Sy Rogers, an “ex-gay,” “ex-transgender” minister, has died of kidney cancer at age 63.
Rogers, who died Sunday in Winter Park, Fla., was president of Exodus International, an organization promoting conversion therapy, for a time in the 1980s. Exodus International shut down in 2013, with Alan Chambers, who was president at the time, denouncing its mission. The practice, designed to turn LGBTQ people straight or cisgender, has been condemned by major health organizations as ineffective and harmful. Some of Exodus International’s member ministries continue to operate and promote such therapy, several under the aegis of a group called Exodus Global Ministries.
Rogers identified as gay as a young man, then lived as a woman for a year and a half as he prepared to undergo transition surgery, according to an obituary published at Church Leaders. In an online essay years later, he blamed what he called his “problems” on childhood trauma that included emotional and sexual abuse, and he said his move toward gender transition was an “attempt at securing male love.” He eventually “began sincerely seeking after God,” he wrote, and became an evangelical Christian, identifying as a straight cisgender man. He married a woman in 1982.
The American-born Rogers and his wife, Karen, lived for many years in Auckland, New Zealand, where he was teaching pastor at Life Church. They also lived in Singapore for a time.
Many evangelical Christians have posted tributes to Rogers. “Sy Rogers lived a life of truth, sharing the hope and grace found in Jesus with everyone he could,” Georgia televangelist Jentezen Franklin wrote on Instagram. Bobbie Houston, cofounder of Hillsong Church, posted on the platform that Rogers “exemplified grace and freedom and a passion to always bless others.”
Others, however, found Rogers’s message harmful. Adam Dobson said he tried to hang himself after his houseparents forced him to watch a video about Rogers’s life, One of the Boys, while he was a student at the private Milton Hershey School in Pennsylvania, as punishment for watching gay porn. He was expelled after the suicide attempt. He filed suit in 2016 against the school, which has denied promoting conversion therapy but admitted that staff showed the video; court proceedings are ongoing. Another former Hershey student, Marcous Marchese, told The Philadelphia Inquirer in 2017 that he also was forced to watch the video at the school and it made him “a wreck.” “You should not have people make you feel like you are the scum of the earth,” he said.
Rogers said in a 2007 private conversation with anti-conversion therapy activist Anthony Venn-Brown that he no longer preached “a re-orientation message.” However, 10 years later Venn-Brown wrote that Rogers had never made such a statement publicly. “I know Sy Rogers would not preach a completely affirming message, but to no longer say ‘God makes gay people straight’, is a step in the right direction,” Venn-Brown wrote in a post for Ambassadors and Bridge Builders International, which promotes LGBTQ affirmation within faith bodies. “This of course also means that the term ‘gay Christian’ is not an oxymoron.”
In addition to the condemnations of conversion therapy by health professionals, 20 U.S. states have passed laws barring licensed therapists from performing it on minors. Many cities and counties have done so as well, and some countries, including Canada and Germany, are moving toward nationwide bans. Studies have found a correlation between conversion therapy and suicide attempts by LGBTQ youth, along with other negative outcomes.