Photographs by Michael Wichita
Ex-gay activist Jonathan Paulk on stage at the Love Won Out conference.
At a Love Won Out conference, you hear oodles of heartwarming, fuzzified coming out stories.
Not queer coming out stories -- not the kind about thorny, poorly timed conversations with unsuspecting moms and pops. No, these are the stories that detail the worry-free life of the Christian heterosexual, a life that can be yours if you would just accept Jesus already and "come out " of this harebrained gay goose chase you've been on.
The Love Won Out shindig is billed as "a dynamic one-day conference addressing, understanding and preventing homosexuality, " and like any good marketer looking to snag a loyal, lifelong customer, its target is youth. Love Won Out is produced by Focus on the Family, an organization founded by Dr. James Dobson, author of Bringing Up Boys, an ultra-conservative son-rearing guide of the Tonka-good-Barbie-bad school of thought. The conference is moderated by John Paulk, the ex-gay poster boy who made headlines when he was spotted in the unmistakably gay Mr. P's two years ago.
Held last Saturday, November 2, at Springfield, Virginia's Immanuel Bible Church (which feels more like a convention center with a cross on the roof), the conference draws 950 attendees according to concluding speaker Joe Dallas. License plates in the parking lot are mostly Virginian. Bumper stickers support George W. and fetus rights. My unscientific estimate put whites outnumbering non-whites by at least ten to one. Christians to non-Christians, about 950 to one.
The conference is stocked with doctors and ex-gays who offer their collective opinion that conversion is possible. Their theories are Christian-based, but basic: you're gay, you're a sinner, you're going to fry, and we love you.
That's correct. They love you. No, no. They, like, LOVE you. Sins, they hate. But sinners? Love ‘em.
And so forms the brick wall that shuts down debate about the ethics of sexual reorientation. We're not forcing anyone to become ex-gay, goes the argument. We're simply offering the choice. And if you don't choose to join us, we're still going to love you. So what the heck's everyone raising a stink about?
Case in point: Working the crowd is Regina Griggs, national director of Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays (PFOX). Her son, who is gay, helped her set up the PFOX booth at the conference that morning. She and her son have "dialogues. " She's even gone with him to JR's. "I can disapprove of what he does and still love him, " she states, enlightened.
This type of non-hostile tone is ubiquitous at the conference, where everyone seems to be high on life. There's a sense of excessive politeness that you feel rubbing off on you before long. A sneeze inevitably results in enough shotgun God bless you's to rattle the pipes. Simple eye contact produces benign smiles. People who accidentally bump into each other volley apologies back and forth until both are out of earshot.
But what's upsetting about all of the Ned Flanders-esque "excuse me's " and "thank you's " is the inequity they cover up. This politeness is necessary because everyone knows we're not all on even ground here. There are sinners present, and everyone's being reeeeally, really nice so the sinners won't feel like they're lowly. But the extreme form of courtesy eventually starts to make you feel like everyone's just playing the good cop. There's something unsettling about being smiled at by a person who thinks that you're going to Hell.
No Welcome Here: HRC protesters come out as the "John Paulk Welcoming Committee."
But the speakers can't be so polite. As the persuaders of Focus on the Family's agenda, they have to resort to some firmer tactics. Let's call it tough love, because you can feel there's a lot of love here.
Dr. Joseph Nicolosi approaches the podium. He starts off sensitive, but then the phrase "sinful, degenerative perverts " slips out. Oops. He tells parents to be concerned about sons who don't establish good relationships with their fathers, because they may turn out to be mama's boys, and we all know what that means.
Mike Haley is next. He joins the unexplainably large number of pleated pants enthusiasts here today. He tells about how, after being told by the church that he was doomed to burn in Hell, he found acceptance in the gay community. This acceptance was a bad thing. Mike was a party boy, getting wasted routinely and sleeping around. He found this unfulfilling.
"Unfulfilling " quickly becomes the catchword of the day. It seems that most ex-gays leave homosexuality because they suddenly realize that they feel unfulfilled by cracked-out anonymous sex. This realization is treated as nothing less than God-sent epiphany. But because gay life is portrayed as basically synonymous with drug use and casual sex, getting sober and monogamous without getting straight is a virtual non-option.
When asked if he thinks that a faithful, lasting and meaningful gay relationship is impossible, he says "Not impossible, but almost. "
Is Haley happier now that he's left gay life behind?
"Couldn't be happier, " he smiles.
D.C. ex-gay activist Anthony Falzarano mingles with pro-gay protestors.
Not everyone finds the transition so smooth. Between the "Pro-Gay Theology " breakout session and the "Why Is What They're Teaching So Dangerous? " seminar, Jim [not his real name], a 44-year-old salon owner, is chain-smoking Marlboro reds in the parking lot. Jim has come all the way from North Carolina for this conference. He's made the decision to go ex-gay three months ago.
"I still get tempted, " he admits. "When I see a pretty little thing, I still want to touch him, so I basically just try to avoid being near them. It's like, you don't bring an alcoholic to a bar. "
Jim's nine-year same-sex relationship ended when he cheated on his partner. That was the breaking point. He still worries that he'll relapse into gay life and confesses that he'll probably never completely shake his attraction to men. He says he could never have a true relationship with a woman. Has he sworn off romance for life?
"Basically, yeah, " he responds.
The more people you meet at the conference, the less outlandish this idea starts to seem. Richie Bollinger, 22, is the Outreach Director for Day 7 Ministries, an organization that claims to offer hope to those in sexual conflict.
"Will I ever not be attracted to men? I'm not sure. That's not really what I'm in the process for, " he says. "My desire is to know and pursue God. If heterosexuality comes along with that, great. But if not, I'd be content. "
Being ex-gay doesn't seem to require becoming straight as much as it requires just becoming "not gay. " Put another way, giving up homosexuality for no sexuality at all is good enough for these folks.
And yet there's something about the Love Won Out conference that feels anything but asexual. Among the exhibition booths in the hallways, there are more wandering eyes than you'd find in a singles bar. The cruisey atmosphere is even more charged by all the anti-gay propaganda.
It's not only the attendees who are sexualizing the ambiance. The conference itself drips of vague titillation. Moralists who have never uttered the word "copulate " in their own homes sit in rooms full of strangers and listen to sex talk. The ins and outs of queer sodomy are blared through giant amps in auditoriums filled with captivated audiences. Ex-gays take the mike and recall stories of depraved acts in dark alleys. The crowd is practically falling off the edge of their seats. Glancing around the room, you wonder how many of these couples are going to go home and have the best sex they've had since their honeymoons.
The fact that the conference actively advocates traditional gender roles is not incidental. Many of the speakers attribute homosexuality to the colliding spheres of manhood and womanhood. In the hall, two volunteers have a discussion. The man mishears something the woman says.
"There's a classic, " he says. "A woman insisting that she didn't say something that a man heard her say. " They both laugh about this.
Dr. Nicolosi is particularly sexist, asserting that women tend to just watch kids while men tend to play with them. He makes a joke about how fathers don't know how to carry babies and always forget to support their heads.
"If the father drops the kid and the kid gets brain damage, at least he'll be straight. Small price to pay, " laughs Nicolosi. The audience chuckles at the thought of a straight baby with brain damage. The chuckling is chock full of love.
Protesters gather outside the Love Won Out conference.
By lunchtime, a sizeable gaggle of protestors is gathered in the parking lot outside. They're wrapped in scarves and wool hats and carry slabs of cardboard scrawled with anti-hate messages. Several wave HRC-brand equal signs at traffic. Drivers honk their horns in supportive response. One protestor hoists an inflatable doll on a pole with a sign that reads "FOF is Fucking My Ass. " Wayne Besen, of the Human Rights Campaign, has spent the past two years investigating ex-gay ministries. He chastises Focus on the Family for disseminating false information.
"Our problem with them is that they're not being upfront with people who go to these ministries, " he says. "They don't tell people that [their theories] are rejected by every medical and mental health organization. "
But many of the people associated with the ministries don't rely on hard data, instead basing their doctrines on what they've heard from other people's personal experiences. Katherine Allen is the founder of Sought Out, a ministry proclaiming sexual redemption in Christ for sexual addiction, adultery, and same sex attraction. She relates a story about two seventh graders (friends of the daughter of a friend of hers) who had oral sex in class while the teacher was out of the room. She asserts that this sort of thing never used to happen and attributes the shift to broken families.
"And rap music, " she adds.
"MTV. And TV in general. "
And away we go. Inevitably, any discussion of morality eventually gets around to the evil media. Today, Dick Carpenter, an education policy analyst, leads the charge. He starts off by waxing nostalgic about a time when the "image of gays in popular media...wasn't flattering, " and goes on to outline, via PowerPoint, the shocking number of gays portrayed by TV as being normal. He even outs Waylon Smithers. Then he shows video footage of kids being taught about homosexuality in school.
The school footage is loaded data because you can interpret it in any way that you want. A classroom full of wide-eyed kids listening to a teacher explain homosexuality looks horrifying to this crowd. To a gay-friendly crowd, the exact same footage looks like a step in the right direction. The material is truncated down to a sound byte and set up with a quick introduction by Carpenter who tells us what we're about to see, practically rendering the video's content moot.
That is the gist of Love Won Out. Because Focus on the Family is short on statistical evidence to support their claims, they use perspective, rhetoric and testimonials to form the foundation of their argument. For instance, Carpenter quotes ranting diatribes from radical gay activists to appall his audience. But a gay-friendly observer would note that the quotes are from 1984, when radical activism was spiking due to AIDS. There's also the double standard -- Joe Dallas complains that Christians are demonized by a media that only quotes radicals like Fred Phelps, even though this complaint follows a slew of Love Won Out speakers who just finished quoting every radical gay activist from the 1980s to prove that queers are nutjobs.
Surprisingly, Love Won Out's most brilliant tactic is the same tactic used by gay activists: Criticize the Church. During the course of the day, while the "gay lifestyle " is taken to task, gays and lesbians themselves are rarely criticized directly. The Christian Church, on the other hand, is repeatedly bitch slapped for not being compassionate enough. Dallas closes out the conference with the most self-deprecating sermon of all, a 45-minute rail against the Church in which he censures Christians for failing to help and uplift the gay community, for failing to truly love the sinner.
Citing the onset of the AIDS epidemic as example, he recalls how the Church, rather than help the gay community in its time of greatest need, instead declared victory over the sinners. He laments the missed opportunity to give.
Dick Carpenter talks about gay and straight images in media.
Would it be cynical to assume that Dallas is not really lamenting a missed opportunity to give, but rather a missed opportunity to catch the gay community at a weak and vulnerable moment when they would have done anything for help? When they would have accepted Jesus and all of the Church's homophobic views just out of gratitude for the assistance?
There's no proof that that's what the Church had in mind, but take a look at exactly who love is "winning out. " Is Focus on the Family targeting happy, well-adjusted queers with their promises of family, faith and community? Unlikely. They're targeting people with few gay friends, people who feel alienated and lonely, people whose partners have cheated on them (or vice versa), and people who haven't found a partner at all. Basically, gays who are vulnerable.
The Love Won Out conference is one slick production. The people running it are incredibly non-threatening, hence all the smiling, the politeness, the assurances that joining is your choice but just hear us out. Problem is, the message they're providing is manipulative and addictive -- the promise of happiness for those who haven't found it. If you're unhappy, they tell you, it's only because you're gay. If you were straight, you'd be happy like we are.
What can the gay community do? Not much, except try to make itself as welcoming and inclusive as possible. The militant tactics that sexual conversion advocates have used in the past are no more. Say hello to the new and improved enemy: smarter, gentler, and ready to be friends.