Scared Straight

From his seat in the rear of a sparsely furnished room on the second floor of Miami Shores Baptist Church, the immaculately groomed Joe Alicea — a self-described former homosexual — leans back, kicks up a shiny black shoe, and crosses one starched navy pinstripe pant leg neatly over the other.

Bowing his clean-shaven head, he flutters his dark eyelashes and nods reassuringly toward the effeminate, lanky Miami Beach man seated across from him.

"Exactly!" Alicea beams, palms open, arms outstretched toward the heavens. "You are not homosexual."

Lowering his hands, he purses his lips, raises a tweezed eyebrow, and pensively taps a manicured finger on his cheek.

"You're not homosexual," Alicea repeats, in the same stupefied tone an astronomer might use if someone suggested the Earth were flat. "You are just s-e-n-s-i-t-i-v-e."

Six men and three women, perched on folding plastic chairs encircling him, are completely still. They all "struggle" with same-sex attraction: the cave-eyed, overly thin female student; the married Hispanic man with three kids; the clean-cut Midwestern boy in an orange baseball cap; the bubbly young Latino; and the stocky, guilt-ridden Sarah.

Eyes closed, chin nestling on her white cotton shirt, 24-year-old Sarah (New Times has changed her name to protect her privacy) nods her head in agreement: "Yes, yes," she mutters — more for her own benefit than to be heard. "Amen." Balling her thick hands into tight fists and digging them into her black slacks, the five-foot nine-inch Sarah raises her face and gives her fellow struggler a sympathetic glance. She knows firsthand the arduous journey from gay to straight. The confusion. The frustration. The denial. The rage. The regret. The self-hatred.

At age 10 Sarah lusted after the players on her school's girls' softball team. At 17 she had her first sexual encounter, with a female. At 21 she met the love of her life — a woman. But for God to love her, Alicea teaches and Sarah believes, she must live righteously. And that means becoming "clean," stopping the scythe of shame slicing and scarring her life. She must wipe the stain of homosexuality from her soul.

Five years ago Sarah, who lives in North Miami Beach, entered the welcoming arms of Fort Lauderdale-based Worthy Creations, an interdenominational organization that shepherds gay men and women toward heterosexuality.

Since its inception in 1986, Worthy Creations has been an active member of what has been dubbed the ex-gay movement.

Champions of the nationwide campaign consider homosexuality a moral or mental condition that can — and should — be treated. They say same-sex attraction is caused by early-childhood sexual abuse, or trauma brought on by lack of same-sex parental affection that causes homosexuals to seek attention from members of their own sex.

Supporters of the movement fiercely reject the idea that people are born gay, arguing that homosexuality is a learned behavior. Above all, they regard it as an abominable sin.

The crusade to make gay people straight coalesced in the mid-Seventies, but it has picked up steam in recent years. Today it includes a Catholic group financially supported by the Archdiocese of New York, Courage International, which counsels gays to be abstinent; Homosexuals Anonymous, a Pennsylvania-based Christian fellowship patterned after Alcoholics Anonymous, which charges that homosexuals lead "failed lives" and calls their sexuality a "character defect" that can be treated with a fourteen-step program; and the nation's mother ship of the ex-gay movement, Exodus International.

From its Orlando headquarters, Exodus acts as a spiritual umbrella for an estimated 150 predominantly evangelical ministries across the country. Worthy Creations is Exodus's South Florida affiliate.

"We receive about 400,000 e-mails, phone calls, and letters each year at our office," says Randy Thomas, executive vice president of Exodus International and self-described former homosexual. "I did an informal survey in 2003, and my guess was there were about 11,000 per week attending our network. Since we've been around for 31 years, we are dealing with hundreds of thousands of people who have come through one of our member ministries.

"About one-third has a life-changing experience and never goes back to a homosexual lifestyle," he adds confidently. By that measure, Exodus has made tens of thousands of gay people straight. (In a 2003 interview with a New England-based gay newspaper, Bay Windows, Thomas stated Exodus "reached out to 200 people per year." Exodus has no empirical data to confirm that assertion.)

Worthy Creations also claims to have helped over the past two decades an undetermined number of Miami-Dade and Broward County homosexuals mend what the group refers to as "sexual brokenness." (The organization's director, former lesbian Christine Sneeringer, declined an interview with New Times.)

"My sexual orientation shift isn't alleged. I assure you it's real," says Thomas, who "left" the gay lifestyle in 1992. "I have dated women over the years and I've had two very serious relationships.... I won't have sex with a woman until I'm married, though, because of my Biblical sexual ethic."

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Joanne Green