Exodus in the Global Context: “Ex-Gay” Therapy Continues Across the Americas

Exodus_Global_Alliance_logoThis is a modified excerpt from PRA’s 2013 report, The “Ex-Gay” Movement in Latin America: Therapy and Ministry in the Exodus Network, by Jandira Queiroz, Fernando D’Elio, and Davis Maas.

On Wednesday, Exodus International Executive Director Alan Chambers once again created a storm of controversy and media attention by announcing the dissolution of the prominent “ex-gay” organization.

But while supporters of LGBTQ rights and safety can applaud this move, it is too early for complacency or unqualified enthusiasm regarding the death of the “ex-gay” movement. In the United States, the National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH) continues to fight for discredited and harmful “conversion” therapy in California and elsewhere. And the Exodus legacy lives on: here at home, in the form of the breakaway group Restored Hope Network; and abroad, under the auspices of the Exodus Global Alliance, which continues to claim that “change is possible.”

Despite its misleading name, Exodus International is but the North American branch and founding member of what became the Exodus Global Alliance, a network of ex-gay organizations that has expanded across multiple continents since its 1995 launch. Exodus International withdrew from the Global Alliance a week prior to announcing its closure. This investigative report is based on fieldwork conducted in Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, and the United States, and explores the “ex-gay” movement beyond Exodus International.

In the United States: A History of Controversy and the Recent Schism

“Conversion therapy” emerged in the 1970s as a pseudo-scientific psychotherapeutic or counseling approach to curing homosexual desires, one rejected by the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association and today linked largely with conservative Christian practitioners. The rise of Exodus and the so-called “ex-gay” movement parallels the rise of conversion therapy or “reparative” therapy, but it is only one way conservative Christians try to “cure” homosexuality–“ex-gay” ministries and their support groups are the other.

In 1998, Political Research Associates, in conjunction with the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and Equal Partners in Faith, published Calculated Compassion: How the Ex-Gay Movement Serves the Right’s Attack on Democracy. The report looked at the growing adoption of ex-gay rhetoric as a “kinder, gentler” face to the Christian Right’s anti-LGBTQ agenda, focused on homosexuality as a “choice” that a person could seek help in changing.

The report defined the “ex-gay” movement as “an international network that claims gay men and lesbians can be ‘converted’ to heterosexuality through submission to Jesus Christ, or through secular ‘reparative therapy.’” In particular, it looked at the network of then 100 “ex-gay” ministries that made up Exodus International, the “most prominent organization in the movement.” Early on, Exodus International become plagued by scandal: just two years after its founding, two of its founders fell in love with each other and left, entering the talk show circuit in the early 1990s to denounce “ex-gay” ministries as a fraud.

In January 2012, Exodus International’s Alan Chambers announced at a Gay Christian Network (GCN) conference that he rejected the “ex-gay” movement’s belief that so-called “reparative” or “conversion” therapy can make gay people straight. GCN claims to support all Christians and opposes ex-gay therapy.  GCNadvocates for what it calls “Side B” Christians, who acknowledge their homosexuality yet still believe it is sinful, and therefore choose a life of celibacy.

Chambers told the audience that “99.9 percent of Exodus participants have not experienced a change in their orientation,” and the organization would thus no longer condone “reparative” therapy, because it offers false hope and could be harmful. Chambers further stated that he believes there is no cure for homosexuality. At the time, the organization intended to continue to minister to “people struggling with same sex attraction,” or SSA, providing support in the struggle against acting on homosexual desires.

Challenging this betrayal of the ex-gay movement’s principles, in spring 2012 disgruntled member organizations and individuals split off and formed the Restored Hope Network, an organization that continues to support conversion therapy. The break was led by Exodus co-founder Frank Worthen of New Hope Ministries; Andrew and Annette Comiskey of Desert Stream Ministries, which has connections to the New Apostolic Reformation; Anne Paulk, co-founder of Focus on the Family’s Love Won Out conference and estranged wife of former ex-gay advocate John Paulk; and others.

PRA attended Restored Hope’s founding conference in Sacramento from September 21-23, 2012, which attracted “ex-gays,” advocates, and ministry representatives from both the U.S. and Latin America. For the attendees, the original cause of Exodus is still righteous, and they expressed a sense of betrayal at Chambers’ rejection of a cure. Co-founder Frank Worthen repeated the old Exodus teaching that one needs “a total cutoff” from the gay lifestyle in order to become heterosexual. Worthen promoted a right-wing Christian version of a 12-step program, in which participants find fellowship in conquering addiction, and gay friends are “destructive friends” to be avoided.

Attendees expressed great concern over California’s ban on reparative therapy for minors, signed into law soon after the conference (but currently facing a legal challenge). One speaker denounced it as an egregious restriction on free speech and offensive in rejecting Restored Hope’s belief that change is possible.

More colorful rhetoric came from Rev. Stephen Black of First Stone Ministries and vice president of Restored Hope Ministries, who spoke of an “army of ex-homosexuals” rising up during the End Times, which he claimed are already upon us. Comiskey, the network’s new president, echoed the sentiments about the “army that God wants.”

The Restored Hope Network’s second annual conference opened on June 21st, 2013, immediately following the announcement of Exodus International’s closure. “I am so thankful that Restored Hope Network exists at this time to continue the message of transformation and new life in Christ,” stated Worthen in a press release.

The Global Context: “Change Is Possible”

Since its founding in the 1970s, Exodus has grown far beyond its U.S. starting point, exporting its ideology around the world. In 1997, it launched an umbrella group to bring together the emerging Exodus networks worldwide, taking on the current name, Exodus Global Alliance, in 2004. Exodus Global Alliance continues to tell LGBTQ people that “liberation from homosexuality” and “reorientation of same sex attraction is possible.”

Exodus Latin America emerged over the 1980s under the leadership of Esly Carvalho, a Brazilian psychologist, who connected with Exodus International founder Frank Worthen in 1981 after seeing him interviewed in Christianity Today. Carvalho brought conversion therapy – and Exodus – to Latin America. But a close look at Exodus Latin America, founded in 1994 and now based in Mexico, and its spinoff, Exodus Brazil, founded in 2002, finds a divided movement. While both offshoots remain under the umbrella of Exodus Global and are united in their belief that homosexuality is a sin, they are divided on whether it is “curable” by psychological or religious means.

In fieldwork in Brazil, Mexico and Argentina, we found that Exodus Brazil focuses on Jesus as the only means to any “cure;” its director spoke disparagingly of “ex-gay” therapy as trying to operate outside of God, and at the time sympathetically interpreted Chambers’ rejection of conversation therapy. However, Exodus Latin America remains firmly wedded to a quasi-psychological framework and a belief in a “cure,” along with a networked group, Living Waters/Aguas Vivas, a 20-step program based in Andrew Comiskey’s Desert Stream Ministries that trains churchpeople throughout North and South America.

In response to the demands of LGBTQ and human rights movements on increasingly progressive governments in the region, we found antidiscrimination laws and psychological association policies in multiple Latin American countries that target the ex-gay movement to a much greater extent than in the United States. In countries including Argentina, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Peru, and Brazil, Exodus and affiliated ex-gay ministries are careful in their public pronouncements as their endeavors are increasingly labeled as discriminatory hate speech. The Pan-American Health Organization, this hemisphere’s regional office of the World Health Organization, also condemned the practice in a May 2012 statement.

As conversion therapy comes increasingly under regulatory attack, ex-gay ministries like Aguas Vivas may provide cover for pseudo-psychological religious counseling by avoiding restrictions faced by licensed psychologists..

Although the government has turned against the ex-gay movement in a handful of Latin American countries, the struggle continues to rage in one of the largest: Brazil. A battle is raging in the legislature as a growing caucus of religious conservatives seeks to reverse a regulation by the country’s psychological association that bans conversation therapy.

Exodus Brazil: A Belief in Grace

Exodus Global Alliance has two regional networks in Latin America, Exodus Latin America, based in Mexico, and Exodus Brazil, formed as a separate region in 2002. In promoting Brazil’s importance, Exodus Global writes, “it should be no surprise to find that a country that has Carnival in Rio also has a large number of people who struggle with homosexuality. An estimated 4 million homosexual men and women live in Brazil.”

To minister to this community, on October 12-14, 2012, Exodus Brazil held its most recent national conference in Osasco, a city close to São Paulo, home to the world’s largest pride parade. About 400 people gathered at the Evangelical Church of Vila Yara, a wealthy neighborhood surrounded by many mainline Protestant and evangelical churches. The event aimed at presenting what it called a Biblical vision of human sexuality and sought to offer hope to “people living in homosexuality, those who love people in this situation or religious leaders seeking for support to start such a ministry in their churches.”

Alan Chambers, the executive director of Exodus International, was to be the special guest speaker, but the invitation was suspended in order to avoid controversy after the schism within the U.S. Exodus network. Willy Torresin de Oliveira, Exodus Brazil’s president, told PRA that he supported keeping the invitation to Chambers open as “a healthy controversy.” In addition, Torresin was more concerned with the idea of “grace” than with psychology, and he saw Chambers as aligned with that concept.

“Conversion therapy,” from Torresin’s point of view, puts humans at the center rather than God, and as a form of psychology is fundamentally humanist, homocentric, and legalist, not Christian. Those who defend reparative therapy’s ability to transform people and bring them to the kingdom of God are out of step with those who embrace Jesus without psychological counseling. Homosexuality cannot be cured by any human effort apart from one’s willingness to totally surrender to God. When someone claims to be “recovered” because he or she doesn’t act or live in homosexuality anymore, this is not the point for God.

Torresin claims that Exodus Brazil has never been as attached to psychology as Exodus International in the United States because Brazilian psychology has always been “progay” (a characterization not necessarily embraced by the profession). “Psychology in the U.S. has become much more “progay” recently, but in Brazil it has always been liberal. So even some Christian psychologists have assumed the idea that “grace” means loving and welcoming homosexuals.” Torresin rejects this conception of grace, adding that “sheltering homosexuals is the same as strengthening in them a fake identity.”

But Torresin did say that psychotherapy may be a useful tool for people wanting to get out of a “gay lifestyle” and into a “Christian lifestyle,” helping change how they live rather than providing a “cure.” He revealed that there are many Christian psychologists/therapists doing “good work” quietly in Brazil, so the Federal Council of Psychology can’t “persecute” them under its ban on “ex-gay” therapy.

Even if Torresin spoke skeptically about reparation therapy, Exodus Brazil still facilitated the promotion of those discredited psychological views of homosexuality. Rev. David Ricker, from the ABBA ministry of Belém do Pará, argued in his workshop on youth and sexuality that young people become homosexual when a family lacks structure.

Although the original program for the Congress published on Exodus Brazil’s website included a workshop about public policies, the workshop didn’t take place. The national legislature is debating two bills that should be of importance to the ex-gay movement: an “antihomophobia” bill that could silence some ex-gay ministries, if it manages to get through a committee dominated by conservative evangelicals, and a proposal to repeal the psychological association’s ban on ex-gay therapy.

Exodus Latin America: Conference Shows Commitment to Therapeutic Methods

In a statement released in July 2012, Exodus Latin America said that the U.S. arm’s repudiation of a cure violates the doctrinal foundations of Exodus Global Alliance.

Though a spokesman told us that the network no longer promotes reparative therapy–leaving that to the Latin American affiliate of NARTH, Renacer (“Rebirth”)–Exodus Latin America’s Congress on November 8-10, 2012 in Mexico City tied its program to both “the love of Jesus Christ” and “therapeutic methods” as a way out of homosexuality, aligning it with the Restored Hope Network and against Exodus International’s position. This raises the question as to whether the official public denial is simply intended to ward off legal backlash.

Called “First Journey of Integral-Sexual Restoration,” the Congress was aimed at pastors, leaders, and churches in general. There were representatives of a handful of countries and from a diverse range of churches and ministries.

In contrast to Exodus Brazil, this program was far more centered around a psychological view of homosexuality as emerging from family dysfunction, leading to sexual sin, sexual abuse, sexual addiction, and family crisis.  “Ex-gay” people testifying would mention the absence of paternal authority as leading to their life of “same sex attraction.” Only two speakers were not Mexican, but they were the only ones given a platform twice: Felipe Kirk Bullington, a pastoral councilor from the United States, and Robson Dias, a Brazilian family therapist with a degree from the South American Theological Seminar, an institution founded by post-graduates from the right-wing Fuller Theological Seminary in California.

At a session offering “Practical advice to overcome sexual sin,” Oscar Rivas argued that it is not possible to build the new habits needed to rid one’s self of sexual sin without the presence of a strong father figure.  He said,

The problem with compulsions is that the person doesn’t know what limits are, never learnt. So someone will say “I don’t have limits because in my home my parents always let me do whatever I wanted” or “because in my home the one who took care of my education was the mother,” and the mother does not have the capacity to imprint enough discipline over kids. Because since we were children we learn that the mother represents emotions and the father is reason.

Long-term and in-depth therapy can take on these cases of compulsion that lead to sexual brokenness, claimed Rivas.

Living Water/Aguas Vivas: The Ex-Gay Ministry with Ties on Two Continents

The Exodus Global alliance webpage about Latin America features a quote from Mauricio Montion, founder and director of Restoration Ministry/Ministerio Restauración in Argentina, saying, “Through ministries like Exodus, Jesus is raising up a healing army and enabling them to stand to proclaim and live out the truth of God’s purpose for our sexuality.”

Montion, the former Aguas Vivas director in Argentina, tells a typical “ex-gay” story of shame and substance abuse, until 1992 when he met two U.S. evangelicals in Argentina and envied their sense of peace. Still struggling, in 1995 he came across books written by Andrew Comiskey, founding director of Desert Stream Ministries, a U.S. group that runs the Living Waters/Aguas Vivas ex-gay transition program.

Living Waters/Aguas Vivas says it helps individuals pursue “relational and sexual wholeness” and emerge from not only same-sex attraction but also other sexual “addictions” like masturbation, promiscuity, or pornography. It also aims to heal “the effects of sexual abuse, codependency, self-hatred, or the inability to love others well.”  Living Waters/Aguas Vivas lists representatives across Latin American in countries including Bolivia, Chile, and Venezuela.

In September 1998, Montión traveled to the United States to train with Comiskey, acquired the tools to start his own ministry, and returned to Argentina to found Ministerio Restauración in 2002. Since then, Ministerio Restauración has trained many leaders in Argentina and expanded to other parts of Latin America. Comiskey made frequent trips to Argentina to conduct seminars and international trainings, keeping the links between Desert Stream-Aguas Vivas and Restoration Ministry strong.

In Montión’s home country of Argentina, the “ex-gay” movement receives support from ACIERA (Alianza Cristiana de Iglesias Evangélicas de la República Argentina), a conservative evangelical association that opposes LGBTQ rights and publicly displays the seals and logos of U.S-based networks like Exodus and Living Waters/Aguas Vivas on its website.

But the Argentinean government under the presidency of Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and, before her, that of her husband, Nestor Kirchner, made human rights, including gay rights, one of their primary political goals. This helped Argentina become the first Latin American nation (and tenth in the world) to recognize same-sex marriage and fueled the passage of the 2011 Mental Health Act barring the treatment of sexual orientation or identity as a disease. In October 2008, Integra Foundation/Fundación Integra, an affiliate of NARTH (National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality), and Exodus Global Alliance hosted a conference promoting Comiskey and Montión as speakers. The conference was denounced for and found by the Justice Ministry to have engaged in illegal discrimination because it implied that gays are ill. Rev. Victor Bracuto, who brought the charge, commented, “We are witnessing a historical development, not only in Argentina, but perhaps also in Latin America and the world.”

Ministerio Restauración and Fundación Integra continue holding workshops, seminars, and conferences in Latin American countries, but are careful to avoid explicitly claiming to cure homosexuality. The ministry’s religious language can provide a protective veil for the promotion of “ex-gay” activities.

After the schism caused by Exodus International rejecting conversion therapy, Comiskey became president of the Restored Hope Network, taking Desert Stream/Aguas Vivas with him. Desert Stream/Aguas Vivas remain networked with Exodus Latin America/Global Alliance; however, the close relationship between Montión and Comiskey had already deteriorated after Comiskey’s confirmation in the Roman Catholic Church. According to a spokesperson, Montión and his ministry are independent of Desert Streams, Aguas Vivas, and Exodus, though the Exodus Latin America website still refers to the ministry (along with Fundación Integra) as its representative in Argentina.

What next?

In Latin America, the LGBTQ rights movement and its allies are aggressively using antidiscrimination laws and professional regulation to curb claims by conservative evangelicals that conversion from homosexuality is sanctified, worthy and possible. In the United States, conversion therapy is on the defensive in both legislatures and the courts, thanks to such advocacy groups as Truth Wins Out. And Soulforce and other LGBTQ groups engage directly to challenge homophobia and “ex-gay” formulations among evangelicals. But the U.S. ministries seem to benefit from First Amendment protection in the United States even when borrowing quasi-psychological interpretations of the role of family dysfunction in creating homosexuality and in asserting strong patriarchal authority as part of the solution.

Even as Brazil conversion therapists fight against the government shutting down their work, “ex-gay” ministries continue, albeit without shouting out that they are offering a “cure.” Exodus Latin America promotes a heavily psychologized form of mission work that circulates discredited canards about homosexuality stemming from family dysfunction. So even while reparative and conversion therapy are on the defensive, many of their harmful interpretations remain strong in church groups around the hemisphere.

“Ex-gay” missionary ties between the United States’ Christian Right and Latin America remain strong, and the aggressive Exodus Latin America remains closely tied to Aguas Vivas. Exodus Latin America is promoting the First Living Waters Training organized by Desert Streams in July 2013, with Andrew Comiskey as the key speaker.

Cracking “ex-gay” therapy’s pseudoscientific veneer and forcing it to retreat to the religious sphere would be a victory for the LGBTQ community. However, while Exodus may currently be in a time of turmoil, and the ex-gay movement faces challenges in the United States and in Latin America, the Christian Right’s ability to adapt suggests continued reason to be wary of the “ex-gay” therapy and ministry complex in its various expressions. In contrast with conversion therapy, asserting the right to “choose” support from Christ in rejecting unwanted same-sex attraction poses a more slippery approach to conversion that can be shielded by religious liberty claims.

Furthermore, while the Exodus network comprises a major segment of the Latin America “ex-gay” movement, other players are actively spreading their mission from the United States to Latin America including the NARTH offshoot Renacer; the International Healing Foundation; and Setting Captives Free’s Puerta de Esperanza.

This suggests that cross-border solidarity among those challenging ex-gay ministries is vital and worth additional investment. U.S. advocates can publicize the Latin America tours and visits of U.S. “ex-gay” ministries peddling harmful approaches that don’t pass legal muster in the countries they are visiting. They can challenge Exodus Latin America for brokering those visits. And they can challenge companies that benefit from the ex-gay groups. Such was the case in 2011 when AllOut.org’s online campaign led PayPal to cut ties with four organizations that spread hatred and discrimination.

Human rights advocates in both hemispheres are fielding the claims of conservative Christian counselors that government regulation of their “treatment” of LGBTQ people violates their religious liberty, as in Brazil. While the psychological profession worldwide asserts the right to regulate its practitioners, this is a potentially potent argument for defending quasi-psychological “ex-gay” arguments within ministries. There is a danger that these ministries will continue to peddle harmful psychological approaches with a Christian veneer in the name of religious liberty even as “ex-gay” therapy is discredited and shut down.

And, alarmingly, the “ex-gay” movement may even be expanding its credibility and influence internationally. As recently as 2010, leaders of  the Exodus Global Alliance, including the Exodus Brazil director, were invited to speak at the “Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization,” the biggest international gathering of evangelicals in world history. The Lausanne movement is associated with Billy Graham and considered to be a moderate body whose approval bestows mainstream sanction. Exodus Global Alliance materials about “ex-gay” therapy continue to exist on the conference website.