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Good from bad

Homosexuality | The cultural mainstreaming of homosexuality is liberating those seeking to escape it

Issue: "The other campaign," Feb. 9, 2008

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.

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"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.'"

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