April 2006

Searching for Support

The Daily Illini

Stanley stood at the top of the stairs in his house, awkwardly pointing a gun to his head.

“I didn’t know the best way to do it, so I figured if I accidentally only grazed myself, the fall down the stairs would take care of the rest.”

It was 1971 in a rural Illinois farm town. Sixteen-year-old Stanley was “pretty sure” he was gay, but he didn’t know how to handle it. At that time, “gay” just wasn’t done. No one knew his secret. He couldn’t reach out to his family; they wouldn’t understand that, since the age of four, he had been attracted to men. They wouldn’t understand that the sight of a bare-chested man lifting a bale of hay made him feel something the “busty calendar babes at the fleet store” didn’t.

So he reached out to a friend’s father. The man convinced Stanley to join the conservative church on the edge of town. Stanley confessed his feelings to the pastor.

“Pray,” the pastor said.

Stanley prayed. He prayed to be straight, to find women attractive. It didn’t work. He went back to the pastor, ashamed, confused.

“Pray harder,” the pastor said.

Stanley knew his feelings for men were wrong; his church told him so. God wanted him to burn in hell.

He knew where his brother kept his pistol.

“He usually kept it loaded, but I didn’t check. I didn’t want to know. I wanted to let God decide,” he said. “I told myself, if the gun’s not loaded, that’s God’s way of telling me I’m all right. If it is … well, you know. My mom would be sad, but at least I wouldn’t have to tell her I was gay.”

He aimed. He pulled the trigger.

– Click –

The pistol wasn’t loaded. Stanley survived, and is now a 50-year-old, openly gay man living in Urbana with his partner of 24 years. Looking back, he finds it hard to believe he was that close to committing suicide.

He doesn’t attribute the episode directly to the church, “but when that pastor told me to ‘pray harder,’ that was it for me. I had nowhere left to turn,” he said.

Currently, there are churches that accept openly gay people. Stanley is actively involved in the Unitarian Universalist Church in Urbana, 309 W. Green St. It is a denomination that believes in the acceptance of everyone, regardless of age, race, or sexual orientation.

Many people approach ministries that are based on the notion that homosexuality can be changed through prayer, and ask for help in becoming what is now referred to as “ex-gay,” and succeeding. The largest and most powerful of these ministries is Exodus International, which claims to seek “freedom from homosexuality through the power of Jesus Christ.”

Exodus encourages “transformational therapy.” It holds conferences and books speakers across the nation. Exodus’ Web site operates a referral service as well. If a gay person is interested in transformational ministry, he can find a church in his area that offers this form of therapy.

The Homewood Evangelical Church in Moline, Ill., houses one such ministry. Tim Buhler has been the Pastor of Single Adults at Homewood for a little more than three years. Buhler says he is working with 20 to 25 people in his program, and the program has about an 80 percent retention rate, meaning four out of every five people who approach the church with unwanted same-sex attraction remain in the program.

“I work with people who feel like they were born (gay) but know they weren’t,” he said.

At the core of Buhler’s beliefs is the notion that same-sex attraction is not a sin, but acting on it is. He doesn’t try to change sexual orientation, just sexual behavior.

“That seems to be to be a very spiritually violent experience,” says Heidi Weatherford, minister at McKinley Presbyterian Church, 809 S. 5th St.

“I currently have two members of my congregation that have gone through this sort of ministry,” she said. “They’re basically told how awful they are and that they have to change; that they’re not worthy in God’s eyes. It’s a terrible misinterpretation of the scripture.”

Buhler says he’s not interpreting scripture; he takes the bible literally. He believes it’s the word of God and that there are passages in the text that specifically condemn homosexuality. For example, Leviticus 18:22: “Thou shalt not lay with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.”

There is no definitive, scientifically proven answer to the question of whether a gay person can overcome their sexual orientation, but a few things have been established.

In 1957, psychologist Evelyn Hooker published the first empirical work that challenged the then-accepted view of homosexuality: that it was a disorder. This research eventually led the American Psychiatric Association, in 1973, to drop homosexuality from the list of mental health disorders. Since that time, most mainstream mental health organizations have come to support the research. The organization that still prescribes to the original view is The National Organization for the Research and Treatment of Homosexuality.

The organization’s president, Joseph Nicolosi, a clinical psychologist in Encino, Calif., has spent 25 years working with men who are unhappy with their homosexuality. Nicolosi’s contention, one that he came to believe after meeting with more than 1,000 gay men throughout his career, is that homosexuality is caused by a “deep grievance to the father.”

Anderson says Nicolosi points to one study, conducted by Robert Spitzer in 2001. Spitzer, a Columbia University scientist, conducted a survey of 200 men who claimed to be “ex-gay.” He measured their same-sex attraction levels a year before therapy and a year after. Spitzer found that 20 of the subjects exhibited changes in their sexual orientation.

“The study is suspect,” Anderson says. “First of all, it’s not a random sample.”

He said 65 percent of the subjects were referred by ex-gay ministries, hardly representative of the broader gay community.

Still, the study did show that it is possible for people to believe they have changed their sexual orientation.

John Powell, clinical counselor at the University, said his 22 years on the job vary greatly from Spitzer’s findings.

“I don’t think sexual orientation is a choice, or a result of some form of trauma,” Powell says. “The more I work with LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) people, people who don’t want to be gay, the more I realize the best thing for them to do is to just accept how they are, and who they are.”

Pastor Weatherford agrees: “When I talk to the two members of my congregation scarred by this therapy, I tell them the most important thing to remember in the bible is that God loves you, in all your variety. He made you in his image, and you’re good.”

© Copyright 2006 The Daily Illini