Los Angeles Times, Wednesday, July 19, 2000 

Healing for Gays, or a New Hurt?

Some conservative churches are welcoming homosexuals--to change them. Activists and scientists deride the effort.

By SCOTT GOLD, Times Staff Writer

ANAHEIM -- The believers shook their tambourines and reached for the heavens. A woman fell to her knees as tears and mascara raced into the neckline of her cardigan. It was, in many ways, an old-fashioned church revival. Indeed, many of the 300 worshipers were seeking salvation that night--from their homosexuality.

The Rev. Andrew Comisky, who had been gay as a teen and young adult, nuzzled his wife--the mother of his four children and his partner in Desert Stream Ministries, an outreach group dedicated to "healing" homosexuals. Then he took the stage.

"We all need holy rescue," Comisky told the crowd at Vineyard Christian Fellowship in Anaheim. "I've learned over the years that it's not a matter of whether you fall. It's just a matter of the direction in which you fall. I've just learned to fall forward."

The subtext is unspoken but clear: "Forward" is heterosexuality. "Back" would be a reversion to homosexuality.

In a significant strategy shift, many conservative Christians who once denounced gays now welcome them to church in an effort to turn them away from their homosexuality and "convert" them to a straight sex life.

So-called "change ministries" have existed in some form for more than two decades. Gay activists denounce them as fraudulent, and psychologists say the ministries are proceeding on a false premise that homosexuality is a disorder that can--or should--be reversed. The groups rarely claim conversion rates above 30%, and even those conversions are not independently verified.

Yet the groups are finding new acceptance, and drawing new vigor, from mainstream and conservative Christian denominations.

In the words of Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell, homosexuality is "the last frontier for evangelical ministry."

Having lost several political battles on the abortion and school-prayer fronts, conservative Christians have focused on homosexuality as a crusade, theologians and religious leaders say.

The 'Mason-Dixon Line' of theology

The Rev. David Anderson, rector of St. James Episcopal Church in Newport Beach, said that many conservative Christians--like him--have grown "disillusioned with the political process" after a period of legislative logjam.

"A lot of people are devoting their energy to their church rather than the political arena. So it affects them daily--and every Sunday morning," said Anderson, who is backing a change ministries program called "God's Love Changed Me."

"This has become the Mason-Dixon line" of current church theology, said Benjamin Hubbard, chairman of the Department of Comparative Religion at Cal State Fullerton.

Gay rights advocates argue that God made homosexuals the way they are, and therefore the churches of God should accept them. Conservative religious groups contend that homosexuals have made a choice, counter to Biblical injunctions, and that they can change.

Factions of the Episcopal Church and Reform Judaism have taken steps to welcome homosexuals this year. The rabbinical arm of Reform Judaism, for example, declared that leaders of the nation's largest Jewish movement can officiate over same-sex unions.

But many of the nation's prominent denominations are taking a firm stance against homosexuality.

In May, the United Methodist Church reaffirmed its ban on homosexual ministers and its contention that homosexuality is a sin. In late June, Presbyterian leaders meeting in Long Beach said ministers should not bless same-sex relationships. Southern Baptists have called for a boycott of Walt Disney Co., citing "gay-friendly" policies such as extending benefits to same-sex couples and playing host to gay and lesbian events at theme parks.

Many leaders of those churches say there may be a place for gays in the church--but only if gays seek salvation through heterosexuality.

The movement is not limited to Protestant denominations. "Develop your heterosexual potential," urges the Internet marketing material for a faction of the Catholic church. A New Jersey organization offers assistance to gay Jews who want to "transition" themselves into heterosexuality. Its clever acronym: J.O.N.A.H., or Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality.

At the other end of the religious spectrum, such churches as Christ Chapel of Laguna Beach welcome gay clergy and offer ceremonies consecrating same-sex relationships in lieu of legal weddings.

"This is not just us saying 'Don't try to change us,' " said the Rev. Lillian Lobb, the founder and pastor of the Christ Chapel. "It's the [American Psychological Assn.] saying that, from a mental health standpoint, [change ministries are] not a good idea." 

'Uphold Us in Our Maleness'

No one seems sure exactly how many change ministries there are today. Most are small, even if they are sponsored by large churches.

The ministries' methods vary, but often include a combination of frank group discussions and targeted prayer.

"Bestow on us the honor with which You uphold us in our maleness," says one prayer in a $35 manual put out by Desert Stream to help others set up change ministries. Some ministers also advise gays to take superficial steps toward what they see as straight behavior. Men, for example, are encouraged to join their company softball teams; women, to wear mascara.

The Rev. John McFarland, the pastor of the United Methodist Church in Fountain Valley, is a hulking, amiable minister who preaches the virtues of a straight life to a small group that meets sporadically. Like many other conservative Christians, McFarland believes that homosexuality is not an orientation, but a sinful temptation, much like adultery.

"I still look at other women. But I curb that orientation," said McFarland, who is married, and who has never been gay. "There is freedom here. But we're like animals. Somewhere, the idea of disciplining yourself went out the window."

Mainstream psychology calls this hogwash--and potentially dangerous.

In 1997, the American Psychological Assn. took an aggressive stance against therapy that seeks to turn gays from their sexual orientations. The group issued a statement suggesting that attempts to turn homosexuals straight carry a "potential for harm."

Most mainstream psychologists believe homosexuality is "the result of a complex interaction of environmental, cognitive and biological factors," that is no different in most ways from heterosexual relationships, according to the group.

"The premise that homosexuality is a disorder is one that is no longer debatable," said Clinton Anderson, the association's officer for lesbian, gay and bisexual concerns. "But there is an issue when you say someone can change, but then they can't change, and that makes them a worse person. . . . There is a cycle of shame and humiliation."

Douglas Weiss, executive director of the Garden Grove-based Gay and Lesbian Center of Orange County, said, "You are telling people that they have failed to satisfy God. You are telling people that, in order to have value as a human being and to be loved by God, that they have to change. It is a horrible message to send. They are destroying people's lives."

While some participants say a change ministry redeemed them from a life of self-loathing, others say the movement has merely put a revolving door on the closet of homosexuality.

For years "David" dated girls and fought off the realization that he was really attracted to their brothers.

When he was 29, he came out of the closet.

Long a devout Christian, he began in the early 1980s to travel from his Costa Mesa home to "homosexuals anonymous"-type meetings in San Diego, where he tried to overcome his gay orientation. He prayed with Exodus International, starting at the group's 1985 national conference in San Francisco. Five years ago, he became a change ministries pioneer himself, launching a group in Long Beach.

But three years ago, while carrying Bibles on missionary trips to China, he realized that he wasn't becoming straight--he just wasn't having sex. Now 43, he is convinced the change ministries movement is destructive. "I know, now, that God loves gay people unconditionally," he said.

He professes now, at least to his friends, to be gay. He is still skittish enough about his job, however, to request anonymity.

"This time, it's for good," he declared. "You betcha. Totally. I hope." 

Gay Activity Is 'Acting Out'

The modern gay-change movement got its start in 1976, when staff members from Melodyland Christian Center--the charismatic Anaheim church where believers seek healing for everything from tumors to infidelity--put out the call to other ministries interested in "healing" homosexuals.

That fall, 62 delegates gathered, declared homosexuality an abnormality and a sin and launched a campaign to reform gays by persuading them to become straight.

From its start, the movement has had setbacks.

Two men who helped found Exodus International, the Seattle-based group that is a leader of the change ministries movement, fell in love with each other while counseling other gay men.

Gary Cooper and Michael Bussee, who had been counselors at the Melodyland Christian Center in Anaheim before launching Exodus, decided they were damaging other gay men by trying to change people's sexuality. They left their wives for each other in 1979, and wore matching wedding bands until Cooper's death several years ago, of AIDS.

In 1998, a La Mirada family sued Desert Stream Ministries, alleging that a minister had sexually abused a teenager while the youth was undergoing religious therapy to turn him from his homosexuality.

The family settled its lawsuit against the ministry last fall for an undisclosed sum. The family is scheduled to return to court in July to pursue a separate suit against the minister. Desert Stream says the minister was fired immediately, but it would not discuss the settlement.

Despite such embarrassments, the change movement has been growing rapidly in recent years. Exodus has spread its ministry as far as Latin American, Singapore and New Zealand.

The movement has become mainstream enough to build its own lexicon: There are "ex-gays," people who "choose" to be straight. When someone is trying to be straight but strays into a gay relationship, it is known as "acting out."

There are now niche markets: One Christian organization in San Diego offers gay-change services to deaf homosexuals.

And there are signs that the movement's foothold could grow. The Encino-based National Assn. for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality has a $250,000-per-year budget, which it uses to promote the "prevention" of homosexuality. The group's executive director, Joseph Battaglia, says he is shopping for relationships with conservative corporations that could triple that budget.

One of the more influential local leaders of the movement is Comisky of Desert Stream.

For years, Comisky was gay, But in the 1970s he began to tire of the lifestyle, which he says is unpleasant, unromantic and noncommittal. Through a conversion to Christianity, he says, he realized that his decisions to become involved in gay relationships were caused only by his perception that he was not masculine. Once he got over that, he says, he was ready to be straight.

"I saw two communities. One was based on devotion to worship and God. One was based on sexuality, where the object of worship was one another. I had to choose the object of my devotion, and it was so clear to me."

He says he became a Christian--and a heterosexual--in 1977. Three years later, he helped launch Desert Stream, which he moved from Los Angeles to Anaheim in 1995. The organization is dedicated to helping gays overcome their homosexuality through courses that can last seven months and cost $150. 

'Conforming to Desires'

About 25 men and women came to seek that help one recent evening at Grace Christian Church in Placentia. They filed into a nondescript strip mall for the first meeting of a therapy group called "Cross Currents." It's one of the programs run by Desert Stream.

"This is a safe place," said John Hayes, the group leader. "You can share anything here."

To prove it, Hayes told his own story:

Born in Anaheim, he realized as a young man that he was attracted to men--and that, in his religious household, being gay was a sin. When he was 30, he joined a Santa Ana congregation that caters to gays and lesbians.

But he didn't find spiritual satisfaction there either, he said.

"They weren't worshiping God," he said. "They were conforming to their own desires."

So Hayes left six months later, and found Desert Stream on the Internet. Today, the 35-year-old proudly announces, he hasn't "acted out"--had gay relations--in three years. He has become a minister himself, devoted to helping others become heterosexual.

After a brief pitch in which participants are encouraged to buy Comisky's books and pamphlets, they divide into smaller groups. Hayes leads three men into a tiny side room of the church, adorned only with a small painting of two hands clasped in prayer.

Change ministries have a paradigm for gays that, they say, explains their sexual history. If a boy grows up with an absentee father--the qualifications can be anything from a divorce to alcoholism or unemployment--he grows up with an unfulfilled need for male interaction.

As he grows, the boy eroticizes that void, the groups say, and he winds up in gay relationships. A similar theory involving absent mothers explains lesbianism, they say. Therefore, they conclude, there is no such thing as homosexuality. It is simply misplaced emotion.

In the view of mainstream psychologists, such ideas are bad science and self-fulfilling prophecies: Believers in change ministries merely try to jam themselves into the paradigm to explain away their homosexuality.

All the men in Hayes' group said they fit the profile. Hayes, for example, said his father was a foster child, and was "emotionally absent" and passive.

"I was looking for a man to affirm me, to say I was all right," he said. "Now I don't need to go to homosexuality to meet my needs. I go to God."

One of the group members, 31-year-old Norco schoolteacher Rick Sidow, asked how long God would continue allowing him to "act out" without unleashing some sort of punishment.

"The pornography, the going out and picking up guys . . . how do you stop that?" he asked. "Do you keep looking at God and saying 'Please forgive me?' "

"God's love is based on his grace," Hayes replied. "We are able to fall back into that grace and we become stronger."

The four men talked frankly about pornography, masturbation and prayer. They tackled issues that are unique to them: whether it's still OK to be friends with gays, for example. Sidow asked when God would replace his desire for men with a desire for women.

"There is no textbook answer," Hayes replied. "Just pray. God is calling you to be a good, heterosexual man." 

Copyright 2000 Los Angeles Times