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Censorship Goes Both Ways: The Case for an Ex-Gay App

exodus international iphone appPerhaps you've heard of this Exodus International iPhone app fracas? The leading organization behind the ex-gay movement (the belief that religious counseling can help LGBT people "struggling" with their sexualities to reorient themselves to heterosexuality) recently had its official app approved by Apple, and gay rights groups are now in an uproar. Surprise?

Despite the fact that Apple deemed the app to contain "no objectionable content," gay rights advocates are fuming. They say that Exodus and its ex-gay crusade are rooted in messages of shame and bigotry, and that its agenda-serving app only serves to spread hate.

The ex-gay movement itself has been characterized by its opponents as everything from a laughable curiosity ("Pray away the gay!") to a cultish brainwashing operation. I'm not going to define it one way or another, because I haven't been targeted by any of its members myself. But I will say that, despite being an openly gay man, I think this app deserves a chance. That's right: I'm defending Exodus International.

Well, sort of.

I say, let them have their iPhone app. (We have more than enough of our own.) Denying Exodus an app on the App Store denies them a voice. While it may not be a natural right that all views should be legitimized by Apple, the fact is that, even if I and other members of the LGBT community don't agree with Exodus, the organization should be given the opportunity to civilly exercise its rights. Even if the organization's tactics are controversial, the contents of its app are not aggressive and do not encourage violence.

In fact, I was perversely heartened to see that one of the top features of the Exodus app is a message against bullying: "[We] strongly oppose bullying, name calling and acts of aggression against any individual or group of individuals for any reason. These actions have no place in our society and we must, instead, affirm behavior that validates the personal worth and dignity God bestows upon every human being."

To opponents, maybe that seems like good PR and timely posturing, especially since some have warned that an Exodus app would send dangerous messages to children and teens. Change.org, whose petition of Steve Jobs to remove the app has received nearly 103,000 signatures to date, said that the app is "targeting vulnerable LGBT youth."

Trying to read a nefarious Apple agenda in all this is also dubious. Apple has seen its own share of problems with cries of censorship, most notably with the bowdlerized gay comic version of 'The Importance of Being Earnest.' But it has caved before to gay rights advocates, pulling the 'Manhattan Declaration' app (which opposed LGBT rights and gay marriage) from the App Store last year. As PC World notes, Apple also donated $100,000 to defeat Proposition 8 in California. It's hardly an enemy of the gay community.

With the sheer number of petition signatures against the Exodus app, I wouldn't be surprised if Apple does kill it. (The 'Manhattan Declaration' app was pulled after Change.org's petition hit 8,000 signatures.) "Apple might consider thinking about their customer base and the penchant many lesbian and gay people have for ethical consumerism when endorsing an offensive app like this," Ben Summerkill, head of the Stonewall gay rights group, told the Guardian. (Totally! If there's a gay phone out there, the iPhone's probably it. I've got one.)

But let's face it: censoring an ex-gay app serves nobody's interest. For supporters of Exodus's message, censorship only strengthens the argument that a "gay agenda" indeed exists, and plots to stymie all gay naysaying. For opponents, it makes the case for free speech one-sided, and ultimately damages it as an ethos. Free speech only for some?

Exodus doesn't need any help discrediting itself. Only three years after its inception in 1976, two of its male co-founders left the group -- for a commitment ceremony with one another. In 2000, one of its prominent leaders (who was featured on the cover of Newsweek as the face of the ex-gay movement) was photographed at a D.C. gay bar, after having spent the night flirting with other male patrons. Neither the American Medical Association nor the American Psychological Association recognize Exodus's practice of "conversion therapy" as effective; many studies have shown that it's actually damaging. In the cultural, political and scientific mainstream, Exodus has little support.

There are plenty of other reasons to worry about Exodus and its ilk, like the fact that it has expanded its ministries into Caribbean countries such as Barbados and Jamaica, where anti-gay sentiment is already virulent and deadly. One could argue that the iPhone app implicitly encourages anti-gay bullying, and could lead to more suicides, like those of Tyler Clementi and Billy Lucas last year. But apps didn't cause those tragedies; fellow students did. Exodus's reach into schools is far more troubling than an app that ostensibly provides counseling.

The crux of the matter, however, is that Exodus isn't NAMBLA, and it isn't Stormfront; it's not advocating criminal activity. It's an organization whose goal a share of people find offensive. But, if we think that Grindr, MyGayGo and the Gay History Project, have the right to be available on our forward-thinking iDevices, we have to recognize that other voices -- even ones that we may personally find despicable -- deserve to be there, too.

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