Phelan M. Ebenhack / AP, file
Alan Chambers, left, president of Exodus International, sits with his wife, Leslie, in their home in Winter Park, Fla. on May 11, 2006
Former participants in a controversial program aimed at ridding people of their homosexuality congratulated its leader for deciding to shut down its ministry, but other groups said there was a role for the “reparative therapy” used in the “ex-gay movement.”
The Christian ministry, Exodus International, was founded in 1976 and claims more than 200 branches, churches and counselors in the United States and Canada. It insisted that people could overcome same-sex attraction through prayer and therapy.
But mainstream psychiatric and medical groups have said that program, also known as “reparative therapy,” is not founded in science and can be harmful. The American Psychiatric Association said 15 years ago that it could cause depression, anxiety and self-depressive behavior in patients.
Such was the case for Bobby Painter, 45, who paid at least $48,000 to attend Exodus' “Love in Action” program over two years from 1997 to 1999.
The use of a 12-step program — akin to that popularized by Alcoholics Anonymous — by "Love in Action" led Painter to once beat himself up when he got to the amends stage because he was so “disgusted” with who he was.
“I actually just almost went insane. I was thoroughly depressed,” said Painter, of Columbus, Ohio, who came out as gay in 2003. “You just become very hate-filled toward yourself.”
The premise itself – that he could be cured of being gay – was something the program promised in advertising, he said. But on his first day in the program, he was told there was no cure.
“It was all just a mind game and so you felt completely taken advantage of,” he said. “I left my job, I left my church, I sold my home” to be in the program.
In an apology posted on the Exodus website, President Alan Chambers said he was “sorry for the pain and hurt many of you have experienced.”
“I am sorry that some of you spent years working through the shame and guilt you felt when your attractions didn’t change,” he wrote.
In a statement, Exodus International, which describes itself as the oldest and largest group of its kind, said that its board of directors had decided to close down after a year of talking and praying about its place in a changing culture.
Polls show that a narrow majority of Americans, a steadily growing share, support gay marriage, which has been legalized in 12 states and the District of Columbia. The Supreme Court is preparing to rule on two landmark gay-rights cases.
Chambers, over the past year, had caused turmoil in the ex-gay movement by saying that reparative therapy could hurt gays and that there was no cure for same-sex attraction.
Restored Hope Network, a coalition of ministries that aims to help gays and lesbians overcome being homosexuals, formed – in part – last year due to that change in course.
“We don't reject reparative therapy out of hand as the Exodus leadership is doing. Neither is it the main platform that we use,” said Rob Gagnon, a board member and a professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminar.
He said they felt reparative therapy would work for some but not all.
“People will even, without therapeutic intervention, go through shifts,” he added. “For us then to say well the therapy can't assist that process in any way when we know it's going to happen anyway for many people, at least in a limited way, seems to me to be a little bit absurd, unreasonable.”
He also questioned whether Chambers – who wrote in the letter that he had “conveniently omitted my ongoing same-sex attractions” — was acting out of “guilt and shame” for not being transparent about that.
“It's out of that guilt and that shame that he's taken a ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater’ kind of decision,” he said.
California last year became the first state in the nation to ban reparative therapy for teens under 18 years of age. New Jersey's state legislature is weighing similar legislation.
Christopher Rosik, president of the National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality, a group of therapists who believe sexual orientation can be changed through various approaches including reparative therapy, said he wasn't surprised by the decision.
But he didn't think it would mean the end of the practice, either.
“Reparative therapy ... does capitalize on certain insights that I think can be applicable for some men, maybe not every man or woman, but are applicable to some,” Rosik told NBC News. “And these men and women would attest to that.”
He said Exodus' decision wouldn't impact his association's mission to help individuals experiencing unwanted same-sex attraction and behavior, but he felt it could help make clear the difference between the work being done by religious groups and that by professional therapeutic organizations.
Even as they celebrated the shutdown of Exodus, some, like Painter, said it had ultimately, and ironically, served as a bridge to coming to terms with their sexuality. He said there was a need for some kind of ministry to serve as such a gateway for conservative gay Christians.
“One of the things they said (at Exodus) was that God loved you regardless of all of that,” he said, noting it was “liberating” and a “turning point” in his struggle. “All I had to think about was, 'Well, maybe God's not pleased with this part of my life but he's not going to destroy me anymore.'”
“I needed that experience,” he added, “because I believe if I had just stayed home I would probably have ended my life.”