When I decided to infiltrate an ex-gay ministry, I expected to be privy to a lot of prayer, self-loathing and maybe some heavy-handed personality realignment.
<>I didn't expect to be doing the hand jive at a singalong screening of Grease, clapping and slapping while seated in a row of rented fold-out chairs inside a cozy Westminster living room.
Now can you hand-jive, baby,
Oh can you hand-jive, baby?
Surrounding me in giddy spectatorship are 25 men and women who suffer from "unwanted homosexuality."
But no one's suffering at the moment. There're Twinkies to eat, margaritas to drink, and a DVD player set on closed caption so we all get the lyrics right.
Half the guests around me are decked out in leather jackets, cutoff T-shirts, chiffon dresses, even a few satin "Pink Ladies" jackets.
Oh yeah, oh yeah, oh yeah,
Born to hand-jive, oh yeah!
The muumuu-clad woman on my right has decided that Cha Cha's having a little too much fun on the dance floor.
She follows her exhortation with a fiendish giggle.
Prompted by the lascivious lyrics of "Greased Lightning," Scott, a sprightly ministry staffer, stands up, shakes his arm and advises the young Travolta:
"Dan-ny, Stop Being a Potty Mouth!"
I'm participating in the long-awaited singalong Grease party, a follow-up to last year's successful singalong Sound of Music soiree. It's one of many informal social events organized by a Denver-based ministry whose mission is to support men and women in their struggles with homosexuality and other sex-related issues.
The gayest summer
<>I first set foot in the ex-gay ministry Where Grace Abounds at the start of what was to become the gayest summer in American history.
June 26, 2003, the Supreme Court strikes down sodomy laws in 13 states, decriminalizing consensual gay sex and setting the stage for the culture war's ultimate battle royale: gay marriage.
August 5: The Episcopalian Church votes in the Rev. Gene Robinson as its first gay bishop; dissidents talk splits. Once again, Colorado Springs is under the national spotlight as Grace and St. Luke's Episcopal Church Pastor Don Armstrong becomes a vocal opponent of the decision.
And oh, those summer nights where Queer Eye for the Straight Guy's preening power fags teach heterosexual men in the ways of applying product, grilling asparagus and all things fabulous.
In Colorado Springs, home to Focus on the Family (which boasts an entire department devoted to gender and sexuality issues) and dozens more Christian nonprofits and ministries, I expected to find any number of outfits more than happy to assist a potential gay man in his effort not to be a gay man.
But the only local ex-gay ministry said that if it were a support group I wanted, I had to head north to Denver.
In the gayborhood
<>Where Grace Abounds is located where gays abound, in the heart of Denver's Capitol Hill neighborhood: a place where rainbow flags hang proudly from apartment balconies and King Soopers is commonly known as "Queen Soopers." <>
<>Outside a church around the corner, smiling greeters welcome scared strangers and hug returning friends. The person I notice first is Scott, the de facto cruise director for the group's regular Thursday night meetings and one of five people on the ministry's full-time staff.
Short and bouncy with big eyes and a buzz cut, Scott is flamboyant and likeable and invariably dressed in low-rider jeans and a neatly tucked polo shirt.
As my face becomes familiar over the next few weeks, Scott makes a point of greeting me by name with a smile and squeezing my upper arm. I don't mistake it for a come-on, but it's a gesture foreign to any straight man I've ever met.
Of course, the meet-and-greet is just an aboveground presence for newbies skittish about the location. The real action occurs downstairs, in an unpretentious basement of fluorescent lights, pea-green carpet, and dry-erase boards. <>
"Hi, and welcome to Where Grace Abounds. Can anyone tell me why we exist?"
Awkward silence follows, until someone breaks it with:
"Where Grace Abounds exists to guide and support men and women who seek to understand sexuality and relationships and to inspire all people to know and personally appropriate God's plan for their sexuality and relationships."
In other words, this is the place to shed the mantle of homosexuality. In small group discussions, participants seem painfully aware that God's plan might mean avoiding the lure of Internet chat rooms, certain neighborhoods, certain bars, certain parks and certain people.
But beyond avoidance and celibacy, where God wants them to go is the big honking question that keeps many coming back for years.
A clear distinction
Where Grace Abounds was founded shortly after Mary Heathman's stepson came out of the closet in the mid-1980s. This Denver rape crisis counselor began to study books on psychology and scripture and had meetings with anyone from Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays to local pastors and ministers. She soon arrived at two difficult conclusions: Her stepson's sexuality smacked head-on with her understanding of scripture. And, churches were not pillars of support for anyone involved.
"Most churches don't know how to deal with these issues, or the way they deal with them is not effective," Heathman tells me and eight other initiates on our first night. In the months that follow, I'd hear echoes of her statement again and again.
The program consists largely of informal lectures from members and guest speakers followed by small group therapy-styled discussions. The ministry is a nonprofit so everything's free, but like most religious entities, a donation basket is passed around at the start of each meeting.
Staffers and volunteer leaders inform us that there are many plausible theories on what causes homosexuality. But they say that focusing on the "why" is not as important in our healing process as reconnecting with God.
Nevertheless, one "why" theory seems to get more play than any other, and it comes from Christian psychologist Elizabeth Moberly and her book Homosexuality: A New Christian Ethic.
Moberly and Where Grace Abounds make a clear distinction between homosexuality as an orientation and homosexuality as behavior. The former, they claim, is not the least bit sinful. In fact, it's a corrective developmental response to a broken or severed relationship with a same-sex parent. The impulse to re-establish this bond, "the reparative drive" as its known, is actually healthy.
The problem, they say, is when this orientation becomes sexualized in adolescence. Sexual activity with the same gender derails the healing process.
But ... why do boys with caring dads still go gay?
But ... why do girls with Mommy-dearests not grow into lesbians?
Such "buts" are invariably pre-empted by a staffer who confesses, "We just don't know."
Scenes from the struggle
The folks who find their way into the ministry are primarily men between 20 and 40. Almost all come from conservative or fundamentalist Christian backgrounds. Many arrive after consulting with their pastors, or more often, a Christian counselor. While the ministry was established to deal exclusively with homosexuality, it soon found itself welcoming people reeling from other sexually related problems like sex addiction and pornography.
For the first 12 weeks, new initiates are segregated in what are described as Foundations, a mandatory acclimation program designed to familiarize us with the program's scriptural and psychological underpinnings.
"Small group" is where we're encouraged to open up, to take risks, to speak in "I statements" about our struggles with sexuality and relationships. It starts with the facilitator, a ministry staffer or a volunteer asking if we brought anything with us to share, or if we just need some "check in" time.
A popular buzzword within small group is "struggle." But during my first month, the "S" word that came to mind most is "stilted" -- because it wasn't until my fifth week that I witnessed someone willing to put his cards on the table.
Dressed in typical Colorado outdoorsy apparel, T-shirt, shorts and Tevas, Eric complains that "there's guys everywhere." That is, guys he's attracted to. Back in Denver for the summer, unemployed and staying with his parents, he confesses that a few hours earlier he'd "jacked off with two other guys in a bookstore."
Scott asks him what he needs from the group. Eric thinks for a moment before saying that he just needed to get it off his chest.
I find out later that Eric has since moved to Marin County outside San Francisco to be part of a live-in ex-gay ministry. Before moving, he'd spent several years at Where Grace Abounds. It's been a long struggle; one that apparently is nowhere near being over.
I hear a lot of these stories in small group.
Like Peggy, a married woman with two older kids who fell in love with a woman on her church's leadership team. They had an affair; they knew it was wrong. Hoping for guidance, they confessed to their pastor. They were told, "We don't know how to deal with this" and were asked to leave their church.
Or Matt, who tells us about calling his mom after a month of no communication. He recently told her about his sexuality struggle, that he found support at WGA. Matt says she wasn't pleased. She met his questions with single-sentence answers. He says she can't understand "how this could've happened in my family."
I hear the stories of two middle-aged fathers; both are pastors. One has a lesbian daughter, the other a gay son. The former says he's trying to figure out how to deal with "the girlfriend." He's going to be civil to his daughter, he says, but the girlfriend won't be invited home to dinner.
The other pastor's son came out nine years ago and told him, "If I didn't accept his homosexuality, I didn't accept him."
Now his wife is dying and he's terrified of losing both her and his son.
Scott Baio anyone?
Meetings kick off with an icebreaker, a response to a question posed on the dry-erase board.
The night of my third meeting, the question is, "In what historical period would you most like to have been alive?"
We go around the room, giving our first names and answers.
Scott said he wants to live in the big-band era so he could "go to those Ricky Ricardo clubs every night." Christopher chooses Victorian England because "they had the most amazing furniture! I'm not kidding!"
I say I want to be an adult in the mid-1980s so I could gain a more thorough appreciation of such cultural luminaries as Scott Baio and David Hasselhoff before they become targets of Gen X ridicule.
An hour later, a guy tells me that when he was 14 he used his sister's name to send away to Tiger Beat magazine for Baio centerfolds.
All of this makes me want to scream the obvious -- the way a subarctic day makes you shout, "It's so cold." So a few weeks later, when the icebreaker is "Who would you want to sing a duet with?" and answers come back with one too many Madonnas or Chers, I consider mounting my seat and screaming: YOU ARE ALL SO GAY!
But I never do.
How strong is the enemy?
Eight weeks into Foundations, I'm sitting on a cushy white couch, staring at the dry-erase board with its magic marker outline of the enemy's battle plans.
Donny is tonight's speaker, and the enemy is, who else, Satan. A member of the WGA's leadership team and a WGA vet, Donny calls tonight's talk "The Battle from Within and Without."
Donny tells us he's been married for 19 years, but for much of that time was active in "the lifestyle," the ministry's buzzword for all things gay. He cites a statistic that 87 percent of Americans claim to believe in God, while only 47 percent claim they believe in Satan. He finds this odd.
"How strong is the enemy?" he asks. "As strong as God lets him be."
Donny relates his struggle with homosexuality and sex addiction to a larger struggle with honesty. During his teen years, deception took the form of secretly compiling his version of pornography -- namely, photos of guys clipped from sports magazines.
Donny says he never wanted to be homosexual; that he always knew it wasn't what God wanted for him. But after getting married, his sex addiction started spinning out of control. When he tried to stop, he says, was when the enemy made his presence known.
On the board he sketches a crude house to show us more of the enemy's entry points. Satan comes through the front door with events like 9-11 or Columbine. The back door is via humanism, which he describes as: "You know, Jesus, Buddha -- it's all good."
Donny's talk is spruced up with a few bullet points, which, like many WGA lectures, are laced with pop psychology and evangelical fervor.
Our desire to be liked is in direct conflict with our desire to be known (by God)."
The enemy's biggest weapon is secrecy.
Addiction cannot coexist with dignity, self-respect and personal freedom.
Change is never a guarantee; it may or may not occur.
Ex-gay or AA
Where Grace Abounds' approach to reversing what mainstream psychology has long agreed is irreversible becomes infuriating. While there's no fire-and-brimstone sermonizing, no one telling us we're on a highway to hell, there's also no clear path to heterosexuality.
Words I thought I'd hear a lot of, like say, "change," "recover" and "cure," rarely creep into discussion.
At no time do I ever hear anyone acknowledge the possibility that two gay people could have a healthy, loving relationship with each other. Similarly, the constant conflation of homosexuality and sex and porn addiction and one-night-stand whoring doesn't jive with any lesbian I've ever known.
Toward the end of a stilted and sad small group session, I ask Scott a question that's been on my mind for a while.
Is this ministry really ex-gay or more like gay AA?
It's something he's clearly been asked before.
"So are we all just a bunch of dry drunks?" he asks back. " Alcoholism, I think, is more of a behavior problem, where homosexuality is more of a developmental problem."
Scott says that people often come to the ministry with the idea that they can get a quick fix. "Uh yeah, um, can you, like, make this stop please?"
The process, Scott says, doesn't provide quick fixes. Even after 13 years, he says, he's transitioned from being actively homosexual to a current state of non-practicing bisexuality.
If it makes you happy
When he's not dealing with Thursday nights, Scott helps coordinate educational outreach programs for churches and Denver-area Christian schools. He knows that most people will probably assume things about him. He's 40 and he's used to it. From time to time he speaks with friends he knew from "the lifestyle." and says they invariably condescend to him with comments like "Well, I guess if it makes you happy, that's good."
Scott's retort: "They want to celebrate diversity, but as long as you think just like they do."
One thing Scott says he loves about Where Grace Abounds is that it doesn't go for the quick fix, or try to get people to pretend to be something they're not. Nowhere could this be more obvious than in Scott's office, whose most striking feature is a life-size cardboard cutout of Buffy from Buffy The Vampire Slayer -- a show famous for its gay following.
He says this sets the group apart from other ex-gay ministries that are not comfortable with the ministry's flamboyance. Activities like Grease singalongs, and a decided lack of solemnity, he says, don't fly in much of ex-gay America.
"I think if I'd gone to any other ministry, I wouldn't have made it."
It's hard not to admire Scott and his refusal to throw out what might be considered culturally gay with the ex-gay bathwater. As he leads us in "Greased Lightning," his pointed arm surveying the room in lock step with the T-Birds, he couldn't seem more at home.
The California sun is setting as Sandy sits alone on an expanse of concrete. In the aquifer below, Danny Zuko has saved Greased Lightning's pink slip from the clutches of The Scorpions.
With graduation a scene away, Sandy mourns her innocence.
Sandy, you must start anew
don't you know what you must do
Once again, the woman next to me chimes in:
"Don't do it, Sandy. Don't do it!"
Hold your head high, take a deep breath and sigh
Goodbye to Sandra Dee
If Grease has a point beyond excuses for its musical numbers, it's that a won't-go-to-bed-till-I'm-legally-wed sensibility can't last long in America's oversexed youth culture. It's a message that couldn't be more opposed to everything I've heard during my time at Where Grace Abounds.
But no one's interested in mining for ironies right now, because Danny and Sandy are singing their love in skintight leather.
Grease ends with the class of Rydell High pledging that they "will always be together. " If WGA has lasted for 16 years, who's to say it won't last another, regardless of the cultural and legal strides gay America is bound to make?
After hearing so many stories of hurt, so many testimonies that are less about viable recovery than successful coping, I'm only convinced how tough it is for people like Scott and Peggy, Matt and Donny.
But when they hold up their evangelical panacea, that all desires of flesh and the heart can -- maybe -- be taken away through a personal relationship with God, well, they might as well be singing: Ramma lamma lamma ka dingity ding da dong.
Online resources for more on the ex-gay and ex-ex gay movements:
Where Grace Abounds: Denver-based ex-gay ministry
Exodus International: National umbrella group for ex-gay organizations
Evangelicals Reconciled, Denver: Regional branch of a national ministry for gay, bisexual and questioning evangelicals.
Ex-Gay Watch: Discussion blog following the ex-gay movement
Peterson Toscano's site chronicles his time in ex-gay America.