July 1996
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Inside Exodus

A report from the anti-gay ministry's 21st national conference

by Surina Khan

Starla Allen wants to help me. She thinks I can overcome my lesbianism if I surrender myself to Jesus Christ. Allen is a staff therapist at the Stillpointe Centre for Counseling and Growth in California, where she counsels homosexuals to "reform themselves." She's also a former vice-president of Exodus International. Founded in 1976, Exodus is a referral network of ministries dedicated to "reforming" homosexuals. A fact sheet put out by the ministry says that its primary purpose is to "proclaim that freedom from homosexuality is possible through the power of Jesus Christ." Yet Exodus is probably best known because two of its founders, Gary Cooper and Michael Busee, left the anti-gay ministry in 1978 after falling in love with each other. They hit the talk-show circuit in the early 1990s to tell their story and get out the message that anti-gay ministries are a fraud that promote homophobia and self-hatred.

My interest in Exodus and the ex-gay movement was piqued last fall when my ex-girlfriend Robin called to tell me that her girlfriend Amy had broken up with her. The reason? Amy found God. She had been going to church secretly for three months prior to ending their relationship. Naturally, Robin was shocked. She and Amy had been together for three years -- they shared a home; they had two cats and two dogs. Both were out lesbian feminists. Amy had worked for the National Organization for Women for a number of years. And now she is a born-again Christian. Needless to say, she is no longer a lesbian -- and certainly not a feminist. I don't know if Amy attended an ex-gay ministry to help her through her conversion, but she'd be a perfect recruit for an Exodus ministry.

Exodus is an international organization made up of four related coalitions: Exodus International North America, which comprises 75 member ministries in 35 states, plus four ministries in Canada; Exodus International Europe, with 10 ministries serving 10 countries; Exodus International South Pacific, with seven ministries in Australia and New Zealand, one in the Philippines, one in Japan, and one in Singapore; and Exodus International Latin America and Exodus International Brazil, which account for a dozen more ministries. Exodus is also used as a referral by many major Christian-right organizations, including Focus on the Family, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, the 700 Club, Promise Keepers, and D. James Kennedy's Coral Ridge Ministries, effectively linking Exodus to the larger Christian right.

I decided to check out the "ex-gay" scene for myself at the national conference of Exodus June 22 through 27 in nearby Wenham. The conference was held at Gordon College, a Christian school; I sent away for an information packet and registered, not knowing what to expect. I was a little nervous about going, but not because I thought they'd be able to convert me. I just thought it would be a little creepy. And it was.

My conference experience begins with Allen's workshop, "Roots of Lesbianism." Like many of the conference "teachers," Allen speaks from personal experience -- she has been out of "the lifestyle" for 20 years and has evidently, in that time, figured out what modern science is still debating: the roots of homosexuality.

This is what I hear in her workshop: we are not born gay, because God made us all and He does not make mistakes; many of us struggle with homosexuality because of family dysfunction; many of us have been sexually abused; and most of us are not "correctly" connected with our mothers; and we're finding love in all the wrong places because we're really trying to find Mom.

For the record, I know where my mother is. I don't doubt that many lesbians have been sexually abused, or that some of us come from dysfunctional families, and that some of us may even need to work on our relationships with our mothers. But I suspect the same goes for many heterosexual women.

Of course Allen disagrees. "Insecurity and lack of self-worth are the bottom-line motivations for continuing in a lesbian relationship," she says. "Maintenance of the relationship is primarily through manipulation." But, according to Allen, even the most manipulative among us will never succeed in a relationship: "You can't maintain something that God doesn't fully bless."

As for the "recovery" process and converting from homosexual to heterosexual, Allen offers these tips: "Allow God to work, and know that it is going to be a long process. We're going to face distortions and we must be willing to see our dark side." She also suggests making a commitment to changing activities (i.e., no going to gay bars), and cultivating other friends (this takes at least a year, she says).

"And finally," says Allen, "prepare for the long haul -- don't expect perfection." Of course the most important thing a person can do is to pray, pray, pray. Toward that end, every workshop began and ended in prayer.

Between sessions, I watch as other conference-goers gab with each other and excitedly share new ideas. The energy and enthusiasm is like that found at an OutWrite conference, except all the queers are talking about how not to be queer.

Another workshop, "How to Avoid Becoming a Statistic," is just as disturbing as Allen's session on the roots of lesbianism. This one is "taught" by Kevin Oshiro, Exodus conference director and a board member of New Hope Ministries in San Rafael, California. The workshop description reads like a sales pitch from a late-night infomercial:

Of those who begin the trek out of homosexuality, why do so many give up and give in to the siren song of the old ways, or settle for trudging along as celibate homosexuals? More importantly, what is common among those who do more than conquer their homosexual behaviors, going on to thrive in a new identity? This workshop provides clear, biblical principles for truly growing and living, versus existing in stasis.

Basically, Oshiro offers nine guidelines in the form of questions for us to ask ourselves, including: "Have I made an unconditional surrender to Jesus as my Lord?" and "If the [homosexual] feelings never completely go away, will I still follow the Lord?" as well as the basic, "What's my motivation for overcoming homosexuality?" The answer to this last one should be obvious: Jesus Christ. Oshiro also encourages us to see God as the "CEO of the universe." We are to think of ourselves as "son/daughter or slave/employee." That's right -- slave/employee.

Not all of the lectures are so frightful. My favorite is "Outward Displays of Inward Healing" which would be campy if it weren't taking place at an Exodus conference. Taught by Anne Paulk, a self-confessed reformed butch dyke and former softball coach, this workshop is a glorified make-over session. The conference brochure advertised:

Outward femininity as a key aspect of maturity is many times overlooked, minimized, or avoided altogether. This class is vital for women exploring practical ways to embrace an outward heterosexual identity. Former lesbians on the road to recovery often view the outward expressions of femininity as fearful. Since internal change is the horse, external change is the cart. The instructor explores roadblocks that keep women locked in fear by giving biblical examples and anecdotes from her own adventures.

Paulk shows up for the class outfitted in a sweatshirt, sweat pants, sneakers, baseball cap, and knapsack -- looking like the cute, athletic butch dyke she should be. Although the workshop was limited to just women, Paulk's husband John, another ex-gay who still looks much like the queen he says he used to be, sits in the audience while his wife tells us about her experience growing up as a tomboy. She attributes her "background" as a lesbian to having been molested when she was four -- which led her to reject her femininity.

As she fills us in about her experiences in the "lesbian lifestyle" (she used to be a phys-ed teacher), Paulk literally transforms herself by taking off her sweatshirt and sweat pants, under which she's wearing a "feminine" T-shirt and jeans. She takes off her baseball cap to reveal how she has grown out her hair to make herself appear more feminine. But the best part is when, while still talking, she begins applying makeup -- and she does it all: foundation, blush, mascara, lipstick, eyeliner, and eye shadow. And of course, her nails are painted bright red.

Paulk says she "wanted to behave more like a woman, look more like a woman." But her definition of a woman is quite narrow: makeup, heels, nail polish, and long hair. In fact, she says, "As I felt more comfortable with my femininity, I applied more makeup." Completely overlooked in this workshop is the existence of feminine lesbians -- and heterosexual women who don't wear makeup and high heels.

Unlike the other workshops, which didn't allow for any questions between participants and instructors, this one is more interactive. The women ask Paulk detailed questions about how to apply makeup. One asks what she should do if she can't find anyone to teach her how to apply it properly. Throughout, they seem inspired by the beauty session, as if the act of repressing their lesbianism could be as simple as applying mascara.

Other workshops include "Practical Tips for Working with Media," "False Beliefs that Hinder Healing," "Releasing Your Mind from Pornographic Images," "God's Restoration of Women," "Appropriate Touch in Male Relationships," "Bibliotherapy as a Treatment Tool for Homosexuality," "Raising Funds for Small Ministries," "Addressing the Pro-Gay School Curricula," and "Ministering the Gospel to Persons with AIDS."

Surely one of the biggest surprises of the conference was the number of people who showed up. Exodus organizers said they were expecting between 650 and 750 people and, from the looks of it, they met that goal. I had wondered who would bother to attend such a conference, especially if the very act of signing up would amount to outing yourself. I had expected to see a high number of teens and young adults who had been forced into attending the conference by parents, but I didn't see any teenagers -- and saw just a few people who looked to be in their early to mid 20s. Most of the conference attendees were white, middle-aged adults, fairly evenly divided between men and women. Given that Exodus has primarily ministered to Baby Boomers, that isn't too surprising. But perhaps aware of the generation gap, one of the workshops, "Adapting Exodus Ministry for New Generations," looked at ways to change the language, methods, and ministry structures of Exodus to appeal to younger people.

But one thing is sure to remain the same -- the Exodus policy statement on homosexuality:

Exodus upholds heterosexuality as God's creative intent for humanity, and subsequently views homosexual expression as outside of God's will. Exodus cites homosexual tendencies as one of many disorders that beset fallen humanity. Choosing to resolve these tendencies through homosexual behavior, taking on a homosexual identity, and involvement in a homosexual lifestyle is considered destructive, as it distorts God's intent for the individual and is thus sinful.

Although easy to make fun of, the ex-gay movement is dangerous. It's about furthering a biblical world view in which families are only made up of heterosexual men and women; in which the man leads the family, and his wife and children submit to him; and in which anyone who strays from this rigid model is living in sin. But what I saw at the conference was a sin: the exploitation of people's internalized homophobia, self-hatred, and insecurity. Most gay people can relate to the pain and anguish of coming out; clearly, the Exodus organizers understand it better than most -- they've turned it into an industry. But given the support and resources available today within the broader gay and lesbian community, it's tragic that none of those conference attendees met with acceptance of their homosexuality before stumbling into Exodus.

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