Demonstrators Welcome Ex-Gay Conference

Orange County's ex-gay-dar rocketed off the charts this past week as roughly 600 people gathered to attend Exodus International's Freedom Conference at Concordia University, while about 60 demonstrated outside the gates of the fortress-like campus last Saturday.


The small Christian university, nestled in the arid hills of Irvine, was this year's designated home of the international ex-gay movement. While the organization's official rhetoric has a tendency to shift, Exodus tries to counteract "the homosexual lifestyle" and "same-sex attractions" through Christian ministry and prayer.  Their website reads "freedom from homosexuality through the power of Jesus Christ."

Demonstrators Welcome Ex-Gay Conference
Christopher Victorio
Demonstrators Welcome Ex-Gay Conference
Christopher Victorio

I was denied access to every conference session except the kick-off "general session" last Wednesday night, in which Exodus head-honcho Alan Chambers spoke to the crowd. The emcee jokingly said that if you don't wear proper credentials at all times, "they will tackle you down." I didn't want to test this out.

Several days later, however, a very special package was delivered to the Orange County Equality Coalition's protest camp outside the gates: unwanted delegate credentials from a registered conference participant, and cookies.

OC Equality Coalition's Linda May approached both the ID and the sweets without trepidation.

"I was the only one willing to eat the cookies," she joked, "I don't think they were poisoned."

Demonstrators Welcome Ex-Gay Conference
Christopher Victorio

More importantly, May used her newly acquired fake-ID of sorts to gain access into various small group sessions, in order "to see what [the conference] was all about," she said.

"They're not telling you you're a bad person overtly," she commented.  But "they assume that gay means compulsive... [is] me being in love with my partner is an addiction?  No, it's just who we fall in love with."

Indeed, Exodus International is not an exceedingly militant or aggressive organization; they are not the Westboro Baptist Church--no "God Hates Fags" rhetoric.  Exodus staffers and participants forge a community and (at least for the week) stand united, albeit through pain and guilt.  

Demonstrators Welcome Ex-Gay Conference
Christopher Victorio

In one of the most poignant moments of his speech, Exodus President Chambers recalled his sense of isolation within the church.

"I was tired of people putting their hands up without people putting their hands out," he said.

Those who embrace the ex-gay movement find themselves marginalized by both homophobes and gay activists.

The ministry's website puts it plainly: "Within both the Christian and secular communities, Exodus has challenged those who respond to homosexuals with ignorance and fear, and those who uphold homosexuality as a valid orientation. These extremes fail to convey the fullness of redemption found in Jesus Christ."
Demonstrators Welcome Ex-Gay Conference
Christopher Victorio

Chambers dispelled myths that you can merely "pray the gay away," or have an instantaneous switch in orientation via faith. He acknowledged that journey "forward from homosexuality" is a lengthy, arduous process.

"The opposite of homosexuality isn't heterosexuality--it's holiness, it is wholeness," he said.
In a startling comment, Chambers admitted that "just because I'm the president doesn't mean I don't still struggle [with same sex attractions]... I never chose to feel gay but I chose what to do about [the feelings]."

In other words, Exodus frequently advocates celibacy.

"I chose to embrace the suffering, the pain, the emptiness... denying those things that may have come to me naturally," Chambers said.

Still, to the 60 activists outside on Saturday evening, this denial of the legitimacy of the so-called "homosexual lifestyle" is the very reason why Exodus should still be condemned. Armed with neon posters, rainbow flags, and unrelenting smiles, demonstrators evoked a chorus of car honks and supportive waves. The intersection of Ridgeline Drive and University Drive was bathed by the glow of the evening sun and the radiant optimism of the demonstrators.

Inevitably, a few passerbys shared middle fingers rather than friendly waves. But protesters remained goal-oriented.

"What I hope is that some kid in the back seat of one of these cars whose dad made him come [to the Freedom Conference] sees us, and realizes that queer is not broken," explained Zoe Ann Nicholson, a self-described "equality activist."     

"We don't want Exodus thinking Orange County is a venue for stigmatizing gays," said event organizer Alex Gorman. "It's unacceptable that they can come into a community and stigmatize the community's members."  
Demonstrators Welcome Ex-Gay Conference
Christopher Victorio


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