Straight to Hell

When Gays Go Hetero, the Consequences Can Be Anything But Redemptive

Jeffrey Coates just couldn't see a way out. He had spent his entire life trying not to be gay, but it wasn't working. Until he was 29, he had no sex at all. Then, after an encounter with another man, he threw himself into Homosexuals Anonymous and Desert Stream, a fundamentalist ministry that offered an intense, 20-week program to convert homosexuals into heterosexuals. Coates was awarded a certificate for making excellent progress, but, he says, "I felt absolutely no different inside."

After two more years of trying to change, Coates ended up in a desperate bind. "I was taught that suicide was a sin, so I thought there was no way out," he says. He decided to "just hope that God will realize I'm killing myself for the right reasons."

Coates went to a bar, mixed some drinks with pills, then tried to drive home over the narrow, winding roads of the Hollywood Hills, hoping to crash into the canyon. He kept blacking out at the wheel, swerving into the other lane or out to the edge of the shoulder, but didn't actually crash until he ran into a parked car two blocks from home.

What compelled Coates to try so ardently to "cure" something that is not an illness? His answer seems simple: Raised Baptist in Missouri, the 42-year-old Californian says, "I was taught that homosexuals would go to hell." Ex-gay ministries insist they're not recruiting anyone, but the stories of those who have gone through their programs show that most people enter "conversion therapy" under duress—what some survivors call "psychological terrorism." And the therapy itself can wreak harm, as it did to Coates.

Yet the movement to "heal" gays has suddenly gained media credibility, simply because conservative political groups, such as the Christian Coalition and the Family Research Council, shelled out $200,000 for a high-profile ad campaign. Over the past few weeks, they've run full-page ads in major American dailies featuring former lesbian Anne Paulk, now married to a former drag queen, and a group photo of "ex-gays." A new ad, in The Miami Herald, opens with the headline "From innocence to AIDS" and warns of "the physical and spiritual consequences of sin."

These ads are only one salvo in an aggressive political assault on gays timed to the midterm elections. While Trent Lott quips that homosexuals can be compared to alcoholics and kleptomaniacs, congressional Republicans are pushing at least three antigay bills. "Christian groups are reinvigorating their long-standing crusade against homosexuality, but with an unprecedented degree of unity and coordination," concludes The Washington Post.

Many of these attacks seem to be backfiring. Gerald Ford, for example, recently warned his party of the dangers of extremism and reaffirmed his support of gay rights. The ex-gay ads portray a kinder, gentler homophobia, but The New Republic's Andrew Sullivan smoked the true antigay hate out from behind the rhetoric of Christian love and healing. In a dramatic moment on Nightline, Sullivan prodded Janet Folger, who orchestrated the ex-gay ad blitz, to admit that she supports laws that criminalize homosexual sex, allowing gay men and lesbians to be imprisoned for making love even in the privacy of their own homes.

Indeed, the main impetus for the ex-gay ads lies in the polls. According to Gallup, only 13 percent of Americans believed homosexuality was innate in 1977, the year Anita Bryant waged her antigay campaign. But by 1996, that figure had soared to 31 percent. Those same polls show that Americans are more than twice as likely to accept homosexuality if they believe it is innate, like race. "If people believe it's a choice," says CNN commentator William Schneider, "then they aren't going to be as sympathetic." The right is betting that ex-gays will convince Americans homosexuality is a choice—a dangerous and depraved one.

The media have largely focused on the question posed by the ads: Can gays change? The press has certainly cast doubt on whether that's possible, usually by quoting "ex-ex-gays," who say they were able to alter their behavior but not their core desires, and by citing the American Psychological Association, which discourages conversion therapies because there is no credible evidence they work. But what the press has all but overlooked is why anyone would want to change his or her sexual orientation in the first place.

It's a glaring omission, because even the most "successful" ex-gays describe the process as torturous. "Six years of extreme, intense struggle" is how Elaine Sinnard, who runs an ex-gay ministry in Middletown, New York, describes her effort—which she says has worked—to overcome her lesbianism. Some programs try to butch up gay men and femme down lesbians by taking the men to sporting events and teaching the women how to put on makeup, or by pairing gays with a heterosexual mentor who can teach them conventional gender behavior. Some therapists tell their patients to imagine that the same-sex objects of their desires are diseased, perhaps with AIDS. A group in Memphis, Tennessee, runs a year-long live-in program. Attempts at exorcism—which survivors call emotionally devastating—sometimes occur.

Homophobia is so pervasive that many heterosexuals just assume gays would want to change, and don't think there's anything wrong with asking them to try. As Dave Lemon, a gay Oklahoman who tried for years to become heterosexual, says, "Ask some straight guy to imagine what it would be like if he was told, 'You can't love women and now you're going to have to love a guy.' Tell 'em that, and then they get it."

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