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.
Scott is the de facto cruise director for Thursday night’s meeting and one of a handful of people on the ministry’s full-time staff. Short and bouncy, with big eyes and a buzz cut, Scott is invariably dressed in low-rider jeans and a neatly tucked polo shirt. It’s likely he would set gaydars into a tizzy from here to Lincoln, Nebraska. As my face becomes familiar over the next several weeks, he makes a point of greeting me by name with a smile and by squeezing my upper arm. I know better than to mistake it for a come-on, but it’s a gesture foreign to any heterosexual man I’ve ever met. In that world, touches are reserved for handshakes, dap slaps, and fleeting pat-on-the-back hugs. Here the cues are crossed.
“Hi, and welcome to Where Grace Abounds. Can anyone tell me why we exist?” In a church basement of fluorescent lights, pea-green carpet, and dry-erase boards, the weekly ritual begins with this question. Less ontological than rhetorical, it is followed by awkward silence before someone eventually breaks it with the responsorial psalm: “Where Grace Abounds exists to guide and support men and women who seek to understand sexuality and relationships, and to inspire all people to know and personally appropriate God’s plan for their sexuality and relationships.”
Despite this mouthful of a mission statement, God’s plan is seldom spelled out. In small group discussions, members seem painfully aware that His vague plan might have very specific implications. Canceling home Internet service and its constant lure of perpetual pornography, or steering clear of certain neighborhoods, certain bars, certain parks, and certain people. These are conclusions people expressed on their own, not edicts delivered from on high. But beyond avoidance and celibacy, where God wants them to go is the big question that keeps many coming back (as opposed to out) for years.
In addition to the Why Are We Here question, each meeting kicks off with an icebreaker scrawled on the blackboard. On my third night, it reads as follows: “In what historical period would you most like to have been alive?” Scott wants to live in the big-band era, so he could “go to those Ricky Ricardo clubs every night.” We go around the room, sharing our first names and our answers. Christopher chooses Victorian England, because “they had the most amazing furniture…I’m not kidding!” I say I want to be an adult in the mid-1980s, so I could gain a more thorough appreciation for cultural luminaries like Scott Baio and David Hasselhoff before they became targets of Gen-X ridicule. An hour later, a younger man pulls me aside to tell me that when he was 14 he used his sister’s name to send away to Tiger Beat magazine exclusively for Scott Baio centerfolds.
Long before Haggardgate, the ex-gay movement had its share of critics: everyone from gay-rights advocates to mainstream psychologists and social scientists to former members. The reasons are less than surprising, given that the premise of the ex-gay movement—the idea that homosexuality is somewhere between a personal choice and a developmental disorder—undermines the gay civil-rights cause. If gayness is merely a lifestyle choice, it requires no more special legal consideration than people who choose to sleep in hammocks or dye their hair pink.
But the ex-gay movement went beyond that. Its adherence to therapies such as “aversion” and “reparative” are practiced by unaccredited therapists, putting it beyond the pale of a mainstream, peer-reviewed profession. What’s more, in their 30-year history, no ex-gay organization has ever compiled definitive statistics on success rates. How many people have turned straight? If so, for how long? Couple this with a history of prominent defections and disgraces and many might wonder how the movement has tread water this long.
Regardless of what Haggard experienced or did not experience during his treatment in Arizona, the notion that gays can change their orientation through therapy or a tag-team intervention of prayer and counseling is a position that’s never been more on the defensive. In March, Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, an arm of one of the country’s largest conservative Christian blocs, floated a major shift in thinking. Where the religious right has been largely united in its belief that homosexuality is a choice, Mohler said scientific studies suggest otherwise. As he wrote on his website in early March, “If a biological basis is found, and if a prenatal test is then developed, and if a successful treatment to reverse the sexual orientation to heterosexual is ever developed, we would support its use as we should unapologetically support the use of any appropriate means to avoid sexual temptation and the inevitable effects of sin.”
Ever since the American Psychological Association struck homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual in the early 1970s, “treating” homosexuality has been a marginal psychological niche conducted without any accreditation. With few exceptions, the work of leading gays to heterosexuality has been the domain of religious ideologues and activists. And despite the conventional political wisdom that Karl Rove’s so-called base, with its culture-war kingmakers, is politically unstoppable, gay civil rights have soldiered on to near-mainstream acceptance, with states like New Jersey and California joining Vermont and Massachusetts in offering gay couples the rights of marriage, if not marriage itself.