The Ex-Gay Movement at the White House
Michelle Goldberg printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Mon Jun 05, 2006 at 01:04:32 PM EST
When George W. Bush announces his push for a constitutional ban on gay marriage today, a group of right-wing leaders will be there to beam wholesomely in approval. Among them will be Alan Chambers and Randy Thomas of Exodus International, the umbrella group of the ex-gay movement. A spokeswoman for Exodus said that as far as she knew, it was the first White House invitation for either of them.

In my book, "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism,"I write about the way the Christian nationalist movement has constructed a parallel reality with, among other things, its own psychological theories and institutions.  Exodus, which describes itself as a ministry that offers "freedom from homosexuality through the power of Jesus Christ," is a crucial part of that parallel reality. Its affiliates practice so-called reparative therapy, a form of counseling designed to turn gay people straight. Some operate live-in rehab clinics where people spend a year or more trying to change their sexual orientation.

When pressed, the movement's more honest leaders will sometimes concede that the best their charges can hope for is celibacy rather than heterosexuality. Several years ago, I interviewed Frank Worthen, a former gay activist who was one of the founders of the ex-gay movement. Worthen runs New Hope, a live-in reparative therapy rehab center in San Rafael, California, where men stay for a year and work to escape their sexual attractions. He admitted that 50% of the people who come to him go back to being gay, and many of those who don't simply become celibate. The workbook that he wrote for participants in the live-in program says, "Our primary goal is not to make heterosexuals out of homosexual people. God alone determines whether a former homosexual person is to marry and rear a family, or if he (or she) is to remain celibate, serving the Lord with his whole heart."

As one can easily imagine, the ministrations of the ex-gay movement can be immensely psychologically damaging. According to the American Psychiatric Association, "psychiatric literature strongly demonstrates that treatment attempts to change sexual orientation are ineffective. However, the potential risks are great, including depression, anxiety and self-destructive behavior."

By inviting Chambers, Exodus's president, and Thomas, its director of membership, to the White House, Bush is at least implicitly endorsing the ex-gay movement. This is of a piece with the administration's continuing embrace of pseudo-science and its frequent attempts to elevate the institutions of the religious right to places of public authority. In a sense, Bush needs the ex-gay movement, because it provides a veneer of moral justification for his new anti-gay marriage push -- the refusal to offer recognition to gay relationships can only be justified if homosexuality is a choice or a condition that can be cured. If, as virtually all mainstream experts believe, Exodus is wrong, then Bush's attempt to rally support against gay families is simply gratuitously cruel.  But mainstream experts carry little weight with this administration. Once again, Bush is using his position to symbolically subvert science in favor of a faith-based parallel reality. Gay people will suffer the most from what he is doing, but truth itself is also a casualty.

(cross-posted at

For those who haven't already seen it, Newsweek speaks to the cynicism of this move. I suspect this is less about science - or anti-science than it is about politics. The Religious Right (with some justification) feels that Bush hasn't been attentive enough to their issues. With the rest of his base hemorrhaging, Bush can't afford to ignore their demands. Jawboning for the amendment is a relatively cost-effective way of trying to stem further erosion of his base.

The very visible inclusion of the "ex-gay" people  may have been part of the bargain - in fact Dobson may have demanded it in his meeting with congressional leaders last week. The reparative therapy movement didn't arise by accident. It is the "kinder, gentler" face of the homophobic right. Afraid that overt gay bashing might alienate all but true believers, the reparative therapy movement allows the right to claim they are "treating" an illness (NARTH) or "ministering" to those who are suffering (Exodus). There is considerable cross-fertilization (sorry) between the groups and they've taken serious hits. The approach has been criticized by virtually all relevant medical and mental health professional groups because of its lack of empirical support as well as evidence that some people are harmed by their "treatment."

Right now, the ex-gay movement is struggling to gain credibility and visibility and the WH appearance fits into that agenda. It should be noted that NARTH has been asking American Psychological Association members to sign a petition asking for recognition and acceptance of reparative therapy by APA (about zip chance). They're also touting an ex-APA President and his book that's critical of mainstream therapy. It's not clear what Cummings' agenda was in getting involved with the group; he and his co-editor have been less than forthcoming in response to queries.

It's also important to remember that, although some of these groups may operate as non-profits, they make a lot of money through the sale of "educational" materials (books, pamphlets and DVD's) as well as road shows like Dobson's Love Won Out. Surprise, surprise! LWO is coming to DC on June 10 and Chambers is featured. How convenient. A little free advertising?  

by Psyche on Mon Jun 05, 2006 at 06:49:08 PM EST

The Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing holds that there are not only important strong civil liberties arguments for ending the exclusion of same-sex couples from the legal institution of marriage, but also religious foundations for securing the freedom to marry for same-sex couples.
The Institute encourages religious and civic leaders to speak and act for justice for all who seek to express their love in the commitment of marriage.
To read how you can help the Institute oppose the Federal Marriage amendment, and tell your Senators that people of faith oppose the FMA, read Rev. Haffner's blog on the subject at: pose-federal.html

Or, read the rest of Rev. Haffner's blog at and visit the Institute's homepage at

by Religious Institute on Tue Jun 06, 2006 at 01:27:49 AM EST

Thank you for presenting a larger picture. Of course, as a bi woman married to another woman, this offends and scares me, but I didn't think to connect it to a general trend in the Bush administration. You are quite right that it connects not only to their general anti-gay slant (Cheney's daughter notwithstanding), but to a Christian Nationalist contempt for science (shown in their attitudes towards evolution, creationism, alternative energy, global warming, and the cervical cancer vaccine.)

by GreenEyed Lilo on Mon Jun 05, 2006 at 10:57:54 AM EST
of the "Ex Gay" movement, that's all Mike Airhart at "Ex gay Watch" does and - I might add - he does it extremely well.

The link's down the lefthand side of the page in the blogroll.

by Bruce Wilson on Mon Jun 05, 2006 at 01:35:49 PM EST

Michelle, I like that concept - of such groups as "pseudoscience veneer".

They don't sell that sort of veneer at Home Depot. It's far too pricey.

by Bruce Wilson on Mon Jun 05, 2006 at 01:38:21 PM EST

You may have seen my comments there, under my real first name, Jayelle. He does it wonderfully well. Sometimes I'm just stunned by the sheer concentrated bigotry, though.

by GreenEyed Lilo on Mon Jun 05, 2006 at 04:13:43 PM EST

very important to detail these White House connections with elements of the Christian Right. There's mention on the Ex-gay Watch website of a new Assemblies of God ad. Are the Exodus folk mentioned above--Chalmers and Thomas--affiliated with a particular denomination?

by IseFire on Mon Jun 05, 2006 at 12:10:51 PM EST
Chambers worked out of the Calvary Assemblies of God church in Winter Park, a suburb of Orlando, Florida. He started their Exchange Ministries, which began by targeting young people. When he first became president of Exodus, his condition was that the home office move to Orlando, where he was based. (Exodus has moved with presidents before--it was located in Seattle for the same reason.) They used the church's office space. Y'all ought to see this church, too--it looks more like an office building. Which may be appropriate, says the former member and Orlandoan.

by GreenEyed Lilo on Mon Jun 05, 2006 at 12:56:58 PM EST
Was about to mention that myself, but thanks for beating me to the punch.

I should note as a general aside that the Assemblies of God as a whole is highly homophobic; the official church statements on homosexuality even explicitly promote "reparative therapy".

Also, antigay movements in general are frequently based out of Assemblies churches with full blessings of the pastor and often run by a deacon (this is precisely the case with the church I left and Frank Simon's various groups (Freedom's Heritage Forum and the AFA of Kentucky)).

For that matter, there are an amazing number of links between dominionism and the Assemblies in general, including the base theology used in pente dominionist churches--it's probably not an exaggeration to say the Assemblies literally invented dominionism along with most of the dirty tactics used.  (I myself am a walkaway from the Assemblies, but even I tend to be surprised at the depths of the denomination's involvement in dominionism as a whole and the length of its history of involvement.)

by dogemperor on Mon Jun 05, 2006 at 02:52:53 PM EST

Bush is a complete idiot on this subject, but he knows a political gold mine when he sees one.  With his popularity rating languishing at historically low levels, the anti-gay card is one of the remaining two he and the Republicans can play to avoid political disaster in Novemeber (the other is the terrorism card-I guarantee some big operation against terrorists will be concluded sometime during the month previous to the election).

It will be interesting to see if the American people bite this time as they did in the last election where this issue was largely credited with turning out huge numbers of of right wing voters.

My hope is that it will fail this time as people realize there are more important things to worry about than legalizing discrimination against a minority group.  As the war slogs on in Iraq and as the casualties mount, the American people will want an answer to the question: When can we leave? So far, Bush and Karl rove cannot provide an answer and hopefully the republican party will pay for being associated with history's most incompetent president.

by azteach on Mon Jun 05, 2006 at 02:49:58 PM EST

You'd think Mr. Bush would have some sense of shame about beating up on minority groups. I guess not, I'd wager it's just a spineless bet on immediate political advantage. I'm not a betting man, too. But that one looks safe to me

by nonlinear on Wed Jun 07, 2006 at 09:36:40 PM EST

In my book on the ex-gay movement Straight to Jesus, I talk about how Exodus has become more invested in policy issues since Alan Chambers became president.  Rather than simply promoting the idea that people can change their sexuality, Chambers appears in an anti-marriage ad stating that if gay marriage had been an option he never would have "come out of homosexuality."   Although Exodus and Focus on the Family now use the rhetoric of "hope for healing" instead of "special rights" the implication is the same.  The movement promotes the dangerous idea that gay identity does not exist and therefore does not warrant rights or protection.  

by Tanya Erzen on Wed Jun 07, 2006 at 12:04:04 AM EST
considering that Christianity (and all religious identies) are both changeable and protected.

Should I appear in an ad saying that I was once a Christian, but I have been delivered from that lifestyle, praise the Gods, and therefore Christians don't deserve civil rights? I wouldn't do such a thing, but the logic would be the same--and just as hurtful as these ads. I have no problem with the idea that people have changed. I have big problems with the idea that everyone must change.

by GreenEyed Lilo on Thu Jun 08, 2006 at 11:10:28 AM EST

  1.  Most of these Christianists appear to believe that they never even have met a gay or lesbian person, in person.  This is not possible for an American in the 21st century CE.  Are they dim?  Are they all lying???  Seriously, can anybody explain this?

  2.  Did Karl Rove somehow cause the issue of Gay Marriage to come to a head during the last presidential election?  Gay Marriage enrages the Christianists.  It got them all out to vote.  It may well have decided the election.

Why do we have to call it "marriage?"  "Union" would be good enough, and some of the voters would stay in church, rather than voting.

by Tom Neely on Mon Jun 19, 2006 at 08:16:11 PM EST

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