A convenient truth: Former president of conversion-therapy church Exodus International publishes a book, apologizes

By : Billy Manes
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There’s a sly production moment, a flash of informed camerawork, during a remarkable 2013 special on Oprah Winfrey’s OWN Network, “Our America with Lisa Ling: Special Report: God and Gays,” (still on YouTube). A look of disbelief caught in frame.

Former reparative-therapy icon Alan Chambers, in full-court apology mode with wife Leslie at his side (they married in 1998 and have two daughters), tries to make sense of more than a decade of heading up conversion-therapy church Exodus International, which was located in Central Florida, with a mea culpa. He was wrong, he says, as he stares into the faces of a gathered gaggle of former patients (for lack of a better word). He came to OWN to sit in front of that jury who, he says, haven’t had their fair shake in contributing to the conversation on his “side” of the argument, which, of course, is the side of the Christian right. It’s a weak apology, really, one that came only a couple of months after his notorious public statement, and the subsequent statement from the Exodus camp, that the ministry was over. It was all a big mistake, apparently. The same message that was sent to the victims of Exodus at their most vulnerable stages of development, he now admits.
But Chambers doesn’t seem to carry apologies very well, and when he speaks of the terms that were used in his programs, or in the vague passive aggression of a publicized apology, there are visible winces from said jury. A woman smirks and shakes her head. A young man starts to cry. Lisa Ling is holding her own tissue. Fences aren’t quite mended.

The candidness speaks a lot more to the victims of an organization that for three decades shamed lesbians and gays into the idea that their sexuality was wrong, or worse, an abomination of God.

You get the sense, even after nearly an hour, that no one on the show truly believes him. Should they?

On Sept. 29, Chambers, along with his wife, releases My Exodus: From Fear to Grace on Zondervan, a Christian imprint of the HarperCollins publishing family. The fact that he’s still riding the penance train, claiming to be poor, acknowledging his sexual orientation without living it honestly, well, none of it really helps him make a valid case. The book, which sometimes reads like a companion reader for a religious text and praises God on every dog-eared page, also finds Chambers seemingly praising himself a bit too much.

The anecdote he utilizes to explain his change of heart, as if a change of heart would save countless ruined lives, involves a boy named Matt who he imported from California to work for Exodus.

“I’ll never be like you,” Matt reportedly says, crestfallen and morosely playing with the zipper on his hoodie.

“I am so sorry I’ve made all of this seem easier than it is,” Chambers eventually replies. “As of today, I won’t do that again. Your goal shouldn’t be to be like me. Straight isn’t the answer.”

Well, Chambers knows a little more about answering these days, and he agreed to speak with Watermark about his past, Exodus, Leslie, human rights and numerous other things that are directly related to his previous work.

Watermark: I spent the weekend with My Exodus and I thought it was really well-written, to be honest. I feel like you have come to peace with a lot of things.
Alan Chambers: Thanks, I had help. Leslie is not bad herself. We collaborated on the whole thing. It was nice to do that.

Tell me a little bit about how that came about or what her reaction was when you decided that you were going to do this.
Well, when we closed Exodus, the morning after we heard from literally thousands of people. And in the midst of most of those being media folks who wanted an interview, there were about a dozen publishers who wanted us to write something for them, and then, over the course of the next months that number doubled. So we felt like this was a really good opportunity to share our thoughts and our story and we began writing pretty quickly and it took probably the better part of a year to just get something finished and it was sort of a journal entry meets manuscript sort of thing and a lot of opinion and when we turned in our manuscript after we signed with Zondervan and HarperCollins they came back to us and said, “You know, this is great. This is probably book number two, though. We feel like you have been on a stage for at least the last 12 years at Exodus sharing your opinion. People just want to hear your story. So why don’t you go back, start over from scratch and just do a story?” At points where I felt hesitant to write something, Leslie would say, “You just need to go ahead and write this.” Or she would edit something and go further than I went. It is nice to have a partner in life like her who’s as willing to risk sharing everything as I am. So that’s just kind of how we are.

I actually just watched the whole OWN network documentary which was sort of mea culpa situation in which you sat in front of a panel of people. Do you feel like you turned a corner?
You know, I think it’s definitely a part of the progression. We turned in this manuscript, maybe in February or March, and then come the opportunities to say more. This was a story and not an opinion piece. But there have been opportunities since then for opinion pieces: opinion pieces on reparative therapy; opinion pieces on the passage of gay marriage. We’ll have opportunities to speak in the future, where we got further with things that didn’t end up in the book. So, we’re glad to be on a journey and we’re grateful when people ask for our thoughts on things knowing full well we’re human and imperfect.

Reparative therapy is something President Obama spoke out against this year. Legislation has already passed in California. What are your feelings on the legislation?
I wrote on that. I think it was in April after the president encouraged for a ban on reparative therapy for minors. I agree wholeheartedly. I think there needs to be a ban on reparative therapy for minors. I think it is a dangerous threat to subject kids to what will only lead to shame, telling them that they can expect an outcome of a changed orientation or a diminishment of attraction that they have. For adults, I find it a little more difficult to say I think we should absolutely ban it. I think adults have the right to choose for themselves. I do wholeheartedly agree with the sanctions and the restrictions and I think there need to be more of those when you sit down in the office of a counselor or therapist or anyone, you are given a duty-to-warn sheet that says we cannot change sexual orientation. We may hope we can change it, but we cannot change it. Science says this is impossible. So we will not tell you this is going to be even a possible outcome for you. I do not want to see pastors or parents hindered in their ability to encourage kids in their faith tradition. But I also think we need to be very, very clear, very, very careful that this is not something that happens. Sexual orientation is not something that changes. And people don’t go to hell for being gay. And so I hope there will be a whole lot more discussion and conversation and that this conversation won’t end until everyone hears the good news that God loves everyone. And that kids and adults alike aren’t shamed into believing that they’re less of a human being because they are gay or lesbian or transgender or anything like that.

I think you and I are about the same age. I’m 43.
I’m 43.

You know how primitive some of these practices of reparative therapy have been in the past, I’m sure. Shock therapy, for instance. I’m going to go personal on you for a second and say that my partner of 11 years killed himself three years ago. He was forced into reparative therapy in Georgia by his parents, so I know a lot of background on this, and it makes me sad to even talk about it.
Sure. I’m sorry.

You bring up in the interviews that to some degree you accept that it is your fault. You made the comparative reference to the pileup that you caused on a highway and how, even if you weren’t malicious in your heart, you had negatively affected people’s lives. How do you atone for that at this point?
The only thing I know to do in all of this was to take every step that I feel like I could take. The first of which was that revelation. I’ll never forget the day that I was sitting in a parking lot having just come out of the grocery store, and I just had this – I was going over all of this type of stuff and I remember thinking I have to, as the president of Exodus, and this is probably a career killer, but I have to say I’m sorry. I have to say I’m sorry for the things that I’ve done, and I have to say I’m sorry for the things Exodus has done, and I have to apologize for things I would have never done. But being who I am and in the position, there is no one else who’s going to do this and we have to do this. So that’s kind of been our reality the last couple of years is at every opportunity. I don’t think I’ll ever get to a place where I don’t say I’m sorry to someone who’s telling me their story for the first time. And I think that’s helpful and what I’ve heard from people, whether it’s been on national television or just sitting in a coffee shop on Park Avenue talking to a gay couple, or parents or you name it. I feel like that’s benefited people, and I feel like it’s an encouragement for others to step out of the shadows and say they’re sorry as well. So that’s part of what I do.

Another part of what I do is people still ask my opinion, and I still have a voice, and when I get the opportunity, or even if people don’t ask, I just take the opportunity to say I think this is a dangerous practice. I don’t think that anyone ever should go through reparative therapy, whether they’re an adult or a kid. I don’t think pastors or anyone should tell people that they can change their sexual orientation, or that they’ll be acceptable to God if they’re celibate, or you name it.

I found it interesting that you brought up Mike Huckabee and Jerry Falwell and Jeb Bush as your friends in your book, and all of these people are against marriage equality. It must be very difficult for you to still keep honest relations with them.
Most of our friends from conservative circles aren’t our friends anymore. You know, that ended when we closed Exodus and began distancing ourselves from all of the things we were involved with before, so a lot of people that we’re still friends with whom we disagree, when the conversation comes up, and it does, these are things that we’re very, very honest about. This is these are important issues to us. We risked everything in order to be very honest, first and foremost about what we believe about God, which we find that to be the most important, significant part of our lives. And God accepts and loves unconditionally and so these are things we feel like are worth arguing about. We’re not debaters and we’re not people who like to fight. But these are things that we will stake our reputation on to be very clear about, from our perspective, the dangers of reparative therapy and the ongoing onslaught of Christian propaganda in this realm.

What does that say about the religious community, the attacks and the threats? I know we see it all the time. It is in the headlines right now with [Kentucky clerk of courts] Kim Davis, who is represented by Mat Staver who runs the Liberty Counsel, a classified hate group – and that’s why I brought up Huckabee before, because he was right by her side for all of this. Everyone wants to tell us that the church is evolving, the right is evolving. And a lot of my Republican friends are evolved on this issue. But when there are attacks coming at you, it is frightening. That doesn’t speak to Jesus, really, does it?
Definitely doesn’t speak to Jesus at all, and I don’t think it speaks to the majority of the church. What I find is the church is evolving, but the leadership and the old guard … are way out of step and way out of touch with the people in the congregation. What I find is there’s a lot of fear in the congregations to say anything that goes against what maybe is coming from the top. But there’s a lot of resistance, and there’s more and more people who are stepping out and saying things that are riveting really. … But I think that what we see most often is that the church is misrepresented by the people who are on television, you know, the Huckabees, the people who are standing next to Kim Davis and spouting this old line of rhetoric that really doesn’t match up with a lot of the people sitting in the pews on Sunday.

We should be clear that you did that for 12 years
Oh, of course, yeah. I’m not an innocent bystander. When people talk about the harm that was done at Exodus and things like that, I nod my head yes and absolutely agree, but I think the deeper problem is that we were all so entrenched in religion. We were so entrenched in a Christianity that was not godly, that was not Christ-like, we misrepresented him. And I think that frankly, God’s gotten a bad name, a bad rap because of Christians like me who spouted rhetoric that was not rooted in truth, and when we see that what we’re saying is true, we have an absolute responsibility and mandate to say “I was wrong and I’m moving forward.” And that’s really what Leslie and I have done.

Do you think that the church in general, or what we know as the religious right, will ever evolve on this?
I don’t want to watch people fight. I don’t want to be involved in a fight. I just want to go out and love people and enjoy people for who they are, and on the day that the Supreme Court passed the marriage legislation, I watched, and I was struck because what I saw on the steps of the Supreme Court. All of the coverage was a bunch of people invoking the name of God, saying they were thankful to God for the passage of gay marriage and people were crying. People were hugging and there were spontaneous patriotic songs being sung, and I thought how the majority of the church, or at least a portion of the church, is going to look at this as a negative thing. And where I sit and I feel lucky to be sitting here watching one of the greatest displays of patriotism and church that I’ve seen in decades. And I thought that’s, this is gay marriage, this is something God will use, in my opinion, for his good. … I felt as a Christian, and as an American, as someone who has been deeply impacted and touched by this issue, I felt hopeful.

You documented it a little bit in the book, but was there a panic moment in any of this where in 2013 you made your statement, and then Exodus made its statement and everything was gone? Was there a palpable panic between you and Leslie and a fear for your life?
I don’t think a fear for our life, but certainly a fear that I remember waking up to the morning after the announcement. I made the announcement on stage. I walk off stage and go talk to the Atlantic. Then 4 a.m. the next morning rolls around, and I wake up and think, “Oh my God, what just happened? What is this going to be like?” And there was a fear in my heart in that moment that I had just changed everything. I just remember laying there and this wave of panic just setting in feeling sick to my stomach and kind of beginning to toss and turn and in that moment in the darkness. Leslie reached over, touched my shoulder,and she said, “You did the right thing.” … There was no more fear. There was no more anxiety over any of that. It was just, hey this was right and the road ahead is going to be difficult, but it was always difficult and we are going to keep moving forward.

You claim that you guys are financially insecure toward the end of the book, because you don’t know where the next paycheck’s coming from. How is that working out now?
For years, we made good money, and felt what probably every single other person in felt. There’s always the thought of, “How can we make more and how can we get more?” What we’ve found, and what we feel very fortunate to have found, is we’ve learned how to live on a whole lot less: next to nothing. … It’s been good. It’s been a good thing for us. You know, a number of critics and friends, when we closed Exodus and I was doing media, said things like, “You know what, Alan? You just need to step off the stage for a couple of years. You need to just relax and go do something else.” And that’s what we’ve done. It’s been good for us to live outside of the land of plenty and in a land of want, realizing we can live here, we can survive here, and without all of the things that cushioned our life before. The most important things that remain and I think my family is stronger for it. Leslie and I are stronger, and our two 10-year-olds haven’t been deprived. We feel fortunate to have lived this part of the story as well and we wouldn’t trade it.

What are your feelings on the Uganda nightmare of gay persecution, and the way that’s been played concurrently with missions and religion?
I think it’s horrible. I thought the moment we realized what was really going on and realized how we as an organization have impacted that, we did our best to sort of see into that. So I feel like even when I was in, as the president of Exodus, in South Africa, and had the opportunity to speak to a number of bishops from Africa, I was telling them don’t make the same mistakes that America made. Don’t make the same mistakes in doing what you’re doing and persecuting gay and lesbian people, because in the end it will destroy lives, but it will also come back to really bite you in the butt. You don’t want to. You don’t want this. This is wrong. This is not how Jesus would treat people.

The timing of the release and the Winter Park book-release party on Oct. 2, it’s the same week as Come Out With Pride. Is that something that you think you will march in this year? I know somebody mentioned you ought to march in it in the Lisa Ling profile with an “Exodus is Sorry” sign. I don’t know if that sounds too ambitious, but is that something that you would do? Would you march in a pride parade?
Maybe if I had a lot of friends with me.

That’s the best answer ever.
I sort of feel, I mean it feels like both a challenge and something I don’t know, the thing. Any time that we’ve gone to any type of gay church or gay event, I’ve wanted to make sure that we were wanted there. That we weren’t going to be a distraction or something that caused anyone any more pain. The last thing I would want to do is be seen as someone who capitalizes on an opportunity. I don’t.

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