More Jesus, Less Therapy: Changing Frames and Alliances at Exodus International

Lynne Gerber

2012 has been a big year for the ex-gay movement so far. In May, Columbia psychiatrist Robert Spitzer recanted his infamous study on therapeutic interventions into sexual orientation. Before the study Spitzer was known for his role in eliminating homosexuality from the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the official guidebook to recognized mental illnesses. Thirty years later he authored a highly controversial study that affirmed the possibility of changing sexual orientation through therapeutic means, a study based on participants recruited from ex-gay ministries by leaders at Exodus International. Spitzer had been wavering on his study for some time, issuing statements opposing the way in which Christian right organizations used his work to fight against gay rights legislation. But this year he renounced it altogether, issuing an apology to the gay community for the harm his work had caused. Later in May the California senate passed a bill outlawing the practice of reparative therapy—therapy aimed at changing sexual orientation—with minors, a move that enraged the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, an organization of reparative therapists and long-time Exodus International ally.

And in a June interview for The Atlantic, Exodus International president Alan Chambers said that his organization was no longer aiming to cure homosexuals of their sexual orientation. “In the past,” he said, “we’ve been aligned with organizations that believe feelings can completely change, temptations can completely go away. We now believe that’s an unrealistic and unhealthy expectation that can cause a lot of damage.” The pronouncement has led many observers, including myself, to scratch their heads in wonder at what, exactly, such a statement means for Exodus itself, for ex- and anti- gay politics, and for the people that find their way to Exodus ministries.

In this piece I want to think about one aspect of the changes in afoot Exodus: the movement away from therapeutic language and toward re-emphasizing religious language. This shift is an interesting one given the complicated history evangelicals have had with therapeutic culture. But I focus on it here because it both reflects discursive changes in how Exodus frames the issue of homosexuality and impacts the political realignments that are happening in tandem with this reframing. Discourse and politics, of course, go hand in hand, and I’m not making an argument about causality—the evidence for it isn’t in yet. But I do want to sketch some thoughts about what a shift away from the therapeutic might mean for Exodus, the ideological frameworks its members work within, and the political alliances it has developed and is now changing.

The shift in Exodus’s discourse that has received the most attention is that mentioned above: that Exodus is no longer trying to effect whole scale change in sexual orientation in its members. But this move is embedded in a larger shift away from therapeutic language and a re-emphasis on religious language in framing of homosexuality and Exodus’s relationship to it. One example is Chambers’ statement that Exodus is “not a scientific or psychological organization” but a “discipleship ministry.” Another is his comment in the Atlantic interview that “by no means does being part of Exodus mean we don’t still struggle or feel tempted. It’s a very real part of the lives we lead. Our goal isn’t to snap our fingers and present those struggles don’t exist. But we have a conviction that same-sex sexual expression is incompatible with a healthy Christianity sexual ethic. It’s not that we don’t have attractions. It’s just that we have a priority higher than our sexual orientation.” In both cases, Chambers is refocusing the organization on its religious purposes and away from its therapeutic ones.

This shift away from therapeutic language has a number of uses for Exodus. First, if change is not what the organization is saying it’s trying to accomplish it, it need not be the measure of its success. Ex-gay ministries have certainly gotten in trouble with their over-confidence that science and psychology would vindicate their theology on homosexuality. Thus their over-reach in claiming that change – literal change in sexual orientation from homosexual to heterosexual – is possible. Backing off from the language, and thus the expectation, of change has the potential to give them space from critics who focus on achieving change in sexual orientation as the sole measure of the organization’s value, success, or menace. And from the frustration of members who wait for change for years.

It also reflects a growing critique of, and potential distance from, therapeutic culture that I observed when I researched Exodus in 2005-2007. Evangelical culture has been deeply influenced by the therapeutic turn in American culture and ex-gay ministries’ appropriation of reparative and other therapeutic interventions have exemplified this influence. Reparative therapy was marked by a personal search, with the assistance of a therapist or a small group, for the underlying childhood experience that would explain a person’s homosexuality. Many of the Exodus members I spoke with took great pains to explain to me how their early childhood experiences explained their sexual orientation in ways that fit into reparative therapy’s narrative frame of how homosexuality develops.

But there were always others who were frustrated in their attempt to make their life stories fit the reparative therapy models: people who remembered happy families, who weren’t sexually abused, who didn’t experience questions about their gender identities, or whose experience otherwise contradicted the reparative model. Former Exodus president Bob Davies, for example, wrote: “I’ve never really understand [sic] why I grew up to struggle with same-sex attractions. I grew up in an intact Christian family. My family attended church every Sunday. My parent’s marriage was stable and loving. I have many happy memories of my childhood.” (Exodus Impact, March 2006). People I spoke with whose stories didn’t align with the dominant therapeutic narrative felt frustrated, either by an inability to remember the “smoking gun” that might have caused their sexual orientation or by the organizational imperative to keep looking for one. Shifting the frame for understanding homosexuality away from the therapeutic will make a space for those whose stories don’t fit that frame and save many others a great deal of time and frustration in their pursuit of such causal factors.

Another critique of therapeutic culture that is part of this shift can be seen in Chambers’ statement that “I found the greatest amount of freedom when I stopped focusing on my sin and struggles and started focusing on the grace and peace found only in Christ and the man He created me to be. This life isn’t most about sin management but about living daily as the sons and daughters of God. In part, it is the peace and rest found in that identity alone that transforms us daily.” Therapeutic practices, in this view, are concerning because they lead to an over-emphasis on sin and an under-emphasis on anything else. In other words, it makes people who are “struggling” to “overcome” homosexuality focus too much on homosexuality and not enough on God.

Note the particular phrasing of “in that identity alone.” This reflects another re-emphasis that the move away from therapeutic discourse will allow. It’s been reported that Exodus leaders have been deeply influenced by Christian anthropologist Janelle Williams Paris’ book The End of Sexual Identity (Pedagogical note: This would make a fascinating contribution to a queer theory syllabus). In it, she argues (in a decidedly queerish fashion that I’ve explored elsewhere in relation to the ex-gay movement) that Christians should abandon sexual identity categories in favor of finding identity in Christ. The therapeutic over-emphasis on sin runs the risk of crystallizing sexual identity categories that Exodus, for many reasons, finds useful to disrupt. Re-focusing on the theological allows Exodus to retrain its members on the one identity they think really matters: Christian.

Finally, the move away from the therapeutic both justifies and allows increased distance between Exodus and some of its more therapeutically oriented allies. The ex-gay movement has been a tenuous coalition of different kinds of organizations that found common cause in theological conservativism, therapeutic intervention into homosexuality, and political opposition to gay rights. It seems that the changes in Exodus reflects, at least in part, the fraying of that coalition and the realignment of its constituents. The most obvious example is NARTH. The two organizations at one time had a close relationship, with NARTH board member Joseph Nicolosi speaking regularly at Exodus events and the Exodus bookstore stocked with items on reparative therapy. But that relationship has been changing since Exodus stopped working with Nicolosi and purged its bookstore. Now the NARTH website features an interview done by Nicolosi with Andy Comiskey, an outspoken critic of the changes at Exodus and leader of Desert Stream Ministries which defected from the Exodus fold.

The more significant ally that Exodus has been changing its relationship with is Focus on the Family, an organization that exemplifies the overlap of therapeutic culture, evangelical Christianity and conservative politics. Strong allies in the late 90s and aughts, Focus and Exodus have been moving apart in more recent years. This alliance and its demise is dissertation material and can’t be recounted adequately here. But moving away from Focus does allow a certain distance both from its therapeutic focus and its political imperatives.

The driving forces behind these shifts are unclear and will take some time to understand, but there are a few we can surmise. The first is the impact of the recession and the need for fundraising. Exodus has been in a financial crisis for the last few years and Ex-Gay Watch has reported that it has considered anything and everything in its quest for financial survival. The second is time and its corrosive effect on claims for change. The longer people are involved in Exodus ministries, the longer they see that change doesn’t happen and the more that discredits the organization. If the claim to scientific and therapeutic legitimacy continued to be made, the organization would be increasingly accountable to evaluation on those terms, which clearly would not be favorable to them. The third is a changing wider culture. The increased acceptance of gays and lesbians in American culture  makes organizations like Exodus look like the bad guys. And, whatever else you might say about them, Exodus does not like to appear old, stodgy and reactionary. A fourth is the conversation with critics, both from the evangelical world and the gay world. These include former reparative therapists who maintain their Christian commitments but have come to question their professional practices, former Exodus members and their allies who work diligently to hold the organization accountable for its practices, and other critics who have managed to keep some thread of conversation open.

*****

Lynne Gerber is a scholar in residence at the Beatrice Bain Research Group, University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of  Seeking the Straight and Narrow: Weight Loss and Sexual Reorientation in Evangelical America, which looks at two Christian efforts to discipline wayward desires and tame unruly bodies: Christian weight loss programs and “ex-gay” ministries.

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One Response to More Jesus, Less Therapy: Changing Frames and Alliances at Exodus International

  1. dcompton says:

    Just overheard this from a graduate student in response to this piece: I can’t wait to buy her book!

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