Get straight or get thee to hell
Members of the Ex-gay movement attempt to turn homosexuals into heterosexuals. There was a laying on of hands, demands of celibacy, crying and a whole lot of praying.
I’m sitting in a small office inside a church community center in Fair Oaks. On the wall are several pictures of Jesus, along with a framed portrait that reads, “Can Homosexuality Be Cured? The Answer Is YES!” Of course, there are several framed photos of California’s greatest and most famous former governor, Ronald Reagan. In my hand is a pamphlet that shows smiling, well-groomed men hugging smiling, well-groomed women. It reads: Proclaiming Victory Over HOMOSEXUALITY How Should the Church Respond?
• Do not fear the homosexuals.
• Recognize that at the core of the homosexual struggle, there is a deep-seated sense of rejection.
• Ask the Lord to open a door of communication.
• Pray for them.
Going undercover, posing as a confused gay man seeking guidance, I’ve infiltrated the transformative world of the ex-gays, where Christian ministries believe that one can simply step out of the homosexual lifestyle by embracing a very attractive, longhaired, lovable, washboard-stomached male: Jesus. It’s just that simple!
“The best relationship you’ll ever have is with Jesus Christ,” explains a large man named Curtis, who confesses to having struggled with homosexual temptations in college (he’s now cured), asking me—as a confused gay man—to describe my history of same-sex attractions. Our chairs are aligned closely across from each other.
First, a couple of weird quirks about Curtis: Several times, he refers to himself in the third person when trying to drive home a point with a personal anecdote. Second, when someone finds loopholes in his logic, he develops an eye tic that involves rapid blinking.
He says, “I used to look into what is best for the church of Curtis.”
Curtis, who has cast away the homosexual devil and is now married, listens intensely as we sit alone in the office. I go into graphic details, while rubbing my chest, of a sordid past.
“If you let Jesus into your life, then he will go right to the trouble area and help you with whatever you are struggling with,” advises Curtis, who, like methadone for heroin addicts, prescribes Jesus as a cure for all sin ailments.
“So, Jesus is just like a personal trainer?” I ask.
Curtis smiles. “I like that,” he says. (He likes that.)
“Feel free to use that if you want,” I insist. (I’m sure he will.)
Curtis goes on to tell of the great perks of becoming an ex-gay—which can include a lifetime of complete, utter celibacy—and then reaches again for the often-overused cliché “The best relationship you’ll ever have is with Jesus Christ!”
Curtis isn’t alone in this philosophy. There are organizations like his all over Northern California, with the greater goal of a straighter Christian America. According to the literature, this local Sacramento ministry is spearheaded by PFOX (Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays). Based in Alexandria, Va., this rambunctious group puts up large billboards trumpeting its campaign for a heterosexual America. It also has sponsored a controversial ad campaign in Washington, D.C.'s subway system, showing a smiley clean-cut man and reading, “Ex-Gays Prove That Change Is Possible.”
Casting a shadow over the members’ practice of trying to change sexual orientation, it was revealed recently that Richard Cohen—the outspoken president of PFOX and ex-gay adviser to uber-conservative Dr. Laura Schlessinger—was expelled from the American Counseling Association for unethical conduct. Cohen is a prominent man the far right uses to support its position that gay people eventually can go to bat for the heterosexual team, and yet his expulsion underscores the sometimes-shaky science that these groups rely on, oftentimes counseling vulnerable men and women without that pesky obligation of medical or psychological credentials.
According to some Christian ministries, homosexuality can be intercepted at an early age—if you look for the signs. Pick up a copy of A Parent’s Guide to Preventing Homosexuality. In it, the Christian world provides guidelines for concerned parents who want to keep their children from entering the World of Gay:
(1) Masculinity is an achievement. Growing up straight isn’t something that happens. It requires good parenting. And it takes time.
(2) Dad is more important than Mom. Mothers make boys. Fathers make men.
(3) Recognize that most homosexuals were not explicitly so when they were children. More often, they displayed “nonmasculinity” that sets them painfully apart from other boys: They’re un-athletic, somewhat passive, unaggressive and uninterested in rough-and-tumble play. Tip: Single mothers may need to recruit a trustworthy male role model.
(4) Be concerned if you see gender confusion or doubt in your child from ages 5 to 11. There is a high correlation between feminine behavior in boyhood and adult homosexuality.
Enlisting the assistance of Johanna, a friend, I’m going to further infiltrate this faction of society. We’ll pose as concerned Christian parents with a dark, dark secret in order to examine the logic of converting gays and attempt to toss it on its head.
Infiltration No. 2: Back to Hope
Personae: Carl and Isabella, concerned Christian parents. Which fictional last name do they go by? Why, they’re the Gaymores, of course.
Disguises: Isabella is caked with way too much makeup: bright pink lipstick, an overabundance of eye shadow and smears of blush. Her hair is a mess that reflects her frazzled state. I adopt the standard conservative Christian male uniform: Dockers, a blue sport coat, a white shirt and a red tie.
Back story: The Gaymores are experiencing culture shock; they’ve just moved to the San Francisco area from a small town in Minnesota.
The Gaymores’ problem: The young Christians have become frightfully concerned about their son. The little rascal falls within the guidelines of homosexual characteristics shown on the Web site for the Back to Hope support group. It doesn’t help matters that they decided to name him Tobias.
My overused catchphrase: “What do you tell the kids?!”
The Exodus ministry runs a Christian-based support group for parents who are concerned and want to take action in regard to sons or daughters who are in the gay lifestyle or may enter it. What separates this support group from some others is the firm belief that children who are gay will go straight to hell unless they change their ways and embrace the Lord.
The Gaymores enter a classroom in the Bay Area that has a large “Jesus Loves You” banner on the wall; it is inside a community church center in Fremont. We wear funereal expressions.
“We’re a limited, cozy group this evening,” professes Debbie, a woman who exhibits the bobbleheaded enthusiasm of an Orange County cruise-ship social director.
I take a seat in one of the schoolchild-sized chairs in the semicircle, next to Debbie, Carol and a large woman, also a first-timer, who has a box of Kleenex and appears to have been crying since long before we got there. I stare straight ahead, as if I’m harboring a horrible secret.
“Do you have a loved one that’s in the gay lifestyle?” asks concerned Carol, a chunky woman who resembles a high-school women’s-softball coach.
I drop my eyes to the ground in shame and answer yes.
“I went to the Web site and looked for the signs, and he fit right into that sort of scenario,” I explain, highly disturbed. “It said that now is the time to take action and take the needed steps for prevention.”
“Is it a boy or a girl?”
“It’s a boy.”
“How old is he?”
“He’s 7,” I answer in a soft voice.
There are a few seconds of stunned silence; this is obviously a new situation for participants in this group. Much like parents who want their child to get into a good kindergarten, the Gaymores are taking early steps to prevent their precious son from turning gay, since he’s in the Christian ministry’s definition of the all-important developmental years of 5 to 11.
Debbie prays: “I’d like to thank you, Heavenly Father. Thank you for bringing Carl and Isabella to us tonight.”
I look at my fake wife with a glimmer of hope. “Thanks for having us,” I muster.
Carol takes over with some mean Scripture-quoting (1 Corinthians, to be exact): “Those who won’t inherit the Kingdom of God: the sexually immoral, idolaters, male prostitutes, the homosexual, drunkards, the greedy …”
It’s now time for everyone to tell his reasons for being here tonight. First comes Debbie, who says both her children have turned gay.
“I didn’t know where to go. I didn’t know where to turn. I didn’t even know how to say the word lesbian,” she shares. “Through working with Carol, I really spent some time gaining knowledge on what little wire could have just kind of short-circuited.
“I went to Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays,” Debbie adds. “That was the only place I knew. ‘Cause that’s what the kids hear in school [she huffs]: that it’s OK, anyone’s sexual preference is OK. [More huffing.] If I would have stayed on that path, I probably would have said it’s fine. But I believe now that there is an incredible power, and we can change people. I love my children, and I’m praying for them. Because without God, we’re all lost.”
Debbie then directs her attention to the Gaymores. “I don’t know that at 7 years old, I would have recognized the signs, ‘cause I don’t know at 7 [that] they know. Do you know what I’m saying?”
We, the Gaymores, shake our gloomy heads in unison.
“I believe it takes a lot of guts to walk through that door to say, ‘I even know someone who is homosexual, and I question it.’ Because socially, it’s like drinking,” Debbie spews, disgustedly. “Social drinking is very acceptable. They don’t know it’s wrong.”
“We all need God!” exclaims Carol.
“Amen!” someone says.
“What do you tell the kids?!” I throw out as a rhetorical question.
“I sit in the back of the church crying my eyes out,” Carol remarks; she’s talking about her son, who was kicked out of a Christian college when he was caught in bed with his prayer buddy.
“She’s my little prayer warrior,” Debbie says of Carol.
“I remember standing there, and my son told me he was homosexual. And it’s like a death,” Carol remarks solemnly. “It’s like a death in the family.”
“What do you tell the kids?!” I repeat again for no reason.
“Carl, would you like to share?” Carol asks compassionately.
“I do, indeed,” I reply solemnly, slowly ticking off the concerns that trouble the Gaymore household. “Nowadays, there are so many outside forces. The TV and the movies make it seem like it’s acceptable to be gay. Can you believe that?”
As group members nod in agreement, I gesture to my fake wife. “Like, we once went to a church that made it seem acceptable to be homosexual. Isn’t that something? Sure, we’re all God’s children, but what are they going to say next—that necrophilia is OK?!
“What do you tell the kids?!” I spew with mock anger. Then I repeat it slowly, for dramatic effect: “What … do … you … tell … the … kids?!”
My troubles foster sympathy.
“We’re seeing the gay warning signs! We’re seeing the warning signs,” I say, hitting the back of a chair. “He doesn’t like sports.”
“He just ends up playing with the Barbies,” adds an almost tearful Isabella.
“And he gets picked on by other kids,” I state.
“They call him sissy boy,” adds Isabella.
I elaborate on the evil outside forces descending on our fake son.
“Like, there’s that show Will & Grace. We caught him watching that,” I spout. “We can only watch him a good 12 hours a day and can’t watch him 24 hours a day. If there was something we could do ahead of time … something to prevent it!”
“We’re especially, really worried since we’re living in San Francisco now,” my fake wife says, explaining that the Gaymores just moved one month ago from a small town in Minnesota, located, ironically, not far from the large crying woman’s hometown.
“So, you’re in gay culture shock!” Carol clarifies.
“I even saw two men holding hands,” Isabella states with horror. “And our son sees that!”
“What do you tell the kids?!” I remark with a sad, disturbed expression.
“How do you explain that?” the crying woman agrees, and then she continues to cry. “I’m sitting here thinking we are both originally from the same place. God brought us both here for a purpose. I wish I would have seen the signs you’ve seen.”
Carol, who has no counseling degrees of any type, decides it’s time to begin discussing the proper ways of dealing with the warning signs of gayness, such as a fascination with long hair, earrings or scarves.
“Seems he’s bringing that home from those outside influences,” Debbie adds. “There are ways to tell them, ‘It’s not acceptable to wear Mom’s clothes and Mom’s makeup, but come in here. I’ll show you how to put on aftershave!’ Their little spirits are just so susceptible.”
“What about if it’s being taught in our schools? Should we change schools?” I cry, slamming down my fist.
“I was just about to say, ‘Oh, get him into a private Christian school, if there’s any way possible,'” Carol counsels.
Carol, who has no medical qualifications whatsoever, explains the science behind homosexuality.
“People are not born gay. The so-called gay gene has not been proven,” she says. “People call them sissy boy or queer or fag, and they begin to believe that.”
“Not to mention tea-bagger,” I add, vigorously nodding my head, as my “wife” decides it’s time to throw a curveball at the group’s biblical “logic.”
“What happens when you are born both a man and a woman? A hermaphrodite?” she asks. “What then? It seems no matter what they do, they’re a sinner.”
“Yeah, that’s a tough thing. It’s a rarity,” Carol explains.
“There’s deformities of all kinds; some are more visible than others,” perky Debbie pipes in. “When my kids ask me about that, I say, ‘You can’t believe everything you read.'”
“It’s actually a medical condition,” my fake wife clarifies. “Are you a sinner then because you were born that way and are both a man and a woman?”
“That is the way God created you. And the day will come when you will lean toward one or the other,” Carol explains. “They do surgery. It’s very common.”
Debbie sheds light on why: “That was not a choice for that child. It was a birth defect.”
“I believe their hormones will tell them as they grow,” Carol guesses. “I’m not a doctor, so I don’t know for certain. We have a mighty, merciful God, and we’ve got to trust what God does.
“God looks to the reason why.”
It turns out that dark, dark days are upon us, and prayer is the only hope for homosexuals.
“I believe that our children are being held captive by the enemy. I believe Satan has taken people captive. I believe God has a special calling for us. Because who’s going to care for the homosexuals? Who’s going to pray for them?” Debbie asks. “A homosexual has to carry that guilt their whole life.”
“I think now we have access to the Internet, to television, to movies. Now they have banded together to say, ‘Hey, we are a force,'” Carol says with feeling. “I hate to say this, but the homosexuals do look for kids that maybe don’t have a father figure in their life. They look for kids who are susceptible. That fact that you’re in your son’s life, you’re going to guide him … God will focus you and help guide you.”
“OK,” I say.
“The three of us wish we would have known, back then,” Carol says, noting, for about the thousandth time, the bravery the Gaymores are showing in confronting their 7-year-old son’s problem so early. “After 27 years, I believe that God needs people who are homosexuals, so we Christians can pray for them.”
“Carol will close us in prayer?” Debbie suggests.
“I want to ask: What’s your son’s name?”
“Tobias,” I say.
“Oh, I love that name.”
As my fake wife and I clasp hands and lower our heads, Carol brings us home with some prayer.
“God, thank you for bringing Carl and Isabella here tonight. God, look after their son, Tobias. Lift him up, God, and surround him with your angels. Reclaim this young boy for your kingdom. We say that Satan shall not have this young boy. Show him that he is created to be the boy that you want him to be, God. We thank you, God, that you have a special plan for Tobias.”
If Carol says “Tobias” one more time I’m going to lose it.
“Father, keep Tobias as secure as he was when he was in Isabella’s womb,” Carol says. “Father, help Tobias to grow into his masculinity …”
“Now’s when the work really begins,” I announce with a nervous chuckle. “You know what? For Christmas I’m going to get little Tobias a baseball mitt, boxing gloves, a football, a hockey stick—”
Carol bursts my bubble. “Well, even sports athletes can be homosexuals,” she notes.
“You’re kidding!” I exclaim, shocked. “Who? Don’t tell me Shaquille O’Neal.”
“My son dated a cop, a Marine, a construction worker,” Debbie proclaims, almost proudly.
My face drops.
“What do we tell the kids?!”
Infiltration No. 3: Fellow Warrior support group
Persona: Rodney Lamar
Game plan: Posing as someone who wants to become an ex-gay, I decide to dress really gay. This will show how much help I actually need.
Disguise: A very tight Enrique Iglesias T-shirt, with his large, hunky head emblazoned on the front. An open-collar, pink, button-down shirt. Leather pants. Rings on every finger. A cowboy hat. Most importantly, a neckerchief. To offset the look, I’m wearing a large 49ers football jacket to give the impression that at least I’m trying to make an attempt on the path of straight.
“OK, time to get into the hot seat!” the leader of the Fellow Warrior support group announces. I’m herded over to the coffee table in the center of a small back room in a crappy two-story office complex. I sit down and bow my head. Suddenly, 12 Fellow Warriors—or “ex-gays,” as their propaganda calls them—put their hands on my body, most particularly the shoulders and upper torso, and the praying begins. Like freestyle rappers coming to the mic, each takes a turn praying that my sinful soul stays on a straight path. I’m going by the pseudonym Rodney today, and the Fellow Warriors are praying that the Lord will watch over me and prevent me from falling back into the gay lifestyle.
“Yes, Jesus. Yes!”
“Rodney has a scary journey ahead of him.”
“Evil days! Evil days!” someone cries.
“Please watch over Rodney, oh Lord!”
“Amen! Amen!” someone else cries.
“The righteous man falls several times. Look after Rodney and guide him!”
“Yes, Jesus! Yes!”
This goes on way longer than I feel comfortable with. When the praying finally ends, a box of Kleenex is handed to me; apparently, I’m expected to be in tears.
“Wow!” I remark, moving my hands to emulate some sort of energy field. “Yeah, that was really great. I really felt something there. Yeah, it was like feeling a force or something like that. Yeah, that’s it: a force!”
I pause. I can’t think of anything else to say except “Wow!”
Yes, I’ve been directed to Marin County and “A Christ-Centered Ministry designed to help people struggling with homosexuality leave their past lifestyle and to fully ’EMBRACE THEIR TRUE IDENTITY IN JESUS CHRIST.'” Here’s what the group’s Web site professes:
The homosexual lifestyle often proves to be a painful and unrewarding way of life, particularly for older gays who are no longer desirable sexually.
Thousands have left homosexuality behind and become “new creations in Christ.” Many have married and raised families, while others remain celibate yet lead joyful lives devoted to God’s service.
Satan is not pleased when someone sees through the deception of homosexuality and discovers the way out.
So, if there were ever a group to organize a gay-shame parade, this would be it.
The group’s monthly Friday-night meeting is held in an office complex that resembles a meth-addict trucker motel. As I enter a cramped back office that has a large shelf filled with numerous books centered on the subject at hand, about a dozen Fellow Warriors, mostly older men, are gathered in a circle.
“Welcome Rodney and Steven,” announces the second-in-command, who has excited eyes and wears a large wooden cross. “It’s their first night. Make them feel welcome.”
After being trumpeted as fresh meat, I take my lead from the other new guy—Steven, a teenage kid with tattoos on all his knuckles who’s gripping a Bible and acting really intense—and stare straight ahead with a distant look in my eye.
For the most part, it’s a congenial bunch. I’m offered tea and cookies and note that only two really old guys would be described as “creepy.” (They remain silent throughout the whole meeting.) I’m instructed to take my place on the cozy couch next to the second-in-command. As laughter and talk of a fallen member who is back in the lifestyle die down, the meeting begins.
“Father, thank you for turning my life around,” prays the leader, who wears a Promise Keepers T-shirt and mildly resembles Mel Gibson with 30 years of hard living under his belt. Like a wise, ex-gay prophet, he tells us how the “program” began in 1995. He bitterly notes, “That’s when I started my walk out of this mess.”
The group’s goal isn’t necessarily for members to become heterosexual, but for them to be holy in God’s eyes. “I know straight guys who are screwed up as Grogan’s goat,” the leader admits with his arms folded. “The focus right now is walking with the Lord.” He then adds, “When it’s time, God will pray my wife into me.”
The leader asks the others what they’ve found to be the hardest thing to deal with; for him, it’s been the visual. “Several years ago, there was some construction going on down there. And there was this kid down there. Really nice body,” he vividly describes. “And he would have the jackhammer going and have his shirt off.”
Laughter erupts among the group. I sense some are slightly aroused.
“It’s important to recognize that men are attracted to men. We’re drawn to masculinity. There’s nothing sexual about it,” explains the leader, prompting me to wonder: What about guys who are into Thai lady-boys?
The conversation turns to a discussion about masturbation: the amount members of the group were doing it, when and that sort of thing. As the talking continues, it becomes clear—surprisingly, or perhaps not so—that almost all the Fellow Warriors have had serious drug and alcohol problems but have attributed their most severe problems to being in the gay lifestyle.
“I lost my job, my house, everything,” the leader says.
“When I first came out of the lifestyle, I was screaming at God all the time, because I didn’t have anything,” the second-in-command says. “I had left everything, and I moved in with Mom and Dad. But he knew where I was and was able to work with me, once I gave myself to him.”
“I did a lot of coke,” someone says.
“I had a problem with drugs and alcohol.”
“I got to go to my 12-step meeting tomorrow,” another adds.
“My sexual drive was not normal,” yet another Fellow Warrior pipes in. “This plain desire was abnormal, whether I was attracted to men or women or whatever.”
“When I was in the deepest, darkest depths of my sin, that’s when Christ died for me!” adds the leader.
Clearly, these are people who had multiple partners in the throes of coke- and alcohol-induced blackouts. It seems they are mistaking personal excess and screw-ups for something to do with gay standards in general.
The leader, who has no psychological degree but who reads a lot of books on the subject, goes on to explain exactly what homosexuality is: “It’s not a sexual problem. It’s a relationship problem,” he says, stressing each word matter-of-factly. “Men … feed … off … of … each … other’s … masculinity. It’s a relationship problem!”
“And that’s the key. God, he accepts me with all my frailty in all my screwed-up-ness, but he has the plan, the desire, to transform me into something that is going to bring him glory.”
“You go, girl!” I add with a finger snap, getting into the rhythm.
“One of the problems I seem to have right now,” a guy wearing a baseball cap says, “is a thing called intimacy.”
“Mm-huh,” replies the second-in-command.
“And the renewing in the mind that intimacy is not lust.”
“When I had a wife, I was not intimate. When I had a lover, I was not intimate. God was showing me that it was lust. Because you don’t know the difference,” the guy in the baseball cap says.
“What about Rodney and Steven? Do you want to share anything? You don’t have to,” asks the second-in-command.
I’m momentarily caught off guard; I forgot I was calling myself Rodney.
Because everyone here has had a drug or alcohol problem and has slept with thousands of partners, for reaction’s sake, I change my game plan. How would they counsel someone who’s quite normal but happens to be gay? I tell the group that I’ve never touched drugs and alcohol in all my life and that I’ve been in one long, monogamous relationship.
“CANNIBALISM!” the group shouts in cultish near-unison. Somehow, I’ve triggered a classic sinner scenario.
The leader explains cannibalism, again slowly stressing one word at a time: “You … take … on … the … attributes … of … the … other … person!”
“I know,” the second-in-command says, turning to me and nodding. “I was in a relationship for 17 years.”
“Men want lust, not intimacy,” the leader says to sum up this and all other gay scenarios.
A guy across the circle leans toward me. With strong, crazed eye contact, he says it straight: “An erection put into a woman’s vagina is like going into the paradise of heaven. An erection put in anything else is unnatural, and it’s a sin!”
“OK,” I reply.
Keeping the strong eye contact, he makes hand gestures and uses the word “erection” at least six more times. I’m grateful when he stops directing the word “erection” at me.
“Can I still hang around my old friends?” I ask. “We’ve all got the same taste in music.”
“I’ll answer that,” pipes in the intense teenage kid, suddenly sitting up. “An alcoholic shouldn’t go into a bar!”
“It will be worth the sacrifice,” stresses the leader. “You’ll find the best relationship you’ll ever have will be with God!”
I am feeling bad for these guys. Clearly, they are miscomprehending drug and alcohol problems, coupled with sex addiction and extreme guilt, as sins against God and the world.
Their heartfelt comments are nothing if not depressing.
“To become a heterosexual is not my goal; my goal is holiness, spirituality.”
“Images still plague my mind, but I dismiss them at the door.”
“I used to take the approach that Jesus loves drag queens; now I know it’s wrong.”
It sounds really lonely. The options provided by their religion are heterosexuality or complete celibacy, yet, obviously, many of these men aren’t into women and never will be.
“I work around a lot of homosexuals, so what should I do?” I ask the leader.
“You might consider changing jobs,” he advises.
“But I work as a costume designer for musical theater,” I retort. “That’s what I do. I can’t really change jobs. That’s how I make a living.”
“Then I would suggest putting up a barrier,” the leader counsels. “Because they will try to tempt you.”
“I’m confused. First you’re saying to develop nonsexual relationships with men; then you’re saying to put up a wall?” I ask.
The leader has an easy solution: “Just say, ‘Hey, I’m a Christian now!'” He puts his hand up in a “stop” motion to illustrate his point.
“I used to be a DJ at a top gay nightclub in New York,” the former coke enthusiast in the baseball cap says. “It’s worth the sacrifice. Give yourself to God.”
“What about gay marriage?” I ask. After all, this was the major moral issue of the presidential election just past. “It’s legal in Massachusetts, you know? If it’s legal, it’s not a crime.”
“It’s a sin in God’s eyes,” the leader says, ending the argument. “Sure, the ancient Greeks said homosexuality was OK, but they also said human sacrifice was OK.”
The part of the meeting during which I sit in the "hot seat" unfolds. As the ex-gays put their hands on and pray over me, I swear one is massaging my shoulder. When that’s over, a guy with glasses pulls me aside. I think he’s going to call my bluff. Instead he says, "The Lord showed me a sadness in you."