'Ex-Gay' Conference Draws Near-Record Attendees, Protests

By Lawrence Morahan | July 7, 2008 | 8:04 PM EDT

Springfield, Va. (CNSNews.com) - Months after Amy Tracy left a lesbian relationship and committed her life to Christianity, she got together with her ex-girlfriend for coffee and a chat. Tracy wanted to talk about her newfound relationship with God; her friend wanted to talk about their former lives together as lovers and political activists.

"She said to me, 'Now that you're one of them, all you want to do is put me in a camp,' meaning a concentration camp," Tracy recalled Saturday afternoon during a break in the "Love Won Out" conference, hosted by Focus on the Family. The conference, which took place at a church in Springfield, Va., emphasizes that it is possible for people to change their homosexual orientation.

Weeks after the encounter with her former friend, Tracy was still wondering how an intelligent woman could hold such extreme views. Then Tracy realized that she - as a former feminist activist in numerous high-profile jobs, including a job as press secretary for the National Organization for Women, once held similar beliefs herself.

"There's such a separation of worldview," said Tracy, who has worked as a senior writer for Dr. James Dobson, president of Focus on the Family, since 1997. "The gay community really does believe that we're doing harm; that we really are hateful and that we really are driving people to kill themselves. They believe that and they perpetuate that."

As if to illustrate her point, a coalition of about 12 pro-homosexual groups gathered in a protest outside the church. Wayne Besen, a spokesman for what the protesters called the "John Paulk Welcoming Committee," estimated the crowd at about 70 people.

What prompted the demonstration, Besen said, was a series of advertisements by Focus on the Family in the Metro public transit system, The Washington Post and the Washington City Paper, publicizing the event. Protesters got together to challenge what they saw as the "incredibly dishonest" message of the ads.

"First of all, they're not telling people that you can be gay and happy or gay and Christian. The second thing they're doing that's wrong is saying that they're about love when in fact they're about politics and opposing laws that protect gay people from discrimination and hate crimes," Besen said.

None of the stereotypes Focus on the Family presents at its conferences have any bearing on the experiences of most homosexual men and women, Besen said.

"And I think it's a shame that they can't just stick to what their beliefs are, and have to go down a road of being dishonest and mean-spirited and distorting our lives. That's unnecessary and we urge them to stop doing it now," he said.

What Focus on the Family is not telling conference participants is that every major leader of every "ex-gay ministry" has either renounced it or been caught in a homosexual bar, Besen said, or that "every respected health and medical organization in the country rejects what they're doing."

John Paulk, the main focus of the homosexual groups' ire, is no stranger to controversy. Fifteen years ago, he came out of homosexuality and became actively involved in Christian ministry. In 1992, he married Anne, also a former homosexual. Six years later, he joined Focus on the Family as a cultural and policy analyst on gender issues. Today the Paulks have two sons and are expecting a third.

The pressure of being at the forefront of one of the most controversial and emotional issues confronting American society - including being featured in Newsweek and People magazines, and on "60 Minutes" - brought Paulk a lot of stress with his newfound celebrity.

"I did not respond to that stress well and made a stupid mistake," Paulk admits.

On a visit to Washington, D.C., two years ago, Paulk visited a homosexual bar he used to go to. He was quickly spotted by homosexual activists, who saw the visit as evidence of Paulk's hypocrisy and deceit, and proof that "once gay, always gay."

Paulk said the bar was a symbol of something that had been familiar and comfortable to him years before. His decision to go in was like the rash act of a recovered alcoholic who, finding himself under stress, might go back to a former watering hole out of a morbid sense of curiosity, he said.

Paulk insists he was not looking for sex. If he was, there were many other, less public places he could have gone, he said. Being honest about the incident has helped rather than hurt his ministry, he believes, as evidenced by a jump in attendance at his conferences over the past two years. About 950 people attended the conference Saturday; they came from 12 states, including Alaska, organizers reported.

"People are looking for role models that aren't perfect, but who will get up when they fall down," Paulk said.

Rather than duck the issue, Paulk decided to tackle it head-on in his work. The ad Focus on the Family is running features a row of bar stools. Above the picture is the caption: "John Paulk's back in town. But don't save him a seat."

The incident hasn't caused Paulk to change or dilute his message. While homosexuality is not a condition people can walk away from without strong motivation and commitment, neither is it something immutable like ethnicity or skin color, he tells people. Like Tracy, he has seen the issue from the protesters' side also.

"I was a gay activist. In my early twenties I marched in parades and that kind of thing," he said.

Paulk's message to people on the other side of the debate is very simple, he said: "Your homosexuality is masquerading for hurt and emptiness, and I would just say that if you are unhappy being gay deep down inside, there is a path you can walk down, albeit difficult, and that's the hope I want to offer."

'Argument threatens orthodoxy'

Dr. Joseph Nicolosi, president of the National Association for the Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), said the growing ex-gay movement Paulk and Tracy represent threatens the orthodoxy that says people can't change.

A clinical psychologist, Nicolosi is one of a growing number of therapists committed to helping those who want to come out of homosexuality. However, the rancorous debate on homosexuality is often a substitute for a deeper debate on freedom of religion and belief, he said.

"This is not about civil rights, this is not about politics, this is not about religion - they interface, but the focus is on whether or not people have a right to change, or whether people in fact do change. We believe they do," Nicolosi said.

But the fight can be uphill, Nicolosi found. His latest book, "A Parent's Guide to Preventing Homosexuality," has been encountering a lot of hostile reaction, especially from the establishment media and news outlets.

"Homosexuality is a kind of phenomenon people get very emotional about and project all kinds of stuff onto, so the person that's interested in the subject really has to sort out his thinking on this," he said.

"The point we keep making is that you're not born gay and that change is possible," Nicolosi said. "That's our position, and that's a serious challenge to the gay agenda because the gay agenda is built upon the premise that people are born this way and they cannot change."

Opinion studies show that Americans are more likely to accept homosexuality if they believe people are born homosexual and can't change.

"But once you introduce the reality that change is possible, you challenge the fundamental premise of the gay agenda. That's why every time a gay person stands up and says, 'I was once gay or I was once lesbian and here I am,' that challenges the very foundation of their position," Nicolosi said.