Alan Chambers says he and many of his compatriots who operated the nation’s preeminent “ex-gay” organization for 12 years before they shut it down in 2013 have undergone a fundamental, personal change in their Christian beliefs and views on homosexuality.
Chambers, 44, an ordained minister who served as president of Exodus International from 2001 to 2013, is scheduled to deliver two sermons at the Washington National Cathedral on Sunday morning.
But instead of advocating for Exodus International’s past call for “reparative therapy” to help people change their sexual orientation from gay to straight, Chambers says he plans to tell the story of how he and others involved with Exodus have changed and now believe God loves and fully embraces LGBT people for who they are.
“And by change I mean we changed our opinion,” he told the Washington Blade in an interview. “We’ve changed our beliefs. We’ve changed our understanding in many respects,” he said.
“We’ve become affirming of people and supportive and affirming of marriage equality and feel like there are a lot of amazing relationships out there,” Chambers said. “And we believe that’s something that is a right that people have and should have and that God can bless those relationships as much as he can bless heterosexual relationships.”
In a development that would have been unthinkable during his earlier years at Exodus, Chambers is scheduled to march in the Capital Pride Parade on Saturday as part of a contingent organized by the National Cathedral.
Chambers acknowledges his current views represent a major break from his past statements and actions.
During most of his years as president of Exodus International he fulfilled the role of poster boy for the organization’s mission to persuade people who were troubled over “same-sex attractions” to change their sexual orientation from gay to straight by embracing God and Christian beliefs.
Often accompanied by his wife, Leslie Chambers, Alan Chambers pointed to what he said was his own success in leaving a gay or bisexual lifestyle through reparative or “conversion” therapy that Exodus International and other ex-gay ministries promoted but that was debunked and condemned by the world’s major medical associations.
In 2013 Chambers shocked many of the conservative Christian leaders and organizations he worked with for over a decade by announcing Exodus International was disbanding permanently. To the dismay of those remaining supportive of “ex-gay” ministries, he publicly apologized to the LGBT community for the “pain and hurt” that Exodus had caused.
Chambers said the decision to close Exodus International followed his realization that reparative therapy did not work and often brought about feelings of shame and despondency when people were unable to change their sexual desires.
He said he also came to the realization that LGBT people were fully embraced by God’s love and that the church in many ways had failed to minister to their true needs.
While acknowledging and accepting Chambers’ remorse of his past role in the “ex-gay” movement and his current support for LGBT rights, some in the LGBT community have criticized him for not publicly confirming that’s he’s gay or bisexual.
Noting that he’s happily married and deeply in love with his wife, with whom he works closely on projects involving his public speaking tours and writings, Chambers said he’s not interested in being confined to a label.
“I realized a number of years ago before we closed Exodus that straight wasn’t a label that I wanted to place on myself,” he said. “But gay wasn’t either. It doesn’t mean gay isn’t a part of my identity or that I mind people using that as a label to describe me because in some regards, it absolutely does.”
Added Chambers: “But someone who is married happily for nearly 20 years to a woman, not because I had to be or because I needed to be but because I wanted to be. I choose really to stay away from labels that pigeonhole me into one identity that makes one group feel better or another group feel worse.”
The full text of the Blade’s interview with Chambers follows:
Washington Blade: What was it that prompted you to shut down Exodus International?
Alan Chambers: Well there were a number of factors, the first of which is it was always my goal to close down Exodus. And the reason for that was really what evolved over the course of time that I was the president of Exodus. I became president in 2001. And in the interview process they asked me what success would look like for me as the president of Exodus. I said success looks like Exodus going out of business because the church is doing its job.
And the job that I was talking about drastically changed in my mind to not helping people change but helping people be celibate, not pointing to a good or an evil but simply including people – all people – LGBTQ plus people into the life, body, and ministry of the church.
And that’s really the passion that we have today is seeking inclusion, full inclusion where people can use their gifts and not be second-class citizens in the church but be treated as I would treat anyone and that is as a full-fledged member of His family.
And I know something that changed for us and that’s one of the major factors in closing Exodus was it was founded on a premise that was faulty in our opinion. And we couldn’t modify our mission. We couldn’t rebrand our mission. In order to do the maximum amount of healing necessary we had to shut the organization down.
And I felt like that message to the church that people who had been entrenched in this movement have changed. And by change I mean we changed our opinion. We’ve changed our beliefs. We changed our understanding in many respects. And then to the LGBT community our message in closing was we pray that this is a huge healing opportunity for those who have been hurt, for those who have had different experiences frankly than I had at Exodus.
Blade: When you say the Exodus movement was based on a faulty premise, by that did you mean it’s not possible to change someone’s sexual orientation from gay to straight?
Chambers: Right – and that’s the whole premise – that Exodus was an organization that believed and promoted change.
Blade: Didn’t you say in some of your recent writings that you repented? Was all of this part of a repenting in some way?
Chambers: Yeah. And repenting, you know, means change your mind. And we changed our minds. I changed my mind on all of these things, especially how we approached them from a Christian perspective and a human rights perspective. And so we repented. I repented. I changed my mind.
Blade: By changing your mind, do you now agree with the many LGBT Christian activists such as leaders of the LGBT supportive Metropolitan Community Church that God loves LGBT people and same-sex love and committed same-sex relationships are not a sin? Is that something you now feel has validity?
Chambers: Absolutely. We’ve become affirming of people and supportive and affirming of marriage equality and feel like there are a lot of amazing relationships out there and that’s something we need to support and encourage. And it gives people the opportunity to be faithful where they haven’t been able to experience that before. And we believe that’s something that is a right that people have and should have and that God can bless those relationships as much as he can bless heterosexual relationships.
Blade: You mention in some of your writings that during your tenure at Exodus you walked the halls of Congress. By that did you mean you lobbied or advocated in opposition to LGBT civil rights legislation among other things?
Chambers: For a period of time we did lobby against marriage equality and certain anti-discrimination policies and things like that. In 2008 we publicly came out and said we were wrong for doing that and we now no longer were going to do that. And so during the last few years of Exodus – the last five or six years of Exodus we, again, to use the word repent, repented our political involvement in that regard.
And since then, since closing Exodus, I felt there were things where I needed to be very vocal about my support in the affirmation of the things that I used to oppose.
Blade: But when you stopped opposing LGBT rights legislation in 2008 were you still promoting the idea that gay people could change their sexual orientation?
Chambers: Yeah, gradually, though, we got away from the change verbiage and denounced reparative therapy and those types of things before we closed, which caused a huge fissure and separation within Exodus where other groups began to break off and form their own organizations because of our changing positions.
Blade: Clearly many conservative or fundamentalist Christians and religious right organizations like the Family Research Council still condemn homosexuality and claim gays can and should change their sexual orientation. Have any of these people confronted you or challenged you on your current beliefs?
Chambers: Oh, absolutely, yes. We were challenged tremendously in all of that. And some even made accusations against me – that I was having an affair and there was no way I could say the things I was saying for any other reason than I was cheating on my wife and I was living a double life and those types of things. I had a prominent Evangelical person call my pastors and tell them that he had a word from God that I was cheating on my family and that was the only way I could have a change of heart and change of position on all of these things.
So they have done everything from challenge me publicly and in the press to invading my private space in life by calling people and spreading lies about me. And that’s been hurtful. But it is what it is and it only galvanizes our desire to do right by the LGBTQ plus community and stand our ground and continue to work and fight on behalf of them.
Blade: You’ve undoubtedly heard those who quote Biblical passages such as Leviticus, which they interpret to say homosexuality is a sin condemned by God. Do you have any thoughts on how that can be reconciled with your own beliefs?
Chambers: I know there are a number of people on both sides who spend an inordinate amount of time trying to take scripture and prove a point with it. And what I’ve come to understand about scripture is I believe that the Bible is true. What I know of myself is I don’t have the ability to interpret it perfectly and no one else does either. So there are numerous scriptures, not just related to homosexuality but related to so many things that I look at and I think there is more to it than what’s there in the black and white.
What I do know is my understanding of scripture is that it’s full of good news and it’s full of good advice. And the good news is – the most important part in that good news is that Jesus came for all of us, that he is someone who wants a relationship with everyone. And there is no one excluded from that.
So I know there are a lot of people that explain theology and gay theology so much better than I do. What I found as a Christian and a pastor and as a person that this impacts directly – I don’t have to be concerned about what those passages actually mean because I think when it comes down to it, it is irrelevant. The arguing over that is irrelevant. He didn’t die so we can point our finger at people and say you’re better than or you’re less than or you’re good or you’re evil.
Blade: In a commentary published last October in the Advocate, writer Eliel Cruz said he believes you are sincere about the changes in your beliefs about the “ex-gay” movement. But he criticized you for not being willing so far to identify as gay or bisexual. What are your thoughts on that?
Chambers: Well Eliel is my friend and we’ve had these conversations. And he’s not the only one that feels that way. I feel like I’ve spent a lot of time focused on a label. I was a part of a movement that labeled itself as ex-gay, which was frankly a label that I always hated. And that was a part of what we were involved in and entrenched in for so long. And I realized a number of years ago before we closed Exodus that straight wasn’t a label that I wanted to place on myself. But gay wasn’t either. It doesn’t mean that gay isn’t a part of my identity or that I mind people using that as a label to describe me because in some regards it absolutely does. But as someone who is married happily for nearly 20 years to a woman, not because I had to be or because I needed to be but because I wanted to be. I choose really to stay away from labels that pigeonhole me into one identity that makes one group feel better or another feel worse.
I just feel like I’m more than those things and for me, if I’m going to identity myself or label myself it’s going to be as the thing that I am. I’m a husband. I’m a father…a Christian. All of those things are far more descriptive and accurate. If I were going to pull an orientation label there is certainly truth to the gay orientation. But also as a married man for almost 20 years, my orientation is my wife. And but if I was gay or straight predominantly my orientation should be to the person I’m married to. And so when I think about it in those terms I feel like that is something that is fair to me and fair to my family to label myself in those ways.
But I certainly understand when somebody uses the gay label to describe me. And I wouldn’t argue with them. There is truth there. But as a person I prefer to live beyond sexual labels or the social labels, even though I appreciate them and understand when people use them for themselves and even for me.
Blade: Former President Jimmy Carter created a stir in 1976 when he was a presidential candidate and said in an interview that he had sinned many times because he had attractions to other women as a married man, even though he overcome those temptations and was faithful to his wife. Could that be a situation that you’re in since some have labeled you bisexual?
Chambers: Well I am married and I believe attraction in and of itself is not a sin. So for me to say I find another human being attractive I don’t think is to say that I am committing a sin. I think attraction in and of itself is value neutral. What I do with those attractions, whether it’s a gay attraction or a straight attraction or whatever – whether it’s to a person or an attraction to money that we need to something that I shouldn’t do – those are areas where I don’t yield.
When it comes to being married I feel like my priority is to my wife. And so I do have attractions. I do have temptations – all of those types of things. But I would no matter what. So my desire as a husband is to be faithful. So I exercise a great deal of restraint as any husband would or any wife would who’s committed to their partner. And so it’s not a gay or a straight issue or one is more sinful than another…My desire is to be faithful to my wife.
Blade: Do you have a position on laws that have been proposed and passed in a number of states to prohibit so-called conversion therapy for minors under the age of 18?
Chambers: Yeah absolutely I do. I wrote an article for Religion News Service in April 2015, the day President Obama stated his opposition to conversion therapy and made a call for a ban on that for minors. And I agreed with him. And I just did an interview with the Southern Poverty Law Center. They released a report on their opposition to conversion therapy and I worked with them and will continue to work with them and others to see that conversion therapy for minors is banned. I’m opposed to that. I think it is dangerous. I think it promotes shame and it shouldn’t be something that minors are forced to be a part of.
Blade: Would you have any advice for an adult who may be considering undergoing conversion therapy to change their sexual orientation?
Chambers: Yeah – my advice to people who are seeking out reparative therapy, which is the traditional name for it, is that you cannot change your sexual orientation. If someone is interested in a celibacy option whether they are gay or straight and they are married and there is a faith or moral conviction about sex outside of marriage that’s very different than seeking out reparative therapy, which I believe produces shame. Orientation cannot be changed. I spent over 20 years in the movement that promoted it, and it doesn’t work. It’s not possible.
But if someone has a moral or a faith conviction about sex outside of marriage then they should be allowed to seek help with someone who will help them achieve that goal. But that’s not reparative therapy. Reparative therapy is something that produce shame and tells you, you are less than and you can change your orientation, which is not possible.
Blade: Can you tell a little about what your message will be when you speak at the National Cathedral on Sunday?
Chambers: Well I’ll be preaching from a text and beyond that I’ll share some of my personal journey and also talk a lot about the example I believe that comes from God and the life of Jesus related to inclusion, related to grace and love and those being our highest priorities – and the hope that people who have been marginalized or hurt by the church or heard a different message from the church will realize their great worth that Christians very often fall short of speaking for God when they talk about sex and sexuality. And we need to do better.
Blade: With marriage equality now the law of the land, LGBT rights advocates say one of the most important remaining tasks for the LGBT rights movement is persuading Congress to pass a federal LGBT civil rights law. Is that something that you can support?
Chambers: Yeah. I try to stay out of politics in general, but I am supportive of legislation that protects individuals and people – groups of people who have been marginalized. And the LGBT community is certainly one of those for sure.
Blade: Can you tell a little about what you are doing now? You’re based in Orlando, Fla. Are you working for another organization?
Chambers: No, we haven’t been working for another organization. My wife is a teacher. And I speak and we both write. And we go where people ask us to go. Most often times that’s for free. And we have just tried very hard not to jump into full-time organization work or a cause but really taken the time to listen to people and spend time with people that wasn’t based around an organization we were trying to promote or raise money for.
And so we’re in the process of trying to move back toward a ministry of some sort. We’ve talked about starting some sort of a church or ministry where we can continue to speak and write just on a different level than we did before. But that’s what we’ve been doing. I freelance and have done some consulting and things like that in the interim. But we’re ready to jump back in full-time and pursue what we believe is our call.
Blade: What religious denomination did you grow up in?
Chambers: I was a Southern Baptist. We’re non-denominational at this point. You can go to Alan Chambers.org. I think there’s a bio there that you could see. We’ve not written a ton in the last couple of years, but there are some things there that we have.