An Open Letter to Exodus International President Alan Chambers, From A Queer Ex-Evangelical

I know his work has done irreparable harm to many LGBT evangelicals, but I have not experienced him as a monster.

Jun 21, 2013 at 4:30pm | Leave a comment

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I hate it when Christians offer to pray for me. I really really hate it because I know what it means: that I'm deficient in some way -– usually that I need prayer because I'm “sinning” against God. I grew up pretty deeply entrenched in evangelical Christian subculture, the daughter of a preacher. People have offered to pray for me all my life. “I’ll pray for you” is a weapon.
 
So I wasn’t expecting Exodus International President Alan Chambers -– leader of the largest anti-gay organization in the world –- to be the first to say it to me out of genuine care. He looms large in the news right now because he has just announced that his organization, Exodus, is closing its doors, and issued a public apology for the harm Exodus has caused.
 
I've interviewed Alan Chambers and gotten to know him a bit in the past year. He reached out recently when I was going through a difficult time. He asked if it would be all right for him to pray for me. He gave me a choice about it. He didn’t make a coercive pronouncement about his plan to pray for me. And he didn’t pressure me with any agenda.
 
Normally evangelicals just announce that they’re going to pray for you. I’ll pray for you” is often the Christian equivalent of “fuck you.” I’ve heard it compared to the Southern phrase “bless your heart,” but I insist that it’s more mean-spirited than that. If someone offers to pray for you in person or over the phone, they usually insist that it happen right then and there. And they use the prayer as an excuse to utter poetic and overwrought sentiments to God that are mainly just personal judgments of you personally.
 
This was a simple and short little interaction that I had with Alan, and it’s very possible that I read too much into it. The significant thing about it for me was everything that was absent from it. There was no coercion.
That made it a safe interaction, one that did not leave me feeling violated.

That meant something to me then -– and it still does. It probably sounds like I’m giving Alan some kind of award for being decent in a simple human interaction. But it is more than that to me because I remember how his subculture functions. No one else has ever offered to pray for me before without judgment, expectations or coercion.

***
Let me say right here that I have absolutely no sway in the evangelical Christian world. At all. There is no chance in hell that I can advance Alan’s career. None of his audience is my audience. If his audience finds this particular piece, it will probably anger them. There is not a single self-interested reason that could possibly motivate him to give a shit about me.
 
Why exactly? Okay, here is the very condensed version: I say “fuck” on twitter roughly 20 times a day. I routinely tweet biting things about Christianity –- with especially pointed jabs at practicing evangelical Christians. I write for publications that are hostile to evangelicalism.
 
Yet for some reason that still baffles me, Alan has faithfully followed me on Twitter for about the past year, ever since I interviewed him for an AlterNet piece in which I was extremely critical of his stance on LGBT issues –- that is, his continued opposition to gay marriage and his insistence that gay sexuality is “sinful.”
 
I pulled no punches in that article. The headline read “5 Reasons the ‘Pray Away the Gay’ Movement Is as Vile as Ever.” Pulling punches has never been my thing. I wrote a second opinion piece bringing home the point that I thought Alan’s shift on LGBT issues lacked substance and was primarily semantic. I called it “ex-gay lite.”
 
I stand by all the things I wrote in those articles. But Alan has never treated me as anything other than a friend.
Again, it’s what’s missing from our interactions that have made them significant.
 
I have interviewed other professional Christians. It is always crystal clear to me that they see me as a conduit to good publicity. They will ask to see what I’ve written before it runs. They want the chance to edit the exact quotations I use from them. They transparently beg me to see the good in what they’re doing in a positive way. Many are conservatives trying to convince the world that they’re more progressive than they actually are –- they want me to help introduce them to progressive audiences.
 
Alan didn’t expect me to do any of that. And I never would have. As long as anyone from Exodus continues to assert that LGBT people are sinful or that gay marriage is wrong, they are not LGBT allies. Alan said in Lisa Ling’s “Our America” profile that he doesn’t see his beliefs as “dealbreakers.” They are dealbreakers. They will continue to be dealbreakers.
 
At the end of the day, Alan and I don’t know each other well enough to legitimately call ourselves friends. But he has been kind to me, and gracious and humble in every interaction we have ever had. In the interview, he was not the sort of domineering patriarchal blowhard I’m used to dealing with in the evangelical movement.  
And again, he is the first evangelical whose expressions of concern and care did not wound. I know his work has done irreparable harm to many LGBT evangelicals, but I have not experienced him as a monster.
 
***
 
There was a moment in my history when I could have been susceptible to ex-gay ideology, and I’m deeply grateful that I was never sucked in. Exodus has not personally harmed me, but it has harmed many people that I love. 
 
I do not want, under any circumstances, to diminish the harm that has come from the ex-gay movement – and it needs to be noted that Exodus has long been the flagship organization, the umbrella coalition and undisputed leader of that movement. The fact that Alan Chambers has been nice to me personally really matters very little in light of the immense damage this movement has caused.
 
Exodus is 40 years old. That means it has been around through the politicization of anti-gay sentiment within Christianity. It has actively helped evangelical churches become more entrenched in their homophobic ideology than they might have been by 2013. It has hurt vulnerable people -– too many to count at this point.
 
And Alan has not always been a reformer –- he has directly contributed to some of the worst abuses of this movement. They’ve been chronicled -– at length and in detail -– on the blog Truth Wins Out. To his credit, Alan admitted in the “Our America” special that he has functioned as an abuser –- I’ve never heard another practicing evangelical admit to that, and I see it as a positive sign.
 
In his speech at Exodus’ last-ever conference this week, Alan noted that Exodus saved his life -– and that he believes it saved the lives of others. I am pretty dubious about that claim, but I want to be clear about one thing: What must not be lost is that this is a movement that has taken lives too.
 
Its trajectory is filled with suicides, too many for a litany of them in this piece. People have been broken. They have been taught to hate themselves. One would be hard-pressed to argue that anyone who has come through the doors of an ex-gay organization did not suffer spiritual abuse. The ideology itself is abusive. It requires people to kill parts of who they are –- and sometimes kills them altogether.
 
These ministries have preyed upon young children. They have taught new generations of LGBT children to hate themselves.
 
They have destroyed lives over the world. Exodus board members traveled to Uganda for conferences believed to have culminated in a never-ending legislative push to execute LGBT people. Criminalization efforts have ramped up in several other African countries inspired by the Ugandan proposals.
 
The tragedy of what groups like Exodus have unleashed on vulnerable people is far from over. It’s still happening –- and the world may never fully recover from that. The scope of this damage is so big –- so worldwide –- that I have trouble wrapping my mind around it at all.
 
***
 
Now, Alan, I want to address the rest of this to you personally but publish in an open forum. Why? Because I believe the gravity of your abuses needs to continue being aired in a transparent and public forum.
 
I want anyone who urges me to be kinder to you in any future critique of your new ex-Exodus organization to have a link that they can go to if they want to understand how horrific I find the things you have done. I want you and the public to remember that any time an LGBT person experiences persecution in a Christian church, they can partly trace that culture of persecution back to your movement.
 
I strongly believe we must keep naming the things you did, providing narratives that illustrate the horror of the damage -– and making it as clear as possible that making amends is going to be a monumental task -– and you will be very lucky if you accomplish even a fraction of what needs to be done in your lifetime.
 
So, about that damage: I’m going to tell you the story of the last time I went to church. It was about eight years ago. It was Easter Sunday. I was visiting very conservative friends –- and staying at their home while I visited prospective graduate schools. I was not excited about attending the fundamentalist church but agreed to do it because it was Easter and because these family members were lifelong friends.
 
I really wish I hadn’t gone to church that day. No one ever acknowledged that it was Easter. The entire sermon was devoted to a 16-year-old gay kid in the church who had been kicked out of his home because he could not change. The pastor prayed for God to “break” him -– and urged the congregation to “turn him over to Satan” because of his “rebellion against God.”
 
I have no idea what happened to that child –- black, from a poor family and discarded on the streets like trash with nothing. He’d be 24 now, and I wonder every day whether or not he’s still alive.
 
The ex-gay movement has the blood of LGBT children on its hands. I hope you will honor them by learning their names and coming to terms with what this movement –- and what Exodus –- has stolen from this world. I hope you will listen and learn for a while.
 
I don’t trust that you understand it now. If you did, I think you’d see how insensitive and cruel it is for you to go on lauding the “life-saving” accomplishments of Exodus. You need to see these things for yourself. Offer to meet with parents or loved ones who are willing so you can look them in the eye and apologize. Take steps to confront the magnitude of what has been lost. Weep with those who weep.
 
I can’t say I trust this new ex-Exodus organization –- no matter what anyone’s intentions are, I fear it will amount to rebranding. I firmly believe that you will not be able to offer a space to LGBT people that is “welcoming” –- as you say you’d like to do –- unless you become fully affirming of LGBT relationships and identities. Too much horror has come down.
 
You can make amends, but I don’t see that happening in continuing to pronounce that LGBT sexuality is sinful –- or that gay marriage is wrong.
 
There are a lot of Christians and organizations out there claiming they want to “build bridges” between LGBT communities and evangelical Christians. Often this is done without acknowledging how power and privilege matter –- as if everyone can come to the table on equal terms.
 
But we can’t. That is impossible. We’re not equal. I think you must instinctively know this in a way that post-evangelicals who are 100 percent heterosexual probably can’t.
 
I believe you must understand it because I found this on your blog, and it broke my heart:
I was a bullied kid.  Many of you reading this were, as well.  I have often said, sticks and stones will break your bones but names will kill you.  Bullying was my reality from 6th to 9th grades. It was humiliating, stressful, unfair and sheer torture, at times.  I remember sitting in an abuse recovery group sponsored by Exodus when I was 19 and telling the other attendees that if I were them I wouldn’t sit next to me. I hated who I was and I think that was in large part due to my perception that everyone else hated me.
I don’t know why I feel compelled to show you compassion given the gravity of the things you have done. But you looked very tired during that conference speech, and I guess I feel that you could probably use a friend. I feel dubious about the claim that Exodus saved your life because it’s hard for me to believe it didn’t hurt you too. I respect your claims about your story, but I have to wonder if you survived in spite of Exodus and not because of it.
 
When professional Christians travel through town, I cringe inwardly when they invite me to get together for coffee. But I want to honestly say: Alan, if you’re ever in the Raleigh area, I really would love to grab coffee sometime. But I’m several years out of church culture now, and I can’t promise I won’t say “fuck” a lot in person, too. 
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