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The end of 'ex-gay' conversion therapy
California has banned the controversial treatment. Now, the biggest ex-gay group, Exodus, is disbanding
 
Carri Jo Anderson protests in front of a Chick-fil-A in Pompano Beach, Fla., in August 2012. The company's Christian owners are against same-sex marriage.
Carri Jo Anderson protests in front of a Chick-fil-A in Pompano Beach, Fla., in August 2012. The company's Christian owners are against same-sex marriage. AP Photo/J Pat Carter

Earlier this week, a Pew Research Center report raised the possibility that the remarkably quick shift toward public approval of same-sex marriage might be mostly a product of media hype. On Wednesday, two things suggested that, quite the opposite, we're seeing a real, deep societal shift on attitudes about homosexuality.

First, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) became the third sitting Republican senator to publicly back gay marriage. Then, late Wednesday, the most prominent "ex-gay" advocacy group, Exodus International, announced that it was disbanding. Before that unexpected announcement, Exodus chief Alan Chambers issued a long apology to "members of the LGBTQ community" for "the pain and hurt many of you have experienced."

The dissolution of the 37-year-old Exodus International, which describes itself as "the oldest and largest Christian ministry dealing with faith and homosexuality," was announced as the group was hosting its annual conference, and right before the Oprah Winfrey Network's Thursday broadcast of Lisa Ling's Our America program on Chambers' apology meeting with former ex-gay participants who were hurt by the therapy:

More telling than his mea culpa to gays and lesbians, Chambers apologized for his group having "promoted sexual orientation change efforts and reparative theories about sexual orientation that stigmatized parents." The controversial practice involves the idea that intensive therapy and, in the case of Christian groups like Exodus, prayer can "cure" people of homosexuality.

The shuttering of Exodus — or rather, its transformation into another, avowedly not "ex-gay" organization — is a big blow to "reparative therapy," but it isn't the first. As of January, such therapy is barred for minors in California, and New Jersey is considering a similar ban. "As long as there's prejudice and discrimination, there will be some form of these groups," Wayne Besen of anti-ex-gay group Truth Wins Out tells The Advocate. But, he adds, the movement is clearly on the ropes:

In addition to Exodus's renunciation of reparative therapy, Besen points out, other blows to the movement include psychiatrist Robert Spitzer's apology last year for a study he did that was used to justify such therapy, research he now says was scientifically unsound; onetime ex-gay spokesman John Paulk's recent announcement that he is no longer ex-gay.... "We are winning this battle, indisputably," Besen says. [Advocate]

One group that is continuing to promote a cure for homosexuality is the Restored Hope Network, a splinter group of Exodus. And Exodus International's demise — "Exodus is an institution in the conservative Christian world, but we've ceased to be a living, breathing organism," Chambers says — isn't the final end of the group, as Fast Company's Jeff Chu points out:

And even though "Exodus was a large pillar in the 'ex-gay' world," Chambers doesn't speak for the whole movement, says Evan Hurst at Truth Wins Out. Chambers is to be commended for his honest, brave attempt to make amends, and he says "he doesn't want to see another 'ex-gay' organization fill the void left by Exodus's closing," but groups like the Renewed Hope Network will "fight tooth and nail to make sure that Alan's vision of the church being a loving place will never come to pass."

Still, the toppling of the Exodus pillar is a big deal. "This is rather huge in my world," says John Aravosis at AmericaBlog. The "quacks" and bigots at and buttressed by Exodus "have been spreading lies for decades, treating people for something that can't be treated, using false 'cures,' giving false hope, and helping to feed the stigma of being gay, and the pain many felt." And now the group is gone. "I'm actually quite astounded." He's not alone. Here's BuzzFeed's Ben Smith:

The "ex-gay" movement isn't dead, says Trudy Ring at The Advocate, "but it's certainly in critical condition." The small segment of America, mostly driven by religion, that believes homosexuality is a disorder that can be cured is getting smaller by the day, Ring says, and "mainstream mental health professionals have condemned it."

The gay-conversion movement is gaining some ground in Russia, parts of Africa, and elsewhere around the world. But in the U.S., it "is in the midst of an identity crisis," Lisa Ling tells The Advocate. She won't speculate on what the future holds, says Ring, "but with even onetime advocates like Chambers acknowledging the ineffectiveness of reparative therapy, the movement could fade away."

 
Peter Weber is a senior editor at TheWeek.com, and has handled the editorial night shift since 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian, and plays in an Austin rock band.

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