Do we have to forgive ex-gays?

When Alan Chambers, the president of Exodus “ex-gay” Ministries, publically apologized for the hurt he has caused LGBT people, I forgave him. There are few things more powerful to change attitudes about LGBT lives than religious leaders publically sharing their personal journeys toward understanding. No need to flagellate him for past wrongdoings; he’s here now. Let’s look forward.

My fellow LGBT commentators haven’t been so eager to hand out forgiveness to anyone who asks for it. Look no further than the comments sections of LGBT media reports on the apology to see a litany of the psychological and spiritual torture that Chambers and his ilk have perpetuated, however well-intended his apology. Their issue with Exodus wasn’t that they simply disagreed with the message, but that the message caused real harm, even death. In light of this, how could I have been so willing to let it all go and move on?

The problem, if you want to call it that, is that I have never once doubted that my sexual orientation was perfectly fine in the eyes of my creator. Even when I faced discrimination at work and school, or worried that my family would never understand, or if being gay would doom me to a life of loneliness, I laid all my concerns at the feet of other people, not God. My spirituality only ever served to give me strength and determination in a world of human frailty. I have no idea what it’s like to think that my very being, as Joel Osteen frequently puts it, isn’t “God’s best plan” — a new and improved way of saying God still thinks LGBT lives kinda suck.

Now yet another Exodus leader, former vice president Randy Thomas, has apologized. The responses are just as damning as before: His apology is vague, or hollow, or means nothing until he actually does something to undo the damage. Some suggested that Thomas donate all the money he ever made from Exodus to PFLAG, or any other organization doing the clean-up work.

This all makes sense to me on an intellectual level. We throw words like “forgiveness” around the same way that we call anyone who manages to survive a calamity a “hero.” The power of those words is too easily diluted by sloppy, facile use. Here we have men who, correctly, acknowledged their mistakes. Good. This is important. But just how admirable is it to decide to do the right thing after you’ve been doing the wrong thing time after time? I truly don’t know.

Both of these men have made declarations to keep providing support and ministry to people who choose to keep trying to be straight — or something along those lines. I’m not sure if that’s the accepted terminology. Could it be “struggling with homosexual inclinations”? Something like that. Again, I have no idea why you’d want to do anything other than make peace with your gayness, unless you still feel there’s something inherently wrong with it.

This shows me they have not yet understood their own complicity in others’ pain, let alone sacrificed enough to atone — and how could they ever do enough to fully make up for the slow, pernicious, soul-etching effect of the “not God’s best” happy talk? These apologies, at best, are statements of intention to begin the process of helping piece together shattered lives and spirits. No more than that.

And also, no less. I still want to forgive them. I have the right to, as much as anyone else has the right not to. I was struck by one comment, alone among the many justifiably angry ones, from someone named Czahn: “God made me gay, he also made me have the capacity to forgive … Today I am free to be me. Because I chose to forgive, and move forward … fiercely.”

Like Czahn, I have to believe that there is power in my forgiveness. I won’t disparage those who can’t let these ex-gays off the hook, but there must be some small measure of healing to be found in accepting an offer of reconciliation. My forgiveness means that I expect a lot from these men, and that the hard work begins now.

Abby Dees is a civil-rights attorney-turned-author who has been in the LGBT-rights trenches for 25-plus years. She can be reached at