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

Who is a successful ex-gay, then? "It's not going from having homosexual feelings to only heterosexual feelings," says Chambers. But someone who manages those homosexual feelings "in a different way—such that homosexuality no longer has power over them the way it once did. That's success in my opinion."

Chambers' story is not far off from those who flock to his ministry. He was molested in his prepubescent years (a common thread in many ex-gay stories, as well as the notion of a weak or absent father figure) and went on to "battle" homosexual feelings at age 10, convinced that gay people "could not share in God's Kingdom." He threw himself into his church, studied the Bible and went on mission trips. Down and out, he stumbled upon an Exodus ministry in Orlando. But instead of getting on the ex-gay factory conveyor belt, he "became addicted" to anonymous sexual encounters.

Then he heard the "voice of God" as he sat alone at a gay bar on Easter Sunday and decided to put his urges on hold and Christ first.

Michael Bussee
Michael Bussee

Chambers' recent honesty about the reality of "change" via Exodus has angered pro-family leaders such as Stephen Bennett (another ex-gay), who issued a press release condemning "the irresponsible and disturbing remarks attributed to and made by Alan Chambers" in the Times. Exodus used to preach about full-tilt conversion to heterosexuality, but Chambers is changing that. He doesn't like the term "ex-gay," though, and prefers to be called a "struggler."

Perhaps the most striking thing the Exodus president has ever said on the record was from a small group session at Focus on the Family's Love Won Out, another popular ex-gay conference, held in Phoenix earlier in the year and recorded on CD:

"Every single morning—this is a ritual for me—I wake up and say, 'Dear Lord, I can't make it today without you. I choose to deny what comes naturally to me.'

"We're all going to struggle with something until the day we die, and if we think we can get up one day and decide we don't have to pray about it anymore, we're mistaken.

"So expect a life of obedience," concludes Chambers, his usually strong voice sounding sullen through the speakers. "Expect a life of denial."

*   *   *

Late in the summer of 1975, Michael Bussee looked into Gary Cooper's baby blues for the first time and knew he was in trouble.

Here he was, a married man and Melodyland training coordinator, teaching others to keep their gay feelings locked inside—and Cooper, with his shaggy blond hair and California tan, "was the cutest thing I'd ever seen." He says, "It was literally love at first sight."

Cooper, a student at the Melodyland School of Theology, had come to the hot line after being told that volunteer service would keep him from giving into his own homosexual urges. Like Bussee, he was married, and his wife was in on his private war with homosexuality.

Cooper was charismatic, with stage presence from years of playing in the high school band and dressing up as Winnie-the-Pooh and other characters for Disney parades. He and Bussee became fast friends, and their wives were delighted they'd found each other: two ex-gay men struggling together—how ideal. The families became very close, going out on picnics and taking trips to the beach. It was picturesque, but beneath the surface, Bussee and Cooper were trying desperately not to act on their desire for each other.

The men struggled through hugs that lasted too long to be friendly, to removing their clothes, looking each other over, and then backing out of the situation, says Bussee. Cooper went from being an office gopher to a full-time worker at the hot line, and he assisted with that first Exodus conference in '76.

The battle of wills went on till May 1979, when the two broke down on their way to a national convention held by the Church of Christ in Indianapolis, where they were expected to give their usual "How I became ex-gay" spiel.

On the plane, Bussee read Cooper excerpts from Glendon Swarthout's Bless the Beasts & Children, a tale of misfit boys going off to camp to get "fixed." The story hit so close to home that the two spent most of the ride in tears, alarming the flight attendant. Before the plane touched down, they would confess their love to each other and decide they couldn't confidently give their ex-gay testimonies this time around.

The conference organizers were not happy when Bussee and Cooper began talking about the church needing to "unconditionally love and accept gays," instead of trying to change them. That night, the organizers would accidentally put the two in a hotel room with one king-size bed.

To this day, Bussee wonders if it was a true faux pas or some sort of sick joke. Either way, the two took advantage of that bed and became lovers. But a sinking feeling haunted them the rest of the night—a combination of guilt and the uneasy aftermath of watching the movie Alien the day before.

"Both our stomachs kept grumbling all night—I kept expecting something hideous to pop out!" Bussee says.

« Previous Page
Next Page »