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As a devout Christian who helped start one of the largest ministries devoted to “curing” homosexuality, Michael Bussee has sat through a sermon or two. So when the time came the morning of June 19 for Bussee to take to the pulpit at Irvine United Congregational Church to give a speech criticizing the organization that he founded 34 years ago, Bussee knew to open with a punch line.
“I hope I don’t change my mind again,” he said. “Because I don’t want to be an ex-ex-ex-gay.”
The audience giggled heartily. In a way, Bussee had told two jokes. All assembled were well aware it’s not like you can change your mind about being gay.
From 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., a lineup of speakers—and one bona-fide comedian—testified to the idea that sexuality is immutable while blasting Exodus International, the “ex-gay” ministry that would bring its yearly Freedom Conference to Irvine’s Concordia University from June 23 to 26. Organized by local and statewide gay-rights groups such as Equality California, Courage Campaign and the Orange County Equality Coalition, the LGBT affirmation conference cut a sharp contrast with the event it was meant to critique, right down to slogans: One was labeled “It’s Not a ChOiCe,” while Exodus’ website has the tagline “Freedom is possible!”
“What is the choice?” asked Dr. Daniel Helminiak, a University of West Georgia professor. “Only to accept or reject one’s sexuality.” The frizzy-haired Catholic priest was billed as the day’s keynote, but his address—a bit rambling, reliant on PowerPoint slides and terminating with Helminiak belting out a gospel hymn—didn’t quite fire up the three dozen or so people sitting under the many-paneled walls of the geodesic-dome-esque church before 10 a.m.
But Bussee, who followed, spun a tale with personal and political details that were wholly relevant to the day’s theme. Bussee helped organize Exodus’ first conference in 1976 in Anaheim, and he is widely seen as one of the founders of the ex-gay movement that he now loudly disavows (see Janine Kahn’s “The Closet and the Cross,” July 26, 2007). In his address, he shared the details of his journey from a confused childhood in Riverside to fervent ministry in Anaheim to disillusionment and, finally, activism. If he hadn’t helped start Exodus in 1976, he said, someone else would have: The era’s colliding strains of aging-hippie-ism, civil-rights hangover and a wave of “charismatic Christianity” sweeping the nation meant that people were susceptible to the message that by “naming and claiming” something in Jesus Christ’s name—like riches, health or heterosexuality—it would come to them.
“I remember one televangelist said, ‘Just put whatever your afflicted part is just right up against the TV screen, and God will heal you,’” Bussee said. “Well, I’m not going to put my afflicted part up against the TV screen. Somebody might walk in.”
He left Exodus in 1979 by going public about the relationship he had with Gary Cooper, a colleague at Anaheim’s Melodyland church’s Christian-help hotline. But it wasn’t until the early ’90s that the two spoke out about why they believed the “ex-gay” ministry they had helped to start had become destructive.
Wayne Besen of Truth Wins Out—a strident detractor of the ex-gay movement—followed Bussee’s talk with a fiery, pun-filled litany of reasons why he thinks Exodus has seen better days since it grabbed headlines in 1998 for partnering with Focus On the Family and running a national ad campaign. “Exodus is a spent force on the decline,” he said. “In merely 12 years, they have gone from the religious right’s opening act to a circus act.”
Besen’s list of reasons included rising public acceptance of homosexuality, a host of scandals featuring Christian fundamentalists caught in gay relationships, and the growing consensus—even among Exodus’ leaders—that the best most struggling homosexuals can hope for with “ex-gay” groups is not to become straight, but rather to become celibate. “Celibacy,” Besen pointed out, “just isn’t sexy.
Speakers also blasted Exodus for its ties with Uganda’s proposed “kill-the-gays” legislation—a law that would, as originally written, make homosexuality punishable by death. The bill drew horrified rebukes from the White House and Saddleback Church’s Rick Warren. But an Exodus board member was fingered as one of three Americans—including Holocaust-revisionist Scott Lively—who spoke at an anti-homosexuality conference in Uganda that is widely credited with planting the seeds for the law.
“This incident devastated Exodus,” Besen said. “It moved it from the category of a bunch of misled, sad people to a hate group. The organization may never recover from the negative publicity it received from its role in Uganda.”