she saw a woman sat in the front row of a weekend workshop she was running.
“As soon as our eyes met, I knew I was gay.”
“She was everything that God would have given me. I knew everything I was teaching at Exodus was a lie and that I needed to reassess my own sexual orientation.”
“Just because I wasn’t acting on my attraction, which I didn’t seem to have at that point, didn’t mean that I was ex-gay.”
Her book charts what happened after leaving the organisation up until her partner died of breast cancer in 2005, and outlines her belief that being religious and gay are not mutually exclusive.
“Every scripture substantiated that I was in fact born homosexual and was something God wanted me to embrace.”
“Being gay is not something you’re cursed with or need to change. It’s something you can celebrate along with your spirituality.”
It’s a view shared by Londoner, Jeremy Marks, who in 1988 was running an ex-gay ministry.
“Whatever group we mix with, we trend inevitably to adopt the views of that group,” says Marks who was brought up an evangelical Christian.
Believing his attraction to men to be wrong, he became an ex-gay hoping for a cure and also took the step of getting married, “as a step of change towards that change.”
“But if anything, getting married confirmed how much my orientation had not changed.”
In 2000 he changed his ministry to a gay-affirming one.
“It took me a long time to realise that mainline, well-established Churches can be wrong, as they were over slavery and with women.”
“The current issue in today’s world is homosexuality. But it’s changing at roots level, and in 20 or 30 years time I believe it will be very different.”
This years New York Pride celebrations were led by members of religious groups including Christians, Jews and Buddhist.
“We stand for a progressive religious voice,” said Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, one of the parade’s grand marshals and head of Beth Simchat Torah, the world’s largest predominantly gay synagogue.
“Those who use religion to advocate an anti-gay agenda I believe are blaspheming God’s name.”
“Exodus likes you to think that you’re either Christian or you’re gay,” says Busse, “that you can’t be both, which is a lie.”
“There are hundreds of thousands of people of all faiths who embrace both their spirituality and their sexuality. If anything, my Christian faith has been deepened by all this experience.”
“At my Church everyone knows I’m gay. It’s not an issue. It’s not a gay church, it’s just a church. The issue is that God loves you, and that we join together to affirm that.”
“So when I hear that you can’t be gay and Christian, I think someone has to say it’s not true. I’m grateful that a lot of people are saying it’s not true.”
Exodus International were unavailable for comment.