EXCLUSIVE: Lisa Ling on “God and Gays,” Exodus and the new ex-gay movement

 
 

In 2011, Season 1 of OWN’s Our America with Lisa Ling ran a controversial episode called “Can You Pray The Gay Away?” that featured the ex-gay movement as largely spearheaded by an organization called Exodus International. Host Lisa Ling aimed to show all sides of the issue, but GLAAD, among others, felt there was too much emphasis on Exodus, giving the harmful organization a platform that they then used to tout their authenticity. That, Lisa Ling said, was not her intention. As someone who considers herself a huge advocate for LGBT rights, she was hoping to tell a story, and that story has only continued to unfold over the last couple of years after the episode aired.

Tonight on OWN, Our America will present “God & Gays,” a follow-up episode that you can watch without having seen the previous one. What’s different on this episode is that Alan Chambers, president of Exodus, visits with a group of ex-gay survivors that have been severely damaged by the organization’s methods, and apologizes to them for what he’s been a part of, and what he’s ultimately helped do to them.

“I thought that was pretty significant because we’re talking about thousands and thousands of people who’ve gone through Exodus, gone through their programs and been through reparative therapy,” Lisa said. Alan originally called her to say he wanted to apologize, but Lisa took it a step further in asking if he’d deliver it directly to ex-gay survivors. “Whatever you think about Alan, I was surprised and impressed that he agreed to do so. Because you know, these survivors are people who have been harmed so so deeply and Alan could have easily issued his apology in a newspaper and been done with it but he agreed knowing the kind of pain the survivors were harboring. For me it was the opportunity for him to hear from ex-gay survivors.”

The small group of survivors were gathered in an L.A. church basement when many of them met in person for the first time. They are all part of an online community formed by former Exodus creator Michael Bussee who was also part of “Pray the Gay Away?”. Michael left Exodus when he fell for his partner and now lives happily as a gay man but is trying to recover from the guilt he feels from creating such a hateful environment that Exodus has become. The group of survivors includes two women and one is Catherine, who, like Michael, was heavily involved in Exodus and condemning homosexuals.

“People who still may have conflict with whether people can be gay and Christian, or people who believe homosexuality is a sin — to be able to hear from these remarkable people who have gone through so much share their stories. People who, still to this day, maintain so much incredible faith,” Lisa said. “I’m not a religious person but I really felt the presence of God in that room because i really felt like these are people — I think gay Christians are actually people with the strongest faith because so many of them have been so deeply persecuted and had their church turn their backs on them, still be able to maintain faith. That indication to me is that it’s really not about Christians, it’s about Christ.”

Once Lisa, Alan and his wife are seated in a circle, the survivors begin to share their individual experiences with reparative therapy. Some are sad, some are angry, some demand that Exodus be shut down. Alan speaks to them about changing Exodus, about how it will no longer focus on turning gay people straight. But what Exodus will become without that founding mission is hard to know. “They’ve lost a ton of funding,” Lisa said, acknowledging that, at that point, many followers of the ex-gay movement have broken off from Exodus because of this to continue conversion therapy on their own, despite the fact that the American Psychiatric Association condemned the practice in 2000.

In a case of very interesting timing, just yesterday it was announced that Exodus would be closing its doors completely, the board of directors voting “unanimously” to do so. Lisa gave us this statement:

“When I first reported on Exodus International three years ago, I never
imagined I’d see the day it would shut down. I’m proud of the role our
program played in telling the stories of the many gay men and women who, while struggling
with their sexuality and faith, were harmed by their practices.”

Alongside Alan in the church basement, the only other person who was still part of Exodus is Julie, a young lesbian from Texas who is being touted as “a voice of the new generation.” Lisa said that Julie wouldn’t consider herself an ex-gay because she still has same-sex attraction. It’s something she’s working on — holding out for a male partner and remaining celibate until that happens.

These changes in Exodus and the ex-gay movement have come about because of Our America‘s first “Pray the Gay Away?” episode. Alan Chambers told Lisa Ling the episode and the controversy after it aired on OWN inspired the change within him that has ultimately affected how Exodus is run. His future is uncertain, as is that of Exodus. Without Lisa Ling’s being trusted to enter the world of ex-gay believers as easily as she is into the world of gay survivors, there couldn’t have been such an impact that has and will continue to trickle down to even the youngest gay person who has been told he might as well kill himself for having same sex attraction. That’s something Catherine struggles with every day; that she helped write newsletters and articles that might have reached someone that thought suicide was the answer, because living openly gay in America was just not possible or right with the Lord.

One of those young people who has struggled is Christian, who was also featured on the 2011 episode when he was making every effort he could muster to become straight. He joined the discussion with Alan and the ex-gay survivors and then tells Lisa what he’s decided about ex-gay therapy and himself after going through it.

Exodus used the phrase “change is possible” for their work, but it’s taken on a very different meaning in the last two years. Thank God.

“God & Gays” will air on OWN tonight, Thursday, June 20 at 10/9 p.m. Central.

 
 

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