How writing about a conversion-therapy minister from Texas and his I-swear-I’m-cured-of-it young son taught me about compassion.
I was driving to work when I saw the first billboard assuring me I could change. It was winter on the Gulf Coast of Texas, and the wetlands buffeting the highway sparkled every so often with the fall of another cast net capturing bait. Just beyond the McDonald’s, where the drive-thru was already aglow with the headlights of morning breakfast orders, was the blown-up photo of an Adonic man with a confident smile beside the message:
“I Questioned Homosexuality. Change is Possible. Discover How.”
I spotted another billboard, nearly identical to the first, just past Texas City’s mini-metropolis of petrochemical plants. Only this time it was a smiling woman. Both listed a website called Love Won Out.
At my desk that morning, rather than shifting through emails from sources or story assignments from my editors, I went to the billboards’ website. Love Won Out, I learned, was a conference run by Focus on the Family that tours the country every year teaching “the truth that homosexuality is preventable and treatable.” I read that phrase out loud to my coworker.
“Crazy” she said, and went back to checking voice messages. I wrote an email to Michael, our editor in the main newsroom and suggested a story.
“Wait,” he wrote back. “I need to check first.”
Michael was an ex-union organizer, a former military man, and a poet. He was also the best boss I’d ever had. Usually he made decisions quickly and with conviction. Usually if the story was good, I never had to wait. I wrote back.
“Just because I am a lesbian doesn’t mean I can’t cover this fairly and objectively. I’m a Democrat and that’s never an issue when I cover a story about the Republican Party.”
Later that day he gave me the go-ahead. People were calling and emailing about the billboards already. Most of them were livid. He told me to get something for that weekend, and then he added: “I would equate it more with a black reporter covering the Klan. We’ve done that before, too. But we had to think about it first.”
The difference in that case, of course, is that a black reporter can’t hide her blackness. But I could easily hide my sexuality. I did it all the time without even trying.
I called Focus on the Family and was connected to a squeaky-voiced spokesman named Christopher who told me the conference would be at a mega-church, that hundreds were expected to attend, and many had been “saved” already.
“And the billboards?” I asked. There were fifteen in total, I’d learned.
“Those weren’t from us,” he said.
“They weren’t?” I was confused.
“Well, they’re our design, but a local businessman funded them.”
His name was B. Joe Cline and he ran his own ex-gay ministry on Galveston Island. He had a son who once identified as gay, but now didn’t. Christopher asked if I wanted to be put in touch with him.
“Of course,” I said.
* * *
I was never trained as a journalist. I studied literature in college. Then I graduated and someone offered me a job at a small newspaper on an island in Florida. Two years later, I landed another newspaper job on another island, this time in Texas.
Being a journalist without training meant I learned everything on the job. I learned what a lede is, how to have an anonymous source, and the importance of being objective. Trying to become objective, I stopped going to political rallies. When sources asked my opinion on a proposed tax hike or murder trial, I told them I didn’t have one; that having one would impede my ability to report the news.
It was 2005 and I was 26. George Bush had just been inaugurated for his second presidential term. Texas voters had just outlawed gay marriage. I voted against that measure, called Prop 2, and against Bush, though I knew some journalists who went so far in their quest for objectivity that they refused to vote. The day I cast my ballot, I held the door for an old woman who hobbled up the stairs toward the poll booth with determination. We smiled at each other.
“We gotta make sure Prop 2 passes,” she said. I wanted to let the door go in her face, but I didn’t.
I lived like that for longer than now seems possible. If I was writing about Republicans, I tried not to think like a Democrat. And if I was going to cover the ex-gay movement, I told myself not to react like a lesbian. It makes little sense to me now, but at the time I believed it was possible to write as if I wasn’t there.
* * *
B. Joe Cline arrived to our interview early, carrying a box of doughnuts and a plastic bag.
“Try one,” he motioned to the doughnuts while taking a seat at the conference table. When I took one, he looked pleased.
Over the phone, Cline had sounded like a stew of stereotypes: used car salesman, Baptist preacher, grandfather. Meeting him in person, I realized how telling a voice can be. He wore a two-tone mauve suit and his thinning brown hair was held in place with what appeared to be hairspray. His eyebrows arched perfectly above sunken eyes and his tanned face had begun to sag with age, though when I asked how old he was, Cline told me he was 61. Five years later, another newspaper would list him as 75.
In the plastic bag, I found two folders, a CD, a cassette tape, and a video, each detailing the “causes and cures” of homosexuality. We were sitting at the corner of a conference table in a room usually reserved for newspaper staff meetings. While we waited for his son to show up, Cline started in on his own history.
“My named is Billie Joe. Billie like a girl’s name,” he began. “I grew up in Edmonson, which is an itty-bitty town outside Plainview. There were 200 or so families there and not one of them was homosexual, at least not that we knew of. They just don’t spawn them as much in the country.”
I paused in my note taking, but Cline didn’t seem to notice. He talked about his dad, who had worked at a gas station and about his wife, who he met at a Baptist church. He told me about paying 50 dollars to get his tonsils removed with only a local anesthetic, about finding Christ and about working his way from a part-time job at Sears to a corporate position at Merrill Lynch.
“You know how I was able to rise so high?” he asked at one point, his forehead glistening like the glazed doughnuts in the open box between us.
“No,” I said. “Tell me.”
“By being hungrier and more determined than the rest,” he said.
“But there was a downside,” he added, his voice lowering. “I wasn’t there that much when Lanny was growing up. If I had to travel, I traveled, and that meant my youngest boy grew closer to his mother, too close we realize now, and I know that contributed to what happened later.”
As if on cue, Lanny came around the corner. He told us that had been at the newspaper for at least ten minutes, but the receptionist couldn’t find me, so he had sat quietly waiting up front. Eventually he had heard his father’s voice and followed the sound to the conference room.
Unlike his father, Lanny spoke in a quiet, measured tone. He was so skinny I could see his clavicle bone through his shirt. He had smooth skin, wore glasses, and sat and stood with a straight back. I offered him one of his father’s doughnuts, and he declined.
When I asked to tell me his story, it felt like an odd request. For gays and lesbians, the coming out story is a part of our culture. We tell them to new friends, new lovers. We share them at chance meetings or dinner parties. I had never asked an ex-gay to tell his coming-out-and-going-back-in story.
Lanny started like most of us do: with his childhood. He shared the traditional anecdotes about feeling different as a kid and having more girl friends than guy friends. In his twenties, he moved to Colorado. He was lonely, he said, and felt lost.
He paused, pressing his hands against his thighs and looked up at me. His father and I both nodded.
“Then one day I saw this ad in a local newspaper for a gay and lesbian organization. So I just called them up, and the next thing you know I went to a meeting, and suddenly I felt like it all made sense. All those feelings of being different. It suddenly clicked that I was homosexual.”
It was 1978. That same year, Lanny came out to his parents in a letter.
“When we got that letter my wife threw herself on the bed and cried,” Cline interrupted.
“And you?” I asked him.
Cline shook his head. “I waited, and then I sat down at my desk and wrote my son a love letter. I told him I loved him no matter what, but I didn’t approve of what he was doing. I soaked that letter in my tears.”
I looked at Lanny. He was taller than his father, but seemed smaller in the conference room chair. His shirt and pants were perfectly pressed. He reminded me of a bird.
“He was very accepting,” he assured me. “I knew lots of people who had been completely rejected by their parents, and my mom and dad never did that.”
Normally this is where a coming-out story ends. The acknowledgement of one’s true identity is the final act of self-awakening that brings the narrative to a close.
But Lanny kept talking.
“Soon after that, I started to get dissatisfied with the homosexual community,” he explained. “I was still a Christian, and I wanted to love before I lusted, but it didn’t seem like there was that sort of option out there for me. Much of the social life centered around bars, and pretty soon I started feeling just as alone and different in that world as I had being outside of it. I got pretty down and I didn’t know what to do.”
What he did was move back to Galveston, and back in with his parents. He got a job with his dad and began going to a local church. At some point he made a decision.
“Two years after I had come out to my parents, I told them I just couldn’t do it anymore,” he said.
There was a silence in the room. This was meant to be the moment of resolution in Lanny’s story, but I didn’t feel closure. I wanted something more, but I wasn’t sure what. Perhaps another turn in the narrative or for him to be someone else: a character easier to pity or despise.
“So do you consider yourself straight now?” I finally asked.
Lanny shook his head.
“I consider myself a struggler. I am content right now to make God my only romantic love.”
At that point, Cline excused himself to go to the bathroom. Lanny and I sat in silence for a moment, watching his father disappear.
“Do you ever stray?” I asked once his father was gone. It wasn’t a reporter’s question, really. It was a personal one.
“Sometimes,” he started. “When I am driving down the seawall.”
His voice trailed off, but I knew what he meant. Galveston is lined for more than one hundred blocks by a massive seawall, built to protect the barrier island from hurricanes. In the hot months of summer, though, its sharp concrete walls are softened by the wet, sweating bodies of joggers, sunbathers, and surfers. The seawall in those moments is less a barrier than a siren.
* * *
A week later, my profile on the Clines appeared in the newspaper. I wrote about the “love letter” B. Joe had sent to Lanny and Lanny’s decision to “walk away” from his former life, but I didn’t mention what he’d said about the seawall or my own frustration at trying to stay neutral on a subject that felt anything but.
The article ended with a reference to the letters to the editor that had been flooding the paper ever since we first reported on the billboards. A pastor with a lesbian daughter wrote to criticize the billboards and the conference. Another reader worried such public homophobia would have a negative effect on the island’s annual Mardi Gras celebration, which, that reader speculated, must attract a lot of gays. Ex-gays wrote in support of the conference and ex-ex-gays wrote about how harmful conversion therapy can be.
Lanny also wrote a letter: “Some of us who grew up with same-sex attractions are not comfortable with them and want to explore the possibility of change. I am sorry there are people who don’t want me to have that choice.”
Driving home from work after the interview, I put in one of the CDs Cline had given me. Normally I would have listened to NPR or, if a deadline kept me past seven p.m., I tried to find a CD that blended well with the night. Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska was a favorite at the time, or Lyle Lovett’s Pontiac. On rare occasions, I put in an old Pavement album, screaming lyrics to match my speed. But I wanted to understand Lanny better, and the CDs seemed one way to do that.
The first one featured the sermons of a man named John MacArthur, a fundamentalist pastor who, on the cover, claimed to “unleash God’s truth one verse at a time.” Called “Answering key questions about homosexuality,” his sermon starts with an anecdote about a time he was on “Larry King Live” with several leaders of other world faiths, and “a gay actor” who he never identifies.
“At one point I asked him if he wanted to go to heaven and he said yes. That’s when I knew there was hope,” MacArthur recounted.
I drove past blocks of inactive construction, turning left at a stoplight, then left again on to the feeder road before merging onto Interstate 45 heading back to Galveston Island. I passed one of the “Question Homosexuality” billboards, the saccharine smile of an ex-gay looking down on me. MacArthur moved on to Armageddon as I picked up speed.
“Once upon a time, God’s law ruled the world,” he preached, his voice booming. “Homosexuals were punished by death for their sins. When Jesus returns, God’s law will rule again.”
The volume was loud. I kept it that way for music. But in this case the loudness only hardened MacArthur’s already angry tone. It was the closest I’d been to fire and brimstone. I had grown up Episcopalian. My father was an atheist and my mom a social worker. I had never known what it was like to fear for my soul. But for a moment I almost did.
The sermon ended as I pulled up outside my apartment and I reminded myself that it was only research. Inside, I cracked a beer and wrote the girl I liked an email telling her about all the crazy ex-gays I was suddenly surrounding myself with. Before falling asleep that night, I tried to imagine what it would be like to want to change such an integral part of myself.
* * *
The morning of the conference, I opted out of the “Root of Male Homosexuality” breakfast seminar so that I could interview the protestors at a Lexus car lot next to the megachurch. They were holding up “My Goddess Loves Me The Way I Am” posters and wearing gay-pride buttons and T-shirts. They told me they were tired of being shamed for who they were. I nodded and wrote down their words.
When I finally made my way over to the church, a tall woman in her twenties greeted me with a smile that hurt my cheeks.
“Did you talk to the gay activists outside?” she asked when I said I was a reporter. “Are they really angry?”
I told her no, and her face fell.
In the church sanctuary, a lights system hung from the rafters, splashing the pulpit with soft yellows and blues. Two large video screens bookended the stage and a row of fake potted trees ran its length. I counted close to 300 people, but Christopher, the spokesman, assured me 900 had registered.
I caught the tail end of “The Roots of Male Homosexuality” and stayed for the first testimony with Mike Haley, the Adonic man from the billboards. He told of being abused by an older man when he was a young boy, dating men in high school, and then becoming part of the gay community in his early twenties. In person, just as in the billboard, he had short-cropped blond hair and was muscular without seeming overbearing. Like Lanny, he was surprisingly likable. And like Lanny, his story followed a similar arc. They both acknowledge feeling a sense of “coming home” when they found the gay community, but then, after illusive searches for love and companionship, this feeling of belonging turned to isolation, loneliness and depression. In seeking solace, they both found religion again and, eventually, made the conscious decision to give up their gay identity.
“I was always trying to be happy,” Haley said in conclusion. “But I never was until now.”
I skipped around between seminars and workshops the rest of the morning. In one called “What Our Kids Are Watching On TV,” the leaders showed short clips from “ER” and “Law & Order” as proof that mass media was promoting a homosexual lifestyle. In a session titled “Straight Thinking on Gay Marriage,” a man named Dick Carpenter compared gay marriage to bestiality and incest and encouraged parents to join their local school boards to prevent homosexuals from pushing their agenda on public schools. As I was writing down his quotes, I noticed that I’d started to draw lines separating his words from my notes, as if that might keep what he was saying from upsetting me.
After lunch, I finally found Lanny and his dad just outside of the makeshift bookstore, where a three-for-one vacuum-wrapped collection of books titled “How to Love a Homosexual” was the best-selling item. They were sitting beside a booth for Cline’s organization, Lighthouse Freedom Ministry. He had copies of the profile I had written about him on display.
“I want to introduce you to someone,” Cline said when he saw me.
He motioned to a tall man and a woman clutching her purse. They looked like a farming couple, healthy yet ever-ready for the next crop disaster.
“This man was just telling me his story,” Cline said as Lanny shuffled out of my field of vision. “He has a fifteen-year-old daughter who they caught with an older friend of hers.”
The man began to tell me his story, and, as he did, his wife dabbed the corners of her eyes with a Kleenex pulled from her purse.
“We immediately forbade my daughter from ever seeing her friend again, and the next day we took her out of public school, the school they both attended,” the man said, meeting my eye. “Now we’re paying for her to go to the Christian academy closest to us, but it’s expensive, so I don’t know how much longer we’ll be able to afford that.”
“And she wanted to come here today?” I asked.
The man shook his head.
“She didn’t know. We woke her up early this morning and told her we were taking her somewhere important. She’s in one of the sessions right now.”
The man said he worried that he only had two and a half more years with his daughter. After that she would be eighteen, a leader of her own life, a teller of her own tales.
The wife dabbed her eyes again. I remembered myself at fifteen. My first time was with my best friend. We camped out in a tent in her backyard and, while her parents slept inside, we took off our clothes. We kissed. We practiced doing with each other what her boyfriend had done with her several weeks earlier. First her, then me. It was far from romantic. We were laughing and negotiating. But it was fun, and neither of us was worried, really, about what would happen if we got caught. At that point neither of us even thought we were gay. I would decide I was some two years later. But she never did. She met a nice guy, got married, and now they’re about to have a kid.
* * *
Conversion therapy has been around as long as gays and lesbians have, which is to say its genesis coincides with the invention of words like “invert” and, later, “homosexual” in the nineteenth century. Before we had a name to call ourselves, we didn’t really exist, at least not in the way we do now. But once we were given a name and, then, an identity, there were immediately attempts to change us.
Early conversion techniques included chemical castration, bladder washing, rectal massage, lobotomies, electroshock, forced masturbation, transplanting a straight man’s testicles into a gay man, and “confrontational therapy,” which involved berating a gay person, calling her a liar or telling her she’s worthless.
Most of those techniques have long been abandoned. But some still try. Today advocates of conversion therapy call themselves “pro-change,” and talk about same-sex attraction, or SSA, rather than a homosexual or gay identity. They also tend to use used the word “reparative” rather than “conversion” to describe their therapy, perhaps because the former implies fixing something broken while the latter is a more neutral act of change.
Change, though, is a tricky thing to measure. What constitutes change when we’re talking about sexuality? In some studies of conversion therapy, researchers say change took place if same-sex desire was suppressed. In other instances, success was the patient having sex with, or feeling attracted to, someone of the opposite gender. And then there is the argument that it’s enough to just call yourself an ex-gay. Words, after all, have the power to shape us.
When I was in college, my girlfriend and I used to watch the movie “But I’m a Cheerleader” every few months or so. It’s a satirical story about a girl who’s sent off to a camp called “True Directions” after her parents worry she might be a lesbian. At the camp, girls are taught to change baby diapers and do other traditional female tasks while the boys are encouraged to cut down trees and grunt a lot. Graduation comes with simulated sex with someone of the opposite gender.
We liked the movie because it was funny but also, I suspect now, because it was reaffirming. The main character, played by Natasha Lyonne, realizes she’s a lesbian while at the camp that is trying to make sure she doesn’t turn out to be a lesbian. There is a sense of inevitability in her identity and, by extension, a notion that we can’t be changed.
“You know who you are and you know who you want. Aint nothin’ gonna change that, shit!” screams one of the camp attendees soon after escaping New Directions.
In telling my own narrative, though, I realize that I could easily count myself as having changed many times over. I’ve had periods where I wasn’t attracted to anyone. There have also been times when I was attracted to, and in a couple cases, slept with, men. And then I had those years when I wasn’t really anyone, at least not publically. I was an apolitical reporter at a political rally with my notebook and pen. I was an asexual journalist in a megachurch filled with people who might have hated me, or prayed for me, if they knew I slept with women. The only reason I can’t say that my sexual identity ever changed is that change was never my goal.
* * *
When my article about the conference came out, we got complaints from both sides. Some readers said I gave too much space to the ex-gays. Others said I was too critical of Christian theology and included too many quotes from the protestors. My editor Michael told me if I’d pissed off both sides, I’d done my job. But I wasn’t convinced. I knew I hadn’t been objective. I was on the side of the protestors and in the article I’d purposely given them, not the ex-gays, the last word.
Four years later, Focus on the Family sold the “Love Won Out” brand to the ex-gay organization Exodus International as part of a “downsizing” operation. Exodus renamed the conference series “True Story” and kept it going for three more years. Then in 2013, its CEO apologized to the gay community and announced he was ending the conference for good: “I am sorry that some of you spent years working through the shame and guilt you felt when your attractions didn’t change,” he said.
By that time I had quit working for newspapers, gone to graduate school, gotten married — to a woman — and had a kid. I had also stopped believing it was possible to be objective. I changed. And the country has changed, too. States began to ban conversion therapy, especially for those under eighteen, who are often, like that fifteen-year-old girl or like Lyonne’s character in “But I’m a Cheerleader,” sent to therapists or conferences against their will.
But not everything has changed. Last year, the Texas Republican Party added reparative therapy to its official platform. And this year, the National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH) plans to hold a “pro-change” therapist training conference in Dallas. People continue to say they can change gays and lesbians, and gays and lesbians continue to seek out therapies they hope will make them less likely to go to hell. A friend of mine wrote her master’s thesis on the ex-gay movement and recently told me about a young gay man who, so upset that he couldn’t change, lit himself on fire.
I looked up Cline online not long ago and saw that he’s now living in Waco and that, in 2007, he paid to put up three more “Change is Possible” billboards there. He told a local news outlet that he was only interested in changing those who want to change.
Lanny lives in Waco now, too. I guess to be near his dad. It says on a career-networking web site that he’s a group leader for the organization Celebrate Recovery, which helps Christians deal with “a wide variety of hurts, hang ups, and harmful behaviors.” When I scan through the list of those behaviors, I notice that homosexuality is not one of them, which gives me hope. In a list of his professional skills, Lanny includes organization, listening to others, and empathy.
Reading that, I realize that it was empathy and not objectivity I’d strived for five years ago when I started writing about a bunch of billboards that claimed I could change. Empathy, at least, is possible.
* * *
Sarah Viren is a writer and translator living in West Texas. Her essays have appeared in such magazines as Guernica, The New Inquiry, The Morning News, and the Colorado Review. Read more of her work at sarahviren.wordpress.com or follow her on Twitter @vurn.
Kimberly Denson is an artist and illustrator living in Melbourne, Australia.