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Two paths diverged: 

A long and winding road to God

click to enlarge Peter Toscano - ROY STEELE
  • Roy Steele
  • Peter Toscano

Mike Haley says he's not in it for the money or the fame. Being a public face in the ex-gay movement, he says, is a very lonely place.

<>"Many Christians don't know what to do with me, and many in the gay community don't want me around either." Haley says. "That's the reality of where I live."

Not gay by choice since 1989, Haley wears two big hats in his respective roles as gender issues manager for Focus on the Family and chairman of the board of Directors for Exodus International, an umbrella organization for the 125 North American ministries that counsel gays and lesbians who aim to shed their homosexuality.

In light of recent political strides made by gays and lesbians, including the striking down of sodomy laws and legalized gay marriage in Massachusetts, the successes or even relevance of efforts to "change" gay people into straight can seem, in some ways, moot.

And yet, organizations like Focus on the Family, which sponsors "Love Won Out" conferences around the country to connect Christians struggling with homosexuality, continues to maintain that change is possible. In fact, Haley, says, both sides have more in common than anyone wants to admit.

"My gay friends are happy for me," Haley says. "They send me baby gifts. My ex-partner gave us our (wedding) rehearsal dinner. The last thing I want to see are my gay friends ridiculed."

But, he says, "Just as people have the same right to live homosexually, I have the right to choose not to -- what is intolerant about that?"

A jaundiced eye

<> Many gay and straight people cast a jaundiced eye on the ex-gay movement because of its steadfast refusal to compile or provide statistics on its success rate, and its history of well-publicized defections and disgraces.

In the late 1970s, founding Exodus International members, Michael Bussee and Gary Cooper fell in love, left their wives and denounced their ministry as hopelessly misguided.

In the mid 1980s, Colin Cook, founder of the ex-gay ministry Homosexuals Anonymous, was caught engaging in group masturbation with men he was ministering to. But this didn't stop Focus on the Family from bringing him on board for Colorado's 1992 Amendment 2 campaign, which sought to deny Colorado gays and lesbians from ever seeking protected class status. Three years later, Cook was accused of giving sexual hugs and engaging in phone sex with his clients.

In 2000, Haley's predecessor, drag queen turned ex-gay icon John Paulk, was photographed at a gay bar in Washington D.C. Paulk initially insisted he was not seeking sex, that he merely stopped in to use the bathroom. As a result, he was suspended from Exodus's board of directors, though he's since been reinstated. Last spring, Paulk left Focus to return to his native Oregon "to be closer to his extended family."

Last August, "National Coming Out of Homosexuality Day" organizer Michael Johnston was exposed after having unprotected sex with several men while failing to disclose his positive-HIV status.

Repress for a time

Whether you consider these digressions a string of coincidences or a pattern depends on which side of the ex-gay coin you place your bets.

Take, for example, Joe Quillin, who spent several years in therapy and as a leader of ex-gay ministries in Texas and Colorado before coming out in the mid-1990s. He now serves as minister at two Denver churches and is a member of Evangelicals Reconciled, a support group for gay Christians. In effect, Quillin's journey -- like countless others -- has come full circle and he now considers himself an "ex-ex gay" man, who accepts his homosexuality as integral to who he is.

"If you fill your life with enough stuff, you can repress your sexuality for a time," Quillin says, "but only for a time. We're created to be connected to other people in an intimate way and [as an ex-gay] you find yourself in a crisis, feeling like you can't go on anymore. At some point, nature takes over."

Haley says otherwise.

"Its very easy for a politically charged media to highlight the failures," Haley says. "While these situations are real and we never deny them, there are far more successes that media outlets choose never to highlight."

Homo No Mo

<>Like Quillin, New York City writer Peterson Toscano spent much time (and money) in the ex-gay trenches before coming out at age 33.

In the early '90s, Toscano found himself in Colorado Springs at the Glen Eyrie retreat center, where he spent 10 days and more than $1,000 on ex-gay counseling. His mentor was Harry Schaumburg, author of False Intimacy: Understanding the Struggle of Sexual Addiction. His counseling consisted mostly of prayer, readings and talk therapy.

It didn't work.

Neither did the two years he spent at Love in Action, a residential ex-gay ministry outside Memphis, Tenn. The ex-gay alma mater of both Paulk and Haley, Love in Action's 12-step program involves denying freedoms to residents, which are incrementally restored as they progress.

"You couldn't have bathroom time for more than 15 minutes a day for fear that you'd be masturbating," Toscano says. "They were really into mentoring with "straight men" in the church who were typically older and overweight, which helped us not to be tempted."

Love in Action also barred "False Image" behavior -- anything that was perceived as gay.

"'You're talking like a sassy black woman, that's not appropriate,'" Toscano recalled of one memorable reproach.

To help straighten residents out, they were encouraged to participate in such "manly" activities like football clinics and auto workshops, where they learned to change oil filters.

Toscano, who is writing a book of his experiences titled Doin' Time in the Homo No Mo Halfway House: How I Survived the Ex-Gay Movement, says he doesn't hold any grudges. As he explains, "They truly believe they're doing the right thing. And they're funny and interesting people -- they're gay after all."

Filling a void

<> Toscano says one of the reasons ex-gay ministries stay afloat is because they address issues that the gay community does not deal with sufficiently, namely, sex addiction. "If we took better care of these issues, people wouldn't feel so compelled to be part of these groups," he says.

Quillin, meanwhile, correlates the high number of ex-gay ministries with discrimination and hostility within society and within mainstream churches.

A few years ago, while he was still an "ex-gay," Quillin was involved in a pamphlet project with the Denver ex-gay ministry Where Grace Abounds, and leaders from both gay and ex-gay groups sat down and drafted a list of their differences and similarities.

The "agrees," Quillin says, far outnumbered the "disagrees."

"We agreed that homosexuality is a discovery, not a choice." Quillin says. "The two things we disagreed on were the sinfulness of homosexual behavior and whether or not change is possible."

They always sneak in

<> In his quest to convince gays otherwise, Focus' Haley is spreading his message that change is possible

He takes pride, he says, in the fact that some of these events have been protested by Fred Phelps, the high-profile Kansas preacher who protested the funeral of Matthew Shepard, proclaiming that "God hates fags."

Haley says he finds Phelps' message vile.

At the same time, he says nothing thrills him more than when gay activists sneak into his conferences -- "and they always do" -- and report that "while we don't agree with what was said, the way it was said was fair and respectful."

  • A long and winding road to God

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