As I write these words, Exodus International, the world's largest network of "ex-gay" ministries, is preparing to hold its annual conference in Irvine, California. As a former President of Exodus International Europe, I hosted a similar event in 2000 in the U.K. Like many of my former colleagues, I too have a story of transformation and redemption, but it is a very different journey from the narrative of change that I believed as an Exodus leader from 1988-2000.
As a Christian who "struggled" with same-sex attractions from the age of 13, I was unable to accept being gay until very recently. I was thankful to God that I found an ex-gay ministry in 1986, and subsequently came to know the Exodus group of ministries. "Freedom from homosexuality" was an intoxicating hope for all who, like myself, struggled with internalized homophobia. But we refused to consider we could possibly be wrong about the message we championed. We closed our ears to dissenting voices, like Evangelicals Concerned or Soulforce, who preached that it IS possible to be a gay evangelical Christian, and to make an honorable, life-long commitment to a same-sex partner with God's blessing.
But by the end of the 1990s, I had become seriously concerned about the long-term fruits of our ministry, which upheld heterosexual marriage as God's purpose for mankind and proscribed a life of repentance, self-examination, and celibacy for all who could not achieve this ideal. From my vantage as a leader, and in my own life experience, I came to understand that our approach was sowing isolation, loss of faith, broken marriages, and even attempted suicides. I knew I must change our ministry's approach. There was no one moment of revelation, but rather, like the proverbial frog-in-a-kettle, I experienced a creeping realization that I was wrong, based on years of accumulating stories of personal catastrophe. Had I not been so afraid of the financial ruin I would inevitably face personally and been less worried about my own reputation in the eyes of other ex-gay and traditional church leaders, I might have faced up to that growing realization a bit sooner.
Unsurprisingly, when I finally "came out" in a gay-affirming ministry in 2000, I became a pariah amongst evangelical churches in the UK and beyond. But apart from the sad loss of what I had believed to be many good friends, I have no regrets. I could not possibly return to the spiritually and emotionally corrosive ministry style that has proved to be so misguided and downright damaging in the long run.
The evangelical Christian world, which includes ex-gay ministries, presents a contradictory message of God's unconditional love on the one hand, and a seemingly innocuous list of conditions for membership on the other. Yet the Christian gospel is, above all, a gospel of reconciliation. This week, men and women who have been damaged by the message of ex-gay ministries will also gather in Irvine, California, to share their stories and begin the healing process at The Ex-Gay Survivor's Conference. We invite Exodus leaders to sit down with us and discuss our experiences in a spirit of humility and prayer.
The time is long overdue for Exodus ministry leaders to face these issues with an attitude of honesty and integrity. With a profound change of heart, they might find, as I have, that years of experience working with lesbian and gay people now equip them to minister to those who have been hurt by "ex-gay" ministries and the homophobia espoused by so many churches.
Jeremy Marks is the founder of Courage UK, which became a gay-affirming evangelical ministry in 2000. He lives in Guildford, UK.