Last month on February 11, 2017, Frank Worthen, often referred to as the “Father” of Exodus and the Ex-gay movement passed away. He started his first ex-gay ministry, Love In Action, in 1973. In 1976 he helped organize and incorporate Exodus International as a non-profit organization. Exodus would eventually go on to become the largest ex-gay ministry network in the world. It remained that way until we (my boss, the board, myself and other staff) shut it down in 2013. However, there is a good chance it would have stayed an obscure movement if it hadn’t been for the infusion of Reparative Therapy (RT). RT is known today as “conversion therapy” and was founded by Joseph Nicolosi (who also recently passed on March 9th, 2017). He is also considered the “father” of that approach and the creation of his organization “NARTH.”
The two organizations grew to be very large and always tried to make sure they were publicly perceived as NOT the same as the other while supporting each other. That symbiotic relationship remained strong until around 2009 or 2010 when Alan Chambers officially distanced Exodus from Reparative Therapy. Both organizations tremendously benefitted from each other for a long time. Exodus absorbed all it could from RT’s formulaic and branded approach, language, and goals. Exodus benefitted from having the appearance of professionally credentialed counselors affirming our mission to “overcome” or “find freedom” from homosexuality. Exodus donors/supporters loved the alliance…mostly.
Now, some personal memories/thoughts about both men. This post concludes with some other thoughts regarding their legacy.
Frank was always kind to me. Actually Frank never said much more than, “Hi Randy” but I knew he liked me. We may have been in literally dozens and dozens (hundred?) meetings together over the 21 years I was in movement. He seemed to be very gentle. That said, I would hear from people, maybe three, that when he got mad or disagreed with you… nice Frank was not very nice at all. I still find that hard to believe in the context of my experience with him, but I also know that my experience is limited. Plus, I idealized him and many others for almost the whole time I was with Exodus. My last memory of him was having our picture taken with Joe Dallas at a Love Won Out conference in Fresno. He genuinely seemed happy. I have no idea where that photo is.
That said, I heard, that Frank was very upset that we closed down Exodus and he was very supportive of the RHN network that sought to take over Exodus’ spiritual “mantle” (calling, authority) once it closed.
Nicolosi and I were acquaintances up until I started traveling to all the Love Won Out conferences as a staff person for Exodus. He was a regular speaker at all of them. It was there we became friends. We hit it off at first. He was straightforward and one of the crassest people I ever met. He was hilarious, and I loved his humor. We had a falling out around 2006 when he was diagnosing my girlfriend at the time (from afar, without permission, without me even asking). I was very offended and still believe he was completely wrong and insulting. I distanced myself from him but still tried to be professional. He also started after me to go to counseling and some warrior weekend type of retreats (to discover my “true” masculinity and “heterosexual potential”). He even offered to pay for me to go, under the condition I told no one so I could deal with my “lingering issues.”
He never said it this way, but I knew he thought I was too effeminate and passive. I politely declined his offer each time. Then things were getting weird, and rumors started floating around of some terrible suggestions that he was allegedly making to his clients. I honestly hate that our last conversation was a very loud one over the phone with us hanging up in anger (2010’ish).
In the ex-gay movement, there was always a fascination with “signs.” That God was speaking through things that were happening within the movement as a sign. I still haven’t gotten my invitation to the next RHN conference (that would be… crazy) but I have no doubt that their board meeting will have a very specific agenda item: Prayer Time: What is God saying through the passing of Frank and Joe?
I can’t ever presume to know what God might or might not be saying to someone else but my earthly totally biased mind thinks that maybe their passing, a few years after the death of Exodus, is another “sign” that the few remaining remnants of the ex-gay/conversion movement should fold. That unfortunate season, right at 40 years, is over.
Maybe it is a sign that we as LGBT+ people of faith are leaving the wilderness of withering judgment and ridicule to enter into the “promise land” of affirmation and acceptance for who God created us to be.
And, please join us. You don’t have to wither in the ex-gay/conversion therapy desert of false expectations and unnecessary burdens.
I believed, and still do to a degree, that both the Exodus birth in 1976 and the advent of Reparative Therapy happened because the church at the time was so incredibly closed off to LGBT+ people; even those who agreed with the church. At first, I think these groups were honestly seeking answers. For many, it was in those environments they first felt free to disclose their core relational sense of being. However, what both organizations also did, was to go on to create and affirm an inauthentic reality that reinforced culturally stigmatized beliefs, expectations and consequences.
In the course of my relationship with both of these men, I honestly told them that I loved and deeply respected them. My heart still feels for them and I find no joy in their passing. I miss their smiles and laughter. That said, it is my hope that their beliefs about God’s LGBT+ children will be forever discarded and no longer used as weapons of personal, familial and social destruction.
LGBT+ people deserve true equality in the church and culture. We should not be sidelined by the bitter fruit of systemic cultural stigma. We are God’s children, too. No better, no worse … and no longer in the church closet.