Column: Why Former ‘Ex-Gay’ Randy Thomas’ Coming Out is a Huge Deal

Former “ex-gay” activist Randy Thomas came out of the closet this week and didn’t even get a toaster. Few seemed to notice his big announcement and fewer cared. In an anti-climatic blog post Thomas spilled the beans: “I am gay. I am ok with who I am. I hope we can continue to journey together.”

As recently as three years ago this would have been major news. It would have saturated the LGBT press, been a hot topic on liberal blogs, the cause for consternation and spin in conservative outlets, and even made a splash in mainstream media. Today, it is a mere footnote in an ugly chapter where politicized religious zealots spent millions of dollars to berate and humiliate LGBT people into renouncing their humanity.

In years past, a major “ex-gay” coming out was big news because it was an anomaly. In 1998, the Religious Right declared war on LGBT people with its infamous “Truth in Love” campaign. The cynical tagline used by “former homosexuals” in these ads was “We’re living proof the truth can set you free.”

For a decade after this high profile campaign, it was critically important for LGBT advocates to debunk this lie. We had to provide ammunition for gay teenagers against relatives or church members who pointed to these bogus “success stories” and urged gay youth to attend “ex-gay” retreats. Each time we outed a poster boy – such as John Paulk, Wade Richards, or Michael Johnston – we provided “living proof” that these programs were a sham.

The subdued reaction to Thomas’ announcement is vindication of this strategy. A powerful case has been made against the efficacy of “pray away the gay” organizations. Any parent thinking of forcing their child into such a program has a wealth of information that debunks the “ex-gay” myth. This doesn’t mean that some people won’t still have their lives destroyed by this lie. But, it does mean that anyone with an Internet connection can find evidence that warns of the profound damage these programs cause – most notably the failure of former poster boys (and girls).

We have now reached the tipping point. An “ex-gay” activist coming out is about as predictable as warm weather in July. These discredited programs are consumer fraud and when a person claims they are “ex-gay” the appropriate response is, “For how long”? As I say in my presentations on this issue:

“Ex-gays are like actors playing roles. They may be very good and persuasive. If they believe strongly enough, they can convince themselves that the lines their character is reading are true. But like all good dramas, the show must end and the final curtain of reality will come crashing down. And at this point, the actor will take off the mask and be himself or herself again.”

This week, Randy Thomas honorably dropped the mask – and for this I am grateful. Not because I have forgiven his sins or forget the destruction he has caused. Such damage cannot easily be undone. There are likely LGBT youth who committed suicide because of Thomas’ words. How many doomed mixed orientation marriages occurred based on the lies promulgated by the now defunct Exodus International?

I am grateful because Thomas’ coming out lends further proof to the failure of the “ex-gay” farce. It will stop future LGBT youth from being put in harms way. And it will allow Thomas a second chance at living authentically – where he can do good instead of evil. Let’s hope he takes full advantage of his new lease on life.

As easy as it is to hate Thomas for his misdeeds, we must always remember that he was both victim and victimizer, harming himself as much as his innocent prey. Before he lied to others, he first lied to himself. No doubt, this destruction and duplicity must trouble his conscience, and in private moments, torment his soul.

If not, it should.

Thomas’ announcement is being downplayed because an “ex-gay” outing is no longer a “man bites dog” story. Still, this actually is a major blow to the dead enders who still populate the dwindling “ex-gay” industry.

While Thomas is now just another witty gay dude with a blog, we can’t forget that he was the caustic Vice President of Exodus International, where he served as the “ex-gay” industry’s chief political lobbyist during the movement’s zenith.

In 2003, Thomas condemned the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark pro-gay Lawrence v. Texas ruling overturning sodomy laws, telling Christianity Today:

“This ruling gives validity to the gay community. In addition to potentially redefining the family, it further solidifies their position as a political and social force.”

In 2006, Thomas, along with Exodus President Alan Chambers, attended a White House meeting with President George W. Bush. The purpose was to help organize opposition to marriage equality by capitalizing on the “ex-gay” message. During this notorious trip, Thomas had contact with Karl Rove and Newt Gingrich.

We must remember that this effort was a genuine threat, because it occurred prior to the widespread public support for gay marriage. In 2004, for example, Bush’s reelection campaign promoted and helped pass constitutional same-sex marriage bans in 11 states.

In 2006, Thomas described constitutional rights for LGBT people as the “obvious degradation of our society.” In 2009, the bombastic Thomas smeared anti-Prop 8 gay protesters as a “mob” and watchdogs of “ex-gay” organizations as “vipers.”

In 2011, Thomas bashed Truth Wins Out’s successful effort to have Apple remove Exodus International’s “ex-gay” app. According to Thomas, our victory was a:

“baseless all-out assault on our lives and beliefs. It’s much more than just an iPhone app. God’s work through Exodus is being mocked, ridiculed and stigmatized. And while we do not fight as the world fights, we can speak up lovingly and redemptively in the face of persecution. Truth never comes back void and God’s love and grace abound much greater than anything the world has to offer.”

Thomas was also instrumental in speaking out and lobbying against federal hate crime legislation. The nadir of his career occurred when he appeared in a toxic newspaper ad campaign under the inflammatory headline: “Hate crime laws say we were MORE VALUABLE as homosexuals than we are now as former homosexuals.”

It was always ironic that Thomas had become Exodus’ political hatchet man. Prior to his stint with Exodus, Thomas was the co-director of Living Hope Ministries in Dallas, where he upbraided the Religious Right’s role in the 1998 ad campaign as too politicized. According to Thomas:

“My association with Coral Ridge has turned out to be more of a hindrance than a help to my ministry. I felt their motivation was to reach same-gender attracted people. I don’t feel that now. The hundreds of thousands of dollars the coalition spent on the advertising campaign could have been simply given to Exodus and much more could have been accomplished. But I guess that means giving up control. Coral Ridge needs to stop using their videos to instill fear instead of redemption. They need to present a redemptive message and not a political one.”

Yet, Thomas opportunistically jumped on the political bandwagon and wallowed in extremist partisan rhetoric while he was second in command at Exodus. This included becoming a speaker for Focus on the Family’s traveling “ex-gay” road show “Love Won Out.”

Thomas also had his share of outright fibs. Like the time he told the Asheville Citizen-Times, before an Exodus conference, “We get lumped into the groups that do reparative therapy, when it’s just not true.” In fact, Exodus materials, at this point in time, were saturated with reparative therapy – from the books they gave clients to read, to the junk science theories they used to explain the origins of homosexuality.

But the prickly Thomas was smarter than most “ex-gay” activists. He never seemed to buy the entire reparative therapy Party Line, which focuses on making male gay clients more masculine. While speaking at a 2007 Exodus conference, for example, the enigmatic Thomas declared:

“Just because I stopped being gay 16 years ago doesn’t mean I can’t be fabulous.”

In 1988, Thomas was a young openly gay teenager who became a drug addict. He kicked his habit while living among supportive gay friends. Like many young men of his generation, the constant threat of HIV and the sorrow from witnessing an abundance of death, left psychological scars. Here is one gripping account written by Thomas:

In the middle of a grease pit fast food place at 3:15 a.m. on a Sunday morning, Gary was weeping as I literally melted down into tears and anguish. Ron, the only partner I thought I had truly loved up to that point, had died of AIDS.

Memories of him as a healthy vibrant man juxtaposed with what I had seen of the men that AIDS had taken before … I just couldn’t make any sense of it.

I literally don’t remember what happened next except in brief flashes of still pictures among the sounds of grieving. I remember Gary crying and helping me find a seat. I remember my friends looking in my eyes asking me if I was OK. I remember that the whole place got silent with shared mourning and empathy. The “party” crowd might not have all known Ron but they all knew what AIDS was and this usually boisterous crowd was eerily humbled.

Then, I remember the moment I realized that I was at high risk to have gotten the virus from Ron. The dawning horror of this revelation is especially traumatizing. It’s traumatizing to realize your death sentence might have been handed to you without you knowing. This realization mixed with the loss of Ron profoundly impacted my life; it still affects my heart deeply today.

With the help of his LGBT friends, Thomas amended his self-destructive behavior:

I’ll never forget one brave man living with the virus getting in my face and saying, “If you want to live you better quit acting like a slut! If some redneck doesn’t kill you AIDS will!” This man was HIV+ and dating one of my best friends at the time, who had also recently been diagnosed as HIV+.

Between Ron and this man’s exhortation, I know the value of the gay identified community holding itself accountable. Because of the self-imposed accountability within my gay community, I was not a “slut” for very long.

The love of friends gave them the ability to get in my face where the rantings of TV preachers fell on deaf ears. And the love of friends gave me the ability to hear them and take their counsel to heart.

Still, Thomas learned all the wrong lessons from his HIV scare, soon turning with gusto and glee towards those intolerant preachers he once derided. In short order he had become a trusted Christian soldier, preaching the anti-gay gospel to anyone who would listen. His ignominious career should not be forgotten, nor should his reemergence from the closet be minimized or downplayed.

To his credit, Thomas has apologized (here and here) for his past and is working to remake his life. An intelligent, creative man, Thomas has a chance to have a positive impact on society. In his blog post Thomas asks, “I hope we can continue to journey together.” We certainly will and we suspect the best is yet to come, as it has been for other “ex-gay” activists who have embraced their true selves.

The lesson of Thomas’ coming out is clear: If a man as steeped in vituperative political rhetoric and vile “ex-gay” ideology can come out of the closet, then anyone can. While at first blush this coming out story doesn’t seem like a very big deal, it actually is A VERY BIG DEAL.


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