Can Gays 'Convert'?
Miller, Mark, Leland, John, Newsweek
A controversial series of ads claims that homosexuals aren't born that way, and can change. A look inside the 'ex-gay' movement, and the elusive science of sexual orientation.
In a town house in northwest Washington, D.C., Anthony Falzarano calls for a show of hands. "How many of you," he asks, "were raped, molested or sexualized as children?" More than half of the 20 men and three women raise their hands. Falzarano, 42, is neatly dressed, a former architectural restorer who talks with the reassuring cadences of a motivational speaker. For the last hour or so, he has recited Scriptures and talked about his own life--about his rather glamorous turns in the New York gay scene of the 1970s, about his Christian reawakening, about his wife and two children. Now he urges the others to talk.
"My name is Dave," begins one. "It's been a good week. I haven't had any lapses into masturbation for more than a month." Shannon, 27, has not had a good week. He started a new job, and already, he says, "people are buzzing, 'Is the new guy gay?' " Falzarano admonishes, "You're still sending out mixed signals." The secret sharers are mostly in their 20s and 30s, racially mixed, united in purpose: they want desperately, some painfully, not to be gay.
They have come to the Transformation Ministries branch of Exodus International, a nondenominational Christian fellowship dedicated to helping homosexuals change their orientation. Touting strict Scriptural reading and a discredited theory of childhood development, Exodus was until recently one of the better-kept secrets in the American church. Then on July 13, in conjunction with conservative groups like the Christian Coalition, it started taking out full-page ads in major newspapers (including The Washington Post, Newsweek's sister publication). In gentle, loving language, smiling "ex-gays" offered the bold promise: we changed, so can you. Gay advocates fumed. "This is a deliberate campaign to make homophobia acceptable," argues Anne Fausto-Sterling, a professor of biology and women's studies at Brown University. The mainstream psych community bridled: therapy to change sexual orientation, says Gregory Herek, a research psychologist at the University of California, Davis, "doesn't have any scientific basis." For the ad's sponsors, the uproar was golden. "We've done 37 interviews in the last 10 days," exults Falzarano, who describes himself as "one of the top five 'ex-gays'." After years of daytime-TV indignities, ex-gays like John and Anne Paulk of Colorado Springs--a former drag queen and a former lesbian, now married with a son--were working prime time.
The ads come just as factions within the Republican Party are battling over gay rights. Senate leader Trent Lott recently likened homosexuality to alcoholism and kleptomania, and blocked a vote to allow James Hormel, who is gay, to become ambassador to Lux- embourg. The Republican-controlled House voted to deny certain federal funds to any city that required contractors to provide health benefits to gay partners. But just last week, defectors within the party helped defeat a GOP bill to rescind President Bill Clinton's anti-discrimination order for gays in the federal government.
At Falzarano's ministry, such political machinations are lost on people like Shannon. He has led a complicated life. At his first meeting, he wore mascara and outrageous dress. "I was flaming," he says, conspiratorially. Raised in a strict Pentecostal home, with a violent, drug-addicted father, he "got into the lifestyle"--Exodus-speak for homosexuality--at the age of 14. By 20, he says, "I wanted a change. I [believed] I was an awful, damaged product in God's eyes." He returned to the church, quickly married and fathered a child, but eventually started seeing men again. Earlier this year, with a second child on the way, he brought himself to an Exodus meeting. He was dubious--"I thought they were all fakers"--but desperate. "At first, I came because I didn't want to waste more of my wife's life. …