The Closet and the Cross

Three decades ago, Michael Bussee helped found the mammoth ex-gay ministry Exodus International. Now, he’s one of the movement's biggest critics

In the scorching heat of the summer sun, a crowd gathers in silence around a wall covered in large sheets of white poster paper.

It's the last Saturday of June in this UC Irvine courtyard, and most eyes are fixed on the text atop the collage, which reads, "Ex-gay experiences" on one side, and on the other, "Good/Harm."

Armed with colored markers, the men and women come forward to put pen to paper.

"I lost my young adult years to 'the closet.' I'll never recover that," writes a lanky gent before falling back into the crowd.

"I thought I was changing! In reality, I had walled away my sexuality," pens a woman in black, her face tight with emotion.

One man writes, "$30,000." He had let an ex-gay ministry have his money in exchange for the hope they could iron out his homosexuality. They couldn't, so he'd walked away—and written a one-man play on the subject.

More people advance, pens raised in protest. Some of the dozens here are coming forward to present themselves for the first time as survivors of a movement that cost them friends and family, time and money.

For years, many of those present were neck-deep in the teachings of the ex-gay ministry Exodus International and its ilk, believing desperately that they could alter their sexual orientations and become "normal." Straightness was the path to heaven, they were told; living the "homosexual lifestyle" was a winding stairway to hell.

This, the first national Ex-Gay Survivor Conference, is the gay community's response to what Soulforce founder and former ex-gay the Reverend Mel White calls the "well-intended menace" across the street. Exodus had set up shop in the private Christian campus of Concordia University, settling in for its annual weeklong Freedom Conference.

Exodus International is no stranger to protest, but this year, Soulforce, a group of volunteers who have made it their mission to teach the principles of nonviolence on behalf of gender minorities, and Beyond Ex-Gay, a relatively new online community for ex-gay survivors, would swap bullhorns and hand-carried signs for a different form of retaliation.

Here, for three days, the survivors would gather at the university and tell the stories many at Exodus do not want to hear: yarns of rejection, failure and brokenness. And all from the lips of former ex-gay ministry members and leaders who once subscribed to the same mindset as the mammoth ministry:

"I failed God."

"I've come to hate religion."

"My family can only love the mask they give me to wear."

The wall fills with color and pain as the clock ticks, the silent crowd growing restless and tearful, some seemingly amazed they'd met their personal demons here in this simple activity. A few "good" memories are scrawled—"Made great friends," "God became a very real father to me"—but they are almost lost in the sorrowful missives.

The crowd falls back as the activity concludes—an icebreaking session for the Survivor Conference.

Then the man who blames himself in part for the birth of the ex-gay movement in Anaheim more than three decades ago comes forward and picks up a pen.

"The truth will set you free," Michael Bussee writes in red, "but first it will make you miserable."

*   *   *

In 1971, Bussee became a Christian. Thousands of teens were leaving drugs and alcohol, and burned-out hippies were embracing Jesus. It was the hip thing to do in his senior year at Ramona High School in Riverside and the result of a quest he'd begun at age 12: to find a "cure" for his homosexuality.

He'd known growing up that he was gay, but the term had always been derogatory and reminiscent of the bullying and beatings he'd endured through junior high. Bussee hated recess. It usually meant another fist to the stomach or spit to the face, sometimes a rock to the side of his head.

"P.E. was a nightmare," he recalls. "I sucked at sports, and they let me know it."

Come sixth grade, he would decide he wanted to be a psychologist—to figure out why he was gay and why homosexuality angered his straight counterparts so.

By Bussee's senior year in high school, he'd learned to hide his "differences," and the beatings stopped.

His straight façade was cemented when he started seeing Ann Bigbee, a former Ramona High attendee who went to Riverside City College with him. Bigbee knew of Bussee's tendencies, but chose to love him despite them. Perhaps, they thought, with prayer, they could iron out his gay kinks together. The pair experimented with sex—even though their faith deemed it sinful—just to make sure everything was in working order. At age 19, Bussee and Bigbee got engaged. Later, they would head to Cal State Fullerton together.

In 1974, Bussee, a college student and budding therapist, found himself drawn to the Melodyland Christian Center in Anaheim—a megachurch across the street from Disneyland. The church ran a suicide-prevention hot line, and he stepped in one day to apply for a volunteer phone-counselor position.

The application form was pretty standard—until Bussee got to the last item, which prompted, "Is there anything else in your background—former drug addict, former criminal, former homosexual—that might influence your ability as a counselor?"

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