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‘Healed’ by God

The evangelical ministry Focus on the Family is organizing a one-day conference this weekend promoting the philosophy that God can "heal" homosexuality.'s Alex Johnson reports.
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Dr. James Dobson is the leader of Focus on the Family, which promotes “reparative therapy” for gays and lesbians.Mike Simons / Getty Images file

When activists for gay and lesbian causes gather outside a church near Seattle this weekend, they will have many critical things to say about how conservative Christian institutions have treated them.

Inside Northshore Baptist Church, where Focus on the Family will be preaching that homosexuality can be “healed” by the power of God’s love, Christian counselors will be making much the same point.

In addition to “powerful stories of ex-gay men and women,” people attending the Love Won Out conference will hear “a challenge to the church,” said Dr. Bill Maier, a child and family psychologist who is one of the event’s main speakers. Another is the Rev. Nancy Heche, the mother of Anne Heche, the actress who famously married a man after living a widely publicized lesbian life with comedian Ellen DeGeneres.

“Leaders of Love Won Out are very forthright in stating that the church has often fallen short when it comes to the homosexual community,” Maier, vice president and resident psychologist of Focus on the Family, said in an interview.

To be sure, Focus on the Family, the Colorado Springs-based ministry run by James Dobson, perhaps the most influential evangelical figure in the nation today, would agree with detractors of Love Won Out about very little else. At the one-day event, which is held a handful of times a year, ministers, psychologists and counselors who say they have left homosexuality behind them make the case for “reparative therapy” — the hypothesis that homosexuality is not innate and can be “repaired.”

The latest conference sets up shop Saturday in suburban Bothell, Wash. — amid Seattle’s annual Gay Pride Festival, which drew more than 120,000 people last year. Needless to say, gay rights activists plan protests, and they will follow up July 9 with their own Love Welcomes All event.

Participants will attend seminars about homosexuality and counseling sessions. There will also be advice for families and how they should deal with gay or lesbian relatives.

External factors said to determine sexuality
Maier cautioned that “human behavior is pretty darned complicated, so each individual is going to have a different experience.” But in general, he and others — notably psychologists Warren Throckmorton of Grove City College in Pennsylvania, Stanton Jones of Wheaton College in Illinois and Joseph J. Nicolosi of the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality — argue that homosexuality is not immutable.

It may not be a “choice,” as many conservative religious leaders maintain, but it is a response to family and other external conditions, these researchers say. Nicolosi, who will speak Saturday at the Love Won Out event, teaches, for example, that early family relationships and inappropriate sexual seduction at a young age are key determiners of sexual identity.

You are not born gay, in other words, and you can stop being gay.

“Because many of America’s gay activist organizations have promulgated this myth that homosexuals are born gay, many Americans have been misled,” Maier said. “There are many research studies that clearly show that gender orientation is changeable.”

Debating ‘ex-gays’
Activists for gay and lesbian causes unreservedly denounce Love Won Out as twisting science for a conservative religious cause. Love Won Out and other advocates of reparative therapy — what has come to be known popularly as the “ex-gay movement” — are selling “sham science,” in the view of Barbara Menard, director of the Human Rights Campaign Foundation.

Gay rights advocates point to the position of the major medical professional organizations. In recent years, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Counseling Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association and the National Association of School Psychologists have all declared that homosexuality is not a mental disorder that can or should be cured.

Dr. Brad Bullock, a pediatrician in Nashville who is gay, said he had found the language used by Maier and others to be “astounding,” noting that the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of developmental disorders more than 30 years ago. Last month, the association called for recognition of same-sex marriages.

“It’s remarkable to me that [the ex-gay movement] can make any headway,” Bullock said in an interview here during the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, several of whose most prominent figures are associated with Focus on the Family, which vigorously opposes homosexuality. The message of reparative therapy is “counter to the message of Jesus,” he said.

Bullock called the ex-gay movement “hurtful,” but Maier invited protesters to venture into a session at the Love Won Out event Saturday. “They might be very surprised to hear a message of hope and healing and challenge to the church,” he said.

Maier said he endorsed the evangelical position that homosexuality was a sin, but he said that did not influence his reading of the scientific data. If nothing else, he said, he hopes protesters will take the time to give it a fair hearing.

“We’re not talking about forcing our views down someone’s throat,” Maier said, adding that it would be ethically wrong to even try because the only opinion that really matters is that of the person undergoing therapy.

Many gays and lesbians “simply want to live their lives and be left alone,” and that’s fine, he said. “We believe in client autonomy and self-determination. The client should have that right.”