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How the End of Exodus International Should Change the Gay Marriage Debate

Late last night, Exodus International, the foremost advocate of gay conversion therapy in the U.S., announced that it will shut down its operations—voluntarily. At least for now, their disbandment doesn't appear to be the end result of management malfeasance, sex scandals, or internal squabbles, but the product of a sincere change in the ethics of the group's president, Alan Chambers. "Recently, I have begun thinking again about how to apologize to the people that have been hurt by Exodus International through an experience or by a message," he wrote in an open letter that preceded Exodus' announcement. "My good intentions matter very little and fail to diminish the pain and hurt others have experienced on my watch. ... Friends and critics alike have said it’s not enough to simply change our message or website. I agree. I cannot simply move on and pretend that I have always been the friend that I long to be today. ... Please know that I am deeply sorry."

The letter, which goes on at length, is a shocking exercise in humility for a culture where "I'm sorry if you were offended" is the dominant species of apology. More surprising still is Chambers's implication that he doesn't intend to merely take up a cause that draws less opprobrium, such as the fight against gay marriage. "I cannot apologize for my beliefs about marriage," he wrote. "But I do not have any desire to fight you on your beliefs or the rights that you seek. My beliefs about these things will never again interfere with God’s command to love my neighbor as I love myself." But of course, the most stunning element of all this is that Chambers's conversion, as it were, has taken place, period. Ever since same-sex marriage advocates enjoyed a broad reversal of fortunes at the 2012 ballot box, and a dozen Democrat senators endorsed gay marriage in the span of a few weeks, it has been apparent that American acceptance of gay marriage was not just increasing but accelerating. The fact that one of the most virulent organizations to fight LGBT equality has shut its doors of its own free will is astonishing even in that context.

A good deal of credit for Chambers's change of heart belongs to a tactical shift in the language used by gay rights groups in the past few years. As Molly Ball reported for The Atlantic, where the old way of agitating against homophobia involved logical appeals for same-sex marriage—with statistics, say, that prove same-sex couples' ability to stay in long-term relationships and raise well-adjusted children—gay rights groups lately have gone for the gut, limning pictures of happy gay couples mowing lawns and delivering groceries their elderly nieghbors. This was critical to their 2012 campaigns for marriage equality, which saw three states approve gay marriage and one state reject a same-sex marriage ban. Chambers's reversal doesn't accept their main point, that gay marriage is just regular marriage, but with its lamentations that he hurt his fellow man, it jibes entirely with the spirit of their message—that gay people are just regular people.

And now, with one of the worst-of-the-worst anti-gay groups now having disbanded, and with such heartfelt attrition, there is significantly less cover for political leaders on the bubble about gay marriage. That Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski announced yesterday that she supports gay marriage, making her the third Republican senator, and the fifty-sixth senator, to openly say so, feels less momentous today than absurd. In three months, the fight for gay equality has progressed from a point where Senator Rob Portman's endorsement of same-sex marriage felt earth-shaking to a point where Democratic Senator Mark Pryor is now more committed to opposing gay marriage than Chambers, who once had ties to the violent anti-gay factions of Uganda. Chambers's next steps are still vague, as was clear from a late Wednesday-night interview he gave to The Atlantic about starting "a thoughtful, intelligent, Christ-centered, peaceful conversation that endears people toward the church and doesn't cause them to run away from the church." But what is clear is that he is prepared to travel a long ideological distance from his former, harmful actions. Surely less antagonistic political leaders can muster even half his resolve.

Molly Redden is a staff writer for The New Republic. Follow her on Twitter @mtredden.