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

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The Irvine Exodus Freedom Conference is Dan's fourth.

The portly Santa Ana attorney has made it a point to show up when the ex-gay ministry brings the event to California and is a proud veteran. He says he could teach some of the classes at this point and believes he has triumphed over his attraction to men—he's even dating women these days and says he's ready to marry.

Michael Bussee
Michael Bussee

Dan, 38, comes to the conference not out of a dire need for change, but to reconnect with friends he's made at Exodus. It's like an ex-gay summer camp.

He's never lived the "homosexual lifestyle," but he came close to it as a 21-year-old at Disneyland. Between running the Matterhorn and Dumbo rides, he found himself drawn to John, another Disney employee.

"In my mind, I was a good Christian boy, and I was 'evangelizing' him," says Dan, recalling what must feel like ancient history in the sunshine at Concordia University.

"We would get off work at midnight or 1 a.m. and go out for coffee or something—and falling in love with him was what I was doing."

But when the relationship took a turn for the physical, Dan withdrew. He'd decided long ago never to act out on his gay feelings.

"I was very serious about not going down that road," he says. "I was ready to be celibate for Jesus—white-knuckle it if I had to."

In 1990, he discovered Desert Stream, a national ex-gay ministry with a branch in Anaheim. Dan found a support group and attended Living Waters, the ministry's six-month healing program. He went through therapy on the side.

The ministry closed up shop and shipped out to Kansas in recent years; Dan has since moved on to a regular Christian church. He's looked into gay-affirming ministries, but, he says, he couldn't buy into their theology.

"I could never bring myself to say that the Scripture does not condemn homosexual behavior," he says. "I made a decision. I'm not going to interpret the Scripture based on how I feel. I'm not going to try to twist it to make it say what I want."

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Leviticus 18:22. "Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable."

Leviticus 20:13. "If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads."

Dissecting biblical text is tricky business. Many Christians claim to live by the book, but that is also usually selective. For instance, these two verses from Leviticus are pretty straightforward. But go up a couple of verses, and you'll read Jesus' how-to manual for slavery. Should the two verses on homosexuality somehow be taken differently from the passage on how to have slaves?

The Reverend Paul Tellstrom, a gay pastor from Irvine's United Congregational Church, thinks it's preposterous to devote so much time to the issue when the Bible (and Jesus) had so much else to say.

He takes a plastic bag from beneath his desk and from it retrieves a large mass of shredded paper, which he spills across the table. Each strip represents a verse from the New Testament. "These are the verses about looking after the poor," he says, gesturing toward the massive pile.

Then he takes a Ziploc bag filled with shredded paper. "These are the verses about women."

Then, a bag with a handful of strands. "These are the verses about homosexuality."

"And here is what Jesus says about homosexuality," says Tellstrom, holding up an empty Ziploc bag. "Absolutely nothing."

This way of reasoning is deceptive, Alan Chambers wrote in an April 2004 blog entry.

"The Bible doesn't have a record of Jesus speaking out for or against homosexuality; then again, the Bible wasn't a complete transcript of Jesus' 33-year life," he wrote.

"Jesus did, however, make it abundantly clear what he was for. He said in Matthew 5:17 that he did not come to destroy the law (the Old Testament), but rather to fulfill it. . . . Jesus may not have literally spoken about the issue of homosexuality, but the Bible clearly does both in the Old and New Testaments."

The Reverend Robin White of Santa Ana's Metropolitan Community Church disagrees with Exodus' premise that homosexuality is sinful and disorderly. The ex-gay ministry's claim that the Christian God condemns gays and lesbians is flawed, he says.

"It's putting on God's lips a lie. It's invoking God's name over a mistruth. Mathew 19:12 fully acknowledges that there are people who are born from their mothers' wombs as eunuchs. Eunuchs would have encompassed, at that time, gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgenders, and even straight people who were incapable of bearing children because they were infertile. It would have covered a lot of people.

"To say otherwise is a direct denial of that piece of scripture that does come from Jesus' lips, so it is a question of using the Lord's name in vain, so to speak. Anything that goes through that kind of an abusive set of means cannot create a loving end."

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