Box Turtle Bulletin

Box Turtle BulletinNews, analysis and fact-checking of anti-gay rhetoric
“Now you must raise your children up in a world where that union of man and box turtle is on the same legal footing as man and wife…”
This article can be found at:
Latest Posts

Posts for December, 2007

Disputed Mutability: More On Her Visit To “Love Won Out”

Jim Burroway

December 19th, 2007

Disputed Mutability is at it again. Her second post on “Love Won Out” is as thoughtful as her first.

When I attended Love Won Out, the talk on “The Condition on Male Homosexuality” was given by NARTH’s then-president Joseph Nicolosi. What a horrible talk that was. Thankfully, the Love Won Out conference I attended in Phoenix on Feb 10, 2007 was the last conference that Nicolosi participated in.

When Love Won Out went to Omaha in April, Nicolosi was replaced by Joe Dallas, who has been giving the talk on male homosexuality ever since. I was able to listen to audio of Dallas’ talk several weeks later and found his more nuanced and considered tone a huge improvement over Nicolosi’s. Disputed Mutability’s latest entry bears that out.

But while Dallas offers a somewhat more balanced overview of the possible causes of homosexuality (acknowledging that biology may play a role), DM notes that he nevertheless only discussed his developmental theory:

The funny thing is he went on from there to simply present the developmental theory, as if none of his cautions and qualifications mattered. I found this puzzling… Once you recongize that the theory probably doesn’t apply to 100% of the cases, why would you devote 100% of your remaining time talking about it? Does Love Won Out have anything to offer the person or family who can’t find themselves in the developmental picture?

DM’s question reminds me of a co-worker a few years back who was fond of saying, “Sometimes when your only tool is a hammer, all of your problems end up looking like nails.”

Video: Inside “Love Won Out”

In this multi-part series of videos Box Turtle Bulletin editor Jim Burroway discusses attending Love Won Out.

Daniel Gonzales

December 18th, 2007

Today we present two contrasting messages found at Love Won Out, one celebrated publicly and the other disclosed more privately. In the first video Jim looks at Mike Haley’s speech (in a general session) in which he proudly displays his marriage photos having achieved successful change. Then Jim contrasts this with Alan Chambers small breakout session in which he discusses frankly the life of struggle all ex-gays can expect.

“Mike Haley – The Hope For Marriage”
YouTube Preview Image

Alan Chambers: “I live a life of denial”
YouTube Preview Image

Video: Inside “Love Won Out”

In this multi-part series of videos Box Turtle Bulletin editor Jim Burroway discusses attending Love Won Out.

Daniel Gonzales

December 16th, 2007

In this segment Jim recounts Nancy Heche’s speech in which she describes praying her daughter, Anne Heche, out of lesbianism. This is one of the most bizarre moments of Love Won Out so we’ll let Nancy’s do her own talking, here’s the video:

YouTube Preview Image

Video: Inside “Love Won Out”

In this multi-part series of videos Box Turtle Bulletin editor Jim Burroway discusses attending Love Won Out.

Daniel Gonzales

December 11th, 2007

Love Won Out isn’t just about selling the idea to parents that their children can change, there’s a political element as well Jim Burroway discovered. Here Jim describes a “fear inducing” speech by Dick Carpenter on how homosexuality is handled in public schools. Carpenter takes relatively benign videos promoting tolerance for children of gay couples and presents it as propaganda. Carpenter presents the material but never explains what the implications of the videos clips are supposed to be. Those in attendance, including Jim, are left to wonder.

YouTube Preview Image

Video: Inside “Love Won Out”

Daniel Gonzales

December 5th, 2007

A few years ago, Warren Throckmorton popularize the phrase, “I do exist” through a video which highlighted the testimonies of ex-gay individuals. The idea behind the video was to provide proof to counter the argument that nobody really changed their sexual orientation. (Just last January, the video’s lead spokesperson, Noe Gutierrez, withdrew his support for the project, but that’s another story.)

That title, “I Do Exist,” is the theme for our next video, where Jim Burroway objects to the one-sided presentation at Love Won Out of what it means to be gay.

YouTube Preview Image

The “Love Won Out” Series:
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”

Disputed Mutability on “Love Won Out”

Jim Burroway

December 3rd, 2007

The blogger Disputed Mutability finally got around to posting some of her impressions about the Love Won Out conference in Indianapolis last October. This is the start of a series of posts I’ve been looking to for a long time. She identifies as ex-gay (“until a better label comes along”) and is supportive of the ex-gay movement, (“in the deepest, truest, and purest sense”), she is often critical of many of the culture-war aspects of ex-gay ministries. She is also one of the smartest and wittiest observers of the movement I’ve come across.

I had several pull-quotes set aside that I was going to repeat here, but DM isn’t one to be pull-quoted or soundbit. Just read her review and go with the flow. It’s wonderfully rewarding.

Okay. One quote, which has almost nothing to do with the rest of her post. I just wanted to highlight it because I couldn’t agree more:

Driving in, we saw a small cluster of protesters in the dark (Indianapolis at 7:45 am on the day before the end of Daylight Savings is pitch black!), no more than 15 I’d say. The only sign I could make out then was “PFLAG.” There were no protesters when we went out for lunch. We counted 12 on our drive out at the end of the day–I tried to make eye contact and smile and give a friendly nod to each as we drove slowly by, but mostly got blank stares from dour faces. One guy finally did grin back at us and wave; we waved back of course. I was shocked at how somber they all seemed–they wore the same vaguely constipated looks of solemn judgment that the quiet brand of antigay protesters wear. I understand they must have been saddened by the goings-on inside the church, but to me it seems like a poor way to change hearts and minds. It wasn’t very seductive.

This has really bothered me about most responses to Love Won Out. I had similar thoughts at the Palm Springs event in 2006. I mean, we’re supposed to be, like, gay, aren’t we? LWO tells everyone at the conference how miserable and angry we are, and then when the conference is over they look at us as they drive off and we’re standing there confirming everything they heard about us. I mean seriously, I thought we were supposed to be more creative than that.

Video: Inside “Love Won Out”

In this multi-part series of videos Box Turtle Bulletin editor Jim Burroway discusses attending Love Won Out.

Daniel Gonzales

November 12th, 2007

Attention Towleroad Visitors: The video you’re looking for is the second one on this post.

Healthy Expectations For The Prospect Of Change
The whole point of the Love Won Out conferences, put on by Exodus International and Focus On the Family, is to convince parents, loved ones, pastors, teachers, gays, and anyone else that “change is possible.” They often do this without defining what change means, and they often sugarcoat the likelihood of change for everyone. But if you’re lucky enough to attend the right breakout session given by just the right speaker, you just might catch the most honest assessment for the possibility of change you will ever hear.
YouTube Preview Image

Who Seems To Be The Most Genuine?
That’s a tough one. Does being genuine require that one be consistently honest?
YouTube Preview Image

See also:

The “Love Won Out” Series:
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”

Video: Inside “Love Won Out”

In this multi-part series of videos Box Turtle Bulletin editor Jim Burroway discusses attending Love Won Out.

Daniel Gonzales

November 5th, 2007

Advice Given To Parents
Last weekend, Exodus and Focus On the Family held another Love Won Out conference in Indianapolis, Indiana. If that conference was like the others this past year, it was mostly attended by parents of gays and lesbians, and not so much by gays themselves who are interested in change.

And if that conference was anything like previous conferences, the information those parents heard was something of a mixed bag. It’s easy to focus on the negatives, but it’s also important to recognize that it wasn’t all horribly wrong. Love Won Out speakers were able to offer some advice to parents which might actually be useful to them — at least in terms of trying to keep the lines of communications open with their children.
YouTube Preview Image

All Gay People Have Been Sexually Violated
While Love Won Out offers some examples of useful information to parents, other examples can be quite damaging. Here, Jim Burroway discusses one parent’s reaction to hearing Melissa Fryrear say she had never met a lesbian or gay man who hadn’t been abused.
YouTube Preview Image

See also:

The “Love Won Out” Series:
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”

Video: Inside “Love Won Out”

In this multi-part series of videos Box Turtle Bulletin editor Jim Burroway discusses attending Love Won Out.

Daniel Gonzales

October 29th, 2007

A Culture Within A Culture
Love Won Out can sometimes be somewhat mysterious to those who are outside the evangelical world. What’s more, homosexuality and the ex-gay movement largely exists outside the experience of the typical evangelical church-goer. This makes Love Won Out a unique culture within a culture.

YouTube Preview Image

Blaming Fathers For Gay Sons
Most of the Love Won Out audience consists of mothers and fathers of gay sons and daughters. Guess who Love Won Out singles out as the main culprit behind their son’s homosexuality? Don’t take my word for it — you can hear it straight from Joseph Nicolosi’s lips.

YouTube Preview Image
See also:

The “Love Won Out” Series:
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”

Video: Inside “Love Won Out”

In this multi-part series of videos Box Turtle Bulletin editor Jim Burroway discusses attending Love Won Out.

Daniel Gonzales

October 22nd, 2007

Why I Attended Love Won Out

YouTube Preview Image

Assumptions About What It Means To Be Gay

YouTube Preview Image
See also:

The “Love Won Out” Series:
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”

Video: Inside “Love Won Out”

In this multi-part series of videos Box Turtle Bulletin editor Jim Burroway discusses attending Love Won Out.

Daniel Gonzales

October 16th, 2007

Love Won Out held a conference in Irvine, CA over the weekend and since the media down there appears to be “ex-gayed out” the most news coverage it appears to have received in a blog entry at the OC Weekly. This ex-gay media saturation in OC is of course why none of the familiar faces chose to head down there last weekend.

That said I personally have been busy editing footage of Jim Burroway discussing his experience attending the Love Won Out conference held in Phoenix earlier this year. I present to you the first two of twenty eight video clips.

Who Attends Love Won Out?
YouTube Preview Image

What Melissa Fryrear Says About The Prospect Of Change.

YouTube Preview Image
See also:

The “Love Won Out” Series:
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”

Part 5: “Love Won Out”: A Candid Explanation For “Change”

Jim Burroway

August 2nd, 2007

As I said in previous posts, most of the people who attended the “Love Won Out” ex-gay conference in Phoenix on February 10 were not gay or lesbian “strugglers” seeking change. That audience was mainly made up of concerned parents, family and friends of gays and lesbians. In fact, the whole purpose of the all-day “Love Won Out” conference was to introduce people to the world of ex-gay movement and the idea that “freedom from homosexuality is possible.”

But the very people most affected by this message — gays and lesbians themselves — were largely absent. There was just a small smattering according to one show of hands. And so most of the concerned parents, family members, and friends of gays and lesbians who made up the bulk of the audience were typically unaccompanied by the very people everyone was talking about. This meant that as these people heard speakers from Exodus, NARTH and Focus on the Family (some of whom described themselves as “former homosexuals”) talking about what it meant to be gay, but most of these audience members didn’t have their own children or loved ones with them to talk about the things they heard. So the speakers were free to characterize these loved ones’ lives without fear of contradiction.

And this, I believe, was one of the worst shortcomings of the whole experience. During breaks between sessions, I heard several parents project what they heard onto their own children — sometimes without any evidence that what they heard actually applied to their child’s experience. I personally witnessed one parent break into tears with the new-found certainty that her son must have been molested. “You heard her. That lady (Melissa Fryrear) said so,” she said between tears. I also heard other parents who had already had these conversations with their children but didn’t believe them because what they heard from the “experts” at the conference. “Well, she said nothing ever happened, but…”

And if the abject fear that one’s child might have been molested wasn’t bad enough, there were the fathers who blamed themselves for their sons’ homosexuality. My heart sunk when I heard them groan on hearing NARTH Presdient Joseph Nicolosi saying, “We advise fathers, if you don’t hug your sons, another man will.” I talked to quite a few fathers who seemed to take Nicolosi’s theory quite personally, and they were greatly burdened by it. More recently, I spoke with a father who attended a different Love Won Out conference. He referred to Nicolosi’s talk and confided, “I can only hope that someday Jesus will forgive me.”

The other main focus of the conference — when it wasn’t focused on the presumed “causes” of homosexuality — was on the meaning and nature of “change.” As speaker after speaker promised a “complete and radical change,” these parents pinned their hopes on each of these promises. And for every one of the featured speakers in the general sessions, the nature of change was simple: a very specific change in sexual attractions or orientation.

Joseph Nicolosi was the keynote speaker that morning, and he described a succession of clients who had “no more homosexual attractions” and whose homosexuality became “nonexistent.” Immediately following Nicolosi’s talk, we heard Exodus Board Chairman Mike Haley give his life story as a former homosexual, complete with pictures of his beautiful wife and children on the large multimedia screen behind him. Soon after that, we heard Focus On the Family’s Melissa Fryrear declare her infatuation with red-headed men who would look good in a kilt. (She jokingly declared, “That movie Braveheart changed my life!”) And later that afternoon, we heard Nancy Heche, actress Anne Heche’s mother, describe a special blessing that delivered her daughter from a “lesbian affair” with Ellen DeGeneres.

A Candid Exception

While I believe most of the descriptions of change were either misleading or unrealistic, there was one candid exception that I wish more of these parents could have heard. It would have given them a better idea of what their sons and daughters would be up against in pursuing “change” — especially the sort of change promised by the featured speakers.

During the first set of breakout sessions just before lunchtime, Exodus president Alan Chambers gave a talk titled, “Hope for Those Who Struggle.” As the title suggests, this workshop was targeted towards the few who were struggling with their sexuality — although undoubtedly there were a number of parents and family members there as well. But only about 75 people attended his session, a tiny fraction of the 800 attendees at the conference overall. So generally speaking, this was a relatively “safe” audience, safe enough for Alan to try to set realistic expectations for change and describe what change really means.

Alan began his talk by describing his own unrealistic expectations for “change.” When he first began to attend an Exodus-affiliated ministry at the age of eighteen, he thought that his sexual attractions would change from gay to straight in pretty short order. But after a few years in the ministry, he learned that his goals were unrealistic, and he warned his small audience that they needed to adjust their goals as well:

And I’m going to shatter your world here: heterosexuality shouldn’t be your number one goal. Whether that’s for yourself or for your kid or for your loved one or your friend or your family member. Heterosexuality shouldn’t have been my number one goal. The opposite of homosexuality isn’t heterosexuality. It’s holiness.

And I think we in the church often get that wrong. We think, okay, the best thing for this person who’s involved with homosexuality or involve with lesbianism is that they come out of that lifestyle and go into heterosexuality. If that’s all we think is necessary, we’re setting people up for a terrible fall. The opposite of homosexuality isn’t heterosexuality. It’s holiness.

Part of this statement reinforces a larger theme of the conference, that homosexuality is incompatible with Christianity. Here, he sets it as being “opposite” of holiness, which only adds to the burden of those who were there. After all, wickedness is more commonly understood as being the opposite of holiness. So casting homosexuality on the same side of the spectrum as wickedness is a terribly damaging way to characterize the lives of gays and lesbians everywhere. Besides, heterosexuality is not, in and of itself, holy either. But that went unsaid, which was pretty much on par for Love Won Out.

But most of this statement represents a dramatic departure from the rest of the conference in terms of the nature and likelihood of change. It certainly stands at the polar opposite of Dr. Nicolosi’s absolute confidence that homosexuality becomes “nonexistent” once an emotional connection is made. According to Allan, same sex attractions may not necessarily diminish no matter how hard one tries or how many prayers are said. Instead, the “change” that takes place is not a change in sexual orientation; it’s a change in faith. The “conversion” is not sexual orientation conversion, it’s a religious one.

“I Deny What Comes Naturally To Me”

More specifically, this change is actually the exchanging of one’s identity from gay to Christian, since the two identities cannot coexist in the worldview of Exodus or Focus On the Family. This emphasis on a change in identity is at the very heart of the ex-gay message. But even with this new identity as a Christian, merely forsaking the old identity of gay or homosexual doesn’t mean that one’s homosexuality will actually go away:

… Second Corinthians 5:17 says those who are in Christ are a new creation. The old is gone and the new has come. And again in the Christian community — I’m pointing my finger at myself too — we often hijack that verse to mean those who come to Christ, those who come to Jesus are perfect. Everything’s gone, the old life is gone, and the new has come and it’s all going to be wonderful from here.

And I think again, we do a disservice to people that we share that Scripture with, that we explain that Scripture to when we say that once you have a relationship with Jesus Christ that it’s all going to be better and you’re never going to struggle again. And the truth is, you’re going to dash your expectations that way. If that’s what we expect of ourselves and what we expect of other people, we’re going to be endlessly disappointed.

And this is where Alan’s talk turned very personal. He cited Matthew 16:24 (“Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.’”) before getting to the very heart of the matter of “change” in his own life:

…In the early days of when I started speaking and debating and doing all sorts of things related to the issue of homosexuality and took my position with Exodus, people used to say, “Oh Alan, you’re just in denial.” I used to get so mad when they’d say, “You’re just in denial. You’re just denying who you’re really are.” And I’d say, “No I’m not. I’m not in denial! I’m not in denial!”

And then I came to the place where I realized, you know what? God calls us as Christians to a life of denial. I love that today I realize that I do live a life of denial. Not denial of who I used to be, not denial of who I could be today, but I deny what comes naturally to me.

…And so every single morning — this is a ritual for me — I wake up and I say, “Dear Lord, I can’t make it today without You. I choose to deny what comes naturally to me. I choose to submit my will to the Lordship of your Son, Jesus Christ. And I choose better. I choose to follow You, I choose to allow Your Holy Spirit to walk before me, to guide me, to speak for me.”

… And if we think we can get up one day and decide we don’t have to pray about it anymore, then we’re mistaken. So expect a life of obedience. Expect a life of denial.

Only 75 people heard this message that day, which is a terrible shame. This was, I think, the most honest, honorable, and vulnerable talk I heard the entire day. It seems to me that this was the message that everyone should have heard at Love Won Out.

Two Audiences, Two Messages

But it appears that this reservoir of truth and vulnerability is rationed only to safe, like-minded listeners. How else to explain this talk talking place in a small breakout session instead of one of the main plenary sessions?

If everyone had heard that talk, they would have understood without question what “change” was all about. So why was this talk reserved for a small, safe audience of “those who struggle”? Were they afraid that parents would become disillusioned on hearing what the reasonable expectations for change should be? Did Love Won Out organizers not want the larger audience to know that their sons and daughters faced a lifetime of struggle? Were they afraid of shattering those parents’ dreams of weddings and grandchildren?

One thing’s for certain. If most of the Love Won Out audience wasn’t safe enough for Alan’s message, then the general public certainly isn’t. Four months before the Phoenix conference, Alan Chambers appeared on NPR’s “Fresh Air” and told Terry Gross:

I have talked with and met people who say that they have walked completely away and will never struggle with that again or have never struggled with that again. I believe it’s …. there’s everyone on the continuum. I often like to use the phrase that I will never be as though I never was. I can’t forget where I used to be and I can’t deny the fact that I’m still human and that I could be tempted in every way.

But today where I live my life, and I believe this is true of those who would say they have successfully left homosexuality, homosexuality isn’t something that controls them anymore. Where at one point in our lives, in my life, I could not resist homosexuality. I could not resist the urge. I could not get those thoughts out of my mind. I was exclusively attracted to members of the same sex and acted out on that on a regular basis. Today I have what I would describe as a Garden of Eden relationship with my wife and that she is the object of my desire. She is who I am attracted to…

Then, just a few days before this Love Won Out conference took place, Alan Chambers appeared on CNN where he denied trying to control his thoughts, while at the same time repeating the oblique phrase, “I will never be as though I never was.”

But just a week before the 2007 Exodus Freedom Conference, in Irvine, California, it appears that Alan decided to test the waters by giving the larger world an explanation more consistent with what he had been telling his much smaller Love Won Out audience. The Los Angeles Times reported:

With years of therapy, Chambers says, he has mostly conquered his own attraction to men; he’s a husband and a father, and he identifies as straight. But lately, he’s come to resent the term “ex-gay”: It’s too neat, implying a clean break with the past, when he still struggles at times with homosexual temptation. “By no means would we ever say change can be sudden or complete,” Chambers said.

And yet this small concession — which focused mainly on what sort of language to use for describing “change” — appeared to be too much. After mounting pressure from fellow anti-gay activists, Alan issued a partial retraction through an American Family Association web site:

“['Ex-gay' is ] something that comes across as confusing,” he says. “And while I understand why people have used it over the years — it’s easy to use in a soundbite — to say that someone is primarily described by the behavior that they used to be involved in I think is a disservice to the people who have found freedom from homosexuality.”

And that includes himself, says Chambers. “[R]eally, more accurate labels for me would be, ‘I’m a man. I’m a Christian. I’m a husband. I’m a father. I’m a son.’” Chambers says he is considering whether to ask the newspaper to issue a clarification of his remarks.

Exodus and Focus On the Family appear to provide two distinct faces when they talk about change. There is the public face, the one that is given to the general population through billboards, radio commercials and web sites which promise that “change is possible.” A radio commercial promoting the Exodus conference in Irvine promised a “sudden, radical, complete change.” At Love Won Out, parents, friends and family members heard specific, clinical language in which homosexuality becomes “nonexistent.” And whenever Exodus and Focus On the Family speakers appear before the cameras and microphones of major media outlets, they are very careful to leave the definition of change to the assumptions of the audience: a change in sexual orientation, even if they rarely say it explicitly.

But in a small workshop targeted specifically to “those who struggle,” we get to see a far more private message about “change.” And Alan repeated and expanded on this message during the opening night of the Exodus Freedom conference in June. There, before another “safe” audience of more than eight hundred people (unlike at Love Won Out, the overwhelming majority of this audience was “strugglers”), Alan repeated and expanded upon the remarks he made during that tiny breakout session at Love Won Out. And here, he challenged his audience to think about how they might respond if their orientations didn’t change:

And the truth is, what if circumstances never change? I think you have to ask yourself that question. What if your circumstances never change, like my friend that I said her feelings haven’t changed much in twenty years? What if your feelings don’t change? What if your circumstances don’t change? What if it’s still difficult in a year as it is today? Are you going to stand on the promises of God? Are you going to choose to fight? Or are you going to give in?

Michael Bussee was one of the original founders of Exodus before leaving the organization and later becoming one of its sharpest critics. He described one current ex-gay Exodus leader as saying they were just “Christians with homosexual tendencies who would rather not have those tendencies.” Alan appears to be inching towards that candid assessment.

But I have to wonder if he can maintain this message for larger audiences while still holding out hope for a “complete, radical change.” And I have to wonder if he can sustain that message when Exodus’ political lobbying on Capital Hill depends on the assertion that if “real change” is possible, gays and lesbians don’t need equal rights. It seems that too much is at stake to allow too many doubts to creep in on what change really means.

We already saw the howls of protest when Alan made his comparatively innocuous remarks to the Los Angeles Times. While we can hope that the two-audiences, two-messages may fall by the wayside, only time will tell whether abandoning that approach will be compatible with the broader cultural and political goals of Exodus and Focus On the Family.

See also:

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 4: “Love Won Out”: It Depends On How The Meaning of the Word “Change” Changes

Jim Burroway

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.

nicolosi.pngDr. 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).

fryrearmcdonalds.jpgWhile 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.

fryrearlwo.pngFor 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.

See also:

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”

Part 3: “Love Won Out”: A Whole New Dialect

Jim Burroway

March 6th, 2007

One of the first phrases that we learned in high school Spanish class was how to say that you like something. In English, it’s a simple three-part sentence: “I like ice cream.” I, the subject, does something, namely, like. And the object of my affection, called the direct object, the thing that receives the action, is the ice cream. It can’t get much simpler than that.

But in Spanish, there is no word for “like.” The word they use instead, gustar literally means “pleases”. So instead of saying “I like ice cream,” I would say, “Ice cream pleases me.” Notice how this turns everything around. In English, if I don’t like something, it’s up to me to explain myself since I am on the acting part of the verb — Why don’t you like it? But in Spanish, if something doesn’t please me, it’s not my problem. You need to look to the ice cream to understand what’s wrong with it.

I’ve often though about that example and wondered if that subtle difference — do we like something or does that something please us? — influences how I see the world around me, and in what ways that influence might be different for someone who’s a native Spanish speaker. If it’s true that language shapes how we view the world — and I join Madison Avenue and political spin doctors in believing this to be true — I thought it might be worthwhile to examine the particular language that I heard at Love Won Out.

For me, attending the Love Won Out ex-gay conference in Phoenix was very much like being an anthropologist on Mars, as Oliver Sacks once put it. I observed a culture with its own vaguely familiar language and customs. And learning its language was key to understanding the framework and worldview from which Love Won Out operated. But as is true with many cultures, it almost requires a total immersion inside the culture of Love Won Out to pick up on the nuances of those terms and customs.

There’s nothing particularly odd about this. Every group of people has its own version of “inside baseball.” And at Love Won Out, much of their dialect is built upon the common theological expressions that are a part of the Evangelical Christian movement. But what was spoken at Love Won Out went beyond the language of Evangelical Christianity. The language of Love Won Out represented a particular dialect of the larger Evangelical Christian culture.

The Study of Language

Focus on the Family and Exodus, among others, exercise an amazing degree of message discipline, and they construct their messages differently according to the particular audience they’re addressing. This is why their messages have been so effective. Mike Haley, director of gender issues at Focus on the Family’s Public Policy Division talked about this during a morning plenary session, and he gave a good example of how this lesson might be used:

You know, in the year 2004 when I was doing the research for my book, I found that we spent twenty billion dollars that year in the United States for the work of missions. And what do we do with that money? Well what we do with that money is we take individual’s lives — they are committed to a people group — we set them aside, we support them, we pray for them, we pour money into their lives. We help them get to that people group. We help them study and learn another language often so that they can reach a people for Christ. Those people will take the time out of their own lives and study the social nuances of that people group they want to reach, so that when they become a part of them, they won’t offend them. Instead what they’ll do is they will draw them to Christ.

And my challenge for us is how much money, effort, and energy are we putting in to reaching what one of my friends calls “the unwanted harvest” known as the gay and lesbian community? And there’s some things that we do within the Body of Christ that are incredibly offensive, and let me just offer you one, the use of the phrase, “Love the sinner and hate the sin.” …

And what are we saying ultimately when we use that phrase? Well what we’re saying to someone is “I love you, but I hate what you’re doing.” But you have to see it from a gay person’s perspective. They see themselves as defined by the very thing that they’re doing. So they believe that when you hate what they’re doing, you hate them to their very core. We have got to lose that phrase out of our vocabulary. It does not translate in the marketplace.

I think Mike Haley only has it about half right in explaining why the phrase is offensive, but that’s not the point. The point is really this: you probably haven’t noticed this — because the phrase “love the sinner and hate the sin” is used so often among anti-gay Christians — but it turns out that neither Focus on the Family nor Exodus use this particular phrase much anymore. They’ve moved far beyond “love the sinner and hate the sin,” both in nuance and in sophistication. The sentiment is still very much there, but it’s expressed in a very different way. They are extremely conscious of how words are received by their target audience, no matter who that audience may be. It’s just that their audience is almost never the LGBT community. If it were, you can bet their choice of language would be very different.

Focus in the Family and Exodus have expended a great deal of resources to develop the phrases and the terminology they use. In doing so, they’ve crafted an entire language, complete with its own lexicon and syntax. For example, the terms they used for describing gay people were very different from yours or mine, and Mike Haley’s problem with “love the sin, hate the sinner” provides a glimpse into that difference. Their language is specially designed to treat people and their sexuality as if they were two completely separate entities, as if sexuality were a separate thing outside of the person. As Melissa Fryrear put it in a breakout session, they constantly work to “separate the ‘who’ from the ‘do’,” or, as others have put it more crudely in Mike Haley’s example, “the sinner” from “the sin”.

And since we’re only talking about sexuality and not romantic yearnings or affairs of the heart, this separation of gays and lesbians from their sexuality appears reasonable to Love Won Out attendees. If we included romance, then we would have to introduce such notions of soulmate, the yearnings of the heart, the love of all one’s might — all of these things which involve the whole person, which poets cannot separate and compartmentalize.

But at Love Won Out, gay romance, love or relationships are treated as evidence of a pathology. Dr. Joseph Nicolosi, president of NARTH (the National Association for Research and Treatment of Homosexuality), describes gay relationships in men as an attempt to capture the masculinity of another man that is missing in oneself because his own sense of masculinity is broken. This reduces all notions of romance to “a reparative drive.” He sums it up later in a breakout session by saying, “Heterosexuality is complementary, homosexuality is compensatory.”

Since homosexuality is seen as something that “happens” to someone due to poor parenting, sexual abuse and other factors, then it’s not the child’s fault. When they boy grows up, he tries to “fill” his damaged masculinity with other men. Similar explanations are offered for lesbians. Following this lead, Alan Chambers, president of Exodus, and Melissa Fryrear of Focus on the Family both refer to gay relationships as an “illegitimate way of meeting a legitimate need.”

Another way of saying this then, is that the problem is not that I, as a gay man, like other men. The problem is that other men are pleasing to me. Using language to separate the person from his or her sexuality is one of the most important concepts in Love Won Out’s dialect.

“No Such Thing As A Homosexual”

Since the language of Love Won Out represents a distinct dialect of Evangelical Christianity, the first order of business for the day was to teach us the elements of that dialect. First up was Dr. Nicolosi. He began his talk by proclaiming that “there is no such thing as a homosexual.” Knowing this was a head-scratcher to most people there, he repeated it again: “There is no such thing as a homosexual… He is a heterosexual, but he may have a homosexual problem.”

So here’s the first lesson: the words “gay,” “lesbian,” and “homosexual” aren’t nouns; they’re adjectives. And even as an adjectives they are never used to describe a person. There are no gay teenagers, there are no homosexual men, there are no lesbian women. Instead these adjectives are always used as modifiers to something else: a problem, a struggle, an identity, or an issue that is separate from the person. This is important because it’s very different from how these terms are normally used in the broader culture. It is also very different from how these terms are used even by other anti-gay activists.

If this sounds confusing, believe me, I felt the same way during the first few hours that morning. These words and phrases sounded odd or stilted — as is true with the first words we learn in any new language. But by hearing them repeated over and over in the very particular ways they were used, they started to become second nature. By the second hour, their “oddness” started to wear off and by the time the conference was over, it was easy to forget that these words could be used any other way.

All of the speakers at Love Won Out clung to this grammar with incredible consistency, reflecting a highly evolved discipline that comes from discovering the particular phrases that have had an impact in the past, and sticking with them from then on. And if a speaker somehow slipped up and use these words “incorrectly,” he was usually very quick to correct himself — as Nicolosi did during his breakout session, “Prevention of Male Homosexuality” later that afternoon:

From our own case studies, we see three types of fathers who are the fathers of homosexual men… Again, when I say “homosexual,” I don’t mean he’s intrinsically homosexual. He’s a heterosexual with a homosexual problem…”

You see, he almost used the word “homosexual” as an adjective to describe men — a no-no in Love-Won-Outeese. Slip-ups like this happened occasionally — Mike Haley did the same thing when he used the phrase “gay person” in my earlier example — but they were rare.

So having laid this groundwork, it’s time for me to give you some real examples of how this worked. Love Won Out speakers had very specific ways to describe gays, lesbians, and anyone else who experienced sexual and/or romantic attractions for others of the same sex. (Bisexuals and transsexuals were largely left out of the discussions.) Generally speaking, these descriptions fell into four broad categories, and each category was described using adjectives to reinforce the separation of “the ‘who’ from the ‘do’.”

Those Who “Struggle With Homosexuality”

The definition for this group was rather unclear. Mostly, this expression was used to describe someone who experienced “unwanted same-sex attractions”, another phrase that made an occasional appearance. (Alan Chambers often went even further in separating the “who” from the “do” by using the phrase, “those who struggle with the issue of homosexuality,” making homosexuality itself even more abstract.) For the most part, “those who struggle with homosexuality” described anyone who believed that homosexuality was wrong, but found themselves to be sexually attracted to others of the same sex.

But the odd thing about “those who struggle with homosexuality” is that believing that homosexuality was wrong wasn’t always a requirement to be a part of this category. This mean that those who “struggle with homosexuality” sometimes included relatives of conference attendees — sons, daughters, nieces, nephews, and so forth — who weren’t at the conference and most likely weren’t struggling at all — including gay friends and family members who were completely out to their family and coworkers, often in relationships, and who felt no conflict about their sexuality. Many comments were addressed to parents (“If your son or daughter is struggling with homosexuality…”) that assumed that being gay required that there be a struggle. If my mother had attended the conference, she might have understood that I was among those they were talking about when they talked about those who were “struggling with homosexuality.”

The “Gay-Identified”

But if the conference speakers were really careful, they might concede that I’m not struggling. They would instead put me into the second group where I would be described as “gay-identified.” (A woman would be “lesbian-identified.”) Again, notice the separation of the “who” from the “do.” I’m not gay, I just have a gay identity. I am, at most, gay-identified. All notions of intrinsic orientation, healthy relationships or romantic attachments were ignored, except as aspects of pathology. And if indeed there is no such thing as a homosexual, then it must also be true that there no such thing as a gay or a lesbian. Our identity is just something like a coat that we put on, a coat that can be taken off as well.

Anyone who is “struggling with homosexuality” is seen as being at a crossroads of sorts, and there are two directions he or she may go from there. One direction is to accept the “Biblical sexual ethic” and begin a “journey out of homosexuality.” Failing that, the other direction is to fall into the world of the “gay-identified” or “lesbian-identified”.

This second option, of course, is considerably more tragic since the “gay-identified” and “lesbian-identified” were generally regarded as less reachable. Because they were “gay-identified,” they were, by definition, involved in the gay community and the gay “lifestyle” — a lifestyle that was fraught with all sorts of dangers and misery: sexual addictions, drug addictions, emotional addictions, impossible relationships that never lasted. The idea that gays and lesbians could be satisfied, happy and stable was a foreign concept to Love Won Out. And just as there are tribes in the tropics that have no word for snow, Love Won Out spoke no words to describe people who didn’t fit their notions of someone who was “gay-identified.”

“On The Journey Out Of Homosexuality”

When someone who is “struggling with homosexuality” decides he or she doesn’t want to be “gay-identified”, then that person is said to have embarked on a “journey out of homosexuality.” This is where the poorly-defined concept of “change” comes in. This “change” was much talked about, but never really defined except in its most important aspect: a new identity in Christ.

Exodus sometimes provides something of a non-religious public face, although that face is never entirely a secular one. Focus on the Family, however, is unabashedly evangelical in the public stage. At Love Won Out, both groups were free to be who they really are with the like-minded audience. Everyone who spoke did so from a plainly religious perspective. Even Joseph Nicolosi, the “secular scientist” closed his plenary session on male homosexuality saying, “When we live our God-given integrity and our human dignity, there is no space for sex with a guy,” and arguing that “good psychology is compatible with good theology.” Melissa Fryrear’s personal story (known as a “testimony” in evangelical circles, and was labeled as such on Love Won Out’s published agenda) was not so much a clinical struggle to change her sexual feelings as it was an unabashedly emotional religious transformation.

And this appears to really be the only transformation that matters. As the day wore on, it became clear that Love Won Out wasn’t there just to convince us that gays and lesbians needed to become heterosexuals. The goal was actually much, much higher. Mike Haley alluded to it earlier when he described gays and lesbians as “the unwanted harvest.” In his personal testimony that morning, he attributed his “journey out of homosexuality” and, ultimately, his marriage and career to an irrevocable calling from God. Alan Chambers reinforced the religious theme by repeating that “the opposite of homosexuality isn’t heterosexuality. It’s holiness.” And throughout the day, everybody thanked the Lord, prayed with and for one another, and supported each other through Scripture and fellowship.

Love Won Out wasn’t a tent revival meeting, nor was it a day-long church service. But it was a day-long series of seminars that were firmly rooted in the theology of evangelical Christianity with Dr. Nicolosi providing scientific cover. As such, the “journey out of homosexuality” isn’t a journey from one sexual orientation to another, it’s a journey toward accepting Jesus Christ as Savior, and with that, the faith that with Christ, all things are possible from there, including inclusion in the fourth group.

Those Who “Found Freedom From Homosexuality”

Several of the speakers at Love Won Out placed described themselves as having either “left homosexuality,” “walked away from homosexuality” or having “found freedom from homosexuality” — as if they had been released from prison, as one commenter put it. (My favorite was “walked away”, as if someone had just stepped out for a coffee.) And indeed, the testimonies of those who “found freedom” followed the familiar trajectory of all great salvation stories, of having been lost but now found.

The stories began in the misery of “struggling with homosexuality”, the misery that presumably was a common experience of everyone who “struggles,” including the “gay-identified” — a misery of broken relationships, of drug and alcohol abuse, of sexual abuse and absent fathers or mothers, and a misery of an unrelenting longing for something that is clearly missing from their lives, that their “reparative” impulse was unable to fill.

But at the end of these stories comes triumph. After all, it’s theologically impossible for a story to end otherwise after having put their faith in Jesus Christ. And evidence of that triumph was often found in references to wives and children. As far as the audience was concerned, what better proof is there that they had “left homosexuality behind?” Mike Haley’s testimony closed with a wedding photo and pictures of his beautiful children. (And his children really are adorable. No wonder he’s such a proud husband and father.) Joe Dallas and Alan Chambers also spoke of their wives and families. The only speaker who “left homosexuality” but wasn’t married was Melissa Fryrear. Since she didn’t have any wedding photos or adorable children to talk about, she was reduced to describing what her ideal man would look like — “tall, red-headed, looks good in a kilt!” — while joking, “Is it hot in here?”

And while these speakers mentioned the wives and children that came along after they “found freedom”, they were just as cautious to discourage the idea that anyone should get married to either prove they were no longer gay, or to hasten their “journey out of homosexuality.” Alan Chambers and Melissa Fryrear in particular warned against that during their breakout sessions as they described the dangers this brings to the spouses of “those who struggle with homosexuality.”

And yet, every good story has to have a happy ending. And as far as Love Won Out is concerned, that happy ending comes only after accepting Jesus as Savior, and through that, finding “freedom from homosexuality” — whatever that freedom may mean.

Why “Love Won Out?”

In the end, the dialect of Love Won Out actually served not just one, but two purposes: to separate the gay and lesbian from his or her innate sexuality, and to deliver that person to Christ. Or more accurately, the goal of Love Won Out was to encourage the pastors, teachers, youth group leaders, parents, and other relatives and friends to bring the message of redemption through Christ to their gay and lesbian loved ones, since so few people who were “struggling with homosexuality” were actually there.

From a faith standpoint, this is all well and good. Christ’s Great Commission was to spread the Good News of the Gospel to all the corners of the earth. It’s hard to expect that a Christian organization would not evangelize, or that they would discourage others from doing so — especially where wayward family members are concerned.

And if an Evangelical Christian was truly struggling with his or her homosexuality, there is, all too often, a stark choice which must be made: to either embark on the long “journey out of homosexuality” and find acceptance in the Evangelical community, or to forsake that community and join the ranks of the “gay-identified.” As far as Love Won Out is concerned, there is no other way.

Life is full of choices, and each choice brings rewards and consequences. We don’t choose our sexuality — everyone at Love Won Out was in full agreement on that. But we do have a choice in how we deal with our sexuality in our daily lives. If someone concluded that the best thing for them was to join an ex-gay ministry to conform their behavior with their religious beliefs, then that is their right.

But most of those who attended Love Won Out weren’t in the position of making that decision. They were there to try to figure out how to convince their brothers, sisters, sons and daughters to make that decision. And since their loved ones didn’t appear to be interested in such a decision — most of them weren’t there after all, except for a few teenagers dragged there by their parents — I’m not sure ultimately what useful purpose Love Won Out served, except to offer some sort of hope to the families and friends of gays and lesbians.

But what kind of hope is it? Is it grounded in realistic expectations? Did they get a better perspective on the possibility of change? Did the friends and relatives leave that conference any better equipped than they were when they arrived that morning?

Given Christianity’s mission to proclaim the Truth with a capital “T,” it’s fair to ask how much of these “truths” with a small “t” we learned at Love Won Out are really true. I will explore that some more next week with the meaning of “change”.

See also:

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”

Part 2: “Love Won Out” — Parents Struggle With “No Exceptions”

Jim Burroway

February 22nd, 2007

Note: In this essay, I will try to talk about the theories of homosexuality that were presented at Love Won Out. For the time being, I will avoid a detailed critique of these theories. That may come later time. Instead, I want to delve a little deeper into the theme I began in Part One of this series by looking at Love Won Out through the eyes and ears of the parents of gay sons and daughters who attended.

As I describe my conversations with Love Won Out participants, I have changed several important details in order to protect the anonymity of those I talked to. The individuals who talked to me have a right to expect that their stories not be made individually recognizable. Nevertheless, the situations I describe are fully accurate in their substance.

I had a lot of preconceived ideas about Love Won Out ex-gay conferences before I finally attended one in Phoenix on February 10. Some of the awful things I thought I would see, I didn’t. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised to find some good things to report on, which I promise to tell you about later. There were some moment of thoughtfulness and encouragement which, to me as a gay activist, were surprising.

But there were other things that I didn’t expect to encounter that shook me to my core. And before I can move on to anything, I have to get this out of the way. This is a long essay, but it’s the most important one that I will write about Love Won Out. So, please, I ask for your indulgence on this.

The parents who attended Love Won Out seemed to have a lot of questions. Based on what I heard in the Q&A sessions and in casual conversations, most of these questions revolved around two specific themes: 1) “Why is my child gay?” and 2) “What can I do about it?” The Love Won Out organizers made sure there was plenty of information on hand to answer these questions. This essay will focus on the first question.

The first session of the day was conducted by Dr. Joseph Nicolosi, president of the National Association for Research and Treatment of Homosexuality (NARTH). He was there to provide a non-religious and scientific argument that homosexuality is “a developmental problem.” In his address, entitled “The Condition of Male Homosexuality”, he provided his theory of how gay men come into being, a theory based entirely on family dynamics.

Dr. Nicolosi began his talk this way:

Homosexuality is not a sexual problem, it’s a gender identity problem. And this is the foundation of our understanding. Gender identity is one’s sense of oneself as male or female. Homosexuality is not about sex. And homosexual apologists will say it’s only about sex. But rather, we understand homosexuality to be about a person’s sense of himself, about his relationships, about his past hurts, about childhood wounds, self-image, personal shame, and his belief in his ability to establish and sustain relational intimacy.

Homosexual behavior is always — my wife says when you speak publicly you never speak in absolutes, always and never — I’m telling you homosexuality, homosexual impulse is always prompted by an inner sense of emptiness. It’s not about sex.

He’s barely three minutes into his talk, and already he’s laid out several defining qualities of homosexuality from which he emphatically allows no exceptions. And yet, I knew from my own experience that clearly there were exceptions. He said that “homosexual apologists will say it’s only about sex”, but I had to wonder which “homosexual apologists” he was referring to. While I’m sure somebody somewhere has probably said such a ridiculous thing, I had never heard it. Everyone I’ve heard of speaks it as being about his or her personal sense of self and his relationships. More specifically, it’s about affection, love, and a particular way of caring for and relating with one another.

And when Dr. Nicolosi follows that absolute with another, that the “homosexual impulse is always prompted by an inner sense of emptiness”, I’m afraid this leaves a lot of room for doubt. When I see one absolute being absolutely false, I can’t place too terribly much faith in any other absolutes which immediately follow. I guess he should listen to his wife more often.

But that was my reaction. For the parents who attended, the reaction was very different. He was the expert after all, a man whose psychotherapy clinic in Encino “specialized in the treatment of men with unwanted homosexuality” for more than fifteen years. And because he has treated so many men and speaks with such confidence of his clinical experience, the audience hung onto his every word. He couldn’t have been more convincing if he had channeled Freud himself and spoken with an Austrian accent.

Dr. Nicolosi described the “pre-homosexual” child’s development in terms familiar to anyone who has read classic Freudian theory. He began with the first eighteen months of a child’s life, during the “androgynous phase,” in which the child is unaware of differences in gender. During this phase, he is naturally closely bonded with his mother. Then, at about the age of eighteen months to three years of age, the child enters what Nicolosi called the “Gender Identity Phase.” Here, the child acquires language, and with that a greater awareness of the world around him, which includes differences between male and female. At this stage, the child, who already has a close with his mother, is now supposed to recognize that he is a boy and that Dad is a boy, and that Dad is supposed to become the masculine role model for the little boy. When this “dis-identifying” with the mother and the identification with the father takes place, a heterosexual man is the guaranteed result.

But if his father is cold, rejecting, weak, or physically or emotionally unavailable, or conversely, if his mother is overprotective, domineering, or shows disdain for the father, that boy may not detach from his mother and identify with his father. If that happens, if the boy doesn’t identify with his father, he’ll experience what is called a “narcissistic hurt.” And this leads to all sorts of things:

And that’s why we see narcissism in the male homosexual. Narcissism is a preoccupation with oneself. It’s a high sensitivity to being hurt, being rejected, sensitized to people not liking me. It’s a defensive posture, what we call a shame posture. This boy was shamed for his masculine strivings, and so he abandons his masculine strivings.

…And that narcissistic injury produces an adult, a homosexually-oriented adult, who is cautious, fearful, easily hurt, easily slighted, easily offended, self-protective — that is what we call the shame posture. If men get to see me they’re not going to like me. There’s something inferior about me.

All of this is because the father did not bond with his boy. Either that or the mother wouldn’t let him. I began to wonder how the parents in the audience were taking all of this. I didn’t have to wonder very long, because that’s when Dr. Nicolosi let loose with this broadside.

We advise fathers, if you don’t hug your sons, some other man will.

With that, a very painful groan rose from the audience. This was probably the second-most effective line delivered that day (I’ll get to the most effective one in just a little bit). I looked around and saw heads shaking, couples looking at each other, and a general sense of horror filled the room. My cheeks flushed as I wondered how many of those groans came from fathers and mothers themselves who made up a sizeable chunk of the audience.

Nicolosi threw in several more absolutes as he went along. And with each absolute that he conveyed with such clinical certainty, his credibility seemed to grow with this audience. In the end, it would be the absolutes that everyone would remember:

If there is an older brother, Freud said a hundred years ago, if a homosexual has an older brother, it’s a feared, hostile relationship. I have never seen an exception to that. I have never met a client who is dealing with homosexuality who had a salient older brother.

The guy with a homosexual problem does not trust men. When he begins to trust men, his homosexuality disappears.

His cold, clinical descriptions of homosexuality, while alien to much of what I know to be true in my life, seemed to resonate with everyone else in that audience. After all, it matched everything else they had heard from their pastors and moral leaders. What’s more, it matched some of the more personal memories that every parent has about raising their children. What father cannot say he wished he could have spent more quality time with his son? What mother could say she was never overprotective or overly assertive? This is the story of every parent.

As I sat there listening to his lecture, I was reminded of that old joke about person A saying something terrible about person B, when person B speaks up and says, “Hey you do realize I’m in the room, don’t you?” These parents were right there as Nicolosi talked about how their failures produced a “Gender Identity Deficit” in their son, and that drove their son to be hugged by another man.

Later that morning, Melissa Fryrear, a gender issues analyst at Focus on the Family and a regional representative for Exodus International, spoke on the causes of female homosexuality. It’s odd that she would present a talk that was intended to be the female counterpart to Nicolosi’s clinical descriptions of male homosexuality. I say it’s odd because she doesn’t have a degree in psychology or the social sciences. Her degree is in Divinity. But nobody in the audience seemed to mind or even notice. Her credentials as an expert were accepted just as readily as Nicolosi’s, and because her talk was considerably warmer and more sympathetic to the parents, they seemed to take her messages more to heart, according on conversations that I had afterwards.

Her presentation was also somewhat more chaotic than Dr. Nicolosi’s “Maybe because women, we tend to be complex sometimes,” she explained. But her Freudian explanation for lesbianism was similar to Nicolosi’s, except here it was the mother who was cold and distant, while the father was stern, frightening, or even abusive. Unless, of course, the mother was exceptionally close and had a “best friends” relationship with her daughter and the father was distant. Fryrear’s mix of causes for female homosexuality was a Mulligan’s Stew of many different factors: lesbian chic, fashion, peer pressure, feminism, sexual abuse — the list was very long and occasionally contradictory.

But in very stark contrast to Dr. Nicolosi’s talk, Fryrear’s was much more sensitive to not blaming the parents for their child’s homosexuality. She peppered her talk with reassurances like this:

And I want to visit specifically with Moms and Dads, that if you have a daughter who is struggling with lesbianism, that you’re not to blame for her particular struggle. … Those of you that have children, and have especially more than one child, you know that your children are unique and their perception of the world and how they take the world in, their perception of themselves and you and the family dynamics. You know as parents that one thing you cannot control in your child’s life is his or her perception.

I don’t know what’s worse, parents blaming themselves or blaming their child’s “perceptions”. I later heard both, and it appeared that the parents who internalized the message about perceptions had a calmer sense of “what happened.” They didn’t appear as personally burdened as those who hadn’t internalized the message. In that context at least, her reassurances were a blessing. But as long as these parents are encouraged by self-described experts to look for something that “went wrong,” they will — either in themselves or in their child. There was a lot of that going on throughout the day, an activity that I can’t imagine to be very productive or healthy. I also can’t imagine it contributing very much towards family reconciliation.

But if parents found some comfort in the idea that it wasn’t all their fault, that comfort was rocked by another “cause” of homosexuality that Melissa Fryrear spoke about. Remember when I mentioned Nicolosi’s second-most effective sound-bite of the day? Melissa Fryrear came up with the grand prize:

I can draw anecdotally from having been a part of an Exodus member ministry for almost a decade, and in those years having met hundreds of women with this struggle, I never met one woman who had not been sexually violated or sexually threatened in her life. I never met one woman. And I never met one man either, that had not been sexually violated or sexually seduced in his life. [Emphasis mine.]

The audience sat in stunned silence as Fryrear, her voice shaking, went on to talk about sexual abuse in greater detail. She later described her own sexual abuse as a child, and her talk had just followed a testimony by Mike Haley in which he described having sex with another older man beginning at the age of eleven. As far as this audience knew, there were no exceptions. This went a long way toward reinforcing Nicolosi’s admonition, “if you don’t hug your sons, some other man will.”

So this is the point where I have to stop describing all of the so-called “causes” of homosexuality. Enough is enough. And I’ll save the examination of the social science literature for another day. There’s something much more important here that I need to get out of the way — and off my chest.

I said earlier that parents’ questions could be grouped into two themes: Why, and what do I do? I’ve described just a few of the lectures and breakout sessions which focused on the “why”, on what when wrong in the child’s life and what (and sometimes who) was to blame for that child’s homosexuality. The conference speakers were very clear: there is no biological basis for homosexuality whatsoever. Instead, they offered as a variable this uncontrollable built-in quality in the child called “temperament”, a “temperament” which helped to form the child’s “perceptions.”

This “temperament, when explained in more detail, sounded suspiciously like some sort of an in-born quality or trait that was somehow intrinsic to the child. And even though this can have a biological or an otherwise in-born basis, the conference speakers were clear in repeatedly conveying another absolute: there was no biological basis for homosexuality. (There was one exception. Mike Haley, during a Q&A breakout session attended by about a fifth of the participants, allowed that there may be a combination of biology in the form of “temperament” and developmental forces coming together. But he was otherwise dismissive of biology playing a role.)

So that pretty much left the fathers and mothers at the center of all of these discussions of “what went wrong.” While I heard some parents blame themselves, at least a few were able to “blame” their child’s “false perceptions” of them as a bad mother or a bad father.

But when Melissa Fryrear spoke so forcefully that she had never met a lesbian or a gay man who did not have some sort of experience with sexual abuse, that message would become a much-repeated refrain in conversations later that day.

It’s not fair to say that the parents and relatives were rife with suspicions, but I was surprised at the number of suspicions that did come up — and the circumstantial nature of the “evidence” which prompted many of them. I heard ex-boyfriends and babysitters suddenly come under suspicion where there had been none before. It seemed as if many of these relatives, taking Melissa Fryrear at her word, turned several possibilities over in their minds — dismissing some, but holding others for future consideration.

Sometimes, these suspicions got the better of them. Before that day, it had never even occurred to one mother that her son might have been molested. Now after Fryrear’s talk, she was momentarily certain of it. “There’s no other explanation!” she exclaimed. But as she thought about it, she remembered that she had no reason to suspect this, and that the only “evidence” she had was Fryrear’s statement. She was finally able to calm herself down after those around her reassured her that it probably didn’t happen.

Besides, she already had so many other reasons to think about for her son being gay. Yet I couldn’t help but feel that this mother’s burden was unnecessarily heavier now. Her long list of things she heard experts describe that “went wrong” in her son’s life — a list that she already blamed herself for as a mother — was now longer because of a hideous crime for which there is no reason to suspect to have happened in the first place.

Child sexual abuse, as we well know, is an all-too-tragic reality in our society. Those who have gone through it know the pain and terrible toll that it exacts on the child, especially in his or her ability to trust another human being. And every parent of a violated son or daughter goes through a period of tremendous guilt and shame over their “failure” to protect their little boy or girl. I cannot even begin to imagine the anguish that these parents must feel.

But I saw at least one parent at Love Won Out feel that same anguish for the first time. And afterwards, I felt as if I was carrying a lead weight around in the pit of my stomach for the rest of the day. I wondered what sort of conversations would be taking place the next time these parents talked to their sons and daughters (those who were on speaking terms, anyway, as most of them were.)

And I wondered whether these parents would even believe their children when they deny having been molested. After all, they had heard the “experts” describe gays and lesbians as having been universally abused. And according to these “experts”, this made them “cautious, fearful, easily hurt, easily slighted, easily offended, self-protective” and incapable of being honest with their feelings. This is a terrible setup for dialogue and familial reconciliation.

And I also wondered how many coaches, teachers, boy scout leaders, and neighbors fell under an unwarranted cloud of suspicion, all because Melissa Fryrear said she never met a lesbian or a gay man who had not been abused or threatened. There was tremendous cruelty in the “nevers” and the “always” that were thrown around with such ease at the conference. It’s a cruelty that these parents didn’t deserve. And what’s more, this cruelty is without merit. I will talk more about that in a later post.

See also:

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”

Part 1: “Love Won Out” — What’s Love Got To Do With It?

Jim Burroway

February 15th, 2007

Note: As I describe my conversations with Love Won Out participants, I have changed several important details in order to protect the anonymity of those I talked to. The individuals who talked to me have a right to expect that their stories not be made individually recognizable. Nevertheless, the situations I describe are fully accurate in their substance.

I’ve been asked several times now and it seems like people are dying to know: “Who goes to these conferences anyway? What were they like?” I’ve wondered how they imagine those who go to Love Won Out, but I’ve never asked. The tone of the question is often one of strange fascination, as if I had just told them I visited a tribe of cannibals in the South Pacific and they responded, “Good God! What were they like?” I can hardly blame them. I asked that question myself many times, before I had the chance to see them with my own eyes.

Well I can now report that there was nothing exotic or frightening about the seven hundred people who attended Focus on the Family’s and Exodus’ Love Won Out conference in Phoenix on February 10. In fact, I found the people there to be exceptionally warm, friendly and cheerful. It was a crowd which, much to my surprise, I found to be very pleasant and easy spend the day with. I enjoyed my time chatting and laughing with everyone as we stood in this line or that one. For the most part, I think the people I met there would make great friends and neighbors.

There was definitely a very friendly vibe here. And while I wasn’t open about my own sexuality, I suspect most would have accepted me quite well if I had told them I was gay. In fact, I suspect they would have treated me like a rock star, because even though the conference was all about homosexuality, there were surprisingly few homosexuals there. I would have been the living, breathing homosexual everyone was talking about.

Come to think of it, maybe that’s why some of the people I talked to treated me so well. Maybe they took one look at me and just knew, sort of the way I knew sometimes. I don’t know. But if I had told them explicitly, I’m sure it would have gotten in the way. I would have become a talker instead of a listener, and I wouldn’t have been able to hear what they had to say in their own words. So I kept those things to myself. Nobody asked and I didn’t tell. I was just there.

So who attends conferences like this? Love Won Out, which claims that “individuals don’t have to be gay and that a homosexual identity is something that can be overcome,” appears to draw mainly from three groups of people.

The first group consisted of church leaders, Bible study groups and youth groups who attended as part of their ongoing Christian education. For them, this was an all-day seminar on “the seldom-told side of the homosexual issue.” These were either true believers in their church’s stance on homosexuality or were well on their way toward becoming one. While this group was quite visible, they weren’t especially large. And since they all knew each other, they tended to hang around in clumps and talk among themselves. I didn’t interact with them very much at all. But there were specific breakout sessions for pastors and youth group leaders and I will probably address some of this much later in the series.

The second group consisted of those who were, in the parlance of Love Won Out, “struggling with same-sex attraction.” Now I have to confess that my gaydar isn’t necessarily the most accurately calibrated device on the planet, but it registered several loud, unmistakable pings throughout the day. Even so, like I said, this was a very small group, probably the smallest of the three. They were sometimes with their families, but they were more likely to be alone or with one or two others. They were generally rather subdued, not talking very much among themselves or with anyone else. Their reticence made them, to me at least, somewhat unapproachable. I was never good at mingling with people who were themselves quiet, something I guess I’m going to have to work on. So as it was, I didn’t have a good opening with which to casually strike up a conversation while standing in line for lunch or the coffee bar or during breaks in the lobby. I got the impression they generally wanted to be left alone and I respected that. As I looked through the day’s agenda, I saw only a couple of sessions that would be of direct interest to them, something I found to be a bit surprising.

But the third group — and this was by far the largest group (I think about two-thirds according to a show of hands during one of the general sessions) — consisted of relatives of those “affected by homosexuality.” And by my unsubstantiated estimation, it appeared to me at least that most of these were either parents or grandparents of gays and lesbians. The rest were brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles or close friends. Because of their sheer numbers, this was the most approachable group of the three.

I’ll probably address the relevance of Love Won Out to the first two groups, but it’s the third group, especially the parents and grandparents, who I want to keep in mind as I tell you about Love Won Out. I don’t think anyone can really understand what Love Won Out means without looking at it through the eyes of the mothers and the fathers of gays and lesbians, particularly those with children who came out to them and continue to live as “gay- or lesbian-identified,” to use Love Won Out’s way of speaking.

Many of my gay and lesbian friends assume that anyone who went to these conferences would be filled with incredible hate toward the gay community. When I attended the Love Won Out protests in Palm Springs last fall, I was dismayed to see that the local protest organizers kept pounding on the word “hate”, declaring Palm Springs a “hate-free zone” and characterizing everyone associated with Love Won Out as being motivated by “hate.”

Folks, I can now state categorically that this is not true and we need to stop saying that. Now mind you, I can’t look into the hearts of the conference leaders and I’m certainly won’t mount a defense on their behalf. They will have to defend their own actions and motivations however they can. But those who attend Love Won Out don’t go there because of hate. To say otherwise is to commit a terrible slander and we should abolish that kind of language from our discourse.

Instead, let me draw your attention to a gentleman I talked to in one quiet little corner of the church courtyard. He was there with his wife and we were talking when he began to tell me about his son. For a long time, this gentleman had been wondering why his very good-looking and popular son hadn’t gotten married yet, when about eight years ago his son came home for a special visit in order to explain why that wasn’t going to happen. This father was very forthcoming in telling me that he took the news very badly, and he said a lot of things that he shouldn’t have said. And when he talked to his son more in the months that followed, he repeated some of those awful things which brought their relationship to a terrible break.

Since then, he’s talked to his son on the phone many times, but too often it often hasn’t gone very well. There are too many times when the conversations between them break down as old patterns repeat themselves. There’s just too much pain and anger on both sides, although he’s careful not to blame his son. He wishes he knew how to talk to him, and as he said this he began to cry very softly. His wife, who had been standing silently next to him the whole time, gently reached for his hand and she began to cry as well. But she remained silent. She never shared her side of the story and I didn’t ask.

I just stood there and watched this man’s heart break before my very eyes. His lower lip quivered ever so slightly as he continued speaking — the hopes that he had for his son, the many things he admired about him, his pride in his son’s successful career, and yet, his utter puzzlement that his son could possibly be gay. Eight years later and he still can’t quite bring himself to fully believe it. All he wants is for his boy to come home.

And with that, he couldn’t say any more. The conversation came to a very awkward end. He struggled for just a few, very brief seconds before regaining his composure, and I struggled to keep mine.

This part of the conversation lasted, I don’t know, maybe thirty seconds, tops. Such profound stories can come tumbling out so quickly when you least expect it. But at that moment, as we stood there in that mercifully quiet corner of the church courtyard, it felt like a lifetime. And in a way, it was. It was two lifetimes intertwined, with the irony being that their lives were drawn together by a chasm which stood between them.

I wished that his son could have seen his father as I saw him right then. This man revealed himself to me in a way that he couldn’t to his son, and that is so incredibly unfair. It made me mad a little. Not at him or at his son, but at the whole situation. It was his son who deserved the great gift of seeing his father’s love, not me, and I wondered if his son had ever had a chance to see him like that. My heart broke for that father because of the incredible pain he felt, and my heart broke for his son for having missed the chance to see what I saw.

A grown man does not often shed tears in front of a perfect stranger when talking about his son unless he loves him with a power and depth that few people are privileged to witness. Those who say that Love Won Out is all about hate have it all wrong. It’s not. Tragically, it’s about something much deeper and far more personal for most of those who attend.

I want you to remember that gentleman and his wife as we go through the things I saw and learned at Love Won Out. I also ask that you to remember that couple and their son in your prayers.

See also:

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”

Prologue: Why I Went To “Love Won Out”

Jim Burroway

February 12th, 2007

Focus on the Family and Exodus’ traveling roadshow, “Love Won Out” came to Phoenix last Saturday (Feb 10). According to the Love Won Out website, the purpose of the conference is to “promote the truth that change is possible for those who experience same-sex attractions.” These all-day conferences are held about six times a year in different cities across America. They are aimed mainly to friends and family members, pastors, youth ministers, and ordinary citizens.

I went up to Phoenix from Tucson on Friday to meet with Daniel Gonzales of Ex-Gay Watch and Wayne Besen, founder of Truth Wins Out and author of Anything But Straight: Unmasking the Scandals and Lies Behind the Ex-Gay Myth.

Ex-Gay Watch has a couple of posts up already about their activities. The first post features a link to Daniel Gonzales’ interview with NPR which aired on Saturday. The second post has a couple of great videos of a press conference put together by the Arizona Human Rights Campaign and Good Shepherd Metropolitan Community Church, which featured Pastor Brad Wishon, Ruth and Ray Grove from PFLAG, Barbara McCollough Jones from AHRF, Wayne Besen, and Daniel Gonzales. That press conference was held on Friday. On Saturday, AHRF and No Longer Silent, a group of ministers in the Phoenix area, held a vigil in the morning in front of Bethany Bible Church where the Love Won Out conference took place. They also organized a protest at the church from 11:00 to 1:00.

Where was I in all that? Well, I attended the news conference on Friday, and met afterwards with Daniel, Wayne and others for some business and social time. Then on Saturday, while everyone else was voicing their opposition to LWO through public demonstrations, I did something I never thought I would do.

I walked up to the registration desk, gave them my name, got a blue wristband, and I sat right down to see what it was all about.

Why on earth did I do that? Well, I had gone to Palm Springs last fall to protest the Love Won Out conference when it was held there. That’s where Melissa Fryrear, of Focus on the Family and one of the conference’s main speakers, told the local press that if we would just put down our signs and attend, we would know that they don’t hate us and there’s nothing for us to be so upset about. Actually, I don’t remember her exact words and the Palm Springs newspaper articles are no longer online, so I’m going by memory here. But I do remember reading something to that effect. And I also remember believing that her invitation was nothing more than a stunt.

So anyway, while we were greeting the conference attendees as they drove in on that sunny fall morning, I had a chance to talk very briefly with Michael Bussee who was also walking the protest line. Michael had been involved with the founding of Exodus back in 1975, and served on its original board of directors. Another person involved with Exodus in its early years was Gary Cooper. Michael and Gary eventually left Exodus when they came to the conclusion that it wasn’t possible to change their sexual orientation, and more to the point, that they were in love with each other. They had a commitment ceremony and remained together until Gary’s death in 1991.

As I said, I talked very briefly with Michael that day, so briefly that I doubt he remembers it. I mentioned what Melissa Fryrear said, and thought that maybe I should attend myself so I could see first-hand exactly what was said and done at these things. The whole reason I run this website is so I can look at what other people claim what social science research says, examine that research directly myself, and demonstrate whether and how people take liberties with that research, either in fact or in interpretation.

I often say that you should never take anyone’s word for anything if you can observe things directly for yourself. So if I’m such a show-me kind of guy, if I believe so strongly in going directly to the source, why should I let my perceptions about Love Won Out be shaped by what others are saying? Why am I not practicing what I’m preaching in this case? The more I thought about it, the more obligated I felt to go directly to the source itself — just like I always try to do with everything else.

Michael encouraged me to go. He had been to conferences in the past, and even though everyone knew who he was and had every reason to throw him out, they welcomed him warmly and treated him kindly. This was one of my hesitations and he laid that fear to rest. Like I said, I doubt he remembers this since the conversation was so brief.

So that’s what I decided to do. I signed up and attended Love Won Out when it came to Phoenix.

So here I am, back at home, decompressing from a very long, all-day affair. I have whole notebooks of notes and armloads of material. And I have memories of people, conversations, camaraderie, laughter and tears. I now have a renewed appreciation for what Exodus is really all about.

Over the next several weeks, I plan to talk more about what I saw and learned there. It’s an incredibly rich and complex story. No, I did not go over to the other side, but as is true for so many things in life, I was better able to see so much more grey between the black and the white.

Some of what I will report on will be things you may already know. But I think also that some of what I will say will annoy some and anger others — on all sides. This is why I want to go slow on this. I want to be very clear in what I’m saying. I want to try to speak with the same precision of language that I observed at Love Won Out. I also want to portray what I saw at Love Won Out truthfully. I try very hard in whatever I do to present the material fairly and accurately, but I don’t always succeed. But I want to be as fair and generous as I can to the conference participants and leaders because they certainly deserve that much.

So don’t expect all of this to come pouring out of me right away. Including all the breakout sessions, there were more than twenty hours of presentations to go through. In addition, there were brochures, informal conversations both casual and serious, and thoughts and emotions to sort out. It will take a little bit of time for all of this to gell into coherence.

I saw some things that disturbed me very deeply, things which could very easily propel me to my soapbox — and I definitely will get to them. You can count on that. But I saw other things which told me there are a lot of misconceptions about Love Won Out which also need to be dealt with. And there were a few positives that I saw which need to be explained as well. The ordinary family members I laughed, cried, and prayed with certainly deserve nothing less.

See also:

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”

Why Activism?

Jim Burroway

September 25th, 2006

I wonder sometimes if activists have lost sight of the purpose of activism.

Is it to try to convince the general public to listen to your views and consider your arguments, so they can form well-informed opinions which (hopefully) come close to reflecting yours?

Or is it to make a lot of noise so you can feel better afterwards?

I think we saw a little of both this past weekend in Palm Spring, CA, where Focus on the Family sponsored a “Love Won Out” conference, highlighting their programs for gay men and women who wish to try to change their sexual orientation. The conference took place on Saturday at Southwest Community Church in nearby Indian Wells.

Me and Timothy Kincaid at 6:45I joined Daniel Gonzales and Timothy Kincaid of “Ex-Gay Watch (along with Ex-Gay Watch readers and frequent commenters Regan DuCasse and Scott) for a morning vigil to greet the 1,400 participants as they arrived at the church. (You can read Daniel’s description of the events here. He also provided the pictures for this post.)

We arrived bright and early at 6:45 in the morning and staked out our corner next to the entrance. From there, we smiled and waved and offered a cheerful “Good morning!” to everyone who arrived for the conference. Most smiled and waved back, others were more determined to ignore our presence. Only a few passersby yelled anything unfriendly, but only one was a conference participant. Out of 1,400 who attended, that’s pretty good.

A bright and early Daniel observed that this is pretty common. When he attended other vigils, it wasn’t unusual for some participants to walk over to where they were gathered to engage in a friendly conversation with them. And sure enough, one very nice young lady came over to introduce herself and welcome us to Indian Wells. She commented on how great it is that we can all gather peacefully to offer our own perspectives on any subject, no matter what side of the debate we’re on – and no matter how strongly we may disagree.

On that point, at least, we were in agreement. Which is terrific, because all conversations have to start somewhere.

We were there to show by our own examples that gays and lesbians are not the disturbed, disease-ridden, depressed, lonely, intolerant, maladjusted malcontents that conference organizers would portray us to be. On that note, I think our mission was successful. And as a bonus, I’d have to say that we felt better afterwards.

Things were a little different with the “official” Unity Rally protest.

The Unity Rally protesters arriveFor the morning demonstration, their buses arrived late, some half-hour after the conference check-in had begun begun and the parking lot was nearly half full. They marched around in circles while the leader with the bullhorn prohibited anyone from stopping or engaging in any conversation.

I don’t know much about the rally organizers, but given that this was an ex-gay function we were there to greet, they didn’t appear interested in taking advantage of our backgrounds and knowledge. They did invite us to get in line and walk around in circles with them. We declined, and maintained our positions at the curb next to the entrance, where we could continue to offer our cheerful “Good Mornings!”, waving and smiling to everyone who approached the entrance. We felt that was the best message to send: a warm greeting, a smile, and a welcome.

The rally protestors left after about an hour, even though conference check-in was scheduled to continue for another half-hour. Timothy joked that if he were attending the conference, he probably wouldn’t arrive until about a minute before the official starting time. Me, I’m nearly always running about ten minutes late for just about anything. So we stayed and welcomed the stragglers.

The Unity Rally in Palm SpringsThe Unity Rally that was held later that morning at a park in Palm Springs was rather self-congratulatory – lots of speeches about who called whom to organize the community to do something, and about how proud they were that they had pulled it all off, and that it was a local effort.

Which, as far as that goes, is as it should be. They did a wonderful job with the logistics and organization of a mass-demonstration. It takes a lot of very committed local people to pull off a tremendous undertaking like that. The congratulations were well-earned.

But it could have been better. The rally organizers didn’t use this as an opportunity to educate themselves — let alone the larger community — on the specific issues facing those who are being drawn into the ex-gay movement. They barely had an awareness of what the ex-gay movement was even all about. And they didn’t seem to be much interested in learning. Ex-Gay Watch offered their assistance, but in end the rally organizers chose not to avail themselves of XGW’s background and knowledge.

Instead, they were satisfied to simply portray the participants at the Love Won Out conference as being motivated by hatred and bigotry — which is a pretty easy thing to do. In fact, “hate” was tossed around with remarkable frequency.

I think this was a tactical error to characterize these parents in this way, but I also think it was an error because for the most part, it just isn’t true. The parents who attended Love Won Our are not motivated by hatred or bigotry.

Think of it this way. Imagine if you are told that there is a group of people out there who molest children, spread disease, corrupt society, impose their will on others through non-democratic means, are depressed and suicidal, and are profoundly unhappy and incapable of experiencing true love and fulfillment. And imagine that your child may become a part of that group.

The emotion these parents are feeling is not hate. It is fear. Terror, to be exact. If the things that these conference organizers said were true, then what decent parent wouldn’t move mountains and swim raging rivers to protect their children from such a terrible fate?

Our society is not well educated on why people enter the ex-gay movement, or why parents are motivated to attend Love Won Out conferences. Nor is our society even much aware that there is such a thing as “ex-ex-gays.” And it turns out that gay people aren’t very well educated on these points either.

My first reaction was disdain for the Unity Rally organizers for their arrogance. (And yes, I do believe there was a certain amount of arrogance on their part — perhaps, ironically, a reflection of some arrogance on my part.) But now, after more reflection, my reaction is a bit more nuanced.

So this means that we really have a lot of work to do. We need to figure out how to educate our fellow LGBT organizations, the press, and the broader culture. We need to learn how to formulate our messages that convey real meaning to everyone we talk to. We need to leave aside words like “hate” and “bigotry”, which divide one side from another and put an abrupt halt to all attempts to persuade those parents caught in the middle of all this.

We won’t change many minds at Focus on the Family, nor will we reach any of the leaders who put on the Love Won Out road show. That’s not our purpose.

Instead, we need to change the minds of the many parents who attended the conference out of a genuine fear that their child may be gay. And we need to do this quickly.

I say this because of who I saw sitting in the back seat of a few of those cars (a very few) that drove into the conference that morning. There, slouched in the back seat, by himself or herself, sat a dejected or frightened teenager. A few looked out the window at us, but mostly they just looked down. I don’t think many of the Unity Rally marchers got a chance to look at these kids’ faces. They all wore that expression that I knew all too well, because I wore that same expression for so many years: an expression of deep, abiding shame.

And fear. Because, you know, they don’t want to grow up to molest children, spread disease, corrupt society, impose their will on others through non-democratic means, be depressed, or commit suicidal, or be incapable of experiencing true love and fulfillment., like the folks with Love Won Out say they will.

We really need to reach those parents.

Our aim is to reach them with a different message — one based on accurate facts, living examples, and most importantly, hope. Our objective was not to get something off our chests. Instead, over time, we wanted lift a burden from those parents shoulders. We didn’t go on this vigil so we would feel better at the end of the day. We did it because we wanted those kids to feel better now.

But if we want to be successful, we have to begin to use language that these parents can understand. Accusing them of hatred is not going to accomplish anything.

Spare Change

Jim Burroway

June 15th, 2006

This article appeared on the National Review’s web site today. Eve Tushnet reports on the June 10th “Love Won Out” conference, a gathering of evangelical ex-gay ministries, held in Washington D.C. These ministries are an important part of social conservatives’ ongoing efforts to oppose gay rights in the public square, especially in the areas of same-sex marriage, adoption, and anti-discrimination measures.

By framing homosexuality as a behavioral “choice” that can be changed with patience, persistence and prayer, these ministries seek to redefine the public’s understanding of homosexuality as an unchosen orientation. If homosexuality is chosen (goes the thinking) then there is no need to protect gay rights based on this chosen behavior. Many in the ex-gay movement even take this argument to its most extreme conclusion — that there’s no such thing as being gay.

So these “ex-gay” groups play an important role for social conservatives. However, Eve Tushnet observes:

What they (the ex-gay ministries) aren’t is what many conservative evangelicals seem to want them to be: the ultimate answer to the gay-rights movement. The groups’ problems are deeply embedded in their self-understanding.

What’s the problem? These ministries publicly proclaim that “change is possible” without the inconvenience of explaining what “change” means. It is assumed that through various therapeutic practices, a change in sexual orientation will take place. But when pressed, many ex-gay practitioners will admit that this isn’t realistic. According to Mike Haley of Focus on the Family:

“We don’t want people to believe that change means you have to be married and have to have kids,” he said, and then added, “The opposite of homosexuality isn’t heterosexuality, the opposite of homosexuality is holiness. We’re not trying to create people from homosexual to heterosexual.”

This message however is largely missing from the conference, and it’s also conspicuously absent from the slick brochures and billboards put up by Exodus International and other ex-gay ministries. The public face that these ministries provide is that they are offering therapeutic services for those who wish to change their sexual orientation. But on closer inspection, it becomes very clear that these ministries really aren’t offering a cure, but conversion. The same-sex sexual attractions remain. It is up to the individual to “resist temptation,” and when he or she fails (and most of them do), it becomes both a failure in faith and a failure in character. This sense of failing can be devastating, leading some to suicide and others to refusing to have anything more to do with Christianity.

Rita Price of the Columbus Dispatch reported similar findings among members of an ex-gay group in Ohio. One group member, speaking on the difficulty of trying to “change” commented that “This is my being. This is who I am. It’s like telling a black person to stop being black.”

So what does “change” mean? Is it a change in sexual attraction, or just a change in behavior? Ms. Price notes that for some participants, a change in behavior is enough. But for most, the internal schizm that must occur for sustainanble behavioral change is simply too much to handle.

Newer Posts