Pray or debate?

Born that way or not, law and church address changing gays

Transcripts of the interviews with Andrew Comiskey and Wayne Besen are available at Kel Munger’s SN&R blog, Hot Flash, at

Andrew Comiskey sat praying with another man on a bench inside the lobby at the Sunrise Community Church in Fair Oaks. They both bowed heads and closed their eyes, and Comiskey placed his left hand on the other man’s chest and quietly spoke.

Around them, attendees at a Restoring Hope “pray away the gay” conference browsed tables of books, pamphlets and DVDs. This event was a gathering of Christian ministries devoted to helping others overcome “sexual and relational” problems. It was held Saturday, September 22, and the goal was to form a new ex-gay network.

The reason for the gathering is because Exodus International, which was once the main group for “pray away the gay” ministries, has fallen from grace—in the eyes of some conservative Christians. Earlier this year, Exodus’ president Alan Chambers was quoted as saying he no longer believed gay people could become straight, although he and Exodus still promote a very conservative Christian view that gay people should refrain from acting on their sexual identity.

Meanwhile, Comiskey was elected to the board of the new Restoring Hope network of ministries. He’s also the founder and executive director of Desert Stream Ministries, one of the oldest—started in Southern California in 1980—of the ex-gay ministries.

So, there are now two national ex-gay ministry networks for Christians—and they disagree about whether it is even possible to “pray away the gay.”

Changing the sexual orientation of gay people has a long, complex and controversial history in California. It was only last year that Assembly Bill 2199 removed from the books a law—long unenforced—that required state-funded research for a cure for being gay.

And now, there are new political issues. At press time, Gov. Jerry Brown had yet to sign Senate Bill 1172, which would ban the use of “reparative therapy” for minors and require informed consent for such therapy for adults.

Gay-rights activists argue, however, that there’s little difference between a Christian ministry that seeks to help gay people become straight and reparative therapy that claims to do the same.

“Ex-gay ministries and reparative therapy are the same thing,” explained Wayne Besen, founder of a watchdog group called Truth Wins Out. He was also in Sacramento last weekend, where he spoke to a group of local gay-rights activists and allies.

“I would argue that the ex-gay ministries are providing unlicensed therapy,” Besen told SN&R. “They can protest this all they want, but all you need to do is listen to their speeches or read their books.”

He claims that ex-gay ministries promote reparative therapy, and that reparative therapists are, for the most part, conservative Christians who think of being gay as both pathological and sinful.

“In both cases, it simply doesn’t work and can and does harm people,” he argued.

He also noted that when his organization went to protest a meeting for the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, “their response was to pray for us.

“You wouldn’t see that at the [American Psychological Association].”

Meanwhile, Comiskey, who is not in a hurry to either endorse or oppose S.B. 1172, called psychotherapy a “soft social science,” and added that “to slam that or to illegalize on the basis that there is no hard evidence would actually call into question many forms of interventions for different kinds of psychological disorders.”

Comiskey was very clear about the difference between freedom of conscience and being forced to change for any reason.

“In a free society, there should be freedom for a person to find a clinical advocate to pursue his or her ethical goals,” he said. “If there is coercion, if there is manipulation or if there is control—of course, it’s diabolical, regardless of your faith.”