Where Grace Abounds
How do evangelicals “cure” homosexuals like Ted Haggard? When the author enrolled in one local treatment program, he discovered the prescription involved a regimen of Twinkies, margaritas, a little Cher, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and sing-alongs to the musical Grease.
And then, shortly after the New Year, it was reported that Haggard had been cured. De-gayed in three weeks of counseling at an undisclosed Arizona treatment center. Even fellow Christian conservatives waxed incredulous. “The truth is that’s not my story, and it’s not the story of anyone I’ve ever met,” Alan Chambers, president of the largest ex-gay umbrella organization, Exodus International, told CNN’s Anderson Cooper. “I don’t know Ted Haggard’s journey over the last three weeks, but…I would say that it’s something that—it doesn’t seem like something that is really the case.”
Because New Life Church paid Haggard a year’s salary of approximately $130,000 on the conditions that he leave Colorado Springs and never speak of the scandal publicly, the details of his treatment have been kept confidential. Christi Cessna of the Sierra Tucson center, a private Arizona treatment facility that handles high-profile cases regarding sexual trauma, would not confirm whether Haggard stayed there. However, she did say that an intensive stay would involve a highly structured program consisting of individual, group, and family therapy, as well as some specific somatic-related therapies, and that a high-profile client is treated no differently than any other. If Haggard was treated like so many thousands of Christian “ex-gays,” the program he went through likely incorporated teachings similar to those employed by Where Grace Abounds, a Denver-based ministry that aims to assist people in leaving the “homosexual lifestyle.” Not long ago, while Pastor Ted was still perceived only as a heterosexual evangelical superstar, I started attending weekly Where Grace Abounds (WGA) meetings, to witness what this treatment was all about.
It’s a crisp autumn evening in the fall of 2003, and I’m in Westminster, trying to keep my hand jive in sync with the class of Rydell High.
Now can you hand-jive, baby,
Oh can you hand-jive, baby?
Three months earlier, I started attending meetings at the Corona Presbyterian Church. I had anticipated being privy to a lot of prayer, some self-loathing, and perhaps some heavy-handed personality realignment. What I experienced was even stranger, even gayer, than anything I might’ve conjured.
Clap-and-slap-happy, I sit in a row of fold-out chairs inside a cozy living room. Surrounding me in giddy spectatorship are 25 men and women suffering from “unwanted homosexuality,” among other carnal afflictions. But no one’s suffering right now. We’re watching the 1978 musical Grease. There are Twinkies and margaritas and a DVD player set on closed-caption so we all get the lyrics right. As if we didn’t already know them. Projected on the sort of fold-out screen normally reserved for numbing family-vacation slide shows, John Travolta’s Danny Zuko has dissed his summer love for the last time. When Danny stumbles into the notorious Cha Cha DiGregorio, the two doff their dates and set Rydell’s gym floor ablaze with 1950s dancing, envisioned through the sexed-up lens of the disco decade. About half the guests around me are decked out in leather jackets, cut-off T-shirts, chiffon dresses, even a few satin Pink Ladies jackets. All costumes are gender-appropriate.
Oh yeah, oh yeah, oh yeah, yeah!
Born to hand-jive, oh yeah!
The woman to my right has decided Cha Cha is having too much fun. Is it her flagrant hip switching, her trampy makeup, or her brazen flaunting of sexuality that, by the standards of any contemporary MTV show, seems profoundly quaint? Whatever. Someone needs to put this hussy in her place. “Slut!” She shouts at the screen, following her exhortation with a naughty giggle.
In the middle of “Greased Lightnin’,” with its none-too-coded lyrics (you know that I ain’t braggin’, she’s a real pussy wagon), Scott, a sprightly ministry staffer, stands up, shakes his arm, and scolds the young Travolta: “Daannnnny, stop. Being. A Potty Mouth!” He seems less scolding than pleading, as if he could will it to be true. Scott has spent the last 16 years in the ministry, and this party is his brainchild—a follow up to last year’s much talked-about sing-along The Sound of Music fete. Normally he patiently ministers to those on the front lines of the “struggle with sexuality and relationships.” Fielding questions, coaxing people through their initial fears. But tonight he’s letting loose, facing the audience, his audience, as his outstretched arm hovers across the room in lockstep synchronicity with the T-Birds.
My summer of WGA, the summer of 2003, was what appeared to be the gayest summer in American history. In June the U.S. Supreme Court struck down sodomy laws in 13 states, decriminalizing consensual gay sex and setting the stage for the culture war’s ultimate battle royale: gay marriage. In August the Episcopal Church voted in the Reverend Gene Robinson as its first gay bishop; dissidents talked splits. And, oh, those summer nights where Queer Eye for the Straight Guy’s preening power fags taught heterosexual men the ways of applying product, grilling asparagus, and all things fabulous. Though the ministry has its office off East Colfax, Where Grace Abounds meetings occur where gays abound. That is, in the heart of Capitol Hill, where rainbow flags hang proudly from apartment balconies, King Soopers is “Queen Soopers,” and the Diedrich Coffee shop is a continuous, caffeinated sausage party. Outside a church that is literally around the corner from all that, the ministry’s smiling greeters welcome scared strangers and hug returning friends.