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

Gay-friendly churches like Tellstrom's and White's often take in those who have fallen off the ex-gay bandwagon. But many who invest so much of themselves into the idea of reaching normalcy (i.e., heterosexuality) and later discover it is not a feasible end tend to sever themselves from all things religious.

"It's a faith-killer," says White, thinking of one parishioner who can't bring himself to come to church while Exodus is in town—instead wallowing in memories of his own failed ex-gay experience.

*   *   *

In late 1979, Michael Bussee noticed that a thick depression had settled upon the men in his Anaheim ministry.

Many had dropped out of the program, while others succumbed to self-destruction and self-loathing. One young man deliberately drove his car into a tree, while another frequented straight bars looking for someone to beat him up. No one was changing as planned.

The clincher for Bussee was when a dedicated EXIT ministry member walked into Bussee's Melodyland office for an appointment one day and told him he'd hurt himself.

"He had 'fallen,'" explains Bussee. His friend had gone to a bookstore and had a brief sexual encounter there. So he'd slashed himself to atone.

"What do you mean, you hurt yourself? Where?" Bussee had demanded.

"Down there," the man said, and when Bussee asked to see his injuries, he'd dropped his pants and shown him his bloodied testicles.

"He told me he'd not only cut himself repeatedly, but also poured Drano on it. So he was blistered," says Bussee.

Gary Cooper had also fallen prey to depression and had suffered a complete nervous breakdown, Bussee says.

This weighed on Bussee, who was madly in love with the man. That night in Indianapolis had evolved into a Brokeback Mountain relationship of sorts, and simple errands like "trips to the hardware store" became excuses to be together behind their wives' backs.

Unable to deal with the disparity of the lives he was leading, hallucinations of flames and demonic faces haunted Cooper. A church psychiatrist intervened with heavy doses of Thorazine, turning him into a zombie.

Seeing his usually animated lover lifeless was too much for Bussee, and he took Cooper off the meds. Together, they walked out of Melodyland and EXIT for good.

Jobless without the church, the two struggled to make ends meet to support their families. Bussee and Ann Bigbee had a daughter at this point; Cooper had three children.

The men continued to struggle with their attraction to each other, going for long periods without seeing each other to "falling" and giving in. This continued until 1982, when Bigbee decided she wanted another child. Bussee, deciding he couldn't bear to leave one child—much less two—took the opportunity to confess he wasn't changing.

"Is there someone else?" Bigbee had asked. Bussee nodded.

"Is it Gary?"

"Yes," he said.

The couple clung to each other and cried, rocking back and forth on the floor of their Riverside home, knowing the friendship the families had cultivated over the years was broken beyond repair. Devastated, Bigbee would continue speaking at Exodus conferences to console women whose husbands couldn't help but stray.

They lost everything, said Bussee: their families, friends and support group through the church. For years, Bussee's daughter was angry with him, subscribing to the notion that "If your daddy had loved you enough and loved Jesus enough, he would not be gay."

Later that year, Bussee and Cooper would don powder-blue tuxedos ("We thought it was stylish at the time," says Bussee) and hold a commitment ceremony at The Courtroom, a gay bar and lounge in downtown Riverside.

Bussee and Cooper kept their lives out of the spotlight until 1991, when a television segment featuring the vehemently anti-gay Reverend Lou Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition shook them out of their reverie. Quizzed on successful ex-gay programs, Sheldon claimed one existed in Exodus.

"Shouldn't we saysomething?" Cooper had asked Bussee.

"Are youready to say something?" Bussee asked his partner, who had been keen to live quietly. By that point, Cooper had contracted AIDS and, knowing he was marked for death, decided he had nothing to lose.

The pair came out publicly against the ex-gay movement that year, did the Joan Rivers Show and shared their story in the documentary One Nation Under God. They were once again working the media circuit, but this time, the men were putting forth an entirely different message.

Cooper died shortly thereafter.

*   *   *

Friday evening, Soulforce president and founder, author and former ex-gay the Reverend Mel White sat down with the Weekly inside Irvine's United Congregational Church to talk about the decades he spent on the opposite side of the ex-gay fence.

For 35 years, White did everything in his power to quash the "homosexual demon" within. He endured exorcisms and electric-shock treatments. He and his wife, Lyla, were in therapy for 21 years. Their discussions about the state of White's sexuality usually ended in tears; this happened often enough that waitresses at Pasadena's Hamburger Hamlet would bring tissue boxes to the couple's table when they went out to dine.

But the desire to be with another man never left White, and one day, after one last discussion with his wife, he decided enough was enough. He threw open a closet door, found a sharp edge on a metal hanger and slit his wrists.

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