Kansas City Star, August 15, 1998
1729 Grand Avenue,Kansas City,MO,64108
(Fax 816-234-4926 ) (E-MAIL: letters@kcstar.com )
( http://www.kcstar.com/ )

Ministries heighten debate on sexuality

'Conversion' of gays becomes a hot issue, thanks to recent ads.
By Eric Adler, Staff Writer

About two decades ago, Andy Comiskey, transfixed by the gospel of Jesus Christ, peered into his heart and came to a conclusion:

He no longer wanted to be gay.

So he prayed, and he delved deep into his past, into his psyche.

Now 40, married for 16 years and with four children, Comiskey, of California, is the "ex-gay" leader of Desert Stream, a national Christian ministry with 200 church-affiliated groups in cities including Kansas City.

Today at Metro Christian Fellowship in Grandview, Comiskey and nearly 500 people dealing with issues of what Comiskey calls sexual "brokenness," including gays, lesbians, transsexuals, adulterers and Internet porn addicts, will conclude a three-day seminar on how, through God's grace, they can all find healing and redemption.

And how gays and lesbians can go straight.

"Biblically," said Comiskey in an interview, "you are hard-pressed to find justification for a homosexual lifestyle. I don't believe that was God's intention for their lives."

Others, including some gays and lesbians, clergy and psychologists, believe that's bunk. Only months ago, critics might simply have shrugged off Comiskey's words, but that's no longer the case. These days the issue of "sexual conversion" is making headlines.

'Here to challenge'

On July 13, Exodus International, a Seattle-based network of 90 "ex-gay" ministries, including Desert Stream, began taking out full-page ads in national and regional newspapers: The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today and others. In the ads, "ex-gay" men and women declare the happiness they've found in heterosexual relationships.

Exodus leaders say the message is one of hope. But because the ads are paid for by more than a dozen groups, including the conservative Family Research Council and the Christian Coalition, gay-advocacy groups declare that the ads are designed to poison dialogue on issues such as gay marriage, gays in the military and discrimination in the workplace.

"It's about politics, pure and simple," said Wayne Besen, spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, a leading national gay-rights organization based in Washington. "It's about denying gay people equal rights."

This month a coalition of gay-rights groups retaliated with its own ads. One, featuring a smiling, gay African-American, begins, "I'm living proof that lesbian and gay Americans can be whole and happy and worthy of all that this great country promises." Its tag line: "If you really love someone, you'll fight for their right to live with dignity and fairness."

Bob Davies, 34, the "ex-gay" North American director of Exodus International, said the group's goal is to alter the dialogue on homosexuality.

"The purpose," he said, "is to get an alternative viewpoint on homosexuality out to the American people. We feel like the discussion of homosexuality has become one-sided in our society. It is now assumed by a lot of people that homosexuality is so inborn that it cannot be changed. We are here to challenge that point of view."

"We are not a political organization. ... But I think it is inevitable that our viewpoint will be included in those discussions in every way."

It's certain that any such discussion would prove confounding. Although many scientists suspect that genetics has much to do with homosexuality, the relative roles of nature and nurture are far from clear.

But so, too, is the effectiveness of "ex-gay" ministries.

'Not the true self'

Most such ministries, like the 200 Living Waters church programs supported by Comiskey's Desert Stream, work in similar ways.

The first premise is that God, who is perfect, did not intend men or women to be homosexual, which is morally wrong and sinful.

The second premise is that homosexuality is not innate. Instead, it is the unconscious result, in certain susceptible people, of any manner of unresolved infant trauma, from physical or emotional abuse to having a mother or father who was absent or emotionally reclusive.

The promise offered by these groups is that through a difficult process of confessing one's sins, accepting God's grace and ferreting out the "true" root of one's "sexual brokenness," salvation and healing is possible.

Ron Boyer of Kansas City, 43, married for two years, took that path years ago. He claims that because of problems in his family, he became gay, a drug addict, a cross-dresser and a teen-age prostitute on the streets in California, where he grew up.

From the time he was 5, he said, he always had wanted to be a girl, prayed for God to make him one, and believed that being male was the source of all his unhappiness.

As he grew, he said, so did his "homosexual compulsions."

Boyer, who is attending this week's workshop in Grandview, said, he became "ex-gay" after repressed memories of his upbringing were revealed through the Living Waters program, which also offered him love, support and acceptance.

"God's intent for our lives is to restore us to be what he intended us to be," said Boyer, who now coordinates a Living Waters program in Kansas City, North. He said he no longer has homosexual desires.

"The homosexual self, the gay self, is not the true self," he said. "It is false."

But advocates for gays and lesbians say that any charge of falsehood should be placed at the door of "ex-gay" ministries.

'Based on a lie'

Although Exodus officials say that their ministries have "touched" more than 200,000 individuals, it keeps no reliable success statistics. And tales of former "ex-gays" abound -- with some becoming legend, such as the story of Michael Bussee and Gary Cooper.

Bussee and Cooper, two of Exodus International's founders, left the program in 1979 after they fell in love -- with each other.

"Groups like Desert Stream and others are all based on a lie. The lie is that there is something wrong with being gay," said the Rev. Paul Smith of Broadway Baptist Church in Kansas City, a congregation that includes many gay and lesbian members.

Numerous ministers, including Smith, say it is wrong for "ex-gay" groups to pose as ministries of Christian love and acceptance, when the support they give is based not on true acceptance, but on change.

Although sexual conversion is still attempted by some psychiatrists, the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders more than 25 years ago. The American Psychological Association maintains that there is no evidence that conversion therapy works.

In fact, the association says such therapy may do more harm than good by condemning patients to guilt, loneliness and depression, self-loathing, denial of sexuality, sham marriages and, in some cases, suicide attempts.

"If I can compare it to anything, it's like the days when teachers used to try to cure kids of being left-handed because the left hand was the sign of the devil," said Randy Hite of Kansas City. "How preposterous is that?"

Raised Southern Baptist in small-town Kansas, Hite, who is gay, said that he suffered from intense conflict as a boy. While the church taught him that homosexuality was dirty and evil, he also knew his own desires.

"The advice I got was to pray to God and he'll change you," he recalled. "I tried all during high school, and it didn't work."

The same is true for Hite's partner, Rick Fisher, who grew up in New Jersey as the son of a Baptist minister. "For years," Fisher said, "I struggled and agonized and prayed." Once, he said, he even took part in an exorcism, "to have all the demons cast out of me."

"When they were done," Fisher said. "I still had those sexual feelings."

Ultimately, Hite and Fisher say, they found true spiritual and emotional contentment in the same manner as countless other gays and lesbians: not from attempts to be "ex-gay," but by accepting that they are gay.

As Hite said, "I see us as part of God's wonderful creation. It is through my being gay that I have found the most loving God. I was rejected by the world, and I have had to rely on God for support. If it wasn't for me being gay, I would not know God as I do."

The "ex-gay" movement and its associated ministries have without question intensified the debate within Christianity over the nature of homosexuality.

"The only reason gays are suffering," said Smith of Broadway Baptist Church, "is because people keep trying to cure them. But there is no cure for homosexuality, because they don't need to be cured.

"Being gay is a gift from God just like being straight is a gift from God."

Gay People's Chronicle, August 14, 1998
P.O. Box 5426, Cleveland, Ohio 44101
Fax (216) 631-1052 E-Mail: chronicle@chronohio.com
"Speak Out"
Before his 'ex-gay' days, John Paulk was my flaky neighbor
by Stuart Koblentz

Exodus, the Christian-based organization that boasts great success in converting sinning homosexuals into winning heterosexuals, recently trotted out John and Ann Paulk as the poster children for their organization.

Both Paulk and his wife Ann, a self-declared "former lesbian," claim that by finding God, they have successfully made the transition from gay to straight. On the surface, John Paulk appears to be a natural choice for this attention. He is vice-chair of Exodus and works in the legislative and cultural affairs department of James Dobson's organization, Focus on the Family.

To me, though, he will always be the college student who in 1983 lived across the courtyard in an apartment complex next to the main campus of Ohio State University in Columbus.

Seeing where John Paulk has landed himself today comes as no surprise to me. John always craved to be the center of everyone's attention in life's theatrical production, so it's no shock that he is still at home in the limelight. But I must admit that I was a little shocked to have his image and story not only featured in those full-page newspaper ads touting groups like Exodus and others that claim to "cure" homosexuals, but also prominently featured in the July 28 editions of Time and Newsweek.

For years, the stories of John and his exploits have been the stuff of which legends are made and reminisced over. Our apartments, with their porches and balconies facing one another, overlooked a grassy courtyard. My proximity to John made phone calls unnecessary--we were constantly calling to one another about making dinner, bar-hopping or shopping plans. In the warm fall evenings of 1983, I studied my history texts on my front porch as John practiced his vocal scales on his porch.

As summer changed to fall and the evenings changed from humid to crisp, then downright cold, I found John's behavior becoming increasingly odd, even reckless. There were nights when John would leave to go out, dressed smartly in a sport coat and pressed slacks, and wait for his date to pick him up. He would return early the next morning in the clothes that he left in the night before.

That October, I discovered that John's dates weren't "dates," but rather "business" meetings. The All-American Quarter Horse Association was in town for its annual convention, bringing with it thousand of lonesome cowboys. John had been working for Dulcet Escort Services, a business that worked quite hard at making those cowboys a little less lonesome. (They've since been shut down by the vice squad.)

The night I found out about John's activities he was working the phones for the service from his house. I sat there fascinated as he would answer the phone and rattle off the menu of services offered to any wrangler looking for a bronco to buck.

"We offer escort services, conversation, nude modeling and nude conversation," John informed the caller. (Nude conversation?) Then there was my introduction to the operator of the escort service, a woman named Joanne who took great pleasure in telling me that she had been "run out of Manhattan" by people with organized crime connections. That was a bit much for this corn- fed Ohio boy, and eventually I began to withdraw from the friendship.

By the middle of that winter, the local department store began to visit John's heatless apartment. Furniture delivered that summer was removed. Friends began to open their homes to John so he could have a hot shower or a warm meal. He lived huddled in an electric blanket. He dropped out of school. He owed money.

The summer of 1984 was difficult, even hostile. The calls across the courtyard had stopped months before as John's behavior became too erratic for me to deal with. He began performing as a drag queen to make money, and his alter ego "Candi" soon began to take over the apartment where John once lived. The balcony shared by my neighbor and myself would fill nightly for the show on John's balcony. In a reverse striptease, he metamorphasized from John Paulk into his alter ego Candi for all to see.

By that fall, our time as neighbors was over. John vacated the apartment and began to perform at a club called the Ruby Slipper. As the seasons passed, those of us from the courtyard days would touch base with one another and report any "Candi sightings."

John's life truly became burlesque-like when he began doing the talk show circuit as a "reformed homosexual." None of us was too surprised. When a pendulum swings so far in one direction, it's bound to swing the opposite direction with equal abandon.

All these years later, I seriously doubt that John was saved so much from homosexuality as he was saved from himself. Being gay doesn't cause you to become a prostitute. Circumstances and low self-esteem do. Having the utilities turned off and your furniture repossessed isn't caused by being a homosexual either, it's caused by not honoring your obligations. Being a homosexual also doesn't cause dishonesty or create suspicion either. These are character issues that affect all people, regardless of their sexual orientation.

A life spent making all the wrong choices is a life spent in poor judgement, not in the gay world as Exodus desperately wants people to believe. People who seek attention will do anything to be center-stage, even if it means tearing themselves up, tearing themselves apart, and then destroying themselves in order to re-create themselves.

John's issues were, and I believe continue to be, those of integrity. During the time that I knew John, the truth was always something that was treated as an afterthought. He regularly mistreated himself as well as those who cared about him. Because of this, I will always mistrust him, his actions and deeds, including his very public salvation.

This mistrust is only deepened when I read about his much-publicized life story. Nowhere in that history do I see where he acknowledges that people in and out of the gay community tried to help John. Nowhere in these life testimonies do I see where John takes responsibility for anything that he did to himself and others while he was intoxicated with his path of self destruction.

If the Christian right wing sleeps better at night safe in the comfort that people like John Paulk are there to defend their ideals and promote the "Exodus cure," then I would advise them to start sleeping with one eye open. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. I predict that John Paulk will yet recreate himself again when this folly, like the ones before, runs its course.

John Paulk may claim that finding Jesus and Exodus helped him find his heterosexuality, but he has yet to convince me that he has found himself.

Stuart Koblentz and his memories live in Columbus.


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