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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For 15 years, Michael Bussee was silent.

Since Cooper, he has lost two more lovers to AIDS, been the victim of a hate crime and seen a gay friend stabbed to death in a parking lot. Now a licensed marriage-and-family therapist, he lives and works in his native Riverside, and he is now in a relationship with a man named Richard, who never had to hear about the ex-gay movement till the two started dating.

Michael Bussee
Michael Bussee

Bussee kept his nose out of the ministry's business until late last year, when he decided to randomly run a Google search on his name. What he found shocked and appalled him. He and Cooper were being slandered left and right, Bussee says, some websites saying they falsely claimed they started Exodus—a statement Bussee never made, though he was one of the founders—and others saying Cooper had no part in helping start Exodus at all. Other pages had nasty comments speculating that Cooper had cheated on Bussee, and thus contracted AIDS.

Enraged, Bussee went on an e-mailing spree to counter some of the false messages. Since then, he has been a very vocal critic of the ministry he was once a part of.

On June 27, while the Freedom Conference went on at Concordia University, Bussee and two other former Exodus leaders, Darlene Bogle and Jeremy Marks, issued public apologies to the GLBT community for the harm they felt they had caused by their leadership in the ex-gay movement.

Bogle was the former director of Paraklete Ministries—an Exodus referral ministry in Hayward—and Marks was the president of Exodus International Europe.

The apologies were intended for those who were damaged by the ex-gay experience, but Chambers issued a dismissive reply on his blog in an entry titled "I forgive you." The folks at the Ex-Gay Watch website later quizzed Chambers on the tone of his post, and he admitted he found the apologies "hollow and self-serving."

"I have been very open to dialogue with Darlene Bogle and Michael Bussee. I am interested in what they have to say," said Chambers. "It seems they want to discredit Exodus when they can only discredit themselves. Their stories aren't the stories of the majority of leaders who have been a part of the ministry. They chose to leave Exodus and to pursue what they believe to be the best for themselves."

Chambers claims he is open to dialog with the opposite side, but when members of the survivors' camp invited him to a Friday dinner for conversation, he was a no-show. The Exodus president told the Weekly he planned to meet with Peterson Toscano and Christine Bakke of the online community Beyond Ex-Gay, but Toscano says that never happened. Chambers had RSVP'd late, saying he was too busy. And instead of sending any board members or senior Exodus staffers, he dispatched three leaders who run affiliated ministries across the country.

The two camps met in the late afternoon at a private room at Crystal Jade, a Chinese restaurant in Irvine, and four ex-gay survivors including Toscano and Bakke shared their stories. Toscano wouldn't reveal who the Exodus representatives were, but said the exchange was cordial.

"What they do with it, I'm not sure, but hopefully this is the beginning of some genuine dialog. Not whether change is possible, but rather, change at what cost," he says.

Exodus claims to have a 30 percent success rate, says Toscano (though the ministry's website cites studies with success rates varying from 30 to 50). "That means that 70 percent of the people who go through their doors can't do what they want them to do. What happens to these people? And who cares?"

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It's Saturday at the survivor conference, and ex-ex-gays, researchers and media members are sitting in a UCI classroom. Today's lecturer is Jim Burroway, a well-known name in the GLBT blogging circuit and one of the main contributors to

Burroway is a meticulous man who likes to take official-looking documents with footnotes to the library to find if they truly have a leg to stand on. Oftentimes, he says, they don't. He's here to teach a class on Ex-Gay 101, the history of the movement from Bussee and pals onward.

The class starts with a slide show featuring Burroway's parents, presenting pictures of the couple from infancy to marriage—then a shot of Burroway's mother holding him as a newborn takes center stage. It's every Christian parent's dream photo collection: the lovely young bride and dashing groom and their first child.

"What do you do when the narrative breaks?" prompts the screen.

Force it back into place via the ex-gay movement? Let it evolve on its own? Burroway doesn't have an ex-gay experience to speak of, but he's interested in asking tough questions about the movement. Lately, he's been keeping an eye on the ex-gay camp from a prime spot: as a registered participant.

He infiltrated Love Won Outin February and is doing the same at the Exodus Irvine Conference. One would think his name would have been noticed, but Chambers' small staff didn't raise any red flags.

This year's Freedom Conference is better than others in the sense that those in charge aren't making a big deal about participants' postures and way of dress, says Burroway. The MC is pretty flamboyant, which seems to put the crowd at ease. Other ministries stick their dykes in dresses and force the limp-wristed into football. And Burroway finds Chambers' honesty and humanity refreshing—things the movement hasn't seen in a while.

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