Meet the Man Who Helped Create the "Ex-Gay" Movement — And Now Works to Save Its Victims

Meet the Man Who Helped Create the "Ex-Gay" Movement — And Now Works to Save Its Victims
Source: AP
Source: AP

Nearly 40 years ago, a group of California Christians founded Exodus International, an organization dedicated to a deceptively simple principle: "Mobilizing the body of Christ to minister grace and truth to a world impacted by homosexuality."

Originally a one-room Bible study group for those struggling between their faith and their same-sex desires, Exodus grew into the world's largest ex-gay ministry, a vast umbrella organization with more than 400 client ministries around the world. It became the most vocal force for the idea that homosexuality was a choice and that those who truly wished to do so could live a straight, "normal" lifestyle.

Exodus broke from its apolitical roots to become a powerful ally of anti-gay politicians, religious leaders and pseudo-scientists who cited the group's existence as proof that homosexuality was a fallacy and gay rights a sham. Over the years, the organization did incalculable damage to thousands of people who would try and fail to change their sexual orientations, and raked in millions of dollars in exchange for those empty promises.

Little did they know that one of Exodus International's own founders would someday help bring them down.

Michael Bussee addressing fellow ex-gay survivors.
Source: Mic/Getty

A boy at war with himself: For a man whose life has been bifurcated into dueling opposites — straight and gay, victim and savior — the co-founder of Exodus International can sum up his life story surprisingly neatly. "It's basically the story of a bullied, isolated, lonely, confused gay kid who thought that Jesus could change him and make him straight," Michael Bussee previously told Mic. "I wanted to be normal."

Indeed, Bussee's first understanding of his sexuality was that he felt "abnormal," different from his peers in a way that he couldn't quite articulate. "I knew from the first grade on that I had strange feelings, and also knew that there was something shameful about that," said Bussee in an extended interview with Mic. He describes his upbringing in Riverside, California, as one of simple pleasures and complicated pains. "I don't know how I got that message. Maybe it was just the absence of positive messages in the culture? ... So I kept it to myself."

Despite Bussee's best efforts to keep those strange feelings to himself, his peers, using the perceptiveness of other-ness that little boys seem preternaturally equipped with, were able to sense something "off" about Bussee. A shy, bookish kid, he was "pretty mercilessly bullied" throughout his junior high years by classmates who lobbed ugly, unfamiliar words at him: "queer," "sissy," "homo."

It was that last one that stuck in his mind. "Sissy" seemed easily defined, and "queer" was really just another word for "weird," but "homo"? That was a new one. So Bussee did what any smart target of preteen bullying would do: He went to the library. "I didn't have anybody to ask, and I wanted to see if there were any books about this," he said, "and there were about four or five books — all in the abnormal psychology department files."

"There were no books that painted it in a positive light. Not one."

The books in question were kept in a locked case, which meant that you couldn't see them unless you asked the librarian. "I got up my nerve and asked her, and lied and said that it was a report for school," Bussee told Mic, seeming both embarrassed and proud of what must have struck his younger self as an incredibly clever idea. The librarian, either hoodwinked or winkingly, gave Bussee the books, but his optimism turned to despair. "There were no books that painted it in a positive light. Not one."

All the books said was that homosexuality was an illness, a disorder of some sort. "It could possibly be treated with limited success," said Bussee, "but there was hope that you could change your orientation." So Bussee, at 12, came to what appeared to be the only logical conclusion. "I made a decision that I was going to come up with some way to cure myself."

Bussee had found the first hint of salvation.

Michael Bussee and his family.
Source: Courtesy Michael Bussee

Finding Jesus — and deliverance: Quietly, Bussee began preparing for the day when he would cure himself of the feelings he'd only just realized he had. "I started collecting empty soda bottles to try to pay for therapy. I'd cash them in and started a little savings account — I obviously had no idea how much therapy cost," Bussee said.

As a teen, Bussee went to a few sessions of long-awaited therapy for his affliction, but came away more uncomfortable than unburdened. "I had one guy who asked me to close my eyes and he tried to take me through a 'creative visualization' of how erotic breasts and vaginas were while he had his hand moving up and down my thigh. So I never went back to that guy."

Bussee kept his secret to himself until his senior year of high school, when he became involved with a fellow (female) member of his choir and got "sucked up in the Jesus movement." The Jesus movement was a massive religious reawakening that began on the West Coast in the late 1960s, with young people meeting by the thousands to discuss Christian philosophy, baptize one another in the Pacific Ocean and attend religious revivals that featured both rock music and glossolalia in equal measure. Described as either the Christian element of the hippie movement or the hippie element of the Christian movement, it is the origin of the term "Jesus freak," and the place where Bussee first felt comfortable disclosing his same-sex attraction.

"I was kind of intrigued by the Christian message," said Bussee, but not for what it had to say about his same-sex urges; Christianity, up to this point, was largely silent about the issue of homosexuality, at least in public. "I got engaged to a girl in high school ... She also became a Christian. I didn't tell her at first; I finally told her and she said that she believed that God could change me, and I said, 'I do, too.'"

Fiancée in tow, Bussee went to college to study psychology and and became involved with a Pentecostal-style megachurch in Anaheim, California, where he witnessed God curing fellow parishioners of drug addiction, gang membership and prostitution. But never did anyone publicly confess to the sin he struggled with most acutely. "I never heard anybody go forward and say, 'I used to be gay.'"

Bussee made an appointment with the church's pastor, who surprised him by asking if he was interested in starting a support group for homosexuals. In the days before Internet message boards or text threads, "somehow, people got the word that this Bible study was started, and people started coming. I don't even know how they found out about it." Originally called EXIT (Ex-Gay Intervention Team), the group was a simple Bible study for people attempting to reconcile their same-sex attraction with their Christian faith. "It wasn't focused on change, per se," said Bussee. "It was just trying to figure out how to be good Christians and deal with this temptation we had." 

Despite starting with no paid staff, a borrowed room in the megachurch and the skepticism of more than a few other parishioners, the group decided to hold a conference in 1976 for similarly oriented church organizations around the country, and Exodus International was born.

Michael Bussee in his senior year of high school.
Source: Courtesy Michael Bussee

Good intentions: Exodus International's practices were originally based on the Pentecostal idea of "name it and claim it" — basically the evangelical version of The Secret. "Whatever you claim in Jesus' name, it will happen if you have faith. If you want a physical healing, claim that; if you want a new car, claim that," said Bussee. "We believed that by professing it, it had become real on a spiritual level already in heaven, and that if we kept professing it, it would happen here on Earth. It's crazy, now that I look back on it, but it's what they taught."

Exodus, whose name was born on a chalkboard during a brainstorming session, "was originally supposed to be a loose-knit coalition of small Bible groups," according to Bussee. But the group's ambitions quickly outgrew its simple origins, as Mic previously reported. "We really believed that God was raising up this ministry, and that it was gonna be a worldwide movement — how grandiose is this, right? — and like the Exodus described in the Old Testament, we would lead people out of bondage."

Originally apolitical — beauty queen/citrus ambassador/anti-gay gadfly Anita Bryant tried and failed to get the group to go on the road with her — the group began taking a harder and harder line on LGBT issues. At the same time, the people it was purporting to help were beginning to suffer from the all-too-common side effects of "conversion therapy."

"We really believed that God was raising up this ministry, and that it was gonna be a world-wide movement."

"People couldn't change. They became depressed, attempted suicide," Bussee told Mic in previous reporting. "One guy, after six months of celibacy, went to a bookstore and had a sexual encounter, and felt so guilty about it that he repeatedly slashed his genitals with a razor blade and poured Drano on the wounds." As Exodus members began to crack under the pressure of trying to maintain a straight lifestyle, Bussee began to meet other gay college students who, in the wake of the Stonewall Riots that ignited the gay rights movement, seemed totally fine with their sexuality.

"At the same time, I was going to Cal State-Fullerton," said Bussee. "And I started to meet, at college, well-adjusted, openly gay people for the first time in my life. And openly gay Christians! Which kind of turned my head around several times." The juxtaposition between the pain he saw in his fellow Exodus members and the freedom and happiness enjoyed by his openly gay peers started to make Bussee question the entire enterprise.

Michael Bussee and Gary Cooper at their commitment ceremony.
Source: Courtesy Michael Bussee

Then came Gary Cooper: At the same time that the ex-gay movement was turning into a sin-focused ministry of shame and repression, Bussee was learning what the modern psychological community was coming to understand about homosexuality in the wake of the 1973 decision by the American Psychiatric Association to remove it from the master list of mental disorders. More importantly, however, he fell in love.

"I was falling in love with another young man who was in our program," said Bussee, a unsurprisingly frequent occurrence in the early days of Exodus. "It happens a lot! We had a lot of hookups happen — a lot of people would come to the Bible study and then maybe meet for coffee afterwards, and then one thing would lead to another, and they would come back to the meeting and repent." Bussee groaned at the predictability of it.

But Cooper wasn't just a guilty tumble and a shy goodbye. Although both men were married and either had children or were expecting, they knew that they couldn't hold up the lie anymore. "We both got to the point where we realized that we were in love with each other, that we weren't changing, and that the message that we were preaching was harming people," said Bussee. "So we left." 

In 1979, Bussee and Cooper came out to their wives, left the ministry and got real jobs. "We boxed up our Bibles, had a commitment ceremony and just concentrated on raising our kids."

The couple stayed silent for a decade about their experience with Exodus. "This is kind of a pattern for people who have been through ex-gay programs and conversion therapy," said Bussee. "They're so traumatized by the experience, emotionally, that they don't want to admit that they were involved. People will say, 'Why did you get involved in something so stupid?' Their gay friends will kind of shame them, their Christian friends will say they're being deceived by the Devil." 

The quiet domesticity of married life — or as close to it as they could get — wasn't meant to last. In 1989, Cooper tested positive for HIV, and the couple soon decided they had to speak up. They went public in opposition to Exodus International when Lou Sheldon, one of California's more appalling opponents of LGBT rights, cited the organization's existence as proof positive that gays could be cured in a telecast as the couple watched from their couch.

Source: YouTube

Forgiving, but not forgetting: Before Cooper's death from AIDS in 1991, the couple appeared in One Nation Under God, a full-length documentary about the proliferation of putatively "reparative" therapies for homosexuality. The film followed the pair as they challenged the then-common belief that sexual orientation could be changed at the hands of religious therapists, many of them trained under the tutelage of Exodus International's client ministries. Cooper's death only galvanized Bussee further. He has since dedicated his life to bringing an end not only to Exodus International, but to conversion therapy itself.

On the first score, Bussee has been an unqualified success. After 37 years, Exodus International folded in 2013 with a note of apology, in part due to pressure from Bussee and other former founding members. "For quite some time, we've been imprisoned in a worldview that's neither honoring toward our fellow human beings, nor biblical," wrote Alan Chambers, Exodus International's final president. "It is strange to be someone who has both been hurt by the Church's treatment of the LGBTQ community, and also to be someone who must apologize for being part of the very system of ignorance that perpetuated that hurt. Today it is as if I've just woken up to a greater sense of how painful it is to be a sinner in the hands of an angry church."

It's a pain Bussee knows all too well — and is channeling in a bid to defeat the dangerous legacy of the group he co-founded. "I run a Facebook group for ex-gay survivors," said Bussee. The group, Conversion Therapy Survivors, has the stated goal of warning potential victims of conversion therapy and stopping "unproven and harmful practices."

"It's a support forum for people who have been through these programs. That's what I do from morning 'til night, interacting with people who have been through conversion therapy."

His work is far from over. Even though just 8% of Americans think that a person's sexual orientation can be "cured" by therapy, legal battles over the practice are taking place all over the country. In conversion therapy's supporters, Bussee sees a shadow of his former self. "I just think how persistent homophobia and prejudice is," he said.

"It's hard for the former leaders, because when we come out, understandably, we're hated by both sides," Bussee previously told Mic. The reaction from the gay community is, 'Well, you guys have blood on your hands that you can never wash off, and there's nothing you can do to un-do the harm' ... All we can do is try to prevent future harm, which is why we've been very public. We're dedicated to seeing it closed down once and for all."