Outside of the Sugar Creek Baptist Church on Saturday afternoon, about 70 protesters lined the service road waving rainbow signs. Cars honked along with their chants of "We are holy, we are queer!" A dozen protesters were students from the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts -- one of whom almost attended a similar convention, but instead decided to accept himself and come out. The rest of the crowd came with their churches or partners or spouses. They all waited for young Christians to file out of the church on their lunch break from the nine-hour, anti-gay "Love Won Out" seminar.
"Love Won Out" is an event hosted four times a year across the country by Exodus International, an organization founded in 1976 that claims to heal homosexuality through Christ. Sessions are taught by "ex-gays" -- men and women who were once homosexuals but who were able to change their sexual orientation through the power of Jesus Christ. Attendees chose from workshops like "Understanding Female Homosexuality and "Reaching IN to the Gay Community: What Would Jesus Do?" At $75 bucks a ticket, about 450 people attended the conference in Houston this year. According to Exodus, 40 percent of them are married.
Wayne Besen, who coordinated Saturday's protest, is the founder of Truth Wins Out, an organization that fights anti-gay religious extremism. He's been investigating Exodus International for years, and even photographed Exodus's chairman John Paulk at a gay bar in D.C., which led to Paulk's removal.
"That's something you won't have in the brochure, I'll tell you that," he said. Recently, Besen led the petition drive that caused Apple to remove Exodus's iPhone app. "It's a whole history of folly and failure that's not being told to the people here."
Research has proven ex-gay programs to be dangerous. According to a study released in 2009, the American Psychological Association found that ex-gay therapy could be destructive. When people try to change their sexual orientation and fail, they encounter depression, negative self-image and thoughts of suicide, the study says. "Acceptance is critical to the health and well-being of our LGBT youth," Besen said. "They've got it backwards."
One Christian couple, who declined to give their names, wanders out from the church among the protesters. They're both 19. Through tears, the girl says she struggles with homosexual feelings. She's engaged to the boy standing next to her, who's debating with the protesters.
"We just want you to know it's okay to be who you are," says a protester from the crowd. "God loves you as you are. He doesn't expect you to change."
"Yes, God loves us as we are," responds the boy. "No more, no less. But that doesn't mean he is not expecting us to change to have a relationship with us."
Besen jumps in. "They tell you you're on a journey, they tell you you're going somewhere, but you're really on a stationary bicycle," he says. "We're here to tell you that you can love God just the way you are. It's okay to be who you are, and not who they want you to be."
The boy challenges Besen to cite a supporting scripture, and it devolves into Biblical cherry picking. Still sobbing, the girl and her fiancé retreat back into the church for the afternoon session.
Inside, Exodus has transformed the church into a homophobic book fair. Men and women in their twenties browse selections like My Daddy's Secret and 101 Frequently Asked Questions about Homosexuality. No one looks overjoyed to be here.
Alan Chambers, the dulcet-voiced president of Exodus International, is giving a lecture inside the planetarium-sized chapel. It's called "Practical Tips for Reaching Out," but it's really a workshop on how to strategize against what he calls "hardened gay activists."
"These people don't need our contempt. They need our Jesus," he tells the crowd. Gays and lesbians are like those starving children in Africa, he explains. They're hungry for love. "How can we blame them for filling themselves up with any number of things, just to keep from starving?" he asks.
Presumably, he means dick and dildos. After all, Chambers used to be as gay as anyone out there in the protest line. Today, in fact, is his 20-year anniversary of giving up the gay. Not that being gay was his choice: "I didn't wake up one morning and out of life's great big buffet, pick same-sex attractions off of the buffet line," he said. But Jesus Christ helped wean Chambers off of men. And then, he found his wife Leslie. We'll let you decide how convincing their marriage sounds:
I didn't meet my wife and go, "Oh my God, she's so hot, I've got to have her." I met my wife and I said, she's different. I like that. I want to go to know her. She's interesting to me. She's pretty. I love her laugh. I really want to be friends with her. She didn't want to be friends with me, which is a whole different story (laughs). It started not as a switching of lusts.
I began to surrender my sexuality to Christ. I focused on him...and as I did that, there was a desire for a relationship that was born in me.
My desire for my friend Leslie progressed. It grew and grew and grew into an exclusive desire to be friends with her and only her, and vice versa. As that grew, I realized this is bigger than just friendship. I love her...I asked her to marry me. She said yes, on our first date. That grew, and then as we got married came our desire for more than just being friends and in love. It's this wonderful Garden of Eden relationship. I believe it's so much better than even some long term heterosexual couples experience.
Chambers said when he gave up homosexuality, he didn't convert to heterosexuality. "It's holysexuality," he described to the crowd, which eagerly jotted down notes. What he didn't mention was that it allegedly took Chambers nine months to consummate his marriage.
But Exodus International isn't trying to change anyone, Chambers told Hair Balls. "We're a group of people who believe that there is a best for human sexuality," he said. "And when our desires and our feelings don't match up with God's best, there is something that we as Christians have to do about that."
"Have to do about that," I repeated. "You mean change."
"No," Chambers replied. "It doesn't have anything to do with changing our feelings. What it does mean is for someone who is heterosexual or homosexual who doesn't have the opportunity to express that in a way that God designed, then what do you do? Do you live there in silence all by yourself, miserable, or do you find a community of people who will help you?"
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That Saturday, the out-and-prouds didn't win over any Christians. Most of the evangelicals didn't see the plane paid for by Dan Savage's "It Gets Better" project that flew over the church, trailing the message that you can't pray gay away. But maybe, just maybe, a flash of rainbow caught one of their eyes on their way out.
Check out a slideshow of the protest here.