Love Won Out came to Indianapolis, which is within borderline daytrip driving distance from me, and I’d never seen it before, so I decided to go.
I expected that it would make me really angry. While I had never been to a major conference before, I had occasionally gone to hear those sorts of speakers when they came to churches, Christian music festivals, etc., and nearly every time I burned with anger inside. (John Paulk made me the maddest–FYI, if you ever want to get me to see red, just talk about antigay bullying dismissively. I think the psych term here is “trigger.” ) Well, this conference was not just going to be one talk and one speaker, but a whole Family Values Extravaganza!
So I decided I had to sucker Mr. DM into coming with me. He’s a calm and gentle person, “very Zen” as my mom puts it, maybe not unflappable but very difficult to flap. And it’s contagious–he tends to have a calming and comforting effect on me as well when we’re together. With him by my side, no matter how bad it got, I would have a refuge, a little isle of sanity in the midst of it all. Without him, I suspected I would do something before the day was half over that would get me kicked out.
He complained when I first suggested it. “You can’t stand Focus on the Family! This is just going to make you ornery all weekend, and if the Patriots lose on Sunday on top of this, you’re going to be impossible to live with!” But I sweet-talked my little lips off, assuring him I would make it worth his while, and eventually he agreed to accompany me. (It’s not true, by the way, that I can’t stand Focus on the Family. I have come to acknowledge that they have done some pastorally valuable things for heterosexual couples and families. I just don’t appreciate what they’ve done in the culture war, and particularly what they’ve done on the subject of homosexuality.)
As it turns out, I didn’t get angry, for the most part. But we’ll talk about that later on.
There’s not much I can say about LWO that hasn’t already been said better elsewhere, so I’m just going to use these posts for my own scattered personal observations and reflections. If you want a basic introduction to LWO, you can look at their website. For excellent reviews which I am probably 90+% in agreement with, check out Eve Tushnet here (scroll down to June 15, there’s a whole passel of posts) for a chaste queer perspective or Jim Burroway here for a not-so-chaste queer perspective. Jim also has podcasts and YouTube video presenting his take on the conference–I recommend the podcasts but in my humble opinion the videos are too short and soundbitey to be informative. So I’m going to assume that you know what the game is and who the players are. The truth is I don’t feel like explaining LWO, especially since it would be like reinventing the wheel, and crappily at that. But for whoever wants my random thoughts and personal impressions, here they are. This post will be general stuff…then I’ll do specific posts for specific speakers/talks.
One caveat: As I think everyone knows, I did not go into this conference with a clean slate. I tried to see and hear accurately, and tried to avoid imposing my preconceptions on what people said. But I’m not sure I succeeded, simply because of the sheer amount of baggage involved for me. I invite correction on any points where people think I got LWO wrong. I will be the first to admit that I don’t understand the exgay mainstream or the family values conservative crowd very well.
Driving in, we saw a small cluster of protesters in the dark (Indianapolis at 7:45 am on the day before the end of Daylight Savings is pitch black!), no more than 15 I’d say. The only sign I could make out then was “PFLAG.” There were no protesters when we went out for lunch. We counted 12 on our drive out at the end of the day–I tried to make eye contact and smile and give a friendly nod to each as we drove slowly by, but mostly got blank stares from dour faces. One guy finally did grin back at us and wave; we waved back of course. I was shocked at how somber they all seemed–they wore the same vaguely constipated looks of solemn judgment that the quiet brand of antigay protesters wear. I understand they must have been saddened by the goings-on inside the church, but to me it seems like a poor way to change hearts and minds. It wasn’t very seductive.
As far as audience make-up goes…parents (with and without teenaged offspring in tow) were definitely a majority of attendees, but maybe not much more than that, by my very rough guesstimates. There was a HUGE “concerned citizen” contingent. (Seemed like 30+% to me by the show of hands.) I was pleasantly surprised by the number of homo-attracted people I saw, assuming my gaydar is still worth anything. Although they were by far the smallest group, the numbers weren’t negligible at all. A lot of people crammed into the room for the one talk which was ostensibly devoted to strugglers’ issues.
I think (though I am not sure) that this conference didn’t beat up parents as much as earlier ones had. (Not having Nicolosi around probably helped out with that!) I didn’t have the chance to pursue deep conversations with those around me, but eavesdropping and observing suggested that while they were concerned, they weren’t as devastated as I’ve heard parents can be. But I could have just attended the wrong breakout sessions.
The speaker lineup included Joe Dallas, Mike Haley, Melissa Fryrear, Dick Carpenter, Nancy Heche, Jeff Johnston, Bill Maier, and Scott Davis. Alan Chambers was supposed to speak but was unable to be there at the last minute, due to what Mike Haley described as “a family crisis.” I managed to hear a little something from everyone except Maier and Davis–Davis only spoke to youth, and somehow I just didn’t manage to squeeze Maier in. (Mr. DM and I both lived in the Boston area in the wake of Goodridge, so we have heard more than a lifetime’s worth of rhetoric on the apocalyptic consequences of gay marriage, which is what Maier’s talk was about. When I invited him to make suggestions for which breakout sessions we should attend, he said “Well definitely NOT that one!”)
The Conference Packet contained a statement on “Heterosexuality and Homosexuality,” which was intended to sum up FOTF’s view of the subject. In some parts they wanted to have their cake and eat it too, I thought. They proclaimed that Focus “stands against” any efforts to deny gay people rights or “deprive them of employment or housing or harass them in any way.” At the same time, they “take strong exception to the activist movement that seeks to gain special privileges and protected minority status for the homosexual community.” In other words, they don’t think gay people should be discriminated against in employment or housing, but they don’t think they should be protected against such discrimination either. Which…I dunno. I’m not clever enough to wrap my mind around the sophistication of that view.
I was surprised by the sobriety of the closing sentences of the statement:
Focus on the Family has seen that by God’s grace and through compassionate counseling and support, it is sometimes possible–although difficult–for a person to move from a homosexual to a heterosexual orientation.
Having waited a long time for that “sometimes” to fall from exgay lips, I was stunned and pleased to see it here. Unfortunately, I would not see it echoed much throughout the conference. The phrase “from a homosexual to a heterosexual orientation” strikes me as a bad idea, since it seems to me that most of us who experience attraction change attain a bisexually-attracted state rather than a heterosexual one. Still, I was impressed to see them openly acknowledging the possibility that often attraction change does not occur.
The follow-up thought to that was slightly less satisfying:
“When the change appears impossible in an individual case, such a person is in the same position as the heterosexual single who has no prospects of marriage.”
Well, yes and no. It is helpful to remember that you aren’t the only person in the world who wants to be in love and get laid, that it isn’t some grand cosmic injustice that God has not provided a legitimate means for you to get off. (I’m poking fun at my own old attitudes here.) But I wouldn’t say the situations are the same. For one thing, few heterosexuals feel they have no prospects of marriage until they’re well into their thirties (if they’re female) and can probably even keep hoping into their late forties or early fifties if they’re male. But for homo-attracted folk who believe that God doesn’t want them pursuing homosexual relationships, they can often see the handwriting on the wall in their early 20′s, or even in their teens. To face the likelihood of lifelong abstinence and singleness in the flush of youth is a very different thing–perhaps easier in some ways, but surely harder in others.
“They are both called by Scripture to a life of sexual abstinence. These are difficult words, yet no one has the authority to change the biblical proscription on sexuality outside of marriage.”
Difficult words? No, that’s the funny thing. The words themselves are quite easy. It’s the living of the thing that is hard for many, and unfortunately I don’t see how it would be made easier for anyone by what Focus had to teach and offer that day. That was the biggest gaping hole in the conference, I thought, at least in what I saw. There was virtually no practical content on how to live in a godly way with homosexual desire, and there was no counsel on how to support someone else (like your child! hello parents!) in doing so. Everything was directed towards “healing,” towards attraction change, towards making it all go away.
Developmental theories about the origin of homosexuality were the star of the show, the focal point of the conference by far, treated as a foundation for all that came after.
I found this baffling. Setting aside whether or not the developmental theories are generally true, and whether if true they are useful to strugglers (I am skeptical on both counts), I still don’t understand why family and friends “reaching out” to gay people need so desperately to be informed of these theories. If you’re a parent, and your child is old enough to have come out already, it’s not like you can turn back the clock and fix it all. And if you’re just a friend, or trying to be a friend, why should you even care what causes homosexuality? Is this really the most important information that straight laymen need to have about gay people? I can see how it might be relevant to strugglers seeking change who think this stuff works, or to counselors or others seeking to help them. I cannot fathom how it is deserving of so much attention from family members or friends. The last thing a gay or exgay person needs is to have everybody in his/her life playing the shrink!
It was astonishing. So much time–virtually the whole morning, in fact–and attention were devoted to how Mommy’s and Daddy’s mistakes (real or perceived) made little Johnny and Susie into homosexuals. The practical stuff of how to love and help and support your kids got one breakout session, I think, and the practical nitty-gritty of how to live a faithful, chaste life got almost no attention at all. Even the exgays’ testimonies dwelt at length on the horrors of childhood and the dysfunctions of their old lives, while saying remarkably little about the details of the struggle and the day-to-day reality of their current lives. Was this really the best use of the limited time they/we had that day? Did this information really meet the needs of the audience? I am skeptical.
There was an atmosphere of love at the conference, but it seemed to me to be a carefully controlled and channelled love, and to some extent a misguided love, on which more below. In many of the talks it seemed to me to be directed into a sort of patronizing pity. Gay people were to be loved in some sense, but in no circumstances were they to be listened to or respected. (Otherwise, what’s the need for LWO? Why would you need straight and exgay ”experts” to tell you what it’s like to be gay if you could just ask real live gay people?) At least that’s the impression I got. I also got the feeling that LWO was trying to manage parents’ love for their children (and also to a lesser degree the love that other straight folks present had for the gay people in their lives, if any). Most parents, fundamentally, want their children to be happy, and I got the sense that LWO was on a mission to convince them that their children could never be truly happy being gay but could be truly happy as gloriously transformed, healed, and married heterosexuals with children. It seemed to me that LWO was carefully designed to keep the love that decent straight folk can’t help feeling for the gay people in their lives from turning into support for gay rights or a moral/theological perspective more permissive of homosexual relationships.
To some extent, of course, I am sympathetic to this. I do believe that homosexual sex and homosexual relationships are sinful, and I don’t think that Christians ought to allow their emotions and fears to cloud their thinking on this subject. So I consider it a completely valid aim to try to show people that they can love and respect their loved ones without throwing out their convictions. I consider it legitimate to reason with people, but I do not consider it legitimate to mislead them, to misrepresent the facts of gay and exgay life in order to prevent them from adopting views I don’t want them to. I have said before that my exgay journey wasn’t about life enhancement for me. I would say more generally that I don’t think it’s an effective path to life enhancement for most people. This is not to say that every person who opts for a gay-affirming path has a ball, or that every person who opts for an exgay/celibate path has a really rough time of it. But on average, from a thisworldly perspective, I’d say the exgay has the tougher row to hoe. That conclusion is no doubt inconvenient for FotF’s purposes, but to me it seems inescapable. Like Jay, I believe there is only one reason to do this.
I felt that the conference speakers sent out a lot of mixed messages, in a way that was very whiplashy and confusing. So, for example, we started out with Joe Dallas saying that whether homosexuality is developmental or genetic or whatever shouldn’t really matter much to us as Christians, yet in his first talk and throughout the day the developmental ideology was relentlessly hammered into conferencegoers’ heads. Example #2: Melissa Fryrear couldn’t seem to make up her mind whether pantyhose and makeup really mattered or not–at one point she explicitly said that they didn’t, yet she emphasized them so much and pointed to them so often as signs of her own healing, it was hard to take her disclaimer seriously. Another example: The constant message of the talks overall and the testimonies in particular was that gay people can become straight with Jesus’s help and a little patience–which sharply contrasted with the somewhat more honest admissions in the statement in the conference packet and in the one breakout session specifically for SSA folk. And yet one more example: The speakers assured parents that they were not to blame, but I don’t see how you can understand the developmental theories to be saying anything other than “Things you did, whether correctly perceived or misinterpreted by your child, probably sent your child down this path.” All this was frustrating for me, because I felt like a lot of good things were being said, and I wanted to give LWO credit for saying them, but they often seemed to be explicitly contradicted and taken back by other things that were said throughout the day.
The weirdest mixed message was this: The statements which got the most applause, amens, and other positive support were those which emphasized that homosexuality is just one sin among many, no worse than others, that the church should be coming down harder on the gossips, liars, greedy, etc. It surprised me how enthusiastic the response was here, in part because I didn’t know that this was still news to anyone, but also in part because the existence of the conference itself seemed to contradict that view. Everything about LWO seemed to me to say that Homosexuality Is Special. Were these parents going to conferences on other sins that their other children were committing, wringing their hands over them? Were these “concerned citizens” as eager to stand up against every other sort of sin and injustice? Were the strugglers as concerned about the other temptations they face, seeking guidance and therapy and healing for their pride or greed or whatever?
I don’t know whether it was Mr. DM’s presence or the New Me or the mere fact of having woken up at 4:45 on a Saturday morning, but for the most part I didn’t get angry. I mostly just felt tired and vaguely sad and frustrated.
“Wait! How can you be sad and frustrated? Aren’t you one of Them?” Well, yeah, I guess. At least I’m their woefully misbegotten offspring in some sense. We agree about some big stuff. We agree about the sinfulness of homosexual sex. We agree about the possibility for some of some sort of attraction change. We agree that a particular sort of gay identity can be problematic in some people’s spiritual lives, although they would of course go much further than that. But…it’s just not my scene. At all. I’m not comfortable with the constant advocacy of unproven developmental theories. (If you feel they worked for you, I’m genuinely happy. But it doesn’t really prove much.) I’m not comfortable with the condescending discussion of gay people as being broken and hurting, poor little dears. I’m not comfortable with the culture war, with getting people all worked up about what The Gays are going to do next, in a way that makes them completely unable to see the reality of gay people’s lives. If you boil it down that’s probably what was at the heart of my frustration with LWO: the ways in which I felt it obscured reality as it “educated”, the ways in which it blinded its audience, the ways in which I felt it made it harder rather than easier for the audience to love, serve, and respect their gay loved ones and neighbors.
Real compassion, real suffering-with, requires an awareness of the reality of another person’s heart and life. You cannot have that with a exgay person if you do not have a realistic view of the prospects of change and if you do not appreciate that exgay (celibate SSA, whatever) people can live happy, healthy lives of rich spiritual growth which are pleasing to God even without attraction change. And you cannot have that with a gay person if you insist on cramming them into your little dogmatic box of what sorts of childhood experiences they must have had and what their state of emotional/mental health is like and what their lives are like. Love Won Out, as far as I could see, got straight people all mushy and sobby about illusory problems that many gay/exgay people don’t actually face, while hardening their hearts and closing their eyes to the real difficulties that have confronted and in many cases still confront gay/exgay people. That’s what bothered me most, I think.
I wasn’t horrified by what I saw. My expectations when I went in were quite low, and the conference was actually better in most respects than I had thought it would be. I genuinely liked and was impressed by Joe Dallas (though I did not agree with everything he had to say), and even with the speakers I didn’t click with, I found things to appreciate and nod along with. As I go into my responses to particular talks, I suspect some readers will feel I’m nitpicking, especially once I get into specific points of disagreement which may seem small in the whole realm of things. I suspect some will feel I should just keep my mouth shut and be glad to have the LWO team standing up for the Biblical truth about homosexuality. But you have to understand that I feel very passionately about these points, these little nits, because in many cases they caused me a lot of pain and trouble personally.
That’s something that set in after we drove home and I went on with my week. I found myself haunted in the days following the conference by stirred-up memories of the years when I was deeply involved in exgay stuff. See, in the past several years, I haven’t really done any of that. I hadn’t really heard any of those messages of brokenness and childhood roots and healing and change for a very long time–sure I occasionally read a smidgen of something online, but that’s way different from being bombarded with a day’s worth of lectures. After the conference it all came painfully flooding back…how I agonized about this stuff, how I blamed myself and everyone in my family, how pathetic and small and less-than I felt relative to “healthy heterosexuals,” how tired and hopeless I felt after pursuing change (albeit somewhat half-assedly at times) didn’t really get me anywhere, how I obsessed about my “healing” and ignored discipleship and Christian growth, how stupid and voiceless I felt relative to the “successful” “healed” exgay superstars whose testimonies always seemed to get held up as What Is Supposed to Happen–if I disagreed with them, it was only my “brokenness” talking, and I would come to know better someday if I opened my heart to Jesus and let Him really transform me. That old mindset came drifting back into my head and it made me even more nauseous than has been usual for me as of late.
In order to be fair but honest I must say this: While I am immeasurably grateful for the concern various exgays showed me, for the friendship and fellowship they offered me, I believe that many of the exgay teachings did not do me or my walk with God any favors. I am extremely glad to have put all that behind me. And no, I don’t really give those teachings much credit for my love for Mr. DM. That happened around two years after I decided I’d had enough of those theories and finally once-and-for-all washed my hands of them. Maybe it’s just a delayed reaction to the healing power of the Moberly/Nicolosi insights, but for a variety of reasons (which we can get into if you like) I consider it likely that whatever attraction change I have experienced is mostly unrelated to my earlier devotion to exgay ideas and practices.