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Alex Fine

Focus on the Family's "Love Won Out" Conference is in Seattle this weekend. This traveling road show claims to help gays go straight through a combination of prayer and therapy. Yet there is a startling lack of "healed" homosexuals at these events.

Instead of "cured" patients, one meets crushed parents desperately latching on to every promise offered by the "experts" at Love Won Out. The parents are also quick to flash their credit cards to buy a plethora of books, videos, and audiotapes hoping to get "insight" on how their straight sons and daughters picked up a homosexual habit.

Ambling through the corridors, you will spot a handful of distraught young fundamentalists who believe God has forsaken them because they can't pray away the gay. Visibly depressed, they repeat the empty mantra that they are on a "journey" or in the process of "healing." There will also be a few teenagers with knowing smirks on their faces. They have accepted that they are gay and have moved on with their lives. However, their devastated parents threaten to stop providing college tuition or car payments unless the child attends the mystical seminar with the magical Christian cures.

The final group is the real target audience: the media. Love Won Out is, if nothing else, a slick public-relations campaign with the simple message that sexual orientation is not immutable. It is a tightly packaged production worthy of Broadway, where scripts are read and tears are shed. By the end of the weekend, with the help of reporters at daily papers and television stations, Seattle will be saturated with anti-gay talking points. It is a remarkably successful operation designed to make Americans believe homosexuality is a casual choice, like what to eat for breakfast.

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Love Won Out is not about changing gay people—which isn't possible—but about changing public opinion. On the biggest gay issue today, same-sex marriage, fundamentalists have the upper hand, with more than half of Americans opposing the freedom to marry.

However, there is one weak link in the Focus on the Family's anti-gay argument: Poll after poll show that when people believe that homosexuality is inborn, a dramatic and undeniable shift toward full acceptance occurs. A November 2004 Lake, Snell, Perry, and Associates survey showed that 79 percent of people who think homosexuality is inborn support civil unions or marriage equality. Among those who believe sexual orientation is a choice, only 22 percent support civil unions or marriage rights.

Why does this so worry the religious right? Because for the first time in Gallup's history, a June 4, 2001 poll showed that a majority of Americans, 56 percent, believed homosexuality is something that "a person was born with." When Gallup first asked this question in 1977, only 13 percent of Americans thought a gay person was born gay. Focus on the Family knows that the only way to defeat the gay rights movement is to turn these numbers around by tricking as many Americans as possible into believing homosexuality is a choice. To this end, Focus on the Family is not just in race against public opinion, but a race against science as well.

A study released in May by Swedish scientists showed that the portion of the brain that helps regulate sexuality—the hypothalamus—reacted the exact same way in straight women and gay men when exposed to male pheromones, which are chemicals designed to provoke a behavior, such as sexual arousal. While this study shed some new light (and garnered many headlines), evidence showing that homosexuality is biological is light years ahead of where most people think it is. Scientists who have studied the issue are certain that the ancient puzzle of sexual orientation will be solved sooner than later. "It's not a matter of whether [we'll find homosexuality's basic mechanisms], it's a matter of when," researcher Dennis McFadden told the Los Angeles Times in May of 2001.

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Biology isn't on the side of Love Won Out, and the effort gets even less support from the disciplines of medicine and mental health. The American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association, and the American Academy of Pediatrics all condemn conversion therapy and say it can often be dangerous.

With little support from respected practitioners, the conversion-therapy industry has to rely on undistinguished therapists who hold virtually no standing in their profession. One such psychologist is Dr. Joseph Nicolosi, who will speak at the Seattle conference. Nicolosi has some very bizarre ideas that might even give pause to some fundamentalists. For example, Nicolosi believes that straight men can begin to have gay fantasies if they suffer defeat or failure.

The most tragic part of Love Won Out is that it uses disproved, outdated science to blame parents for turning their children gay. Nicolosi claims that a distant father is responsible for creating a gay son. There is absolutely no evidence to back up this theory. Sure, some fathers may create distance when their sons express more interest in ice skating than ice hockey. But it ignores the incontrovertible fact that countless gay children are close to both parents, while many heterosexuals have estranged paternal relationships.

At Love Won Out, one will also hear that homosexuality is learned, but no evidence of this is offered. However, if this were true, why do so many gay children come from fundamentalist homes where homosexuality is strongly discouraged? I doubt that Alan Keyes taught his daughter Maya how be a lesbian. Did the Eagle Forum's Phyllis Schlafly enroll her son John in a gay university? I doubt that Dick Cheney schooled his daughter Mary in the fine art of lesbianism. How does Focus on the Family explain this phenomenon?

And how does Focus on the Family explain the fact that so many of its media-friendly ex-gay spokespeople have returned to gay life?

Gary Cooper and Michael Bussee, the founders of Exodus International, a worldwide umbrella group of ex-gay ministries, left their wives in the late '70s for each other. The founder of Homosexuals Anonymous, Colin Cook, resigned after admitting he gave nude massages and engaged in phone sex with the people he was supposed to be "healing." In 1998, an HIV-positive ex-gay man, Michael Johnston, was held up as "living proof" that change is possible. In 2002, the "cured" Johnston suffered what the American Family Association called a "moral fall." The Seattle-bound Love Won Out conference was created for Focus on the Family by former drag queen John Paulk, who has appeared on Oprah, 60 Minutes, and Good Morning America. John Paulk "fell" when I photographed him cruising in a gay bar in Washington, D.C.

The producers of Love Won Out do not offer up compassion, sound science, or rational explanations. The goal of the conference is to perpetuate stereotypes and malign a minority, and mainstream newspapers and television news programs that allow themselves to be used to disseminate anti-gay propaganda are complicit. Love Won Out is a dangerous anti-gay experiment that is shattering lives and breaking spirits. That's the story that needs to be reported. ■

Wayne Besen is the author of Anything but Straight: Unmasking the Scandals and Lies Behind the Ex-Gay Myth. He can be reached at www.WayneBesen.com.