Date: Thu, 4 Mar 1999 22:26:47 EST
Subject: Baltimore City Paper: Story on the Ex-Gay Ministries

1. BALTIMORE CITY PAPER The Other Side of the Rainbow; Behind the Curtain of Ex-Gay Ministries

812 Park Avenue, Baltimore, MD 21201
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The Other Side of the Rainbow
Behind the Curtain of Ex-Gay Ministries
By Natalie Davis ( )

"Toward hope and healing for homosexuals."

On July 13, 1998, that phrase greeted newspaper readers across America. It headlined a full-page advertisement in The NewYork Times. Below the words was the visage of an attractive woman, her face prettily made up, her left hand cupping her chin, displaying her engagement and wedding rings for all to see. The tag line read: "I'm living proof that Truth can set you free." The woman was identified as Anne Paulk-wife, mother, former lesbian.

The ad described how Paulk was molested as a child by a teenage boy. The experience left her mistrustful of men and disdainful of femininity, which she equated with being weak and vulnerable. She describes becoming attracted to women, being involved in gay and lesbian groups at college, longing to find a female life partner. Then, she says, she found God. She wanted to stop being gay, but it wasn't until a former lesbian led her to "a ministry helping people overcome homosexuality" that she was able to make the break and step into heterosexuality. A few years later, Paulk married a formerly gay man; they now have a son.

"Thousands of ex-gays like [Paulk] have walked away from their homosexual identities," the ad reads. "While the paths each took into homosexuality may vary, their stories of hope and healing through the transforming love of Jesus Christ are the same. Ex-gay ministries throughout the U.S. work daily with homosexuals seeking change, and many provide outreach programs to their families and loved ones. If you really love someone, you'll tell them the truth."

In the following days and weeks, the "Truth in Love" ad campaign continued. An ad that ran July 14 in The Washington Post and the following week in the The Los Angeles Times featured 150 smiling ex-gays, "standing for the truth that homosexuals can change." A USA Today ad on July 15 featured Reggie White- the All-Pro former football player whose anti-gay comments made news last year-standing (in his Green Bay Packers uniform) "in defense of free speech." And on July 29, the Miami Herald printed an advertisement telling the story of HIV+ ex-gay Michael Johnston, highlighting his Christian mother's message to parents: "It was never easy telling him what he didn't want to hear . . . that homosexuality was sin and that he needed to turn from it. We weren't being judgmental. We were just being parents. To say no to his behavior in a way that was straightforward and caring and based on the truth was simply an honest expression of our love. Who could fault us for telling the truth?"

Of course, many people see the truth differently. The campaign was dynamite to an America deeply divided over the volatile and increasingly public debate over the nature of homosexuality and attendant issues such as hate-crime and anti-discrimination laws, adoption rights, and gay marriage. Robert Knight of the Family Research Council, one of 15 conservative Christian groups that paid for the $600,000 campaign, calls the ads "the Normandy landing in the culture war." National gay-rights group rushed to challenge the campaign, some responding with ads of their own; self-identified ex-gays lined up in support, offering their own stories as proof of the campaign's truth.

But what is the truth? Can gay people change? Should gay people change? Is homosexuality a sin? And why is our country-and people's lives-being torn apart over the questions? Is all of this about God, or is it all about politics?

To find answers to - or, at least, some illumination on-these questions, I decided to go to the source. Over a period of two months, I attended a three- day ex-gay retreat and support-group sessions for ex-gay ministries in Baltimore and Washington. I did not identify myself as a writer covering a story, but rather explained-truthfully, but only when asked - that I was a writer who has "questions" about issues of sexuality. My intent was to see what happened in the ministries without a public-relations veil obscuring the view, to meet and talk with former homosexuals and ex-gay leaders. I also conducted a number of formal interviews with people representing a wide variety of viewpoints-ex-gay ministers, gay activists, conservative Christian and Religious Right political leaders. Check your assumptions at the door. And draw your own conclusions.


A storm is raging as I drive to Falling Waters, W.Va., for Regeneration Ministries' fall retreat. I don't know what to expect. All I know is that Regeneration is a Christian ministry that seeks to help unhappy gays looking for a way out of homosexuality. I had seen the Truth in Love ads and felt my own paranoia telling me, "See? Gays should change!" I also had read and heard numerous accounts of the damage done to people who entered ex-gay ministries and psychological therapies simply because they were beaten down by society's homophobia, and found they could not change. I'd spoken with Cheryl Johnson, an ex-ex-gay who met her partner in Regeneration nearly a decade ago. When it became apparent to her- and to everyone around her-that she had not changed, Johnson says she found herself isolated from the only friends she knew. She says she was even asked by a ministry leader to leave the church she and her partner attended.

Being a person of admittedly fluid sexuality, and a Christian who believes that whatever a person's sexuality it is the Creator's plan that they be that way, I am, frankly, petrified. The most passionate anti-smokers are those who've kicked the habit, and I presume the same will be true of the people with whom I was about to spend three days. To be fair, I had to go in with an open mind. And as a Christian, I believe all things are possible through God. Would I leave West Virginia the same way I arrived?

What remains for me to ponder as I head west on Interstate 70 is fact: Regeneration has been around a long time. Founded in 1979 by Alan Medinger, it is one of the oldest homosexual-change organizations in the nation. Medinger is one of the giants of the ex-gay movement. A former president of Exodus International, a worldwide network of ex-gay ministries with which Regeneration is affiliated, he has written extensively about the need for gay people to leave homosexuality behind, accept the literalist view of Scripture, and move into a God-given heterosexual identity and, perhaps, marriage. (His prescription for lesbians includes embracing Godly womanhood by displaying quiet strength and allowing themselves to be dependent upon men.) He is an outspoken opponent of gay marriage, workplace protections for nonheterosexuals, the gay-rights movement, and churches that move toward affirming gays. (Medinger left the mainstream Episcopal church because of what he perceived as its ever-increasing gay-friendliness.) His published writings advocate the classification of homosexuality as a mental disorder and assert his certainty that change can happen-over time-for anyone who submits to Christ and puts in the requisite work.

What makes Medinger so sure? He says he's living proof. He fought his own homosexuality, both before and during his marriage, he tells me later that evening, over dinner. In time, he says, his faith grew stronger; he discovered a desire for his wife, Willa, and now is happy and at peace. Willa works at his side in the ministry, counseling women seeking change.

I also know that Regeneration's director, Jeff Johnston, renounced his former homosexuality through forging a closer bond with God. After years of struggling in a group called Homosexuals Anonymous (a 14-step group that promotes change much as Alcoholics Anonymous helps those with drinking problems) and finding what he sought in a Christian-based ex-gay group, he saw his attraction for men diminish. Ultimately, he married; he and his wife, Judy, who helps out in Regeneration's ministry, have a young son.

With relative ease, given the storm both inside and outside of me, I find the retreat site-the Potomac Park Campground and Conference Center, a facility owned by the fundamentalist Christian denomination the Assemblies of God. I climb out of my car, emblazoned with rainbow bumper stickers, and survey the vast property. A short car ride in front of me is a long, two-story cinder- block edifice I presume houses our living quarters. To the right is a church, a grand one-story brick building that stands in front of a huge structure I soon learn is the fellowship hall. Behind me is the cafeteria, attached to a small building which I take for the information center and, tentatively, enter.

I am early, and several people are milling about. A gorgeous baby boy is toddling around the room; he turns out to be Nathaniel Johnston, Jeff and Judy Johnston's year-and-a-half-old son. Two women sitting at a table greet me warmly. One is Judy Johnston, the other Lani Bersch, who runs Regeneration Books, an arm of the organization that provides ex-gay and Christian readings for ministries across the nation. Bersch had been my phone contact when I arranged to attend the retreat. When I identify myself, Lani sighs in relief that I'd made it safely-she'd given me directions over the phone but forgot to mail me a map as promised. "God got you here," she says, smiling. I am inclined to agree and feel I've already made a friend. In a few minutes, Lani makes sure I am registered, tells me my roommate was coming from "far away," and gives me my room assignment along with the task-if I don't mind helping-of putting name tags on room doors for the other attendees.

I get settled in my room, complete my appointed task, and spend the remaining hours before the conference officially begins chatting pleasantly with ex-gay ministers and former homosexuals over burgers, fries, and sodas. (The first official meal of the retreat wasn't until the next morning's breakfast, so someone dashed out and brought back McDonald's for the early arrivals.) The talk is about everyday stuff: our families, our kids, our work-homosexuality doesn't really come up. The air is convivial, and the people seem very glad to be together.

As the gathering breaks up, I find myself talking with a woman I'll call Beth, who has driven from Pennsylvania to attend the retreat. She says her life changed in 1990, and since then she's been struggling to leave her lesbian desires behind. "They say it helps to have healthy same-sex relationships, like friendships," she says, in a voice that seems to carry a bit of frustration. "But with me, after a while I become too emotionally dependent, so I pull back and isolate myself. And with isolation comes trouble. . . . Being here is really going to help."

I think of Beth two months later when I speak with Christopher Camp. Camp, an out gay Baltimorean who lives with his husband Jack in Woodberry, spent seven years convincing homosexuals to break free from being gay through building a relationship with God. His own path began in a California Bible college where he joined a fundamentalist Christian group and turned away from what he saw as the sin of homosexuality.

After nearly a decade of study and work with gay people desperate to change, Camp says he came to the realization that he was still oriented toward men. He concluded that he was gay and nothing was going to change him; that God intended for him to be that way; and that his homosexuality was not a factor in whatever emotional difficulties he suffered.

"There are so many people involved in ex-gay ministries whose problems have nothing to do with homosexuality," he says. "They have to do with issues of abuse, codependency-a whole slew of issues that have nothing to do with being gay or being attracted to or oriented to someone of the same gender." People such as Beth, he contends, only cause themselves more pain when they try to connect problems with parents, sexual abuse, or emotional dependency to their sexual orientation.


The first session of the Regeneration retreat takes place in the Assemblies of God fellowship hall. The mood in the crowd of about 70 is expectant and exultant as the worship portion of the evening begins.

In my real life, I attend the Metropolitan Community Church of Baltimore, a Christian church that offers special ministry to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people. Worship at MCC-Baltimore tends to be of the Protestant model, with a couple of nods to my native Catholicism. So it is amazing to me how easy it is to worship with a group of professed fundamentalist Christians who represent a number of denominations. As we do in MCC, we begin with songs of praise and worship to God, then move into hymns of reflection. The music ministry is led by Judy Johnston, who plays electric piano and sings in a beautiful, nuanced soprano. I soon find myself caught up in the spirit of the Creator. God is being sincerely loved and praised here, and I believe the Creator is present, filling the room and the hearts of those assembled.

As we go from song to song, I am disconcerted by the realization that I know most of the tunes - I've sung many with gusto among my gay and lesbian family at MCC. There are many similarities to my home church's Pentecostal - type services, from the choice of hymns to the display of lyrics on an overhead projector to the mumbled cries of "Jesus, sweet Jesus" issuing from various congregants. This wouldn't be the last time I reflected on the common ground shared by gays and ex-gays of faith.

On this November night, giving voice to words that hold different meanings depending upon who's doing the singing, I sing along with my ex-gay brothers and sisters:

You are here among us
For we have gathered in your name. . . .
You are here,
Here to heal
And here to save. . . .
Holy Spirit come do as you wish.
We are changed as You move in our midst.

At the piano, Judy Johnston segues seamlessly into another song, in which I find more double meaning: "For you are worthy of my life, holy God. . . ."

The ambiguity in those words gains clarity when the last chord of music fades and Bob Ragan, director of Regeneration's Northern Virginia office, takes to the podium in front of the room. Ragan says turning his life over to the Creator led him to turn his back on homosexuality and give up a 15-year addiction to masturbation and pornography-behaviors that, along with same- gender sex, are classed in the ex-gay movement as "sexual brokenness." He continues with a prayer for wholeness, for open minds and hearts, and for continued healing for those struggling with same-gender attraction.

Now, the first of the retreat's five "teaching" sessions begins. The facilitator is Karl Kakadelis, director of Grace Ministries and a member of Regeneration's Northern Virginia advisory board. Kakadelis is an attractive man; he looks like any other 30ish suburban dad, and he amiably engages the crowd, talking about his life with his wife and children. As he begins an address that would run nearly three hours, we learn that he too is a Christian who escaped the bonds of homosexuality. He's also fought and won battles with addiction to drugs and (heterosexual) sex. God, he says, was the reason for his victory over sin.

Kakadelis launches into his first teaching, instructing people to pull out their Bibles, encouraging us to take notes. He moves quickly, starting with the apostle Paul's letter to the Roman church. Romans 7:15 states the problem: "What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate." In Romans 7:18, we find that sin comes from within our earthly bodies: "For I know that good does not dwell in me, that is, in my flesh. The willing is ready at hand, but doing the good is not." And sin, we learn from 7:20, bears the blame: "Now if [I] do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me."

Curiously omitted is Romans 7:16, which says, "Now if I do what I do not want, I concur that the law is good." The people around me are homosexual or bisexual, or fear that they are, and all presumably want to be heterosexual. Those who are happy being gay are doing what they want, what they believe to be right, not what they "do not want." So is the law-the Bible presented literally-good for them?


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