The Ex-Gay Movement at the White House

A spokeswoman for Exodus International, the umbrella group of the ex-gay movement, said that as far as she knew, it was the first White House invitation for either of them.
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When George W. Bush announces his push for a constitutional ban on gay marriage today, a group of right-wing leaders will be there to beam wholesomely in approval. Among them will be Alan Chambers and Randy Thomas of Exodus International, the umbrella group of the ex-gay movement. A spokeswoman for Exodus said that as far as she knew, it was the first White House invitation for either of them.

In my book, "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism," I write about the way the Christian nationalist movement has constructed a parallel reality with, among other things, its own psychological theories and institutions. Exodus, which describes itself as a ministry that offers "freedom from homosexuality through the power of Jesus Christ," is a crucial part of that parallel reality. Its affiliates practice so-called reparative therapy, a form of counseling designed to turn gay people straight. Some operate live-in rehab clinics where people spend a year or more trying to change their sexual orientation.

When pressed, the movement's more honest leaders will sometimes concede that the best their charges can hope for is celibacy rather than heterosexuality. Several years ago, I interviewed Frank Worthen, a former gay activist who was one of the founders of the ex-gay movement. Worthen runs New Hope, a live-in reparative therapy rehab center in San Rafael, California, where men stay for a year and work to escape their sexual attractions. He admitted that 50% of the people who come to him go back to being gay, and many of those who don't simply become celibate. The workbook that he wrote for participants in the live-in program says, "Our primary goal is not to make heterosexuals out of homosexual people. God alone determines whether a former homosexual person is to marry and rear a family, or if he (or she) is to remain celibate, serving the Lord with his whole heart."

As one can easily imagine, the ministrations of the ex-gay movement can be immensely psychologically damaging. According to the American Psychiatric Association, "psychiatric literature strongly demonstrates that treatment attempts to change sexual orientation are ineffective. However, the potential risks are great, including depression, anxiety and self-destructive behavior."

By inviting Chambers, Exodus's president, and Thomas, its director of membership, to the White House, Bush is at least implicitly endorsing the ex-gay movement. This is of a piece with the administration's continuing embrace of pseudo-science and its frequent attempts to elevate the institutions of the religious right to places of public authority. In a sense, Bush needs the ex-gay movement, because it provides a veneer of moral justification for his new anti-gay marriage push -- the refusal to offer recognition to gay relationships can only be justified if homosexuality is a choice or a condition that can be cured. If, as virtually all mainstream experts believe, Exodus is wrong, then Bush's attempt to rally support against gay families is simply gratuitously cruel. But mainstream experts carry little weight with this administration. Once again, Bush is using his position to symbolically subvert science in favor of a faith-based parallel reality. Gay people will suffer the most from what he is doing, but truth itself is also a casualty.

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