Scared Straight

The religious right's ex-gay movement is scouting local recruits

Clench, dig, jiggle.

And a sexually deviant male neighbor.

Clench, dig, jiggle.

Tatiana Suarez

"I was eight years old," she says. "I went to get the mail and I had to pass his house, and he called me over ... lured me in with Christmas presents.... He was handicapped, in a wheelchair. He started kissing me, holding me, hugging me ... lifted up my shirt ... made me touch him...."

Clench, dig, jiggle.

"After, I ran back into our house. I felt dirty, ashamed. I cried. I was mad — at my mom. She should have stopped it, should have been there."

"Did you tell your mom you were sexually abused?" prompts Alicea.

Lifting her chin toward the ceiling, Sarah shakes her head no and digs her white knuckles further into her thighs. She opens her mouth to respond, but nothing comes out.

"Have you told her since?" he pushes.

Clench, dig, jiggle. She shakes her head again, red hair swaying limply around broad shoulders.

She takes a deep breath. "I felt very alone when I first came here." Voice quivering, thick with shame, she is syllables away from tears. "When I realized after coming here I wasn't born this way, that the things that have happened to me in my life made me this way, that I could change ... I'll do whatever it takes for God's love.

"He's my best friend."

Alicea finds her eyes from across the room and holds her gaze. "God does love you," he says tenderly to his disciple, "very much."

Tears stream down her pale face.

"All these events play a part in our struggle," Alicea continues. "You must understand that."

Sarah is quiet. She looks bled dry.

"When I left the gay lifestyle after 13 years, I wasn't struggling. I was gay, period. I had a boyfriend," Alicea recalls. That was five years ago. Like Sarah, he tells his flock, he has yet to embark on a heterosexual relationship. Like Sarah, he says he isn't ready yet.

Instead he is celibate. But he is happy — happier than he has ever been.

Abstinence, the ex-gay movement purports, provides freedom from homosexuality. That means abstinence from anything that might incite a same-sex thought or fantasy — intercourse, masturbation, pornography, MySpace, pictures of attractive people, and so on. It's not a rule, but a recommendation.

There is one steadfast rule: Same-sex strugglers are prohibited from spending time together alone. Old habits die hard, and the movement doesn't need any more converts falling off the ex-gay wagon. Its path is already littered with the stories of many who fell so hard they couldn't resume the journey.

When Exodus was just three years old, cofounder and ex-gay Michael Bussee fell — for Exodus volunteer and fellow ex-gay Gary Cooper. The two left their wives, shacked up, and exchanged wedding bands. This past month, on, Bussee issued a formal apology for creating an organization he calls a fraud that hurts people and promotes self-hatred. "One [ex-gay] got drunk and deliberately drove his car into a tree," Bussee wrote. "Another told me that he had left Exodus and was now going to straight bars — looking for someone to beat him up ... made him feel less guilty. One of my most dedicated clients ... took a razor blade to his genitals, slashed himself repeatedly, and then poured drain-cleaner on the wounds, because after months of celibacy, he had a 'fall.'"

"Just because Michael Bussee didn't make it as far as I have," says Exodus's Randy Thomas, "doesn't mean that my life isn't valid. I am 15 years on the other side of identifying as gay. I have had a sexual orientation shift, and I'm not gay."

In 1987 the founder of Homosexuals Anonymous, former gay Colin Cook, was expelled from his organization for giving nude massages to male patients to "desensitize them against homosexual desires," according to the Los Angeles Times. In 1995 a similar scandal erupted with his newly founded group, FaithQuest Colorado. According to the Denver Post, Cook had phone sex with patients; practiced long, grinding hugs with them; and told them to bring gay porn to sessions for desensitization purposes. Cook still claims he is a former homosexual, and earlier this year created an online ministry that offers counseling to people "struggling" with same-sex attraction:, "a place to discover new approaches to your struggle," according to the Website.

In 2000 former Exodus chairman John Paulk resigned after the Denver Post reported he'd been seen drinking and flirting with men at Mr. P's, a Washington-area gay bar. He had been in D.C. on business, he said at the time, to share his testimony of changing from gay to straight. Although he initially claimed to have been unaware he was in a gay bar, Paulk — an ex-homosexual, erstwhile prostitute, and onetime drag queen — later confessed he'd meant to go there. After leaving Exodus, he and his wife, Anne — a self-described former lesbain — moved to Oregon.

"We are not denying that people do go back," says Thomas, "but John Paulk is not gay today. I'm not gay. [Exodus president] Alan Chambers is not gay. There are as many people who have not gone back, but the secular media usually wants to point out the people who did."

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