Praying away the gay

Some Christians seek a way to love gays while still hoping they’ll change

“No one wants to be here,” Dr. Nancy Heche said to the audience. “It’s like going to the dentist.”

Heche was addressing a few hundred people gathered one overcast Saturday morning at the Sunrise Community Church to hear “a message of love, hope and respect for individuals and families dealing with same-sex attraction.” The conference was put on by the church’s He Is Strong (HIS) Ministry, which offers weekly support-group style meetings for men, women and family members of those struggling with same-sex attraction.

Heche, the headliner, is the mother of actress Anne Heche, a former lover of comedian and talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres. Heche has launched a successful speaking and writing career off of her daughter’s very public lesbian affair as a featured presenter at Christian conferences across the nation.

It’s a difficult subject for the evangelical church to deal with. Locked into a literal biblical viewpoint, it’s necessary to strike a balance a between a strict interpretation of the tale of Sodom and Gomorrah with the fact that Jesus spent an awful lot of time among sinners.

This is why the HIS and similar conferences are popping up around the country. The underlying message is still the same: Homosexual acts are sinful in God’s eyes, but the challenge facing the church is how to wrap up that message and still pass it off as love.

I have closely followed the so-called ex-gay movement for over a year now. I spoke to several attendees that day—including several men trying to overcome their own same-sex attraction—to get a feeling as to why they were attending.

For the ex-gay movement, homosexuality is sort of like type 2 diabetes: Certain people may be more likely to develop the condition than others. Factors like an abusive parent or childhood teasing can make someone seek out sexual consolation in members of their same sex. The oft-repeated line at the conference is, “Homosexuality isn’t a sexual issue at all; it’s a relational one.”

These are not the God Hates Fags types that usually end up on the evening news. Instead, the people at the conference were genuinely concerned about the eternal welfare of their gay and lesbian family, friends and co-workers.

The conference wasn’t what you’d expect from a gathering of people who believe that homosexuality is a sin. For example, several speakers emphasized that same-sex desires are neither a sin nor a choice. They emphasized that homosexual acts are no worse than any other sexual practice outside the bonds of marriage.

I think this change is due to two related factors: scientific progress into explaining homosexuality and shifting cultural attitudes towards gays and lesbians.

And as science gets closer to explaining what causes same-sex attraction (scientists at the University of Illinois at Chicago recently discovered that by manipulating a single gene—the so-called “genderblind” gene—male fruit flies started courting other males), the evangelical church will have to re-evaluate its unfounded claims that homosexuality isn’t biological.

But that shift in message is probably due to many of the speakers being former homosexuals themselves, some of them now married with children.

And don’t think this means that the ex-gay movement represents some radical, progressive change in evangelical Christianity.

“God did not make anybody gay. It’s not biblical,” said one panelist during an afternoon Q-and-A session. She said that same-sex attraction could also be explained by the presence of demonic activity.

The most touching part of the conference was the testimony of Darren and Julie Bills, a pastor-and-wife couple who tearfully shared what their relationship was like with their openly gay son. They had even dined with their son in San Francisco’s Castro district.

Still, the overall goal of the conference is to be more effective in eliminating homosexual behavior. Heche acknowledged how difficult that would be.

“You and I aren’t going to wipe out homosexuality,” she said. “We can wipe out the hate and the confusion and the anger.”