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.
For the first 12 weeks, new initiates are segregated in “Foundations Series,” a mandatory acclimation program designed to familiarize us with the scriptural and psychological concepts that underpin the ministry’s larger mission. These lectures are followed by “Small Group” sessions, which is where we’re encouraged to open up, speak in “I statements,” and share our struggles with sexuality and relationships. Group starts with the facilitator asking if we brought anything with us to share, or if we just need some “check-in” time. Along with words like “process,” one of WGA’s buzzwords is “struggle,” but in Small Group I can only think the real word is “stilted.” It isn’t until my fifth week that I witness someone with the guts to not dilly-dally and to put his cards on the table.
Dressed in the Colorado-casual uniform of T-shirt, shorts, and Tevas, Eric complains of the ubiquity of hot guys. Back in Denver for the summer, unemployed and staying with his parents, he confesses that a few hours earlier he’d “jacked off with two other guys in a bookstore.” Scott asks him what he needs from the group. He thinks for a moment before saying that he only needed to get it off his chest. I find out later that Eric has since moved to Marin County, outside San Francisco, to be part of a live-in ex-gay ministry. Before moving, he’d spent several years in Denver attending WGA. It’s been a long struggle, one he gives no indication is anywhere near over.
Stories like this are the norm in Small Group. Aside from the looming temptations of adult bookstores, there’s the omnipresence of personal rejection. Take Peggy, a married woman who fell in love with a woman in her church. They had an affair, they knew it was wrong. Hoping for support and guidance, they confessed to their pastor. They were told, “We don’t know how to deal with this” and were asked to leave their church.
I hear about Matt. He phoned his mom after a month of no communication. He told her about his struggle with his homosexuality. She was unimpressed and expressed it by meeting his questions with single-sentence answers. He says she can’t understand “how this could’ve happened in my family.” I hear the stories of two middle-aged pastors, both fathers, one with a lesbian daughter, the other with a gay son. The former says he’s trying to figure out how to deal with “the girlfriend.” He’s going to be polite, he says, but the girlfriend won’t be coming home for dinner. The other pastor’s son came out nine years ago and told him, “If I didn’t accept his homosexuality, I didn’t accept him.” Now his wife is dying and he’s terrified of losing both.
What’s my story? Well, I keep it simple. When pressed, I tell people that I suffer from unwanted urges. Whether they’re for firemen or fish tacos I never specify. Since so many of my fellow ex-gay newbies are reticent—due, no doubt, to shame, repression, and basic male emotional constipation—my lack of forthright confession doesn’t stand out. It’s not hard to find ways to participate in conversations—dolling out noncontroversial advice—without revealing anything specific.
Eight weeks into the Foundations Series, I’m sitting on a cushy, white couch, staring at a dry-erase board with its Magic Marker outline of the enemy’s battle plans. Donny is tonight’s speaker, and the enemy is—who else?—Satan. A member of WGA’s leadership team, and a WGA vet, Donny calls tonight’s talk “The Battle from Within and Without.” Donny has short, black hair, and if he told you he was an assistant principal or a choreographer, it wouldn’t be a shock. Donny’s been married for 19 years, but for much of that time he was active in “the lifestyle,” an ex-gay buzzword for all things openly gay. He cites a statistic that 91 percent of Americans claim to believe in God, while only 67 percent claim they believe in Satan. He finds this odd.
“How strong is the enemy? As strong as God lets him be.”
Donny relates his struggle with homosexuality and sex addiction to a larger struggle—with honesty. During his teen years, deception took the form of secretly compiling “my version of pornography”—namely, photos of guys clipped from sports magazines. Donny says he never wanted to be homosexual; he always knew it wasn’t what God wanted for him. But after getting married, his sex addiction started getting out of control. “If one wants to understand how powerful the enemy is,” he says, “all you need to do is to try and walk away from a sexual addiction.”
On the board he sketches a crude house to show us more of the enemy’s entry points. Satan comes through the front door with events like 9/11 or Columbine. The back door is via humanism, which he describes as, “You know, Jesus, Buddha—it’s all good.” His talk is punched up with bullet points that, like many WGA tutorials, bounce freely between self-help pop psychology—some of it hard to poke holes in—and evangelical absolutism:
- Our desire to be liked is in direct conflict with our desire to be known (by God).
- The enemy’s biggest weapon is secrecy
- Addiction cannot coexist with dignity, self-respect, and personal freedom.
And, the real kicker:
- Change is never a guarantee; it may or may not occur.
WGA’s approach to reversing that which mainstream psychology has long agreed is irreversible is a stew of contradictions. There’s no fire and brimstone sermonizing, no one telling us we’re on a highway to hell, but there’s also a lot of lying by omission. At no time does anyone acknowledge the possibility that two gay people could have a healthy, loving relationship. It simply isn’t posited. Instead, “the homosexual lifestyle” is conflated with various forms of sex addiction, psychological acting out, alcoholism, and drug abuse. In short, a manifestation of a deeper pathology. A common theme in Foundation classes is to suggest that homosexuality should be de-emphasized in our identity. Instead, we should consider defining ourselves through our relationship with God, our interests and professions.