The Man Behind The Historic Implosion Of The Ex-Gay Movement
Alan Chambers wasn’t just the leader of Exodus International, he was also a member. When he shut down the ministry network this summer, foes and allies alike debated whether this was a tipping point for conservative Christians’ acceptance of homosexuality or merely a symptom of his own inability to practice what he preached.
It's mid-afternoon on a Monday in July and the offices that once housed Exodus International are quiet. Exodus, which for 37 years was more or less synonymous with the ex-gay movement and at its peak employed 24 people in this office, closed down in June. Since then, a skeleton crew of three people has rattled around the largely empty workspace overseeing the dismantling of an association that once included more than 150 Christian ministries in 17 countries, all devoted to the idea that homosexual feelings need not lead to eternal damnation. They could be managed, ignored, overcome, repented for, and perhaps even transformed into something more biblically acceptable. Just as long as they weren't acted upon. Its mission statement: "Mobilizing the body of Christ to minister grace and truth to a world impacted by homosexuality."
The building — a fading white, multistory rectangular block situated on a side street in an area of Orlando well-stocked with dreary strip malls and office parks — is wholly unremarkable, the kind of place you'd drive by a thousand times without taking a second glance. Exodus bought it five years ago, but it hasn't been a great investment, and in light of the organization's demise, the property is now up for sale.
Despite recent upheaval, Alan Chambers looks pretty comfortable ensconced in his large corner office on the second floor. Chambers, 41 — who after living as a gay man in his younger years now has a wife and two children — led Exodus for its final 12 years. He's long been a poster boy for the Christian right's belief that it was possible to "pray the gay away." Chambers disputes the notion that he ever promoted Exodus as the "gay cure" ministry, though there is plenty of evidence to the contrary, not the least of which is the book he wrote in 2009 called Leaving Homosexuality: A Practical Guide for Men and Women Looking for a Way Out. He maintains that his overarching goal was always to provide homosexuals with the comfort, fellowship, and love they'd been denied by traditional churches. And yet, for example, in a 2005 Exodus newsletter, he wrote, "One of the many evils this world has to offer is the sin of homosexuality. Satan, the enemy, is using people to further his agenda to destroy the Kingdom of God and as many souls as he can."
The following year, he and his deputy at Exodus, Randy Thomas, visited the White House at George W. Bush's invitation as Bush announced his push for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Chambers was also a prominent supporter of Proposition 8 in California. In 2009, an Exodus board member — not Chambers — traveled to Uganda and spoke at a conference on the evils of homosexuality that helped build the hysteria there that led to the country's infamous 2009 "Kill the Gays" bill, which prescribed a potential death penalty for "aggravated homosexuality" or life imprisonment for "the offence of homosexuality." (It has never been voted on but was reintroduced last year.) It took Chambers nearly a year to publicly disavow his organization's involvement.
And yet this June, Chambers not only closed Exodus in sudden and dramatic fashion, but acknowledged the ineffectiveness of gay-to-straight reparative therapy and offered a remarkable mea culpa that apologized for his organization's many missteps. He's now founding a new organization focused on bringing Christians and homosexuals together, called Speak. Love.
Many in the LGBT community hailed Exodus' demise as a victory in the culture wars but were disappointed Chambers hadn't gone further in his support of gay rights or his renouncement of the religious underpinnings of the ex-gay theology. To many evangelicals, the man who had not only been a leader of the ex-gay movement but also a living example of its successes was now a lost sheep, or worse, a heretic.
"There are times when I feel like I don't have a country," Chambers says, not far from a wall of photos that include shots of him with his wife, with his kids, and with Mike Huckabee. "There are people who have been invested in this fight for years on both sides. It's the vocal minority on either side that gets the microphone. What I believe is there are far more people in the middle."
It's this middle group that he's hoping to represent and talk to. The question is, will he have the chance? At the moment, he's working on defining specific plans for the new organization and raising money to keep the lights on. But in order to succeed, he'll need to convince people that his divisive past has indeed passed, and that his own personal struggle won't get in the way of his public mission.
Alan Chambers is not gay, although this kind of depends on what your definition of "is" is. To hear him recount his personal history, it sounds very much like the familiar story of a young man coming to terms with his sexuality.
I meet Chambers for lunch in the posh Orlando suburb of Winter Park, where he grew up. I get there before him, look around, and wonder if his choice of locale — a sleek sports bar with 30 flat-screen TVs assaulting diners with reruns of SportsCenter — is a way of nakedly proclaiming his embrace of traditional gender roles, but the truth is, the place he really wanted to meet, an upscale Italian bistro down the street, is closed on Mondays. He arrives apologizing for being a few minutes late, dressed in a blue blazer, striped button-down shirt, blue bow tie, and jeans cuffed fashionably at his ankles, along with tan loafers, no socks. He sits down and immediately makes a joke about ordering an appetizer called "bleu balls." He's definitely not trying to butch it up.
Chambers is bald with a neatly trimmed gray beard framing his face. He comes from a big family, the youngest of six kids. As in most families in central Florida, sports were a big deal, and Chambers' lack of ability or interest in anything athletic immediately made him stand out. His parents persisted for a while in trying to get him to play baseball, but he couldn't hit, he couldn't throw, it was hot outside, and he was bored.
"I hated it," he says. "Maybe if the uniform was cool enough I could've liked it. But most of my friends were girls, so I gravitated toward the things they gravitated toward." He dressed up in his sisters' clothes and often pretended to be a girl. "People thought I was a girl. I had beautiful curly brown hair, these big eyes, and eyelashes for days. People would say, 'Your little sister is so cute!' All this just reinforced my feeling that I was not like other boys." Still, it took time for him to understand what all these things really meant. "It was puberty when I realized all the boys in my class liked girls and I liked all the boys."
This revelation horrified Chambers. He'd been raised Southern Baptist in a heavily religious family with a father who was ex-military. He had no experience or knowledge of what it meant to be gay, other than believing it was bad. He didn't know anyone who was openly gay, and growing up in the '80s, there were few, if any, gay role models. As he got older, he was teased and bullied. He remembers being afraid to change in front of other boys before gym class, and having them bang on the stall where he would get dressed, hollering "fag" and "queer" at him through the walls.
"That's probably when I realized, I've got to do something about this," he says. "Then the prayers started every night: 'God, fix me. Cure me. Heal me. Whatever I've done to become this dirty, rotten sinner, fix this.'"
As his high school years waned and he started attending a local community college, Chambers was in the midst of a full-on struggle with his sexuality.
"The majority of the encounters I had were shameful, anonymous encounters," he says. "I don't know that tons of people feel good about that stuff anyway." Even when he coupled with men he had gotten to know a little bit, he was filled with self-loathing. "Because it wasn't about a relationship, it was about sex. That was difficult, especially for a typical Christian kid who was afraid he was going to go to hell at every turn." After confiding in a counselor at a Christian youth retreat about his homosexual urges when he was 19, he was turned on to a local ministry in Winter Park called Eleutheros that was affiliated with Exodus.
At the time, Exodus had been around for over 20 years; it was started by a group of men in the 1970s who were struggling with the same tension between their sexual attractions and their devout belief that homosexuality was a biblical sin.
Most of their programs closely mirrored Alcoholics Anonymous' 12-step program, with open groups where people could talk about their struggles, and "accountability partners" who worked much like AA sponsors to be on call to help a member deal with daily temptations. In addition, many of the ministries offered mental health counseling — some done by licensed professionals, but plenty also by lay or faith-based counselors — for those working out deep-seated issues such as childhood sexual abuse. Many of the ministries also had connections to reparative therapists who engage in the controversial practice of trying to change the sexual orientation of their clients through a mix of psychoanalysis of past traumas, behavior modification, engagement in traditional "gender-appropriate" activities and other processes such as "holding therapy," in which a man would hug another man at length with the goal of symbolically repairing the non-sexual male bond that may have never successfully formed between the man and his father. (The scientific theories behind reparative therapy have been debunked and the American Medical Association, American Psychiatric Association, and American Psychological Association have all been critical of the practice. In 2001, United States Surgeon General David Satcher issued a report stating, "There is no valid evidence that sexual orientation can be changed." New Jersey this week became the second state, after California, to outlaw the practice for minors. Similar bills have be introduced to state legislatures in New York and Massachusetts.)
Chambers has often said that his introduction to Exodus saved his life. Coming from a sheltered childhood, it was the first time he'd been around other people wrestling with the same issues he was. Somewhat ironically, though, his early days at Exodus also coincided with his deepening identification as a gay man. "I went to Exodus when I was 19, and that's when my eyes were opened to the whole gay world around me," he says. "So in the midst of being involved with the local Exodus group, I also got involved with the gay community. I wouldn't say I was out and proud with everybody I knew, but there were certain people that knew, people I worked with at a restaurant."
His goal at Exodus though was clear: He wanted to become straight. "I went in and told the guy the first time I met with him, 'I want to be here six months, then I want to be done with this.'"
Chambers told his parents of his struggles with what he calls "same-sex attractions," and they surprised him by being extremely supportive, particularly of his efforts to change. Chambers attended an open group, sharing his experiences and praying for himself and his fellow strugglers. He worked with an accountability partner and had sessions with a counselor to talk about being molested by an older teenage boy when he was 10.
"He was an actual licensed mental health counselor that I would meet with once a week and we'd talk through all these things," he says. "No hocus-pocus, just talking. It was amazing and helped me deal with a lot of wounds I had. But I never went through reparative therapy."
Despite the work he was doing, he eventually realized his original goal — to walk out in six months as a happy, well-adjusted heterosexual — was unrealistic. "I hoped the gay stuff would go away and I wouldn't feel that way anymore," he says. "It never did happen."
The next morning I meet Chambers and his wife, Leslie, at a Starbucks. She's got brown hair and a warm face dotted with a few freckles, and she's wearing a pink-and-white blouse with a blue jean skirt. She's not the timid and retiring minister's wife of popular cliché, but rather sharp, funny, and down-to-earth. She tells me the first time she ever saw Alan was on TV, in the mid-'90s.
"He and a friend of his were sharing their stories," she says. "So I knew that part of him first. The next time I saw him, he walked into church with that same guy and I was like, 'There's those two gay guys.'"
Chambers says he was attracted to Leslie the first time he saw her. He'd been mildly attracted to women before, and had a few girlfriends back in high school, but he'd never felt anything like this in the past. At the time, Leslie was working as a nanny for the family of then-Major League pitcher Orel Hershiser, and she got Chambers a job as Hershiser's personal assistant. A few months later, Alan told her he wanted to be more than just friends.
"I told him it's never going to happen," she says. Over the course of the next few months, though, her feelings began to change. In March 1997, they went on their first date, and the following January they were married.
"I was 30 years old and hadn't found anybody yet," says Leslie. "But I had only two things I wanted in a guy: I wanted somebody who liked me first. I wanted to be pursued. And I wanted somebody who could tell me no, because I was a fairly strong person."
Chambers laughs. "Was."
Leslie continues. "Those were the only two things. Well, and he was a Christian, which was important and non-negotiable, so that wasn't even on my list. Over those months that we were friends, he absolutely became that person. He pursued me first, and I didn't doubt him in his pursuit of me. I felt very validated and secure in his attractions for me."
After getting married, Chambers grew more invested in Exodus. He'd first begun working part-time at Eleutheros when he dropped out of college in 1992. He'd gone full-time at Eleutheros in 1994 but then quit two years later to work with the Hershisers. In early 1999, he started his own local Exodus ministry, focusing on youths and teenagers grappling with homosexuality. The next year, he was named to Exodus' board of directors, and the year after that, he was elected president. From the beginning, his goal was to grow Exodus into an aggressive, dynamic, influential organization. And as a charismatic speaker with a personal testimony of his own transformation from unhappy gay man to happily married heterosexual, he was a walking advertisement for the group's then-motto: "Change Is Possible."
Of course, the truth was a bit more complicated. Chambers has admitted many times that his attraction to men has never fully receded but maintains that the person in the world he is most attracted to is his wife. The couple have two children, a boy and a girl, both 8 years old, both adopted. Before I can even ask why they chose to adopt, Chambers tells me.
"We were infertile," he says. "Both of us. We tried for seven years to have kids and to no avail. We got the two best things we could've ever asked or prayed for." When I bring up the subject of their sex life, Chambers answers like someone used to fielding the question.
"Sex is a huge part of our marriage," he says. "It has been and it's great and I love it. I'm attracted to my wife and I don't think of anything but my wife when I'm having sex with her. I have never in almost 16 years of marriage ever felt a temptation to be unfaithful to her. But sex isn't the pinnacle of our life together, nor should it be. There are a bunch of things more important than my sexual impulses, whether they're toward men or toward women, and I have both."
Exodus was always more of an umbrella that loosely connected separate ministries; it got funding from members and also raised money from churches and donors. Chambers and his team would issue policies and guidelines from their office in Orlando, but they never felt like they were completely in control of the group's many tentacles.
"I hoped that eventually the entire organization would be on the same page," he says. "You walk into a Starbucks and you get the same latte in New York City as you do in Kentucky. I longed for that with Exodus. There was always tension." Over the last few years, his personal views on homosexuality began to become more moderate. As early as 2008, in various speeches and interviews, Chambers flirted with the notion that homosexuality might not be a mortal sin that would endanger a Christian's salvation, which caused considerable grumbling among Exodus' rank-and-file membership. He subsequently found that he was doing a lot of apologizing or explaining on behalf of Exodus' member ministries, which he didn't always agree with.
In January of last year at Exodus' annual leadership retreat, Chambers felt that the organization had reached a crossroads, so he laid out four possible paths for the future: 1) stay the same; 2) simply re-brand; 3) modify and change everything but continue on; 4) shut down. The original plan coming out of that meeting was a combination of options 2 and 3. Around this same time, he publicly admitted that the reparative therapy that Exodus had been promoting for years didn't work for "99.9%" of people. He also began saying unequivocally that gay Christians need not repent for their homosexuality in order to get into heaven. These two bombshells caused Exodus International to splinter, with many of the member ministries peeling off to form the Restored Hope Network.
In April, he taped an appearance on Our America with Lisa Ling on the Oprah Winfrey Network, in which he sat in a church basement in a circle of folding chairs with some Exodus "survivors" — most of whom had since accepted their own homosexuality and felt emotionally damaged by their experiences with the ministry. He opened by reading an apology. In it, he said:
"I am sorry that some of you spent years working through the shame and guilt you felt when your attractions didn't change. I am sorry we promoted sexual orientation change efforts and reparative theories about sexual orientation that stigmatized parents. I am sorry that there were times I didn't stand up to people publicly 'on my side' who called you names like sodomite — or worse. I am sorry that I, knowing some of you so well, failed to share publicly that the gay and lesbian people I know were every bit as capable of being amazing parents as the straight people I know. ... More than anything, I am sorry that so many have interpreted this religious rejection by Christians as God's rejection. I am profoundly sorry that many have walked away from their faith and that some have chosen to end their lives."
He went on to say that he could not apologize for his "deeply held beliefs about the boundaries [he] sees in scripture surrounding sex," but wouldn't try to impose those views on anyone else anymore. Then, he sat mostly silent, like a "deer in headlights," according to one attendee, as the Exodus "survivors" battered him with their tales of personal woe for three and a half hours. Many of them did not accept his apology.
"No matter what you do, no matter what you change, you're still selling that lie, and you know it," one former congregant said. "That's the worst thing. You know deep down inside Alan, that it is still a bald-faced lie."
On June 19, the day before the segment aired, he posted a longer version of the apology on Exodus' website — it's worth reading in full if for no other reason than that it's rare to see public contrition that seems like a sincere expression of regret rather than pro forma damage control performed by someone recently caught with his pants down — and announced Exodus' shuttering.
I ask him about the line in the apology acknowledging that some former Exodus clients have been driven to suicide. Does he feel personally responsible for that?
He falls silent for a moment before answering.
"There are people who say I've ruined their life," he says. "There are certainly things I've said that caused people shame. Do I think I've caused people to kill themselves?" He takes a deep breath and pauses for another moment. "I don't think so. But we deal with very, very vulnerable people. Those are things that haunt me. But I can't live my life there because I'd never get anything else done. All I can do is say I'm sorry and do something different."
Chambers is good company — even those who disagree with him usually acknowledge this — and you get the feeling that much of his success within Exodus grew from this fact. He has no formal religious training or education, something he takes pride in and says has always irked a certain segment of the Exodus' membership.
"That just drives them craaazy," he says. We're driving to his office in his minivan, a gray Honda Odyssey. On the radio, NPR is reporting on comments Pope Francis made aboard his airplane recently, on a flight from Brazil to Rome.
"If someone is gay and searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?" Francis said, indicating a sharp break in tone, if not in policy, for the Catholic Church. Chambers is not a Catholic, but is buoyed a little by the comments. I mention that Francis seems a lot looser than his predecessor, Benedict.
"My wife and I were in Rome in 2007 and did a private tour of the Vatican," he says. "Our tour guide said that Pope Benedict was gay and it was well-known within private circles. One of her best friends was part of the Swiss Guard. She said it was very well-known that his personal assistant was his lover and they shared a bed and quarters." When Benedict stepped down as pope, he says, he wondered if all that had anything to do with it. Of course plenty have similar theories about Chambers himself.
"Really, what you see is Alan Chambers projecting his own issues onto everyone else," says Christopher Doyle, an ex-gay psychotherapist who is president of Voice of the Voiceless, an organization that argues for ex-gay rights. "You have to realize, Alan never went through therapy. He came to a point where he said, 'My same-sex attractions didn't go away. Therefore it didn't work for anybody.' That's not true." He sees Exodus' closure as a huge setback for his cause and calls Exodus "an organization that has given hope to thousands of people for 35 years."
Doyle says Chambers and the rest of the Exodus leadership focused on the ministry side of it — which, he grants, is also an important component — but that they never embraced or even understood reparative therapy, which he insists he's personally seen help "hundreds" of people.
"Alan Chambers does not have an understanding of what sexuality and sexual orientation really is," he says. "He's not educated. You have an unqualified person leading this organization who does not have the answers, and therefore he's throwing his hands up in the air, saying, 'I don't know what to do next!' He should have just resigned and let someone else that's a more effective leader come in rather than selfishly and narcissistically burying it."
Doyle further cautions against reading Exodus' demise as some sort of cultural bellwether. That said, it's worth mentioning that he also does not believe that the extremely low turnout at his organization's Ex-Gay Pride Rally on Capitol Hill on July 30 — 10 people showed up — was a sign of the movement's decline, but rather a product of the fear of retaliation from the forces of what he calls "homofascism." He doesn't think the recent shifts in society at large — notably, the Supreme Court's rejection of the Defense of Marriage Act and "don't ask, don't tell," and the growing acceptance of same-sex marriage — are indicative of a similar shift in attitudes within the ex-gay movement.
In some sense, Doyle is right. The practical effects of Exodus' demise are minor in comparison to the symbolic ones: Many of the former member ministries have carried on with the same programs they had before, just not under the Exodus banner anymore. Doyle points to the Restored Hope Network and other ex-gay ministries as evidence of many who haven't given up the fight.
"You can't let this man speak for all these people around the country. There is still a widespread belief among the ex-gay community, a predominant belief, that people can and do change."
It's an odd fact that those who'd disagree with the very core of Doyle's point might not entirely dispute his assessment of Chambers' motivations.
Michael Bussee was one of the founders of Exodus in the '70s, but he left the group a few years later after he and another founder named Gary Cooper fell in love and pursued a relationship together. (Cooper died of an AIDS-related illness in 1991.) Over the last decade and a half, Bussee has been one of Exodus' most strident opponents and has been urging Chambers to close the organization down for years. He runs a Facebook group for over 400 "survivors" of Exodus and organized the group that appeared with Chambers on Our America. Despite their opposing stances, he says he's usually gotten along quite well with Chambers on a personal level.
"I don't see him as an evil or mean-spirited person," he says. "He's not an overt hatemonger. He's sincere, really loves his wife, loves his family, and is very troubled by what he calls his own same-sex attractions." He views Chambers as a man undergoing a personal and public evolution — much like the one he himself did roughly 30 years ago. "I think he really believed, like I believed, that if you had enough faith, eventually the change would happen," he says. "I think, like me, he was also concerned that the church was being very cruel to gay people and what they really needed was help, not condemnation. We thought that was what we were doing by offering them freedom from homosexuality. So it was motivated by internalized homophobia and good intentions, and a denial of the truth about ourselves. I think it got to the point for him this last year that he just couldn't ignore that any longer."
Bussee points out that the history of Exodus and the entire ex-gay movement is riddled with leaders who have undergone this same transformation. In 2011, John Smid, former director of the Memphis-based ex-gay ministry Love in Action, came out as gay and said he had "never met a man who experienced a change from homosexual to heterosexual." John Paulk, a former chairman of Exodus' board of directors and founder of Love Won Out, an ex-gay conference affiliated with James Dobson's Focus on the Family, has come out of the closet, left his wife, and just this year denounced reparative therapy and issued an apology. (He now owns a catering company in Portland, Oregon.)
Bussee thinks Chambers is likely on a similar trajectory. "He may be going through the same thing that a lot of former leaders go through just before they abandon the whole thing, and [decide] maybe it's OK to be gay and maybe gay relationships can be blessed by God," he says. "He's in the middle somewhere, still trying to figure out where to land. He's not quite there yet."
Wayne Besen, a former staffer at the Human Rights Campaign whose current organization, Truth Wins Out, has long been a chronicler and harsh critic of the ex-gay movement, calls Chambers' recent moves bold, if incomplete, but essentially agrees with Bussee that it's just a matter of time before the other shoe drops in Chambers' personal life.
"People have a strong motivation and desire to be their real selves," he says. "Alan is no exception. He's on a journey. Maybe he never gets there, but very rarely do people go their entire life without experiencing intimacy and love at their very core."
Alan and Leslie Chambers have gotten used to living under a microscope and having their marriage dissected by countless prying amateur (and occasionally professional) psychologists. Leslie is completely aware that many bystanders are just waiting expectantly for the day that her husband runs off with another man. But she isn't.
"Those people don't understand that our marriage is real, our commitment is real, our attractions for each other are real," she says. "There's a difference between an attraction and a temptation, and an attraction and an action. For him to say on national television that there are lingering same-sex attractions doesn't send me into a tailspin, because I am completely confident and secure in his commitment to me, our family, and God."
Chambers says that his choosing to be faithful to his wife by not sleeping with men is no different than any other married man upholding his marital vows. "I am happy," he says. "I'm not denying myself anything. I don't want anything else. I am living my true self. For anybody to think otherwise is inserting themselves into a situation that is not theirs to insert themselves.
"People can think whatever they want to think," he continues. "I don't really give a crap these days. If you think I'm on a journey that's going to journey me out of my marriage and into something else, there's never been a thought of that. I don't want that. You don't know me. You can keep your opinion to yourself. I am married to the person I am in love with."
In person, Chambers and his wife certainly have the chemistry and casual affection of a couple that has been together for a long time. They share a lot of the same interests — shopping, home décor — and seem to see eye-to-eye when it comes to parenting their two children. Is it possible he is exaggerating or outright lying about his sex life? Sure. Might his and Leslie's relationship be something closer to best friends or even siblings? Certainly. And how exactly would this make them different from countless other couples that have been married for 16 years?
I ask them if the relentless judgments about their relationship from people who don't know them has caused the couple to reexamine their own thoughts on same-sex marriages. Chambers pauses before answering.
"Maybe to the extent that I can't judge someone and say their love isn't real or their life isn't important," he says. But actually supporting same-sex marriage at the moment is a bridge too far. "The whole promoting and lobbying for the passage of the federal marriage amendment, which I was very much a part of with Congress and the White House, I've been sorry about that for five years. I don't have a desire to fight people on those things anymore, but I'm not going to be their champion either. People don't need me to be marching in a gay pride parade in support of gay marriage. They may want me to, that might be a great symbol, but I don't want to do that."
That said, he does regret some of his other past political stances, and while he hopes to take a step back from public policy in general with the new organization Speak. Love., there may be points where he feels he has something to contribute.
"The whole notion of gay adoption — I would work to make sure kids have a home, whether there's a straight home, a single home, or a gay home," he says. "I feel passionate about us doing something about the issue of bullying. I feel passionate about kids that are being kicked out of their homes as teenagers because they come out as gay or lesbian. I feel passionate about undoing any damage that we did in Uganda or other countries."
Besen, of Truth Wins Out, sees an opportunity for Chambers to take up the LGBT cause and really atone for his past.
"I was just in Trenton, New Jersey, testifying on a panel about banning reparative therapy for minors," Besen says. "I would love to have been sitting next to Alan Chambers on that panel. He could've stated that reparative therapy doesn't work and it shouldn't be subjected to people against their will. So he can do a lot more. When he gets to the point where he's ready, we'll have a gigantic red carpet waiting for him. He could be a hero."
It's not clear Chambers is ready for this. At the moment, Speak. Love. is a work in progress. Chambers describes it with a lot of well-meaning phrases, like "a conversation about faith and sexuality," "modeling civility and respect," and "transforming churches into places that welcome all people," but what that will look like in practice remains to be seen. Plenty are skeptical.
Bussee, the former Exodus founder, is concerned that it is just a rebranding. "They may tone down the anti-gay rhetoric, they may get out of anti-gay politics, but their basic views about homosexuality have not changed," he says. "Who is going to want to support an organization that is really vague about what they're even about? He was attractive as long as they were promising orientation change and engaged in anti-gay politics. Conservative Christians loved that. But now what's he selling? Where is the donor base? Are moderate churches really going to want to give money to somebody who is preaching — what? That celibacy is possible?"
For this reason he thinks it'd be best if Chambers stepped out of the spotlight, at least for a while. "It's like, 'Alan, just lay off. Go put your life together, get out of this whole ministry thing. Get a real job. Enjoy your family. Just leave us alone and deal with this personal struggle you're having privately.'" Bussee admits that scenario isn't particularly likely. "What else is he going to do? He doesn't have a college education. He doesn't have any marketable skill. These people feel like they're called by God into ministry but now they're not welcomed by conservative Christians anymore, and they're not welcomed by the gay community. How is he going to support his wife and children? One former ex-gay leader I know is now working part-time in the lumber department at Home Depot."
Besen says Exodus' inherent pitch that unhappy homosexuals could change their orientation — while tragically misguided — had an obvious customer base, but Speak. Love., not so much. "With Exodus, people were promised a miracle, and that was very seductive," he says. "Right now, he's selling misery loves company, where you get to sit around and talk to people who are just as lonely and sexually frustrated. There's just not a big market for that."
Chambers believes most of his critics are so caught up in the culture wars that they are fighting him almost out of habit. While it's true that he will need to raise money from donors to fund both his new organization and pay himself, he wants to keep Speak. Love. small and manageable. He isn't looking to rebuild a network of member ministries and doesn't want to be in a position of pushing his opinions and beliefs on other people.
He says that despite the financial uncertainty that comes with founding this new organization, he's not panicked.
"Making a living is important, but money has never been a determining factor for any of the things that we did at Exodus. I'm not here to profit off of something. I'm here to do something I believe is right. With the apology and the closing of Exodus, that was the right thing to do. I feel really passionate that we do have a voice going forward and there are people who are listening."
He smiles and seems to relax.
"It's a leap of faith."
And if it doesn't work out, what then?
"I've begged God for years to let me be a decorator," he says, laughing. "If somebody offered me a job tomorrow, I'd be tempted."