Alan Chambers has spent the last dozen years trying to “cure” homosexuality in the name of Jesus Christ as the executive director of Exodus International. It was his own personal story of setting aside gay feelings to marry a woman in the name of religion that inspired his desire to empower others to do the same.
Last month, the Winter Park native went on national television to offer an apology for those efforts and for hurting followers in the process. He said he was shutting down the world’s largest “ex-gay” organization, which has spent nearly 40 years providing “reparative” therapy to thousands of Christian gays seeking to live a “righteous” life as a heterosexual. Responses have ranged from bewildered to elated.
Appearing dapper in a bow tie wearing his signature spectacles, Chambers talked to Watermark July 29 about the transformation that led to his about face and how he has handled his own same-sex attractions. The 41-year old and his wife, Leslie, 47, have been married for 16 years. They live with their two adopted children, Isaac and Molly, both 8.
WATERMARK: Walk us through your transformation.
ALAN CHAMBERS: The transformation started six years ago when we said we hate the term “ex-gay.” That’s not how we want to be defined. I’m not sure I’ve ever met an ex-gay, whatever that label is. Those were big headlines in 2007 and 2006.
Over the course of the last 18 months, our supporters and our demographic have changed even more. As we have talked about the fact that 99.9% of the people I’ve met haven’t changed their sexual orientation, they’re still tempted or they still experience same-sex attractions and therefore, promising someone that they can go from gay to straight is not something we do and not something we believe.
We still have conservative people who, like me, hold to a conservative theological view of sexual expression. And yet at the same time, the reality is we have gay and lesbian loved ones and we have gay and lesbian friends and there are gay and lesbian people who go to our church and we don’t feel they should be treated any differently than anyone else is treated.
Do you think being gay is a choice?
No. I’ve never thought it was a choice. I didn’t choose this. Never have I thought it was a choice. You decide how you are going to live your life based on the reality that you have. My reality is such that I have same-sex attractions. What I have become very willing to admit is that this is who I am. This is my story. This is very much a part of my life. It is what it is. What are you going to do about it?
I am married, happily so. My primary attraction and orientation is towards my wife and we have an amazing relationship in every sense of the word and in every way that a marriage should be. People steward their sexuality in different ways. Some people choose celibacy. Some people choose monogamous relationships. Some people choose what I’ve chosen. My story, I would say is rare, more rare than any of the other stories.
You have said Exodus saved your life. How did that happen?
As a conservative Christian kid, there was no other place to go and these people took me in. It was 1990. I was 19-years-old. I went and they didn’t look at me funny and they didn’t tell me that I had to do anything crazy. They just simply supported me in a way that I think the church should support people. Now, that’s not everybody’s experience.
How did you come from where you were heading up this ministry to actually come out and say, ‘I’m sorry?’
Our goal really hasn’t ever been to change people. Certainly our motto was “Change is possible” because we felt like that was what happened. For someone to just say simply “Change is possible,” of course it is, but what does that mean?
That’s why we got rid of that slogan well over two years ago. Saying “Change is possible” makes people feel like you walk in, you flip a light switch and you go straight and that’s not true. That’s not our story. That invalidates the complexity of someone’s journey.
So, we’ve been apologizing for certain things for years. It was in April that I sat down with a group of people who were hurt and expressed hurt in their relationship with Exodus. And I said to them, specifically to their faces, “I’m sorry.” And apologized on national television to anyone else who was listening, on behalf of things that I’ve said and on behalf of things that I would never say.
On behalf of what things that you’ve said?
Well, you know, certain things in which we were involved. Politics for instance. We got involved in the whole public policy debate back in 2002 starting here in Orlando.
If I could take back anything through the years, it would be that we got involved in the policy debate trying to influence that because what we found was it wasn’t worth it. We alienated people we hurt. There were times that we celebrated people coming to Jesus and the break up of their families.
I remember one story that ended after two decades. On my Facebook page I said: “Oh, you know here’s this great story of this woman who came to Jesus and after 22 years of her parents praying that her life would change. She has left her lover.” and I remember someone emailing me saying it was callous of me to celebrate that. You just devastated this partner of hers that after 22 years of spending her life with. The other woman isn’t celebrating.
Do you think you were living with blinders on?
Nothing else has really changed. I think in Christianity, specifically, we fight our position and it fails to recognize people. When I look at what I want to be controversial about, I want to be controversial about Jesus. But I live in a world that’s pluralistic. There are all sorts of religions and all sorts of sexualities and there are all sorts of people who are law-abiding citizens out trying to do the best that they can and promote the common good.
We can agree to disagree on certain things or we can, as friends, sit down and have a conversation about what we disagree on; but if we live there, we’re in trouble. We all have our own bias. I think that’s something that has changed.
Would you say you suppress your feelings or do you consider yourself bisexual?
No. I don’t put a sexual label on myself. People say, “So, you’re a gay Christian?” and I say “No, I’m not a gay Christian.” That’s not a trophy for my shelf either. I’m not ex-gay. I’m definitely not that. I hate that label. People say so your bi or you’re whatever. You know I’m married. I love my wife.
I have Leslie attractions. I’m a Dad. I’m a fabulous decorator and a gardener. I’m a million things before I am some narrow sexual identity that just isn’t important to me. If you want to know what my sexuality is, I have sex with my wife and that’s it. I’m monogamous. I don’t think about having sex with anybody but my wife.
How did it become important to you to try to help gays live a straight lifestyle?
Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do as a Christian? You care about what everybody else is doing and you try to fix it? And that’s probably the thing that’s changed for me. I can’t care. It doesn’t mean I don’t care. That’s callous. I can’t do anything about it. It’s none of my business. You want to know my opinion? Watch how I live my life. That’s my opinion, but I can’t tell you how you should live your life.
Do you feel like you’ve ruined people’s lives and how do you feel about that?
(Long pause) I feel like our words have power and I feel like there are words that I’ve used that have contributed to people feeling more shame and more guilt than they should. I think that shame and guilt affected people negatively.
Have I ruined people’s lives? Some people have told me I have. I hope that my apology mattered to them. I hope that it helped them. I think that there are people who have been devastated by certain aspects or certain things that have occurred during the ex-gay movement as a whole and religion as a whole. I think there is great trauma out there and I hope those lives are ones that can be healed.
Did you once see religion as a tool for change and now see it as a tool for something else?
The controversy for me is I believe in the God of the Bible. I believe in Jesus and I believe that’s the way. That’s the controversy of it all. When it comes to who follows Jesus, I would have probably said people who are truly following Christ are surrendering this part of their life. One of the things that has changed for me, I believe that there are gay and lesbian people who have as vibrant and amazing and intimate relationship with Christ as I do, but we have chosen different ways to express our sexuality.
I have always believed that anybody can know Jesus, but I probably would have said Good Christian, Bad Christian. If you are being faithful, truly faithful in the area of your sexuality, then you’re going to surrender that. Yet there are people as faithful as me who haven’t. That’s hard for me. I don’t know what to do with that, but I don’t have to do anything with it. That’s really the point. I’m not living their life. I haven’t walked a mile in their shoes. It’s not for me to judge.
What’s your organization now?
Our organization is ‘Speak. Love.’ and our website is ReduceFear.org. Our organization is going to be about bringing people to the table who have varying perspectives, mostly from a Christian worldview. We want people who are not interested in debate. They’re not interested in the fight. They’re not interested in a battle.
They’re interested in faith and sexuality because that’s an important conversation to have. I don’t think it’s going away anytime soon. And I certainly don’t think there are people out there trying to bring in all sides to the table. I’m not going to tell you what you have to think anymore. I’m simply going to present all the options and let you decide for yourself and I think that’s the future of Christianity. It’s allowing people to think for themselves without telling them this is what you have to believe if you are going to be my brand of Christian.
Do you feel you are 100% who are you?
Absolutely. The reason I have never used the gay label in this journey is just it doesn’t reflect who I am. I have same-sex attractions. They do not interfere and have never interfered in my relationship with my wife. They are something that is there. Attractions don’t mean temptation. It doesn’t mean I am not tempted but attractions don’t mean temptations. They are not something I am suppressing. They are something that’s there.
I walk out, and there’s a good-looking guy, and he’s a good-looking guy. What do you do with that? The same thing my wife does with it.