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Weird People of History: Michael Bussee and Gary Cooper
The romance-novel story of the founders of Exodus International
Michael Bussee and Gary Cooper1 both worked at the crisis hotline for Melodyland Christian Center, an evangelical Christian church. Both were married; Cooper had two children, while Bussee was soon to be a father. And both identified as former homosexuals.
When Bussee and Cooper met, there was an instant attraction—though they didn’t admit to themselves or each other. They soon were spending as much time as possible together.
The other crisis hotline counselors were enormously homophobic: they told anguished gay callers that all gay men were child molesters, or that all gay men had been beaten or raped by their fathers. Bussee and Cooper decided to organize a sort of sensitivity training for ex-gay counselors to get them to be less homophobic. At the same time, Bussee and Cooper founded a prayer meeting at Melodyland which was intended to cure homosexuals: it was called EXIT, for Ex-Gay Intervention Team.
Their two ministries both became wildly popular, and Bussee and Cooper soon encountered other small evangelical ministries for ex-gays at other churches. They decided to host a conference where members of all the ministries could meet each other and socialize. For many participants, it was the first time they had ever met so many other gay people; it was a freeing experience, one that didn’t make them feel alone. The conference was such a wild success that Bussee and Cooper decided to found Exodus International—the first and largest ex-gay organization, intended to turn gay people straight.
Bussee and Cooper spent hours talking to each other. They finished each other’s sentences. They were popular speakers on the evangelical circuit—focusing on how gay people could change—in part because of their obvious chemistry on stage. You could tell they really liked each other. Bussee and Cooper were each other’s children’s uncles. The families vacationed together and moved into the same apartment complex. Bussee and Cooper’s wives were best friends, in part because they shared the isolating experience of being married to an ex-gay who didn’t romantically love them or want sex with them.
While on a plane to Indianapolis, Bussee was reading a book, Bless The Beasts and Children, which had themes of self-acceptance and refusing to allow people to tell you you were defective. Part of the way through, he began to read it to Cooper. At the climax, they both started crying. Moved by the novel, Bussee confessed to Cooper that he loved him as a gay man, that he had been living a lie, and that he couldn’t keep pretending to be something he wasn’t. Cooper said that he felt the same way. The two realized that they had been hurting people and prayed that no one they counseled had been driven to suicide.
When they got off the plane, Bussee and Cooper went to a hotel room where—I am not kidding—the hotel accidentally put them in one king-size bed.
That’s right. There was only one bed.
The two took it as a sign from God and had sex for the first time.
The next day, they had a presentation. Bussee and Cooper scrapped their prepared remarks and gave a speech about how they were gay, it was fine to be gay, gay people couldn’t be cured, and Exodus International was killing people. The presentation began with the evangelicals clapping and the counterprotestors scowling, and ended with the evangelicals booing and the counterprotestors cheering.
Bussee and Cooper were afraid of losing contact with their children. For nearly a year, they continued their marriages while sneaking around behind their wives’ backs to be together. Finally, when Bussee’s wife asked why they weren’t having a second child, Bussee confessed that he wasn’t ex-gay, he was gay, and he wanted a divorce. The two broke down sobbing. Within minutes, Bussee got a phone call—Cooper had, that very night, also decided to tell the truth to his wife and ask for a divorce.
Though their wives were angry and wanted to deny visitation, eventually they allowed the two men to play a role in raising their children. Bussee and Cooper moved in together and soon married (although at the time they could not legally marry).
Sadly, in 1991, only nine years after their marriage, at the age of thirty-nine, Cooper died of HIV. Bussee continues to advocate against ex-gay therapy and can be seen in the recent documentary film Pray Away.
In conclusion: ex-gay groups are an underused setting for angsty gay romance novels. Get on this, people. I expect to see a canonized AO3 tag by February.
Anything But Straight: Unmasking the Scandals and Lies Behind the Ex-Gay Movement. By Wayne Besen. Published 2003. 340 pages. $48.
No relation to the actor.