Quietly ahead of the gay-rights curve

Years before America’s largest gay-conversion ministry shut its doors, a Canadian was apologizing for the same practices

Quietly ahead of the gay-rights curve

Photograph by Cole Garside

It may seem as if the biggest victory for gay rights in the United States arrived last week, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled a major section of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) unconstitutional—granting legally married same-sex couples in America access to the same federal tax benefits as their straight counterparts. ?But a few days before the court’s decision, another battle was won in the same war, with less fanfare but possibly deeper implications: Exodus International, the largest gay-conversion ministry in America, shut its doors for good after 37 years in operation. The group’s president, Alan Chambers (whose Twitter biographical details, “Jesus follower, shoe enthusiast,” may as well be the official haiku of the ex-gay movement) issued a statement apologizing to the gay community for promoting “harmful” sexual-reorientation therapy—the kind of quackery that, among other more psychologically damaging things, dissuades gay boys from crossing their legs funny, and gay girls from signing up for softball. The group’s dissolution was welcome news around the wiser world.

So where were Canadians while this victory against gay conversion was being won across the border? We were predictably, but quietly, ahead of the curve. Years before Exodus International dissolved, a Canadian evangelical minister and former practitioner of gay conversion named Wendy Gritter issued her own apology to the LGBT community—and withdrew from the reparative ministry business.

Gritter is a 43-year-old mother from the Toronto suburb of Mississauga who operates New Direction—a newly “gay-affirming” Toronto ministry that was once affiliated with Exodus International. She met me at an Ikea restaurant in Vaughan (her second office, she says), north of Toronto, where we sat in a sunny corner overlooking the highway and talked about her former calling. “To someone outside the context of faith, it sounds ludicrous,” she says, “but I knew there were gay and lesbian people who held the same theology I did, and they didn’t have an advocate. I have a passion for the underdog.” So Gritter—a victim of childhood bullying and a firm believer in Scripture—proceeded to “help” gays the only way her rigid theology would allow: She tried to make them straight. “I read everything and listened to all the tapes and workshops,” she says.

The prevailing ideology of the time belonged to American psychologist Joseph Nicolosi—also a founder and former president of the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality. There are no homosexual people, professed Nicolosi. There are only heterosexual people with a homosexual problem. How do you solve that problem? “Lots of conversation about your childhood,” says Gritter. Maybe your father ignored you or your mother didn’t ignore you enough, or perhaps you were molested (this was a common theory held by conversion therapists, even when the patient denied the abuse). You had two options: Change orientation or live a life of celibacy. It was, in essence, the very worst of Freud coupled with the very worst of Judeo-Christian religion.

Gritter was optimistic when she started ministering at New Direction. She attended an Exodus International conference in the ’90s and found the testimonies of alleged ex-gays quite moving. But her optimism soon wavered when she realized that the majority of gay Christians she knew were carving out a third option: They were leaving the church and living openly gay lives. “Reorientation clearly wasn’t working. As Christians you say, ‘Well, God can do anything,’ but it wasn’t looking like God was doing that.” She was also troubled by what the therapy was doing. “There is a deep pain in knowing people were traumatized—that people were taught to hate themselves.”

Gritter was tormented. She woke up frequently in the middle of night. “I would cry out to God and I would say, ‘If I’m wrong, please tell me—I’ll turn 180.’ ” When God didn’t “write a message on the wall,” Gritter wrote her own; she married her heart and her mind. In 2003, she stopped practising conversion ministry and, in 2008, she gave a speech before Exodus International—Alan Chambers included—calling for an end to reorientation therapy and, like her own Canadian group, New Direction, an abstention from the gay-rights debate in politics.

The initial reaction to her speech was not all that bad. “I remember talking to Alan [Chambers] afterward and he said, ‘I don’t like this but I know it’s what we need to engage.’ ” However, shortly after the conference, Gritter released audio of her speech online and “that goodwill disappeared.” Many felt she had betrayed the group by revealing dissent among its ranks. Gay rights groups used her ideas as leverage to keep Exodus International out of politics.

Gritter—at least in retrospect—didn’t seem to mind: “The beauty of being a Canadian in all this was that it was like, ‘Suck it up, buttercup!’ This matters.” New Direction withdrew its membership from Exodus that year, and Gritter wrote a blog post on an ex-gay-survivor website, apologizing for the harm her ministry had caused. Four years later, Chambers would do the same.

Gritter is modest about her influence on the goliath of gay conversion—in large part, I suspect, because she is ashamed about the years she spent fighting on its side. “I wish I had been more courageous to change things sooner,” she says. Perhaps she’ll take solace in the fact that she was, in true Canadian fashion, predictably and quietly ahead of the curve.

Have a comment to share? emma.teitel@macleans.rogers.com




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Quietly ahead of the gay-rights curve

  1. Well, it is a good reminder that sometimes people doing horrible things have an honest, genuine desire to do good. Not evil, stupid perhaps, but not evil.

  2. The “radical hospitality” of Jesus towards “the other,” and cultivating a posture of “generous spaciousness” when it comes to issues dealing with the intersection of faith and sexuality…are among the wonderful things I’ve gleaned from Wendy VanderWal Gritter!

  3. The thing is, God had already clearly written His thoughts on the subject…words Ms Gritter knows. Why would He repeat Himself? And because His love is pure and passionate for His children, wouldn’t it be wise to listen?

    • Actually Jesus never said a word about gays. Not a peep.

      • I agree – though Anne never said a word about Jesus. Not a peep ;-)

        And God himself has never written a single word, other than on the tablets containing the Ten Commandments (assuming he didn’t just dictate to an angel) so I am curious to know just what Anne is talking about when she says “God had already clearly written His thoughts on the subject”

        • The Old Testament is Jewish. Christians are only supposed to be following Jesus in the New Testament. Two separate religions.

          The Old Testament has lots of rules beyond the ten commandments….what foods you can eat [God hates shrimp] , how you treat your slaves, how to seduce your father, when you can stone your children…that sort of thing.

          The Old Testament is also all about smiting others….genocide is big, polygamy as traditional marriage, sacrificing things….the New Testament is hippieish….love thy neighbour, share with others, heal the sick….Cons tend to ignore all the socialism. LOL

      • Um, yes he did. It’s called the New Testament and you can’t pick and choose what you agree with it. It’s all or nothing.

        • Jesus said absolutely nothing about gays….not one word. And if you were actually familiar with the New Testament you’d know that.

  4. I don’t know anybody that has not made mistakes or judgement calls that at the time seemed inspired by faith or morals. Yes, God has clearly written His thoughts on the subject of humans and human error…all have sinned and need forgiveness and grace. Wendy Gritter is a woman of integrity who has boldly followed God’s leading in her life. Her philosophy of “generous spaciousness” is an attitude that would bring health to any relationship in which one finds oneself.

  5. Ugh. Nothing more grating than white liberal self-congratulory pap. Slate.com did a piece this week on now that the gay rights battle has been won, what should “progressives” focus on. The question in and of itself suggest that progressives haven’t been focused on other things they should have been focused on; all focused on gay and women’s rights. All the other struggles were less important perhaps. Emma Teitel, I would challenge you to write something about the fact that gays do not live in a bubble, nor women, nor minorities, nor [fill in your oppressed group]. Then work in the fact that recent advances made in women’s rights primarily benefit white women. Then work in why it was so easy for the gay agenda to become central to the liberal/progressive cause even as inequality in other forms remain intractable. Do that honestly and objectively. Then re-assess the righteousness of your cause…I think I started thinking about this after seeing a black pride float during the Toronto parade last week…(hmm, a minority group within a minority group).

  6. Another righteous busybody trying to hide behind religion

    At least she apologized

  7. “Years before . . . a Canadian was apologizing.” I don’t doubt it for a moment, but let’s not pretend that we were “QUIETLY ahead” (my emphasis). Let’s be honest. We Canadians love to apologize and love to do it at full volume. We want all the world to hear and see (“Look! It’s us! Canada! Apologizing! Again”). Of course it helps if we can apologize for someone else’s sins. Especially the Americans’. That we get the best of both worlds. The Americans get the sin (and all the guilt and censure that comes with it), while we (magnanimously apologizing on their behalf, preferably “ahead of the curve,” before they have put a foot wrong) get all the credit. Sweet deal! If this post offends you . . . I apologize, sincerely . . . for your stupid misprision, eh?

  8. I think the ahead of the curve idea is misapplied here. Like slavery before, America is essentially the last one in the room to recognize gay equality. “Not in last place” might be a better description.

  9. Ha ha. I can totally sympathize with Gritter. I’m a Catholic in a mixed-orientation marriage (i.e. I’m queer, my husband is straight, I happened to fall in love across the lines of my orientation) When I first started to talk about my experience I was seriously naive about the political ramifications of the so-called “ex-gay” experience. I’m glad to see that my fellow Canadians had the good sense to apologize for the “orientation change” shibboleth before the Exodus folks did.

  10. Not sure why “Gays” think they should have equality. All Men and all women can get married, always could. If you want to shack up with same sex, go ahead, it’s not marriage, just as my dog will never be a cat, ever. Oh hey, that’s my belief, so go ahead, I welcome your non-bigoted views on it. Or do my beliefs not matter because they don’t agree with yours? Classic.

    • The supreme court has laid down the information you need in it’s reference decision on the matter. All the knowledge you seek will be found there.

    • Everyone is entitled to his own beliefs, but not his own facts. The law says it is marriage.

  11. Wendy Gritter has written a lot of her own messages on the wall
    waiting for a sign from God about her ministry work. It doesn’t take
    long for seasoned, educated Christians to note the typical flaws in her
    personal religious take on sexuality. Michael Horton (PhD, University
    of Coventry and Wycliffe Hall, Oxford) describes the many Wendy’s out
    there today offering weak, renovated theology in a book he wrote titled:
    CHRISTLESS CHRISTIANITY. Gritter needs less her, more God.

    • Janet – thanks for noting the book “Christless Christianity”. Concerning the above discussions regarding Old and New Testament, there are many clear references to forbidden sexual acts and to how God will allow people to indulge in them. Good places to start research are Leviticus 18 which pretty much disallows any except with your spouse and Romans 1:18-32 which describes how God will allow people to pursue their desires – your free will to make choices. One’s regard for God results in one of two choices: Disregard God and His word and do as you wish or revere God and the whole of His word and live accordingly. From my point of view, I have nothing to loose by doing the latter, but have all to loose if God is real and His word is true and I live a contrary life.

  12. Well, all I know for a fact is, I was faced with the very real choice when I was a young man, to be homosexual and I chose not to go down that destructive path. There are some out there{bloggers in yahooland}who know me better than God and myself and have told me I’m wrong. I beg to differ.

    • I’d say the vast majority of sexually disoriented{if you can be oriented, you can be disoriented …. try a little sound reasoning/logic} males you talk to{like I was myself}, will tell you{if they’re being honest}, that they are searching for a male bond and affections from their fathers that their fathers neglected to give them and sadly sex gets muddled/confused/twisted in there. You CAN have NON-sexual physical affections with another male. I do with my wonderful son and my friends on a healthy regular basis. For women there are a myriad of other unfortunate reasons also. Again, if you’re not honest with yourself, you’re not helping yourself.

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