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.
Nicolosi took his doctorate in 1977 from the California Professional School of Psychology. Curiously, Nicolosi "doesn't remember" where the school was located when he attended classes. (A spokeswoman said the location was a storefront on the outskirts of MacArthur Park. The school now occupies four campuses throughout California, including one in Alhambra, and its mission statement advocates "combating discrimination in all its forms, especially . . . heterosexism.") Nicolosi also runs a Catholic counseling center, but says his reparative therapy is secular.
"It would be easy to dismiss our therapy as religiously motivated, but it's not. It's science," he says.
Nicolosi claims a third of his clients are "cured," a third show "significant improvement," and a third don't change. "Their homosexuality is still there, but it is really no problem," Nicolosi says. He also claims the scientific literature supports him, although an APA study found the evidence that reparative therapy succeeds "less than compelling."
Nicolosi client Mark, 31, says his therapy had nothing to do with Christianity. The initial focus of his therapy was his "dysfunctional" relationship with his "big-time businessman" father.
"He never hugged me. He worked until 9 every night and played golf every Saturday," says Mark, a sales associate at a video store. His next step toward heterosexuality was to "work the program" by returning to full-time work, taking up painting and making straight male friends. And where to find these new friends? At Nicolosi's reparative men's groups.
"I call them nongay homosexuals," Mark says. "I've made four significant male friendships I know I will have for the rest of my life." Heterosexuality will come in its own time, Mark believes. "I'm not going to lie and say I have two girlfriends, but when I see a beautiful woman getting in her car now, I appreciate her."
Why do gay people want to convert? For many leaders, that's a stupid question with easy answers: oppression, discrimination, religious and family pressure, internalized homophobia. Mark says he was turned off by the gay-bar scene. For many evangelicals, particularly from rural states, an ex-gay group is the first place they can admit their sexuality to other Christians without being prayed over or exorcised.
"I would have jumped on this 35 years ago," says the Reverend Mel White, a former speechwriter for Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell who came out of the closet after many years. His book Stranger at the Gate details his experiences. "I hardly know a gay or lesbian person who hasn't been affected by the idea they could be cured."
But if recruiting is not a problem, backsliding is. The ex-gay dropout rate is so high, "ex-ex-gays" now have their own books and Web sites, which describe the movement as a horror show of coercion, guilt and despair.
One Web posting tells the story of an ex-ex-gay man whose therapist opened his first session by setting an hourglass on her desk. "The grains of sand represent how many people are dying and going to hell while we are here talking," she said. In another posting, ex-ex-gayer Tom Ottosen says Love in Action executive director John Smid suggested that he commit suicide rather than return to the "gay lifestyle." (Smid, reached by phone, says he might have mentioned the high risk of death by AIDS or stress in the gay "lifestyle," but never suicide.)
Perhaps the most notorious ex-gay defectors were Michael Bussee and Gary Cooper, who helped found Exodus in 1976. While stumping for the group, they fell in love. Crunch time came when they found themselves booked into a hotel room with only one bed. The couple married in 1982; Cooper died of AIDS nine years later. Their story was told in a 1993 documentary on PBS.
Bussee says that in all his years inside the movement, he never met a single homosexual who was truly converted to heterosexuality.
"If you got them away from the Christian limelight," he says, "and asked them, 'Honestly now, are you saying that you are no longer homosexual and you are now heterosexually oriented?' not one person said, 'Yes, I am actually now heterosexual.'"
Ex-gay poster couple John and Anne Paulk take exception to that kind of talk. John (his drag name was Candi), who recently took a job with James Dobson's Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs, got a lot of press after the ad campaign broke. He says he was very annoyed with questions raised about his wife's lesbianism, which apparently consisted of one post-collegiate affair.
But mostly, Paulk was annoyed with insinuations that his marriage is a charade. "Are you married?" he asked. "Then you know what it's like, the whole 'men are from Mars, women are from Venus' thing. You're tired, you're raising a child, your schedule is taking you over. Why would we go through all that just for an outward expression of playing house?"
When asked about his current sex life, he replied, "We have sexual relations on a regular basis that are mutually emotionally and physically gratifying." Hardly an Ovidian declaration of passion, but then, lust is not a popular topic in the ex-gay movement.
Ex-gay counselor Andria Sigler is the director of La Mirada-based Journey Christian Ministries, which has a staff of four counselors who provide Christian counseling in Orange County, Torrance and Santa Monica.
Dressed in an ankle-length overall dress, hose and wedgie sandals, Sigler willingly discussed her "journey out of homosexuality" and into heterosexual marriage and motherhood, her former drug and alcohol problems, and her seven to eight years of therapy and Christian regrowth. But when asked about her sexual feelings for her husband and other men, she grew frosty. "I won't journey there," she said. "Homosexuality and heterosexuality are not about who people are able to sleep with; it's so much more than that."
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"I believe some people on a scale are more of a 5 than a 10 in homosexuality; they can get married and have kids and be happy. More power to them. But that doesn't include everybody," says John Evans, an early Love in Action leader who now lives with a male partner in Sonoma, California.
A number of ex-gays report a honeymoon period when forbidden desires subside, followed by a black depression when the feelings come roaring back. Some groups now speak of "struggling with homosexuality" rather than of being cured. Many acknowledge that gay fantasies or desires never go away completely, and counsel abstinence or celibacy.
In other words, back to the closet. But how many gay people will give up years of their lives, or thousands of dollars in therapy fees, just to hear once again that they should repress their desires? So the ex-gay movement and the Christian right continue to push a phantom gay cure.
"It's a kinder, gentler ex-gay movement . . . but it's still very odious," says White, the former speechwriter for Falwell. "These people are absolutely into dem-ographics, they know what hot buttons to push, and they're trying to mobilize volunteers as precinct workers by creating an enemy. It's the politics of blame."