Lisa Ling disappointed in two earlier looks at the “ex-gay” movement. Was the third time the charm?
In two previous episodes of Our America With Lisa Ling, journalist Ling examined the so-called “ex-gay” movement, in which lesbian, gay and bisexual people turn to Christianity in an attempt to overcome their sexuality. In the first, “Pray the Gay Away?“, I was disappointed that Ling asked the question in the first place. Asking it at all positions the LGBT community and the “ex-gay” movement as moral equivalents. They are not.
Her second effort was also disappointing, since rather than make a fresh examination in the aftermath of her earlier episode, Ling simply repeated that episode almost in its entirety, with little new comment on its content or the reaction to it. Ling did include new interview footage with Alan Chambers, head of “ex-gay” organization Exodus International, in the wake of that group’s announcement that it would no longer offer or endorse “reparative therapy” designed to turn gay people straight. Chambers explained that his work with Ling on the first episode had led to his change of heart.
According to OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network, Chambers again approached Ling in March of this year about appearing in a third episode in which he would apologize for the harm that reparative therapy and other conversion techniques had done to the people subjected to them. This third episode, titled “Special Report: God & Gays” (which aired last night) was divided into two halves.
The first half reviewed the history of the “ex-gay” movement in general and of Exodus in particular. Exodus was founded in 1976 as a support group designed for Christians who were struggling to reconcile their Christian beliefs with their non-heterosexual orientations. It quickly morphed into a conversion-based ministry, which led co-founder Michael Bussee to leave the organization. Ling interviewed two people who were particularly affected by their experiences in the group, Gayle and Jerry. Gayle described the coercion she felt at the hands of the counselors she went to for help, comparing it in a journal entry to “emotion[al] gang rape”.
Jerry discussed a horrific encounter with an Exodus member. Jerry’s son, an epileptic, died at age 26. When Jerry returned to town for the funeral, the Exodus member told him that it was Jerry’s fault that his son died, because Jerry “chose” homosexuality leading God to withdraw his “protective hand” from the family.
Ling (center-left) moderates a meeting between Chambers (right) and several “ex-gay” survivors
The second half of the hour featured Chambers and his wife, Leslie, sitting with a group of “ex-gay” survivors, including Bussee, Gayle, Jerry and several others. Also in attendance was Christian, a young man who became something of the face of the Our America “ex-gay” episodes. Christian had been working with a (formerly) Exodus-affiliated counselor, self-described “ex-lesbian” Janet Boynes, for five years as of the first episode. When Ling re-interviewed him for the second, she reported that she felt that he had “lost a little bit of light in his eyes”. Christian made a last-minute decision to attend the meeting.
What struck me most about Chambers’ apology is that despite saying many of the right words and expressing many of the right sentiments, it never feels like he truly understands and accepts the depth of his responsibility for his own actions. He tellingly compares his work in the “ex-gay” movement to a four-car pile-up that he caused in 1993 because he was driving inattentively. Analogizing an accident caused by negligence to the deliberate damage caused by his years as the head of Exodus is unbelievably wrong-headed and inadequate. Several of the survivors in attendance call him immediately and forcefully on it, and several reject his apology outright. Bussee calls on him to shut down Exodus immediately. Chambers has no immediate response.
In a particularly touching moment, Ling sits down with Christian. He had remained silent throughout the three-hour meeting, afraid to speak up. He has not changed his sexual orientation, having “come out, quietly, to [him]self” about six months before the meeting. The sense of hope and contentment radiates off of him as he describes beginning to find peace with himself and building a community of like-minded people. Whatever light his eyes may have lost, it’s back now.
In her final segment, Ling asks Chambers what the future holds for him and for Exodus. Chambers doesn’t know, but on June 19, following a unanimous vote by its board of directors, Exodus ended its operations.
So did Ling and Our America get it right the third time? Absolutely. Considered on its own, this episode was an informative, enlightening and even inspirational hour of television. Considered with its predecessors it forms the concluding chapter of a trilogy. A trilogy that documents several journeys. The as-yet incomplete journey for Chambers from “ex-gay” advocate to the disbander of Exodus. Christian’s journey from self-loathing misery to acceptance and satisfaction. And, hokey as it sounds, the journey America has taken in the advances the LGBT movement has made from March 2011, when the first episode aired, to today.