Building the Kingdom

“The grandest vision I have ever seen is building the Kingdom,” Alan Chambers wrote in the October 2003 edition of The Exodus Impact, Exodus’ monthly newsletter. “Our mission at Exodus is to build the Kingdom through encouraging, educating, and equipping the Church to redeem the homosexual. Will you join with us financially to build the Kingdom?”

Building the Kingdom, as Chambers sees it, means getting rid of homosexual practices, or “turning people to Christ.” The goal is the same, and it dovetails with the conservative agenda to ban same-sex marriage. It also reflects the rise of the Christian right in matters of politics. For a growing number of Americans, faith and civics are no longer incompatible.

Conservative Americans were not always this engaged. Until 2003, the cultural shift toward gay acceptance meant near-bankruptcy for Exodus, which was founded in 1976. In 2002, Exodus’ year-end financial statement showed a deficit of $118,455; by 2004, that number had increased to a surplus of $266,678 — a boost of nearly $400,000 in just two years. In that same time period, the organization’s net assets increased 30-fold from $9,854 to $263,459. Ex-gay movement watchdogs attribute the turnaround to the organization’s partnership with financial giant Focus on the Family, whose reported worth in 2002 was over $130 million. And the apparent symbiosis between Exodus and Focus isn’t just financial: Two of Exodus’ MVPs, Melissa Fryrear and Mike Haley, also have jobs at Focus on the Family. And in its August 2003 newsletter, Exodus ran a half-page ad for “Love Won Out” that included a statement of gratitude to Focus chairman James Dobson.

It is Dobson’s success in marshaling political energy against same-sex marriage that may have done the most to revive the ex-gay movement. In April 2004, James Dobson wrote in his own monthly newsletter about the threat to the institution of marriage posed by same-sex unions. “Barring a miracle, the family as it has been known for more than five millennia will crumble, presaging the fall of Western civilization itself,” he wrote. “The family [is] in mortal danger.” By 2005, Focus had launched its cultural action organization, Focus on the Family Action, as a means of wielding political influence through expanded lobbying activities, with a heavy emphasis on defeating same-sex marriage. Since then, on top of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (signed by former President Clinton in 1996, the act bars the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages or civil unions, even if those unions are recognized by state law), 26 states have passed constitutional amendments banning marriage equality, according to Marriage Equality USA.

The partnership can also work the other way. In February 2004, Alan Chambers testified before the Massachusetts Judiciary Committee to promote the Marriage Affirmation and Protection Amendment. Chambers also works for the Marriage Amendment Project, a national coalition of pro-family leaders working to effect legislation defining marriage as a union between one man and one woman.

“Why we don’t remember show tunes”

After the Alan Chambers speech, Tom needs a smoke. For the first time, he’d stood up against someone who was telling him he was wrong, and his heart was racing; he’d been terrified. “I’ll never forget Chambers’ face when I read that quote,” he remembers. “I don’t think my mom knew how good I felt after that.”

The cold wind, however, soon forces Tom back inside the church, where Nicolosi, a secular psychologist who often speaks at “Love Won Out,” is talking about masculine inferiority. His theory of male homosexuality revolves around the classic triadic relationship: a withdrawn, non-expressive father; an overly emotionally involved mother; and a son who is temperamentally shy, timid, introverted, artistic, imaginative — and gay. Over time, the doctor believes, such a son will detach from his father and identify with his mother, but in an attempt to reclaim his own masculinity as he matures, he will sexualize men and sleep with them to fill the father-son relationship void. Or as Nicolosi cautions fathers, “if you don’t hug your sons, another man will.”

“I have never known any homosexual man who had a loving, respectful relationship with his father,” Nicolosi tells the crowd in the church. “My wife always tells me not to speak in absolutes. Well, I just did.” The audience, softened by this jocular reference to the finger-wagging wife, giggles. “You know fathers,” Nicolosi continues, getting merrier. “We don’t like to hold little infants. We don’t know what to do with them! But when our sons get older, we can toss them up and down in the air and catch them. We can teach them that danger can be fun. But even if the father drops the kid and cracks his head a little, at least he’ll be straight! It’s a small price to pay.” Now the crowd is roaring. “That’s why straight guys are a little dull,” he concludes. “That’s why we don’t remember show tunes.”

Tom, for his part, sees these jokes as in bad taste: As a gay man, he finds them personally offensive, and he wonders how his mom can laugh at them right there beside him. Nor does he feel entirely sure that the triadic model fully explains his sexual orientation. Though it was true that he never really got to know his biological father, and he was much closer to his mom than to his dad, he wonders if it might not be all nurture that made him gay, but rather a combination of events in his life and certain characteristics he was born with. Some of what Nicolosi is saying holds true for Tom, but it also holds true for his four brothers, who were raised in the same way, and they all turned out perfectly straight.

And something else is bothering Tom, as applause for Nicolosi gives way to applause for Mike Haley, a former homosexual who went “from prostitute to pastor.” It wasn’t that Nicolosi had claimed “this is not gay-bashing, it’s education,” or the fact that he was making gay jokes, or the audience’s laughter in response. It was that Nicolosi had boasted, “I take personal satisfaction in being successful in doing something the APA says I shouldn’t do,” and something didn’t seem right about that, because the American Psychiatric Association (APA) is the leading authority on psychological practices, and here was a practicing psychologist saying he took pride in shunning those standards.

Besides, back in 1973, the APA had taken homosexuality off the list of mental and emotional disorders, and in 1998 it stated its opposition to reparative therapy on the grounds that “treatment attempts to change sexual orientation are ineffective.” So Tom wasn’t quite sure he trusted what the doctor was saying. But at least Nicolosi, despite his politically incorrect sense of humor, reassured gays in the audience by saying as he stepped down from the podium, “You’re not sinful, degenerative, or perverted; you just never received your emotional needs in childhood.”

Tom thinks about all of this as Haley explains how after 12 years living as an openly gay man, he’d gotten off the “gay treadmill” and left behind a life of bulimia, obsessive workouts, and steroids — the things he said it took to be accepted in the gay community. An enormous black-and-white photograph is projected onto the screen behind Haley, showing him nuzzling his bride on their wedding day as she stares solemnly out the window, bathed in light. “There is grace,” he says. Tom listens to Haley’s words and thinks that he doesn’t want to go to hell; he doesn’t want to be a bad person. But it seems that what Nicolosi and Haley are saying is that if he doesn’t change, he isn’t going to lead a fulfilling life, and he begins to get scared.

“The scariest thing was that they almost — I don’t know if they got to me, but if I was in a place like that for a couple of days, they could have broken me, I think,” says Tom now. “But just the power of their words — I thought that it was manipulative and scary how they could affect somebody like me that much. I don’t believe what they said, but some of what they said made sense and it just got to me. I don’t know if it’s a psychological thing or an emotional thing, but they knew what to say; they knew how to get in my head and that scared me, because I don’t know if they genuinely want to help the gay community, to reach out and make our lives better, or if they just want more support for themselves.”

He adds, “And by the way, the food sucked. I didn’t eat any of their food.”

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