In 1973 John Evans, who is gay, and Rev. Kent Philpott, who is heterosexual, co-founded the original “ex-gay” ministry, Love In Action on the outskirts of San Francisco. Philpott soon wrote The Third Sex?, the first ever “ex-gay” book which touted six people who supposedly converted to heterosexuality through prayer.
Although time eventually revealed no one in his book actually had changed, the people reading it had no idea the stories were fallacious. As far as they knew, there was a magical place in California that had figured out the secret for making gays into straights. Inspired by his book, a few enthusiastic individuals spontaneously began their own “ex-gay” ministries.
Evans, however, denounced the program he co-founded after his best friend Jack McIntyre committed suicide in despair over not being able to “change”. Still, Love in Action survived because many people who read The Third Sex? came to California in hopes of changing.
As a result of Philpott’s book, within three years more than a dozen “ex-gay” ministries organically sprung up across America. As these ministries serendipitously became aware of each other, two leading “ex-gay” counselors at Melodyland Christian Center in Anaheim, California - Gary Cooper and Michael Bussee - decided to organize a conference where the “ex-gays” could meet each other and network.
In September 1976, Cooper and Bussee’s vision came to fruition as sixty-two “ex-gays” journeyed to Melodyland for the world’s first “ex-gay” conference. The outcome of the retreat was the formation of Exodus International, an umbrella organization for “ex-gay” groups worldwide.
The early Exodus meetings almost disintegrated the group because participants kept sleeping with each other. The group was rocked to its core a few years later when Bussee and Cooper acknowledged that they had not changed and were in love with each other. They soon divorced their wives, moved in together and eventually held a commitment ceremony.
In 1979, Seventh Day Adventist minister Colin Cook founded Homosexuals Anonymous (HA). But Cook’s “ex-gay” empire crumbled a few years later after he was scandalized for having phone sex and giving nude massages to those he was supposedly helping become heterosexual.
As acceptance for homosexuality grew in the late 1970’s, the “ex-gay” ministries had trouble attracting new recruits and growth of these programs stagnated. Then came AIDS. Unscrupulous ministry leaders were able to use the threat of AIDS to scare people into entering “ex-gay” ministries.
However, even as the epidemic spurred new growth, the “ex-gay” ministries remained relatively obscure in mainstream society. This dramatically changed in 1998 when the politically motivated Religious Right jumped on the “ex-gay” bandwagon launching a multi-million dollar newspaper and television ad campaign. They featured groups like Exodus because the traditional fire and brimstone rhetoric of the far right political groups made them seem mean-spirited and intolerant. By embracing the “ex-gays”, hateful men like Revs. D. James Kennedy, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson could claim they loved homosexuals and were just trying to help them.
But the ad campaign soon backfired after University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard was murdered because he was gay. The groups who sponsored the anti-gay ads were held largely responsible for creating a climate where hate crimes, such as the Shepard incident, could flourish. Although these groups denied a connection, because of the negative fallout they postponed their “ex-gay” television ads for several months and the campaign lost steam.
Additionally, several of the “ex-gays” they paraded as proof of “change” were uncovered as frauds. The biggest example was “ex-gay” poster boy John Paulk who the ad campaign sponsors put on the cover of Newsweek with his “ex-lesbian” wife Anne under the large headline, “Gay for Life?” But in September 2000 Paulk was photographed cruising in a Washington, DC gay bar and was suspended as Chairman of Exodus and put on a temporary “hiatus” by Focus on the Family, where he ran their “Love Won Out” program.The “ex-gay” ministries are still growing today despite their history of scandals and failures. The sad truth is, as long as people are made to hate themselves for being gay, these groups will exist. The best way to counter their negative influence is by highlighting the truth and revealing the failed history that “ex-gay” groups represent. Showing an honest portrayal of gay life also greatly diminishes the effectiveness of these groups. When people learn that God loves them for who they are and that they can be gay and happy, the appeal of these dangerous groups invariably wanes.