Ex-Gay Like Me

When I decided to go undercover and infiltrate an ex-gay ministry I expected to be privy to a lot of prayer, self-loathing and maybe some heavy-handed personality realignment.

I didn't expect to be doing the handjive at sing-along Grease, which is where I sit, clap-and-slap happy in a row of fold out chairs inside a cozy Colorado living room.

Now can you hand-jive, baby,

Oh can you hand-jive, baby?

Surrounding me in giddy spectatorship are 25 men and women who suffer from "unwanted homosexuality."

But no one's suffering at the moment. There are Twinkies to eat, margaritas to drink, and a DVD player set on closed caption so we all get the lyrics right.

Projected on the sort of fold out screen normally reserved for family vacation slideshows, Danny Zuko has dissed his summer love for the last time.

Stumbling into his former flame, the notorious Cha Cha DiGregorio, the two doff their dates and set Rydell High's gym floor ablaze with 1950's dancing as envisioned through the sexed up lens of the disco decade.

About half the guests are decked out in leather jackets, cut off T-shirts, chiffon dresses, even a few satin "Pink Ladies" jackets.

Oh yeah, oh yeah, oh yeah,

Born to hand-jive, oh yeah!

The woman to my right has decided that Cha Cha's having a little too much fun on the dance floor.

"Slut!"

She follows her exhortation with a naughty giggle.

In the middle of "Greased Lightning," with its none-too-coded lyrics (you know that I ain't braggin, she's a real pussy wagon), Scott, a sprightly ministry staffer, stands up, shakes his arm and tells the young Travolta:

"Danny, Stop Being a Potty Mouth!"

Scott has spent the last 13 years in this ministry and tonight's party is his brainchild --a follow up to last year's sing along Sound of Music. Normally, he patiently ministers to those on the frontlines of the "struggle with sexuality and relationships." But tonight he's letting loose, facing the audience while his outstretched arm hovers across the room in lock step with the T-Birds.

Before going undercover to see what ex-gay America was all about, I imagined it might be any number of things: hook up central for closeted Christians, a cracked out revival meeting or merely a cult.

What I found was less sensational and a lot stranger.

Because I couldn't have imagined an experience that revealed less about the divide between straight and gay America, than the deeper chasm of understanding that separates secular and Christian America.

And I could never ever have imagined I'd be singing show tunes with a bunch of people dressed straight outta the malt shop.

The Gayest Summer

I first set foot in the ex-gay ministry Where Grace Abounds at the start of what was to become the gayest summer in American history.

Let's review:

June 26, 2003, the Supreme Court strikes down sodomy laws in 13 states, decriminalizing consensual gay sex and setting the stage for the culture war's ultimate battle royale: gay marriage.

August 5: The Episcopalian Church votes in the Rev. Gene Robinson as its first gay bishop; dissidents talk splits.

And oh, those summer nights where Queer Eye for the Straight Guy's preening power fags teach heterosexual men in the ways of applying product, grilling asparagus, and all things fabulous.

Where Grace Abounds is located where gays abound, in the heart of Denver's Capital Hill neighborhood -- a place where rainbow flags hang proudly from apartment balconies, where King Soopers is better known as "Queen Soopers," and where Diedrich's coffee shop brims with well groomed boys.

But outside a church around the corner, Where Grace Abounds' smiling greeters welcome scared strangers, and hug returning friends. The person I notice first is Scott, the de facto cruise director for Thursday night's meetings and one of five people on the ministry's fulltime staff.

Short and bouncy with big eyes and a buzz cut Scott is invariably dressed in low rider jeans and a neatly tucked in polo shirt. He's the type of person who would set your gaydar into a beeping tizzy from two time zones away.

As my face becomes familiar over the next few weeks, he makes a point of greeting me by name with a smile and squeezing my upper arm. I know better than to mistake it for a come on, but it's a gesture foreign to any straight man I've ever met.

Downstairs, in an unpretentious basement of fluorescent lights, pea green carpet, and dry erase boards the weekly ritual begins.

"Hi, and welcome to Where Grace Abounds. Can anyone tell me why we exist?"

Less ontological than rhetorical, the question is followed by awkward silence before someone breaks it with:

"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 rarely spelled out. In small group discussions, members seem painfully aware that such a plan might mean canceling Internet service and its accompanying lure of pornography, or of avoiding certain neighborhoods, certain bars, certain parks and certain people.

But beyond avoidance and celibacy, where God wants them to go is the big honking question that keeps many coming back (and not out) for years.

When and Why

Where Grace Abounds was founded shortly after Mary Heathman's stepson came out of the closet in the mid 1980s. The news forced this Denver rape crisis counselor to study books on psychology and scripture, attend meetings of all sorts, and arrive at two difficult conclusions. Her stepson's sexuality smacked head-on with her understanding of scripture; the two could not be reconciled. And, churches were not a pillar of support.

"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. The ministry is a non-profit so everything's free, but like most religious entities, a donation basket is passed around at the start of each meeting.

Staffers and volunteer ministry leaders tell us that there are many plausible theories on what causes homosexuality. But they say that focusing on the "why" is not as important in our healing process as reconnecting with God.

Nevertheless, there's one "why" theory that gets 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 or severed relationship with a same sex parent. The impulse to reestablish this bond, "the reparative drive" as its known, is actually healthy.

The problem, we're told, is when this orientation becomes sexualized in adolescence. Sexual activity with the same gender derails the healing process.

But ... why do boys with caring dads still go gay?

But ... why do girls with Mommy dearests not grow into lesbians?

Such buts are invariably pre-empted by a staffer who admits that, "we just don't know."

Scenes from the Struggle

The folks who find their way into WGA are mostly men between 20 and 40. Almost all come from conservative or fundamentalist Christian backgrounds. Many arrive upon the recommendation of a pastor, or more often, a Christian counselor.

While WGA was established to deal exclusively with homosexuality, it soon found itself welcoming people reeling from other sexually related problems like sex and pornography addiction, problems that were too hot for most churches to handle.

For the first 12 weeks, new initiates are segregated in "Foundations," a mandatory 12-week acclimation program designed to familiarize us with the scriptural and psychological concepts that underpin the program.

"Small group" is where we're encouraged to open up, to take risks, to speak in "I statements," about our struggles with sexuality and relationships.

Group starts with the facilitator, a WGA staffer or volunteer, asking if we brought anything with us to share, or if we just need some "check in" time.

One of WGA's buzzwords is "struggle," but in group I can only think "stilted." It wasn't until my fifth week that I witnessed someone with the guts to put his cards on the table.

Dressed in typical Colorado outdoorsy apparel, T-shirt, shorts and Tevas, Eric complains that "there's guys everywhere." That is, guys he's attracted to. 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 just 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 at WGA. It's been a long struggle; one that he gives no indication that it's anywhere near being over.

I hear a lot of these stories in small group.

Like 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, who phoned his mom after a month of no communication. He recently told her about his struggle with his sexuality. She met 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 her and his son.

Scott Baio Anyone?

All meetings kick off with an icebreaker. On my third night, the question was, "In what historical period would you most like to have been alive?" We go around the room, giving first names and our answers.

Scott said he wants to live in the big band era so he could "go to those Ricky Ricardo clubs every night." 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 Hasslehoff, before they become targets of Gen X ridicule.

An hour later, a guy tells me that when he was fourteen he used his sister's name to send away to Tiger Beat magazine for Scott Baio centerfolds.

At moments like this, I want to stand on my seat and scream: YOU ARE ALL SO GAY!

But I never do.

Battle Plans

Eight weeks into Foundations, 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 the WGA's leadership team, and a WGA vet, Donny calls tonight's talk "The Battle from Within and Without."

Donny tells us he's been married for 19 years, but for much of that time he was active in "the lifestyle," the ministry's buzzword for all things gay. He sites a statistic that 87 percent of Americans claim to believe in God, while only 47 percent claim they believe in Satan. He finds this odd.

"How strong is the enemy?" He asks. "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 backdoor is via humanism, which he describes as "You know, Jesus, Buddha -- it's all good."

His talk is spruced up with a few bullet points which, like many WGA lectures, bounce freely between pop psychology and evangelical fervor.

- 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.

Ex-gay or Gay AA

WGA's approach to reversing that which mainstream psychology has long agreed is irreversible is infuriating. While there's no fire and brimstone sermonizing, no one telling us we're on a highway to hell, there's also a lot of lying by omission and other canards.

At no time did I ever hear anyone acknowledge the possibility that two gay people could have a healthy, loving relationship. It just wasn't in the cards. Similarly, the constant conflation of homosexuality and sex and porn addiction, not to mention one night stand whoring, doesn't jive with any lesbian I've ever known.

Toward the end of a small group session I decided to ask Scott a question that has been on my mind for awhile.

"Is this ministry really ex-gay or more like gay AA? "

I can tell it's something he's been asked before.

"So are we all just bunch of dry drunks?" he asks in response. " Alcoholism, I think is more of a behavior problem, where homosexuality is more of a developmental problem."

Scott says that people often come to WGA with the idea that they can get a quick fix. "Uh yeah, um, can you like make this stop please?"

Scott's point is that "the process" doesn't provide quick fixes. Even after 13 years, he says, he's transitioned from being actively homosexual to his current state of non-practicing bisexuality.

When he's not dealing with Thursday nights, Scott helps coordinate educational outreach programs for churches and Denver-area Christian schools. He knows that most people will probably assume things about him. He's 40 and he's used to it. From time to time he speaks with friends he knew from "the lifestyle" and says they invariably condescend to him with comments like "Well, I guess if it makes you happy, that's good."

Scott's retort: "They want to celebrate diversity, but as long as you think just like they do."

One thing Scott says he loves about Where Grace Abounds is that it doesn't go for the quick fix, or try to get people to pretend to be something they're not. Nowhere could this be more obvious than in Scott's office, whose most striking feature is a life-size cardboard cutout of Buffy from Buffy The Vampire Slayer -- a show famous for its gay following.

He says this sets the group apart from other ex-gay ministries that are not comfortable with the ministry's flamboyance. Activities like Grease singalongs, he says, don't fly in much of ex-gay America.

"I think if I'd gone to any other ministry, I wouldn't have made it."

Goodbye to Sandra Dee

The California sun is setting as Sandy sits alone on an expanse of concrete. In the aquifer below, Danny Zuko has saved Greased Lightning's pink slip from the clutches of The Scorpions.

Graduation is just a scene away and Sandy is mourning her innocence.

Sandy, you must start anew

Don't you know what you must do

Once again, the woman next to me chimes in, "Don't do it, Sandy. Don't do it!"

Hold your head high, take a deep breath and sigh

Goodbye to Sandra Dee

If Grease is about anything besides shooby doo wop doo wop, it's about how a won't-go-to-bed-till-I'm-legally-wed sensibility can't last long in America's oversexed teen culture. This message couldn't be more opposed to everything I've heard during my summer at Where Grace Abounds.

But no one's mining for ironies right now because Danny and Sandy are singing their love in skintight leather.

Grease ends with the class of Rydell High pledging that they "will always be together." If WGA has lasted for 16 years, who's to say it won't last another? Regardless of the cultural and legal strides gay America is bound to make, scripture will still be scripture.

After hearing so many stories of hurt, so many testimonies that are less about viable recovery than successful coping, I'm only convinced how tough the struggle is for people like Scott and Peggy, Matt and Donny.

But when they hold up the evangelical panacea, that all their desires of the flesh and the heart can -- maybe -- be taken away through a relationship with God, well, they might as well be singing: Ramma lamma lamma ka dingity ding da dong.

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