DATE October 9, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Tanya Erzen, assistant professor of comparative studies
at Ohio State University and author of "Straight to Jesus,"
discusses the ex-gay movement which help gays become straight
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
According to what is known as the ex-gay movement, God wants every man and
woman to be a heterosexual, therefore, a homosexual can convert to
heterosexuality by being born again and praying to Jesus. The ex-gay movement
is centered around ministries dedicated to helping gays become straight. The
debate surrounding the movement is about the legitimacy of gay identity
itself, writes my first guest, Tanya Erzen. She writes about the movement in
a new book called "Straight to Jesus." A little later, we'll hear from the
head of the largest ex-gay ministry and from a man who describes himself as
ex-ex-gay. After years in an ex-gay ministry, he gave up and came out. Tanya
Erzen's book "Straight to Jesus" is based on an ethnographic study she
conducted over the course of 18 months at what she describes as the oldest and
most established residential ex-gay program. It's located in the San
Francisco Bay area. Erzen is an assistant professor of comparative studies at
Ohio State University.
So what is the process like in the ex-gay movement of converting to
heterosexuality or trying to?
Ms. TANYA ERZEN: Well, I spent most of my time with a place called New Hope,
and it's a residential program. There's only about three or four of them at
this point, and many of the groups just meet on a weekly basis. But this
group, people apply and they end up spending a year at a ministry. During
that time, they live together communally, they take classes as part of a--they
have a workbook called "Steps out of Homosexuality," where they learn about
what are the origins of homosexuality, is it an addiction, how do you get in
touch with your masculinity, they go to Bible study, they have small
accountability groups where they every week talk about issues that may have
come up. Did you have a sexual thought about someone of the same sex, etc.?
They'd sometimes do individual counseling or therapy but the real idea of it
is that through living communally, living with other people who are going
through the same experience, that in itself is what's going to change people.
The basis of the ex-gay movement or the basis of reparative therapy is that
people are gay because they did not bond with their same-sex parent as a
child, and so by living with same-sex people and learning to develop
friendships with them, they will eventually recover their masculinity and
their femininity and also thereby try to move out of homosexuality.
GROSS: You describe the ex-gay movement as a mix of prayer, 12-step programs
Ms. ERZEN: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: Where does the self-help part come in?
Ms. ERZEN: The movement uses more of a--it borrows from 12-step principles
and 12-step groups, like AA and NA, and most of the people I talk to had been
through a group like that at some point. The emphasis is more on being
accountable and testifying about anything you're thinking or feeling or doing
that would be hindering your process towards, you know, overcoming your
homosexuality, and so they meet with--they have these accountability sheets
that they fill out every week that are quite long and detailed where they have
to answer questions like `Have you had an impure thought?' `Have you looked at
pornography?' `Have you masturbated?' And then every week, they bring these in
and they discuss them in small groups. Every possible instance of an
interaction with somebody, something they saw outside the ministry, something
that happened at work, all of these things are always spoken aloud, always
told to other people, and that's part of this accountability process and the
ministry really emphasizes that.
Testifying to others about what you're thinking or feeling is really a part of
this healing process, and over time, they're encouraged to create a testimony
about their own life--`I was this. I was a homosexual. I had a problem with
alcoholism. And now I am born again and now I am saved.' And so this idea of
testifying, of giving testimony and being publicly intimate about what's going
on with you is sort of really key to the therapeutic part of healing their
GROSS: Now you said that there are workshops to help men in the ex-gay
programs get in touch with their masculinity. What are the things that they
are encouraged to do and things that they're discouraged from doing?
Ms. ERZEN: Well, one of the things that the ministry--they had an event
called Straight Man Night, and that was the men from the local church would
come and visit and they would--they were heterosexual men or straight men, and
the men at the ministry would ask these men from the church questions about
what it means to be a heterosexual man, because they were legitimately curious
and almost befuddled by what it means to be heterosexual. They just felt
like--they often talked about heterosexual men as being part of a different
species almost, but they would ask them questions like, `Are you attracted to
men?' `What is sex like in marriage?' `How do you deal with lust as a
Christian?' You know, `How do you communicate with your wife?' but there was a
sort of real learning to know what it meant to be masculine, to know what it
meant to be a straight man. They would also, every weekend, do these trips
off, and they'd go camping. They'd play basketball. All of these sort of
sports and what would be in a way sort of stereotypical kind of masculine
activities to try and help men build up a sense of masculinity. And I would
often say, `Well, don't you think there's a lot of different ways to be
masculine?' and they would--and many of them agreed, but many of them said as
children they felt very alienated from playing sports and doing the things
that are typically things that boys are supposed to do, and that in doing this
things, it helped them to feel more like men and to feel like--to feel better
about themselves in general.
GROSS: And what are some of the things that the men in these workshops are
discouraged from doing because it's considered too gay?
Ms. ERZEN: Well, the program has a manual of rules and regulations, and it's
everything--one of the things I found funny, it was, they called it
`camping'--not in the sense of pitching a tent and going out in the woods but
any kind of humor that, they called it, that was ironic or that would link
them to their past lifestyle, so any kind of sarcastic humor which was, you
know, happening in part of the ministry all the time. They couldn't wear
certain kinds of clothing, and it was actually very specific. No biker shorts
or half shirts or mesh shirts. They weren't allowed to go join a health club.
They weren't allowed to smoke cigarettes. One--a couple of years before, two
men had been sharing a cigarette and had ended up kissing, and the ministry
believed that can be a semi-homoerotic act. And one of the first times I was
there, I was sitting outside talking to somebody who was smoking, and someone
else yelled from the window, `You're breaking the rules!' And he yelled,
`Well, it doesn't matter. She's a woman.' But there was an emphasis on a lot
of the sort of small things that would keep them from having a potential
sexual fall and that they were seen as somehow effeminate or linking them to
what they call their past lives or being gay.
GROSS: What are the men told to do about their attractions when they heal
them, attractions to other men?
Ms. ERZEN: They're told to express it publicly to other men in a small group
to one of the house leaders who are people who have gone...
GROSS: Like to confess.
Ms. ERZEN: To confess. Yeah. To confess and to testify about it publicly.
To confess to another person, to confess to the group. I mean, it really--I
talk about it in my book, I call it `public intimacy.' But I was always really
amazed at how people were very comfortable with expressing publicly what to me
were very intimate things about themselves even to people they didn't know
that well, like myself, at first. And there really is a huge emphasis on--it
doesn't necessarily matter what you've done but as long as you've admitted it,
you've confessed it, you've talked about it in a public way, you've testified
about it, then you can receive forgiveness and you can stay in the ministry.
Anything that's kept secret, that's kept concealed, is considered damaging,
and that's the kind of behavior that would get somebody kicked out.
GROSS: What are the theories that the ex-gay movement has for the existence
Ms. ERZEN: The major theory is often called reparative therapy, and it's the
idea that as children, boy and girls do not bond probably with their same-sex
parent, that they--their parent was absent from their lives or they had an
inappropriate relationship, and therefore their same-sex attractions are a
result of this deficient relationship with their same-sex parent. And so the
idea is to--they call it repairing the deficit, that you, again, try to
develop nonsexual relationships with members of the same sex, and that in so
doing, you repair this lack that you had as a child and again recover or
recuperate your heterosexuality, and I think implicit in that idea is that
heterosexuality is the norm, that it's inside everyone, and that homosexuality
is just this divergent path that people take as a result of these failed
relationships with their parents.
GROSS: How do the parents of people in the ex-gay movement feel about this?
Because it's their relationship that's being, you know, blamed for their
Ms. ERZEN: Right. You're definitely right. Anita Worthen, who was the wife
of Frank Worthen, who ran the ministry where I did my research, when she
married Frank, that was one of the things she felt that a lot of us tended to
blame the parent and in so doing only further alienated parents, and that
especially the blame was often placed on mothers, and so one of the things she
did was really try to--she developed a ministry for parents. They have small
groups and different conferences for parents. She writes in their monthly
newsletter a column about parenting issues, and she comes to that from her own
specific experience. She has a gay son. He knows the work that she does and
he lived for a time in the same apartment complex where they had the ex-gay
ministry. But he's gay; he's never wanted to try and change. He disagrees
with the ex-gay movement, and she often talks about this issue of how you can
love your children but not necessarily--you can be tolerant but not accept
what they're doing. She more than anyone, I think, has really put the
emphasis on trying to bring parents into the movement and try to say, yes,
there are these problems that happen in a relationship between a parent and a
child that cause homosexuality, according to the movement, but there are all
these things you can do as a good parent, and it's not just your fault.
GROSS: People in the ex-gay movement are encouraged to enter heterosexual
marriages, and that's what happened to the founder of the movement and to the
current president of Exodus. When somebody in the ex-gay movement enters into
a heterosexual marriage, it's a sign of success for them, but what about the
person they're marrying? Are they encouraged to tell the person they're
marrying that they're gay and now ex-gay and that they had or perhaps still
have a homosexual impulses?
Ms. ERZEN: They're definitely encouraged to tell that person they--as I said
before, really discouraged any kind of secrecy. Many of the people I knew
ended up marrying or becoming involved with women or some of them who did
become involved with women became involved with women at the local church, and
the church was already aware of what the ministry was doing and who these men
were. More and more, they're trying to have workshops for people who are
involved with an ex-gay person to try and talk about what those issues would
be, and I sat in on a workshop once that was for women married to ex-gay men
and the woman leading the workshop, her husband was an ex-gay man, and over
time, he had been having secret affairs with men. She didn't realize and when
she did, he ended up going to an ex-gay ministry, and now they run a ministry
It was interesting because a lot of them were asking questions like, `Am I
required as a Christian wife to continue to have sex with my husband if I know
he's strayed with a man?' You know, `What do I do about things like the
possibility of protecting myself from disease?' And there was real urgency to
their questions and a real sense that they didn't know what to do, and I think
the movement is trying to address that more and more in open communication for
people who do end up being involved with someone.
GROSS: Now the Christian evangelical movement has had homosexuality high on
its list of issues. The movement is very against gay marriage, sees
homosexuality as a very non-Christian impulse. How has the ex-gay movement
affected how the larger Christian right sees homosexuality and the language
they use to talk about it? Has it had an effect?
Ms. ERZEN: It definitely has had an effect, and I would say the major way is
that instead of just using anti-gay rhetoric, an organization like Focus on
the Family, which is run by James Dobson and is a large Christian right
conservative Christian organization, instead of saying `This is vile or
disgusting and we're anti-gay,' what the ex-gay movement allows them to do is
to say, `Look at all this evidence of people who have changed. We have Allan
Chambers, who's the president of Exodus. We have all of these testimonies,
therefore, people can change, and instead of saying `We're anti-gay,' we can
argue that instead we should direct people to an ex-gay ministry and a church
where someone comes to their pastor or minister and says, `I think I might be
gay,' that pastor or minister, according to certain organizations, should then
tell that person they should go to an ex-gay ministry.
What's dangerous about the movement, I think, is instead of this anti-gay
vitriol, they basically argue that gay identity doesn't exist, that you can
change if you are compassionate towards a person who is gay, love the sinner,
hate the sin, that person will change, will become part of an ex-gay ministry
and therefore they can justify arguing against rights for gay marriage, for
adoption policy, for any kind of gay civil rights because if an identity
doesn't exist, why should you recognize it with any kind of rights or
GROSS: Well, Tanya Erzen, thank you very much for talking with us.
Ms. ERZEN: Thank you.
GROSS: Tanya Erzen is the author of "Straight to Jesus." She teaches at Ohio
Coming up, we talk with the president of the largest ex-gay organization,
This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Alan Chambers, president of Exodus International, talks
about himself as a former homosexual, how he overcame his
homosexuality and how his group is devoted to helping homosexuals
convert to heterosexuals
TERRY GROSS, host:
We're talking about the Christian ex-gay movement, which tries to help
homosexuals convert to heterosexuality with the help of prayer. At the core
of the movement is the belief that homosexuality is in conflict with
Christianity. My guest, Alan Chambers, is the president of the largest ex-gay
organization, Exodus International. Founded in 1976, it now has 130 member
agencies. Chambers says Exodus has witnessed the transformations of thousands
of men and women. Chambers describes himself as a former homosexual. He's
now married and has two children.
Why do you believe that homosexuality is in conflict with Christianity?
Mr. ALAN CHAMBERS: Well, for the mere fact that the Bible states that it is.
Every major religion from Hinduism to Buddhism to Christianity to Judaism have
a prohibition against homosexuality. It's something that for me, as a young
Christian, I grappled with my gender identity as it was in conflict with my
faith, and the majority of men and women who seek out help have that same
conflict. They know what the Bible says about homosexuality. They didn't
choose to feel gay and they don't want to feel gay and so they find an
alternative, and that's the alternative that Exodus promotes.
GROSS: Do you think that the people who you consider to be successful in your
program completely convert from homosexuality to heterosexuality, or do you
see it more as like a lifelong process of resisting continuing homosexual
Mr. CHAMBERS: I think it's all of the above. I have talked with and met
people who say that they have walked completely away and will never struggle
with that again or have never struggled with that again. I believe
it's--there's everyone on the continuum. I often like to use the phrase that
`I will never be as though I never was.' I can't forget where I used to be and
I can't deny the fact that I'm still human and I could be tempted in every
way. But today where I live my life, and I believe this is true of those who
would say they've successfully left homosexuality, homosexuality isn't
something that controls them anymore, where at one point in our lives--in my
life--I could not resist homosexuality. I could not resist the urge. I could
not get those thoughts out of my mind. I was exclusively attracted to members
of the same sex and acted out on that on a regular basis.
Today I believe I have what I would describe as a Garden of Eden relationship
with my wife in that she is the object of my desires. She is who I am
attracted to. She is who I love. She is who I have chosen to spend the rest
of my life with. Homosexuality isn't something that I even think about every
day, apart from my position of the president of Exodus. So I believe that
homosexuality is something that people can absolutely overcome. They can
absolutely live in freedom from and apart from but I do believe that people
continue to struggle in a variety of forms. There are people that I know even
within the Exodus network who would say, `My attractions haven't diminished
but I've just chosen to live according to my faith and according to my
convictions and abstain from homosexuality.'
GROSS: When did you start to realize that you were gay?
Mr. CHAMBERS: Very young. I think homosexuality is something that starts
very early, through the developmental factors, certainly from birth, I think
that we are developing into who we're going to become, and I think, looking
back at my family dynamics, looking back at my environment, homosexuality was
something that started very early in my life, and about the age of nine or 10,
shortly after I was molested, I began to identify that I had homosexual
feelings, and when puberty came to play in my life, that was when I absolutely
knew that I was exclusively attracted to members of the same sex.
GROSS: You were molested by a man.
Mr. CHAMBERS: I was molested by an older teenage boy, yes.
GROSS: When you were how old?
Mr. CHAMBERS: When I was about nine, eight or nine years old.
GROSS: Now in a testimonial that you'd written, you wrote that as a boy you
really wanted to be a girl and you often dressed in your sisters' clothing and
your mother's high heels.
Mr. CHAMBERS: I did. You know that, I believe, is very indicative of a
child who feels more comfortable with feminine things and for me, my dad
was--who I love and I am very close to today, but when I was growing up, my
dad was very much into his career, gone a great deal, and when he was home, he
wasn't necessarily someone that I wanted to spend a lot of time with. We had
different interests. On the contrary, my mom and my sisters were very fun.
They were very exciting. They were absolutely involved in every detail of my
life and I wanted to be like them. And so I would dress up like them. I
would dress up in their clothes, act like them even. And that's where I found
the most comfort and the most security was in being in a relationship with
them. And so I think that that's oftentimes what we see in little boys who we
would label as gay or effeminate, and I think that that's an unfair
characterization. I was just a kid who was behaving in a way that was acting
like my role model, and that was my mom.
GROSS: Did you grow up Christian?
Mr. CHAMBERS: I grew up in a Christian home, yes, I did.
GROSS: At what age did you start thinking to yourself, `I've got to stop,
I've got to stop having these gay feelings, this isn't healthy'?
Mr. CHAMBERS: Probably as soon as they started. As soon as I knew that I
was attracted to members of the same sex, I was in conflict with it. It
wasn't even something necessarily that in the beginning I'd heard was wrong.
I was just a kid. But at the same time, there was something deep within me
that knew, this isn't quite right, and I would like to do something about it.
When I heard it was wrong, certainly I tried everything I could from praying
to reading my Bible in order to overcome my homosexual feelings to no avail.
GROSS: Alan Chambers is the president of Exodus International. We'll talk
more about the Christian ex-gay movement in the second half of the show.
I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
We're talking about the Christian ex-gay movement which believes homosexuality
is in conflict with Christianity and tries to help homosexuals convert into
heterosexuals with the help of prayer. Let's get back to our interview with
Alan Chambers, president of the largest ex-gay group, Exodus International.
He describes himself as a former homosexual. He says he tried to become
straight with the help of prayer without results, until he turned to Exodus
So when you started going to regular meetings of the Exodus ministry and
started to meet other men who, like you, felt they were gay and they didn't
want to be gay, was it the first time you were really, regularly surrounded by
other men who were gay.
Mr. CHAMBERS: It was the first time that I was surrounded by other men or a
lot of men who were gay. I had found people within my middle school and high
school that I was in a relationship with that were gay as well. They didn't
necessarily label themselves that, but we were involved as friends and beyond
that to some degree, but it was my first involvement in homosexuality to any
degree. I had never meet a group of gay people or people who had identified
in that manner or who had lived a gay lifestyle, and so that was something
that was new to that little Christian 18-year-old boy who had been sheltered
from that his entire life.
GROSS: Did it make you feel at all `maybe I'm more normal than I thought I
was. Look, there's other people like me. There's actually--you know, there's
other gay men. In fact, there could be a gay community.'
Mr. CHAMBERS: It absolutely felt exciting to me. It felt intriguing to me.
It made me feel much more comfortable with who I was because I had lived my
whole life feeling like, you know, I may be the only person in church that's
ever felt this way before, and yet I go to this ministry and there are 50 to
100 people who go to churches around the local area who have struggled with
these issues too, and it was something that was comforting to me. It was nice
to know that I wasn't alone, that I wasn't the only one, and that was
something that provided a great deal of comfort in the beginning days of my
journey out of homosexuality.
GROSS: But it wasn't comforting in the kind of way that might lead you to
think, `Well, maybe being gay isn't terrible after all. Maybe I don't have to
try to convert.'
Mr. CHAMBERS: Going to the ministry did introduce me to a whole new world,
and there were people in the ministry who were at varying ends of the spectrum
of leaving homosexuality. Some who were new to this whole thing, just like
me, and I did develop a group of friends who--within the ministry--weren't
necessarily serious about change or committed to the idea, and I started
hanging out with them and going out to gay bars with them, and I was
introduced to a whole new world that I had absolutely never even considered
being there before. That was something that was new and exciting to me as
well, and there was a period of time where I got very involved in the gay
community, and, you know, at one point I decided, `I'm going to research both
sides very well. I'm going to be involved in the gay community, as well as
continue to go to counseling and we're going to see which one of these makes
the most sense, which one of these wins out in the end.' And I got involved in
both, and in the end, I decided what was best for me and what I wanted most
was to leave homosexuality and pursue a life beyond that.
GROSS: Do you ever ask yourself why would God make you gay--because you said
basically that you thought you were born that way--and make so many other
people gay if it was truly a terrible way to be?
Mr. CHAMBERS: I asked that question so many times at the top of
my--screaming at the top of my lungs to God, `How could you do this to me and
then say it was wrong?' And for me, I don't think God made me gay. I think he
allowed me the freedom to choose. I believe that for many logical reasons, I
developed a homosexual orientation based on the information that I had at the
time I got involved. But at the same time, he provided a way out for me, and
I'm grateful for that.
GROSS: You married the woman who you describe as your best friend. Were you
best friends before you got married? I wasn't sure whether she's your best
friend now or she was your best friend before.
Mr. CHAMBERS: She's definitely my best friend now. Before we got married,
we had become very close friends and spent a lot of time together and you
know, really from the moment that I first saw her, I knew there was something
different about her. I knew that I wanted to spend time with her. I knew
that I wanted to be in a relationship with her though it wasn't something
where I thought, `I want to marry her,' but it was something that quickly
developed into a deep relationship where I knew I wanted to spend the rest of
my life with her, and on January 3rd, 1998, I did marry the very best friend
that I've ever known.
GROSS: I'm going to ask a question I usually wouldn't dream of asking anybody
but--so forgive me if it's too personal, and in fact, if it's too personal,
please don't answer it, but because of what we're talking about I feel like I
should ask. Is your relationship with your wife a sexual one?
Mr. CHAMBERS: It is, and I've been asked that question many times. You
know, for me, I think I said earlier that for me my relationship with Leslie
is like a Garden of Eden experience in that I am absolutely solely attracted
to her. We have a wonderfully intimate physical, emotional and sexual
relationship, and it's--I think oftentimes we, especially in America or in
Western culture, get sex confused with intimacy, and our relationship started
as a very intimate friendship and grew into an intimate exclusive dating
relationship which ended up in marriage, and because of our intimacy, because
of our relationship and our love for one another, sexuality absolutely grew
out of that, and it's something that only gets better in our relationship
because we're committed to each other, because we know one another, because we
love one another.
GROSS: Now you've said that you would like gay marriage to be illegal and one
of the reasons why is that you're afraid had it been legal when you were
younger, you might have gotten married to another man and not had the
opportunity to leave homosexuality in the way that you have.
Mr. CHAMBERS: You know, I think that gay marriage only serves to complicate
very complex issues, especially for young people. For me, as a young person
who got involved in homosexuality, who was looking to find the ideal
relationship, and there were men that I was in a relationship with who I would
have given anything to have been their husband, to stay at home and make a
life together. I would have chosen that option had it been legal, and I know
that it would have only complicated my process of walking out of
homosexuality. I don't think it would have stopped me from leaving
homosexuality, but I think that it would have been a whole lot more
complicated than it was.
GROSS: President Bush invited you to the White House in June for a press
conference in support of a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. My
impression is that the ex-gay movement has become more politically connected
since you've become the president of Exodus. Is that true?
Mr. CHAMBERS: We believe that who we are, the people that we serve, our
constituents, are the public face of public policy, and public policy affects
people, people that we care about, people that we represent, and so it is of
the utmost importance that we are involved in policy issues where these things
are concerned, and so as the president of Exodus, I have brought a new dynamic
to the ministry in reaching out and dealing with these very sensitive policy
issues, and that's something that I believe will continue to be a part of the
life and the ministry of Exodus.
GROSS: So you're in the position of being a gay man or maybe a formerly gay
man would be the way you would prefer to put it meeting a group of similar men
in a movement against gay marriage. Does it ever feel odd to you to be coming
from a gay orientation and at the same time be working for legislation that
would deny gay people the full kind of legal and social things that you get
when you're married?
Mr. CHAMBERS: I think one of the greatest myths that is operating in our
culture today is that the majority of gay people are interested in gay
marriage or ordinances that would protect them from being discriminated
against. I think we live in an extremely tolerant and accepting culture, the
most tolerant and accepting culture that we've seen, I believe, in the history
of the world. The majority of gay people aren't interested in gay marriage.
There is a very small minority of gay men and women, most of them who are
politically active, who are fighting for the right to legalize same-sex
marriage. For me, what I know, is that the very best thing for children is
that they have a mom and a dad. Marriage is most about children, and that's
something that we feel very strongly about, protecting children. We know what
it's like to grow up, many of us in homes where we didn't have the support of
both a mom and the dad, whether that was through divorce or death or simply
having an absent emotional parent. And that's why we are looking to protect
and promote the issue of traditional, natural marriage.
GROSS: Do you have any gay or lesbian friends who are living a life that you
approve of and that seems to you to be a good life with a caring, enduring,
loving relationship with another person?
Mr. CHAMBERS: I have friends that have relationships who are involved in
relationships. I have friends who are in relationships with one another. My
stamp of approval isn't what's important, but it's what I believe that God
says about the issue of homosexuality. So I look at their life, I love my
friends, I'm glad their happy, but I don't believe that they're living in
accordance with biblical truth. Yet, we're friends. They know my opinion,
we're in relationship with one another. They come to my house, they know my
children, they know my wife, and I know their families. We just--we differ on
our opinion on the issue of homosexuality based on what the Bible says about
GROSS: One more question. Do you think there's any chance, any chance, that
at some point in your life you will say, `I give up, I've fought this too
long, I'm going to accept myself the way I am and have another relationship
with a man'?
Mr. CHAMBERS: You know what? I guarantee you there will never be a time in
my life when I go back to where I've been. I had every opportunity to live my
life in that way at one point. I had every opportunity to be happy in my
homosexual relationships. What I found and what I live today is far superior
to that. There won't be a chance that I'll ever wake up one morning and
decide that what I have isn't as good as what I used to have or that I could
find something better. I'm perfectly happy where I am today.
GROSS: Alan Chambers, thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. CHAMBERS: Thank you very much.
GROSS: Alan Chambers is the president of Exodus International, the largest
Coming up, Shawn O'Donnell describes why he joined Exodus but years later gave
up and came out.
This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Shawn O'Donnell discusses how he tried to overcome his
homosexuality by joining Exodus International but after several
years in the program left and is now living as a gay man
TERRY GROSS, host:
We've been talking about the Christian ex-gay movement which tries to help
homosexuals convert to heterosexuality with the help of prayer. We just heard
from the president of the largest ex-gay group, Exodus International. My next
guest, Shawn O'Donnell, came out to his pastor when he was 18. O'Donnell
tried to overcome his homosexuality but kept failing, so he joined Exodus
International and lived in one of its residential communities. After several
years in the movement, he gave up and came out. He now describes himself as
What were some of the things you were told to do and some of the things you
were told not to do to help you along your way to becoming an ex-gay?
Mr. SHAWN O'DONNELL: Well, I was definitely told not to hang out in places
that I used to hang out.
GROSS: Like what places were those?
Mr. O'DONNELL: Gay bars or with gay friends. Those were some definite
places that was, you know, where I couldn't hang out. I wasn't allowed to
hang out in Boys Town in Chicago. And some of the things they told me to help
me change were, you know, that I had issues with my mother. I had an
overbearing mother and a distant father. And so I was to work on that through
therapy, and that would help me become a heterosexual man supposedly.
GROSS: Did you feel like you, in fact, had problems with your parents?
Mr. O'DONNELL: No. I had no problems with my parents.
GROSS: What about prayer? How was that supposed to help you?
Mr. O'DONNELL: They told me that God would take away my desires for other
men through prayer, and I used to pray at a very young age, starting at 13
when I became a born-again Christian, I would pray every night for God to take
this away from me, sometimes more than once a day, and it just never happened,
and I still have those desires, I still have those feelings. Not only prayer
but Bible reading and going to church were supposed to help me.
GROSS: Did they?
Mr. O'DONNELL: No.
GROSS: Now you were discouraged. You were told basically not to go back to
the gay bars and to hang out with gay friends, but in the ex-gay movement, you
were constantly surrounded by men who were gay, although those gay men were
trying to be straight. So what was it like to be trying to not be gay and be
surrounded by other men who were also trying not to be gay but were gay?
Mr. O'DONNELL: It was horrible. I--there were plenty of times where it was
just very frustrating. I--like I said I lived in a house, a live-in program,
that Exodus provided, and I can remember times when people did things in the
house that were very inappropriate and...
GROSS: You mean like...
Mr. O'DONNELL: ...it was very frustrating...
GROSS: ...like sexual?
Mr. O'DONNELL: Yeah. Mm-hmm.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
Mr. O'DONNELL: ...that would just, you know, really frustrate me, because I
was really trying to work this program, and I couldn't interact or I couldn't
join in. There were definitely people that I was attracted to in the program
that I could never let them know that or could never engage in any sexual act
with them for fear of being kicked out.
GROSS: Did you try to date women?
Mr. O'DONNELL: Yes.
GROSS: What was that like?
Mr. O'DONNELL: Horrible. You know, I didn't know how to act. I didn't know
how to respond. You know, I never had any physical relationships with any
women. It was for a very brief time, so it wasn't even a--I tried to date two
women when I was in California while I was in this program, and it just really
didn't work out.
GROSS: Did you tell them that you were in the program?
Mr. O'DONNELL: They knew.
Mr. O'DONNELL: They knew because of the church that I was involved with.
They were actually from the church, and that church was almost involved very
much with this program.
GROSS: And the women were OK with that?
Mr. O'DONNELL: Yes.
GROSS: So how long were you trying to convert to heterosexuality before
giving up on that?
Mr. O'DONNELL: Eleven years total.
GROSS: What was the turning point for you?
Mr. O'DONNELL: I was in this--when I was in the program, which was called
New Hope Ministries, we would frequently go to a mall after church, and we
would sit in like this vestibule area, and after about three years of doing
this and looking at men after church, it just finally clicked, and I told
myself I just didn't want to live my life like this anymore, that I needed to
do something with my life, get on with my life and start actually working on
myself, just in general, not, you know, working on any issues such as sexual
orientation, but just, you know, working on a career, getting a house built
and finding somebody to spend my life with. I thought those were much more
important that trying to waste my time doing the ex-gay thing.
GROSS: My guest is Shawn O'Donnell. We'll talk more about leaving the ex-gay
movement after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: We're talking about the Christian ex-gay movement. My guest Shawn
O'Donnell joined the movement but after 11 years gave up on trying to convert
to heterosexuality. He left the movement in 2002 and came out.
So what did you do with your life in that immediate transition out of the
Mr. O'DONNELL: Actually, it was kind of interesting. The week after I left,
I moved in with some friends that had also been in the program with me a year
prior and quit also, decided that they were going to just live their lives and
stop trying to change themselves. And I actually came out at a Gay Pride
parade in San Francisco. I found a gay church in downtown San Francisco that
I got involved with, and I was in the Pride parade with them on a float and
that was almost like my coming-out day for me. It was very liberating and
free and I had felt like, you know, years of pain and turmoil were going to
begin coming off my shoulders basically.
Immediately after that, I stayed around in California for a while, and then
decided that I was going to move back home to Chicago because this is where
I'm from, and I really at first had a very difficult time with my decision. I
got heavily involved in drugs, sex and ultimately figured out I was an
alcoholic. And so for a few years after I got back, it was very difficult
because I didn't want that to happen either.
GROSS: Well, that was exactly the lifestyle that you'd been warned against,
you know, because I think a lot of the people in the ex-gay movement believe
that homosexuals are more prone to having, you know, anonymous sex, being
addicted to drugs, addicted to pornography.
Mr. O'DONNELL: Yes, well, it was almost like my own self-fulfilling
prophecy. You know, this is what I was trying to fight for my entire life not
to do, but I knew that I was gay, and at this time I knew that there wasn't
anything to do to change my sexuality, and through that experience of me
getting involved with drugs and anonymous sex and, you know, becoming an
alcoholic, I have kind of come full circle--not full circle but, I mean, at
one time I swung on the pendulum so far the other way, trying to be straight
that that was difficult. And then at another time, I swung on the pendulum
the other way, where I just didn't care about spiritual things or about God or
the church because of what they had done to me. You know, and I pretty much
wanted to have nothing to do with them. I wanted to live my life the way I
wanted to live it for a period of time. Today...
GROSS: And now? Yeah?
Mr. O'DONNELL: ...I have since found my spirituality again. I have been
involved with AA and recovery and also have been involved with helping other
people who are ex-gay or trying to come out of that and sharing my story with
whoever I can, so they don't have to go through the same pain that I did.
GROSS: You were born again, and that's what led you to the ex-gay movement.
That didn't work for you. When you left the ex-gay movement, did you leave
your church, too, and what is your religious status right now? Are you still
Mr. O'DONNELL: I did leave what I thought was my church when I left Exodus,
and I think that's just--and a lot of this happens to a lot of people, I mean,
but I'm speaking for myself, that they have been so burned by the church and
repressed that they don't want to have anything to do with it. Today I would
consider myself a Christian, but it looks much different than it did back
GROSS: What's the difference?
Mr. O'DONNELL: I would say that I have a different view in terms of the way
I think God looks at me. You know, I interpret some of the scriptures
differently than maybe your mainstream evangelicals do. I interpret some of
the biblical passages of the six Bible verses that they use against gay
people. I interpret those much differently.
GROSS: I think some of the people in the ex-gay movement would say Jesus
loves gay people but he knows that homosexuality is a sin, and that's why he
gives them the choice, that's why he gives them the alternative to be
straight. Is there a part of you that still thinks, you know, you've got that
alternative to be straight and really you should just try harder.
Mr. O'DONNELL: Mm-hmm. No, I don't think there's no alternative any more.
If anybody has tried to change their sexuality, I know I have. I mean, there
were plenty of nights where if I could have sweat blood in my prayers, if that
gives you a visual, I would have over this issue. You know, I tried my
hardest to change my sexuality. I did whatever I could, and you know what
they were telling me to do, I followed it. I mean, I did everything, and I
still have a desire to be with another man. It doesn't go away.
GROSS: Well, Shawn O'Donnell, thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. O'DONNELL: Thank you very much.
GROSS: Shawn O'Donnell is a former member of the ex-gay movement and now is
out as a homosexual. Earlier we heard from Alan Chambers, president of the
ex-gay group Exodus International and Tanya Erzen, author of "Straight to
I'm Terry Gross.
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