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"I'm not trying to convert homosexuals," says Sinnard, "unless I would try to convert them to God through Jesus Christ. And I would work my head off for that." Of course, proselytizing to homosexuals is de facto recruitment to ex-gay ministries. Indeed, it is almost impossible to comprehend the ex-gay movement without first understanding religious homophobia. True, there is a secular network of "reparative therapists" called the National Association for the Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), but even it has strong religious ties; NARTH cofounder Joseph Nicolosi is a Roman Catholic whose clinic is named after Thomas Aquinas. And most of the larger groups, such as Exodus and Homosexuals Anonymous, are explicitly Christian.
"The nonbeliever has great difficulty understanding [ex-gay ministries], because we are talking about a supernatural transformation that God brings about," says Michael Johnston, the HIV-positive, former homosexual who appeared in the "From innocence to AIDS" ad, and is now president of Kerusso Ministries, a prominent ex-gay organization. Overcoming homosexuality "is not about rational thought or rational discussion," he explains, which is why he dismisses "much of psychology" and the APA's 25-year-old position that homosexuality is not an illness.
Homosexuality is an "abomination," Johnson explains, because in the fullness of time, Jesus the bridegroom will unite with his bride, the church of believers. Even though God has aspects of both masculinity and femininity, and even though "in our glorified bodies there will be no sex," nevertheless marriage between a man and woman is a "picture of the relationship between God and his people." Therefore, he concludes, "a homosexual relationship perverts that [divine] relationship to the greatest possible extent."
The power of religion is such that, to Johnston, this explanation seems absolutely clear and true. Once fundamentalist premises are accepted, there is no way to be gay and remain in God's grace, so shame, guilt, and self-hate follow. Brandon Bauer, now 28, couldn't reconcile being gay with Mormon teachings, so at 17 he tried to kill himself. That's when "therapy" began. A Mormon psychologist assured him he was "under Satan's influence" and that Satan was deceiving him into thinking he couldn't change. He was repeatedly offered electroshock therapy, which he refused. Bauer's parents were told to time his showers so he wouldn't have a chance to masturbate and to remove any kind of magazine "like GQ, that might have underwear models." A church bishop gave Bauer a private theological seminar, writing the levels of sin on a blackboard. "He put murder as one step better than homosexuality," Bauer recalls. "He said, 'God could forgive a murderer, but He could never forgive a homosexual.' It haunts me to this day."
Each religious sect offers different therapies, but they all paint a distorted and dire portrait of gay life. Bauer recalls being told homosexuality would mean "a life of promiscuity and drug use and really sleazy bars that would be horribly lonely. I would never be loved, because that's impossible between people of same sex." Denied a healthy sexual outlet, Bauer became "like two different people. I wanted to please everyone, to be straight and have kids and be included. Meanwhile the other part of me sneaks out at night and drinks and has sex. I felt like I was having this depressing life, just like they said, so I started to believe them to a certain extent." Bauer has since accepted his homosexuality, but he says conversion therapy scarred him in ways that make it hard for him to maintain relationships.
NARTH, the ostensibly secular psychological organization, deploys a similar hurt-then-heal strategy. "Homosexuality is maladaptive, it's universally maladaptive," asserts NARTH cofounder Joseph Nicolosi. "More pathology and self-destructive behavior is associated with the gay lifestyle," he says, citing cigarette smoking, alcoholism, sadomasochism, failed relationships, "narcissism for the homosexual, borderline personality for the lesbian."
If the rarified religious and psychological rhetoric fails, there's always crotch homophobia: "Our bodies were not made for homosexual sex," says Kerusso Ministry's Johnston. "The anus was not made to be penetrated." Never mind that many heterosexuals practice anal sex, and that many gay men (not to mention lesbians) never do. These are facts any psychologist ought to know, but Nicolosi is practically Johnston's echo: "I think the penis was made for a vagina; I don't think it was made for another man's rectum." Asked if the penis was made for the hand or the mouth, other body parts in which it often finds itself happily ensconced, Nicolosi snaps, "I don't want to get into that."
Despite the extreme pressure, most people who attempt to change their sexuality fail. NARTH and Exodus, the largest Christian ex-gay ministry, both claim "cure" rates of about one third. Exodus offers no scientific backup for its claim, and NARTH offers evidence that is at best flimsy. On its Web page, NARTH quotes ex-gay Alan Medinger as saying, "Years after I had left behind virtually all homosexual attractions, and years after a blessed and pleasurable sexual relationship in my marriage, one factor continued to disturb me. If an attractive man and an attractive woman enter a room, it is the man I will look at first." NARTH counts this man as successfully cured.