A Sunday school room in a sprawling Austin Episcopal church slowly fills with about 15 men and women, most of whom are wearing shorts or jeans. It's an informal support group gathering, not a church service, but the men and women begin with prayer and praise.
Nancy Brown, wearing a Harley T-shirt and black jeans, fills the room with praise music from a portable stereo. Her husband, Don, greets and hugs the participants as they arrive. Jaime is a regular, but he's not here tonight. He's in Houston at a Promise Keepers meeting with his father.
It's a mixed crowd here: a doctor, a newspaper reporter, a couple of students, and even a classic Austin slacker who works sporadically on movie productions. Don and Nancy founded the support group for ex-gays, LifeGuard Ministry, about six years ago. Though they now have five children, Don was once "in the lifestyle," a part of Austin's gay community.
After about half an hour of music, Don and Nancy split the group. The men move to another room for a brief Bible study and to talk about their week. The women do the same.
Juan, a physician, presents a dilemma to the group: He has seen a youth at church who seems to be struggling with same-sex attractions. Should he approach the youth, or the youth's parents, or a church staff member? Or should he just let it go?
To make it more complicated, Juan confesses he hasn't told anyone in his church about his own struggle. He suspects the boy needs timely guidance, but is that suspicion reason enough for Juan to "come out" as an ex-gay?
Ed, an older man, a heterosexual who is active in this group because his daughter is a lesbian, quietly asks Juan what the youth's next few years will be like, if he doesn't get some guidance.
"That's a good point," Juan says. "He's going to be miserable. I guess I know what I need to do."
Robert, a bearded graduate student, adds that Juan should talk to the boy's parents first. "They have a right to be involved in this. It's the other side that doesn't want parents involved in sexuality issues."
That leads to a broader discussion about "coming out" as an ex-gay. Is it appropriate? Is it necessary?
Don leads the group toward the conclusion that it is necessary, if only to provide a church-based accountability system for the men. "Yes, it can be hard," Don says. "But over time, you'll find yourself less and less sensitive about it. A few years ago, I couldn't talk to anyone about it, but now it's not a big deal."
He provides an illustration that says something larger about what it's like to live as an ex-gay. He used to be afraid of garages, he says. "I was afraid the mechanics would talk about 'that queer boy' so I would drive my cars until they rotted into the ground," Don says. "When I got my new car, though, I didn't want to do that. So when the transmission acted up, I took it to a garage, and I told the two mechanics about it."
He pauses and offers a wry smile. "They asked if I had checked the transmission fluid. I had to admit I didn't even know where the dipstick was. But they didn't treat me like a sissy; they just checked it, filled it, and told me to stop in on my way home every once in a while, and they'd check it for me again. A few days later, they even told a friend of mine that they had enjoyed talking to me."
Someone comments that it must be hard for Jaime; it hasn't been very long, the others agree, and his father's position makes Jaime's struggle that much more public.
"Yeah, but his family is great," says another. "I think he's going to make it."