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In Plain Sight: Pray the Gay Away

Saturday, November 29, 2014


Photo Credit: iStock

This summer the nation’s largest Pray the Gay Away convention provided one of my biggest challenges to elevating curiosity ahead of criticism. The event took place in our own, sweet backyard—Happy Valley to be exact.

That recent experience came flooding back to me this week as I heard the announcement of the marriage of John Smid to his lovely partner, Larry McQueen. From 1990 to 2008, John was the head of Love in Action, the nation’s largest the Pray the Gay Away organization. For 18 years he was known throughout the country for some of the most intense sermons against homosexuality.

After John’s sermons failed to be self-inspiring, Restored Hope Network spun off from Love in Action to create a new twist on the pray the gay away movement. Restored Hope Network is the group that sponsors the largest reparative/gay conversion/deal with homosexuality/pray the gay away event in the country, and when I was asked to attend, I was torn. Then I thought,

“What do I know about this event that doesn’t come from assumption?”

Whereas I studied a bit about the controversial topic of reparative/conversion therapy for homosexuality, I knew that my book knowledge was no substitute for experiencing the event first hand, and so I went.

Ten Things You May Not Know About Pray the Gay Away Conventions:

1. As gospel music filled the sanctuary and I looked for elation in the faces of the men and women with their arms outstretched toward the ceiling, all I saw was desperation. There was a lot of talk about the affliction of same-sex attraction, and it was hard to shake my irritation. I don’t perceive same-sex attraction to be an affliction. But then I thought about it from the perspective of the men and women who do not want to be attracted to the same sex, but are. To them perhaps it is an affliction in a similar way that being born with female chromosomes makes being born a female an affliction to those that know that they are, in more ways than not, male.

2. I was curious why these afflicted folks chose this particular type of Christianity when there are many varieties that do not consider homosexuality an affliction, but I couldn’t sneak an opportunity to poll the pews. Perhaps their true affliction was a choice---a conflicting choice of incompatible religion with an undeniable orientation.

3. Listening to the testimonials made it apparent that this conversion therapy was not only being sold as a cure for homosexuality, but also as a way to live around it. I wondered why it seemed like the women leaders were more convinced that the gay could be prayed away than the men. Many of the men seemed publicly desperate to eradicate unwanted attractions, but privately resigned to live with them.

4. Most of the speakers I heard did not experience a change of sexual orientation, but found hope for help about what to do about it. They talked about their accountability partners whom they go to when same-sex urges flare up. Perhaps that’s how John and Larry met. Many have agreements about what to share and what not to share about their same-sex desires with their different-sex partners.

5. Tables of books and DVDs made it clear that this is an industry--a potentially big one. Each of the speakers I heard had created their own ministry or counseling business out of their previous role as a sinner. Some sounded smart and were excellent speakers. I got the impression that the anti-transgender business might be their next gold rush, but I had to walk out of the transgender breakout session because the “authority” was a dolt, and I didn’t know how much longer I could resist the urge to pinch her hard.

6. Much of the talk about what to change to be accepted in the eye of God and about what Jesus loves and does not love, got a bit confusing. For all of the success stories shared, I know that conversion therapy often fails. I couldn’t help but wonder what convinces some to change their belief from the need to change to be accepted in the eye of God, to a belief that God loves them the way they are. I also wondered if that eye of God is a literal eye as in “eye for an eye” or if it’s more of a metaphorical eye in the sky.

7. This particular program follows the literal word of God. I was curious how people know their bible is the literal word of God, and yet they can neither read nor understand a lick of the language in which the original word was supposedly written. My curiosity grew into skepticism when I saw followers look for answers from ex-sinner preachers who I suspiciously doubt had successfully finished any of the Rosetta Stone DVDs in Aramaic, Hebrew and Koine Greek.

8. The threat of God’s disapproval was made glaringly clear, but the Restored Hope folk didn’t seem guilty of going out and actively recruiting people. My eavesdropping did suggest that some of the parents of young adult “sufferers” did a little more strong-arming. The organization does advertise and proselytize that change is possible because they have participants who claim to be converted ex-gay survivors…and plenty who have given up the fight. The organization does recognize that there are folks who fail to change, but they clearly don’t think that their organization offers false hope.

9. Opponents of gay-conversion therapy claim that the self-hating it fuels can lead to suicide. Proponents claim these programs save lives. I overheard one man tell a former lesbian that God told him that God would only cure one of his two afflictions, homosexuality or drug use. He was there to ask for help with the former. He was a ripe candidate because the organizers claimed to only want to help people who want to be helped. For consenting adults, that sounded innocuous enough.

10. And yet, it may not be as innocuous as it initially seemed because every major national health group, as well as the World Health Organization, say it’s not. They all condemn this type of therapy. Two states, New Jersey and California, have banned reparative/gay-conversion therapy for minors. Currently there’s a nationwide campaign to ban it entirely.

If I were to tell you an 11th thing, I would suggest that this reparative movement shares roots with missionary colonialists in Africa. These missionaries didn’t introduce homosexuality to the African continent but, cloaked in the salve of salvation, they did introduce homophobia. Recently, globalization has been the lubricant. According to Amnesty International, same-sex relationships are illegal in 36 of Africa’s 54 sovereign states and countries and punishable by death in increasingly more. 

From what I learned at the Restored Hope Network convention it’s unclear what other options there are for Christians who want to be honest about their unchanging attractions but remain convinced that homosexuality is a sin. People should certainly have the right to hate themselves, but these types of gay-conversion programs are not innocuous. That doesn’t, however, make it clear that these potential harmful programs should be illegal for miserable, consenting adults.

A graduate degree in behavioral science, three generations of Portland blood in her veins, 20 years as a real-estate broker, and a lifetime of delving into other people’s business has caused Becki Saltzman’s severe curiosity disorder. She is the founder of the Living Curiously Lifestyle, author of Arousing the Buy Curious: Real Estate Pillow Talk for Patrons and Professionals, and she looks forward to expanding membership in the Tribe of the Curious.


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