By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
It is almost midnight when Mark Pertuit finally collapses into a leather couch after a long evening of struggle against sin. For two and a half hours, the men and women at his evangelical support group for the "relationally and sexually broken" had sung Christian rock and prayed that God would heal them of eating disorders, phobias and, especially, their homosexuality.
"Everyone is a latent heterosexual," Pertuit told the 12 men and three women in the auditorium of a cavernous Orange County evangelical headquarters. "Through the Lord, we can awaken the latent heterosexuality within."
Several group members stood to accept Jesus into their hearts during the evening, or receive his blessing, as Pertuit and other team members took turns praying at the microphone. Then Pertuit led a small-group discussion. The first speaker shared a triumph: He had begun experiencing heterosexual desire for the first time in a relationship with a woman. A second man spoke of his depression. Then a third man broke the mood. He didn't think his homosexuality needed healing, he said. "That's the first time that happened," Pertuit remarked later. Pertuit assured him he was welcome anyway, "although I wouldn't be surprised if he's not back," he said.
Pertuit's own sketchy sexual history is exclusively gay, but the former Catholic seminarian has been on a seven-year odyssey to find the straight man within. With his neatly trimmed goatee, plaid shirt and baggy carpenter's jeans, the 25-year-old evangelical wouldn't be out of place in West Hollywood, but girls might find him sexy in a sensitive way. Pertuit doesn't actually know. Although he's achieved heterosexual "arousal," Pertuit has yet to actually try sex with a woman. But that's about to change, he hopes.
"I consider myself straight and looking to marry," Pertuit says. "After God filled the hole in my heart, I never became infatuated with a man again, but that didn't mean I didn't have my attractions and fixations. It's so complex."
Pertuit spoke last week from the hustings of the ex-gay movement, a little-known subculture that burst aboveground with a $500,000 ad campaign in major newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times and, most recently, The Wall Street Journal. One of the full-page ads, funded by Christian-right groups including the Christian Coalition and the Family Research Council, features scores of happy "ex-gays" claiming that God helped them find the joys of heterosexuality. Others carry the chirpy testimony of Anne Paulk, a former lesbian married to a former drag queen, whose Jerry Springer- esque story is a staple at ex-gay conferences.
Gay organizations and church groups, including the Interfaith Alliance, the United Church of Christ, the Unitarian Universalist Association and a coalition of United Methodist ministers, reacted furiously, calling the campaign's message the same old right-wing gay bashing in gentler garb. They also saw it as a call to arms for the upcoming elections.
"When the election happens, they want the Republican Party to be beholden to their constituency on social issues," says Darrel Cummings, deputy executive director of the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center.
Janet Folger, an official with the Center for Reclaiming America, a spinoff of D. James Kennedy's right-wing Coral Ridge Ministries, denies the campaign is political. "It's speaking truth in love," she insists.
It is not scientific truth that is fueling the gay-conversion campaign. Sigmund Freud, behaviorists and others have tried - largely unsuccessfully - to develop techniques for changing sexual orientation. Today, most experts reject the notion that people select their sexuality, and indeed many now suspect a genetic link. Both the American Psychological Association (APA) and the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from their lists of mental disorders in the 1970s.
"There may be ways of suppressing urges to act out sexual behavior, but I don't think we fundamentally change the way our brains are programmed to respond to sexual attraction," says Joshua Golden, a professor of clinical psychiatry at UCLA and the former director of the university's Human Sexuality Program. "Think about what it would be like to try to change yourself into somebody with a different set of preferences, and you'll understand."
But where science fears to tread, the evangelicals and other religious groups have forged ahead. In Southern California alone, as many as a dozen ex-gay groups meet weekly. Some are part of local churches; others are affiliated with national Christian networks: Exodus International of Seattle, Homosexuals Anonymous of Reading, Pennsylvania; Love in Action of Memphis; and Anaheim's own Desert Stream. Roman Catholics have Courage, and Mormons have Evergreen International.
The basic theory of most of these groups is that homosexuality results from a "broken" relationship with the same-sex parent. Typically, the dynamic involves a cold, distant father and a domineering mother (the bulk of ex-gay literature is about men). Homosexuality is cured by healing the breach. Many ex-gayers are encouraged to bond with an older straight man from their church. They also undergo "masculinity-building" activities, tossing around the pigskin to stimulate red-blooded hetero drives. Lesbians are urged to trade in their car tools for makeup kits.
In Encino, NARTH, the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, refers clients to as many as 30 local therapists who practice what they call gay "reparative" therapy. Dr. Joseph Nicolosi, who heads NARTH, is the leading proponent of a "scientific" basis for ex-gay therapy.