Over the last decade, gay-rights activists have pushed programs to support gay and lesbian students in public schools. Their success is striking:
More than 3,000 Gay-Straight Alliance clubs meet across the country. Nearly half a million students take a vow of silence one day each spring in an annual event to support gay rights. California may soon require textbooks to feature the contributions of gays and lesbians throughout history.
Critics, mostly on the religious right, view all this as promoting the “homosexual lifestyle.” Unable to stop it, they have turned to a new strategy: demanding equal time for their view in public schools and on college campuses.
Conservative Christians and Jews have teamed up with men and women who call themselves “ex-gay” to lobby -- and even sue -- for the right to tell teenagers that they can “heal” themselves of unwanted same-sex attractions.
They argue that schools have an obligation to balance gay-pride themes with the message that gay and lesbian students can go straight through “reparative therapy.” In this view, homosexuality is not a fixed or inborn trait but a symptom of emotional distress -- a disorder that can be cured.
Alan Chambers, a leading ex-gay activist, recalls how scared and depressed he felt when a high-school counselor advised him to deal with his attraction to other boys by accepting his homosexuality. He had no choice, she told him: He was gay. “It was very damaging,” Chambers said. “I didn’t want that. I hadn’t chosen it.”
His senior year, Chambers found his way to Exodus International, a network of groups that support ex-gays. He is now married to a woman, a father of two -- and the president of Exodus.
Mental-health professionals overwhelmingly warn against therapy to change sexual orientation, calling it ineffective and potentially harmful to patients’ self-esteem. But ex-gays say they have managed to eliminate or reduce their pull to the same sex, though it often takes years of struggle.
“That’s an important perspective,” Chambers said. “If you’re going to allow one side into the schools, you need to allow the other side, too. People want alternatives.”
That rhetoric echoes the creationist campaigns of the 1980s and ‘90s: Just as conservative Christians demanded equal time for Genesis whenever Darwin got a mention, ex-gays and their allies are insisting on equal time for their views whenever homosexuality is discussed. Several ex-gay websites offer equal-time policies that parents can urge their local school boards to adopt.
Teachers, too, are beginning to raise the subject with their principals and in the classroom. “It’s been our hottest issue over the last two years. Without a doubt,” said Finn Laursen, executive director of the Christian Educators Assn. International, which represents 7,000 teachers, mostly from public schools.
Though the equal-time argument didn’t work for creationists, ex-gays have begun to notch some successes.
A high school in New Hampshire invited ex-gay activist Aaron Shorey to present his story on Civil Rights Day last year. He told several standing-room-only classes that he refused to let his attraction to men define him as gay. “I have experienced change,” he told them. “Change is possible.” He’s working with several other New England schools to get permission for similar presentations.
The ex-gay group Inqueery, based in Des Moines, has also sent speakers to public high schools, including one in Chicago this spring.
In Boulder, Colo., educators are considering including an ex-gay pamphlet in a resource guide to help teachers handle questions about sexuality. The pamphlet states that sexual identity is fluid and that conversion therapy can help some gays and lesbians overcome depression. The district -- in one of the most liberal cities in the country -- does not endorse that philosophy, but “we’re a big believer in providing all viewpoints,” spokeswoman Maela Moore said. “It would be negligent to omit.”
The ex-gay movement’s biggest victory came last year, when a federal judge sided with Parents and Friends of ExGays and Gays, or PFOX, in a lawsuit against a Maryland school district.
PFOX, a national advocacy group based in Alexandria, Va., had sued to block the district’s new sex-education curriculum, arguing that its treatment of homosexuality was one-sided. The judge agreed that students should hear other perspectives, and PFOX took a seat on the committee charged with drafting new lesson plans.
Similar lawsuits may be filed soon. New Jersey-based JONAH -- Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality -- is seeking parents and students willing to sue to get the ex-gay view into schools. So is Liberty Counsel, a Christian law firm in Orlando, Fla. The firm joined PFOX last month in urging teens to form Gay to Straight Clubs and hang “Choose to Change” posters in their schools. If an administrator tries to censor that message, Liberty Counsel promises to provide legal backup.
Already this spring, the firm has threatened to take a Wisconsin high school to court for inviting a gay speaker -- but not an ex-gay -- to Diversity Day. (The school responded by canceling the program.) Liberty Counsel is also weighing action against colleges in Ohio and Connecticut after students said they were barred from putting ex-gay literature in the campus gay and lesbian centers.
The ex-gay movement considers same-sex attraction to be a gender-identity disorder, brought on by inadequate parenting, unmet emotional needs and, often, childhood sexual abuse.
Mainstream associations of psychiatrists and psychologists resoundingly reject that model, but the ex-gay movement promotes it through groups such as the National Assn. for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality. That group’s president, psychologist Joseph Nicolosi, opened a recent conference for men and women seeking to overcome homosexuality with a ringing statement:
“There is no such thing as a homosexual. We are all heterosexual. Our body was designed for the opposite sex.”
The audience of more than 700 sat rapt in the pews of a Fort Lauderdale church. Some held Bibles. Others took notes. Nicolosi went on to tell them that fathers could help their sons stay straight by bonding through rough-and-tumble games, such as tossing them in the air.
“Even if [the dad] drops the kid and he cracks his head, at least he’ll be heterosexual,” Nicolosi said, chuckling. “A small price to pay.”
Critics say such comments reflect a deep homophobia and can devastate men and women trying to come to terms with their sexual orientation.
“There’s a fine line between saying ‘Change is possible, and I have changed’ and saying ‘Change is possible, and you better change because something’s wrong with you,’ ” said Eliza Byard, deputy executive director of the nonprofit Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network.
Protesting the ex-gay conference in Florida, Jerry Stephenson said his three years in conversion therapy plunged him into despair and self-loathing. He could not break his attraction to men; ashamed of his weakness, he contemplated suicide. Today, Stephenson counsels others on accepting their homosexuality.
The idea of promoting conversion therapy in schools frightens him: “Let’s save the children from this,” Stephenson said. “All it does is bring oppression.”
Even the most ardent champions of ex-gay therapy acknowledge that it’s not always possible to banish unwanted attractions. Nicolosi says only one-third of his patients are ever “cured” -- and even then, “that doesn’t mean they never have a homosexual thought or feeling again.”
Embarrassing lapses have plagued the ex-gay movement: In the 1970s, two of the men who founded Exodus fell in love and left their wives to live together. In the 1980s, the founder of Homosexuals Anonymous was caught having sex with men who sought his help going straight. In 2000, a leading ex-gay speaker with Focus on the Family was photographed leaving a gay bar.
When Dr. Robert Spitzer, a psychiatrist at Columbia University, interviewed 200 people who had sought to change their sexual orientation, he concluded that many of them had succeeded and were happier for it. But many of his subjects for the 2001 study had been referred by -- or worked for -- ex-gay groups, and Spitzer relied entirely on their self-reporting of thoughts and desires. He now says that some of his subjects may have been deceiving themselves or lying to him.
“If some people can change -- and I think they can -- it’s a pretty rare phenomenon,” said Spitzer, a strong supporter of gay rights.
Promoting conversion therapy in schools, he added, may be giving teens “false hope.”
Ex-gay activists, however, take heart from guidelines developed this spring to help educators around the country deal with clashing views on homosexuality.
Drafted by an unlikely coalition of gay activists and conservative Christians, the guidelines call for schools to open a respectful dialogue with all parties.
That doesn’t necessarily mean all views deserve a place in the curriculum, said Charles Haynes, a 1st Amendment scholar who mediated the process. Educators must decide which perspectives are scientifically valid and which lessons will help their students grow.
But Haynes is adamant that the ex-gay community at least deserves a hearing.
“I can see where it might be offensive to some to say that ex-gays, or any other group with controversial views, should get a place at the table,” he said. “But that’s America. That’s who we are, on our best days.”