On Tuesday, I wrote about My Exodus, the new book by Alan Chambers. After reading Chambers’s book, I had lots of questions. Rather than offering this Q&A laced with my thoughts/opinions, I elected to simply offer you my questions and Alan’s answers.
Matthew Paul Turner: First of all, why write a book? Why did you decide to put yourself in the spotlight again?
Alan Chambers: Following the close of Exodus, 24 different publishers contacted us and Leslie and I considered what we might have to say. Initially, out of habit really, we wrote a book filled with our opinions but with the help of our dear friends at Zondervan and our editor we chose to start over and simply tell our story. The change fit. After all, an understanding God’s love and grace has taught us to re-think everything
I ask that because I can only assume that having a break from the media frenzy has been nice…
Time is a friend indeed and it has given me rest and perspective. I needed both. I’m also keenly aware that people needed me to go away for a while. With a clearer head and with a focused heart, I’m ready to jump back into the frenzy. I can’t wait to tell people, especially the next generation of LGBT people, about a God who loves and accepts them as they are. In my humble opinion, they can have as vibrant a relationship with Jesus as any straight person.
You write a good deal about your childhood in My Exodus. As you re-enagaged your childhood, what did you learn about yourself or your story or your family’s story that you didn’t know before or had forgotten?
As a child I was full of dreams that were handicapped by fear and shame brought on by religion, rules, and cultural expectations. For many years into adulthood I held myself back because of those same religious rules and cultural expectations; they were my guiding principles and foundation. I was ashamed of who God made me —the little gender-non-conforming boy who loved fashion and Barbies and dress up was precious and not flawed. My story wasn’t one to be ashamed of but one to view as unique and beautiful. While writing I found myself sad for little Alan Chambers who felt very alone and who spent most of his life hiding in fear he’d be rejected.
Writing the chapters about my youth allowed me to re-live those years from the perspective of a completely restored relationship with my father. My dad went to Heaven in 2007 having fully embraced and accepted me as his son—I feel about my dad in much the same way John felt about Jesus that I was the son my dad loved most.
I think writing helped unearth some of the missing or hidden or rejected pieces of myself. Accepting those pieces and allowing them to fall into place, fills out the puzzle that is my life and now, more than ever, I like the picture it’s portraying.
But most importantly, it’s helping me encourage my kids to see themselves as God sees them and to know they are loved. Not everyone gets or takes that chance and I feel very fortunate.
For the most part, you don’t write much about your high school years—in the book, you skip from being 11 and letting go of your alter ego “Alice” to your first counseling session at Eleutheros, the local organization associated with Exodus International that you began frequenting when you were 19. Was skipping those years intentional?
Skipping my late middle and high school years in the book wasn’t intentional. I guess they felt unnecessary to the story. But as I think about it they were really my own personal dark ages. During those years I perfected my outward persona. I became an outgoing leader resolving to be voted funniest, best dressed, and friendliest. While those things were true of me, I exaggerated them and they were facades I hid behind to keep people off the scent of Alan Chambers, the gay kid. Don’t get me wrong, I had some fun in high school—a lot of fun, but I also allowed fear to become my primary motivator and hunkered down into a belief that God could never be okay with all of me. It was during those years, I played hard and prayed for God to “fix, cure, heal, or kill me”.
At Eleutheros, you write that you feel at home—that it was a space where you could be yourself. Did everybody who attended those gatherings feel the same way? Did you hear or know of any person whose experience was negative or different than your own?
Eleutheros’s clientele, not unlike most ministries of its kind, could be broken down into thirds: 1/3 came and went quickly, 1/3 stayed for a significant period of time and became believers in the work that was being done, 1/3 came, went, came again, and went again. It was that last group of people I felt sorriest for—they were tortured souls who desired “freedom” but didn’t find it anywhere and kept going back and forth between gay and legalism. The 1/3 in the middle, people like me, found something that kept them there whether that was sheer legalism and determination to succeed at any cost or like me, a place of happiness and contentment. The 1/3 that came and went quickly might just be, in hindsight, the ones with the highest concentration of success stories. After all, many of them realized gay couldn’t be changed and chose to live their lives accordingly whether embracing gay life, celibacy, or living honestly within their marriages. But, yes, there were people, especially in that middle 1/3, who gave a lot of their time, energy, and emotion to being “free” only to fail at that and become hurt and bitter. During my time as a leader at Eleutheros there were people I loved dearly who left and wouldn’t speak to me anymore. That was very hard.
There’s a “turning point” moment that you write about when you hear God speak to you. At the time, you’re in your early-to-mid twenties. You’re sitting all alone at a gay bar. In thinking about that moment in hindsight, as you’ve moved from “fear to grace,” has your perception of that encounter changed at all? In other words, 20 years later, what do you believe God was saying to you back then?
I was 20 years old that Easter Sunday night in the gay bar and the dialogue was powerful for me. God affirmed me, a gay young man, in my identity as a Christian. At the time I knew he was leading me out of a season that was at best distracting for me and at worst destructive. I thought he was also leading me out of a gay identity and lifestyle. He told me, “I love you but I have something better for you.” What I didn’t realize until writing this book, and specifically until Leslie edited the section and gave me her perspective, that he wasn’t calling me out of the bar. He was calling me out of the cauldron where I was mixing law and grace together. Law told me I needed to be straightened out. Grace told me God loved me. I was hot for change one minute and hot for guys the next. It was killing me. Literally. He came so I might have life and he wanted me to live. I cannot add anything to his abundant love. Today I know he would have blessed me whichever way I’d gone. And, he has.
As a progressive, I can list off a hundred ways the American church has failed (and often abused and bullied) the LGBTQ communities—that’s easy for obvious reasons. But as you look back on your experiences and your past career, is there anything that you believe the American church has gotten right as it relates to our LGBTQ brothers and sisters?
As it relates to my past career, and my experience with various churches, I witnessed many churches who lovingly provided safe places for lesbian and gay folks like me who have found their authentic reality to be one that embraces celibacy as the best option for their gay orientation or who have found life-giving opposite sex marriages. They served this population well and without agenda. Many churches also embraced a welcoming and affirming attitude towards gay people. Where we could improve is in the area of loving those with whom we disagree.
Contrary to some of the squeakiest wheels in the Christian Church, I believe we are in the midst of or on the cusp of our finest hours in the American Church. I believe the legalization of gay marriage should be a wake up call for social conservatives – or the religious fundamental right. Because this particular battle is now over, we have been given the opportunity to lay down any weapons we are still holding on to and instead rest by letting God be God. We must follow Jesus and even the Apostle Paul’s example and welcome everyone.
Leslie and I don’t watch the news much, but the day SCOTUS ruled in favor of marriage equality I turned it on and surfed few stations with national coverage. I saw God being glorified by people on the steps of the Supreme Court—LGBT folks who gave God all the glory for their lives and for the decision. I saw spontaneous acts of patriotism and goodness. I watched groups of people holding hands and praying and I felt lucky to be on this side of grace witnessing marginalized people receive a gift. They could have pointed in the cameras and rubbed it in the face of their opponents but they chose instead to thank God.
During your mid twenties, you started talking a lot about your story of faith and “same-sex attraction.” You told your story to individuals, groups, media—have you ever regretted allowing your story to become attached to the narrative of Christianity and “same sex attraction”?
Hindsight is 20/20. Everyone has regrets. I cannot go back and change how I once told or used my story or allowed it to be used. If I could, of course there are things I’d change, but I have to trust that God redeems the past. I’m not sorry that my story is attached to Christianity because I think Leslie and I have an amazing opportunity to share authentically and help others who are trapped in the same religious system where we were both captive and captor. Had I not been among Exodus’s success stories, I wouldn’t have been president. If I hadn’t been president, I wouldn’t have been among those who closed Exodus. If Exodus hadn’t closed, I wouldn’t have the opportunity I have now to share what I consider to be real freedom. Everyone has regrets but living there is a chosen paralysis that serves no one.
In one of the later chapters in My Exodus, you write about labels and about how different groups of people want you to identify as gay or ex-gay or straight. You wrote that none of the various labels truly reflect your personhood. What are your thoughts regarding labels when, for many people, sexuality seems to be far more fluid than what the labels allow? How has the pressure to fit one or wear one affected you and your story?
I think labels are often used as a symbol of belonging and community. Solidarity even. When minority groups are marginalized, a common name unites them. The black community, the gay community, and others have found strength in numbers and galvanized their communities. Labels engender support and recognition. Labels are used powerfully and necessarily.
My frustration with labels comes when a label overrides or transcends individual identity. The label gay or straight or even bisexual – for me – imply more than is true of me. As such, I have chosen to galvanize my life around other truths.
Alan, one of my biggest frustrations with My Exodus is how you end up defining your orientation. You end up writing something like, “I am a man. I am a son. I am a brother. I am a husband. I am a father. I am a child of God… and my orientation is Leslie.” That’s a frustration for me because it feels like a cop out, like you’re attempting to answer a multiple choice question with an answer that isn’t one of the options. Why offer any answer at all if the one you give really only satisfies you and those who are invested in you? And too, why not identify as bisexual?
I am compelled to give an answer because so many people ask the question. I remember taking tests as a high school student where the teacher gave us the option of choosing “other” with space to explain. That’s my answer and I’ll keep trying to explain.
I have heard from several critics that not everyone needs to claim a label based on their sexuality, but I should. I must wear gay or at least bisexual in order to undo damage from my days as the leader of Exodus. The problem is, the minute I pick up and wear one of those labels, it takes center stage. At this stage of my life, my sexuality – the label I wear in connection with my sexuality – is all about Leslie. With her, I am neither gay nor bisexual. Marriage is committing to one person until death you do part. Your orientation becomes that person. I don’t believe married people who have healthy relationships and sex lives continue to have sex primarily because they are gay or straight. I believe they have healthy relationships and sex lives because of the actual person they are married to, are in love with, and have chosen to share a life with. That is the story of Alan and Leslie Chambers—two people who are madly in love with one another who choose each other above all else. Leslie is my sexual orientation. While potentially offensive to some, this resonates and satisfies others. And even if it didn’t, it satisfies her. And that’s what matters most to me.
One thing you don’t discuss much in My Exodus is the Bible, specifically those verses that people use to suggest that homosexuality is an abomination. Why not?
So much has been written already. The handpicked abominations get enough airtime – notice “haughty eyes” is rarely referred to as an abomination though it clearly is one. Everyone is guilty of committing one abomination or another from time to time if we are honest. While I love my Bible and spend a great deal of time reading and studying it, I am not a Bible scholar. Leslie and I chose to write our story—to show more than tell. We believe that in our story the goodness of God shines through brightly. Jesus himself used stories to talk about his good Father, we decided his was an example we could follow.
But I have to ask: In your opinion, is gay sex a sin?
Matthew, I’ve stopped being in the sin management business. Right now, I’m in the process of learning how to love my LGBT friends well–with grace and without any judgment whatsoever. I just want to love people–all people–and stay out of their sex lives.
When you were writing this book, who were you writing it for? Was there a face or person you thought of as you put your story down on paper? Was it for you? For your family?
I thought of my family, my children. I thought of people who were hurt by Exodus and therefore me. I thought of my friends who found Exodus helpful and who loved it. I thought of the Christian Church and how Jesus asked us to love him and to love others. I thought of the Christians who want to “know what to do”. I thought of LGBT who need to know they are loved and accepted. I thought of people outside of the Church—whether Christian or not, people who don’t, won’t, or can’t go to church. I wanted the book to be something real. Something that would have street cred. Something that my kids would read someday and be proud of. Ultimately, I wanted a story whose protagonist–God–is a good Father and whose moral enables people to know they are loved.
How much have your kids been subject to the Exodus narrative? Have you been able to protect them from the onslaught of negativity you’ve endured?
We’ve been age-appropriately honest with our kids since before they were able to talk. Leslie and I adopted both Isaac and Molly at birth four and a half months a part. Because they are so close in age we have always been asked, “Are they twins”? From the beginning we’d go through the schpeel, “They are four and a half months a part, both adopted.” When Isaac was two, we overheard him introducing Molly and himself to another child on the playground using those exact words. “Hi! I’m Isaac and this is my sister Molly. We are four and a half months apart. Both adopted.” The other kid quizzically looked at him and then offered to push him on the swings. We have a unique story as a family and we own it.
My kids understand I’m well known in certain circles. They know some people love me and others don’t. They don’t know specifics, but because we are teaching them about Jesus through the reality of grace I’m not anxious as I contemplate the time when all will be disclosed. So far, they’ve been sheltered from the anger and negativity we’ve experienced. They do know we’ve made mistakes related to our understanding of the Bible and are on a journey to making grace the prevailing message of the Church. I think being honest about our mistakes helps them as they learn and grow and make their own mistakes.
What do you hope your critics will take away from reading My Exodus?
Well, we live in an interesting spot–with critics on every side. I hope our critics in the conservative church will choose to lay down their weapons and opinions and consider the reality of our true story. We’ve seen too many of our LGBT friends leave the Church when they enter into gay relationships because they are dismissed and their stories are not considered or valued. Leslie and I have known too many people who, when they decided to give up trying to be straight, they gave up on God as well. It doesn’t have to be that way. We hope the Church can be a better representative of Jesus. Jesus did not condemn. Jesus loved and told us to love others. I hope, for those who are critical of us for not taking a firm stance on sin will be inspired to be kinder. More thoughtful. More at peace with themselves and the world in which they live.
For our LGBTAIQ critics, I hope they will feel loved, accepted, affirmed, and experience some healing. I hope it will be seen as a sincere desire for relationship. What I know is that my LGBT friends now champion Leslie’s and my story in a way many evangelicals no longer will. Because we aren’t using our unique and minority story to prove gay people can or should change it’s no longer a threat. My hope is the LGBTAIQ community will see us as friends and allies and no longer as enemies. I hope they will experience the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.