When Stephen was 16, he told his mother he was gay.
The year was 1998, and America was hovering on the verge of a new gay ascendancy. Comedian Ellen DeGeneres had just declared herself a lesbian, both on her television sit-com and in real life. The murder of Wyoming college student Matthew Shepard sparked candlelight vigils and pro-gay proclamations by public figures such as Sen. Ted Kennedy. The ensuing windfall of "hate crimes" legislation helped gay activists continue to reframe the homosexuality debate, from one about morality to one about civil rights. In 1999, California legalized same-sex domestic partnerships; the following year, Vermont sanctioned gay civil unions; and state after state made "sexual orientation" a protected class.
"It was so easy in the culture to say, 'I like men. That's my preference,'" said Stephen, now 26 and working in Nashville's finance industry. The culture also made it easy for him to fall into an abyss of failed live-in relationships and anonymous sexual encounters. By 2006, he felt buried alive.
"I felt trapped by the gay-rights movement," he said. "I wasn't a part of it, but all my friends were."
Paradoxically, though, it was the gay-rights movement that paved Stephen's way to healing: "Because it's easier to come out of the closet, it's also easier to find people who have found freedom" from homosexuality. "You now have people who have lived in the gay lifestyle and who have been hurt by it and are talking about it."
Call it "ex-gay" liberation: While the American Psychological Association and establishment gay-rights groups still deny that people can change from gay to straight, several faith-based and secular programs for struggling homosexuals are reporting the same phenomenon-that by normalizing homosexuality in the culture, gay activists have de-stigmatized their lifestyle, and in so doing, have freed those fighting same-sex attraction to seek help without shame.
"The fact that gay activists have brought homosexuality out of the closet has allowed us to open the closet door wide so that people who have suffered in silence can find healing options and alternatives," said Arthur Goldberg, director of JONAH, an international Jewish nonprofit based in New Jersey.
Tustin, Calif., counselor Joe Dallas agrees. In his own biblical counseling practice, he has noticed that teenagers are more likely to be honest with their parents about their sexuality, whether they are struggling with it or embracing it. "There is more willingness to talk openly about it, and that's a good thing."
Exodus International, a Christian outreach to gays and lesbians seeking change, has seen a dramatic shift in the types of people interested in talking. More than half those attending the group's 2007 annual conference in Los Angeles were first-time conference goers, a dramatic change from years past when the majority were repeat attendees. Rising interest prompted the group to launch its first-ever regional conference, held in Nashville last fall. As with the L.A. conference, the majority (60 percent) of participants were first-time attendees.
Exodus has also seen growth in its fledgling church network, an interdenominational coalition of congregations that provide local support to those seeking freedom from homosexuality. Since its formation in 2006, the Exodus Church Network has grown to more than 70 congregations.
Stephen, the Nashville finance professional who walked away from homosexuality, said the growing number of churches providing a safe place to fight unwanted same-sex attraction shows that "churches are now realizing that the way they've handled this issue in the past is not the God-intended way to deal with any sort of bondage or sin. You don't berate people or shame them. Neither do you accept the sinful behavior. Instead, you lovingly show them the freedom from the bondage they've been in."
Don Timone is a New York-based Catholic priest who has served for 25 years as a spiritual director for Courage, a support group for Catholics who want to disconnect from homosexuality. Timone said he's noticed an increase in the number of parents attending Courage's summer conferences in search of help in dealing with a son or daughter who has come out. In years past, many Catholic families rejected their homosexual sons and daughters, guarded the sin as a dirty family secret, or both, he said. "Cultural changes have helped parents deal with their sons and daughters in a more compassionate way."
Timone said he is also seeing more Catholic bishops actively seeking to launch support groups in their dioceses, another trend he pegs to the cultural visibility of homosexuality. "With massive media coverage, the church is now saying, 'These are good people who have been wounded in some way. Let's see what we can do to help them.'"
The trend toward outreach is also present among Orthodox Jews, Goldberg reports. But he notes that there is a significant downside to all this: JONAH does see "a subset of people who have never really acted out with a person of the same sex, may or may not fantasize about it, or may have had one experimental activity," Goldberg said. "Yet these people have begun obsessing about the idea that they must be gay because society is telling them they must be gay."
In decades past, men and women routinely brushed off fleeting thoughts of homosexual behavior. Now, though, gay activists have succeeded in planting a seed that says people not only can but should follow such thoughts with exploration and action.
Encino, Calif., clinic psychologist Joseph Nicolosi said that trend has changed the demographics in his practice. In 1991, his average client was in his or her mid- to late twenties. Now about a third are teenagers. Public-school gay outreaches such as the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network and "gay-straight alliances" have resulted in more kids claiming a gay identity at younger ages. "So that bad news is they're coming out of the closet earlier," said Nicolosi, who is president of the National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality. "The good news is when they announce it to their parents, their parents are getting them into therapy quicker."
In decades past, more kids waited until their college years to announce their homosexuality. By then, it was too late for parental intervention. Now though, like Timone, Nicolosi has noticed more parents intervening earlier and with positive results: "The adolescent is more inclined to renounce his gay 'identity' when he learns that it's not biological or inevitable, but the result of childhood trauma," Nicolosi said, adding that the countermanding influence of concerned parents is a factor gay activists typically overlook when promoting homosexuality to youth.
The new openness is helping not only those looking to leave homosexuality, but also Christians who are battling homosexual urges but have never acted on them. Brad, a recent college graduate living in Manitou Springs, Colo., grew up in the church and has actively fought same-sex attraction for eight years. "All I ever heard was testimonies from people who went deeply into the gay lifestyle," he said.
That didn't describe him and so, for years, he kept his battle private. But the effect was like that of a tight lid on a boiling pot. "It becomes this dichotomy where you feel you either have to live out the lifestyle or repress it in silence," he said.
But through books he ordered from Exodus, as well as openness among his Christian family and friends, he has learned that it's OK to struggle-and OK not to elevate feelings above the Word of God. Instead, there's a third option, Brad said: "You can work through temptation just like every Christian has done through the ages with every kind of sin."