Dallas area gay rights activist Rick Vanderslice (left) and an anti-gay protester face off during a November protest in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo credit: John Wright, Dallas Voice)

Monday, June 21, 2010 | As religious activists prepare a conference this week in Irvine aimed at praying away homosexuality, gay rights activists are confronting the gathering on several fronts, saying its message doesn’t lead to understanding and instead fuels hate.

Unlike past decades, gay rights activists say they increasingly are fighting back against misperceptions that fly in the face of science and the U.S. Constitution.

It’s an extension of the gay civil rights movement, they said, which is confronting religious teachings that tend to marginalize members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

Exodus International, the organization putting on the conference this week at Concordia University, promotes “freedom from homosexuality through the power of Jesus Christ,” according to its website.

Jeff Buchanan, director of the Exodus Church Association, says the annual conferences are to “promote a biblical worldview” and to offer an alternative for gays and lesbians struggling with their identities.

Over the weekend, gay rights activists held a counter-conference in Irvine, broadcasting a different message — you can’t pray away the gay.

In the biblical sense, “exodus” means a journey of escape by a large group from oppression or a hostile environment — as in the story of the Israelites’ Exodus from slavery in Egypt.

But critics — including an Exodus co-founder — say Exodus International’s ideology leads to the hostile environment that gay rights activists have been trying for decades to unweave from the social fabric. They also say attempts to treat homosexuals as having a disease is dangerous and could lead to self-harm or suicide.

“It morphed into something very different than what we intended,” said Exodus co-founder Michael Bussee. “I think something very dangerous.”

Bussee left Exodus in 1979 — three years after he started the organization — when he became disillusioned with the idea that anybody, much less himself, could become “ex-gay.”

Bussee also has personal experience with the consequences of promoting ideas that give way to a social stigma against gays and lesbians. While Bussee was in his hometown in Riverside in 2002, he and a gay friend, Jeffrey Owens, were attacked and stabbed by men shouting “faggot” at him. Bussee was beaten and stabbed in the back, but he survived.

Owens died on the operating table.

“I think the guys that attacked me and killed my friend were taught that gays are going to hell and need to repent,” Bussee said.

Although “it’s not cool to be homophobic anymore,” as Bussee put it, hatred against gays and lesbians lingers in the U.S. — one Bussee says that shouldn’t be encouraged.

“When you repeat the message that gays are sinful, diseased and broken,” Bussee said, “when you keep repeating that message to people who already feel marginalized … it fuels violence against them.”

There were 11 hate crimes against gays and lesbians reported in Orange County in 2008, according to an Orange County Human Relations Commission hate crime report.

Karen Ocamb, in a piece for the Huffington Post, noticed a stark uptick in Los Angeles and Santa Clara counties in the number of hate crimes against gays and lesbians in 2008, which was the year Proposition 8 was on the ballot.

Proponents of Proposition 8 argued, among other things, that traditional marriage is threatened by gay marriage and that sex education in schools would be perverted with descriptions of homosexual acts.

With that kind of opinion prevalent on the airwaves, hate crimes against gays and lesbians in Los Angeles County rose by 33 incidents, according to the county’s Commission on Human Relations.

And in Santa Clara County, half of the violent crimes reported in 2008 were hate crimes against gays and lesbians — up from 15 percent the year before.

Gay rights activists say they’re winning the battle against homophobia in the U.S., but groups like Exodus International undermine that struggle. They say Exodus doesn’t understand the social harm its approach unleashes.

A history of anti-gay sentiment in Orange County offers one example. A 1978 California ballot initiative that would have banned gays and lesbians from working in public schools was proposed by John Briggs, who was a Republican state senator from Orange County.

A majority of statewide voters rejected it.

One worst-case scenario has recently manifested in Uganda, an African nation that not only criminalizes homosexual acts, but might also see a law passed that would impose the death penalty on people convicted of them.

The month before the introduction of the bill in early 2009, speakers at a workshop in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, made sweeping accusations against gays, saying that gay men had tendencies to molest children and that there was a gay agenda to destroy the marriage-based society.

That workshop featured, among other American evangelicals, Exodus board member Don Schmierer.

Exodus President Alan Chambers has since released a public apology for Schmierer’s involvement with the conference:

Criticism is easy to come by at Exodus. We are a large and diverse organization made up of many members. Our growth over the years has caused us to not always know what the hand or foot are doing, which sometimes causes us to look like we are “all butt.” That’s humanity for you, even Christian humanity.

Mainstream psychology shuns treatment of homosexuality as an illness, and the American Psychological Association says guideline No. 1 when giving psychotherapy to gays and lesbians is that “psychologists understand that homosexuality and bisexuality are not indicative of mental illness.”

Psychology professor Daniel Helminiak, who spoke at the counter-conference, says that engaging in behavior control to suppress homosexual feelings is psychologically damaging.

“Sexuality is a central part of what a person is,” Helminiak said. “Unless somebody makes peace with it — all other personal growth dead ends.”

And Chris Prevatt, an activist who has been involved with gay rights and HIV awareness causes since the mid-1980s, says the Exodus ideology gives gays and lesbians a hopeless view of life.

“They give these people they supposedly want to help two choices — change or be damned,” Prevatt said.

But Buchanan says there are no adverse psychological effects as a result of Exodus’ message or its methods. He says suppressing homosexual feelings is “no different than anyone that is trying to live up to biblical standards” and that the idea that sexual identity defines a person with that kind of totality is overblown.

“I am more than just my sexual identity, and I don’t see this as a strictly sexual identity issue,” Buchanan said.

Critics say that because the approach doesn’t work, leaders of groups like Exodus often turn out to be hypocrites.

Wayne Besen, a gay rights activist, caught John Paulk — former chairman of the board of Exodus International in North America — at a gay bar flirting with men. Besen snapped a photo of Paulk at the bar, and Exodus ended up firing Paulk.

Then there’s George Rekers — who sat on the board of the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality. Rekers was caught at an airport with a male prostitute he allegedly found on a male escort website.

Rekers’ excuse? He hired the man to help him with his luggage.

“George Rekers was an industrial-sized nail in their coffin,” Besen said.

Buchanan dismissed the actions of Rekers and Paulk, saying they were irrelevant to the cause.

“It does not discredit the experience of hundreds of thousands of men and women regarding our message,” Buchanan said.

Not all Christian denominations view gays through the Exodus International lens. Episcopalians, for example, have elected two openly gay bishops in the past seven years,

Bussee is a Christian, and so is Helminiak.

Reverend Paul Tellstrom of the Irvine United Congregational Church, which hosted the counter-conference, said Exodus’ conference mirrors prejudices still ingrained in American culture and has nothing to do with Scripture.

Tellstrom said his church has come a long way since its members hanged women during the Salem Witch Trials. He said a Congregational church was the first to ordain an African-American, Lemuel Haynes, as minister in 1785, and the first to ordain a woman as minister, Antoinette Brown, in 1853.

Tellstrom points to his church’s progressive interpretation of the Bible as proof that churches can change their positions on issues over time.

“When you look in retrospect, I think we’ve been right on the main issues of justice,” Tellstrom said.

Please contact Adam Elmahrek directly at aelmahrek@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/adamelmahrek. And add your voice with a letter to the editor.

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