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

In the scorching heat of the summer sun, a crowd gathers in silence around a wall covered in large sheets of white poster paper.

It's the last Saturday of June in this UC Irvine courtyard, and most eyes are fixed on the text atop the collage, which reads, "Ex-gay experiences" on one side, and on the other, "Good/Harm."

Armed with colored markers, the men and women come forward to put pen to paper.

"I lost my young adult years to 'the closet.' I'll never recover that," writes a lanky gent before falling back into the crowd.

"I thought I was changing! In reality, I had walled away my sexuality," pens a woman in black, her face tight with emotion.

One man writes, "$30,000." He had let an ex-gay ministry have his money in exchange for the hope they could iron out his homosexuality. They couldn't, so he'd walked away—and written a one-man play on the subject.

More people advance, pens raised in protest. Some of the dozens here are coming forward to present themselves for the first time as survivors of a movement that cost them friends and family, time and money.

For years, many of those present were neck-deep in the teachings of the ex-gay ministry Exodus International and its ilk, believing desperately that they could alter their sexual orientations and become "normal." Straightness was the path to heaven, they were told; living the "homosexual lifestyle" was a winding stairway to hell.

This, the first national Ex-Gay Survivor Conference, is the gay community's response to what Soulforce founder and former ex-gay the Reverend Mel White calls the "well-intended menace" across the street. Exodus had set up shop in the private Christian campus of Concordia University, settling in for its annual weeklong Freedom Conference.

Exodus International is no stranger to protest, but this year, Soulforce, a group of volunteers who have made it their mission to teach the principles of nonviolence on behalf of gender minorities, and Beyond Ex-Gay, a relatively new online community for ex-gay survivors, would swap bullhorns and hand-carried signs for a different form of retaliation.

Here, for three days, the survivors would gather at the university and tell the stories many at Exodus do not want to hear: yarns of rejection, failure and brokenness. And all from the lips of former ex-gay ministry members and leaders who once subscribed to the same mindset as the mammoth ministry:

"I failed God."

"I've come to hate religion."

"My family can only love the mask they give me to wear."

The wall fills with color and pain as the clock ticks, the silent crowd growing restless and tearful, some seemingly amazed they'd met their personal demons here in this simple activity. A few "good" memories are scrawled—"Made great friends," "God became a very real father to me"—but they are almost lost in the sorrowful missives.

The crowd falls back as the activity concludes—an icebreaking session for the Survivor Conference.

Then the man who blames himself in part for the birth of the ex-gay movement in Anaheim more than three decades ago comes forward and picks up a pen.

"The truth will set you free," Michael Bussee writes in red, "but first it will make you miserable."

*   *   *

In 1971, Bussee became a Christian. Thousands of teens were leaving drugs and alcohol, and burned-out hippies were embracing Jesus. It was the hip thing to do in his senior year at Ramona High School in Riverside and the result of a quest he'd begun at age 12: to find a "cure" for his homosexuality.

He'd known growing up that he was gay, but the term had always been derogatory and reminiscent of the bullying and beatings he'd endured through junior high. Bussee hated recess. It usually meant another fist to the stomach or spit to the face, sometimes a rock to the side of his head.

"P.E. was a nightmare," he recalls. "I sucked at sports, and they let me know it."

Come sixth grade, he would decide he wanted to be a psychologist—to figure out why he was gay and why homosexuality angered his straight counterparts so.

By Bussee's senior year in high school, he'd learned to hide his "differences," and the beatings stopped.

His straight façade was cemented when he started seeing Ann Bigbee, a former Ramona High attendee who went to Riverside City College with him. Bigbee knew of Bussee's tendencies, but chose to love him despite them. Perhaps, they thought, with prayer, they could iron out his gay kinks together. The pair experimented with sex—even though their faith deemed it sinful—just to make sure everything was in working order. At age 19, Bussee and Bigbee got engaged. Later, they would head to Cal State Fullerton together.

In 1974, Bussee, a college student and budding therapist, found himself drawn to the Melodyland Christian Center in Anaheim—a megachurch across the street from Disneyland. The church ran a suicide-prevention hot line, and he stepped in one day to apply for a volunteer phone-counselor position.

The application form was pretty standard—until Bussee got to the last item, which prompted, "Is there anything else in your background—former drug addict, former criminal, former homosexual—that might influence your ability as a counselor?"

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."

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.

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.

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.

*   *   *

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.

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."

*   *   *

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."

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.

"You can live with the desperation for so long," he says, glancing at the altar behind him. "And then you crack up."

White lived to tell the tale, and he has since gotten comfortable in his homosexual skin. But he can go on for hours about others who were not so lucky.

Work with Soulforce has made White a "preacher who floats." Even without a church, he's called upon to bury kids who commit suicide across the nation. "Invariably, they're from a Christian family and, invariably, an ex-gay treatment center," says White. He cites a University of Minnesota study that states gay young men are seven times more likely to commit suicide than their straight counterparts. "What they don't say is that most of those kids come from Christian families."

The ex-gay movement "leads to death—directly to death," he says. "And it's all good people doing it. All sincere, good people doing it."

Incidentally, White was the man who put Bussee's beloved in the ground. He had been living in Laguna Beach when he got a call from a very upset Bussee, who was trying to find a minister to inter his deceased lover. Cooper's last wish was to have his funeral at Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, where he first became a Christian. But upon learning he had died of the "homosexual disease," the minister lined up to do the service had backed out.

"Mike, calm down: God is in control," said White, breaking it to his friend that he was an ordained minister and would be honored to lead Cooper's service.

Under White's care, the funeral blossomed, said Bussee. Cooper was laid to rest at Westminster Memorial Park on Beach Boulevard. The plot of land next to Cooper has no marker, but it's reserved, says Bussee, for himself.

*   *   *

When Eric Leocadio was in the ninth grade, he decided he wanted to die.

He'd known he was gay even as a child and believed it to be socially unacceptable. His parents had recently divorced, and he was at an all-time low, feeling out of place as a Filipino in Long Beach

So he took two handfuls of pills one evening and popped them into his mouth one at a time. At 14, he believed that if he kept going, he could stop his heart.

Leocadio had a smidgeon of a Catholic background, so he put a rosary around his neck before he passed out on his bed in his mother's home.

Two hours later, he woke up, weak and woozy. Then, he felt as though he were being carried to the bathroom, where he proceeded to throw up.

The clocked blinked 7:00. Then 8 p.m., then 9. Every hour on the hour, he'd wake, look at the clock and somehow find himself at the porcelain throne, coughing up pills. Eventually, the morning peeked through Leocadio's window. He felt sick and wished he were dead.

"God wasn't done with me," says Leocadio, who believes his stomach was pumped by divine intervention, as he can't imagine having the strength to have walked to the bathroom on his own.

The experience turned Leocadio into an outspoken Christian who believed and taught others that being gay was sinful.

"My only outlets of expressing my sexuality were limited to those things done in secrecy. This further fractured my sense of self as I maintained a dualistic life—one lived in public light, and the other lived in private darkness," he would write in a 2007 blog entry.

He prayed for God to change him, and he eventually wound up in Anaheim's Desert Stream Ministries. For two years, he attended support groups and enrolled himself in the Living Waters program, designed to assist people with their "sexual and relational brokenness."

Leocadio thought he was broken. "After spending several hundred dollars and countless hours in the ex-gay program, I graduated still believing that being gay was a sin and that being straight was the ideal," he wrote. "Unlike so many others who have survived traumatic experiences from programs like these, I was one of the lucky ones who didn't exit the program terrorized. Perhaps it was because I bought into their notion that I may have to live with being gay for the rest of my life, but that there were tools that I could implement to suppress my homosexuality so that I could outwardly present myself as straight—as ex-gay."

Though Leocadio subscribed to what Desert Stream preached, he was also wary of the mixed signals the ex-gay program put forth: namely, that God's love was unconditional, but the acceptance of the church wasn't.

Acceptance was dependent on conforming to the church's interpretation of what wholeness was, he says. And "to be whole meant to be straight." The disparity rocked Leocadio and led him to embrace himself as a Christian homosexual in 2005. These days, he speaks out against ex-gay culture and attended the survivors' conference.

The equation of wholeness and heterosexuality was a constant theme at the Exodus general sessions the Weekly was allowed to attend last month. But when quizzed about it, Alan Chambers waved it off as the mainstream media's misinterpretation of "Christianese."

*   *   *

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.

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?"

*   *   *

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 BoxTurtleBulletin.com.

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.

Burroway's lecture runs from history to money matters: Exodus pulled in $925,315 in 2004—a pebble compared to Focus on the Family, he notes, which made $138 million in 2005.

The infiltration of the Exodus conference got under Chambers' skin, says Bussee, who received angry e-mails from the Exodus president on the subject.

Chambers claims the infiltrators from the survivors' conference were boisterous and disruptive. Bussee responded saying no one he knew from the conference had behaved in such a way, and that the nature of the protest had been generally peaceful. Still, the delicate fibers of the Chambers-Bussee correspondence appear strained, Bussee says.

"He says he's my friend," he says of Chambers. "But he sure doesn't act like it."

*   *   *

The survivors' poster paper of pain is on the floor now, but Christine Bakke can't bring herself to throw it away.

It felt too sacred for the Dumpster, she says to a group of Sunday conference attendees.

"We want to use some of this pain to create something new, something that's going to give life. . . . so pick out something you wrote, or something that struck you, and cut it into fine little bits," she instructs. The shaved words will be mixed with potting soil and placed at the base of a sapling.

The survivors take scissors and hack into the paper wall, making mincemeat of the testimonies.

Snip through "shame." Snipthrough "thoughts of depression and suicide."

Then one survivor pauses to hold up a piece of the poster bearing a message in red ink—in the neat print of Michael Bussee.

"I helped create Exodus in 1976," it reads. "Please, forgive me."

Beneath it, in different scripts and colors, his plea is answered with "Yes" and "Of course."

A slide show of images from both conferences can be found here .

jpkahn@ocweekly.com

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