Official Statement from Justin Lee
By now, many of you have heard about a public meeting I had last weekend with Alan Chambers, the president of the world's largest ex-gay ministry.
The meeting generated a lot of controversy for a lot of different reasons. That controversy, in turn, spawned a lot of rumors.
Among the rumors I've heard:
- That I invited Alan Chambers to be a surprise speaker at the GCN conference.
- That GCN has softened our stance against ex-gay ministries in the name of "bridge building" or "reconciliation."
- That the GCN conference team and I planned an ex-gay event with no regard for the safety of ex-gay survivors.
None of these are true.
There are, however, reasonable and fair concerns being expressed about what happened, and I believe it's important for me to acknowledge and apologize for the mistakes I made throughout this process. But it's also important for you to know that I would never do some of the things I've been accused of.
So before I explain the mistakes I made, I want to put the rumors to rest by explaining exactly what happened and why. Then I want to talk about where I screwed up, and what I'm going to do to make it right.
First, why this happened.
If you know me, you know that I have incredibly strong feelings about the damage that ex-gay groups like Exodus have been doing in people's lives. I meet people all the time whose lives have been positively destroyed by ex-gay groups. When I see damage being done in people's lives like that, I simply cannot sit still. As the executive director of GCN, I feel a responsibility to do anything I possibly can to stop that damage from being done.
But, I asked myself, what could I possibly do? Exodus doesn't listen to me. I could write an open letter or make a public statement, but I don't think these are very effective at changing minds. I have spoken out publicly against ex-gay therapy and I've addressed their problems in keynotes and conference musicals, but it's been basically preaching to the choir. People on the ex-gay side dismiss those things as proof that gay Christians are just ridiculing them, not really interested in genuine engagement.
So last year, I decided to do something bold: I quietly and respectfully attended the 2011 Exodus conference. It was an eye-opening and painful journey for me. I saw some things that have changed in Exodus since I was involved ten years ago, and I saw many other things that haven't. I had to hold my tongue as I watched young people being dragged to the conference by their parents and heard other people plan heterosexual marriage on the assumption that someday they would be straight—something I don't believe will happen. It was incredibly hard to be there, but I was grateful for the opportunity.
That experience, along with hearing even more stories of lives destroyed because of ex-gay groups in the months since, further convinced me that I needed to do something as a Christian.
I began working on the idea of having a private, closed-door conversation with people connected to the ex-gay movement while I was in Orlando. This wasn't going to be public, and it was, of course, not going to be connected with the conference in any way.
Then something unexpected happened.
Alan Chambers called me to ask, since I had come to the Exodus conference and found it meaningful, whether I would allow him to come to the GCN conference just to listen and learn.
I honestly hadn't considered this question in advance, though I obviously should have. The question itself put me in a difficult place, as you might imagine. Either way I answered, it could have had seriously negative implications for our organization and our movement. I was frank with Alan about my concerns, and told him that while I did want him to be able to meet and hear the concerns of any fully-reconciled GCNers who would be interested in such a meeting, I also was very aware that some of our members had been seriously traumatized by ex-gay groups and could well be re-traumatized by encountering him at a GCN conference. I wasn't willing to compromise their safety, so whatever happened, it was important to me that people who didn't want to encounter Alan would be able to avoid that contact for the sake of their own mental health.
Alan understood, and we tabled that discussion for a while. (He ultimately decided not to put us in that position, which I really appreciated.) In the meantime, he and I discussed an alternate possibility: What if we held a special, separate, closed-door event only for GCNers who were interested in sharing their thoughts and concerns about Exodus directly with Alan?
I thought about what this could mean.
Orlando is Exodus' headquarters. Last year, when we were in Colorado, a lot of people felt that we should have tried to get a closed-door conversation with leaders at Focus on the Family, but I never felt that they were at all interested in talking to us. Now we were going to be in Exodus' backyard, and here was an invitation from the head of Exodus to respectfully share our grievances and concerns with him. I believed it was an important invitation to take him up on.
My vision for this event was that Alan and I would find an unused room (my suite at the hotel? one of the unused workshop rooms? a room at Exodus HQ?) during an unscheduled part of the weekend (like a meal break) to allow a small number of GCNers to participate in the conversation.
Most people at the conference, I imagined, would have little interest in meeting with Alan personally, though they might want to hear later about how the meeting went. But I was sure that there were at least a few who would want the opportunity to share their concerns and painful stories directly with him, and others who would be interested in hearing what he and I might say to each other. Only those people—the handful of people who wanted to participate or listen in on such a conversation—would be in the room, and the event would not be part of the conference schedule.
At the time, it seemed like the perfect solution. Ex-gay survivors wouldn't have to see, hear, or encounter Alan, but those of us who were eager for such a conversation could privately engage with him and work to keep people from being hurt in the future. I also immediately added an ex-gay survivors' meeting to the list of planned workshops for this year, because I wanted to make doubly sure that our ex-gay survivors had the support they'd need while we were in Exodus territory. (More on this in a minute.)
Who should know about it?
Even before the event was confirmed, I realized we had a major question to resolve. Should we let people know this meeting was taking place?
Originally, I thought that the conversation should be completely private. We wouldn't talk about it publicly, and only invited people would be allowed to sit in on it. I quickly realized that wasn't a good solution, though. For something this controversial, transparency is important. I wanted any GCNers in the area to be able to sit in on it if they chose to, not just the ones I personally knew. Keeping the meeting open would increase transparency and accountability for everyone involved, and it would ensure that if I failed to raise a point that needed to be raised, someone else would be there to raise it.
But then there was the opposite problem. If we announced it publicly in advance, we'd have a media frenzy on our hands. I wasn't just worried about mainstream media coverage with camera crews, but also bloggers, freelance reporters, ex-gay leaders, political activists, and extremists on all sides who would want to be there, many of whom would have a motive to register for the conference and not be honest with our volunteer team about their intentions. Not only would that destroy any chance of a productive conversation; it would also seriously endanger the privacy and safety of our attendees. The further in advance we announced it, the greater a risk we'd run of this conversation (which wasn't even supposed to be part of the conference!) overshadowing the conference and destroying the safety of the space. My #1 concern was protecting the safety of our attendees, so obviously, I couldn't let that happen.
I wrestled with these options for a long time. Keep it private and lose transparency? Or make it public and lose safety? Neither option was acceptable, so I settled on what (at the time) seemed like the best solution: We wouldn't make an advance public announcement, but we would notify people at the conference about it, so that if any of them wanted to attend, they'd be able to.
Also, just to ensure no ex-gay survivors got blindsided, we'd send out an advance email warning attendees of the potential attendance of ex-gay leadership and offering specific solutions for anyone who was concerned about it.
And that's what we ultimately did. We didn't use Alan's name because I was still worried about the possibility of a media frenzy, but I also wanted to ensure that no one would be taken by surprise—by the conversation or by any ex-gay leader who might decide to show up.
In the email, we emphasized our concern for the safety of our attendees, and we encouraged them to reply to the message if they had any reservations at all, because we wanted to work with them to ensure that no one would be blindsided or traumatized.
What we didn't say in the email was what the plan was for anyone who did contact us with questions or concerns: First, we would give them all the details about Alan's possible (still unconfirmed) presence and all that had been discussed so far. Second, we would invite them to share their thoughts and concerns, and we would work with them to figure out what it would take for them to be completely safe at the conference. And finally, if they felt they would feel unsafe regardless of any precautions we took and no longer wished to attend, we would refund their registration and I was personally prepared to pay for anyone's plane ticket or other expenses that couldn't be refunded.
That was how we were going to respond if we got one or two responses. If more than a few people had concerns, however, we would simply take that as a sign and cancel the conversation altogether rather than risk endangering the space and GCN's reputation. Out of the hundreds of people who received the message, however, no one called with any concerns, so we proceeded with caution.
The irony here, of course, is that by avoiding an advance public announcement, I was trying to protect the safety of the attendees, but I ended up creating the perception that we were being secretive, thereby making people feel less safe at GCN. That was a huge miscalculation on my part, and it's something I need to apologize for. I'll talk more about that below.
And I also made another big mistake. I assumed that as long as we were watching out for the safety of ex-gay survivors at the conference itself, we would be okay. What I didn't take into account was how the news of the event would affect people who weren't at the conference. I'll talk more about that below as well.
Why the event changed
None of that would have been so bad if we'd stuck to the original plan: for Alan and me to have a closed-door conversation along with a handful of other GCNers. But as I privately discussed the idea with people I trust, I kept hearing the same thing over and over: "Oh my gosh. I want to be in the room for this!"
That's when I began to realize there were going to be a lot of people at the conference who felt that way. As one person put it to me, "Justin, you are sitting down with Alan Chambers. The head of Exodus. This is HISTORIC. People are going to want to be there."
I realized that whether people at the conference knew this conversation was happening in advance or only heard about it later, we'd have a lot of upset people if we only allowed a handful to attend it in person. So here's where I made the decision that probably caused more hurt than anything else.
I decided to open the conversation to anyone at the conference who wanted to hear it.
By itself, that didn't seem like a bad decision. But this is where all the problems came in. If we allowed anyone to attend who wanted to, that meant we'd need a bigger room, and logistically that meant we'd have to hold it in the hotel ballroom. And if people were going to be able to see, that meant Alan and I would have to be on the stage.
And that simple change of venue changed everything. If Alan and I had met as originally envisioned in a hotel suite with a small audience, I think the response to it would have been very different. But moving it to the ballroom, while it allowed more people to be there, also made it feel much more like part of the main conference, which was what we had initially been trying to avoid. Yes, we said it was an optional conversation, and yes, we scheduled it during an extended meal break, but the very nature of the event made it high-profile, and a high-profile event happening in the main ballroom during conference weekend doesn't really feel "optional," no matter what it says on the schedule.
Worse, having it in the ballroom gave the impression to people back home that we were inviting Alan to be one of our main speakers during a conference general session, which only added to the confusion and upset.
In hindsight, we could have eliminated a lot of the hurt and confusion by simply holding the meeting in another venue. I wanted conference attendees to be able to listen in, and I wanted to have the conversation in a space where our members could feel safe, but the unintended symbolism of having the conversation in the ballroom was ultimately just too great. For that, I am truly sorry.
What happened as a result
The response at the conference was actually really amazing, and based on what I experienced while I was there, I was initially sure we had done the right thing. The conversation took place with Wendy Gritter, Jeremy Marks, John Smid, Alan, and me. Wendy, Jeremy, and John all shared their stories of why they no longer supported the ex-gay approach. I asked a number of challenging questions, including repeatedly addressing the damage the ex-gay movement is doing and offering specific ways Exodus could agree to stop the most egregious problems. Alan didn't say the things we all would have loved for him to say, but he also didn't try to plug Exodus, and he did candidly admit to major issues within the ex-gay movement, including an admission that "99.9%" of people he's met in the ex-gay movement have continuing same-sex attraction. Wendy, John, and Jeremy backed me up in pressing some of the most important points regarding Exodus' misleading use of language, the harmful (false) promise of orientation change, and the need for more ethical standards regarding youth, particularly those being brought to ex-gay ministries against their will. The 2 1/2 hour audio from the event is fully available online (part 1 / part 2). A video of highlights should hopefully be available this weekend.
Prior to the event, we held an ex-gay survivors' support group. I had originally intended for the support group to take place at the same time as the conversation as an alternate event, but the leaders decided to begin it earlier so that survivors had the option of doing both if they wished. We strongly encouraged people both Friday morning and Friday evening to avoid the conversation with Alan unless they were certain it would be healthy for them, and as a result, some people did choose to sit that out. I was surprised, though, by how many people decided to attend, and by the overwhelming spirit of generosity and love in that room. The event received a standing ovation, and many people chose to speak to Alan afterwards, sharing their stories and concerns with him directly.
The following day, we held two separate debrief sessions for people to share their thoughts and feelings about the prior day's event. A number of people also shared their thoughts publicly during sharing time or privately with me or a member of our conference team. Overwhelmingly, people told us they were glad we had done it. I had multiple ex-gay survivors seek me out to tell me that being able to directly address Alan in a safe, supportive environment had been incredibly healing for them. One said it was the most healing experience he had had since leaving ex-gay ministry years ago.
Our conference team heard very little criticism of the event from conference attendees. Several people wished it had been better publicized in advance, and one young woman shared that she felt we had been too hard on Alan. Until today, neither I nor anyone I'd talked to had heard any stories about people at the conference who were traumatized by the conversation. Today, however, while working on this statement, I read an anonymous account online of someone who said he/she was at the conference and was traumatized by the announcement and left without saying anything. I'm absolutely mortified to hear that, and it breaks my heart. That was the last thing we would ever want to do. I honestly believed we had avoided that, and I wish I knew how to apologize enough to that anonymous individual. Even one hurt person is too many.
The majority of the pain, though, was back at home. I had wrongly assumed that the only people we had to worry about were the ex-gay survivors at the conference. I had completely failed to take into account the way that this news would affect people who weren't there.
Ex-gay survivors (and others) on GCN who heard about this event online didn't have the benefit of an advance-warning email. They didn't get to hear my explanation of the event on Friday morning. They didn't have a support group to attend or a debrief session after. Some of them were even under the impression that Alan had been invited as a speaker or that the point of the event was to gloss over our differences and call that "reconciliation."
Even with all the facts, this would not have been a nice surprise for some people in our online community. Without them, it was much, much worse.
And guys, that's where I screwed up. Big time.
It honestly hadn't occurred to me that this conversation would be traumatizing for people who didn't attend it, and yet it obviously was. As I've been reading through your many comments since getting home last night, I'm realizing that. I knew there would be some controversy and criticism, but I never, ever, ever thought we'd ignite trauma for our online community. There aren't enough apologies in the world to express my level of regret over that.
So, to be clear, here's where I screwed up.
I'm a firm believer that when you do something that causes hurt, even if it was entirely unintentional, you need to take ownership of your mistakes, apologize sincerely and profusely, and work hard to make things right.
In this message I've explained the intent of the event and why I believe a conversation like this was important. But now let me candidly acknowledge four key places where I got it wrong.
1. I didn't acknowledge or prepare for the way this news would affect people who weren't there. As I've already said, I was very concerned throughout this process about how it would affect our ex-gay survivors at the conference, but I completely failed to recognize its impact on the rest of our community. Some of you were deeply hurt by how this played out, and for that and my role in that, I am profoundly sorry.
2. I didn't handle communication about this event well at all. At the time, it seemed unavoidable that we couldn't announce the details of the event in advance for all the reasons described above. In hindsight, though, the #1 criticism I've received is that people needed more time to get all the information and prepare for this before it happened, and that's made it clear to me that we should have found another way to address the publicity concerns without allowing it to catch people off guard. Not only do I greatly apologize for this misstep on my part; I also promise you right now that we will never again hold a surprise event at this or any other conference or retreat if there is even a hint of a possibility that it might prove upsetting or controversial to anyone in our community. Safety is our priority, and people can't feel safe if they're worried about being blindsided.
3. I should have found a different venue or other clear way to separate this event from the conference. Even leading up to the event, I knew it was a mistake for it to be too closely identified with the conference. (We even had debates in the office about whether it should be listed on the schedule at all or how big the font should be if it was.) At the end of the day, however, the problem wasn't with the schedule; it was that having an event in the ballroom during conference weekend made it part of the conference, even if that wasn't our intent. As I shared above, this was a last-minute decision that was a change from the early plans for this event, and I should know better than to make quick decisions about controversial issues like this. We tried to have a non-conference event in a conference space during conference weekend, and that only led to major problems and feelings of having GCN's safe space violated. Again, I greatly apologize for my error in judgment here, and I promise you that we will never do something like that again.
4. I also made a huge clerical error that almost caused an even bigger problem. From the beginning of the discussion about this event, I insisted on having an ex-gay survivor safe space at the conference as an important alternative for ex-gay survivors to ensure they got the support they needed and didn't feel any pressure to be at an event that wouldn't be healthy for them. I put it on a list of workshops and activities for follow-up, and then I manually copied that list to a member of our staff who was contacting workshop leaders. It wasn't until much later that I realized that I made a mistake with huge ramifications: in copying the list from my notes to the computer, I had inadvertently left off the ex-gay survivor safe space. As a result, we had to scramble about at the last minute to find someone who could lead it. Thankfully, someone stepped forward as if by divine inspiration, but the scrambling about gave the distinct impression that we hadn't thought about it and/or didn't care. Of all the mistakes I made, this is the one I'm angriest at myself for. All the others represent things I learned through this process, but this one is something I just plain screwed up. Thankfully, we fixed it in time, but it still damaged our reputation, and I have only myself to blame, both for the initial mistake and for failing to catch it. All I can say here is that I'm sorry.
At the end of the day, while some of the criticisms of me or of GCN were based on rumors and misinformation, some of them were clearly valid. I made mistakes, and those mistakes affected people, sometimes in major ways.
As GCN's executive director, I have ultimate responsibility for these things, and I made all the final decisions in this situation. The mistakes I've described are my own. If you're angry about this, please be angry at me, not any of the other wonderful people who make up this organization.
I am truly sorry for any pain my decisions may have caused. I would like to meet with each and every person who feels in any way wronged or hurt by how we went about this, either individually or as a group, and work with them to right those wrongs and move forward together. While I cannot go back in time to undo any wrong decisions I made, I can and will do my very best to find appropriate solutions to rebuild relationships and trust over time.
To be clear, I do not believe that meeting with Alan was a mistake, and I do believe that good things will continue to come out of that. The mistakes were in the issues I outlined above such as communication and preparation, and these are mistakes we will not repeat in the future.
Moving forward, we will never again have any potentially divisive surprises at the conference or any other GCN-sponsored event. We will establish new guidelines regarding internal and external communication around controversial issues to ensure nothing like this is ever dropped on our community without warning again. And I am making a personal commitment to sit down and listen to the stories of any of GCN's ex-gay survivors who would like to share their stories with me, so that I can work with them on ways we as an organization can be more sensitive to their needs and more (appropriately) active in making a difference to stop others from experiencing the same trauma.
The Gay Christian Network