What You Missed: The Anti-"Ex-Gay" Conference

Christopher Victorio / OC Weekly
Exodus founder and critic Michael Bussee.
A small but impassioned group of gay-rights supporters convened in Irvine on Saturday in response to the upcoming Exodus International Freedom Conference. Exodus' notoriety for "praying the gay away" has effectively prayed these gays away from Christian fundamentalists like Exodus and into the arms of organizations like Equality California, California Faith for Equality, the Orange County Equality Coalition and Team Courage OC.

These groups and others sponsored the day-long "It's Not a ChOiCe" event at Irvine United Congregational Church to counter the approaching Exodus gathering. Over the past three and a half decades, Exodus has been the subject of both international controversy and acclaim for their belief that homosexuality can be willed away through faith in Jesus Christ.

"How can our society tolerate this foolishness?" asked keynote speaker Dr. Daniel Helminiak, a Catholic priest and University of West Georgia professor.

Exodus estimates that from June 23 to 26, more than 900 people will show up to exult in said foolishness at Concordia University in Irvine. But despite attracting a significantly smaller crowd (try 20X smaller), the "It's Not a ChOiCe" speakers and attendees said that they were confident that most Americans' faith in the ex-gay movement is waning.

"What is the choice?" Helminiak asked the audience. "Only to accept or reject one's sexuality." Each of the presenters insisted--based on scientific, cultural, and testimonial evidence--that sexual orientation is permanently fixed. While Exodus International and similar groups can sometimes change behavior (or basically mandate celibacy), "not a single person has changed orientation," according to speaker Michael Bussee.

Bussee is one of the fallen angels of the ex-gay movement. The marriage and family therapist co-founded Exodus in Anaheim in 1976 but within three years came to reject the notion of leading young people from rainbows to rapture.

"They were sincere," he said of Exodus's members. "Just sincerely wrong."

Bussee said Exodus' rhetoric has transformed over the decades to become "deliberately deceptive." They've been trying to repackage their old message--"use fear to steer queers"  as Bussee put it--to something... gentler. In the process, they've cycled through the terms they use to describe their adherents, from "ex-gay" to "former homosexual" to "post-gay" to "SSA" (same-sex attraction) and back again. All the buzzwords mean one thing, though, said Bussee: "You're still gay."

The counter-conference saw Exodus International being labeled as everything from slightly misguided to "the heart of evil and sin." Progressive church leaders, activists, scientists, therapists, authors and students all shared their personal takes on the ex-gay debate. Even a comedian and an aspiring pop vocalist contributed. Their speeches, punchlines and songs all rang against the innumerable wall panels of the geometric interior of the church, which vaguely resembles Spaceship Earth at Disney World's Epcot.

Less academic and pedantic than most presenters, Joshua Romero provided a moving personal testimony about attending Love Won Out, an Exodus-sponsored ex-gay conference in St. Louis. Romero grew up in a loving, Christian home and attended Point Loma Nazarene University. He told his parents that he was gay one Thanksgiving break and, at their urging, attended Love Won Out that February. Romero said that psychological trauma, health problems, religious doubt and personal shame have afflicted him and his family ever since. But the fallout from the experience also led Romero to renew his faith and start Solace, a peer support ministry for Christians in the coming-out process.

Bussee explained to the crowd that Exodus was intended to be a small, hotline-based support service for struggling homosexuals who still wanted to maintain a relationship with God. But at some point, politics got in the way and Exodus jumped into the culture wars--even sending one of its board members to the conference in Uganda that is believed to have birthed the country's draconian, "kill-the-gays" bill

"They took this detour," said Bussee, "and the detour turned deadly."

On the next page: the top 10 quotes from the conference.


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