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Interesting article from inside an Ex-Gay Bootcamp

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  • Pete Zayonce
    http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/faith/article4893735.ece?token=null&offset=0&page=1 From The Times October 7, 2008 The camp that cures homosexuality
    Message 1 of 2 , Oct 6, 2008
      http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/faith/article4893735.ece?token=null&offset=0&page=1

      From The Times
      October 7, 2008
      The camp that 'cures' homosexuality
      At a Christian 'boot camp' in the US, those struggling to reconcile
      faith and sexuality are taught to overcome gayness
      A participant wears a religious symbol during EuroPride parade in central Madrid
      Lucy Bannerman

      How many of you are in need of some hope here tonight?" A murmur
      passes through the dark auditorium, pleasing the man with the
      microphone. Heads nod. "How many of you are at the end of your rope?"
      he continues. "How many are ready for an encounter with the Lord?" The
      man on stage, dressed in chinos and a crisp white shirt, is Alan
      Chambers. The clean-cut, married father of two is the leader of Exodus
      International, an organisation that believes it can help people to
      "find freedom from homosexuality through the love of Jesus Christ".

      Exodus is one of the ministries of the so-called "ex-gay" movement, a
      controversial fundamentalist Christian campaign that encourages gay
      people to renounce their sexuality. This, its annual conference,
      promises "an amazing week of breakthroughs, transformations and
      healings". A Christian rock band begins to play and the 800 men and
      women who moments earlier seemed to have only awkwardness in common
      begin singing and clapping in unison. Eyes closed, they raise their
      hands above their heads, uplifted by the hope of being reborn.

      Chambers later returns to the stage and stands before them,
      triumphantly heterosexual. He tells the crowd that he won't judge
      homosexuals, even if their own churches have, because he used to be
      one himself. In the hushed auditorium, he describes his first
      experience of a gay bar. "It was almost as if I'd grown up handicapped
      and everyone else was handicapped, too. But it was a counterfeit. I
      was fooled."

      "Am I in denial?" he asks. "Absolutely. I live a life of denial and I
      love it. I didn't choose my same-sex feelings but I do choose how I'm
      going to steward them. Freedom is possible." At Exodus people are not
      gay; they "struggle with same-sex attraction" (SSA).

      "The opposite of homosexuality is not heterosexuality," says Chambers,
      sagely. "It's holiness." Speech over, he asks people to come forward
      to be prayed for. A boy of no more than 16 steps up, hanging his head.
      When he returns from the stage to the sound of applause, his
      stony-faced father nods in approval. His mother weeps.

      Welcome to ex-gay boot camp.

      The belief that homosexuality can be overcome has been fuelling
      controversy in the US for decades. Although research supporting SSA
      therapy has been discredited, "ex-gay" ministries are expanding
      worldwide, even in the UK, where a discreet network practises SSA
      therapy under the umbrella of "Christian counselling".

      Consider the crisis within the Anglican community over homosexuality,
      and Exodus begins to offer a strangely seductive solution to
      reconciling faith and sex. Yet it has been claimed by critics, many of
      whom have undergone treatment themselves, that some same-sex
      attraction therapy can exacerbate anxiety and depression, in extreme
      cases leading to suicidal feelings.

      Ridgecrest Retreat is a white, antiseptic blot in the blue-green Smoky
      Mountains in North Carolina. Masquerading as one of the hundreds of
      "homosexual strugglers" who visit the Exodus campus, I arrived here
      after registering online for six days of evangelism psychotherapy.

      New arrivals are greeted by a row of friendly staff. Eric, a perfectly
      coiffured team member from Florida, puts his hand on my shoulder and
      promises me a "very impactful" experience. Name tags (to be worn at
      all times) are distributed, as is a schedule of workshops and worship
      sessions, and room keys. It strikes me as slightly cruel that an event
      for people battling with their homosexuality should offer shared rooms
      with strangers of the same sex.

      My roommate is Michelle, a 28-year-old who has recently broken up with
      her girlfriend. A nurse from Ohio who likes Metallica and Christian
      rock, she has a natural shyness offset by a hearty laugh.

      "I used to be out and proud so I can't believe I'm here and not
      protesting," she says, "but I wanted to see what it was all about."
      This is her first conference and she is accompanied by a support group
      of impossibly cheerful women, all of whom are ardent believers in the
      Exodus philosophy.

      The first full day requires us to pick our classes. I sign up for
      "Journey Through Lesbianism", a workshop addressing possible factors
      contributing to the development of lesbianism. These include,
      apparently, "unhealthy relationships with family members and peers,
      abuse, shame and self-hatred". Loneliness, the media, and being
      deprived of affection as a baby in a hospital incubator will later be
      added to the list.

      The lesson starts ominously. "What a bunch of fine-looking ladies we
      have here today," the wiry, bespectacled lecturer says to the sullen
      women squeezed into tight rows of chairs.

      "We're dealing with attraction here, and you're bunching us all up
      together?" snorts one redhead, before being calmed down by the woman
      sitting next to her. "I'm sorry," she apologises, "but it has been an
      intense day." It is 10.45am.

      Next up is "Overcoming Guilt and Shame", led by a sad, wearied and
      overweight woman named Bonnie who used to be a probation officer. "I
      still have same-sex attraction," she sighs at one point, "but it's
      like elevator music to me now. I just don't pay attention to it." A
      strange practical exercise follows, involving picking derogatory name
      tags out of a hat. A handsome youth with an American smile sticks
      "defiled" to his polo shirt. How this helps his internet porn
      addiction is anyone's guess, although he generously cedes that "we're
      all sexually broken".

      The timetable is packed. A class on "True Femininity", which concludes
      cryptically that true femininity "is the ability to receive", would
      probably have reduced Germaine Greer to tears. Another features an
      Angela Lansbury lookalike who manages to link her gay ex-husband's
      death from an Aids-related illness to his father's links with the
      "Serbian mafia".

      Some of my classmates are veteran Exodus followers attending the
      annual conference for a "willpower top-up", like recovering alcoholics
      going to AA meetings; others are boot camp virgins. Everyone has paid
      $600 (£340) for the privilege. Chatting before his "Breaking the Myth
      of Masculinity" class, Riccardo, a doctor from Illinois, explains that
      he has come here for "encouragement and moral support" after tiring of
      anonymous encounters with other men.

      Each evening, a roll-call of "former homosexuals" hold up their
      husbands and wives like kitemarks of their newfound heterosexuality.
      We are told repeatedly that marriage is evidence of healing.
      Stereotypes are the ex-gay currency, and the heterosexual ideal is
      practically ringed by a white picket fence. Christine Sneeringer, the
      compere, jokes that her recovery is going so well that she has given
      up car mechanics ("it trashes my nails"). Exodus vice-president Randy
      Thomas, on the other hand, delights the crowd with his campness: "Just
      because I stopped being gay 16 years ago doesn't mean I can't be
      fabulous," he says. Clearly, gaydar has yet to be invented on planet
      Exodus.

      It could be comical were it not for the teenager shaking in the
      corner, and the man sobbing as he prayed. Excusing herself from a
      session, Michelle goes to her room and cries. "I don't think I want to
      willpower right through it," she confides before going to sleep.
      "Where's the change in that?" Later I find her surfing the website of
      the protesters who have been picketing the campus. They are led by
      Wayne Besen, an ex-gay-camp-attendee-turned-campaigner (an ex-ex-gay,
      so to speak).

      In a furtive conversation by the car park, one protester, Sara, tells
      me: "We just want them to know that you can be gay and happy - and
      that there is a supportive community out there."

      "I've been through all the arguments, like 'If it's love, how can it
      be wrong?'" says Michelle the next day. "And if I'm being honest, I'd
      love to be openly gay and have a completely satisfying relationship
      with God. But I don't know how that can be done. All I know is that it
      makes more sense to listen to the God who created the Universe than to
      my puny human emotions."

      By day four, my appetite for psychotherapy is waning. I drag myself to
      a seminar entitled "Walking Away from the Lesbian Mentality". On
      finding that the class leader is an aggressively happy woman with a
      guitar who sings about hating her mother, I want to do just that. Yet,
      putting aside the draining therapy sessions, it's almost easy to
      believe that this is simply a happy Christian summer camp. You can
      even play wargames in the woods - perhaps it's a way of completing
      that holy trinity of US obsessions: God, guns and gays.

      Back in her room, Michelle has had an epiphany. "I've realised that
      I've been looking for satisfaction in all the wrong places - food,
      drugs, sex," she says, firmly. "My homosexuality is just one of many
      things to come from this place of pain, and all it gave me was a heart
      full of ache.

      "If God desired man and woman to be together, how can you be a good
      Christian and have a gay relationship?

      If the Exodus experience seems far-fetched - the sort of thing that
      could happen only in America - then think again. A number of
      organisations are believed to offer same-sex attraction therapy,
      albeit more discreetly, in the UK. These including God's Healing of
      Broken Emotions, in Inverness; Living Waters, in Central London, and
      Exodus's official UK partner, Re-alignment (slogan: "reinventing
      people"), another counselling service based in London. If the
      directors of these organisations are prepared to comment, then it is
      only to dismiss the term "ex-gay". But they neither confirm nor deny
      use of same-sex attraction therapy.

      There appear to have been no complaints about the activities of any of
      these organisations and websites report many success stories, but
      there are those who claim that their involvement with other therapists
      has been a far-from-positive experience. Peterson Toscano spent 17
      years and £20,000 in the US and UK trying to suppress his identity as
      a gay man. "It is a far more subtle seduction over here," he says.
      Toscano claims that therapists in Britain - who he says tried to
      exorcise his gay demons in Kidderminster, in the West Midlands -
      nearly drove him to suicide. "There is no question about that. I
      became severely depressed and contemplated suicide on several
      occasions," he says.

      Toscano, who now runs the Beyond Ex-Gay support group, believes that,
      far from being living proof of being a changed man, Alan Chambers is
      simply promoting celibacy by stealth.

      "You walk out on this cloud of ex-gay glory," says Toscano, "but you
      end up intimate with no one, becoming more and more isolated until
      it's just you alone on this little ex-gay island ... so many people
      are hurting and living this half-life."

      On my return from America, I asked Alan Chambers about his
      organisation. Referring to himself as "a walking example of God's
      redemption", he said: "Exodus exists so that individuals can live in
      congruence with their own faith-based beliefs. There are many who do
      not share our beliefs, nor are they in conflict living as homosexuals.
      We respect this human right to self-determination. In the spirit of
      tolerance and diversity, we ask only for the same as well."

      He said he could not comment on allegations that SSA therapy could
      cause psychological damage without knowing specific details about an
      individual's personal experience. But he said: "Plenty of people start
      with a process or a programme and then decide it isn't for them. I do
      understand this to be a very impassioned and difficult subject. I am
      truly heartbroken for individuals who continue to experience confusion
      and sadness in their lives."

      He pointed out that a 2007 US study indicated that sexual orientation
      change was possible for some individuals going through religiously
      mediated programmes such as Exodus, and did not cause psychological
      harm. He said that "these conclusions directly contradict the claims
      of critics ... that change in sexual orientation is impossible and
      attempting to pursue this alternative is likely to cause depression,
      anxiety or self-destructive behaviour".

      This month, Save Me, a small-budget fictional film about an ex-gay
      ministry, opens at cinemas in America. "I tried not to portray its
      leaders as two-dimensional monsters," explains the director, Robert
      Cary. "Many genuinely believe that they are helping people to live
      good lives. But they believe that you're born with your religion and
      choose your sexuality, when that is the opposite of the truth."

      One ex-gay leader who has come to the same conclusion is Jeremy Marks.
      A mild-mannered 56-year-old from Surrey, he pioneered one of the first
      ex-gay networks in the UK. But after ten years, the attempted suicide
      of a former resident led him to question the value of SSA therapy. He
      found that, rather than helping people, it led to depression and
      dysfunctional behaviour. "They stopped going to church, stopped going
      to work," he recalls. "The only ones who appeared to be doing well
      were those who accepted that they were gay and got on with their
      lives." Marks is now openly gay and runs Courage, a support group for
      gay Christians.

      "Really, what the ex-gay movement is all about is salving the
      conscience of the Christian leaders who don't like to be accused of
      homophobia," he says. "That way they can say 'we don't hate gays -
      look how we are welcoming them'."

      Back in North Carolina, the mood is an uneasy mix of celebration and
      trepidation. One man has decided that he will be celibate for one
      month for each of the seven years he has spent "in the lifestyle".
      Riccardo, the doctor, is more resigned: "I used to think marriage was
      the ultimate goal but I've come to accept that I'll struggle with SSA
      for the rest of my life."

      At one last seminar, "Smooth Transitions: Life after the Conference",
      Joe, a Latino man from Miami, speaks proudly of leaving his boyfriend
      and changing his friends, his address, his job and his gym after
      leaving his first conference.

      "It's about doing what's uncomfortable," he tells the class,
      describing how he forced himself to watch baseball with macho
      sportsmen at parties, and to wear looser shorts when walking his
      chihuahua.

      A squeaky-voiced youth of no more than 17, who has been trembling
      violently, shoots up his hand. He wants to know whether he should dump
      his boyfriend.

      "It's a no-brainer," he is told. "You should end the relationship. If
      you don't do it now, it will only become harder later."

      On the stage where Alan Chambers welcomed us, a final prayer is held.
      And then the broken, the fixed, and everyone in between sings: "The
      enemy has been defeated. Freedom. Freedom. Freedom."

      Packing her suitcase, Michelle feels that she has found an answer. "To
      focus on sex is missing the point," she says. "It's not about gay or
      straight. It's about holiness and my relationship with Christ." She
      wants to marry but admits that she may never be attracted to men.
      "Then it means I've been called to singleness." And lifelong celibacy?
      "I'm surrendering to God's way." And she leaves, ready to face a new
      life in which love and sex are reduced to the sound of elevator music.

      Homosexuality and the Church: views from the pulpit

      The ex-gay movement has come out of the US evangelical revival, but it
      has not caught the imagination in British religious circles to the
      same extent. In the UK it has operated on the fringes of the religious
      establishment, chiefly on the independent, charismatic wing of the
      evangelical movement.

      Some congregations in the Church of England do have a reputation as
      places where gay young men and women can go for encouragement into
      wedlock with members of the opposite sex. But with the increasing
      acceptance in wider society of homosexuality, and the passing of the
      Civil Partnership Act, more and more young people are baffled by the
      churches' continuing difficulties in this area, as witnessed by the
      strife in the Anglican Communion.

      The ex-gay movement has never been officially sanctioned by the Roman
      Catholic or the Anglican Church. While both seem reluctant to accept
      that gay people might be born as they are - and thus be made in God's
      image and therefore entitled to sexual fulfilment - they seem
      strangely unprepared, at an official level at least, to call for gays
      to "convert" to heterosexuality.

      The Roman Catholic and Anglican Church hedge their positions on
      homosexuality with reiterations of the wrongs of homophobia. But, for
      both Churches, there can be no getting away from the biblical
      teachings condemning gay behaviour. This means that they differentiate
      between the "sinner" and the "sin", offering the hand of "forgiveness"
      to the first, and condemnation of the second.

      So the official catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that
      "homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered" and that "homosexual
      persons are called to chastity". And, in a document produced in 1991,
      the Church of England bishops argued that sexual intercourse, as an
      expression of faithful intimacy, "properly belongs within marriage
      exclusively".

      However, Anglicans were prepared to move farther in accepting gay
      behaviour. The bishops also said, rather ambiguously: "The Church
      should not reject those who conscientiously enter into intentionally
      permanent same-sex relationships which they sincerely believe is God's
      call to them ... Because of the distinctive nature of their calling,
      clergy do not have the liberty to enter into sexual relationships
      outside marriage ... Sexual orientation is not a bar to ordination in
      the Church of England."

      The Catholic Church condemns contraception as intrinsically bad but
      few Catholics take any notice. If the churches are not careful, later
      generations will take the same view of its teachings on homosexuality.

      Ruth Gledhill, Religion Correspondent

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    • Coach Anthony
      I’m glad you posted this Peter……I began to read it when it first came out but got sidetracked. Lucy has done an excellent job and its interesting her
      Message 2 of 2 , Oct 10, 2008

        I’m glad you posted this Peter……I began to read it when it first came out but got sidetracked.

         

        Lucy has done an excellent job and its interesting her observations about ex-gay ministries not taking off in the UK as they have in the US . It has been the same experience here in Australia .

         

        I wonder if in or our American friends here have any observations about what makes the US more of a breeding ground for these things that other countries.

         

        I have my theories.

         

        Anthony Venn-Brown (ACC ICF)

        Professional Coach -  Internationally accredited with 8 years experience

        Award winning author of 'A Life of Unlearning - A Journey to Find the Truth'

        Co-convenor of Freedom 2 b[e]

        Voted one of the  25 Most Influential Gay & Lesbian Australians

        "All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity; but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible."  Thomas Edward Lawrence ( Lawrence of Arabia )

        Blog: http://alifeofunlearning.blogspot.com/

        New Blog http://gayambassador.blogspot.com/ Containing 3 chapters of the new edition of 'A Life of Unlearning'

        1. The Confession - a Pentecostal preacher dies

        2. Devils in Bible College - exorcising my gay demons

        3. Rehab with a Twist - my ex-gay experience

        Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=706547702

        Have you seen my personal development newsletter archive yet?

         


        From: Exex-gay@yahoogroups.com [mailto: Exex-gay@yahoogroups.com ] On Behalf Of Pete Zayonce
        Sent: Tuesday, 7 October 2008 11:12
        To: Exex-gay@yahoogroups.com
        Subject: [Exex-gay] Interesting article from inside an Ex-Gay Bootcamp

         

        http://www.timesonl ine.co.uk/ tol/comment/ faith/article489 3735.ece? token=null& offset=0& page=1

        From The Times
        October 7, 2008
        The camp that 'cures' homosexuality
        At a Christian 'boot camp' in the US , those struggling to reconcile
        faith and sexuality are taught to overcome gayness
        A participant wears a religious symbol during EuroPride parade in central Madrid
        Lucy Bannerman

        How many of you are in need of some hope here tonight?" A murmur
        passes through the dark auditorium, pleasing the man with the
        microphone. Heads nod. "How many of you are at the end of your rope?"
        he continues. "How many are ready for an encounter with the Lord?" The
        man on stage, dressed in chinos and a crisp white shirt, is Alan
        Chambers. The clean-cut, married father of two is the leader of Exodus
        International, an organisation that believes it can help people to
        "find freedom from homosexuality through the love of Jesus Christ".

        Exodus is one of the ministries of the so-called "ex-gay" movement, a
        controversial fundamentalist Christian campaign that encourages gay
        people to renounce their sexuality. This, its annual conference,
        promises "an amazing week of breakthroughs, transformations and
        healings". A Christian rock band begins to play and the 800 men and
        women who moments earlier seemed to have only awkwardness in common
        begin singing and clapping in unison. Eyes closed, they raise their
        hands above their heads, uplifted by the hope of being reborn.

        Chambers later returns to the stage and stands before them,
        triumphantly heterosexual. He tells the crowd that he won't judge
        homosexuals, even if their own churches have, because he used to be
        one himself. In the hushed auditorium, he describes his first
        experience of a gay bar. "It was almost as if I'd grown up handicapped
        and everyone else was handicapped, too. But it was a counterfeit. I
        was fooled."

        "Am I in denial?" he asks. "Absolutely. I live a life of denial and I
        love it. I didn't choose my same-sex feelings but I do choose how I'm
        going to steward them. Freedom is possible." At Exodus people are not
        gay; they "struggle with same-sex attraction" (SSA).

        "The opposite of homosexuality is not heterosexuality, " says Chambers,
        sagely. "It's holiness." Speech over, he asks people to come forward
        to be prayed for. A boy of no more than 16 steps up, hanging his head.
        When he returns from the stage to the sound of applause, his
        stony-faced father nods in approval. His mother weeps.

        Welcome to ex-gay boot camp.

        The belief that homosexuality can be overcome has been fuelling
        controversy in the US for decades. Although research supporting SSA
        therapy has been discredited, "ex-gay" ministries are expanding
        worldwide, even in the UK , where a discreet network practises SSA
        therapy under the umbrella of "Christian counselling" .

        Consider the crisis within the Anglican community over homosexuality,
        and Exodus begins to offer a strangely seductive solution to
        reconciling faith and sex. Yet it has been claimed by critics, many of
        whom have undergone treatment themselves, that some same-sex
        attraction therapy can exacerbate anxiety and depression, in extreme
        cases leading to suicidal feelings.

        Ridgecrest Retreat is a white, antiseptic blot in the blue-green Smoky
        Mountains in North Carolina . Masquerading as one of the hundreds of
        "homosexual strugglers" who visit the Exodus campus, I arrived here
        after registering online for six days of evangelism psychotherapy.

        New arrivals are greeted by a row of friendly staff. Eric, a perfectly
        coiffured team member from Florida , puts his hand on my shoulder and
        promises me a "very impactful" experience. Name tags (to be worn at
        all times) are distributed, as is a schedule of workshops and worship
        sessions, and room keys. It strikes me as slightly cruel that an event
        for people battling with their homosexuality should offer shared rooms
        with strangers of the same sex.

        My roommate is Michelle, a 28-year-old who has recently broken up with
        her girlfriend. A nurse from Ohio who likes Metallica and Christian
        rock, she has a natural shyness offset by a hearty laugh.

        "I used to be out and proud so I can't believe I'm here and not
        protesting," she says, "but I wanted to see what it was all about."
        This is her first conference and she is accompanied by a support group
        of impossibly cheerful women, all of whom are ardent believers in the
        Exodus philosophy.

        The first full day requires us to pick our classes. I sign up for
        "Journey Through Lesbianism", a workshop addressing possible factors
        contributing to the development of lesbianism. These include,
        apparently, "unhealthy relationships with family members and peers,
        abuse, shame and self-hatred" . Loneliness, the media, and being
        deprived of affection as a baby in a hospital incubator will later be
        added to the list.

        The lesson starts ominously. "What a bunch of fine-looking ladies we
        have here today," the wiry, bespectacled lecturer says to the sullen
        women squeezed into tight rows of chairs.

        "We're dealing with attraction here, and you're bunching us all up
        together?" snorts one redhead, before being calmed down by the woman
        sitting next to her. "I'm sorry," she apologises, "but it has been an
        intense day." It is 10.45am.

        Next up is "Overcoming Guilt and Shame", led by a sad, wearied and
        overweight woman named Bonnie who used to be a probation officer. "I
        still have same-sex attraction," she sighs at one point, "but it's
        like elevator music to me now. I just don't pay attention to it." A
        strange practical exercise follows, involving picking derogatory name
        tags out of a hat. A handsome youth with an American smile sticks
        "defiled" to his polo shirt. How this helps his internet porn
        addiction is anyone's guess, although he generously cedes that "we're
        all sexually broken".

        The timetable is packed. A class on "True Femininity", which concludes
        cryptically that true femininity "is the ability to receive", would
        probably have reduced Germaine Greer to tears. Another features an
        Angela Lansbury lookalike who manages to link her gay ex-husband's
        death from an Aids-related illness to his father's links with the
        "Serbian mafia".

        Some of my classmates are veteran Exodus followers attending the
        annual conference for a "willpower top-up", like recovering alcoholics
        going to AA meetings; others are boot camp virgins. Everyone has paid
        $600 (£340) for the privilege. Chatting before his "Breaking the Myth
        of Masculinity" class, Riccardo, a doctor from Illinois , explains that
        he has come here for "encouragement and moral support" after tiring of
        anonymous encounters with other men.

        Each evening, a roll-call of "former homosexuals" hold up their
        husbands and wives like kitemarks of their newfound heterosexuality.
        We are told repeatedly that marriage is evidence of healing.
        Stereotypes are the ex-gay currency, and the heterosexual ideal is
        practically ringed by a white picket fence. Christine Sneeringer, the
        compere, jokes that her recovery is going so well that she has given
        up car mechanics ("it trashes my nails"). Exodus vice-president Randy
        Thomas, on the other hand, delights the crowd with his campness: "Just
        because I stopped being gay 16 years ago doesn't mean I can't be
        fabulous," he says. Clearly, gaydar has yet to be invented on planet
        Exodus.

        It could be comical were it not for the teenager shaking in the
        corner, and the man sobbing as he prayed. Excusing herself from a
        session, Michelle goes to her room and cries. "I don't think I want to
        willpower right through it," she confides before going to sleep.
        "Where's the change in that?" Later I find her surfing the website of
        the protesters who have been picketing the campus. They are led by
        Wayne Besen , an ex-gay-camp- attendee- turned-campaigne r (an ex-ex-gay,
        so to speak).

        In a furtive conversation by the car park, one protester, Sara, tells
        me: "We just want them to know that you can be gay and happy - and
        that there is a supportive community out there."

        "I've been through all the arguments, like 'If it's love, how can it
        be wrong?'" says Michelle the next day. "And if I'm being honest, I'd
        love to be openly gay and have a completely satisfying relationship
        with God. But I don't know how that can be done. All I know is that it
        makes more sense to listen to the God who created the Universe than to
        my puny human emotions."

        By day four, my appetite for psychotherapy is waning. I drag myself to
        a seminar entitled "Walking Away from the Lesbian Mentality". On
        finding that the class leader is an aggressively happy woman with a
        guitar who sings about hating her mother, I want to do just that. Yet,
        putting aside the draining therapy sessions, it's almost easy to
        believe that this is simply a happy Christian summer camp. You can
        even play wargames in the woods - perhaps it's a way of completing
        that holy trinity of US obsessions: God, guns and gays.

        Back in her room, Michelle has had an epiphany. "I've realised that
        I've been looking for satisfaction in all the wrong places - food,
        drugs, sex," she says, firmly. "My homosexuality is just one of many
        things to come from this place of pain, and all it gave me was a heart
        full of ache.

        "If God desired man and woman to be together, how can you be a good
        Christian and have a gay relationship?

        If the Exodus experience seems far-fetched - the sort of thing that
        could happen only in America - then think again. A number of
        organisations are believed to offer same-sex attraction therapy,
        albeit more discreetly, in the UK . These including God's Healing of
        Broken Emotions, in Inverness; Living Waters, in Central London , and
        Exodus's official UK partner, Re-alignment (slogan: "reinventing
        people"), another counselling service based in London . If the
        directors of these organisations are prepared to comment, then it is
        only to dismiss the term "ex-gay". But they neither confirm nor deny
        use of same-sex attraction therapy.

        There appear to have been no complaints about the activities of any of
        these organisations and websites report many success stories, but
        there are those who claim that their involvement with other therapists
        has been a far-from-positive experience. Peterson Toscano spent 17
        years and £20,000 in the US and UK trying to suppress his identity as
        a gay man. "It is a far more subtle seduction over here," he says.
        Toscano claims that therapists in Britain - who he says tried to
        exorcise his gay demons in Kidderminster, in the West Midlands -
        nearly drove him to suicide. "There is no question about that. I
        became severely depressed and contemplated suicide on several
        occasions," he says.

        Toscano, who now runs the Beyond Ex-Gay support group, believes that,
        far from being living proof of being a changed man, Alan Chambers is
        simply promoting celibacy by stealth.

        "You walk out on this cloud of ex-gay glory," says Toscano, "but you
        end up intimate with no one, becoming more and more isolated until
        it's just you alone on this little ex-gay island ... so many people
        are hurting and living this half-life."

        On my return from America , I asked Alan Chambers about his
        organisation. Referring to himself as "a walking example of God's
        redemption", he said: "Exodus exists so that individuals can live in
        congruence with their own faith-based beliefs. There are many who do
        not share our beliefs, nor are they in conflict living as homosexuals.
        We respect this human right to self-determination. In the spirit of
        tolerance and diversity, we ask only for the same as well."

        He said he could not comment on allegations that SSA therapy could
        cause psychological damage without knowing specific details about an
        individual's personal experience. But he said: "Plenty of people start
        with a process or a programme and then decide it isn't for them. I do
        understand this to be a very impassioned and difficult subject. I am
        truly heartbroken for individuals who continue to experience confusion
        and sadness in their lives."

        He pointed out that a 2007 US study indicated that sexual orientation
        change was possible for some individuals going through religiously
        mediated programmes such as Exodus, and did not cause psychological
        harm. He said that "these conclusions directly contradict the claims
        of critics ... that change in sexual orientation is impossible and
        attempting to pursue this alternative is likely to cause depression,
        anxiety or self-destructive behaviour".

        This month, Save Me, a small-budget fictional film about an ex-gay
        ministry, opens at cinemas in America . "I tried not to portray its
        leaders as two-dimensional monsters," explains the director, Robert
        Cary . "Many genuinely believe that they are helping people to live
        good lives. But they believe that you're born with your religion and
        choose your sexuality, when that is the opposite of the truth."

        One ex-gay leader who has come to the same conclusion is Jeremy Marks.
        A mild-mannered 56-year-old from Surrey , he pioneered one of the first
        ex-gay networks in the UK . But after ten years, the attempted suicide
        of a former resident led him to question the value of SSA therapy. He
        found that, rather than helping people, it led to depression and
        dysfunctional behaviour. "They stopped going to church, stopped going
        to work," he recalls. "The only ones who appeared to be doing well
        were those who accepted that they were gay and got on with their
        lives." Marks is now openly gay and runs Courage, a support group for
        gay Christians.

        "Really, what the ex-gay movement is all about is salving the
        conscience of the Christian leaders who don't like to be accused of
        homophobia," he says. "That way they can say 'we don't hate gays -
        look how we are welcoming them'."

        Back in North Carolina , the mood is an uneasy mix of celebration and
        trepidation. One man has decided that he will be celibate for one
        month for each of the seven years he has spent "in the lifestyle".
        Riccardo, the doctor, is more resigned: "I used to think marriage was
        the ultimate goal but I've come to accept that I'll struggle with SSA
        for the rest of my life."

        At one last seminar, "Smooth Transitions: Life after the Conference",
        Joe, a Latino man from Miami , speaks proudly of leaving his boyfriend
        and changing his friends, his address, his job and his gym after
        leaving his first conference.

        "It's about doing what's uncomfortable, " he tells the class,
        describing how he forced himself to watch baseball with macho
        sportsmen at parties, and to wear looser shorts when walking his
        chihuahua.

        A squeaky-voiced youth of no more than 17, who has been trembling
        violently, shoots up his hand. He wants to know whether he should dump
        his boyfriend.

        "It's a no-brainer," he is told. "You should end the relationship. If
        you don't do it now, it will only become harder later."

        On the stage where Alan Chambers welcomed us, a final prayer is held.
        And then the broken, the fixed, and everyone in between sings: "The
        enemy has been defeated. Freedom. Freedom. Freedom."

        Packing her suitcase, Michelle feels that she has found an answer. "To
        focus on sex is missing the point," she says. "It's not about gay or
        straight. It's about holiness and my relationship with Christ." She
        wants to marry but admits that she may never be attracted to men.
        "Then it means I've been called to singleness." And lifelong celibacy?
        "I'm surrendering to God's way." And she leaves, ready to face a new
        life in which love and sex are reduced to the sound of elevator music.

        Homosexuality and the Church: views from the pulpit

        The ex-gay movement has come out of the US evangelical revival, but it
        has not caught the imagination in British religious circles to the
        same extent. In the UK it has operated on the fringes of the religious
        establishment, chiefly on the independent, charismatic wing of the
        evangelical movement.

        Some congregations in the Church of England do have a reputation as
        places where gay young men and women can go for encouragement into
        wedlock with members of the opposite sex. But with the increasing
        acceptance in wider society of homosexuality, and the passing of the
        Civil Partnership Act, more and more young people are baffled by the
        churches' continuing difficulties in this area, as witnessed by the
        strife in the Anglican Communion.

        The ex-gay movement has never been officially sanctioned by the Roman
        Catholic or the Anglican Church. While both seem reluctant to accept
        that gay people might be born as they are - and thus be made in God's
        image and therefore entitled to sexual fulfilment - they seem
        strangely unprepared, at an official level at least, to call for gays
        to "convert" to heterosexuality.

        The Roman Catholic and Anglican Church hedge their positions on
        homosexuality with reiterations of the wrongs of homophobia. But, for
        both Churches, there can be no getting away from the biblical
        teachings condemning gay behaviour. This means that they differentiate
        between the "sinner" and the "sin", offering the hand of "forgiveness"
        to the first, and condemnation of the second.

        So the official catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that
        "homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered" and that "homosexual
        persons are called to chastity". And, in a document produced in 1991,
        the Church of England bishops argued that sexual intercourse, as an
        expression of faithful intimacy, "properly belongs within marriage
        exclusively" .

        However, Anglicans were prepared to move farther in accepting gay
        behaviour. The bishops also said, rather ambiguously: "The Church
        should not reject those who conscientiously enter into intentionally
        permanent same-sex relationships which they sincerely believe is God's
        call to them ... Because of the distinctive nature of their calling,
        clergy do not have the liberty to enter into sexual relationships
        outside marriage ... Sexual orientation is not a bar to ordination in
        the Church of England."

        The Catholic Church condemns contraception as intrinsically bad but
        few Catholics take any notice. If the churches are not careful, later
        generations will take the same view of its teachings on homosexuality.

        Ruth Gledhill, Religion Correspondent

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