The Other Side of the Rainbow – Behind the Curtain of Ex-Gay Ministries

 
By Natalie Davis 
City Paper, 1999

“Toward hope and healing for homosexuals.”

 

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On July 13, 1998, that phrase greeted newspaper readers across America. It headlined a full-page advertisement in The NewYork Times. Below the words was the visage of an attractive woman, her face prettily made up, her left hand cupping her chin, displaying her engagement and wedding rings for all to see. The tag line read: “I’m living proof that Truth can set you free.” The woman was identified as Anne Paulk-wife, mother, former lesbian.

 

The ad described how Paulk was molested as a child by a teenage boy. The experience left her mistrustful of men and disdainful of femininity, which she equated with being weak and vulnerable. She describes becoming attracted to women, being involved in gay and lesbian groups at college, longing to find a female life partner. Then, she says, she found God. She wanted to stop being gay, but it wasn’t until a former lesbian led her to “a ministry helping people overcome homosexuality” that she was able to make the break and step into heterosexuality. A few years later, Paulk married a formerly gay man; they now have a son.

 

“Thousands of ex-gays like [Paulk] have walked away from their homosexual identities,” the ad reads. “While the paths each took into homosexuality may vary, their stories of hope and healing through the transforming love of Jesus Christ are the same. Ex-gay ministries throughout the U.S. work daily with homosexuals seeking change, and many provide outreach programs to their families and loved ones. If you really love someone, you’ll tell them the truth.”

 

In the following days and weeks, the “Truth in Love” ad campaign continued. An ad that ran July 14 in The Washington Post and the following week in the The Los Angeles Times featured 150 smiling ex-gays, “standing for the truth that homosexuals can change.” A USA Today ad on July 15 featured Reggie White–the All-Pro former football player whose anti-gay comments made news last year–standing (in his Green Bay Packers uniform) “in defense of free speech.” And on July 29, the Miami Herald printed an advertisement telling the story of HIV+ ex-gay Michael Johnston, highlighting his Christian mother’s message to parents: “It was never easy telling him what he didn’t want to hear . . . that homosexuality was sin and that he needed to turn from it. We weren’t being judgmental. We were just being parents. To say no to his behavior in a way that was straightforward and caring and based on the truth was simply an honest expression of our love. Who could fault us for telling the truth?”

 

Of course, many people see the truth differently. The campaign was dynamite to an America deeply divided over the volatile and increasingly public debate over the nature of homosexuality and attendant issues such as hate-crime and anti-discrimination laws, adoption rights, and gay marriage. Robert Knight of the Family Research Council, one of 15 conservative Christian groups that paid for the $600,000 campaign, calls the ads “the Normandy landing in the culture war.” National gay-rights groups rushed to challenge the campaign, some responding with ads of their own; self-identified ex-gays lined up in support, offering their own stories as proof of the campaign’s truth.

 

But what is the truth? Can gay people change? Should gay people change? Is homosexuality a sin? And why is our country-and people’s lives-being torn apart over the questions? Is all of this about God, or is it all about politics?

 

To find answers to–or, at least, some illumination on–these questions, I decided to go to the source. Over a period of two months, I attended a three-day ex-gay retreat and support-group sessions for ex-gay ministries in Baltimore and Washington. I did not identify myself as a writer covering a story, but rather explained-truthfully, but only when asked-that I was a writer who has “questions” about issues of sexuality. My intent was to see what happened in the ministries without a public-relations veil obscuring the view, to meet and talk with former homosexuals and ex-gay leaders. I also conducted a number of formal interviews with people representing a wide variety of viewpoints–ex-gay ministers, gay activists, conservative Christian and Religious Right political leaders. Check your assumptions at the door. And draw your own conclusions.

 

Weathering the Storm

 

A storm is raging as I drive to Falling Waters, W.Va., for Regeneration Ministries’ fall retreat. I don’t know what to expect. All I know is that Regeneration is a Christian ministry that seeks to help unhappy gays looking for a way out of homosexuality.

 

I had seen the Truth in Love ads and felt my own paranoia telling me, “See? Gays should change!” I also had read and heard numerous accounts of the damage done to people who entered ex-gay ministries and psychological therapies simply because they were beaten down by society’s homophobia, and found they could not change. I’d spoken with Cheryl Johnson, an ex-ex-gay who met her partner in Regeneration nearly a decade ago. When it became apparent to her–and to everyone around her–that she had not changed, Johnson says she found herself isolated from the only friends she knew. She says she was even asked by a ministry leader to leave the church she and her partner attended.

 

 

Being a person of admittedly fluid sexuality, and a Christian who believes that whatever a person’s sexuality it is the Creator’s plan that they be that way, I am, frankly, petrified. The most passionate anti-smokers are those who’ve kicked the habit, and I presume the same will be true of the people with whom I was about to spend three days. To be fair, I had to go in with an open mind. And as a Christian, I believe all things are possible through God. Would I leave West Virginia the same way I arrived?

 

What remains for me to ponder as I head west on Interstate 70 is fact: Regeneration has been around a long time. Founded in 1979 by Alan Medinger, it is one of the oldest homosexual-change organizations in the nation. Medinger is one of the giants of the ex-gay movement. A former president of Exodus International, a worldwide network of ex-gay ministries with which Regeneration is affiliated, he has written extensively about the need for gay people to leave homosexuality behind, accept the literalist view of Scripture, and move into a God-given heterosexual identity and, perhaps, marriage. (His prescription for lesbians includes embracing Godly womanhood by displaying quiet strength and allowing themselves to be dependent upon men.) He is an outspoken opponent of gay marriage, workplace protections for nonheterosexuals, the gay-rights movement, and churches that move toward affirming gays. (Medinger left the mainstream Episcopal church because of what he perceived as its ever-increasing gay-friendliness.) His published writings advocate the classification of homosexuality as a mental disorder and assert his certainty that change can happen-over time-for anyone who submits to Christ and puts in the requisite work.

 

What makes Medinger so sure? He says he’s living proof. He fought his own homosexuality, both before and during his marriage, he tells me later that evening, over dinner. In time, he says, his faith grew stronger; he discovered a desire for his wife, Willa, and now is happy and at peace. Willa works at his side in the ministry, counseling women seeking change.

 

I also know that Regeneration’s director, Jeff Johnston, renounced his former homosexuality through forging a closer bond with God. After years of struggling in a group called Homosexuals Anonymous (a 14-step group that promotes change much as Alcoholics Anonymous helps those with drinking problems) and finding what he sought in a Christian-based ex-gay group, he saw his attraction for men diminish. Ultimately, he married; he and his wife, Judy, who helps out in Regeneration’s ministry, have a young son.

 

With relative ease, given the storm both inside and outside of me, I find the retreat site–the Potomac Park Campground and Conference Center, a facility owned by the fundamentalist Christian denomination the Assemblies of God. I climb out of my car, emblazoned with rainbow bumper stickers, and survey the vast property. A short car ride in front of me is a long, two-story cinder-block edifice I presume houses our living quarters. To the right is a church, a grand one-story brick building that stands in front of a huge structure I soon learn is the fellowship hall. Behind me is the cafeteria, attached to a small building which I take for the information center and, tentatively, enter.

 

I am early, and several people are milling about. A gorgeous baby boy is toddling around the room; he turns out to be Nathaniel Johnston, Jeff and Judy Johnston’s year-and-a-half-old son. Two women sitting at a table greet me warmly. One is Judy Johnston, the other Lani Bersch, who runs Regeneration Books, an arm of the organization that provides ex-gay and Christian readings for ministries across the nation. Bersch had been my phone contact when I arranged to attend the retreat.

 

When I identify myself, Lani sighs in relief that I’d made it safely-she’d given me directions over the phone but forgot to mail me a map as promised. “God got you here,” she says, smiling. I am inclined to agree and feel I’ve already made a friend. In a few minutes, Lani makes sure I am registered, tells me my roommate was coming from “far away,” and gives me my room assignment along with the task-if I don’t mind helping-of putting name tags on room doors for the other attendees.

 

I get settled in my room, complete my appointed task, and spend the remaining hours before the conference officially begins chatting pleasantly with ex-gay ministers and former homosexuals over burgers, fries, and sodas. (The first official meal of the retreat wasn’t until the next morning’s breakfast, so someone dashed out and brought back McDonald’s for the early arrivals.) The talk is about everyday stuff: our families, our kids, our work-homosexuality doesn’t really come up. The air is convivial, and the people seem very glad to be together.

 

As the gathering breaks up, I find myself talking with a woman I’ll call Beth, who has driven from Pennsylvania to attend the retreat. She says her life changed in 1990, and since then she’s been struggling to leave her lesbian desires behind. “They say it helps to have healthy same-sex relationships, like friendships,” she says, in a voice that seems to carry a bit of frustration. “But with me, after a while I become too emotionally dependent, so I pull back and isolate myself. And with isolation comes trouble. . . . Being here is really going to help.”

 

I think of Beth two months later when I speak with Christopher Camp. Camp, an out gay Baltimorean who lives with his husband Jack in Woodberry, spent seven years convincing homosexuals to break free from being gay through building a relationship with God. His own path began in college, at Baylor University, where he joined a fundamentalist Christian group and turned away from what he saw as the sin of homosexuality.

 

After nearly a decade of study and work with gay people desperate to change, Camp says he came to the realization that he was still oriented toward men. He concluded that he was gay and nothing was going to change him; that God intended for him to be that way; and that his homosexuality was not a factor in whatever emotional difficulties he suffered.

 

“There are so many people involved in ex-gay ministries whose problems have nothing to do with homosexuality,” he says. “They have to do with issues of abuse, codependency-a whole slew of issues that have nothing to do with being gay or being attracted to or oriented to someone of the same gender.” People such as Beth, he contends, only cause themselves more pain when they try to connect problems with parents, sexual abuse, or emotional dependency to their sexual orientation.

 

Common Ground

 

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The first session of the Regeneration retreat takes place in the Assemblies of God fellowship hall. The mood in the crowd of about 70 is expectant and exultant as the worship portion of the evening begins. In my real life, I attend the Metropolitan Community Church of Baltimore, a Christian church that offers special ministry to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people. Worship at MCC-Baltimore tends to be of the Protestant model, with a couple of nods to my native Catholicism. So it is amazing to me how easy it is to worship with a group of professed fundamentalist Christians who represent a number of denominations. As we do in MCC, we begin with songs of praise and worship to God, then move into hymns of reflection. The music ministry is led by Judy Johnston, who plays electric piano and sings in a beautiful, nuanced soprano. I soon find myself caught up in the spirit of the Creator. God is being sincerely loved and praised here, and I believe the Creator is present, filling the room and the hearts of those assembled.

 

As we go from song to song, I am disconcerted by the realization that I know most of the tunes-I’ve sung many with gusto among my gay and lesbian family at MCC. There are many similarities to my home church’s Pentecostal-type services, from the choice of hymns to the display of lyrics on an overhead projector to the mumbled cries of “Jesus, sweet Jesus” issuing from various congregants. This wouldn’t be the last time I reflected on the common ground shared by gays and ex-gays of faith.

 

On this November night, giving voice to words that hold different meanings depending upon who’s doing the singing, I sing along with my ex-gay brothers and sisters: You are here among us 
For we have gathered in your name. . . . 
You are here, 
Here to heal 
And here to save. . . . 
Holy Spirit come do as you wish. 
We are changed as You move in our midst.
 At the piano, Judy Johnston segues seamlessly into another song, in which I find more double meaning: “For you are worthy of my life, holy God. . . .”

 

The ambiguity in those words gains clarity when the last chord of music fades and Bob Ragan, director of Regeneration’s Northern Virginia office, takes to the podium in front of the room. Ragan says turning his life over to the Creator led him to turn his back on homosexuality and give up a 15-year addiction to masturbation and pornography-behaviors that, along with same-gender sex, are classed in the ex-gay movement as “sexual brokenness.” He continues with a prayer for wholeness, for open minds and hearts, and for continued healing for those struggling with same-gender attraction.

 

Now, the first of the retreat’s five “teaching” sessions begins. The facilitator is Karl Kakadelis, director of Grace Ministries and a member of Regeneration’s Northern Virginia advisory board. Kakadelis is an attractive man; he looks like any other 30ish suburban dad, and he amiably engages the crowd, talking about his life with his wife and children. As he begins an address that would run nearly three hours, we learn that he fought and won battles with addiction to drugs and heterosexual sex. God, he says, was the reason for his victory over sin.

 

Kakadelis launches into his first teaching, instructing people to pull out their Bibles, encouraging us to take notes. He moves quickly, starting with the apostle Paul’s letter to the Roman church. Romans 7:15 states the problem: “What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate.” In Romans 7:18, we find that sin comes from within our earthly bodies: “For I know that good does not dwell in me, that is, in my flesh. The willing is ready at hand, but doing the good is not.” And sin, we learn from 7:20, bears the blame: “Now if [I] do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me.”

 

Curiously omitted is Romans 7:16, which says, “Now if I do what I do not want, I concur that the law is good.” The people around me are homosexual or bisexual, or fear that they are, and all presumably want to be heterosexual. Those who are happy being gay are doing what they want, what they believe to be right, not what they “do not want.” So is the law–the Bible presented literally–good for them?

 

The War of the Words

 

jesus.jpg - 15.56 KIn any Christian ex-gay setting, there are several givens: Homosexuality is not part of God’s plan. God intended man to be with woman, and only within marriage. The law is handed down through the writings in the Old and New Testaments, and those writings are to be taken literally. I witnessed no coercion, no force in any of the ex-gay settings I visited. Neither did I see any debate or disagreement. Everyone present, it appeared, wanted to be there. And everyone, it appeared, was convinced.

 

“You have to have a Christian conviction or a Judeo-Christian conviction that [homosexual behavior] is wrong” to escape it, says Anthony Falzarano, executive director of Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays (P-FOX), a Washington, D.C.-based support group for those who have loved ones struggling with homosexuality. Those with that conviction, he says, “are the ones that make it.”

 

But interpretations of Scripture vary widely. Theologians from many mainstream denominations and many Christians, some of whom came out of ex-gay ministries and into happy, productive lives as gay people, hold opposing views of God’s plan, of the Creator’s intention for people’s sexuality.

 

A few weeks after the Regeneration retreat, I have lunch with the Rev. R. David Smith, pastor of MCC-Baltimore, and his partner of 13 years, Mike Barnard. Smith heads a congregation of about 120 that includes heterosexual as well as gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered individuals. Some 30 or 40 of his congregants, he says, were at one time involved in “change” programs. Of his work with these people, he says, “I get to help put broken lives and spirits back together.”

 

“The hardest thing is that ex-gay ministries often send people away from God,” Smith says. “The first time I met someone from one of the ministries is when I was at MCC-D.C. [in Washington]. What I noticed was that this man had such a fear response to God. He was very afraid of God’s anger and wrath to the extent that he was basically paralyzed around religious language. It seemed really tragic that something that is ostensibly supposed to bring people closer to their faith would make someone turn away from God. I’ve kept up with him over the years, and he’s out of the church again. He just can’t accept that the God who hates him really loves him.

 

“In a way, there’s almost a deprogramming that people have to go through in order to hear again that God loves them and that there’s more to their relationship with God than God wanting to change their sexuality,” Smith continues. “There’s more to their journey than they’ve been led to believe. People obsessed with changing their sexual orientation miss out on the other growth opportunities that are given to them as Christians.”

 

Smith says some people come to MCC to give God one last chance. “So many of the ones who survived ex-gay ministries walked away with the message that God does not love them, that they are sinners,” he says. “Part of my job is to help them see that God gave us our sexuality as a gift. God loves us as we are. We are all sinners, but not because we love people of the same sex.”

 

Officially, the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, the 30-year-old denomination to which MCC-Baltimore and more than 300 churches worldwide belong, preaches that Christian faith should rest not in a particular clergyperson or church, but in a relationship with Jesus Christ and what is taught in the writings of the Bible. MCC teaches that much of Scripture is misinterpreted by those who don’t understand the context of the times in which incidents recounted in the Old and New Testaments occurred, or who forget that the stories in the Bible were passed along as oral narratives long before they were written. The true meanings of words employed and translated (or mistranslated) over the centuries can and have been skewed over time, MCC holds, and the intentional or unintentional biases of the storytellers, writers, and translators may have gone into words that many take as gospel.

 

Is homosexuality a sin? Smith says no. He points to the primary Bible verses used by fundamentalist Christians to condemn same-sex relations. “In general, these prohibitions have to deal with situations involving idolatry, pagan practices, and temple prostitution. Or you see situations where men are sodomized by heterosexual men for the purpose of humiliation or rape. Those are the sins,” he insists. “The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is used a lot-again, you have a rape situation, along with inhospitality to strangers. Hospitality was an important thing in those times. Inhospitality is the sin, not homosexuality, and the story has nothing to do with committed, loving relationships.”

 

This, according to Joe Dallas, is a theology of lies. The founder of Genesis Counseling, an ex-gay ministry in Orange, Calif., Dallas has written three books, including A Strong Delusion, a rebuttal of the MCC doctrine. It’s a philosophy the former pro-gay activist knows well-he once worked as a staff member of a Metropolitan Community Church. In his essay “Responding to the Pro-Gay Theology,” Dallas is sharply critical of a view of Scripture that redefines homosexuality as being God-ordained and morally permissible: “The pro-gay theology is a strong delusion–a seductive accommodation tailor-made to suit the Christian who struggles against homosexual temptations and is considering a compromise. Some who call themselves gay Christians may be truly deceived into accepting it; others might be in simple rebellion. What compels them to believe a lie we cannot say. What we can say is that they are wrong . . . dead wrong.”

 

Christopher Camp, who studied theology in Bible college and spent the better part of a decade trying to convince gays to become heterosexual, fires back, “I’m not intimidated by people using the Bible [against gays]. I’ve got Greek and Hebrew lexicons here too, hon. I know the meanings of words just as much as they do. I’m working from the same stuff they’re working from-if they choose to take [the argument] as far as I do, and I doubt most of them are. I understand their arguments up one side and down the other. “The majority of the people involved in the [ex-gay] movement are very sincere and they’re good people who mean well,” Camp continues. “They would give you the shirts off their backs. They’d give you all their money, and even put you up in their houses for free. They’d feed you and take care of you as one of their own. But they’re wrong.”

 

And, he argues, they’re committing a grievous sin. “The apostle Paul condemns going against one’s own nature, which is another way of saying, ‘To thine own self be true.’ That’s a saying that, because of their cultural blinders, many in the movement refuse to see. I hate to see the incredible amount of human wreckage that has taken place, is taking place, and will continue to take place because of groups trying to force people to go against their own nature. By doing that, these groups are encouraging people to actively sin against the God who created them. And they’re sinning too–no matter how nice and sincere they are.”

 

Into the Pit

 

The first Bible-study session at the Regeneration retreat is followed by a fellowship period. Many of us warm ourselves by a roaring fire, sipping coffee or hot chocolate and eating snacks. Others gather around Lani Bersch’s book table to peruse works by noted Christian authors such as Joe Dallas, Leanne Payne, current Exodus International executive director Bob Davies, and Frank and Anita Worthen, names I hear constantly in conversations both formal and informal on the topic of freeing oneself from homosexuality.

 

falwell3.jpg - 5.05 KRev. Jerry Falwell I meet an interesting assortment of people, all of them really nice. Two men and a woman came to the convention from Liberty University, the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s college in Lynchburg, Va. They are cheerful, clean-cut kids who seemed very excited to be there. One of the men, let’s call him Victor, is struggling with same-gender desire; his girlfriend and a male friend, presumably heterosexual, came along to support him. The girlfriend is studying to be a nurse.

 

“Liberty is more than a Bible college now,” she chirps in the way I remember speaking when I was in college 20 years ago. She, of course, is a fundamentalist Christian–“but not stuffy,” she insists. I can’t imagine her being so–she is a nice young woman, obviously bright and enthusiastic and fun to be around.

 

Victor’s girlfriend is also very committed to the idea of spreading the word that gays can change. “There’s just so much good we can do for those people to bring them to Christ,” she says earnestly.

 

“What about gay Christians?” I ask. “They already believe they are building relationships with Christ.”

 

“I wish them well-God really loves them,” she replies. “But they’re being deceived into the pit of Hell.” Finally, the moment I have waited for and dreaded arrives: My roommate finds me. She introduces herself; I’ll call her Becky. She isn’t at all what I imagined–she is 30, and attending a small Bible college in South Carolina. In stark contrast to the preppy Liberty trio, she wears a hippie dress similar to those I see at Deadhead gatherings, and has a silver ring in her nose.

 

Becky and I share stories in the privacy of our room. Her tale is a compelling one.

 

“I come from a background of Christianity,” she begins, “but fell into drugs and the occult. My struggle was with gender identity; I didn’t want to be a girl, didn’t want to be a boy. I was pretty androgynous. I’ve dealt with a lot in that area, but I’ve never been in the [gay] lifestyle, praise God.”

 

Her journey led her to a church in Missouri, a Christian church that was, shall we say, untraditional: “It was pretty modern–it made use of a lot of spiritually sound Dead music and U2.”

 

I mention that I am a Deadhead, which surprises her. “Aren’t you worried about the looseness, the drugs?” she asks.

 

“Nah. I decide what I do, and I can easily go to a show, love the music, grok the music, and be totally sober,” I say. “There are a lot of positive messages there, if you listen for them. How about ‘Uncle John’s Band’: ‘Ain’t no time to hate’?”

 

She smiles–we’ve bonded. We find another thing we have in common–prayer ministry. I help run the prayer ministry at my church, and when Becky mentions her deep yearning to become a prayer counselor and minister to people suffering from “brokenness,” I tell her a little about my work. As I speak, her face begins to literally shine-we’ve found common ground in our work for God.

 

Without a doubt, Becky believes. We get into the topic of homosexuality, and I quickly learn the exact nature of her beliefs. She says she believes in strong moral standards. She sees no compatibility between Christianity and drug use or even many popular song lyrics. She admits she’s pushed away many parts of her old life so she can “fill up on God.” But she struggles, and because of the war raging between her commitment to God and her gender identity, she says she’s determined to do what God wants. Her resolve is admirable, but I find myself taken aback as I watch her tremble while speaking of her devotion to doing God’s work and God’s will.

 

The 11:30 P.M. curfew has long passed when we finish talking and turn out the lights. I lie awake, jotting down notes in the dark, and wondering at all I’ve heard and seen.

 

I wake from a short, fitful sleep and hear the words from one of my favorite hymns, “I Stand in Awe of You.” It’s Becky; she’s in the shower, singing a medley of Christian standards in a gloriously rich voice. After I’ve had my turn in the bath, she nails me: “You know, you don’t speak Christian-speak.”

 

After turning, I’m sure, 18 shades of red, I haltingly explain that I speak conversationally so as not to scare off people new to Christianity. In my ministry, I deal with folks who may be new to the faith or have been out of the loop for a number of years. If the goal is to communicate effectively, I say, using the flowery speech of many fundamentalists–including the hard-core Regeneration faithful–just doesn’t work in some situations. If those listening don’t understand what I mean, they tune out, and I miss an opportunity to spread Jesus’ message. “It’s the Word that’s important, not the words. You know?”

 

“I am so glad we’re roommates,” she says. “I can learn so much from you!”

 

And I learned so much from her.

 

Over the breakfast table in the Potomac Park cafeteria, Becky, Beth, the Liberty kids, and I are discussing the issue at hand while devouring pancakes and sausage patties. I ask Beth, a veteran of quite a few Exodus and Regeneration events, why she continues to come to the conferences.

 

“For the community,” she explains, “for someone I can talk to about . . . this.”

 

“Is it like getting a booster shot?”

 

“Yeah,” she says, nodding her head. “Sometimes, you need that.”

 

The first of the day’s three Bible-study sessions begins with Judy Johnston leading us in praise and worship singing. Bob Ragan offers up a prayer to the Creator, giving thanks, as he had the night before, for being delivered from his sexual addictions and leading us through Psalm 85, a prayer for restoration:
[Y]ou have forgiven the guilt of your people; 
you have covered all their sins. 
You have withdrawn all your wrath; 
you have revoked your burning anger. . . .

 

Satan’s Dupe

 

pfoxlogo.jpg - 14.04 KTransformation Ex-Gay Christian Ministries (TCM) was founded 10 years ago by Anthony Falzarano, who recently vacated his post as TCM’s executive director and men’s minister to focus on P-FOX. Both organizations-along with the St. Augustine’s Sexual Healing Bookstore, which sells Christian material-are housed in a tidy four-story building in downtown Washington.

 

I telephone TCM for information on attending its support group. “Are you seeking to recover from lesbianism?” a male voice asks.

 

“I have some questions.”

 

“Have you accepted Jesus Christ and are you trying to break free from lesbianism?”

 

“I can honestly say I’ve been thinking about lesbianism for a long time.”

 

“Hallelujah!” the man says. “I’ll connect you with our director of women’s ministry–be sure and ask for Marjorie.”

 

A few moments later, I hear the ebullient voice of Marjorie Hopper, who is happy to answer my questions about the prospect of change.

 

She tells me her story-she had been “in the lifestyle” for 43 years and “I’ve been free for 17 years.” She tells me how her mother committed suicide, how she’d been in and out of relationships with women and was distressed that none of them turned out to be long-lasting. Realizing that something was missing from her life, she discovered Jesus Christ. “I’ve been free ever since.”

 

I ask if she is married.

 

“No, I’m a bit past the age for that, but I’m still hoping!” she says. “Some of us are called to singleness. I ran a healing ministry in British Columbia and was just hired here. You could say I’m married to ministry. And that’s fine, because the Lord is my beloved.”

 

Tuesday nights are set aside for the weekly TCM support group; Hopper gives me the address and time and asks if I would be free for the next session, the following evening. I quickly assent.

 

“We also like to do individual counseling sessions so we can get to know you. Can we set something up?” The week after the support-group session, Hopper and I meet in TCM’s offices.

 

I immediately tell her I’m skeptical about the notion of homosexuality being a sin. I belong to a Metropolitan Community Church, I say, and I’ve seen living proof that gays and lesbians can have committed, monogamous, healthy relationships and a strong commitment to God.

 

Hopper, an imposing and impressive woman whose youth and vigor belie her sexagenarian status, rises to the challenge. “But surely you know you can’t be both gay and Christian,” she says. “It is God’s intention that man and woman be together to reflect the relationship between Him and His church.”

 

For the better part of an hour, we go back and forth, discussing Scriptural passages. Hopper is good-natured but adamant in defense of her position. I respectfully deflect leading questions I think are designed to get me to agree with her. I finally bring the spirited and friendly debate to a halt: “I’m sorry. I just don’t see that it’s sinful, and I’m not going to say it is without believing it.”

 

“Well,” she says, smiling, “let’s talk about you, then. Why can’t you see yourself ever getting married to a man again?”

 

“Because I don’t like men,” I say, probably a little too harshly.

 

“You don’t like men?”

 

“Actually, I do like men. I love men. My best friends are men,” I explain–it’s just that I prefer having relationships with women.

 

“H’m. Perhaps you were created to be for God alone,” Hopper says. She then asks about my relationship with my father.

 

“I love my father.” I do, very much, and he loves me deeply.

 

“I suppose you didn’t get along with your mother, then.”

 

“My mother and I have our moments, but we’re very close.” And we are. In many ways, my mom is my hero.

 

“I see.” Hopper’s brow wrinkles. “Were you molested as a child?”

 

“What?”

 

“Tell me about your brothers and sisters.”

 

“I have one brother; I adore him.”

 

“Ah, I see–you identified with him? Wanted to be like him?”

 

“No,” I say, truthfully.

 

“What sort of things did you like to do as a child?”

 

“I loved playing third base, was pretty good at it, too. . . .”

 

“Uh-huh.”

 

“But I also had one of the best Barbie collections among my friends. And I used to build and collect dollhouses. I always wanted to save them for my daughter.”

 

“I see. Now, I don’t follow the notion that women have to wear dresses and such,” she says, pointing at me. I am dressed in my requisite jeans, sweater, leather jacket, and faux Doc Martens low tops. “It’s cold out and this is comfortable,” I say. “I can also do the dress, hose, and heels thing and look fabulous.”

 

“I’m going to have to think about this a bit,” she says. Apparently, I don’t conform to any of the established reparative-therapy theories that homosexuals usually come from dysfunctional families or have suffered emotional trauma. We talk a bit more-and then I sense the light bulb flicking on in Hopper’s head.

 

“Are you familiar with Lucifer?” Hopper asks.

 

Of course, I reply. Lucifer is another name for Satan, according to Christian belief, an archangel who wanted to be equal to God. Being that there can only be one God, Lucifer was cast out of heaven.

 

“Ever since, he’s been trying to get back at God, and he’ll do anything to do it,” Hopper says, her eyes shining, a huge grin on her beaming face. “You’ve been duped by Satan to believe woman and woman is in order. You’ve been duped by Satan to get back at God.”

 

Looking at the clock, I see I’ve been there for more than two hours. I have to run back to Baltimore for a previously scheduled meeting.

 

“I’ve really enjoyed this,” Hopper says with a wide smile. I have too, and tell her so. Before I leave, the older woman prays over me, asking God to give me wisdom and healing. I wish her a warm farewell and dash to my car. My first thought is, I have to call Mom.

 

Part Two

 

Is it beneficial to try and change one’s sexual orientation? Or is it a road of suffering taken in the hope of possible salvation? In part one of our series, we went into the Christian “ex-gay” movement–visiting a West Virginia ex-gay retreat and support groups in Baltimore and Washington-to see for ourselves what goes on inside “change” ministries. Part two chronicles more from our investigation and explores what relationship exists, if any, between reorientation ministries and the political Religious Right.

 

Gay and lesbian activists have been quick to mount a response to the rise of ex-gay ministries and their national advertising efforts. The ex-gay movement mounted the “Truth in Love” ad campaign; the Washington, D.C.-based Human Rights Campaign (HRC), a national political organization that spent $13 million last year lobbying for gay civil rights, is countering with the “Ray of Light” campaign.

 

The HRC program’s goal is “to shine a light on the truth of ex-gay ministries,” says HRC’s Wayne Besen, who heads up Ray of Light. HRC premiered the effort with an Oct. 8 press conference that featured testimonials from ex-ex-gays, including Christopher Camp, a former instructor with ex-gay ministries in Texas who now lives in Baltimore. The event was timed to coincide with the announcement of an ex-gay TV campaign to follow the Truth in Love newspaper ads: “They had a press conference that day at the National Press Club; we had a dueling one at the National Press Club, right after theirs,” Besen says.

 

People who left ex-gay ministries are the focus of Ray of Light; Besen says that in the face of the Religious Right’s high-profile effort, America needs to hear the stories of ex-ex-gays.

 

“They have a lot to tell,” he says. “What they’re telling me is that when they were in these ministries, they were like actors playing a role. They

 

may have been very good at the role; they may have been very convincing at it. But they were never the character they were pretending to be. And after a long time–up to 15 years–the play had to end. And when the curtain comes down, that’s when they come to me at the Ray of Light project, so that no one will ever have to go through that again, so that those who are pushing ex-gay ministries for political purposes don’t get away with not hearing the other side.”

 

Besen contends most people who go through such “change” ministries do not change at all. “The ex-ex-gays are probably the best people to speak about these ministries, because they’ve been there,” he says. He also maintains Ray of Light’s testimonials do not carry the political baggage of those coming from the ex-gay movement: “The main difference between our ex-ex-gays and their ex-gay spokespersons is that ours are not paid employees who are doing this for a living. I find it curious that every spokesperson who says he or she has changed is on the dole for ferociously political organizations.”

 

Besen cites ex-gay married couple John and Anne Paulk–Anne was featured in the first Truth in Love ad, and the pair posed for a Newsweek cover story on the issue. “John works for Focus on the Family,” Besen notes, “which has a clear agenda to end laws that protect gay people from discrimination and to keep [sodomy] laws in place that would imprison gay people.”

 

(I tried to interview ex-gay people who don’t work for ministries or Religious Right organizations; Jeff Johnston of Baltimore Regeneration generously offered my phone number to anyone willing to talk, even anonymously. Unfortunately no one called.)

 

exgaynewsweek.gif - 25.05 KJohn Paulk and his wife, Anne, on the cover ofNewsweek The Truth in Love campaign was funded by a coalition of conservative Christian organizations; Focus on the Family, a $109 million-a-year ministry based in Colorado Springs, Colo., is not listed in the ads as one of them. John Paulk, a former gay prostitute and drag queen who now works as a homosexual and gender analyst in Focus’ legislative and cultural affairs division, says his employer offered vocal support for the campaign but no money.

 

According to Paulk, the campaign’s goal was not to present a political message, but to spread the religious message of groups such as Exodus International, with which he serves as chair of the North American board of directors. He cites his wife’s public comments on the campaign’s sponsors: “I think she said to a reporter at NBC, ‘I’m not signing on to their message, they’re signing on to mine. So it doesn’t matter what they do in their organizations; I am not endorsing what they do, they’re endorsing what I do.'”

 

John Paulk says the furor surrounding the campaign caught Exodus officials off-guard. “Exodus has operated in virtual obscurity for 24 years, and we’ve pretty much gone about our business, doing what we do, whether we got any attention for it or not.” He says Exodus is not a public-policy organization “in any way, shape, or form. It’s not in our mission statement; we don’t involve ourselves in that.” Indeed, the group’s mission statement makes no mention of “changing” gays; rather it reads, in part, “Our primary purpose is to proclaim that freedom from homosexuality is possible through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. We believe such freedom is increasingly experienced as the former homosexual matures through ongoing submission to the Lordship of Christ and His Church. This transformation process enables people to shed the old, sinful identity and in its place learn new ways of relating to self and others.”

 

This freedom might be found in a conversion to heterosexual behavior–the policy statement says, “That process entails the freedom to grow into heterosexuality.” But it can also mean living within the values of traditional Christianity by practicing celibacy, even if a person retains his or her same-gender attraction.

 

During our interview, I tell Paulk of my experiences with Regeneration Ministries, with which I attended a weekend retreat and support-group meetings, and Transformation Ex-Gay Christian Ministries, a Washington-based ministry whose meetings I attended, in both cases revealing only that I had questions about my sexuality. I note that the people I met seemed genuine and loving, and that I witnessed no one being forced or coerced into anything.

 

“I’m glad you saw that,” he says, “because to be honest with you, you can’t coerce anybody to do anything. And what would the point be in that, anyway? These groups are there for people who want it. If you don’t want it, no problem.”

 

That said, Paulk concedes that saying publicly you are no longer homosexual is, in a way, inherently political. “The climate has made it so,” he says. “It’s such a heated political issue. . . . But [political change] has never been our agenda, and it’s never been our motive. It just seems to be the situation we find ourselves in.”

 

That situation became particularly political–and emotional–after the murder of gay Wyoming college student Matthew Shepard, who was beaten, tortured, tied to a fence, and left for dead. (Shepard’s broken body was discovered the evening of Oct. 7, the night before the dueling Religious Right/HRC press conferences.) Gay and left-wing activists laid a portion of the blame on the Truth in Love campaign, contending that the ads–which ran in USA Today, The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and the Miami Herald–contributed to a wave of antigay sentiment. Critics likened the ads to comments by U.S. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) characterizing homosexuality as a psychological disease comparable to kleptomania and alcoholism.

 

“These kinds of crimes never happen in a vacuum,” Elizabeth Birch, executive director of HRC, said in an interview on NBC’s Today on Oct. 13.

 

“They happen because people’s minds have been twisted with cruel stereotypes about gay and lesbian people. And this ad campaign has been pumped out all summer presenting gay and lesbian people as defective, as less than [or] as not fully human. . . . Young Matthew Shepard made one mistake, and that’s that he happened to fall into the path of someone that had been fed this rhetoric, and came out full of rage and hate.”

 

On the same show, Janet Folger of Florida-based Coral Ridge Ministries’ Center for Reclaiming America–who is widely acknowledged as the architect of the Truth in Love campaign–defended the ads. Calling the attack on Shepard “tragic” and “horrendous,” Folger said it ran counter to the Truth in Love message: “[The ad campaign] is really not at all about hate, it is about hope. And really what we are trying to say to people is, ‘We love you, and that there are options.’ . . . What we are saying is that if you are open to the information, and you are tolerant of another viewpoint, for example, then maybe these folks, these tens of thousands who walked away from homosexuality, maybe they have something to say. Maybe their message should be heard in a national debate.” revkennedy2.jpg - 6.98 KThe Rev. D. James Kennedy, senior pastor at the Coral Ridge Ministries

 

“Our ads never ran anywhere near Wyoming,” Paulk says. “Those two idiot thugs who committed that crime probably didn’t see our ads, and I mean, when you look at the history of who those two kids [charged with Shepard’s murder] were, they were just no-good troublemakers from the get-go. This was nothing new–they even harassed some Hispanics in the days following [Shepard’s killing]. So to cut this ad campaign and the people who were supportive of it, like my wife . . . I mean, she just felt horrible for days, thinking, How can people misunderstand our motivation?”

 

Certainly there appears to be no direct link between the ads and the grisly attack on Shepard, and few people if any would argue that they were intended to motivate hate and violence. But in the equation of those sympathetic to gay civil rights, the ads represented one more implied “gay is bad” message to the post-Lott swirl of controversy. After all, if gay is good, who would want to change?

 

“I can see on one side how people who aren’t coming from our point of view could take it that way,” Paulk says. “I think what’s going on today is, to–even objectively, or in any way–say something negative about homosexuality is just a no-no. You just don’t dare do it; it’s just so un-politically correct. The gay community has felt so oppressed for so long. I was in it; I know what that feels like. And I think it’s reactionary.”

 

God or Politics

 

I am not ready for the welcome I get when I visit the Tuesday-night support group of Transformation Ex-Gay Christian Ministries (TCM). About 20 people, mostly men, are here, and they’re a lively bunch. The 2-1/2 hour program begins with worship, and it quickly becomes apparent that TCM’s praise is more evangelical in flavor than what I witnessed at Regeneration when I attended its three-day retreat in West Virginia. As we sing songs to recorded musical accompaniment (some of it written by Dennis Jernigan, an ex-gay Christian songwriter and musician), I become aware of the people around me-their eyes shut tight, their arms lifted toward the sky, their bodies swaying from side to side as they raise their voices in thanksgiving: “Thank You for loving and setting me free!/ Thank You for giving Your life just for me!/ How I thank You!/ Jesus, I thank You!/ Gratefully thank You!/ Thank You!”

 

When the singing is finished, TCM founder Anthony Falzarano stands and prays for the homosexuals “deceived into the pit of hell,” and asks God to lead them away from “the Evil One” and into the light of God’s word. Then comes a series of announcements, including the news that the Family Research Council, a Washington-based conservative Christian think tank whose former leader, Gary Bauer, is running for president, is offering $80,000 in matching grants to TCM/P-FOX for its operational costs. “The Family Research Council does a great deal to support our ministry,” Falzarano says, “and they do God’s work in fighting the political gay movement. We are blessed to have them working with us.” Falzarano then invites first-time visitors to introduce themselves. This means me. I speak, truthfully, about seeing the Truth in Love ads, and deciding to check out TCM after hearing about the group from a friend. Everyone extends me a warm welcome, then Falzarano again stands and says there are three special guests present, friends he happened to run into on the street outside of TCM’s building. One by one they introduce themselves. The first is Mike Gabbard of the Alliance for Traditional Marriage, the man who galvanized the successful effort to derail–for now–the possibility of legal same-sex marriage in Hawaii. Falzarano notes that he himself had gone to Hawaii to help out Gabbard’s campaign. Next is Vickie Bowman Burress, president of the Indiana chapter of the American Family Association. She shares her story of a bad first marriage and expresses admiration for the effort by the ex-gays present to walk with the Lord. Beside her is her new husband Phil Burress, who heads the Cincinnati-based Citizens for Community Values. He relates his own story of “sexual brokenness,” of his victory over an addiction to heterosexual pornography.

 

“We’re here because of you,” Burress tells the attentive audience. “Our organizations were behind the ad campaign that ran in newspapers last summer. We’ve been in Washington, meeting with the other groups involved to raise money for a series of television ads for the Truth in Love campaign and to strategize against the political gay movement. And I want to tell you, we’ve raised $2 million and counting. We’re doing this for you.”

 

The room erupts in applause. Then Burress turns to face me, his face suddenly overcome with joy. I shrink in my seat. “What you said about seeing the ad . . . it touched me. I felt like crying,” he says. “It means our campaign is working, reaching people like you.”

 

Burress, a bear of a man, rises from his chair and walks toward me. “May I hug you?” he asks. Paralyzed, I feel him embrace me and hear the applause of the others in the room. I want to die.

 

In a telephone interview a month later, Falzarano updates me on the fund-raising effort. “They’ve raised $4 million and counting,” he reports. He says the television ads are due to begin running nationwide in February. (In late January, Michael Johnston of Kerusso Ministries in Newport News, Va., told me at least one of the ads was appearing in Alaska, but he did not know when national airings would begin. At press time, City Paper had found no indication that the commercials were running in other areas.)

 

Grants from groups such as the Family Research Council aside, Falzarano says, TCM and his newest organization, Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays (P-FOX), are funded largely by donations from area churches and individuals that support ex-gay therapies. TCM’s goal is to provide support and counseling to people “who want to leave the homosexual lifestyle,” says Falzarano, who founded the organization 10 years ago in the wake of his own journey from homosexuality to heterosexuality–a trek he says included a stint as a prostitute, two years as the boyfriend of the legendary Red-baiting attorney Roy Cohn (“Everyone hates Roy and I hear the horrible stories about him, but he was always kind to me. I knew a different Roy Cohn than most people.”), and hundreds of sexual partners.

 

“I was in the gay lifestyle in its heyday, the pre-AIDS day,” Falzarano says. “New York City, the upper, upper echelons of the gay underworld, Provincetown and Southampton and East Hampton and Fire Island . . . the whole Florida gay scene and the California gay scene. Homosexuals were either closeted or out and miserable. I didn’t want to end up that way.”

 

Falzarano says he was not a miserable gay man. But one night in Boston, when he was on his way to an adult bookstore, he says something miraculous happened: “God spoke to me. He really spoke to me. And he said, ‘Anthony, I have been patient with you long enough. You either leave the gay lifestyle now or you will die of AIDS.’ This was 1982–nobody was dying of AIDS back then, only a handful of people. They were still calling it ARC back then. The gay community had heard about this gay disease, but we all thought it was something temporary. No one knew it was going to be a pandemic. So literally, God saved my life.”

 

Falzarano’s road to heterosexuality was dotted with setbacks, even after he married a woman. But after therapy with Christian psychologists now known as experts in the ex-gay field and a period in a Washington-area offshoot of Baltimore’s Regeneration Ministries, he says, he saw his same-sex attraction die away and a desire for his wife emerge. Feeling a call from God to serve, he founded TCM. In the decade since, Falzarano says, he’s counseled between 500 and 600 people; he estimates 40 percent were able to successfully leave “the lifestyle.” (Regeneration founder Alan Medinger says coming up with an accurate conversion rate is impossible, but acknowledges that most people seeking change do not find it.)

 

Falzarano insists TCM and P-FOX are only involved with ministry, not politics: “This is not a political organization. We are affiliated with Exodus International, which is not a political group. I have personally worked against legislation that would legitimize the homosexual lifestyle, but I do that as an individual.”

 

Falzarano has traveled the country fighting gay-marriage efforts in Hawaii and a proposed repeal of Louisiana’s sodomy law. He has also testified in Annapolis against Maryland bills that would ban discrimination against gays and lesbians in employment, housing, and public accommodations. Last year, testifying against such a measure before the House of Delegates Judiciary Committee, Falzarano identified himself as the executive director of TCM and P-FOX. And when TCM’s newly appointed executive director, the Rev. F. Earle Fox, testified Feb. 25 before a state Senate committee in opposition to proposed antidiscrimination and hate-crimes legislation, he said he was appearing on behalf of TCM.

 

Yvette Cantu, a Family Research Council policy analyst who says she is a former lesbian, says political and religious messages meld in her organization’s work. “When homosexuals are advancing their causes to get into the schools and have homosexuality taught as being normal, and when they try to pass legislation to meet their agenda, and when they’re looking for special rights, this is what we oppose when we talk with leaders on Capitol Hill,” she says of FRC, a $14-million-a-year operation. “At the same time, we see homosexuality as a sin; we don’t see it as something they’re born with that cannot be changed. As we’re opposing the agenda and the normalization of homosexuality in our culture, we’re reaching out to those who are struggling with homosexuality and saying, ‘Look. There’s another way.'”

 

Cantu says the council’s opposition to same-sex marriage, hate-crimes laws, and workplace protections for gays shows true compassion in “not allowing someone to continue in a destructive, dangerous behavior by showing that there is a way out. . . . The way I see it, if you put the full weight of law behind a behavior, you’re endorsing that behavior and making it much more difficult for someone to leave that behavior.”

 

In other words, the political platform and the support of ex-gay ministries such as TCM and P-FOX go hand in hand?

 

“Exactly,” Cantu says. She pauses for a few seconds before adding that Falzarano’s groups deal strictly in ministry.

 

In Search of True Happiness

 

In contrast to TCM’s dancing-in-the-aisles brand of evangelical worship, the Monday-night drop-in support group for Regeneration Ministries is more low-key, although equally friendly. The difference in tone might have something do with the difference in group size–on the nights I attend there are between five and eight people at the Regeneration offices in a two-story family house in east Towson. Usually director Jeff Johnston does the teaching and his wife Judy handles worship. On this December night, she’s away handling family matters, so Jeff cuts right to the announcements.

 

Johnston says Regen will soon begin its extensive programs–New Directions, a 21-week course that covers the basics of moving away from homosexuality, and Living Waters, a modified version of an advanced 20- to 30-week course developed by Andy Comiskey of Desert Stream Ministries in Anaheim, Calif. Both courses, he says, require a commitment from participants and, unlike the drop-in group, charge fees to cover the costs of texts, materials, and administration. (He adds that no one will be turned away due to lack of money; Regeneration, which is funded through donations from churches and individuals, would cover cases of need.)

 

Next he announces one of the group’s periodic football games. “Sorry, ladies,” he says to me and the other woman present. “Only men are allowed to participate.” Johnston says the idea behind the game is to give formerly gay men who might never have had the chance to learn how to play football a chance to form healthy, appropriate–meaning nonerotic–relationships with men in a traditionally masculine pursuit. One young man tentatively raises his hand. “Is this touch or tackle?” he asks. “It’s touch,” Johnston says, smiling. “But it can get pretty brutal.”

 

Johnston then pulls out some magazines, including a copy of the Advocate, a national gay and lesbian newsmagazine. All ran stories on the ex-gay movement. (He notes that the Advocate’s reporter went undercover at an ex-gay ministry.) He praises the Truth in Love campaign for increasing media attention on the movement and making people who are struggling with homosexuality aware of ministries that could help them, and he praises the Christian groups that sponsored the ads. “These organizations are doing really good work for us, and we should make sure to support them,” he says.

 

(Later Johnston tells me via e-mail he doesn’t recall making that statement, and that is his own philosophy, not necessarily that of Regeneration. He adds that he doesn’t regularly talk about political organizations during the support-group meetings.)

 

Johnston then goes into a prayer and starts the night’s teaching. The theme for the evening is Christmas, and dealing with the holiday blues. Rather than a Scripture study, this lesson is interactive: We are encouraged to write down our favorite and least favorite aspects of the holiday season. After everyone shares their thoughts, Johnston presents a talk I find enormously helpful, one I daresay would be applicable to almost everyone, not just gays and lesbians seeking to become heterosexuals.

 

The holidays are anything but happy for many people, Johnston says. Christmas leads to huge expectations, some of which invariably lead to letdowns. It’s especially problematic, he says, for those struggling with “sexual brokenness.”

 

“What do you think about when you’re feeling bad? Feeling good,” he says. “What makes you feel good? Orgasm.” Johnston encourages those feeling low to reach out for support, for fellowship, for someone to whom they could be accountable. If a slip into “bad behavior” does occur, he says, it’s important not to judge yourself harshly. “God loves us, even when we sin,” he reminds us in a compassionate tone.

 

I believe we are all feeling empowered when Johnston announces it is time to break up into small groups and talk about what is going on in our walks with God, how our past week has gone, and whatever else is on our minds. He groups me with two men, one married but still struggling, and a woman I’ll call Alex.

 

As we talk, Alex shares the story of a woman she once loved, a woman she says she still loves. Alex lived with her in California for a time three years ago. She says they were true partners and best friends, and in each other they found everything anyone would want in a spouse. But they were both raised in conservative families and eventually decided that no matter how happy they were together, they had to split up. Alex moved back east to be close to her family, 3,000 miles from her love. Though they have spoken by telephone, they have not seen each other since.

 

Alex insists she is sure her lesbian life violated God’s word, but she admits she misses her former lover. I venture that it seems she was happier in her old life than she is now.

 

“Yes, I was blissfully happy,” she says. “And I ache to have my arms around her every night, just to hold her. Sometimes I cry myself to sleep. But I don’t know what makes me happy. God does.”

 

“What about loving, monogamous, Christian gay couples?” I ask. “They have God’s love and the love of their partners.”

 

Alex looks at me as if I am demented. “They think they’re happy, but they’ve been deceived into the pit of hell,” she says. “They’re really miserable–they just don’t know it.”

 

Alex says she’s upset that there seems to be a wall between gays and ex-gays. After all, she says of the people at this Regeneration meeting, “We’re gay. We’re trying to get past it, but we know where they are. We’ve been there. Some of us are still there–someone could leave here and go to a [gay] bar. . . . But [ex-gays] are striving for more. . . . [Gay people] think they’re happy, but they’re choosing to stay in the desert, while I’m looking toward the promised land.”

 

I spend that night in bed crying my eyes out, wondering if Alex will ever see that promise fulfilled.

 

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

 

There is one effort under way to break the wall Alex spoke of–to bring gays and ex-gays, conservative Christians and believers of pro-gay theology, and people of all faiths (and nonfaiths), sexualities, and beliefs together to put an end to the war over homosexuality. The Bridges-Across (B-A) Internet initiative, founded by pro-gay activist Maggie Heineman and ex-gay minister Steve Calverley, has a mission to provide “models and resources for building respectful relationships across the divide among those who disagree about sexual orientation and gender variance.”

 

The idea behind B-A is to get beyond preconceptions. Among its participants are plenty of people who defy stereotypes: Ex-gay ministers who dislike political Religious Right organizations, celibate gays who know they can’t change but opt to live their lives so as not to violate their biblical beliefs, ardent gay activists who are best buddies with conservative Christians, conservative Christians who believe homosexuals and heterosexuals should be equal under civil law and don’t necessarily support the notion that change is all-important. It’s an eye-opening collective that finds common ground in working to ensure safe schools for teens questioning their sexuality, condemning the refusal of some churches to minister to gays, deploring violence against gay people (although some B-A gays and ex-gays oppose hate-crimes legislation), and promoting respect and honesty.

 

Carla Harshman, director of Vital Signs, a Michigan ministry for those who want to leave homosexuality, spends her life building bridges. In addition to her ministry work, she serves on the board of a group that assists HIV+ people, and she works to make schools safe for gay and questioning youth. Though she calls herself a conservative Christian, and believes in a literal interpretation of the Bible and that homosexuality is a sin, some of her views are not in the mainstream of Christian Right thinking.

 

“I don’t believe that the rise in the visibility of homosexuality has caused the downfall of the nuclear family in the U.S. The family was on its way out way before the homosexual issues began to surface,” Harshman says. “Twenty years ago, I student-taught in the ghetto. Intact nuclear families? Not. I taught sex education to ninth graders and some of the kids already had babies. I am probably biased because I was once a lesbian, but I have a hard time with homosexuals being singled out as the demise of the nation.”

 

B-A also led me to Alan Chambers, who serves on the pastoral staff of Calvary Assembly of God church in Winter Park, Fla. He says his primary role there is to educate people about homosexuality, a topic many conservative churches find hard to deal with. Chambers says he tries to foster “an understanding of this issue–not just, ‘Oh, this is wrong,’ but to really understand why [people] believe that, and, whether they think it’s wrong or right, to accept either the people who are struggling with homosexuality or who are homosexual and happy with that. The mission of a church is to be a helper of people, and to care for people. . . . I think that’s what Jesus would do, whether they change or don’t change, whether they’re gay or straight, or whether they’re ex-gay or whatever. God’s love for them is the same.”

 

Chambers says his personal conviction is that homosexuality is a sin, a belief he says motivated his own path in life: “Homosexuality was not God’s intent” for him, he says, “and I know that there are other youth out there who, like me, do not want to be gay, who do want to change, who do want something different than a gay lifestyle.” But he says his role is to help people work through their issues and choose the path they feel called to follow, not the one he mandates for them. That extends to teenagers questioning their sexual orientation: “It’s hard enough to be a teenager without struggling with homosexuality or any form of sexuality.” And he counsels parents of kids who come out to be accepting: “Do you kick them out? Absolutely not. You love ’em, no matter what. Whether they choose to lead that lifestyle or choose a different road or not, our goal is still the same: Love the kid and help them turn out the best way they possibly can.”

 

In my travels through ex-gay ministries and my meetings with those who criticize them, I have encountered many people. Some reject the idea of change outright. Many entered ministries and continue to struggle with their sexuality; only time will tell how their stories will end. Many more tried to change and failed, and say they live happy lives with secure gay identities. Some of these people are Christians, some now outside of the church. Some are bitter about their time in ex-gay ministries; others say the experience drew them closer to God and made them more sure about who the Creator intended them to be. And there are those–Jeff Johnston, Yvette Cantu, Anthony Falzarano, Alan Medinger–who are certain they have changed. Again, time will tell, but have we the right to invalidate their experiences? The Rev. R. David Smith, pastor of the gay-friendly Metropolitan Community Church of Baltimore, says no. “It’s very important not to disrespect the people who say they have changed and now live happier lives,” he says. “If that is the case, I must be happy for them.”

 

Even Christopher Camp–a former ex-gay minister who now speaks out against the homosexual-change movement–is not wholly critical. While he believes some ex-gay groups are in the grip of the Religious Right, he notes that others emphasize building a relationship with God rather than converting to heterosexuality. As to those who insist they have changed, Camp wishes them luck.

 

“If a person chooses to be or to do something a certain way, as long as they don’t harm others and are dedicated to their mutual good, I don’t see that we can speak out against it,” he says. “If someone chooses to love someone, whether it’s a person of the same gender or the opposite gender, that’s their choice. . . . Just don’t tell everyone in the world that they have to do that too.

 

“The main thing is to live your life with honesty and integrity. Don’t lie to yourself or other people about what’s going on. You certainly are not lying to God–God knows where you are.”

 

Take Me Home, Country Roads

 

After three days, five worship sessions, and five intensive Bible-study classes, the Regeneration Ministries fall retreat is coming to an end. The final item on the agenda is a communion service to be presided over by Northern Virginia Regeneration’s Bob Ragan.

 

As we bow our heads, Ragan says beautiful words, giving thanks to the Creator for all we’ve learned, for the fellowship we’ve shared, for the changes we’ve made in our lives. Silently, I offer up my own prayer–I know who I am, and I am thankful for God’s gift. I also ask the Creator to show the true path He or She intends for the people I’ve met, people who have been very kind and gracious to me. Whatever road they follow and whatever destination they reach, I pray that it be the one God wants, and that they find peace and happiness, however they define it.

 
Looking up, I see Ragan hold a round bread–it looks like pita–and hear him speak about the importance of the communion ceremony we are about to experience. This feast, he says, will be a symbol of the unity in the room, a unity, I realize, that does not include me. Very quietly, I stand and walk toward the doors that open out to the rest rooms. Beyond them is another set of double doors, then the parking lot. I fairly sprint to my car, smile at the rainbow-colored bumper stickers, and jump in. My destination is Baltimore, and my own home church, where I know the pastor is waiting for me, just as I am, with open arms.


Courtesy of City Paper
Copyright 1999, Natalie R. Davis

One thought on “The Other Side of the Rainbow – Behind the Curtain of Ex-Gay Ministries

  1. Pingback: After Coming Out, LGBT Par-Troy Teen Takes Action – Patch.com | LGBT Indonesia

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