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.
Formed in the 1970s, the ex-gay movement has been a loose confederation of pastors and ministries. Its umbrella organization, Exodus International, currently claims over 120 affiliated ministries in the United States and Canada. Different ministries adopt different tactics. Techniques vary from strict live-in ministries that seek to weed out anything that smacks of gay, like Abercrombie & Fitch clothing and gym memberships, to those that take a more meditative approach. All of the organizations are subject to the idiosyncrasies of different pastors. In short, among those united in their belief that homosexuality is curable, there’s less consensus on how this might be accomplished
In the late 1970s, Michael Bussee and Gary Cooper, the founding members of Exodus International, fell in love, left their wives, and denounced their ministry as hopelessly misguided. In the 1990s, Colin Cook, founder of the ex-gay ministry Homosexuals Anonymous, was caught having lewd phone conversations with men he was ministering to. Not long after, Cook was accused of giving sexual hugs and engaging in phone sex with his clients. In 2000, John Paulk, a drag queen turned ex-gay icon, was photographed at a gay bar in Washington, D.C. Paulk initially insisted he was not seeking sex, that he merely stopped in to use the bathroom. During “National Coming Out of Homosexuality Day” in 2003, organizer Michael Johnston was exposed after having unprotected sex with several men while failing to disclose his HIV-positive status. On the national stage, the last few years have seen a somewhat graceless exodus of adult gay men from various closets, including the 2004 confession that New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey, despite being married, was “a gay American.”
Haggard was much more than just another midlife-closet crisis. His fall placed both the ex-gay movement and the broader Christian right in a curious predicament, as he was a religious and political leader exalted as the personification of evangelical church and state. Leaders scrambled to downplay the notion that a 21-day cure was plausible while still holding out hope that “change” is feasible. Melissa Fryrear, a Focus on the Family gender-issues analyst and self-proclaimed former lesbian, was no less confusing speaking of her own transition to heterosexuality as a years-long process. At the same time, she maintained that God can perform “instantaneous works” for people, making them—poof!—instantly straight.
Where Grace Abounds was founded shortly after Mary Heathman’s stepson came out of the closet in the mid-1980s. The news forced the Denver rape-crisis counselor to study books on psychology and scripture, attend meetings of all sorts, and arrive at two tough conclusions. Her stepson’s sexuality smacked head-on with her understanding of scripture; the two could not be reconciled. And just as painfully, she found most churches ill-equipped—if not downright resistant—to support her and those in similar situations.
“Most churches don’t know how to deal with these issues, or the way they deal with them is not effective,” Heathman tells me and eight other initiates on our first night at WGA. In the months that follow, I’d hear echoes of her statement again and again. WGA’s program consists largely of informal lectures from members and guest speakers, followed by small group-therapy-styled discussions. Staffers and volunteer ministry leaders tell us that there are many plausible theories on what causes homosexuality. But they caution that focusing on the “why” is not as important in our healing process as reconnecting with God.
Yet there’s one “why” theory that receives more play than others, and it comes from Dr. Elizabeth Moberly and her book Homosexuality: A New Christian Ethic. Moberly and WGA make a clear distinction between homosexuality as an orientation and homosexuality as behavior. The former, they claim, is not the least bit sinful. In fact, it’s a corrective developmental response to a broken relationship with a same-sex parent. The impulse to re-establish this bond, “the reparative drive” as it’s known, is actually healthy. The problem, we’re told, is when the orientation becomes sexualized in adolescence. Sexual activity with the same gender derails the healing process.
Like any theory on something as complex as sexual development, it raises as many questions at it attempts to answer. Like why do boys with caring dads still go gay? And why does every girl raised by Mommy Dearest not grow into a full-fledged lesbian? The exception proves the rule, but since there are so many, the “buts” are invariably pre-empted by a staffer who confesses that, “we just don’t know.” Instead, the emphasis turns inward, toward cultivating our relationship with God and one another. Forming appropriate, intimate relationships with members of the same sex is essential to the healing process. Hence the emphasis on socializing after the ministry officially breaks at night, usually with a visit to Village Inn in Cherry Creek.
The folks who find their way into WGA on Thursday nights are mostly men between 20 and 40. Almost all come from conservative evangelical or fundamentalist Christian backgrounds, with a smattering of Catholics and Lutherans. Many arrive upon the recommendation of a pastor or, more often, a Christian counselor. The ministry is a nonprofit, so everything’s free, but as with most religious entities, a donation basket is passed around at the start of each meeting. While WGA was established to deal exclusively with homosexuality, it soon found itself welcoming people dealing with problems like sex and pornography addiction. In addition, families of gays trying to overcome their homosexuality or not find themselves in supportive company.