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

The words "former homosexual" leaped out at Bussee, and he left the item blank, fearful he would be rejected. But eventually his conscience got the better of him, and he approached the hot line director and came clean.

"I'm a Christian homosexual," he declared.

The man looked at him skeptically. "Oh, no, you're not. There's no such thing as a Christian homosexual," he said. "If you're a Christian, you'd be a former homosexual. You'd be an ex-gay."

Michael Bussee
Michael Bussee

Bussee had never heard the term before, but from that moment, he would make it his own.

With time and prayer, God would change his orientation, Bussee was told.

And he believed it.

So strong was his conviction that he and Jim Kaspar, another Melodyland "ex-gay," started EXIT—the Ex-Gay Intervention Team ministry. The two managed individual counseling sessions and weekly support groups. Soon, pastors and therapists began sending clients their way.

"Even though we had absolutely no formal training and had only been calling ourselves 'ex-gay' for a few months, we were suddenly the 'experts,'" Bussee would later write in a 2007 statement.

At age 20, he married Bigbee and traveled the U.S. preaching the ex-gay gospel. His "testimony of change" was a favorite at church conferences and talk shows such as Pat Robertson's The 700 Club.

In 1976, Bussee and Kaspar learned of other small "change" ministries being set up in different corners of the country. That September, EXIT would host the first national ex-gay conference in Anaheim. The 62 delegates and ministry leaders would then vote to form a loose-knit coalition of ministries.

They would call it Exodus.

"Like Moses," says Bussee, "we thought we could lead people out of the wilderness and into the heterosexual 'promised land.'"

*   *   *

Three decades later, Exodus had morphed into an umbrella organization for 168 ex-gay ministries in 17 countries. Its national conferences usually draw around 1,000 parents, couples and youth. Some 800 are in attendance at this year's Southern California gathering, at least 120 of whom are 25 years old or younger.

An upbeat commercial on Christian talk radio promises "sudden, radical, complete change. Through Christ, freedom is possible for those who struggle with homosexuality." The theme of this year's conference, embossed in bright blue on the ministry's website, is "Revolution."

"Radically change your world," dare the event materials with their artfully manipulated imagery and eye-catching fonts. Most conference-goers are evangelical Christians, but Catholics, Jews and others who believe their faiths condemn the gay lifestyle to some degree are in the mix. Half of this year's group is composed of first-timers, each paying a $200 minimum to attend.

It's Tuesday, June 26, the first night of the six-day seminar, which is already in full swing at Irvine's Concordia University. Standing outside the glass doors of the large conference room Exodus is using for its general meetings, one can hear the praise music pounding. When those doors open, the sound is overwhelming.

A carpeted stair leads down to the floor, where rows of chairs sit before a wide stage. Attendees of all ages (some with children) sit or stand in place, lifting their arms to heaven and singing along to the more familiar melodies.

A "Revolution" video is projected on large screens on both sides of the room, showcasing inspirational bits of last year's conference, while the Christian rock band onstage continues to jam in Jesus' name.

It's well past 8 p.m. when the music fades out, and the guest of honor, Exodus president and ex-gay spokesman Alan Chambers, strides over to the microphone in a crisp white shirt, bright blue eyes flashing with humor.

He wears the grin of a younger man, but the lines around his eyes and a slightly receding hairline put him in his mid-30s.

"Healing has taken place in my life, and change is possible," says Chambers, who calls himself "straight-identified" and is married with two adopted children. (He and his wife, Leslie, are both infertile—this is Chambers' standard answer to critics who say his straight sexual life is a sham. Though he does admit on his weblog that it took eight months to consummate the marriage.)

"I [know this] because I realize, watching the video, that I'm wearing the same shirt this year as I did last year," he continues, sparking wild hoots and laughter.

"That would have never happened before," jests Chambers. He was the guy who brought four changes of clothes for each day of his first Exodus conference in 1993. "Wearing the same shirt that I wore last year, that's progress. I pray the same thing for all of you."

But it's not all gay-laced humor from Exodus' head honcho. In the hour he's given to speak, he cautions the faithful to keep their expectations real. This isn't "poof theology," and change doesn't happen overnight. And if attendees are expecting to come out of the ex-gay program with their arrows completely straightened out years down the line—even that may be a little too much to hope for.

The week prior to the conference, Chambers told the Los Angeles Times that he wasn't sure he'd ever met an ex-gay who ceased to struggle with same-sex attractions. He also acknowledges that he has his own to deal with. "To say that 'one day I was gay, and the next day I couldn't even conjure up a thought'—I've never met anyone like that," Chambers clarified for the Weeklyin an interview at the Freedom Conference.

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