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."


ex-gay movement

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."

Thomas purports the "hundreds of thousands" of homosexuals Exodus has treated found "freedom" through prayer-based counseling and reparative therapy, a controversial technique supported by the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), a 1000-member, California-based coalition of secular psychiatrists.

Cases of reparative therapy (also referred to as conversion therapy) documented by Mel Seesholtz, Ph.D., in the Online Journal, involve attaching electric sensors to the genitals and then administering a shock at any sign of arousal by same-sex images. Other cases cite exorcism, sedation, isolation, physical restraints, and hypnosis.

NARTH was founded in 1992 by Joseph Nicolosi (who also declined an interview with New Times). Its Website provides links to medical studies that show statistical data in support of reparative therapy. Among them is a paper presented by the American Psychological Association's Dr. Robert Spitzer at a 2001 APA convention. Spitzer claims 66 percent of men and 44 percent of women who received reparative therapy for his study achieved "good heterosexual functioning."

Yet many reparative therapy studies NARTH cites are filled with methodological ambiguities and questionable results, according to psychiatric experts outside the organization. Indeed Spitzer's was discredited. Immediately following his study's publication, the APA issued an official disavowal of the paper, noting it had not been peer-reviewed and bluntly stating, "There is no published scientific evidence supporting the efficacy of reparative therapy as a treatment to change one's sexual orientation."

"One of the reasons there isn't any data," says Thomas, "is because the APA has a lot of internal politics determined by gay activists within their own ranks. There are plenty of people in the APA who are willing to ignore my reality and use their own bias to stop studies that would actually prove that change is possible."

Dr. Gerald Schoenewolf, a member of NARTH's Science Advisory Committee, agrees. He recently published a report on NARTH's Website that states the APA, to which he belongs, "has been taken over by extremist gays." He also claims Africans were "better off" in slavery and that the civil rights, women's rights, and gay rights movements are "irrational" and "destructive."

On a recent Tuesday evening, as she has done almost every week for the past five years, Sarah joins Joe Alicea and the Worthy Creations crew in Miami Shores for a strugglers' support group.

With each meeting, Sarah says, she inches further along the road to change, loosening her ties to homosexuality and nudging her closer to breaking free from the shackles of sin.

In the half-decade since joining the ex-gay ministry, Sarah has not had any sexual contact with a man. She hasn't felt an urge to kiss one yet, either. In fact she hasn't even reached the point of wanting to go out on a date with a guy. But she is convinced she will someday.

"I'm not there yet, that's all. It's a process; it takes time," she says with a half-hearted smile. "Am I attracted to men? Of course," she adds. Asked what kind of physical traits she finds attractive in men, she repeats the question and then pauses. "It's more about who the person is inside."

Sarah is more effusive about her former attraction to women. "What kind of girls did I like? All types, you name it. They ran the gamut from curly hair, straight hair, blond hair, dark hair, olive-skinned, white, blue eyes, brown eyes," she bubbles. "I like athletic girls, ones who like sports. Thin, though, physically fit, in shape. And confidence — I loved girls who knew what they wanted and weren't afraid to show it.... Yeah, confident girls."

Tonight she must purge all thoughts of lithe, athletic, confident females. At the Worthy Creations meetings, the shy girl, who confesses she doesn't really have any good friends, must become an army of one, readying for battle before a crowd of peers. The enemy: her own tortured soul.

"The Lord can deliver us from our sexual brokenness," intones Alicea, who says he left the gay lifestyle half a decade ago and credits his sexual awakening to the healing powers of Jesus. In a testimony delivered at Calvary Chapel in South Beach this past December, Alicea stated he was once gay because "his cup was overflowing with feminine love" — his mother was too nurturing; his father was too stern; he legitimately sought out male company to make up for the attention his father failed to give him.

"It's not easy," scoffs Alicea, recrossing his legs and clasping his hands over a knee. "But we are not born into homosexuality and we do have a choice," he adds, shifting his attention to Sarah. "Would you like to go next?"

Sarah inhales, smiles awkwardly, and casts her eyes to the floor. Confession time.

"This has been a hard week for me," she mutters, "but I've realized some things. I became attracted to women because I didn't get the love I needed from my mom. I know that now." Clenching her fists, she digs them into her thighs and begins jiggling her right leg. "I craved female attention because I never got it from her...."

Clench, dig, jiggle.

"She was emotionally absent...."

Mom was reserved, dominating, and cold, Sarah says. Grandma was bipolar, and Sarah thinks Mom was abused: "She alluded to it, but she never gave me specifics." When Sarah was a baby, Mom divorced Sarah's biological father and then remarried. The little girl who always tried to please inherited five stepsiblings.

Clench, dig, jiggle.

And a sexually deviant male neighbor.

Clench, dig, jiggle.

"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 BeyondExGay.com, 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: FaithQuestRadio.com, "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."

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.

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.

"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.

"I know, Key West is such a hotbed for gay activism," she says, laughing.

But Sarah did experience a life-changing event. She fell in love with a 30-year-old olive-skinned Italian woman who lived locally.

"She was short, with dark curly hair," Sarah recalls, "and she was funny. She used to make me laugh." The two women dated for nearly 10 months; their relationship became sexual during the last few weeks. Sarah describes her former flame as "the love of her life."

"It was wonderful," she says with a grin, "but it came with a high price tag, because it wasn't God's design." Feeling bad because "the electrical sockets just didn't work," Sarah ended the relationship two years ago. She has been "clean" ever since.

She regrets the affair. "I ruined what could have been a really good friendship," Sarah laments. "There are some people that you know from the get-go you should stay away from because deep down you know you won't be able to say no."

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