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By Gustavo Arellano
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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.”
Exodus leaders have expressed concerns about the Ugandan legislation going as far back as November 2009, but it wasn’t until earlier this month that Exodus went public with a definitive statement condemning any criminalization of homosexuality. In introducing the policy on Exodus’ blog, the group’s president, Alan Chambers, was apologetic for the delay.
“Criticism is easy to come by at Exodus,” Chambers wrote. “Our growth over the years has caused us to not always know what the hand or foot are doing, which sometimes causes us to look like we are ‘all butt.’”
“We just wanted to make sure that the statement we put out was exactly what represented our position,” Chambers later told the Weekly over the phone. “Why now? Because it was necessary. If we hadn’t done it, someone would have criticized us. If we had done it earlier, we would have still been criticized for it.”
Bussee sees a different explanation. “They stalled and stalled and stalled,” he said after his speech. “They finally issued a formal policy against criminalization . . . just in time for the Exodus conference.” Bussee thinks it’s part of a campaign to put a gentler face on the ex-gay movement. To that effect, Exodus has tried out a series of euphemisms to describe their adherents, abandoning “ex-gay” for “former homosexual” and using “SSA” or “same-sex-attraction.” Recently, they swiped the term “post-gay” from gay-rights activists who used it to describe a world where homosexuality is universally accepted. All these buzzwords, Bussee points out, essentially mean, “you’re still gay,” and yet Exodus’ promotional materials don’t readily disclose that their conferences work toward “holiness,” not heterosexuality.
To Bussee, the biggest tragedy of all might be that Exodus’ involvement in Uganda is a symptom of the illness that he thinks has struck the ministry: politics. When Bussee was with Exodus, the group turned down requests for support from the anti-gay campaigns of Anita Bryant and Orange County congressman William Dannemeyer. By the late ’80s, though, the organization had changed.
“Exodus morphed into something terrible after we left,” Bussee said. “They took this detour, but this detour is turning deadly. Their product wasn’t selling here in the United States anymore, so they decided to [export] it to Africa.”
Standing in the sun-filled Irvine United Congregational Church lobby after giving his talk, Bussee was approached by Zoe Nicholson, a Newport Beach activist for women’s and LGBT rights since the 1970s. “I just want to hug the stuffing out of you,” Nicholson told him before wishing a happy birthday to Bussee’s grandson.
Bussee and Nicholson began talking about Exodus and the criticism Bussee had received from some in the gay community for helping to found it. Some say that, for all his penance, he still has “blood on his hands” from the psychological damage Exodus caused.
“The lives you’ve saved, the hearts you’ve opened,” Nicholson said. “You’ve helped people believe they weren’t sinners.”
Bussee wiped his eyes as tears began to well up. “I didn’t want to hurt people,” he said. “That was never my intent.”
Editorial Intern Kevin Short contributed to the reporting of this story.
This article appeared in print as "Rated Ex: Michael Bussee and other activists use some strong language to denounce the upcoming conference of the ‘ex-gay’ ministry Exodus International."