Part 4: “Love Won Out”: It Depends On How The Meaning of the Word “Change” Changes
April 12th, 2007
In the weeks leading up to the February 10 Love Won Out conference in Phoenix, Focus on the Family and Exodus put up a billboard off of I-17 that proclaimed, “Change is possible. Discover how.” Meanwhile, Love Won Out’s web site promoted the conference, saying, “Focus on the Family is promoting the truth that change is possible for those who experience same-sex attractions.” Then, three weeks before the conference, Melissa Fryrear, Director of Focus on the Family’s Gender Issues Department was quoted in a press release, “We want to let people know that change is possible for those who are unsatisfied living as gay or lesbian.” Alan Chambers, president of Exodus International, told an NPR reporter on the day of the conference that homosexuality “is a condition that people have found freedom from, they have changed.”
Earlier I described how most of those who spoke at Love Won Out used a very carefully crafted language to impart a particularly narrow view of homosexuality. It is a view that separates one’s sexuality from one’s sense of self, which is very different from how most people experience their sexuality whether they are gay or straight. Instead, for gays and lesbians only, their sexuality is treated as an exception, as something foreign or as an external “issue” that they “struggle with”.
But as precise as everyone was in how they defined homosexuality, they were startlingly imprecise when it came to defining “change.” Just when you thought you understood that “change” meant one thing (a change in one’s sexual attractions), you were suddenly presented with another concept of change (a change in identity only), or maybe it meant something else (a change in behavior only).
As I said before, there were remarkable few gay people attending Love Won Out. Most of those who were there were relatives or friends of gays and lesbians, and many of these relatives were parents. And in my conversations with them, it was clear that they saw their loved one’s homosexuality as a terrible tragedy, as something awful that happened. Some were quite desperate in their hope to see their loved ones changed.
During the lunchtime hour, Love Won Out set aside a room where parents and loved ones could gather together in fellowship. There, they shared their experiences, consoled each other, and spoke words of encouragement and hope, and they held hands and prayed together that their loved ones would experience “freedom from homosexuality.
The hope for change was paramount in the minds of these parents. As it was, many of them had a very strained relationship with their children. For some, their relationships were at or near the breaking point. And so it seemed to me that Love Won Out had a special responsibility to do two things to meet the needs of these parents. The first thing they needed to do was to provide practical advice on how to maintain their relationship with their loved ones. Love Won Out did that much better than I thought they would, although there are certainly areas I found wanting. I’ll talk more about that in another post.
But the second responsibility that Love Won Out had toward these parents and relatives was to set realistic expectations for what change was all about and how likely that change would be. And here is where I think they failed in that responsibility. And they failed for two reasons: 1) They didn’t provide a coherent definition of change, and 2) without a coherent definition, they couldn’t provide a realistic basis for an expectation for change.
What Is Change?
For a conference to advertise itself as proclaiming that “change is possible,” then one reasonable assumption might be that this “change” would refer to a change in one’s sexual attractions or orientation. This was certainly the base assumption that was rigorously reinforced throughout the first part of the day.
Dr. Joseph Nicolosi was the lead-off speaker, and as far as he was concerned this sort of change was the only thing that mattered. In both of his talks that day, he consistently drove home the point that changing one’s sexual orientation — as defined by one’s sexual attractions — was possible for anyone as long as they followed through with his program. And in some of his examples, that change was complete and unambiguous. Just as his talk was getting underway, he described one client this way:
He just told me in our last session, he said to me, “I have no more homosexual attraction.” There’s a lot of talk about how it diminishes but that it never goes away. Just today, in my last session with him, he said, “I have no more homosexual attractions.”
And how does this change occur? According to Nicolosi, when a gay man’s sense of masculinity is restored, when he no longer looks to other men for the parts of his masculinity that is missing in himself, then his same-sex attraction “disappears”:
The healing of homosexuality is “I want a man to see me as a man,” and to have that experience repeatedly until it becomes internalized. And when it becomes internalized there’s no more mystique and there’s no more eroticization.
Sometimes this disappearance of same-sex attraction was very dramatic according to Nicolosi’s descriptions. During a breakout session later that afternoon, he claimed that a teen client’s sexual attractions experienced a virtually instantaneous change. This change reportedly occurred when the boy and his father made an emotional breakthrough during a therapy session. With this connection between the father and the son, the son’s homosexuality became “nonexistent.” And what was Nicolosi’s evidence for this change? He asked the son to do an impromptu experiment:
I said, “Let’s try an experiment. Right now,” I said to him, “try to have a homosexual fantasy.” And only a fourteen-year-old boy would do this because, you know, your mother and father are there, you think he’d say no? So he does it. This is what he does … Now, this is what I said to him. “Try to have a homosexual fantasy” and this is what he does. … [silence] … He can’t generate it. He can’t generate. And that’s the whole therapy. If you make emotional connection, the homosexuality is nonexistent.
That’s right. Dr Nicolosi’s “evidence” was the failure of his teenage client to enact a command performance to conjure a sexual fantasy — in a doctor’s office with his parents present, parents whom the boy would probably like to please since he’s getting along with them so well at the moment.
Exodus board chairman Mike Haley’s testimony immediately followed Nicolosi’s talk that morning, where he reinforced Nicolosi’s message about a change in sexual orientation. While he didn’t directly address his own sexual attractions to the Love Won Out audience, he left little doubt that it had changed when he ended his testimony with pictures of his wedding and his two beautiful children. Alan Chambers also talked about his wife and kids, as did Joe Dallas (founder of Genesis Counseling and former Exodus board chairman) and John Smid (executive director of Love In Action and Exodus board vice-chairman).
While the other speakers could hint at the extent of their change by referring to their wives and children, Melissa Fryrear, who is single, had to be much more direct if she was to remove all doubt. She humorously described all of the things she had to learn in order to become a heterosexual woman (clothes, make-up, panty hose, etc.), and she even went so far as to describe her ideal man — “tall, red-headed, looks good in a kilt!” — as a photo of her sitting beside a Ronald McDonald mannequin bounced comically onto the multimedia screen behind her. Yet through all the laughter, her message was unmistakable: she was thoroughly heterosexual.
By the time Melissa Fryrear’s talks concluded at 11:00 that morning, there had been only one type of change discussed in all of those morning sessions: the change of sexual attractions from same-sex to opposite-sex attractions. And each speaker up to that point was absolutely unambiguous on that point as the audience heard one success story after another. All that was needed was a re-connection with the father (for gay men, according to Nicolosi) or with the mother (one of many theories according to Fryrear), and a deep commitment to Christ (according to Haley and Fryrear).
A Magic Blessing
But the strangest example of change was given by Dr. Nancy Heche during one of the general sessions that everyone attended soon after lunch. Dr. Heche is the mother of Anne Heche who, you may remember, was the partner of comedian Ellen DeGeneres from 1997 to 2001.
Dr. Heche used her testimony to talk about her own change of heart, from what she describes as her “hard heartedness” after having endured the humiliation of her husband’s death from AIDS and her daughter’s “public lesbian affair.” She described her anger at the “gay community” and for gay people in general during that period. But over time, through reading scriptures and much prayer, she said she was able to set aside her anger as God changed her “hard heartedness” to a soft heart. But her talk, which might have been a very good talk on how to come to terms with life’s difficulties, instead ended up becoming something of a formula for changing her daughter’s sexuality, at least in the minds of some of the parents.
Dr. Heche described how she learned about blessing from reading her Bible while flying on a small plane to Nantucket. She read Acts 3:26, which says, “When God raised up his servant [Jesus], he sent him first to you to bless you by turning each of you from your wicked ways.” She then described a blessing as asking “God to interfere, … to take action in one’s life to bring them in the desired relationship with Himself, so that they are truly blessed and fully satisfied.” She took that to mean that when Jesus blessed her, He turned her from her ways to His ways. And she also took that to mean that she could also bless others, and in blessing others, she could be a part of God’s plan in doing the same:
Now that I’ve been blessed, and turned from my way to God’s way. I could be part of God’s plan to bless her [Anne] and maybe turn her from her way to God’s way. I could bless her now.
So in that little plane with my Bible on my lap, I confessed my hard heart. And I blessed her, and I blessed her friends. And as God would have it, that was the weekend she ended her lesbian affair.
Sometimes I hesitate to tell this part of the story because it sounds like “ooga-booga!” Like, poof! I sent up a magic blessing and they broke up. Well, there’s no “ooga-booga.” And the real magic or mystery that was revealed in that little plane was the work that God did in my heart.
Now I need to acknowledge two things here. First, I must acknowledge that she did not literally claim credit for her daughter’s relationship breaking up. In fact, she explicitly denied it. I also must acknowledge that Nancy titled her talk “It’s All About Me,” to reinforce the idea that as a parent, she needed to change herself and overcome her own anger rather than focus on changing her daughter.
But it is also true that even though she said “sometimes I hesitate to tell this part of the story,” she nevertheless goes ahead and tells it every single time she speaks at Love Won Out. It’s even on the DVD of Love Won Out testimonies that Focus on the Family sells on their web site and at the temporary book store they set up that day. She’s been a part of Love Won Out since June of 2005, and as far as I know, she has never omitted this detail from her testimony.
She really doesn’t seem to hesitate at all. And the fact is, her testimony would be just as valuable to those parents and family members without throwing in the hope that if you change your heart and bless your child, your child will change. But since “change” is the very central theme of the entire conference, it magnifies the significance of Dr. Heche’s inclusion of Anne’s “change” to everyone in the auditorium. And even though she explicitly denies this direct connection, what other conclusions would the audience draw? That Anne just “happened” to have left Ellen on the very same day her mother blessed her?
Remember, this isn’t an audience that is given to believing in coincidences. It’s an audience that is predisposed to believing in miracles. And this is exactly the kind of anectdote that many audience members will likely cling to in desperate hope for many days or even years.
That is very unfortunate, because Anne Heche’s side of the story is decidedly different:
This Nonsense about my mother praying for me is really making me angry. My mother never approved of my relationship with Ellen. Her hatred for our relationship is one of the many things that ultimately led to my breaking off all communication with her. (My mother, that is, not Ellen.)”
… The fact that my mother is using my name to promote this movement makes me even sicker…. I do not believe that homosexuality is something that should be brainwashed out of someone. I do not believe that homosexuality should be anything but celebrated if that is the thing that makes an individual feel good about their life. I believe, as I have always said, that people should love who they want to love.”
As far as I can tell, Anne is still estranged from her mother despite all her mother’s blessings. And because many of those parents in that audience were also experiencing different levels of estrangement from their children, friends and relatives. holding out hope for such miraculous conversions doesn’t bode well for them when their gay or lesbian loved one dismisses the possibility. And to consider that these estranged parents are listening to advice from a mother who is still estranged from her daughter, that also doesn’t bode well for those families’ futures. Messages like these are only more likely to more firmly entrench these family members in their ongoing estrangement.
After Dr. Heche linked her self-described change of heart to her daughter’s ending “her lesbian affair,” she encouraged the audience to participate in the same two-step formula with a closing prayer:
So I close by saying now it’s all about you. I invite you into the heart of God. You and I are not going to wipe out homosexuality, but we can wipe out hate and fear and anger and confusion. We have the ultimate winning strategy. Love trumps everything. So will you hold out your hands to receive a blessing?
I ask God to bless you, to interfere in your lives, to bring you into the right relationship with Himself so that you are truly blessed and fully satisfied regardless of your circumstances. I ask God to release His power in your lives to change your character and your destiny.
And now, reach out your hands to give a blessing to your loved ones.
Father, we ask You to bless our loved ones. We ask you to interfere in their lives, to take action in their lives, to bring them into the right relationship with Yourself. We ask You to bless them, to release Your power in their lives to change their character and destiny. We pray in the name of Jesus. Amen.
What Other Kind Of Change Is There?
During the afternoon as people attended various breakout sessions, some cracks started to appear in the presumption of change. But those cracks were only evident to those who happened to attend the right workshop. And with different speakers running different workshops simultaneously, it was often the luck of the draw as to which explanation for change one would hear.
For example, when Melissa Fryrear held her question and answer session on lesbianism at 3:45 in the afternoon, someone in the audience was still confused about “change” and asked for clarification. As he did so, it was obvious that he had been paying attention — notice how he framed his question using Love Won Out’s dialect. But learning that dialect didn’t’ bring him any closer to understanding change. Melissa tried to clear it up as she read the question off of an index card:
“Do people still struggle on this journey?” And I appreciate the honesty of that question. And we try to be genuine about our own stories. I think it’s important to mention that it looks different for every person, and that if we consider that continuum again, that individuals have fallen in every place and in every place in between.
I know some people that God — and it’s their testimony — that God did an instantaneous work, and they never have had a homosexual thought or temptation or idea again in their lives, and moved on to heterosexual… heterosexuality, and that identity — marriage, children — and it was an instantaneous moment for them.
The majority of the people with whom I’ve talked, it’s been a journey and a process, that we didn’t get involved overnight, often don’t get out overnight. And so it does look different for different people. Many have moved on to marriage and families, and I know some individuals that, much of the contributing factors have been resolved, and opposite sex attraction hasn’t fully blossomed, if you will, in their lives. It may never, or may come further down the road. But their commitment is to the Biblical sexual ethic, and that they want to live chaste and celibate lives.
It’s clear here that she’s still describing the “struggle” in terms of sexual attractions, but now the certainty of “change” is starting to crack. It doesn’t always occur. In fact, it often doesn’t. And it’s important to note that her acknowledgment wasn’t exactly a grudging one. During two of her workshops where she addressed change, she was reasonably candid that this change in sexual attractions wasn’t necessarily in the cards for everyone.
And yet, she remains ambiguous about both the nature and the likelihood of change. Here, she also reinforces Nancy Heche’s possibility of a miraculous “instantaneous work” — she said she knew these people herself. Again, I wonder how many in that audience clung to that part of her answer in hope that a miraculous change may come to their son or daughter as well.
But whatever unrealistic expectations Fryrear may have reinforced among some, she did also include an acknowledgement that change in sexual attractions doesn’t always happen. She also mixed her notion of a change sexual orientation with a change in a commitment to behavior. In Fryrear’s talk, it was much more evident that the more important change was a change in faith and a commitment to what she described as a “Biblical sexual ethic.” And under this understanding of change, it didn’t matter so much of a person’s sexual attractions changed much. The more important question was whether that person’s behavior changed in response to a religious conversion
So whoever posed that question to Fryrear was very lucky to have heard at least that much of an answer. Imagine if he had instead attended Nicolosi’s “Prevention of Male Homosexuality,” which was being held at exactly the same time as Fryrear’s Q&A. His understanding of change would certainly have been very different because Nicolosi only talked about one kind of change: a change in sexual attractions. And to hear Nicolosi describe it, likelihood of change seemed rather high and had very little to do with faith. It was all about clinical therapeutic outcomes, not a commitment to Christ.
And as I said, he was very self-assured about the prospects for change. He described only two cases of failure in his workshop. The first case was because the young man “did not continue” with therapy. The second case was because the father didn’t follow through with Nicolosi’s instructions. Not only are father’s responsible for their son’s homosexuality according to the theory Nicolosi espoused first thing that morning, but this particular father was also blamed for the son’s failure to be cured. But aside from those two cases, examples of change abounded, lending further encouragement for those family members in his audience.
One Candid Exception
While I believe most of the descriptions of change were neither clear nor realistic, there was one candid exception that I wish more parents could have heard. During the first set of breakout sessions just before lunchtime, Alan Chambers gave an excellent talk entitled, “Hope for Those Who Struggle.” As far as I was able to hear, he was the only one who set out to establish realistic expectations for change, and he was the only one to thoroughly and accurately describe what change really means. But only about 75 people attended his session, and that is very unfortunate. It should have been one of the general sessions for all 700 attendees to hear. Instead, only a tiny fraction of the overall conference heard what he had to say.
I was going to include his talk in this post, but it is already running quite long. And besides, I believe his talk was so important that it deserves a separate post. Just as he gave his talk to a small group of people, it was almost like attending a completely different conference. It shouldn’t have been that way. Because what he had to say was far more candid and useful — and far more realistic — than any magic blessing or hopes for an instantaneous work that anyone else had to offer.
Prologue: Why I Went To “Love Won Out”
Part 1: What’s Love Got To Do With It?
Part 2: Parents Struggle With “No Exceptions”
Part 3: A Whole New Dialect
Part 4: It Depends On How The Meaning of the Word “Change” Changes
Part 5: A Candid Explanation For “Change”