This is What an Apology Looks Like

Darlene Bogle, Michael Bussee, Jeremy Marks

Back in June 2007 I had the privilege to work with three former ex-gay leaders as they prepared to issue public apologies concerning their roles in providing and promoting reparative therapy. At the LGBT community center in LA, I witnessed this historic public offering of regret. As co-founder of Beyond Ex-Gay and working in partnership with Soulforce, I believed the apologies would provide ex-gay survivors with meaningful words from some of the very people responsible for causing the harm.

Writing an apology often proves challenging. How difficult to admit wrong and particularly to name that wrong without justification or minimizing. As someone who spent 17 years immersed in various treatments designed to alter my sexual orientation (gay) and gender difference (fem), I felt relieved and released in part by the group apology and the individual statements of regret offered by Jeremy Marks, Darlene Bogle, and Michael Bussee. What struck me was the detail in which they described their wrongs as well as their genuine remorse. Previously all three had been working for years to undo the damage while contributing positively to LGBT lives, so their words were grounded in action.

This summer I received a remarkable e-mail from John Smid, the former director of Love in Action (LIA.) I attended this residential ex-gay program in Memphis, TN for two years at great cost to me and my family, both financially and psychologically.  I had heard that John was reaching out to former clients, so I was not surprised he contacted me.

John said he would like to take a stab at making amends, and I agreed to read what he had learned since we last spoke in 2008. The apology he sent me, sounded sincere to me but incomplete. It lacked detail. It was written in the passive voice and repeated over and over the phrase, “I am sorry.” While I did not feel I could outright ignore John’s apology, I also could not honestly accept it as it was. So as an exercise for myself, I printed out John’s apology to me, read it closely, crossed out anything that sounded extraneous, wrote details in the margin, and began to play with language. (For instance, instead of the phrase, “I am sorry for…” I replaced it with “I acknowledge that…”)

I found the exercise useful to me, satisfying to consider words meaningful to me. Then I decided to take the unprecedented step of sending to John my version of his apology. I acknowledged to him how it must be difficult to question 22 years of work and conclude that it may have caused harm.  I explained how I took the liberty to edit his original version and said, “This is an apology I believe I can accept. I do not know if it is one you are willing and able to give, but if nothing else, it served as a helpful exercise to me and you may find it useful as well.”

Below is the apology I fashioned from John’s first draft. I do not feel comfortable sharing his original, but it is similar to the public apology he issued in March of this year.

I understand that John is on a personal journey that includes questioning his beliefs, former work, and even his own identity. He also has had a very public role in providing and promoting ex-gay ministry. The program he oversaw was notorious for its shocking and abusive practices. Separating the personal from the public is important. I wish John the best in his life. I also recognize that history cannot be erased, and it does nothing to the strength of  LGBTQ communities to overlook or minimize the wrongs against us. It also does not aid in the liberation of our oppressors to overlook or minimize painful past actions. In other words, writing an apology can prove challenging both to those giving and those hearing.

Using John Smid’s personal message to me,  I composed an apology that is meaningful to me:

Peterson, I regret that through the teaching I offered at Love in Action (LIA,) through private conversations, in public forums, and in the media, I communicated directly and indirectly that lesbians and gays are sinful, dysfunctional, flawed, and inferior to heterosexuals.

At LIA my staff and I designed a program that used a drug and alcohol “addiction” model. Applying this addiction model to men and women who are gay, lesbian, bisexual,or transgender caused confusion, shame, and guilt. The model suggested that you and others were damaged goods and deceived. I now realize that the model I implemented focused on behavior modification. This focus was woefully ill-informed and unhelpful regarding gays. This model has caused harm to many people who came to us for help. In retrospect, I now see that the model was flawed. It relied on shame tactics and guilt-producing practices.  I continued to turn a blind eye and deaf ear to the things I heard from those, like yourself, wounded by this model.

I regret designing, overseeing, and maintaining a program that brought confusion and pain, not only to you, but to many people through the years. I did not take the time to listen to you and others. I devalued your life experience and personal perspective.

I regret the flawed theology I taught and practiced. In suggesting that transformation would mean a change in sexual orientation, I brought further confusion into your life while you were at LIA. I taught that gays had wicked hearts. My theology and thinking
were wrong and negatively affected you and others under my care. I acknowledge the potential harm in teaching topics like “child development” to a hastily assembled group of people looking for informed answers. I have learned that this “one size fits all” approach caused confusion and guilt to participants at the Family and Friends Weekend.

Peterson, I harmed your parents through what my staff and I taught and communicated. I see now how much of what I said increased fear, shame, and guilt for parents who arrived to our program concerned for their children. As I look back today, I am grieved that I did not relieve the guilt and shame, rather I helped produce more through the meetings my staff and I facilitated. I now acknowledge that there is nothing that a parent does or does not do that creates a gay child. I regret that I taught or inferred this message and coerced parents into taking on inappropriate responsibility for their child’s orientation and gender differences and for insisting that there was something wrong with a gay orientation and in gender differences. I renounce these views and have ceased teaching this material to groups.

I now understand and acknowledge that my sexuality is unique to me. I have chosen to partner with Vileen, my wife, a partnership that works for me and for her. But for the vast majority of LIA participants, such a relationship would be unrealistic, and would likely cause pain and heartache for all parties involved. In my work, I never acknowledge the differences in people’s orientations and personalities. I never acknowledged the existence of bisexuals, who may successfully partner with someone of either sex. In my teaching and testimony, I insisted that a heterosexual marriage was superior to a union between two men or two women. I elevated heterosexuality and devalued the lives, relationships, and spirituality of lesbians gays.

Through the LIA program, my teaching, and program activities, I insisted that clients must adhere to traditional gender roles and society’s assumptions regarding how men and women express themselves through their appearance, dress, hobbies, jobs, and relationships. My teaching stifled individuality and authenticity. I was arrogant and assumed that I had all of the right answers. I acted as though I had a special line to God and somehow felt that I knew what God would or would not do. I wrongly defended myself when someone called me or my ministry legalistic. In arrogance, I responded to people who criticized me, my teaching, or LIA program practices.

While I cannot say that the 22 years as program director of LIA were a waste or that it was not productive to some in part, I am now aware, and I continue to grow in awareness, that much of my teachings, beliefs, and practices at LIA were wrong. As a result, I confused and wounded many people. Many, perhaps most, left LIA hopeless as a result of the services we provided under my supervision. I now understand and see that I was often more consumed with what I believed you had done that was wrong and sinful, and likely communicated that I was not interested in YOU as a person, or how you were feeling.

I regret my actions. I acknowledge my mistakes and harmful work.
Peterson, what can I do further to address the wrongs I have done? How can I demonstrate just how much I regret my actions and the consequences they brought to you and to others?

This post has 8 Comments

  1. Rick James on October 13, 2011 at 10:34 am

    anxious to hear John’s response to this, Peterson.

  2. Martin Kelley on October 13, 2011 at 5:09 pm

    What a great exercise. I’m sure we’d all love to hear if he writes back.

    I’ve been noticing public apologies are on the rise–to the point where I’m wondering if they’re a rising “meme.” Though i like the idea of apologies, some of them have felt hollow. I’ve seen people engage in pretty loutish behavior after public apologies. Perhaps this is just human nature. Maybe it’s parallel to being born again–talk is fine, and maybe a step of intention, but it’s the long-term change of heart and action that marks the converted. Maybe what this meme needs is models for real apologies: active voice, specifics, not apologizing for other’s vague sins and no repeating reinforcing neanthertal opinions when crafting the reply.

    I’m glad you made it through all this, it makes my worst adolencent years look like a cakewalk!

  3. Anthony Venn-Brown on October 13, 2011 at 8:07 pm

    well done Peterson…….I trust that the message comes through loud and clear… your work my friend.

  4. Alex Haiken on October 15, 2011 at 3:02 pm

    Maybe we need to cut this brother a bit more slack as he seeks to figure out how to move forward now and put the pieces of his life back together. When I finally came to understand that the few passages of scripture that generally get appealed to in this debate do not survive close scrutiny when viewed in the their contexts, it took me time to figure out how to walk in these new shoes — without throwing out the baby with the bath water (i.e., my faith or my sexuality), without being angry or bitter, with making amends to people I had unwittingly wronged or misled, etc. This was not easy and it did not happen overnight.

    John is a brother who despite any of his shortcomings loves God and who was only trying to walk uprightly before God. Now he knows he needs to retool and is trying to figure out how to do that with integrity. The dictionary defines integrity as honesty, adherence to moral and ethical principles, and the state of being whole, entire or undiminished. Honesty is defined as fairness, truthfulness and uprightness, with freedom from deceit or fraud. It seems to me that everything he is doing right now seeks to put flesh on these words.

    He’s come forward with some very truthful admissions which are painful and which will undoubtedly cost him dearly. This is not the end of the struggle for him. You know as well as I they are many in his life who he has counted as dear friends who will decide they can no longer afford his friendship. I’ve been there, done that got the tee shirt, and I know many of you have too.

    Why can’t we walk alongside, support and be patient with him as he figures out how to do this — in his time and not in ours? Is it possible that perhaps we have some responsibility here as his brothers in Christ? Love is patient; love is kind; it is not arrogant; it does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own; it is not provoked; it does not take into account a wrong suffered.

    Perhaps the warning of Jesus about the perils of trying to conduct eye-surgery when we are unwittingly the victim of poor vision ourselves might be a salutary one for us to remember at this time. He is trying the best he can to figure out how to walk in these new shoes — just as we too had to do at one time.

    -Alex Haiken

  5. Yvonne Aburrow (@vogelbeere) on May 14, 2012 at 9:26 am

    Well, I read your version of the apology – which looks like a real and genuine one – and then I read his version of the apology, which does not look like an apology at all. All he was apologising for was any hurtful comments he may have made to individuals – he still doesn’t believe that same-sex relationships are blessed by God, and his new ministry doesn’t sound that great either.

  6. Steve Flower on June 22, 2013 at 10:46 pm

    Peterson, I really don’t *care* about apologies. Especially with *this* crowd. While “I’m sorry” is a definite improvement over “you’re going to hell unless you change,” what is really missing is “making amends.” That’s what your version of the “apology” looks like – this is what we did, this is how we see it harmed you, and please let us know what we can do to correct, rectify, or amend the situation.

    I doubt you will see it from the LIA folks. And especially with the Exodus people, I don’t think we’re going to see it, either.

    It reminds me of what friends in recovery say: “I don’t care what you SAY, I don’t care what you THINK, and I certainly don’t care what you believe or profess. Show me what you’re going to DO to undo the evil you have done.”

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