Scared Straight

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

The Southern Baptist Convention in 2000 gave HIV-positive ex-gay Michael Johnston its Hero of the Faith Award, two years after he admitted, in a speech to a California church congregation, to having unprotected sex, according to POZ magazine. In 2002 Southern Voice reported that Johnston had scoured gay online chat rooms, used drugs, and had sex with multiple male partners without disclosing his HIV status. He later joined a residential program in Kentucky, PureLife Ministries, and is now its director of donors — and straight.

This past November, another prominent evangelical and vociferous anti-gay crusader, the National Association of Evangelicals' former leader Ted Haggard, resigned after allegations surfaced that he had engaged in gay sex with a prostitute and was addicted to crystal meth. After three weeks of reparative therapy, Haggard had changed and was "completely heterosexual," the church declared.

A slender, tan young girl in hot pink shorts jogs past Sarah. She pretends not to notice, but the slight tilt of her chin belies her stab at deception. Seconds later she stomps up a ramp that leads to a makeshift construction office near the project she presides over in North Miami Beach.

Tatiana Suarez

Sarah is an engineer. Dressed in dark jeans and a blue V-neck T-shirt, she is getting ready to leave work and lock up for the night. Her listless strawberry hair, carelessly parted in the middle, hangs limply around her shoulders.

"I'm not too big on dresses, either," she jokes, her thick shoulders moving up and down stiffly. "Thinking about it, I never have been." She got this gig almost two years ago, after graduating with a bachelor's degree from an Ivy League school. She is earning a healthy living and stashing some money away for the future — for the family she hopes to have one of these tomorrows. Today, though, she is still puzzling over her lust for women.

"I remember feeling attractions to women very early — 10 years old — and not knowing what it was. I just knew it was there, but I didn't spend too much time thinking about it because I knew it wasn't normal."

As a youngster, Sarah preferred hanging out with the girls on her school softball team instead of going to the Episcopalian church her family attended in Pembroke Pines.

"It wasn't one in particular I was attracted to. It was all of them," she says, laughing. "I liked the fact that they were thin. They had these amazing athletic bodies...."

In 1999 Sarah's sister Chrissie returned from military service in Guam. "She's older than me by 10 years, and she would always be the one drinking, taking drugs, having sex, sneaking out at night," Sarah recalls. "I was the quiet one; she was the fun one. When she came home that year, she said, 'Let's find a Bible study!' I was floored."

Big sis took Sarah to Calvary Chapel in Fort Lauderdale. "I began to realize that someone [God] really loved me. Things just began to make sense," says Sarah. "How do you describe the role your best friend plays in your life?"

She went to college in upstate New York and fell out of favor with God when she fell in love with a woman. "We met at an ice-cream social or something. We were both 17, in our freshman year. She was attractive, into sports and running like me. We got to know each other, and for the whole year we were hanging out 24/7. We would sleep together in the same bed; I would be all wrapped around her. We would stay like that all night. We never actually had sex, though. I tried, but she said she wasn't gay."

Sarah kept her feelings secret and pretended to like boys, even going on a few dates. But inside she was growing increasingly frustrated. Shortly after parting ways with the young woman she considered to be her girlfriend, one summer afternoon in 2001, she snapped.

"I started screaming at God because I felt completely and utterly alone and abandoned," she says. "I couldn't understand why if being gay was wrong, why He had made me this way. I felt like I'd been given a raw deal and I wasn't equipped to handle it."

Sarah recalls a time of confusion and loneliness: "The idea is to make God love us, and you go to whatever lengths you can to please him. So I finally told Him: 'You have got to help me.'"

God pointed her to Worthy Creations, Sarah says, and He has stuck by her ever since. "I now know I'm not a complete oddball," she says with a chuckle, explaining her gratitude for the program. "Obviously God didn't create me this way. I now realize that it's because I didn't get the love that I needed from my mom. That's all."

The ex-gay movement bolsters Sarah's conviction — one she did not hold when she lived a gay life — that homosexuality is not indelible. As she wanders back to the construction site on a blustery afternoon, a raven-haired girl passes by on Rollerblades and smiles. Sarah smiles back.

"It's not bad to admire attractive women, because being homosexual is like being an alcoholic," she says, reciting almost verbatim what Joe Alicea said in a recent group session. "Even when you're not drinking, you still have the desire to drink. But an alcoholic limits that desire to drink. I also limit my desires based on what, and who, I associate with.

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