A few years ago, I sat in a session of an Evergreen conference in the heart of Salt Lake in a large and electrified room full of fellow “strugglers” as well as family and friends of strugglers. A lot has changed for me since then, but I still remember when it was all new to me. I didn’t fully agree with everything I’d heard at the conference. I took some and left some. I never particularly liked the term “strugglers,” which was used in the conference’s literature, or the identity of woe it seemed to impose. I readily admitted, however, to struggling at times with the effort to make sense of or reconcile the conflict between my LDS (Mormon) beliefs and my attraction to members of the same sex. And in that room full of hopeful faces, heartfelt tears, and passionate testimonies, semantics and squabbling over details took a back seat to what felt like a godsent opportunity to be among people who could relate to my dilemma from firsthand experience without dismissing either my beliefs or my attractions as insignificant details. These people knew the significance of the “restored gospel of Jesus Christ” in every aspect of my life and psyche as well as the jolting realization that falling for a guy for the first time in my mid twenties had blown my experiences with girls out of the water with a wholeness I hadn’t fully realized was missing. These brethren and sisters, who also “experienced SSA (same-sex attraction),” were fellow pioneers on a path of principled self discipline and faithfulness to eternal truths, a path few seemed to have tread and–it seemed–even fewer had steadily stayed on by maintaining the courage, diligence, and understanding required. We were gathered for a keynote address.
The keynote speaker at this conference was Alan Chambers, president of Exodus International. I remember little of what Chambers actually said, but Exodus is a leading organization for Christians who experience same-sex attraction, and its slogan was “Change is possible”. A dominant message I heard at the Evergreen conference was that even though complete change might not come for everyone in this life, and “change” might mean different things to different people, significant change in orientation is possible, and with the right combination of spirituality, counseling, support, motivation, and perspective, same-sex attraction could be diminished and even eradicated. I accepted that possibility and listened to the theories and recommended courses of action. I heard testimonials of people who were no longer bothered by same-sex attraction. What I did not hear was a very frank warning that few, if any, homosexual/SSA people actually become generally attracted primarily to members of the opposite sex, even if they did learn to manage their attractions in such a way as to live congruent with their beliefs. So it has been interesting to hear Chambers’ recent statement that, as I understand it, he does not believe same-sex attraction is fully eradicated in the vast majority (99.9%) of cases, even with therapy and spiritual ministry, and that most can expect to “be tempted” throughout their lives. It piqued my interest as a different tone than I remember hearing at the conference years ago. But what’s possibly been more interesting is the public reaction.
Some aimed fire at Chambers for denying Biblical truth by implying that practicing homosexuals had a chance at salvation via a relationship with Christ and insisting that homosexuality is excessively and unfairly singled out among sins. Some championed his statements as proof that the entire “ex-gay” movement is a huge fraud. It seemed to me he became an instant but possibly inaccurately portrayed pariah and messiah of various causes and groups who seemed more interested in defending their own perception of truth than understanding or portraying what he really meant or said. Whether or not some of the different camps are right, seeing the strong reactions gave me pause to check my own responses in light of my own experience and connection with the issues.
I felt relieved that someone so respected and recognized within a certain significant subset of society was saying something I’ve been saying for years and wanted to parade his statements as vindication of my view. I hoped it meant a trend towards increasing candor among ministries which promote celibacy or mixed-sex marriage, which assumes his statement and my experience are correct. I wanted to believe this would herald a fizzling out of what I believe are misrepresented and sometimes harmful change therapies. I hoped it would spark conversation about the distinction between reparative therapy and therapies focused on identity and response to attractions. I felt suspicion towards his motives, possibly due to my disagreement with parts of his continuing message and personal experiences with other individuals. I felt resentment that he didn’t say this years ago, before I sat in a room full of eager strugglers yearning for answers and inwardly hinging hope on change, or before friends of mine rejected the idea when _I_ said it because no trusted authority backed it up. I wanted to say it was too little too late. I wondered if giving him credit for candor would establish him as a more trustworthy figure among friends I didn’t want buying into his message. I tried to identify, acknowledge, and set aside my more obvious and defensive gut reactions.
I remembered how my own statements in a blog have been distorted beyond recognition by those who didn’t know me personally but thought they knew all they needed to. I thought of times when I presumed to know someone or their views because I knew someone else in a position similar to theirs and assumed their beliefs, motives, or personality must be similar. I remembered how a close friend was demonized and quoted out of context in a public essay based on what seemed a spectacularly cynical and presumptuous interpretation of something he wrote in a book. I kept in mind that journalists can’t help but miss some details even in responsible efforts to accurately and fairly portray the story. I remembered my days among fellow “strugglers,” our sincerity, our very particular semantics, and our perspective which I believe was less simplistic than some critics portray it. I reminded myself that even my personal conversations with people don’t give me a complete knowledge of their perspective and experience. And I tried to imagine myself, six years ago, responding to my thoughts and statements today. In a way, my past experiences, beliefs, and feelings help keep me in check today. I wanted to be careful not to commit these errors towards Chambers’ statements. I wanted to not make the same errors I saw others making when they made false assumptions and misdirected criticisms about the crowds I ran in. So I went to various sources to try to see what Chambers was really saying rather than make assumptions to suit whatever implications I wanted to draw.
Keeping those things in mind helped me listen and read with an intent to understand what he meant rather than what I assume he meant or what I would like to argue with him about. I probably need work on letting go of defensive bias, but when I really try, I not only find people more responsive and appreciative of the effort, but I find that when it comes time to discuss a current controversy with others, I’ve already done some internal preparation that helps me approach the conversation more calmly and more open to understanding and even correction.
But though several of my friends have admitted it privately, many of them seem hesitant to publicly admit what Chambers has said, and after seeing the reaction and public response to Chambers, I think I can imagine why some might be so hesitant. Until we learn to listen before jumping to conclusions, oversimplifying, warping, magnifying, and co-opting, only a few, if any, will feel comfortable saying what many have experienced silently, and they will appear to stand alone. Regardless of disagreements I may have with Chambers, I applaud his decision to publicly share his perspective and take the time to clarify it. Even if it means controversy and false accusations, he has the opportunity to respond, thereby advancing the public conversation and increasing understanding about some practical realities, lived experiences, and honest expectations of same-sex attracted Christians.
I’ve gone a different direction than I was going in during that conference years ago, so some of the “strugglers” with whom I shared a great sense of mission and camaraderie may subscribe to theories or paths I now disagree with or which actively oppose my decisions or affect my daily life. Nevertheless, I care about them personally, I relate to them in a way, and I remember being among them. I want people I care about, whether gay, Mormon, both, or neither, to be listened to and responded to directly and respectfully in pursuit of truth, rather than painted as distorted caricatures for easy arguments in pursuit of advantage. And I figure if I expect it, I’d best make an effort to afford others the same respect.
— Jay Jacobsen