Gay activists and clergy are planning a silent protest Saturday morning outside a conference of ex-gays who contend homosexuality can be cured by religious counseling.
The conference, called “Love Won Out” and sponsored by the conservative Colorado-based Christian organization Focus on the Family, has sparked controversy and outrage with several billboards in Orlando and other cities that host the traveling event. The billboards declare: “I Questioned Homosexuality and discovered love won out.” The group’s message is that change is possible.
“For gays, this is the same as saying you don’t have to be black, you don’t have to be Jewish,” said Wayne Besen, executive director of TruthWinsOut.org, a Brooklyn-based gay advocacy group. “They represent us as broken and incomplete people.”
Protesters, organized by Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians and Gays, will meet outside First Presbyterian Church in Orlando, where organizers say the conference is expected to draw about 500 participants. The conference coincides with Gay Days, which annually attracts thousands of gays to Orlando and Disney World.
Earlier in the week, leaders of Orlando’s gay community denounced the conference and the billboards as part of the larger agenda by Christian groups to deny gays rights — including same-sex marriage — and portray gays and lesbians as deviant and abnormal.
Before Orlando, Love Won Out had erected the controversial billboards in eight cities. In some cities, the billboards have been vandalized.
The ex-gays conference is the setting for the latest battleground between conservative Christian ministries and gay activists over the unsolved question of what determines a person’s sexual orientation. The ministries argue that same-sex attraction results from specific events in a person’s life — such as sexual abuse, personal trauma and dysfunctional families — that can be corrected with Christian-based counseling.
“Same-sex attraction is the result of a number of influential factors, but, no, we don’t believe people are born gay,” said Melissa Fryrear, director of gender issues for Focus on the Family. “We believe homosexuals can be converted and same-sex attractions can change.”
Research by the American Psychological Association and other mental-health organizations disputes that view of homosexuality, said Kathryn Norsworthy, a licensed psychologist in Winter Park.
“Homosexuality is not a deviant behavior or abnormal. There is no need for a cure,” Norsworthy said.
Jill Bley, a psychologist with the American Psychological Association, said there is no evidence that therapy can change a person’s sexuality — only that some people can repress their sexual desires.
“They cannot change because, we believe, it is a chemical, biological thing that happens in very early stages of development,” said Bley, whose practice is in Cincinnati.
Love Won Out points to a recent study as proof that change in sexual orientation is possible. Researchers followed a group of gays and lesbians who had been referred for “conversion therapy” by Exodus International, an Orlando-based ministry for ex-gays. The study found that 15 of the 98 gays and lesbians had become heterosexual.
But Besen says the therapy is a false hope that Love Won Out sells to unhappy homosexuals, their families and friends. Scores of ex-gays who marry believing they have turned straight end up in divorce court after discovering they hadn’t changed after all, Besen contends.
“They show you the marriage licenses,” he said. “They don’t show you the divorce papers.”