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Meet The Man Who Used To Try To "Cure" Gay People

In 2013, Alan Chambers closed the world's largest organisation devoted to turning LGBT people straight. But what happened next? And has Chambers really changed? BuzzFeed News finds out.

Posted on September 24, 2015, at 11:57 a.m. ET

Alan Chambers in Winter Park, Florida.
Edward Linsmier for BuzzFeed

Alan Chambers in Winter Park, Florida.

Two years ago, Alan Chambers took a sledgehammer to the gay "cure" movement. On 19 June 2013, at the 38th annual conference of Exodus International, the world's largest conversion therapy organisation, Chambers, its president, picked up the proverbial hammer. He apologised for the harm they had caused to thousands of people over four decades. And then he swung it. Exodus, he revealed to an audience stunned into silence, would immediately close.

In a few breaths, Chambers had done more to muzzle the "pray away the gay" message than any gay activist ever had or could. To some it seemed heroic. Many thanked him. Many others saw this end as a beginning: Perhaps Chambers, after years persuading gay people to "leave" homosexuality, would finally leave them alone? Or even devote his life, as other former leaders of the "ex-gay" movement have done, to spreading a different message: Love yourself, accept yourself.

So, what has Chambers been doing these last two years?

"Hanging out," he tells BuzzFeed News now, laughing. He is sitting in his mother-in-law's house in Winter Park, Florida – his hometown – in a crisp shirt and cropped beard. He lives there with his wife of nearly 20 years, Leslie. This is despite the fact that he is and always has been attracted to men.

They have not just been hanging out since 2013. Together the Chamberses have written a memoir, My Exodus: From Fear To Grace. (The press release, which notes Chambers' "love of decorating" charitably describes Exodus's work as "helping gay and lesbian Christians live celibate or heterosexual lives"). In it, Chambers writes, "I am a man who was born gay." To be in his presence is to feel certain that he is right. But for 12 years he was the overlord of the opposite idea: No one is born gay, "gay" doesn't exist, only "same-sex attractions" do, and these, like a faulty U-bend, can be fixed.

Edward Linsmier for BuzzFeed

He tells me he used to earn $100,000 a year overseeing the organisation's more than 250 ministries and preaching "change is possible". The question now, however, is whether it is possible for an ex-gay zealot to change. To find out would take hours of, at times, fiery exchange. It would mean probing Chambers about his role in the suicides of young people.

Few can claim impartiality on this issue, particularly those who have witnessed it close up. In 2010, I published the results of my undercover investigation into conversion therapy – also called reparative therapy – in the UK. One of the therapists who treated me told me I had been sexually abused. I had not. She became the first psychotherapist to be struck off for attempting to "cure" someone's homosexuality.

To Chambers' credit, he knew about my involvement in the issue before agreeing to the interview. We return to what he has been doing since 2013.

"Leslie and I have spent an awful lot of time with people that are very different from us," he says. "We've spent a lot of time with each other." They rented out their house and moved in with Leslie's parents partly so they could write the book but also so they had "the freedom to just detox". The last year or two of Exodus proved fractious and tense, Chambers says, as it became clear he wanted a radical new direction. Now, there are "a lot of people I don't talk to any more and who won't speak to me." Their life is "scaled down".

Leslie and Alan Chambers
Edward Linsmier for BuzzFeed

Leslie and Alan Chambers

It was not supposed to be. With the closure came an announcement: The Chambers would be starting a new organisation called Speak. Love. He described it at the time to BuzzFeed News as "a conversation about faith and sexuality," which would be "transforming churches into places that welcome all people."

The unorthodox punctuation proved the most successful part of this venture. The Chambers disbanded it rapidly. What happened?

"I thought, 'I don't want this. I've lived for over a decade beholden to a group of people who said, 'We'll take away funding if you don't do it this way; if you say this in the media then we're not going to like it.' I had experienced so much grief from people speaking for me, and being edited, and editing myself, that I thought, 'I don't want this any more.'"

View this video on YouTube

YouTube

Chambers being interviewed by Anderson Cooper

Unshackled, with no responsibilities to any organisation, Chambers could then have devoted his time to activism, attacking the gay "cure" cause and its proponents, or even lobbying politicians to criminalise conversion therapy. (In California and New Jersey it is illegal to offer such therapy to minors, and President Obama supports the ban). Why has he not?

"I'm…it's not that I am unwilling to be a part of those discussions," he says. "If Congress called and asked me to be a part of something like that I would go." That sounds rather passive, I say. Why wait for such an invitation?

"Well I wrote an article not long ago, agreeing with Obama's push to ban reparative therapy for minors." It seems Chambers can hear how this sounds, because he adds: "Beyond that, you're right. It is passive."

There is a long pause.

"I guess I'm always looking for a place to get involved and just haven't…erm…done that." Has he, perhaps, contacted other former ex-gay leaders, such as Michael Bussee (who founded Exodus before marrying a man)?

"Some of them, for sure," he says, adding that there was a gathering of some of them at the Southern Poverty Law Centre, which he wanted to attend but "couldn't make it" as "it was at a time when I was at another event." He does not say what the other event was.

Perhaps a metamorphosis from ex-gay leader to gay activist will take much longer than two years. There are many ways to atone. Many will see the first step as a full acknowledgment of the effect Exodus had.

As Chambers talks away, his wife in the background in her parents' prettily upholstered suburban home, it is hard not to call to mind the other backdrop to their life: testimonies of those who have experienced conversion therapy – the tales of self-harm, the suicide attempts. And, of course, that picture of transgender 17-year-old Leelah Alcorn: the selfie of her posing in a dress, hand-on-hip, that was shared and shared on social media to keep her image alive because she was not.

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Leelah Alcorn and her suicide note.

On 27 December 2014, following unsuccessful conversion therapy, Alcorn arranged for her suicide note to be published online after she walked into traffic on the Interstate 71 highway: "Please don't be sad. It's for the better…There's no way out…I'm never going to be happy…"

Does Chambers recognise the extent of the harm he, his organisation, and its message have caused? There is another protracted pause.

"Yeah," he replies. "I think I realise what part I played…certainly there are people who accuse me of more than I think I deserve, but what I have come to realise is that I lived in a religious system, and became a leader in a religious system, that isn't helpful to people, that does cause great shame and great anxiety, and I hate that and that's why we closed Exodus. That's why we have apologised, that's why we're doing what we're doing today and standing up for all we stand up for. God loves unconditionally. That isn't a message we used to preach."

Exodus
Exodus

The Exodus logo and an Exodus advert

When BuzzFeed News interviewed Chambers just after the closure of Exodus, he said, "Do I think I've caused people to kill themselves? I don't think so." Does he still feel that way?

"I do believe that [conversion therapy] causes people great shame and I do believe those things contribute to all sorts of things, including people taking their own lives. So I think that's something we have to acknowledge – and I have to acknowledge."

This sounds like a shift.

"Absolutely," he agrees. "And I think it's bigger than Exodus. Exodus was part of a belief about God that absolutely isn't true – that we have an angry God that's just waiting to push the smite button because we've failed. That's not the God I know."

If Chambers' two (adopted) children were gay, which upbringing would he rather they had: a conservative, anti-gay Christian upbringing, with all the fear and shame he experienced, or a liberal, pro-gay upbringing without either but also without God? Chambers looks stumped.

"I don't know, because in all of it what I know, God is sovereign and so I know in either place he's able to turn it all into good." A smile accompanies his answer, the smile of certainty.

Except for the people that killed themselves, I say.

"Well, even there," he says. "Their lives have helped others. Their lives speak beyond the grave. They've caused so many of us to realise we've got to change this, we've got to help kids. He's used those tragedies for good in the lives of others."

Edward Linsmier for BuzzFeed

It is rare to hear someone put a positive spin on young suicides and suggest it is all part of a wider purpose.

I find that distasteful and sickening, I say.

"You don't believe their lives matter today? That because of what happened it has caused so much…" His voice is raised as I interrupt.

You're drawing a positive out of suicide, I say. They died so you could suddenly realise the error of your ways? A passage from Anything But Straight, Wayne Besen's 2003 book exposing the ex-gay movement, comes to mind: "Most alarming about Chambers is his focus on targeting vulnerable adolescents. Before taking over at Exodus, Chambers was the director of the Fringe Youth Outreach in Orlando, where he regularly counselled high school teens and maintained an email list of 300 teens."

"I'm trying to find something where their life has meaning, even in the midst of that tremendous tragedy," Chambers replies. "The good that has come out of horrible tragedies is what helped our culture become a better place."

Was Chambers ever suicidal?

"As a teenager there were a number of times I thought, 'The only way out of this is to kill myself.' I think that given the opportunity…I think I was too afraid to do that."

Alan Chambers
Alan Chambers

Alan Chambers in 1994, aged 22, and his memoir.

Chambers' memoir is notable for its omissions. The first of those is his adolescence; it jumps from him being aged 11, when he writes, "my feelings now indicated I was gay," to being 19 and seeking out treatment for his homosexuality and eventually falling in with Exodus. So what were those interim years like?

"Torture. Being a gay kid in a Southern Baptist reality in a conservative community and church? It was torture. It was a constant praying that this would go away, fear that I would be found out, hiding in secrecy, being ashamed. I'm thankful that I didn't kill myself."

Instead, in early adulthood, he started venturing out onto the gay scene. He writes in the book that he was sinking amaretto sours one night in a gay club in the early 1990s, when he heard his name called. It was, he claims, God.

And God told him, "What you think is good is the enemy of my best. There's nothing that can make me love you any more or any less. But if you trust me, I will show you my best."

"How in the world did you get in here?" asked Chambers.

And God replied, "You'd be surprised at the places I go."

It is perhaps surprising that the Christian God who could spend his time talking with women dying in childbirth in sub-Saharan Africa, instead spoke to a sexually conflicted man downing cocktails in a club in Florida.

Perhaps less surprising is that, according to Chambers, "no one else heard the voice". But for Chambers "that conversation with him was the one that changed me forever." He left the club, he left his gay life – still in its sapling stage – and set about encouraging others to do the same.

Alan Chambers

Alan and Leslie Chambers when they were dating, and at a friend's wedding.

Given Chambers now acknowledges the harm of conversion therapy, does he agree with those who think it should be made illegal not only for minors but for everyone?

"I think we should legislate against reparative therapy for minors," he says. "That is something I believe is dangerous, setting kids up to create more internalised shame. But when it comes to adults, I think it's well within someone's right to seek out the best course of action for themselves."

They may not know what the best course of action is, I say. People, after all, seek out therapies with all sorts of goals, many of which are unhealthy.

"I think we should have an obligation legally to say on a legal piece of paper, presented to someone when they walk in, 'This is my duty to warn you, I cannot change your sexual orientation and I will not try.'"

Has conversion therapy ever made a gay person straight?

"I don't know anyone who's had a change in their orientation," he says. "I certainly know therapy isn't something that can change someone's orientation."

In which case, was all his work at Exodus a waste of time?

"I don't think it was a waste of time because I think there was some good that was done there," he says. "We can talk all day about the bad but when I was looking for support there was nothing else. It was a place where people could walk in and admit at least a lot of their truth and find support."

But that "support" amplified self-disgust, I say.

"Sure, but it was there," he replies. "I had nothing else. It was a double-edged sword."

Since the demise of Exodus, its followers have forked in two directions. Some joined the Restored Hope Network, another conversion therapy organisation, which Chambers describes as "more rigid, more fundamentalist, more strident, more angry and bitter. It's about what they hate and I think a lot of what they hate is in themselves."

How does he feel now towards those people?

"I feel sorry for them. I feel angry at the people who are promoting that myth. My hope is those people will read my story and realise, 'This is madness.'"

Many who did not join the Restored Hope Network instead came out. What is it like to hear of former colleagues and clients embracing their sexual identity?

"It just is," he says. "The only thing that makes me sad is when I see people who were so locked up emotionally and spiritually that they go off and give themselves to all sorts of chaotic and dangerous behaviours." He describes a former member of Exodus's hierarchy, who he says has since had "hundreds of sexual partners" and now drinks and takes drugs.

"It makes me realise even further how dangerous it is when we tell someone, 'This is how you have to live.' I realise so many people held to a rigid understanding of God and lived in prisons."

You helped create those prisons, I say.

"I absolutely helped," he agrees. "There is a lot of sadness and realisation about how wrong I was in some of the things I promoted. One of the things that has changed Leslie and me post-Exodus is realising our narrative about gay and lesbian people was tied to our experience at Exodus."

He talks about the LGBT people he and his wife have befriended in the last two years. It seems they never met a happy gay person before, and certainly not any happy gay couples.

David Mcnew / Getty Images
Getty

Yes to Proposition 8 supporters, Los Angeles, 2008.

This might explain in part Chambers' prior opposition to same-sex marriage. He campaigned in support of Proposition 8, California's 2008 balloted ban on same-sex marriage. Immediately after Exodus shut, he told BuzzFeed News he neither wanted to fight against the attempt to secure federal recognition of equal marriage, nor champion it.

How, then, did he feel on 26 June, when the US Supreme Court ushered in nationwide same-sex marriage?

"I was happy," he says. "It might be the finest moment in our culture in decades. There has absolutely been in a shift [in his attitudes] in the last two years. Most of it is because it's not about politics, it's about people, for us – the people we have met and have relationships with."

How does it feel to have attempted to prevent lesbian and gay people from marrying?

"I hate that," he says sadly. Is he ashamed?

"I hate the word 'ashamed'. I feel like I was wrong. I did what I thought was right and it wasn't." Does he want to apologise?

"Of course I want to apologise and when I sit down with [LGBT] people who are married and who are new friends, one of the first things I say is, 'I'm very sorry that I was a part of keeping you from realising the dream you had to be married to the person you love.'"

It does not take a legitimate therapist to speculate that internalised homophobia has informed much of Chambers' life. But does he recognise that? He nods.

"One morning as I was sitting writing [the memoir], it was 4am, and I realised for the first time in my life that I have been homophobic. I'm not afraid of gay people, but I was afraid of that in me; that was something I was deeply ashamed of. It [this realisation] was so shocking to me, and so it is something I recognise. I was afraid of admitting that gay is a part of who I am and it will never go away, and I need to be good with that."

How, then, does Chambers – married to a woman, attracted to men – define his sexual orientation now?

"I don't," he says. "There are a lot of people who would like for me to claim any number of labels, whether that's gay, straight, or bi. When I think of my orientation, it's 'Leslie'. Do I have same-sex attractions? Of course I do."

For all the evolution in Chambers' beliefs, his language and labels seem clamped by inertia. When I remark that the phrase "same-sex attractions" – a favourite of conversion therapists – is offensive to many as it reduces an entire identity and culture to bare sexual feelings, he looks flummoxed, as if this has never occurred to him.

"I don't seek to be offensive," he offers.

Equally, for Chambers, who used his platform to block the rights of LGBT people and who now claims to want to support the community, is it not cowardice or an abdication of social duty to refuse a sexual orientation label? Many, after all, argue that coming out has been the most potent tool in the LBGT rights movement.

"I would disagree," he says. "I'm not unwilling to lend my voice and I'm happy for someone to call me what they want. But I don't think any of those labels are perfect."

Alan and Leslie Chambers on their honeymoon.

Alan and Leslie Chambers on their honeymoon.

Entwined in all of this, of course, is Leslie Chambers. In their memoir, her husband repeatedly emphasises how much he is attracted to her.

"I have found in life that no sexual experience, whether with a man or all alone, feels better than it does with Leslie," he writes. And: "Leslie is now, and has been, my very first choice, the only person I have loved and been intimate and sexually active with over the course of 20 years." This patter continues until something else emerges: pragmatism.

"An orgasm with a man would last about five minutes and would seriously alter a life I dearly love and value above all else. It's not worth it," he writes.

What is further striking about the memoir is that because of its framing – all inner struggle, with scant mention of what Exodus actually did – it elicits a reaction in the reader that contrasts with the anger many have felt towards him: pity. No one would want his life: fleeing so far from himself he devoted his career to shouting into the darkness at other gay people, "You, sinner, can flee too."

It is clear from the book that he has never known the love of another man: only fleeting, angst-ridden sexual encounters in his youth. He had nothing to which he could compare his relationship with Leslie. It took them eight months and 23 days to consummate the marriage.

But she knew all along to whom she was saying, "I do." The signs were there.

Leslie Chambers recalls in the memoir her 30th birthday, soon after they had met. She opened an envelope with a video saying, "Play me" on it. The footage began with some of her friends singing "Happy Birthday".

"Then Alan gave an impromptu rendition of Somewhere Over the Rainbow in a show-stopping Ethel Merman style," she writes. "He ended with a Broadway musical big finish body pose: eyes closed but to the sky, back slightly arched and feet staggered."

There is no doubt, however, when talking to Chambers, that he loves Leslie. And, later, when she sits in front of Skype to discuss Exodus and their marriage, that she loves him. She was a virgin when they met. On their wedding night, she writes, when he failed to perform, she told him, "I didn't marry you for the sex."

Edward Linsmier for BuzzFeed

Leslie Chambers is warm and bright, with an immense laugh. She describes in the book the low self-esteem that clung to her throughout her twenties before meeting Alan, a fellow life-long Christian. But when we speak, there are two moments that reveal most who she is.

She brings up a dramatic episode at Exodus that occurred two months before its downfall. Alan Chambers agreed to appear on Our America with Lisa Ling (on the Oprah Winfrey Network) alongside 13 former members of Exodus who wanted to confront him about the trauma they had suffered.

They included a man whose ex-wife prevented him attending their son's funeral because he was gay, someone who dropped his medical bills on Chambers' lap, and a young veteran who described going back into the closet after Exodus and putting a gun in his mouth. Leslie Chambers was in the room, watching.

"My heart still pounds and my palms sweat thinking about that, because people were that hurt and I hate it…" Tears come to her eyes. "Whatever part we played in that, we can't brush under the table and not claim. That's a horrible thing to know that someone else is hurting – if not directly because of something you do, in part. I know in our hearts that the motivation was to try to help, so that allows you to go to sleep at night, but not without trying to do something better the next day."

The second moment is when I ask her the same question I had asked her husband, about what she would choose if one of her children were gay: an upbringing of homophobic, conservative Christianity, or liberal atheism.

"The shame in the version of Christianity you mentioned? No, I wouldn't want that on my child. And yet a life without the goodness of God, that breaks my heart too. I'm not sure I can answer."

Finally, I ask her what she wants from her future.

"I want our family to stay intact. I want Alan and I to grow old and still want to hold hands as we walk down the street."

Edward Linsmier for BuzzFeed

This vision of them in later life – autumnal, safe – conjures a question I asked Alan Chambers about the jolting contrast of his earlier years: What could have saved him from leading an ex-gay life?

"The church could have prevented me from that," he says. "Understanding God in the way I do now, as a good God not a mean dictator, would have helped. There would have been no need for Exodus. I look at all of that and think, 'We wouldn't have needed a gay rights movement if we'd had a proper understanding of who God is.'"

Except, I say, not everyone is either a Christian or a believer in God.

"I believe it is the church that created the angry, bitter gay rights movement that we've seen over the last couple of decades," he replies. "It's the church's fault." The LGBT rights movement is angry and bitter?

"Well, for some I think there's a lot of anger and bitterness," he says. "Because they've been treated really poorly and abused."

They.

There is, it seems, still a way to go before it becomes a "we". Two years is nothing compared to a lifetime. But what does Chambers think now about what he did in June 2013 and the effect it has had on the conversion therapy movement?

"I think it has been dealt a very deadly blow," he says. "My hope is that there won't be any more ex-gay ministries. My hope is that people would come to the realisation that God loves them no matter what."

Edward Linsmier for BuzzFeed

The teenage Chambers, who drank the hemlock of internalised homophobia, cannot be saved now. But if there is a way for him to reconcile his past and prevent others wasting or ending their life, it is surely to reconnect with the lost boy he was. What, I wonder, would Chambers say to his teenage self? He pauses for a moment; his expression changes as if he can see the young Alan. He looks down.

"Do not fear," he says softly, before pausing again. "Fear has been the basis of so much pain in my life. If I could go back and convince myself something it would be to not fear. Fear led me so many places that caused me to detour and caused great damage. It caused me to run and hide and feel shame." He looks up again.

"I wish I hadn't been afraid."

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