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Can gays and lesbians be cured? The controversial idea that counseling and therapy can overcome homosexual tendencies is at the heart of what's called the ex-gay movement.
Rene Gutel of member station KJZZ attended a conference in Phoenix, Arizona devoted to these therapies.
RENE GUTEL: The all-day event at Bethany Bible Church is called Love Won Out. It's sponsored by Focus on the Family. The essential message is that homosexuality can be overcome through therapy and devotion to Jesus Christ.
Mr. ALAN CHAMBERS (Speaker, Love Won Out): I used to be gay. Big whoop.
GUTEL: Alan Chambers is one of the speakers.
Mr. CHAMBERS: You know what, God did an amazing work in my life, and I am so proud every day to be a living, breathing example of his grace, and his mercy and his transformation. You know...
GUTEL: His talk is called Help for Those Who Struggle, and is one of many smaller sessions over the course of the day. About 75 men and women are in the audience.
Mr. CHAMBERS: I think you'll find that success is inevitable. Amen?
Unidentified Group: Amen.
Mr. CHAMBERS: Thank you.
(Soundbite of applause)
GUTEL: Chambers is president of Exodus International, an umbrella group for many Christian ex-gay ministries. He says more and more people, uncomfortable with their same-sex attractions, are seeking what some in the ex-gay movement call reparative therapy.
Mr. CHAMBERS: Cure is not a word that I would ever use. Certainly, that's not what we're advocating with regards to homosexuality. But we are saying is that it is a condition that people have found freedom from. They have changed.
GUTEL: Evangelical Christians aren't the only religious group offering to help gays and lesbians suppress their sexual desires. There's a Jewish program, JONAH, Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality. A Roman Catholic ministry called Courage focuses on chastity and follows a 12-step program.
Each approach is a bit different. But generally, they include prayer, biblical teachings and some sort of individual or group therapy. But some mental health experts are skeptical.
Dr. CLINTON ANDERSON (Director, Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Concerns Office): There really isn't any scientifically adequate research behind reparative therapy.
GUTEL: Clinton Anderson directs the Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Concerns Office in Washington, D.C. with the American Psychological Association. The APA says so-called conversion therapy is not supported by science.
Dr. ANDERSON: We have the concern, first of all, that the therapies have never been adequately demonstrated to be safe or effective, and that the promotion of such therapies contributes to the climate of prejudice and discrimination in this country.
GUTEL: But leaders in the ex-gay movement say thousands of Americans are now living as former homosexuals, and that each person should have the right to decide for themselves what is best. The Love Won Out conference is taking a lunch break, and people are streaming out of the church.
Unidentified Group: Hey, hey. Ho, ho. Homophobes you've got to go. Hey, hey...
GUTEL: About 100 protestors are chanting outside. Many say they find the conference offensive, and that gays and lesbians shouldn't need to change who they are, regardless of their religion.
Standing nearby and watching it all are Penny and Mark Thatcher(ph) and their son Brett(ph). They live in San Diego, but made the 350-mile drive to hear the testimonials. Brett Thatcher is 16 years old, and says he knows he's gay.
Mr. BRETT THATCHER: I did not want to come at all. I don't know, like, I don't even know what to do. So I was just like, I guess, I have no choice because, like, my parents, you know, they control my life.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GUTEL: Brett's parents are both devout Christians, and say they just want what's best for their son. They're considering therapeutic programs to help Brett become heterosexual. His mother Penny says the conference was inspiring.
Ms. PENNY THATCHER: Even though my son right now, as of this point, not desiring to be anything following the Lord, I believe that seeds are planted today, and I have the faith that it's going to be growing and watering through his life. And one day, he will accept Christ.
GUTEL: Brett says he listened with interest to the formerly gay speakers and found their stories compelling. But, standing next to his mom and dad, Brett admits he's not interested in any kind of therapy.
Mr. THATCHER: Don't tell my parents, but no.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. THATCHER: Because I know I'm gay, and like their stories are really inspiring, but I know this is me and I don't really want to change.
GUTEL: Brett's dad, Mark, said the conference taught him that he needs to learn to love his son unconditionally.
Mr. MARK THATCHER: Absolutely. Love him forever.
GUTEL: He also says the weekend renewed his hopes that one day, his son will become straight.
For NPR News, I'm Rene Gutel in Phoenix.
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