Healthier, happier and heterosexual 

Alan Chambers is impeccably dressed. Freshly shined black loafers, no socks, a spotless white dress shirt tucked into unwrinkled, unfaded blue jeans. Not one of his closely cropped hairs is out of place; he wears no stubble. He has soft, almost glowing baby blue eyes and, if you look closely enough, long, neat eyelashes. Perhaps because he's graying, Chambers looks older than his 31 years.

He sits, legs crossed, on a park bench in the breezeway of the downtown First Presbyterian Church, patiently enduring a photo shoot and talking alternately with his wife, an aide and an Orlando Weekly writer. His wife, Leslie, joins him on the bench, resting her hand on his leg.

They've been married five years, but have no kids. "We're trying," Chambers explains. "Fertility issues."

He's quite used to sharing intimate details of his life with strangers. Openness comes with the job.

For nearly two years, Chambers has been executive director of Winter Park-based Exodus International North America, the largest "ex-gay" group in the world. Chambers, like thousands of Exodus members, was once gay. But now, thanks to help from God, he's healthier, happier and heterosexual.

Exodus is an umbrella organization of 140 ex-gay ministries in North America, and 35 others in 17 countries throughout the world. The organization's North American headquarters moved here from Seattle last year at Chambers' insistence. "Orlando is a haven for Christian organizations," says spokesman Randy Thomas. "The body of Christ here is a lot more accepting of our redemptive message."

That, and the fact that Exodus saved enough in taxes to hire another staff member, giving it eight locally. And Chambers didn't have to move.

Exodus is based on the premise that homosexuality is not genetic and immutable. With prayer and therapy, gays can straighten up. Exodus claims to have helped tens of thousands of men and women do just that.

It's a highly controversial concept. For three decades, American mental-health professionals have largely discounted the notion that homosexuality is a disorder and dismissed claims that it can be cured.

"We do not see [the evidence] when it comes to reparative therapy," says Rhea Farberman, communications director for the American Psychological Association. "There's some evidence that [reparative therapy] could be harmful. It could be harmful to a person's own psyche."

The question of whether gays can or should change aside, the political subtext of Exodus is what makes the group a lightning rod: If gays can change, homosexuality is not genetic. If homosexuality isn't genetic, then gays aren't entitled to the same equal-rights protections as other minority groups.

On the other hand, if homosexuality is genetic and natural, the arguments against same-sex marriage and anti-discrimination laws crumble. In light of the recent Supreme Court ruling striking down sodomy laws and an expected fight over same-sex marriage, gay rights have again become the topic du jour. And whether they want to or not -- and many don't -- ex-gays are poised to take center stage in the culture war.

"I am living proof that a person's homosexuality is not innate," says Stephen Bennett, a Connecticut-based evangelist and self-proclaimed ex-gay. "The whole entire gay-rights movement is built on a faulty foundation. That's why people such as myself are so deadly and dangerous to the gay agenda."

This week, an estimated 750 ex-gays are attending Exodus International's weeklong conference at First Presbyterian Church in downtown Orlando. It's the first time in Exodus' 28-year-history the annual conference has come to a metropolitan church, instead of a Christian-college campus. It may have hurt attendance numbers, Chambers says, since visitors must find their own transportation and lodging. But being in downtown Orlando also boosts visibility.

"We're right in the center of the city," Chambers says. "We're not going to hide."

One gay year

Exodus moved to Central Florida in January 2002, just in time for the heated debate over Chapter 57, Orlando's ultimately successful push to add "sexual orientation" to its anti-discrimination code. Chambers jumped right into the fray, forming People for a United Orlando to fight the ordinance.

"As far as Exodus goes, our ministry is pastoral, [but] we're called upon to speak in the public arena," Chambers, a graduate of Lake Howell High School, says. "Because we're citizens of the community, we had a real opinion to air about Chapter 57. We're called to use our story in a political way."

Though they lost the battle -- the ordinance passed in December on a 4-3 city council vote -- Chambers scored some good press. In November, after badgering the Orlando Sentinel about what he thought was one-sided coverage of Chapter 57, the Sentinel ran a gushing 3,087-word profile of him detailing his past life, his conversion and his politics.

The story goes like this: Raised a Southern Baptist with a workaholic father and overbearing mother -- a classic recipe for turning queer, according to the ex-gays -- Chambers was taught that homosexuality was an abomination. Nevertheless, by his teen-age years he knew he was attracted to men, and he knew that to act on these feelings would be sinful. He was depressed and conflicted but told no one he was gay until he attended a youth conference at age 18.

There a speaker announced that someone in the crowd was gay and suicidal. Later, in private, he outed himself to the speaker and his family. He involved himself in Winter Park-based gay counseling ministry called Eleutheros, a local affiliate of Exodus International.

Still, Chambers had never really lived as an open, unabashed homosexual. He'd had the occasional, anonymous sexual encounter, but it wasn't the real deal. So he embraced his gayness, spending the next year partying at the Parliament House and attending the Joy Metropolitan Church.

"I lived as much of the gay life as anyone can," he says. "It just wasn't satisfying. I was seeking all I could do to change that aspect of my life."

He straightened up and went back to Eleutheros and by 1992 became a counselor. Eight years later, as the group's director, he changed its name to Exchange Ministries and became one of Exodus' board members. When the executive director retired in early 2002, Chambers applied and got the job.

Everyone's doing it

The first ex-gay group anyone can remember was called Love in Action, founded in 1973 in California. Exodus International held its first conference three years later, a gathering of 60 people from across the globe associated with gay conversion. It was the beginning of a movement. Previously, ex-gay groups weren't cohesive, taking place mainly in the shadows of conservative churches.

"It was formed by people who had come out of homosexuality," says Chambers, "[and had] a dissatisfaction with gay life. We believe it was incompatible [with Christianity], but because there was no real help at the time, the church didn't understand the issue."

Exodus faced an early setback in 1979 when two of its founders -- Gary Cooper and Michael Bussee -- left their wives, declared their love for one another and left the ministry. Thereafter Cooper and Bussee called the ex-gay movement a fraud that perpetuated homophobia. They lived as partners until Cooper died of AIDS in the 1990s.

In fact, leaders reverting back to homosexuality has been something of a problem for the ex-gay movement. Exodus has seen 13 of its ministries shut down for that reason. In 1986, Homosexuals Anonymous founder Colin Cook admitting making lewd advances on male clients; in 2001, Courage -- the Catholic version of Exodus -- founder Jeremy Marks declared that his ministry was wrong and futile. In 2000, John Paulk, then chairman of Exodus' board of directors, was spotted in a well-known Washington, D.C. gay bar and forced to resign his director's job, though he remained on Exodus' board and on the payroll of Focus on the Family.

Nonetheless, the ex-gay movement grew, especially during the '80s. It was the same time the AIDS epidemic was riveting the gay community, but Chambers isn't sure if there's a direct correlation.

Ex-gay ministries operated under the radar until 1998. That year, a Christian activist named Janet Folger, backed by more than a dozen right-wing groups, bought $600,000 worth of advertising in The New York Times, USA Today and The Washington Post, plus six other major daily newspapers, declaring that, "Thousands of former homosexuals can celebrate a new life because someone cared enough to share with them the truth of God's healing love." The ensuing media coverage -- stories in Time, Newsweek, and on "20/20" -- made the question, "Can gays change?" a matter of public discussion.

Fundamentalist Christians aren't the only ones getting in on the action either. There's JONAH (Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality), the Latter-Day Saints' Evergreen International (Mormon), Courage (Catholic), PFOX (Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays), OneByOne (Presbyterian) and NARTH (National Association for the Research and Therapy of Homosexuality), among others.

Earlier this month, 11 of these organizations bonded together as PATH (Positive Alternatives to Homosexuality), a coalition that seeks to bring together secular and religious groups involved in gay therapy.

"Our goal is to work with people with unwanted same-sex attractions and leave the political arguments out," says PATH founder Arthur Goldberg, who also helped found JONAH five years ago. "That's our mission. Let the rest of the world talk about the social and political world. That's not our concern."

Nature or nurture?

For decades, fundamentalist churches taught that homosexuality was a choice, and homosexuals who chose it were wicked, ungodly and hell-bound. Churches showed videos such as "The Gay Agenda" and "Gay Rights, Special Rights" that branded homosexuals vile fornicators out to recruit children to their ranks.

Thanks in part to ex-gay groups, the tone has changed. For the most part churches now recognize that no one "chooses" to be gay -- who would volunteer for a life of discrimination and abuse? -- and homosexuality can't be flipped off like a switch.

These days it's fashionable to believe that homosexuality stems from early-life experiences; molestation, exposure to pornography, a distant father, an overbearing mother or any combination therein can leave young children -- particularly young males -- craving affection from members of the same sex. Young boys who are effeminate, artistic or introverted are at even higher risk of being gay, the thinking goes.

"I was exposed to abuse at an early age," says John Westcott, the ex-gay director of Exchange Ministries in Winter Park, a group that averages about 25 people at its weekly meetings and counsels more than 500 people per year.

Like Chambers, Westcott's father was emotionally absent. By prepubescence, he recognized his attraction to males. At 17 he was a practicing homosexual, albeit one with a lot of guilt. "I didn't believe that's the way I was created."

He bartended and partied regularly at the Parliament House, and in 1984, he and a male partner had a commitment ceremony, an unofficial quasi-marriage. They bought a house and stayed together for more than seven years. "I still wasn't happy," he says.

In 1990, Westcott met Sy Rogers, a longtime pillar of the ex-gay community, who convinced Westcott he was wrong. "There are no such things as homosexuals," says Westcott, who has been married to an ex-lesbian for a decade and has three kids. "Homosexuality and lesbianism are behaviors. [Gays are] wounded people looking for love in all the wrong places."

That is at odds with the findings of both the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association, which took homosexuality off their lists of disorders in the 1970s and discourage "reparative therapy." The mental-health community doesn't think of homosexuality as something that needs fixing.

"We haven't seen any good research studies that show effectiveness," says the American Psychological Association's Faberman. She calls the theory that parental distance causes same-sex attraction "old school."

"It is looking more and more like there's some biological type of element, plus some societal and environmental elements," she says. "It's mentally healthy to be accepting of who you are."

Writes Robert Epstein, editor of Psychology Today, in a Jan. 1 editorial: "Others consider homosexuality to be unnatural, and they're simply wrong. Homosexual behavior has existed throughout human history; it exists throughout the animal kingdom; and it exists in every culture on earth -- even those that punish such behavior by death. The evidence is overwhelming that homosexuality is at least partially genetic in origin."

Religious efforts at reversing homosexuality, like Exodus, focus heavily on prayer and scripture. But all such programs use similar therapy elements, aiming to get at the "source" of one's homosexuality and reconnect the patient with his or her traditional gender role. In some programs, men are encouraged to take up sports and hang out with tough-guy "ever straights," while women are told to wear makeup and dresses.

Needless to say, it doesn't always work. Corey Hildebaugh went through Exodus. He even went on a speaking trip, traveling to congregations telling them of his journey to heterosexuality. "It was the best money I ever made," the Lynchburg, Virginia man says now. He's since rejected Exodus' teachings, and came referred to Orlando Weekly through Soulforce, an organization that preaches gay tolerance in churches.

"They didn't give you specifics, all they told you was if you have enough faith, you'll be healed," Hildebaugh says. "Force yourself to date women. Nothing ever worked. I got despondent. I attempted suicide."

By Chambers' estimate, only 30 percent of those who seek to switch orientations succeed. Fifty percent abandon the program. The other 20 percent, he says, go back and forth.

"I would say it's like [Alcoholics Anonymous]," Chambers says. "It's in the 30-percent range [that] find a great degree of healing and move into heterosexuality, single or married."

Queer science

Dr. Joseph Nicolosi is the public face of the ostensibly nonreligious, scientific arm of the ex-gay movement. Though he's not officially affiliated with Exodus, Chambers does refer to him as "the foremost expert on male homosexuality."

Nicolosi's books give scientific cover to groups that believe homosexuality is not genetic and that gays aren't entitled to equal protections. He's a cofounder of NARTH, a research group started in 1992 in part to counter a perceived pro-gay agenda in the psychological community. "We heard that gay activists planned to make it unethical to treat people who want to overcome their homosexuality," Nicolosi says. "We believe in preserving the rights of clients." (Ultimately, the American Psychological Association didn't issue a rule banning the therapy, but did recommend against it.)

Nicolosi says the science is in on homosexuality, and it doesn't support a genetic base. "The research is very clear that homosexuality is more associated with dysfunction," he says. "It's maladaptive, self-defeating, self-destructive behavior. [There are] greater suicide attempts, sexual addiction, drug, alcohol and even cigarette abuse."

That's a chicken-and-egg argument, he admits, since mental-health professionals say pressures imposed on gays by judgmental families and churches lead to such problems. But Nicolosi counters that even as Americans become more accepting of homosexuals, the statistics on abuse aren't going down.

He's also an advocate of the in-and-out-hole theory. "I don't think [homosexuality] is equal to heterosexuality," he says. "I don't need to be made to feel like a homophobe to see the male-female design works. [With gays] the parts don't fit."

What Nicolosi doesn't mention is the obvious fact that heterosexuals can, and often do, have the same kinds of sex as homosexuals.

Last year, Nicolosi and his wife Linda authored the controversial book, "A Parent's Guide To Preventing Homosexuality" which earned him appearances on a handful of conservative TV talk shows. He urges parents to intervene whenever they see something queer: girls playing with boys, boys playing with dolls. Fathers need to be the strong, sports-and-engine types to boys. Mothers shouldn't be too close. Kids need same-sex playmates, so that traditional gender roles are reaffirmed.

To which Psychology Today editor Epstein replies, "The authors attribute virtually all male homosexuality to poor father-son relationships, failing to present any hard data to support their assertion and ignoring the possibility that fathers avoid effeminate sons ... The authors also make the naive assertion that because we all come equipped with sex organs, we were Ã?designed' for hetero sexuality. Tell that to the male sheep [six percent of whom are exclusively homosexual]."

NARTH's leaders appear to have another agenda beyond saving gays. In the past the group has led attempts to criminalize homosexuality. Nicolosi himself, despite claiming to be "nonpartisan," regularly speaks at Focus on the Family's "Love Won Out" conferences. Essays from Focus on the Family analysts appear on NARTH's website. For that reason, gay-rights advocates have long claimed it's an arm of the right wing.

Even Nicolosi admits that homosexuality is, in part, inborn; he and the majority of the mental-health community disagree on how big a role genetics plays. (Epstein writes that genetics is about 50 percent responsible.)

But this is agreed upon: Behavior can be modified, especially if someone is highly motivated. According to recent, controversial studies, reparative therapy is sometimes successful and can produce positive changes, in the sense that the former homosexual is happier straight.

But that doesn't necessarily mean one's orientation changes. In fact, numerous ex-gays interviewed for this story admit that, on occasion, they still find some men attractive, in the same way a married man may look at a beautiful woman walking down the street.

But they don't act on it. Says Chambers: "Some [men] are still attractive, but the sexual component is gone."

The gay agenda

If gays can change, there is still the question of whether or not they should.

Nearly all arguments against homosexuality are based on religion; specifically, scriptures that paint gay sex as an "abomination." Many more liberal scholars and theologians disagree with that interpretation of these scriptures, saying the oft-cited prohibitions on gay sex are taken out of context, and pointing out that Jesus was utterly silent on the issue.

But religious arguments against homosexuality -- and consequently, gay rights -- rest on homosexuality being changeable and nongenetic. After all, if God created homosexuality, how could gay sex be sinful?

"A lot of the motivations are political," says Mark Senak, a gay-and-lesbian legal expert. "They paint the issue of homosexuality into a box of choice."

Politically, the ex-gay movement is strikingly conservative, decrying hate-crimes laws and anti-discrimination laws as "special rights" and protraying tolerance as a means to censor anyone against the "gay agenda."

"The only message is acceptance, acceptance, acceptance," says Nicolosi. "A lot of people don't accept it."

In response to the Supreme Court ruling striking down sodomy laws in nine states, including Florida, televangelist Pat Robertson began a prayer campaign seeking the retirement of three of the court's more liberal members. The popular right-wing webzine WorldNetDaily, started a petition drive to impeach the six court members who voted against the sodomy laws. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a medical doctor, has publicly signed on to a constitutional amendment pre-empting gay marriage.

The common thread is the belief that homosexuality is deviant. And though ex-gay groups try to play down their political roles, they serve as proof that sexual orientation can be changed.

Going through the change

Exodus spokesman Randy Thomas remembers the first moment he noticed an orientation change. He left "the lifestyle" 11 years ago next month because it didn't jibe with his religious convictions. For the next three years, he kept away from men, but he wasn't attracted to women either.

One day he was watching TV and talking to a friend on the phone. "Oh, she's pretty," he said of an actress on TV. (He won't say who.) His friend pointed out the profundity of that comment. "It just sorta happened," Thomas says, blushing.

He's in the hallway at First Presbyterian Church, moments before the week-long Exodus conference begins, chaperoning a reporter and photographer around. There are strict ground rules for the media: No interviews without identifying yourself; no pictures without permission; no group photos that show faces.

There are tables of merchandise in this hallway: Nicolosi's book, James Dobson's book, Sy Rogers' video, countless other pamphlets and paperbacks delving into every aspect of homosexuality, all from a Christian perspective.

First up during the church service that night is a family of singing sisters, welcoming the 400 or so gathering in the sanctuary Monday night. "They did an awesome job," says Matthew Walker, the emcee. "And they have great skin."

Next up: Vicki Vargo. The Orlando city commissioner delivers a proclamation praising Exodus for "sharing the love of Jesus" and welcoming the group to the city. She declares it "Exodus Internation-al Day."

After 45 minutes of worship, a husband-and-wife drama team performs a 10-minute skit outlining the ridiculous notions many church members have about the gay community. It's the perfect segue for Chambers' speech.

The Exodus leader starts by thanking First Presbyterian, which "will be hammered by the city, by the media, by the people who don't think we ought to be here this week."

Then, Chambers proclaims the week's theme: Exodus will no longer exist in the shadows. "That's not OK anymore. That's not where Exodus is going to stay anymore. We belong here, we are the church. We're not going anywhere but forward."



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