Can We Forgive Alan Chambers?

AP Photo/Alan Marler

Alan Chambers, president of Exodus International

A year ago, I wrote in the pages of the Prospect about the three and a half years I spent in "ex-gay" therapy and about prominent psychiatrist Robert Spitzer's repudiation of his infamous 2001 study claiming that changing one's sexual orientation was possible. One of the most frequent questions I was asked after the article was published was whether I resented my parents for sending me to therapy. If they can forgive me for putting their parenting on display for the world to judge, I answered, I can forgive them for—among their many good decisions—making a big mistake. Parents deserve some slack for taking on the task of raising a human being, along with its central heartbreak: Despite love and the best intentions, you inevitably end up screwing up your kids in some way.

I thought of this yesterday, when Exodus International, the country's largest ex-gay organization, announced it would be shutting its doors. The news comes a day after Alan Chambers, the organization's president, released a heartfelt apology to the gay community for the organization's role in championing "reparative therapy":

I am sorry for the pain and hurt that many of you have experienced. I am sorry some of you spent years working through the shame and guilt when your attractions didn’t change. I am sorry we promoted sexual orientation change efforts and reparative theories about sexual orientation that stigmatized parents. …

You have never been my enemy. I am very sorry that I have been yours. I hope changes in my own life, as well as the ones we announce tonight regarding Exodus International, will bring resolution, and show I am serious in both my regret and offer of friendship.

The collapse of Exodus is a huge blow to the ex-gay industry, which flourished in the late 1990s and early 2000s but suffered from a number of high-profile defections over the last few years. No doubt the about-face in public opinion on gay rights also played a role in cracking its foundation. But beside praise, the announcement has sparked discussion among those who've undergone ex-gay therapy and in the gay blogosphere: Does Alan Chambers, who's headed the organization since 2007, deserve forgiveness? 

Noting that Chambers's apology and the Exodus announcement coincide with his appearance on a special episode of "Our America" on the Oprah Winfrey Network, some have dismissed it as a self-serving publicity move. Gay blogger Andrew Sullivan, on the other hand, praised Chambers for his "unconditional surrender":

Anyone in the public sphere who openly and candidly comes to terms with an error of judgment, and owns it, and even seeks forgiveness for it, is contributing to a more humane, honest conversation and dialogue.

It's an interesting question. Unlike forgiving one's parents, forgiveness for public figures is far more abstract. The public "forgave" Bill Clinton for his extramarital affair. It also "forgave" Mark Sanford. But what about those who've championed policies or causes that have done damage on a wide scale? Would the public forgive Dick Cheney in the inconceivable event that he apologized for carting us off to a war that's claimed 200,000 lives? Does this even make sense?

It's difficult to quantify the harm Exodus and its 83 affiliates have caused over the organization's 37-year existence. We are not just talking about the tens of thousands of people its ministries offered therapy to, but the consequences of a bad idea in the public sphere. Like a poison in the water supply, its effects are malevolent, yet diffuse. In the 1990s, Exodus ran an ads in the country's largest newspapers—The New York Times, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal—featuring ex-gays proudly proclaiming "freedom from homosexuality." Across the country, well-meaning parents like mine saw and likely forgot about these ads in the short term. But for many the idea that some gay people had successfully changed their sexual orientation came to mind when their 13-year-old came out to them. 

For gay people, the poignant testimonials Exodus disseminated offered hope. By plumbing our memories for childhood trauma, we could discover the causes of our attraction to men, and through self-examination find freedom. In 2004, Chambers said he knew of "tens of thousands of people who have successfully changed their sexual orientation." It's hard to know how many people Exodus motivated to try to pray away the gay. 

The stories of those of us who have gone through reorientation therapy take different paths. I am not one of the people Exodus touched with its ministry. Unlike most people, my parents weren't motivated by religion to send me to therapy—they simply feared what life would be like for me as a gay man, and sought help. But all the stories I've heard from ex-gay survivors share a plot point: The moment we realize it isn't working. As I wrote in "My So-Called Ex-Gay Life," throughout my sessions with Dr. Joseph Nicolosi—my former therapist and co-founder of NARTH, the largest professional organization for those practicing reparative therapy—I thought I was making progress, understanding what had led to my sexual attraction to men. Then came the devastating realization that this thing wasn't going to change. That was the point I began to doubt all the stories I had ever told myself—about who I was and why, about the world and my place in it. It was when I stopped believing in God. It took years, but through gay-affirming counseling and the support of my parents and friends, I was able to reconstitute my sense of self. I made it past the breaking point. A lot of others did not. 

While Exodus's closure ensures that fewer people will undergo ex-gay therapy in the future, it doesn't bring back those who committed suicide after failing to change their sexual orientation. It doesn't give me back the time I spent in therapy, or the college years when I thought my attractions were immoral but was helpless to change them. Chambers, who is married but has admitted he continues to have homosexual feelings, may be a victim of his own cause, but his apology doesn't undo the damage he and his organization have wrought. That isn't a moral judgment—it's just a fact. As conservatives like to say, ideas matter.

This is the heart of the difference between public and private forgiveness. In psychology, forgiveness caps the narrative of healing. After the injury, there is the "uncovering," where one confronts the impact of the injury. You experience and express anger and shame. The decision to forgive is followed by the "work" of reframing one's view of the offender and the self, replacing victimhood with agency. Finally, there is what the Greeks call aphesis—the release, the letting go. It is the "resolution" Chambers mentions in his apology. 

This is a process a person can undergo, but not the public. We can talk about public "forgiveness," but the idea that Bill Clinton's affair is an injury that 350 million Americans can heal from is nonsensical. Public injury, grief, and forgiveness—they're all metaphors. Seventy percent of Americans may now hold a favorable view of the former president, but the shift in public perception from its nadir in 1993 is nothing like the personal betrayal and hurt Hillary Clinton worked through to make peace with her husband. Similarly, the gay community as a whole can't forgive Alan Chambers. Forgiveness is personal.

I've never met Alan Chambers, and while he and his organization promoted a harmful idea my parents and I bought into, the chain of accountability never went up that far for me. I made peace with those I felt harmed me, and to the degree anyone ever gets over trauma, I incorporated it and moved forward. Not everyone who went through ex-gay therapy feels the way I do. Some survivors I know harbor resentment toward Chambers and other leaders of the movement. That's their right, and it's up to each of them to forgive him and the other ex-gay hacks they feel are responsible for their suffering. Or not. The point is that absolution is something people can give. If you're religious, God can grant it too. But not the public. In politics there is no absolution.


Follow the author on Twitter @gabrielarana