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Self, sex and Christ

Self, sex and Christ
For some gays, sexual preference can be decided through faith

By Andrea Useem

Special to The Examiner

Susan Payne, 46, was a committed lesbian who had her first same-sex relationship at age 13. The hardship of being an adolescent "who didn't want to go the prom" led Payne into alcohol and drug abuse, she said. But at age 23, she discovered a lunchtime Bible study at her workplace. Not previously religious, she said, "I heard a lot of truth there."

Payne gradually left her hard-partying life, but was afraid to discuss her same-sex relationships with fellow Christians. When she did divulge her own background to another woman in her Bible study, the woman "didn't bat an eyelash," said Payne. "She just said, 'Let's pray together and see what the Bible says.'

"From reading the [book of] Romans, I realized that I was settling for less. God designed us to be for the opposite sex," Payne said. In the first chapter of St. Paul's letter to the Romans, found in the New Testament, Paul describes God's wrath against a faithless people, whom he punished by "giving them over to shameful lusts" such as homosexual desires.

'Unwanted' urges

That conversation started Payne down a path of spiritual transformation that eventually led to her now-12-year-old marriage. In the mid-'80s, she joined a group for Christians struggling with "unwanted" same-sex attractions called Regeneration, which started in Baltimore in 1979.

Payne, who is the mother of two boys, said that the peace she has found in religion has kept her faithful, and "I try to keep real current with my husband, and not get so maxed out with the kids that I don't have time for 'me.' "

Payne's husband, Buckner, said he was surprised when Susan, shortly after meeting him, revealed her lesbian history. "I had some doubt at the beginning, but that's long gone," he said. The Paynes are now members of Truro Church in Fairfax City, which donates money and reduced-rent office space to Regeneration.

Payne now volunteers as a group leader for the Regeneration program, which expanded to Fairfax in 1987. The program itself has evolved into a nine-month, curriculum-based ministry called Living Waters, which links homosexuality to "broken" relationships in childhood.

A member of Exodus International, which proclaims "freedom from homosexuality through the power of Jesus Christ," Regeneration is just one of hundreds of "ex-gay" ministries growing across the country.

Payne's story, like other ex-gay testimonials, seems to prove the point that ex-gay ministries would like to broadcast: Change is possible. But with gay rights an explosive religious and political issue, others say this message implies that all gays and lesbians can and should change, thus eliminating the need for equal rights.

Little success

Wayne Besen, a former spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, the largest national advocacy group for gay rights, has written that ex-gay ministries, along with their secular counterparts, suffer from "astronomical failure rates."

He and other critics point to a number of high-level scandals as proof of such failure. To name a few examples: Michael Johnson, an ex-gay leader who had appeared in national TV ads, left his Newport News ministry in 2003 after allegations surfaced that he knowingly infected other men with HIV while pretending to live as an ex-gay, while another high-profile leader, John Paulk, was photographed visiting a gay bar in Washington in 2000.

But ex-gay ministries themselves can be quite conservative about estimating their own success rates. Exodus International, using research conducted in the 1960s and '70s, estimates a success rate between 30 percent and 50 percent, a statistic confirmed by Mark Yarhouse, director of the Institute for the Study of Sexual Identity at Regent University, a Christian graduate school in Virginia Beach, who pegs success at around 32 percent.

"Sometimes it's possible for people to leave behind same-sex attractions, sometimes it's not," said Father Paul Scalia, whose weekly program at St. Rita's church in Alexandria promotes chastity for homosexuals, in keeping with Catholic teaching on the issue. "It may not be God's desire that every single person be relieved of these temptations."

An accepting environment is important, say many ex-gays, because even though ex-gay people have in some cases become poster children for the religious right, they are often marginalized in their own faith communities.

Tanya Erzen, an assistant professor of religion at Ohio State University, spent two years studying a live-in ex-gay ministry in San Rafael, Calif. She said that such programs provide a "tangible social service" for those experiencing a painful conflict between their religious beliefs and sexual desires.

"It's about finding reconciliation and a real community, a group of people who understand what you're going through," said Erzen, whose book on the subject, "Straight to Jesus," will come out early next year.

Fear

While ex-gay ministries have offered a welcoming environment for some, others say they found a homophobic climate of fear.

Kendall Seal, Religion Institute Fellow at the Washington-based Human Rights Campaign, spoke of his own experience. He grew up in a small town in Missouri as a member of the traditionally minded Church of the Nazarene. When he came out as gay to his parents, he said they tried to treat him lovingly, as ex-gays might advise, rather than condemning him, but their cultural abhorrence for homosexuality was stronger.

His parents asked him to see a Christian counselor, and Seal said he agreed in order to appease them. "There was a plague of fear in the conversation. [The counselor implied that] because I was gay, I will get AIDS, I will probably do drugs and have all kinds of illicit sex."

Seal now attends an Episcopal church in D.C. and is in a committed relationship with another man. "My sexuality is integral to my identity," he said. "If I tried to change that - well, it wouldn't be authentic."

Richard Cohen, a convert from Judaism to evangelical Christianity, whose Bowie-based International Healing Foundation promotes what it calls a secular, therapeutic path out of homosexuality, said that ex-gays make other Christians uncomfortable. "If you open homosexual issues, then you have to open up heterosexual ones," he said.

Indeed, many ex-gays see homosexual behavior as one sexual sin among others, such as pornography addiction or premarital sex. Bob Ragan, director of Regeneration in Fairfax, said that nearly half of this year's 60 "Living Waters" participants were heterosexuals. The program, he said, is open for anyone seeking "sexual and relational wholeness."

Ragan, who ended his homosexual life in 1987, said that, as a Christian teenager in the 1960s, his same-sex desires filled him with shame and fear of rejection. In his early 20s, he "put God on the back burner" and embraced a gay identity.

But God asked for his attention, Ragan said - "not with lightning bolts and sledgehammers, but just saying, 'Bob, come back to me.' " Ragan left his homosexual relationship in August 1987, and the next year joined a Regeneration support group in Fairfax.

Ragan, who says he is "celebrating his singleness," admits freely that ex-gay ministries don't work for everyone. "Our sexuality is so complex, and change doesn't happen overnight. There are going to be a lot of gray areas."

Regeneration does not focus on changing people from homosexual to heterosexual, he said. "I tell people, 'Forget about overcoming any particular issue. You're here to let God transform you.' "

END

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