[EDITOR'S NOTE:] This guest post comes to us from Jim Burroway of Box Turtle Bulletin. Jim is an expert in the ex-gay movement. I have the deepest respect for Jim and appreciate his post about the inner workings of Love Won Out, Focus on the Family and Exodus International.
Like many who read Bil Browning's post on Love Won Out last Monday ("Love Won Out may be helping some parents"), I was taken somewhat aback by his generosity. I even fired off a message to him wondering if maybe he had been served some Kool-Aid during lunch.
But then I sat down and remembered my own first impressions from when I attended the Love Won Out conference last February in Phoenix. And I had to admit, my first impression was that it wasn't the unmitigated wall-to-wall hate that many make it out to be. And yes, I did hear a few instances in where parents might have gotten some half-way decent advice. Come to think of it, wasn't it was just a couple of weeks ago that we posted a video on my own web site where I pretty much said the same thing?
You see, that's the thing about Love Won Out. Generally speaking, it's a very well-crafted show. In fact, the best way to look at it is to think of it as an eight hour infomercial for the ex-gay movement. Focus On the Family and Exodus International jointly sponsor about five or six LWO conference each year in major cities across America, and they've been doing this since 1998. They are incredibly smart and sophisticated people. And if practice makes perfect, then you have to figure that after nearly fifty conferences, they've learned a thing or two about how to deliver their message.
To better understand this, a little background is in order. Exodus International was founded in 1976 as a non-profit, Evangelical Christian ministry, serving as an umbrella organization for nearly 200 member ministries across the US and Canada. Their goal is "mobilizing the body of Christ to minister grace and truth to a world impacted by homosexuality." And they do all this on a comparatively shoestring budget as far as these things go: revenue of right around $1.1 million dollars in 2006 with net assets of $366,923, while working out of rented office space in Orlando, Florida (according to IRS returns on file at GuideStar). While their budget is pretty small, their strength comes from those Exodus-affiliated ministries spread out in nearly every major city across North America.
The real financial brawn in this operation comes from Focus On the Family. They operate out of a sprawling 526,000 square foot campus in Colorado Springs with 1,300 people working there. Those 1,300 people are hard at work running a large media empire with annual revenues of some $142 million in 2006 and net assets of $79 million. Focus On the Family Action, the political arm, has an additional $14.7 million in revenue with net assets of $2.1 million. (Compare all of this to the Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBT advocacy organization. Their annual revenues are around $28 million with net assets of around $4 million.)
And with those 1,300 people and those millions of dollars, Focus On the Family has put together a very slick, well-oiled machine. Their daily broadcasts reach an estimated 220 million listeners on over 7,000 radio stations in 160 countries. And through that outreach, they've honed the science of message formation and delivery using the time-honored methods of market research, polling and other advertising tools to put together a very sophisticated communications operations -- much the same way Madison Avenue sells everything from automobiles to chewing gum.
But don't let the vast sums of money and the huge workforce fool you. Too often I hear people say that the only reason Focus In the Family focuses on the LGBT community is because it makes a lot of money. But they have it completely backwards.
It's not about money. It's about a commitment to a cause. These people would be doing exactly what they are doing today even if it didn't make them a plum nickel. But like I said, they are smart people. Smart enough to know that to do their jobs well, they need to spend a lot of money, which means they need to make a lot of money. And so they've hired an incredibly smart bunch of people to put together a very sophisticated fundraising machine (and yes, they use LGBT folks for fodder) to make sure they have plenty of money to do the work they are committed to do. The money isn't why they do it; but it's what lets them do their jobs as well as they do.
And so it stands to reason that anyone's first impression of a Love Won Out conference would be a good one. They are very smart, well-funded people who are very savy at putting together a message using a carefully crafted language which resonates with their target audience. And they're also very smart about changing that language to fit the needs of different audiences.
They've come a long way.
I mentioned that Exodus was founded in 1976. It turns out that was pivotal year for what we now know as the ex-gay movement. Before then, attempts to make gay people straight were largely the purview of psychologists and psychoanalysts. And that history represents a dark chapter in American therapeutics. Most therapies were nothing more than conventional "talk therapy" and psychoanalysis. But there were plenty of examples of electric shock aversion therapies, or the administration of apomorphine (a drug which causes sudden and severe, wretched vomiting) in "undesired" erotic settings.
In fact, it was outrage over aversion therapies which led a small band of gay activists to disrupt an APA meeting in 1970 as one prominent aversion therapy researcher presented his latest findings. More protests in 1971 prompted the APA to form a committee to investigate LGB (no T's yet) grievances. And that led, finally in 1973, to the APA removing homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the bible of what is and is not a mental illness. And with homosexuality no longer being an illness in need of a cure, the cures started to die out.
While the APA was able to conclude that homosexuality isn't an illness, they didn't determine whether homosexuality was a sin. And there were a lot of people who were "experiencing same-sex attractions" who nevertheless wanted to live according to their religious beliefs, which held that homosexual behavior was immoral. These people were caught in a particular bind: they couldn't necessarily depend on psychology to help them be "cured," and the churches at the time were generally too freaked out by anything having to do with homosexuality to be of any help to them.
What happened next is a very long and interesting story involving a former hippie evangelical church in California and a band of sad homosexuals who formed a group called "EXIT" (EX-gay Intervention Team). That group joined with four other like-minded groups to form Exodus in 1976. Their "successes," such as they were, inspired other faiths to form similar groups such as Courage (for Roman Catholics), Evergreen (for Mormons) and JONAH (Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality). And before long, these religious-based organizations were joined by a group of dissident psychiatrists who formed the supposedly secular NARTH (the National Association for the Research and Therapy of Homosexuality). But of those groups, Exodus remains the largest and most prominent.
Now when I mentioned "successes," why did I put it in quotes like that? Well, let's just say there were a few bumps in the road. Michael Bussee was one of the founders of EXIT and Exodus. He left Exodus in 1979 when he and his co-worker, Gary Cooper, realized that they were in love with each other. Bussee today is one of Exodus' harshest critics. He joined three other Exodus-affiliated leaders last summer in issuing a formal apology for his part in founding the organization and for having led so many people astray.
Another widely touted "success" was John Paulk. He had appeared on the cover of Newsweek in 1998 with his ex-lesbian wife Anne Paulk. He was employed at Focus On the Family as manager of their Homosexuality and Gender Department. And since Focus by then had become very active in supporting Exodus' growth through the 1990's, Paulk was also selected to serve as chairman of Exodus' board of directors.
But in 2000, Wayne Besen photographed John Paulk as he was trying to leave Mr. P's, a gay bar in Washington, D.C.'s Dupont Circle. The incident made national headlines, but surprisingly Paulk kept his job at Focus on the Family and remained on the Exodus board under probationary status until his term ended. Even more surprisingly, Paulk continued to speak at Love Won Out conferences until 2003. That's when he left Focus and Exodus. He and his wife now live quietly in Portland, Oregon.
Despite these high-profile falls, Exodus president Alan Chambers likes to say that "hundreds of thousands have found freedom" from homosexuality -- a figure that Exodus has never been able to substantiate. But if it were true, then a recent study by Stanton Jones and Mark Yarhouse suggests that many hundreds of thousands more have not made the change from homosexuality to heterosexuality.
Keep in mind now, this study was not only funded by Exodus, it was conducted with Exodus' full cooperation and support. But even with that active support, Jones and Yarhouse were only able to find 98 ex-gay ministry clients who were willing to participate. After three years, 25 dropped out, and of the rest only 15% claimed to have achieved a "satisfactory, if not uncomplicated, heterosexual adjustment.” Never one to see the glass as half empty, Exodus decided to throw in another 23% percent into the "success" column who had decided that celibacy was good enough.
So what about all those who never achieved that "not uncomplicated heterosexual adjustment" they'd been hoping for? You'd think there were enough of them to start a whole movement themselves.
Well, it looks like just such a movement may be starting to take shape. Last July, as Exodus was wrapping up their huge annual conference in Irvine, California, nearly two hundred of these "ex-ex-gays" and allies gathered on the campus of the University of California at Irvine for the very first Ex-Gay Survivor's Conference, sponsored by Beyond Ex-Gay and Soulforce. I had the privilege of being there to listen as people shared their experiences. Box Turtle Bulletin contributing author Daniel Gonzales collected several of their stories in video form.
Some of these stories are very poignant. Others have lost their friends and have experienced difficulties with their families as they came to terms with their "failures." Some spent many thousands of dollars on expensive therapies and live-in programs; some gave up careers and college educations trying to change; some lost faith in God.
But their resilience on display that July weekend was inspiring. These are people who are not only turning a page in their own lives, but they are helping the rest of us to turn a corner in how we understand the ex-gay movement.
For more than thirty years, Exodus has had the stage all to themselves. With support from Focus On the Family, Exodus has been able to set the parameters of discourse about the ex-gay movement. But that's beginning to change as former ex-gays themselves begin to come forward and offer their own testimonies. And as this new chapter is being written, the world is coming to see that it's wholeness that truly wins out in the end.