The "Ex" Files of Doug Upchurch
A Former Follower Sheds Light on Ex-Gay Ministries.

Gayly Oklahoman, March 15

The Ex Files:
A Former Follower Sheds Light on Ex-Gay Ministries.
by Kyle Young

For 12 years Doug Upchurch struggled to become heterosexual. It didn't work. For most of that period, he was heavily involved in ex-gay ministries, a growing international movement of Christian groups whose purpose is to lead gay people toward heterosexuality. While some lesbians are involved in the groups, the movement is primarily directed at gay men. Today, Upchurch wants to expose the ex-gay groups as dangerous and misleading. He is developing a Web site called Ex.Ex, which will tell the story of others like him - those who sought out ex-gay ministries for heavenly intervention to make them straight, but found themselves in a living hell.

Brought up in a mainstream Methodist church, Upchurch grew tired of organized religion. He joined a small charismatic church his first year in high school. There was a contagious electricity in the church that made spiritual pursuit an exciting sensation. With a growing desire to one day become a minister, Upchurch knew that he had to put a stop to his feelings - his attraction toward other males. He shared his struggle with close friends in high school. They prayed for him. Numerous times he was exorcised for the "demon of homosexuality."

In 1986, Upchurch left his home in Houston to attend Baylor University, a conservative Baptist school in Waco. "When I got to college, I gradually would tell people I knew that I was struggling with this," says Upchurch. "This is really sick, but in some cases you tell them because you like the person and you want to see if they are interested in you. In other cases you tell them because you really are hurting, and you feel that if you don't get this off your chest and get it done with, you're never going to live a normal life."

During his sophomore year, he was told that he could not be a leader in his church in Waco unless his homosexual feelings were "dealt with." Upchurch's college minister suggested prayer, reading the Bible and involvement in a weekly group that met in Dallas. The group was affiliated with an organization called Exodus International, the largest of several ministries who claim a "way out" of homosexuality.

Each week, Upchurch would make the 90-minute trek to Dallas. In the group were men of all ages. Some married. Some promiscuous. Some whose homosexual thoughts had not led to "acting out." The leader lectured weekly on the causes of homosexuality, which was thought to be a symptom of a larger problem.

"That larger problem could have been unmet personal needs as a child," explains Upchurch, "that my father either didn't love me enough or wasn't there enough or perhaps that it was abuse. It could have been a number of things, but I vividly remember the drawing on the blackboard of the iceberg, and the tip of the iceberg was homosexuality, and everything below it was the real problem you had to get rid of."

The faithful students were taught that the way to overcome homosexuality was to replace the void left from a dysfunctional childhood with the love of God. Upchurch began seeking the void in his family. Through group discussions, as well as weekly writing and reading assignments, he started to believe that he experienced a "lack of caring" as a child. At times he would weep for the loss he felt.

After spending the summer with his parents, Upchurch returned to Waco to find that the group had disbanded because the leader "fell into immorality."

He continued to bargain with God for a change in orientation throughout college. He dated girls and increased his involvement in church activities. In his senior year, he requested an exorcism to rid himself of homosexuality. He fasted for three days before the ministers at his church surrounded him and screamed at the demons which they believed were inside him.

"I basically cowered on the floor for a couple of hours wanting something to happen, and nothing happened," says Upchurch. "When it was all over, I felt very awkward and very weird. I felt like a complete idiot to ask for something like this. I mean, this was like self-torture."

Upchurch says from that point on, he no longer viewed homosexuality as demonic - but he felt it still was wrong, and needed to be changed. After graduation, he returned to Houston. He put his teenage dream of becoming a minister on the back burner, postponing plans to attend a seminary in Los Angeles. He soon joined a small church in the Heights, the Vineyard Christian Fellowship of Houston. Vineyard had a structured program, where members had "accountability partners" to make sure each other was following the right path. Upchurch's partners, Bob and Kent, pushed him to continue "getting over" being gay. They also served as support to insure that he wasn't acting on his sexual desires. Bob and Kent paid for Upchurch to go to an ex-gay workshop in Los Angeles sponsored by Desert Stream Ministries, another national ex-gay organization.

The event started with gay men and lesbians weeping in front of the altar for their flawed childhood relationships with their parents. They were sprinkled with holy water.

"As I was watching, I really wanted something to happen to me," says Upchurch. "I kept asking myself why were they getting all of the good stuff and I was getting none of it. How come something's not happening to me in my seat over here? I want to walk down and cry. You end up coming to a point where you either force yourself to start doing it and hope something will happen or you just totally zone out. I think that I just zoned out and I went to the bathroom."

He returned to Houston, disillusioned. Occasionally he would venture to local gay bars looking for anonymous sexual encounters. Relationships were not an option, and sexually "acting out" reinforced the notion that homosexuality was dirty and sinful. Guilt led him to become active in the Christian Coalition for Reconciliation. The group was affiliated with Exodus International.

He became good friends with a member of the group. The two began to share each other's frustrations. Upchurch had read every book there was to read on the subject. He'd been to numerous seminars. He'd spent years through the church and ex-gay groups trying to change his sexual orientation.

"As time went on, we began to realize this just really, for both of us, wasn't working," says Upchurch. "We'd try to go to these groups and it was like, this doesn't make any sense. By this point in time, it was so regurgitated - your father hurt you, how did he hurt you, what can we do to heal that, how can God come in and do that - and I thought, 'You know, I've heard this for almost 12 years of my life. I don't get it.'"

In January, 1993, Upchurch decided to take a break from his efforts to change.

"I decided to not put any rules on myself about what I could or could not do - I was just going to see for a couple of weeks who I really was," says Upchurch. "I went out one night to JR's and happened to meet Craig Stevens. I had been to JR's a couple of times, and each time I thought I had fallen [from grace] - but I happened to meet Craig and he seemed so nice, such a great guy."

Stevens told him that he was a Christian, too - a gay Christian. Soon, Upchurch met others.

"I wondered why all of these people who said they were Christian and gay were so okay with it," says Upchurch. "How does that happen and how does that work, and why is it that certain churches say one thing about homosexuality and certain other churches don't say that at all? I was really beginning to see the discrepancies, which I think I always knew were there - but before, I always said, 'Oh well, those people just aren't saved.' Now I was really beginning to question it."

The next week he told Hope, one of his closest friends from church, that he was questioning some of his beliefs about homosexuality. She said they could no longer be friends. "I thought, What do you mean, we can't be friends anymore?" says Upchurch. "What's that about?"

That weekend, he was to attend a dinner at the home of Brian and Janet, some other friends from church. He called them to tell them about his conversation with Hope. Brian told him that it would be best if he didn't come.

"I hung up the phone. I just lost it," says Upchurch. "I thought, This is not what love is all about. This is not what Christianity is about. It's not about turning your back on somebody because they're questioning something or going through a thought process - something's really not right with this picture. I still wasn't sure that I could accept my sexuality, but I knew something was off. I didn't go back to church after that experience."

A month later it was announced from the pulpit of the church that Upchurch had been "turned over to Satan." It was suggested that members of the congregation not associate with him.

"At that point it was rotten in Denmark all over the place, and I was hurting," recalls Upchurch. "It was a very painful time. I really lost all of my friends, because my church was my life."

Upchurch says he is grateful that Mel White's book, Stranger at the Gate, came out at that time. Through the gay minister's autobiography, Upchurch felt like he was reading the story of his own life.

"I cried and cried, and I thought, 'I know these feelings.' That was the point at which I realized I can be gay and I can be a Christian, or whatever I am religiously, but for me to try and deny my sexuality would be denying God's gift. Whether I was straight or gay, sexuality was God's gift. That was something that I needed to accept and integrate into my life, so it was two things happening at once - one, some really great reading material, and two, being completely and totally rejected by all the people I loved and trusted."

The next month, Stevens took Upchurch to a meeting of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG). "It was the first time that I ever found people who were not gay who said, 'You know, it's OK for you be this way.' That was really odd," says Upchurch. "I remember [PFLAG mom] Jane Montgomery listened to my story, and she couldn't believe what I'd been through, and she said, 'We're really glad you're here - you're always welcome here.' I thought, 'Wow, these are people who look like the people in my church, and they're acting like the people in my church are supposed to be acting.' It just blew me out of the water."

He continued to go to PFLAG meetings, as well as read more books that affirmed gay and lesbian people. His view about being gay was changing. "All of a sudden you realize it's okay for you to be the way you are, and things that used to be real issues are not a real issue anymore," says Upchurch. "For example, I no longer had this issue of I have to have sex at the front of my mind. It was like it dissipated. I realized my life is so much more than sex, and I began to see that being gay meant more than just having sex. Sure, that's a part of it, but it was just a part of it."

Several months after he left the Exodus group, Upchurch came out to his parents. "They cried, but they were still very accepting, very loving," says Upchurch. "Dad just kind of smiled the whole time through and said, 'We knew and it's okay.' I knew that they always knew, but I didn't know how they'd respond to what I was going through. They were more hurt at what had happened to me in the church than anything else, and that just about killed them. My mom especially has a real hard time with that whole issue - that something like that could happen to somebody in a church."

Michael Newman, executive director of the Christian Coalition For Reconciliation, still remembers when Upchurch turned away from "God's best for him." "We talked about it, and of course there's great regret and sadness on my part that that's the decision he made," says Newman, "but you know I still care about him, and I still haven't forgotten him. I can't guarantee people success. It's not up to me, it's up to God."

"He may say it's up to God," says Upchurch, "but they teach that it's all dependent on the individual - how much you pray, read the Bible, go to counseling. It's all directed at you actively trying to change the way God made you, and when that doesn't happen, it leaves you depressed and vulnerable. There were several times I strongly contemplated suicide, and that's true of many people I've talked to who were once involved with ex-gay ministries."

Newman says that promoting ex-gay ministries is God's will. He views himself as bridging a gap between the gay community and the church. Through numerous speaking engagements and Christian radio appearances, he encourages the church to welcome gays, as long as they are working toward recovery. He says that conservative Christians are mistaken when they label homosexuality as the worst sin - "A sin is a sin is a sin" - but he's dedicated his life's work to eradicating this particular sin.

"Our understanding of scripture is that homosexuality is a sin, not in accordance with God's plan," says Newman. "That means sexual activity in a relationship, on a one-night stand or whatever, all of those are outside the standard we see in the Bible. In the Bible, the plan has been the committed, monogamous relationship between male and female recognized by the church, and anything outside of that is not according to the plan."

Newman, who now views himself as heterosexual, says his homosexual urges are no longer "that horrible thing that's intensive." He has dated women and hopes to marry, although he thinks God may be holding off that possibility in order to allow him more flexibility to travel to seminars and speaking engagements for Exodus.

Newman avoids the claim that he can change people's orientation through counseling and group work . He says that he is "a resource for people who are struggling with homosexuality and are feeling that it is inconstant with their value system."

Critics of the ex-gay movement say that leading people toward celibacy is not the same thing as changing people's orientation. In the early 1980s, Exodus founders Mike Bussee and Gary Cooper announced that their orientation had not changed. The two became a couple, as well as a thorn in the side of Exodus Ministries.

Exodus International spokesman John Paulk said that in the 21-year history of the organization, they have not come to a definitive statement about what they consider success to be. "That's something Exodus at large is wrestling with," said Paulk. "In the next couple of years we want to develop a uniform definition for what we consider to be change." Paulk, a former drag queen married to a former lesbian, is quick to add that he feels the goal should be heterosexuality, not just celibacy. "At the onset, Exodus did not know whether orientation change was even possible," says Paulk. "But what we've seen in the latter 10 years is that more and more and more people - their orientation is changing and they are marrying."

He added that marriage, in itself, doesn't necessarily mean a change in sexual orientation for the gay individual. In Houston, Newman says that many of his clients "move out of homosexuality." "My success rate is hidden because many of them don't desire to be public speakers or do public testimony," says Newman. "They're quietly moving on with their lives, getting married, having kids, family, active in their churches because they've mainstreamed into the world."

Upchurch says that ex-gay groups do not have the ability to turn gay people straight. "I know I couldn't change, and I know I gave it the good old college try," says Upchurch. "I know a lot of other people who have tried too, and I know that the majority of people who have tried have failed."

Upchurch does not discount that some Exodus participants report a change in sexual orientation. "Sure, there are some people out there who say that they've been cured," he says. "Either they're greatly in denial and they are living a life to satisfy the perceived demands of a harsh God or they are bisexual, which is a rare possibility, or that they were really never gay in the first place. There are a lot of people in ex-gay groups who were molested and therefore think they're gay."

Newman says it is mainstream science that is misleading by promoting a possible genetic basis for homosexuality. "I am constantly frustrated that the average person on the street believes that homosexuality is normal because they've heard that it's normal," says Newman. "I have not come tonormal because they've heard that it's normal," says Newman. "I have not come to the conclusion by reading the information that [homosexuality is] unequivocally genetically, biologically, hormonally determined. There's 2,000 or so years of recorded history. It's all been in the last 20 years that all of a sudden homosexuality is considered an alternative or something.

Newman, however, is eager to believe the work of a handful of Christian theorists who label any form of homosexuality as a disorder. Houston psychologist Bob McLauglin says that ex-gay ministries have a "narrow-minded interpretation of science." "They are as guilty as they accuse others of being of using simplistic models to explain everyone's adaptations," says McLauglin.

Newman admits that he only gives credence to "scientific findings that are in accordance with God's words." He says he would "hold to God's word" if presented with studies that are "blatantly in opposition" to his ideas.

It is possible that a small segment of people who've had sexual experiences with someone of the same sex may be inherently heterosexual, according to McLauglin. In those cases, he says life experience may have drawn them into a different adaptation. He says it is also possible that because of psychosexual developmental issues, such as molestation during childhood, these individuals "may be acting out some pathological adaptation through same-sex behaviors."

"For those individuals, it may well be that some course of counseling or self-exploration or even clerical counseling would be helpful in their self- discovery of who they truly are in a healthy way," says McLauglin, "and I would say a similar model to that are people who are inherently homosexual, who either because of life experience or as a result of early childhood psychosexual developmental issues are drawn into heterosexual adaptations as part of their pathological defense against their true inherent sexuality."

Newman says that mental health professionals are misguided when they allow the idea that it is possible to be inherently homosexual. He urges clients to ignore studies that present homosexuality as normal. "Unfortunately, AIDS, in many cases, is a consequence of unhealthy behaviors, sexual promiscuity or drug abuse," says Newman. "So even if science says it's okay, there's this factor. So go ahead and kill yourself with unhealthy, inappropriate behavior?"

The idea that the "gay lifestyle" is dangerous has been promoted by many conservative churches. McLauglin says the AIDS epidemic has been a powerful sales tool for the ex-gay movement. He says that gay men and lesbians who've never experienced affirming, positive same-sex relationships often have only engaged in sexual contacts that are otherwise. "Since those are, in many incidences, high-risk circumstances, a lot of these people are scared by their own adaptation," says McLaughlin.

He says it is natural, then, for some to seek a way out. "They're moving into an ex-gay ministerial program as a way out as opposed to seeing that another way out is legitimacy of balanced, egalitarian, consensual relationships with other same-sex adults," says McLaughlin. "That hasn't been presented to them as a viable option in the settings where they've been exposed, which is in churches, in schools, in their families or in the primary culture."

McLauglin says most people who approach ex-gay ministries have tried to change their sexuality on their own for years. He says this may make it difficult for the individual to clearly see who has his or her best interest at heart.

"At no time is it particularly useful to narrow your sources of support to a single view, because what you're dealing with is a very complex phenomena - that is, what it is that makes you human, and particularly that piece of you that is your sexuality," says McLauglin. "So, I would suggest talking to a variety of people, and see who really seems attentive to you personally, as opposed to appearing to force their own agenda onto you."

Upchurch hopes his Web site will deter some people from taking the path he chose. The ex-gay movement has a growing visibility on the Net.

Groups like Exodus, which has 85 affiliated chapters in North America, now have Web pages. One click on the Exodus Web site gives you a world of links including Aberrant Sexuality in the Bible, Homosexuality in America: Exposing the Myths, and Masturbation and the Bible.

The information paints homosexuality as a life of sadness and sexual promiscuity often leading to disease. The causes of depression in homosexuals stem less from societal oppression and more from childhood unmet needs and abuses. The bottom line: Being gay is a sin. "To them being gay means sex with men," says Upchurch. "It doesn't mean a relationship necessarily. It really doesn't mean someone you can care for and be intimate with. It really just means the act of sex."

The ex-gay Web sites make numerous references to a few Bible verses which the groups say prove God's disdain of homosexuality. "Homosexuals will never be able to live a 'good life' and go to heaven, in their eyes," says Upchurch. "It is unnaturally enlarged as a focus in their mind, and what happens is that as they focus on it and it is so big, they can't get around it. They can't see that it is not a big deal."

Upchurch says that misinformation on an ex-gay Web site can be very alluring to Christians who are struggling with their sexual orientation. "When you hear homosexuality can be cured, most people don't really care how, they just want the cure," says Upchurch. "What I want to do is make sure people understand what these groups are all about, what they do, and understand the reality is that most people who go to these groups end up coming out on the other side either more integrated with their sexuality and more accepting of it, or they end up in these groups for a very long time and their orientation doesn't change."

The Ex.Ex Web site will include personal stories from former "ex-gays." Upchurch also plans to provide statistical information about Exodus groups provided by Ron Brasgalla, an active member in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Brasgalla tallied how many Exodus affiliates have folded since the organization's inception.

Upchurch says that most ex-gay groups fail because the leadership "fell into immorality." "It is typically not the result the group deciding 'Let's not do this anymore,'" says Upchurch. "It's typically that there was a problem." Brasgalla, a gay man who lives in Signal Hill, California, started researching Exodus several years ago using information from official Exodus newsletters and documents. Studying 19 years of national Exodus referral lists, Brasgalla says the overwhelming majority of Exodus groups don't last. By early 1995, Exodus had started 210 different agencies around the country since its inception - only 63 agencies remained. From the beginning of Exodus in 1996 through February, 1995, 70 percent of their agencies folded.

"I am the vice chairman of the board, and that's not an accurate statistic," says Exodus spokesman Paulk. "We don't really track what ministries fail . . . usually about every year, maybe two to three agencies. Usually, it's for family reasons that the director will decide that he no longer wants to keep the agency going, but honestly it is usually no more than two or three a year."

But Brasgalla grins when he hears that Exodus reputes his findings. "When I first wrote it, I didn't realize that I was the first person who had done such an in-depth expose of them," says Brasgalla. "This showed the failure of them as a group. We know about the individual failure, which is hard to document, but what I have is documentable."

It is the type of information Upchurch wishes he had 10 years ago before he entered his first Exodus meeting.

Today, Upchurch and his partner, Tyler Reeves, are active on the Houston PFLAG board. His parents are co-presidents of the organization. "The interesting thing that happened to me is that for 12 years of my life I'd been blaming my 'bad relationship with my father' for my homosexuality," says Upchurch. "As soon as I told my folks and accepted my homosexuality, my relationship with my parents totally did a 180-degree turn. Not only did they accept me and care for me and love me, but I have the best time with my folks. I really have fun with them."

He says the experience with ex-gay groups also had an affect on his conservative Christian world view. "I don't know that I can even say I'm a Christian," says Upchurch. "The word has such a dirty meaning to me now, and that's unfortunate. I consider myself to have a very spiritual relationship with God, whomever or whatever that is, and I consider myself to be a person who is caring to those around me. I love others in any way I can."

Maybe through the creation of the Web site, Upchurch has fulfilled his teenage dream. In a sense, he has finally found his ministry.

Ex.Ex may be accessed through: http://members.aol.com/exexgay; email: exexgay@aol.com.

Kyle Young won the top Vice Versa Award and the Randy Shilts Award for Outstanding Achievement for this story, which first appeared in Outsmart Magazine (Houston).


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