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"I can convert, sure. But it's not a quick fix, even if you believe in it with all your heart. And I do."
Scandal already scars Worthy Creations' history.
"I'm living proof the ex-gay movement does not work," booms Jerry Stephenson, a 50-year-old self-described ex-ex-gay who attended Worthy Creations for three and a half years in a bid to become straight.
"They tell me this is a choice I made?" he spits during a recent interview at his Fort Lauderdale home. "I didn't wake up one morning and say, 'I know, I think I'll lose my job, my career, my friends, everything I know, and I'll be gay!'"
Stephenson was a Baptist minister for 15 years and taught at Miami Christian College for three. "They make you feel miserable, dirty, so you'll do anything, a-n-y-t-h-i-n-g, to change. To be accepted. To be 'normal.' The denial is amazing."
In 1986 he sought Christian counseling for his homosexual desires. When the dean of the college learned he was in Worthy Creations, Stephenson says, he was fired. "I may be the only person to be fired for being ex-gay," he jokes. After his 1990 dismissal, Stephenson became associate pastor of the First Baptist Church in Key West, where he counseled others on how to overcome homosexuality.
"I would tell them: 'I no longer struggle. Jesus healed me,'" recalls Stephenson. "But inside nothing had changed. You can take an orange and paint it blue and put a hula skirt on it, but it's still an orange." He even got engaged. "Sex before marriage was forbidden," he says, "but the second I said I was having second thoughts about my sexuality, they ordered me to sleep with my fiancée. They were that desperate to make me straight.
"The second those pants came down, I knew for certain I was gay," he squeals, shuddering at the memory.
Stephenson said he went through a period of severe depression before he finally reconciled his sexual orientation and his Christian faith. "I went from teaching at a college to working at a 7-Eleven pushing a broom."
He came out in a 1992 Sun-Sentinel article. Stephenson, who has a master's degree in Biblical studies from Miami Christian College and a doctorate in pastoral psychology from Atlantic Institute Bible College and Seminar in Panama City, now runs his own practice counseling homosexuals, called the Sanctuary. He is also an outspoken critic of ex-gay ministries.
"These Exodus spokespeople don't tell the truth," he says. "They get married yet they lead these double lives, having sex with men on the side. How many more do we have to bring out of the closet for them to start telling the truth — that it doesn't work. You cannot change. If God didn't make you gay, why are you still struggling?"
Indeed, since the APA's landmark decision in 1973 to remove homosexuality from its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the nation's mental health community has overwhelmingly rejected the notion it is possible to permanently alter someone's sexuality.
"There is a lot of junk science out there," says Doug Haldeman, a clinical psychologist who since 1983 has counseled ex-gays at his Seattle practice. "But there is no credible scientific research that people can — or should — change their sexual orientation."
Haldeman, a member of the American Psychological Association's Board of Directors, says he has witnessed firsthand "the wreckage" of the ex-gay ministries. "When it doesn't work, the shame and stigma are doubly painful," he says. "People become depressed and self-loathing. It spikes suicidal feelings and propensity toward alcoholism and drug abuse."
In 2002, Dr. Ariel Shidlo and Dr. Michael Schroeder published the results of a peer-reviewed study in which they gave reparative therapy to 202 participants over the course of several years. Eighty-eight percent failed to achieve a sustained change in their sexual behavior. Three percent reported becoming heterosexual. Of the eight respondents who reported a change in sexual orientation, seven were employed in paid or unpaid roles as ex-gay counselors or group leaders.
After two hours of worship, Bible study, and confession, Joe Alicea brings the Worthy Creations meeting in Miami Shores to a close with a prayer.
Palms are joined, fingers interlaced, eyes shut, heads bowed. Cheeks are stained with tears; emotionally drained bodies slump lifelessly over knees.
Alicea gives thanks, asks the Lord to bestow courage, and calls on Him to bring grace and truth to a world riddled with homosexuality. After a resounding "Amen," chairs scrape along the wooden floor and the members slowly clamber to their feet.
"Don't forget," he adds, "it's not too late to register for the Exodus Freedom Conference." For the past 32 years, Exodus has united approximately 1000 people at a week-long annual conference. Its purpose: to disseminate ex-gays' inspirational tales of conversion as well as religious leaders' (such as the late Jerry Falwell, who appeared in 2005 and 2006) insight into homosexuality. This year's event would be held in Irvine, California, in June. And, according to Alicea, it would be life-changing: "The testimonies alone are worth the $400."
Nodding her head, Sarah turns to the student standing beside her. "I went to one once and it was amazing," she tells the girl. "Really powerful." In May 2004 Sarah attended what she describes as a Worthy Creations church conference in Key West.