Preaching to the perverted

And the gay shall be made straight... For Christian ministries across America, homosexuality is not genetic, it's mortal sin. But they know the cure
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The Independent Culture
Jeremiah had his evening all figured out. He would go to this church meeting at a private house somewhere on the edge of Philadelphia, stay a while and then go straight home. He would, in fact, be entirely virtuous. If he could manage it, he wouldn't even masturbate when he got to bed. But then temptation - the devil he knows so well - presented itself. He had found the right neighbourhood but couldn't remember the exact address of the meeting. Two "beautiful hunks" walked past his car and he wanted to follow them. That much he managed to resist. But then he resolved this: if he couldn't find the house he was going to he would simply divert - to the porno shops downtown.

Recently, however, Jeremiah has had a new friend to help him through moments like these - the Lord. "I said, `Alright, God, if you don't show me this place right now, I'm going to the shops.' I knocked on the first door and it was wrong, so I said, `Right, that's it'. But God said, `Why not try another door?' So I did and the next door was the right one. God had directed me to it and He showed Himself to be real."

It was only a small incident, but to 42-year-old Jeremiah it meant everything. For 27 years he was a closeted homosexual, unable to deal with his desires or reveal them to family or friends. But three months ago, he came out - though not in the usual way. "I was coming out of the closet not to be a liberated gay, but to be liberated from the gay lifestyle," he explains. And to achieve that he has turned to God.

More specifically, he has turned to Harvest USA, one of myriad Christian ministries across America that want to lead gay men and women out of the homosexual lifestyle through the teachings of the Bible. He tells the story of his near-miss with the Philly porn shops at a weekly gay men's night at Harvest. Listening to him are seven other men in the group, as well as myself, attending as a guest. The men are mostly in their forties. All want to shed their homosexual urges. Half of them are married.

"I can breathe now," says Jeremiah, explaining the euphoria he has felt since enrolling at Harvest. "I can say no to pornography, I can say no to the lifestyle, I can live a clean life and I can have pure thoughts." He even holds out this hope: "I would like some day to be married and to have children."

Dennis, 63, is by far the oldest of the group. Living in the country, attending a church that could never have understood his homosexual struggles and married for 28 years, he suffered half a lifetime of depression, even despair. He found Harvest three years ago. "God has given me freedom," he offers. "I've experienced freedom in the last three years that I have never experienced in all my life. I can say no."

Harvest USA, headquartered in a pre-fabricated bungalow in the northern suburbs of Philadelphia, is a place of evident good intentions. Its director - and the man leading the discussion this evening - is John Freeman, an ordained Presbyterian minister. He himself is a saved gay and a former cross-dresser. But it has been 22 years since God, as he tells it, led him to a woman. They married and now have three children.

Recently, however, Harvest has found itself centre-stage in a newly erupted and often harsh American debate about what it is to be gay. It is a controversy that has lately become even more passionate, with the tragic lynching of 21-year-old Matthew Shepard on the windswept prairies of Wyoming. Shepard, a first-year university student, died in hospital last week after being lured from a bar by two men, now charged with lashing him to a fence and beating him into an ultimately fatal coma.

Behind the work of Harvest is this not so self-evident pair of beliefs: that to be homosexual is a sin under God - as, to be sure, it is stated in the scriptures - and that the possibility is there for every homosexual person to escape the lifestyle. For every gay there is the option of becoming an "ex-gay".

The very notion of an "ex-gay" alternative does not sit well with many in the gay movement, however. At the very least, it repudiates the theory, which is sacred to most gay people, that the homosexual condition is about nature, not nurture. In other words, it is the genes of a person that determine whether he or she turns out to be gay or straight, not the environment they grow up in.

Even so, scores of ministries such as Harvest, which was founded in 1983, have for years quietly been reaching out to unhappy gays and offering them the possibility of change. Most belong to Exodus International, a non-denominational umbrella ministry based in Seattle, which takes the lead in preaching the ex-gay gospel. The peace was disturbed this summer, however, when Exodus, with help from several ultra-conservative political groups, such as the Christian Coalition, published full-page advertisements in several leading US newspapers, including The New York Times, trumpeting its mission.

The Times ad featured a picture of Anne Paulk, a former lesbian married to John Paulk, who was once a transvestite and now sits as board chairman of Exodus. "I'm living proof that Truth can set you free", said the headline on the page. Another, in The Washington Post, carried a picture of hundreds of self-described ex-gays. Its headline blared: "We're standing for the truth that homosexuals can change."

The response from the gay community was fast and furious. It charged that the advertisements were politically inspired and meant to stir up hatred and discrimination against homosexuals. The not-so-subtle message, they argued, was that gays choose the lifestyle they are in and could just as easily choose to leave it. At the very least, they said, the ads implied that homosexuality was a disease with a cure.

Most gays probably thought that that debate had been put to rest. As far back as 1973, the American Psychiatric Association jettisoned the idea that homosexuality was a pathological illness that could be chased away by electrocution and various aversion therapies. Last year, the American Psychological Association passed a resolution stating that anyone still advocating conversion therapy for homosexuals was damaging the self-esteem of their patients and feeding societal prejudice towards them.

"This campaign might be hurting a lot of people," commented Wayne Besen, spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, the largest political organisation for gays and lesbians in the US. "For every John Paulk, I can show you 10 so-called ex-gays who have failed in their attempt to change their sexual orientation. For some that has shattered their lives."

Exodus, founded in 1976 and now boasting 83 chapters in 35 states, including Harvest in Philadelphia, has no figures on exactly how many homosexuals have attended the programmes or

how many have emerged "cured". It has not helped its cause that two of its own founders, both men, left the organisation after falling in love with each other. No fewer than 13 of the Exodus ministries have had to close their doors because their directors returned to homosexuality.

At Harvest, however, John Freeman and the men at this evening's session are sanguine. The arguments outside, they quickly point out, have become polarised and mostly meaningless. All in the room are agreed, however, that every person is born heterosexual and it is childhood influences - nurture - that determine who becomes sexually "broken" before Christ.

"We don't believe that people have orientation to homosexuality," explains Freeman. "You become oriented to whatever it is you give your heart to over and over again. Whatever it is you say yes to over and over again, you become oriented to that thing - until something comes along to divert you."

Rich, who lived as an openly gay man in the Village in New York for 25 years, through gay pride and the Aids crisis, says homosexuality is a "distortion". "We're all born heterosexual. There are many reasons why our heterosexuality becomes distorted and practising homosexuality is just one of those ways." Like everyone in the room, Rich hates the phrase "ex-gay", but hates even more attacks on groups such as Harvest by the gay movement. "I'm boggled. What are they upset about? They can't understand that it's possible to change? It's outrageous."

Nobody in this room expects to spend two weeks here - studying the Bible, sharing their struggles and joining in prayer - and then all of a sudden want to chase after women. It may be too much even to expect that they will stop fancying other men. But at least they expect to gain the strength to stop wanting what the Bible says is sin. Having sex with men is out, and so are porn shops.

That much Jeremiah has achieved. "God has arrested my heart. He has arrested me and I'm a prisoner and He won't leave me alone." Which explains what happened one recent afternoon when he did slip into an adult video shop downtown. "They started singing `Jesus Loves Me' on the radio, and I was like, `Oh no, even here, God is even here.'" Photo: A student at a vigil for Matthew Shepard AP