One of the nation's most outspoken critics of homosexuality, evangelical Christian leader, the Reverend Ted Haggard, stepped down from his post earlier this year when it was revealed that he had been involved in a homosexual relationship. But his spokesman recently announced that Haggard was completely heterosexual following three weeks of "intensive counseling." His story renewed debate over whether or not homosexuality is a lifestyle choice that can be voluntarily rejected with prayer and therapy.
Some evangelical Christians are spreading the word that change is possible. Leaders of what's often called the ex-gay movement held an all-day conference last month at a church in Phoenix, Arizona. It is part of a nationwide campaign called Love Won Out. More than 800 people came to hear the essential message that homosexuality can be overcome through therapy and devotion to Jesus Christ.
In a session called Help for Those Who Struggle, Alan Chambers told the audience that he used to be gay. "You know what, God did an amazing work in my life," he said, "and I am so proud every day to be a living, breathing example of his grace, and his mercy and his transformation." The 75 men and women listening to him attentively responded with hallelujahs, amens and applause.
Chambers is president of Exodus International, an umbrella group for many Christian ex-gay ministries. He says more and more people who are uncomfortable with their same-sex attractions are seeking what some in the ex-gay movement call reparative therapy. He stresses it is not a cure for homosexuality. "Cure is not a word that I would ever use. Certainly that's not what we're advocating with regards to homosexuality. But what we are saying is that it is a condition that people have found freedom from, they have changed."
Evangelical Christians may have the best-known and best-organized ex-gay ministries, but they are not the only religious group offering to help gays and lesbians change. There's a Jewish program, JONAH, Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality. A Roman Catholic ministry called Courage focuses on chastity and follows a 12-step program. Each approach is a bit different, but generally, they include prayer, Biblical teachings, and some sort of individual or group therapy.
But many mental health experts are skeptical that any of them have any effect. Clinton Anderson, who directs the Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Concerns Office for the American Psychological Association, says "There really isn't any scientifically adequate research behind reparative therapy."
The APA official emphasizes that sexual orientation is not a choice that can be voluntarily changed, and that so-called "conversion therapy" for homosexuals is not supported by science. Anderson explains that the association has several concerns. "First of all, that the therapies have never been adequately demonstrated to be safe or effective, and (second) that the promotion of such therapies contributes to the climate of prejudice and discrimination in this country."
But leaders in the ex-gay movement say thousands of Americans are now living as former homosexuals, and that each person should have the right to decide for him or herself what is best.
The hundred or so protestors outside the Love Won Out conference have decided what's best for them, and it's to be who they are. Many, such as Daniel Gonzales, 26, said they find the conference offensive. Gonzales is a member of a group which tracks the ex-gay movement. He's had personal experience with their therapy, and as the crowd chanted "Hey, hey, ho, ho, homophobia's got to go!" in the background, he loudly shared his opinion: "Ex-gay therapy doesn't work," he yelled. "That's why I'm here today!"
Reverend Brad Wishon was also in the crowd. He leads a mainly gay and lesbian congregation at Gentle Shepherd Metropolitan Community Church in Phoenix. He says he's seen firsthand from his own parishioners that ex-gay ministries can do more harm than good. "Anytime you tell people that they are invalid, that their life and personhood are invalid based on any tenet of faith," he explains, "that is a hateful message."
Pennie and Mark Vatcher watched the protestors, with their son, Brett, as they took a break from the Love Won Out sessions. The family lives in San Diego, California, but made the 560-kilometer drive to hear the testimonials. Brett, 16, said he's knows he's gay, and confessed that he did not want to come to the conference. "I didn't even know what to do... but I guess, you know, I have no choice because my parents, you know, they control my life," he said with a laugh.
Brett's parents are both devout Christians and say they just want what's best for their son. They're considering therapeutic programs to help Brett become heterosexual. His mother, Pennie, says the conference was inspiring. "Even though my son right now at this point is not desiring to be anything following the Lord," she notes," I believe seeds are planted today and I have the faith that it's going to be growing, watering through his life and one day he will accept Christ."
Brett says he listened with interest to the formerly gay speakers and found their stories compelling. But, standing next to his mom and dad, Brett admits he's not interested in any kind of therapy. "I know I'm gay - and like, their stories are really inspiring, but I know this is me and I don't really want to change."
His dad, Mark, said the conference taught him he needs to learn to love his son… unconditionally. "Absolutely, love him forever," he says, adding that nevertheless, the weekend renewed his hopes that one day, his son will become straight.