Fear and Loathing at the Ex-Gay Conference


That’s the first thing that struck me when I got my registration letter from Focus on the Family for Love Won Out — their “dynamic one-day conference… promoting the truth that homosexuality is preventable and treatable.”

The letter informed me that “for security purposes” I would be asked to show a photo ID at the conference site (the Assembly of God Tabernacle in Decatur, Ga.), and I would have to wear a wristband throughout the day. The letter had stiff warnings about unacceptable behaviors that would be grounds for immediate removal, including “distributing non-Focus on the Family literature; campaigning for alternative religions, philosophical or political views; seeking sexual contacts” (although that last warning did not prevent an ex-lesbian from hitting on me at the conference).

On the day of the conference, October 13, 2001, the paranoia was in full evidence. Notices on the door proclaimed Focus on the Family’s right to search all bags, purses, and personal belongings: “By attending this conference, you are deemed to have consented to such a search.” The paranoia was reinforced by the presence of three armed police officers just inside the door.

I arrived an hour early, which gave me time to look at the Focus on the Family bookstore they had set up. Never had I seen so many anti-gay books, videos, brochures, even CD-ROMs. John Paulk, the world’s most famous ex-gay, who served as hostess for the day, referred to the bookstore offerings as “redemptive resources.” I saw more than one paperback book title priced at $35 each, so evidently redemption is only for the well-to-do. (The conference cost between $60 and $70 for each of the 600 or so folks who attended.)

There was even a children’s book for sale: Mommy, Why Are They Holding Hands? by Deborah Prihoda. The book is described in Focus on the Family literature as the story of “a young girl named Sarah [who] is faced with the reality of homosexual sin after seeing two men holding hands at the mall and hearing about gay people on television. Confronted with her own sinfulness, Sarah discovers that no one is immune from sin…” For only $5 a copy, you can teach your children how evil and sinful they are, while at the same time introducing them to homophobia. Such a deal!

Children were discussed frequently throughout the day, since one of the purposes of the conference was to promote the idea that homosexuality is preventable. Effeminate little boys and tomboy girls were referred to as “pre-homosexual.” We were told that a “scientific study” had proven that 75 percent of effeminate boys grow up to be homosexual. Effeminate behavior in little boys is to be punished, of course, but gently, so as not to induce too much stress (the “child will act more effeminate in times of stress”).

The word “homosexual” was used — as opposed to “gay,” we were told — because the word “gay” signifies a social political identity that is opposed to Christianity. The word “homosexual,” on the other hand, refers to a condition of “gender confusion.” Homosexuality is not really about sex, the conference speakers proclaimed, but about gender identity. If the homosexual woman could just accept her femininity, or the homosexual man his masculinity, “healing” (i.e., heterosexuality) could take place.

Terminology was further garbled when one speaker declared that there is no such thing as homosexuality, since we are all created heterosexual by God. “A homosexual is a person with a homosexual problem,” he stated in his presentation, which was a confusing mixture of bad Freudian psychobabble and contempt for effeminate men and boys. The origins of female homosexuality were left to another speaker, later in the day, because “lesbianism is a little more complicated. As with all things feminine, it’s more complicated.” This was the first of several “jokes” told throughout the day, which drew nervous laughter from most of the folks in the audience. (Another “joke” was about the mother of a boy who came home from college and announced he was bisexual; the mother thought “bisexual” meant a person who has sex two times per year.) All of the “jokes” were, in some way, deprecating to women — apparently to reinforce the stereotyped “gender roles” we must accept if we are to be “healed” of homosexuality.

Other stereotypes were rehashed throughout the day, including the one about male homosexuality being caused by a domineering mother and a weak or absent father (which is true for some of us, but not for all of us). Fathers were warned, “if you don’t hug your son, some other man will.” Lesbians, on the other hand, are created by “a deep deprivation of mother love” and “a deprivation of father love or a default attachment and identification with dad.” See? Lesbians are more complicated.

The atmosphere of paranoia, which was maintained throughout the day by the presence of two armed police officers inside the church auditorium, became even more pronounced when the topic changed to “Why Is What They’re Teaching So Dangerous?” A number of sessions were devoted to the dangerous “gay agenda” — which they view as being promoted not only in popular culture (through such TV shows as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Dawson’s Creek,” “Friends,” “ER,” and of course “Will and Grace”) but also in public schools. Listed among the indicators of “homosexual promotion” in a child’s school: A safe-schools non-harassment policy; a non-discrimination policy; AIDS and sex-ed programs; programs to stop homophobia, hate, or bias. Parents wishing to protect their children from these horrors can use the “Sample Letter from a Parent to a School Administrator” to put the principal on notice that their child is to be excused from all such evils.

An entire session was devoted to “Understanding Pro-Gay Theology,” which was described as “the religious counterpart to pro-gay ideology.” Gay Christians were basically dismissed as revisionists who twist scripture to justify their sinful “proclivities.”

I began to feel overwhelmed by the spiritually toxic atmosphere in the church, so I left before the conference was over. I missed the session called “Someone I Love Is Gay,” but I know what was said because all of the speakers followed, to the letter, the pre-printed outlines we received in our conference guide booklets. According to the outline, the disclosure of a loved one’s homosexuality can cause physical symptoms such as nausea, migraines, sleeplessness, and “disinterest in marital intimacy.”

“The main thing to remember is that all these symptoms are typical. You are not going crazy, and these symptoms will diminish over time.” Anger, of course, is also to be expected: “It’s normal to feel anger over your loved one’s disclosure.” Eventually, though, the devastated person can “find hope again” and “learn to let go.”

I left the conference feeling like I had been present in the armed compound of a dangerously paranoid cult. Gay and lesbian people were consistently presented as either the enemy or as diseased people in desperate need of healing. I began to wonder if this is what it would feel like to be a Jewish person at a “Jews for Jesus” rally — to feel nothing but anger and condescension coming from people who claim to be speaking in love.

The warlike mentality was also in evidence outside, as I drove through the gauntlet of protesters who were waving their picket signs (like “The Religious Right is Neither”) a respectful distance from the dozen or so police officers on the church lawn. I made eye contact with two of the protesters, who both glared at me with what can only be described as hatred. One of them almost jumped out in front of my truck with her sign, which I couldn’t read because I was trying to avoid hitting her with my truck. The protesters did an excellent job confirming the worst fears and stereotypes of the homophobes attending the conference.

I drove to a gay-friendly church where I lit a candle and prayed for the little boys and girls who were going to be punished for their “gender-inappropriate” behaviors. I prayed for the gay and lesbian teenagers growing up in fundamentalist homes who would consider suicide rather than be disowned by their allegedly Christian parents. I knelt at the altar and prayed for peace in this war that the religious right has declared on us.

And I lit another candle, this one for the two protesters who had glared at me with such hatred. I prayed that they, and others like them, would not let their zeal in opposing homophobia cause them to miss out on authentic spirituality. I’m sure they have been wounded, as have many of us, in the name of religion. Yet for many of us, it was only when we began the difficult task of sorting out the toxic elements from true faith that we could begin to be healed. Not the false “healing” offered by the ex-gay ministries, but the true healing which comes from learning to love and accept ourselves as the fabulous people — whether gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or straight — God created us to be.