90 protestors were on hand in rural Auburn, New Hampshire early Saturday morning, September 17, to greet attendees arriving for the Exodus International North Atlantic Regional Conference. Exodus is the country’s leading network of “ex-gay ministries” and a pillar of the anti-LGBT religious right. Standing on a traffic island where cars exited the highway and lining the road leading to the conference site, LGBT activists and straight allies held signs, shouted chants, and sang freedom songs. Messages like “Be Yourself,” “Conversion Therapy Kills,” and “God Loves Me and She Knows I’m Gay” adorned colorfully decorated posters.
Ian Struthers, Co-Chair of Join the Impact MA, struck up chants as cars passed, such as “Exodus, Exodus, Quack, Quack, Quack/You Can’t Change Gays and That’s a Fact.”
Demonstrators came from Massachusetts, Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire. The largest contingent came from South Church Unitarian Universalist in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, led by co-ministers the Rev. Chris Jablonski and the Rev. Lauren Smith. Join the Impact MA (“JTIMA”), which was lead organizer, brought several carloads up from Boston. Other groups represented included Truth Wins Out, the Harvard Queer Students and Allies, Get Equal, [ an organization with a presence in New Jersey] and the Anti-Violence Project of Massachusetts.
People arriving at the conference seemed initially confused by the spirited LGBT-positive presence. Some returned the friendly waves from the crowd while others scowled. One member of the First Assembly of God, which hosted the conference, told organizers that the Church owned the road and all the land surrounding it, but Auburn police confirmed that the area surrounding the site was public property.
As the Exodus conference got underway after 9 AM, demonstrators proceeded along the sides of the road to a grassy space abutting the Church grounds. The Rev. Mr. Jablonski led the group in a non-denominational prayer, then a series of speakers criticized the practice of “reparative therapy” which attempts to change sexual orientation. Wayne Besen, Executive Director of Truth Wins Out spoke first, and noted how attendance at “ex-gay” gatherings like the one held a week earlier in Houston, TX was dwindling. According to Besen, realizing that they are losing the “culture wars” in the United States, the “ex-gay” movement increasingly focuses on exporting homophobia to African countries like Uganda.
One of the founders of Join the Impact MA, Harvard senior Ryan Hanley discussed the origins of the “ex-gay” movement in now-discredited psychiatric notions. JTIMA Co-Chair Ian Struthers spoke of the horrific experience of member Sam Brinton, who was subjected to brutal conversion “treatments” as an adolescent. Ian emphasized JTIMA’s aspiration that LGBT youth might grow and flourish as who they are without the homophobic messages Exodus uses to browbeat them into changing.
JTIMA Board member Matthew Murphy movingly told of his experiences growing up in Southwestern Virginia, where he was led to believe that homosexuality was the worst thing in the world. Heterosexually married for 12 years, Matthew came out at age 44 and is now happily coupled. Other speakers included JITMA Board member and state lead for Get Equal Massachusetts Tymothie-James Bergendahl, Cathy Kristofferson, also of JTIMA and Get Equal, the Anti-Violence Project’s David Rudewick and John Hosty-Grinnell, and Sarina Patterson of the Harvard Queer Students and Allies. The author, Don Gorton of Join the Impact MA and the Anti-Violence Project, emceed the speak-out.
Several conference attendees lingered outside, eyed the LGBT-affirming crowd warily, and even approached the group, but there were no incidents. The crowd outside protesting was larger than the group inside listening to Exodus’s message, according to a JTIMA member who discreetly attended the conference.
After the event, protestors socialized at a reception at a nearby restaurant. Organizers said they were exhilarated with the successful challenge to Exodus in the remote New England location they chose for their conference.