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One of the most prominent ex-gay organizations in the country, Exodus International, has been experiencing an exodus of a different sort, one it surely isn’t pleased to see. The group canceled its next Love Won Out (LWO) conference, which was scheduled for May 19 at Legacy Church in Albuquerque, N.M.
Ex-Gay Watch, a website that monitors ex-gay organizations, posted an E-mail from the senior director of events at Exodus to registrants in which he said that because of the low number of registrations, the group couldn’t justify the expense of bringing the conference to Albuquerque.
This is the first time Exodus has canceled one of its Love Won Out conferences, Ex-Gay Watch noted. Attendance has been steadily declining at LWO events over the past couple of years. Wayne Besen of Truth Wins Out, another site that monitors ex-gay organizations, noted in September 2011 that attendance at an LWO event in Houston was at a record low 450, while at event in Atlanta this February drew only about 400. That’s down from the nearly 1,000 attendees Exodus has drawn to its events in the past.
Exodus is one of the oldest and largest umbrella groups for ministries offering ex-gay therapy – also known as “reparative” or “conversion” therapy, which is based on the idea that LGBT people can become straight with the proper counseling. Every major American medical authority has concluded that there is no scientific support for this view, and many have expressed concern that reparative therapy can cause harm to individuals. Further, the American Psychological Association has warned that it can “create an environment in which prejudice and discrimination can flourish.”
Exodus has been struggling with financial trouble in recent years. The group had to cut its staff in 2010, and the current president, Alan Chambers, called a meeting in November 2011 with the group’s leadership, religious leaders and lay people to discuss ways to keep the organization financially solvent and socially relevant, something that it’s been having trouble doing the past few years as Americans have grown more accepting of same-sex marriage and the pseudoscience behind ex-gay therapy has come under greater scrutiny.
Some former practitioners, like John Smid, former executive director of the ex-gay ministry Love In Action, are now speaking out against it. Smid admitted he was gay last October and said that changing sexual orientation is not possible. And just last month, psychiatrist Robert Spitzer repudiated his own 2001 study, which has long been cited by anti-gay groups as “proof” that sexual orientation can be changed.
Exodus has also had its share of scandals. For example, Gary Cooper (no relation to the actor) and Michael Bussee, who were heavily involved in the group’s early years, fell in love with each other and subsequently left. John Evans, a co-founder of Love In Action (the first incarnation of Exodus), left when his best friend tragically killed himself because conversion therapy didn’t work. John Paulk, the founder of Love Won Out (formerly affiliated with Focus on the Family until Exodus acquired the ministry in 2009), became the poster boy for the ex-gay movement, until he was spotted in a gay bar in Washington, D.C., in 2000, two years after he published a book in which he discussed his “successful” journey out of homosexuality.
Even Chambers, the Exodus president, has conceded that ex-gay therapy is not as effective as proponents suggest. “The majority of people that I have met, and I would say the majority meaning 99.9 percent of them, have not experienced a change in their orientation or have gotten to a place where they could say that they could never be tempted or are not tempted in some way or experience some level of same-sex attraction,” said at a conference sponsored by the Gay Christian Network in Orlando.