Bil Browning

Love Won Out may be helping some parents

Filed By Bil Browning | November 12, 2007 5:10 PM | comments

Filed in: Fundie Watch
Tags: child care, Christian beliefs, evangelical Christian, hate crimes against LGBT people, homophobic behavior, LGBT youth, Love Won Out, parents, religion

It has taken me a while to write this post about attending the Love Won Out ex-gay conference with Ryan McCann, Public Policy Director of the Indiana Family Institute. Between the election, the blog contest and simply relaxing and cleaning the house, I’ve not felt I could give it the time it really needed. I wanted this post to be thoughtful and not just a knee-jerk reaction.

I guess I’ll just say it… I think Love Won Out may be helping some parents of LGBT youth.

exgay200.gifDon’t get me wrong, I’m not a believer in reparative therapy. I think the idea of “You can pray away the gay!” to be ludicrous. Several of their statistics were cherry picked from scientific studies that do not actually support their arguments while others came from dubious studies or discredited researchers. I’m going to skip focusing on these things right now and save them for a later post (probably tomorrow) about the obviously ridiculous issues of the conference.

I don’t intend to be an apologist for the ex-gay movement, but I’m left feeling as if I’ve seen a monumental shift inside the church. I saw positive progress with my own eyes. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the evangelicals and religious fundamentalists are starting to realize that we exist for more than brimstone target practice. I think my own experiences within the church family can illustrate how gigantic this glacial development truly is.

I come from a very religious family. I grew up Presbyterian and attended the school Bible club faithfully my freshman year. I always carried a Bible and used to read it during study hall. Dr. D. James Kennedy was constantly sending me booklets and pamphlets and I regularly read non-fiction books on spiritual topics. I’d order those little Bible tracts and leave them in public restrooms. For that matter, I still carry the same Bible from high school in my computer bag today; I take it with me everywhere I go. Several of the verses comfort me and help to ease my mind. Isaiah 40 is a particular favorite, particularly verses 27-31.

27 O Jacob, how can you say the Lord does not see your troubles?
O Israel, how can you say God ignores your rights?
28 Have you never heard
Have you never understood
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of all the earth.
He never grows weak or weary.
No one can measure the depths of his understanding.
29 He gives power to the weak and strength to the powerless.
30 Even youths will become weak and tired,
and young men will fall in exhaustion.
31 But those who trust in the Lord will find new strength.
They will soar high on wings like eagles.
They will run and not grow weary.
They will walk and not faint.

I treasured those verses through middle and high school and they still have a profound impact on me today. I was the class fag. I wasn’t good at sports; I was intelligent and I walked funny. (For those that don’t know, I walk on my tiptoes and always have. My mother put me in one of those circle stroller things for babies that allow them to push their way around a room. I was too little for it and so I learned to walk on my tiptoes. I’ve tried to walk “normal” for years. It never works. I am truly a “twinkle toed” queer.) I was the target for beatings and slurs; I was the social outcast.

That verse comforted me so strongly because at least God knew what I was going through. My life was hell and most of puberty I just wanted to kill myself to escape it. These few words, however, helped me to cling to the edge of sanity. While I may not have felt I had the strength to continue being the brunt of the school’s homophobia this one small clip told me that there was someone with unending strength that I could lean and depend on. After all, I could not count on the school administrators to stop my tormentors and talking to my parents was simply out of the question. Mind you, I wasn’t suicidal because of my sexual orientation but because of the constant persecution from my peers.

The televangelists and various religious writers only condemned homosexuality as a mammoth sin if they mentioned it all. The message that they sent was explicit: “Gays are an abomination.” Yet the more I hid who I was and denied my sexuality, the more my schoolmates seemed to sense that I was an easy target. When I started to own my self-esteem issues and rightfully come out as a fellow human being, my tormentors had to take a step back. I found that the more open I became about my sexuality, the more the bullies left me alone. As I asserted who I was it gave pause to my harassers; when I hid such an integral part of me for Christ, I made myself a bigger target. As I came out, I started to drift away from my faith. You know what they say, "God helps those who help themselves." God didn't stop my attackers, but instead served as a cosmic security blanket. I didn't need a child's reassurances from an inanimate object. I needed validation as a human being worthy of freedom from abuse, violence and hateful slurs.

So I can empathize and feel deeply the pain that some of these kids and young adults are experiencing when they come to an ex-gay conference. I know intimately the desire for change and wishing that God would somehow miraculously remove the struggles with our sexuality. I know the emotional exhaustion of trying to please your parents and your church and feeling removed from both. Their fatigue and weariness was my own.

When I came out to my parents, I was emancipated by court order and had to get my own apartment. It was my junior year of high school. I struggled to keep my grade point average up, to say the least. Yet, I didn’t really feel too much anger at my mother. After all, weren’t you supposed to cast the sinner out from among you so they didn’t tempt you into sin yourself?

That is not the message that I heard at Love Won Out. The first thing I heard as I walked into the auditorium was Joe Dallas speaking about male homosexuality. Many of the things he said were ridiculous and distorted, but one thing he said made a huge impact on me. I wanted to cry right then and there.

“Love your child for where they are at. Don’t shun them.”

What happened to fire and brimstone, Sodom and Gomorrah? What happened to holy retribution and pillars of salt? Is it possible that the evangelical church has finally realized that gays and lesbian exist and have a right to share the planet? While they are not reaffirming our lives are they, at the very least, acknowledging the fundamental need for kindness and tolerance? It wasn’t that long ago that the tent revival-call of “Repent!” was the only voice we heard echoing out of the church. How many untold suicides and hate crimes have happened as a direct corollary to anti-gay teachings? I was almost one of those statistics. How many children have been thrown out of their family homes?

As many mainline Protestant denominations have welcomed the LGBT community into their pews, the evangelicals have steadfastly condemned our very lives. I attended Love Won Out because I accepted the Indiana Family Institute’s challenge to see it for myself. IFI opposes and demonizes our community. They fight against our rights to fair housing, workplace discrimination protections, public accommodations and even our protection from hate crimes – all items they favor continuing for the religious community. By no means are they a friend to my family or countless others, but even IFI draws a line in the sand and doesn’t condone parental abuse.

I found a small kernel of hope at that convention. No child should be abandoned because of its sexuality. No child should be “shunned.” That should be the clarion call of all religious organizations no matter their stance on homosexuality. Perhaps it is too late for my parents to hear this message but for the hundreds of attendees that early Saturday morning I hope the statement came through loud and clear.

I heard it. I’ll bet God did too.

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"'Love your child for where they are at. Don’t shun them.'

What happened to fire and brimstone, Sodom and Gomorrah? What happened to holy retribution and pillars of salt? Is it possible that the evangelical church has finally realized that gays and lesbian exist and have a right to share the planet?"

Love your child for where they are at: Love him because he has come to this even with the intent to change his sinful ways. Don't shun them: for being here. So, as long as the child acknowledges the sin and is willing to do something about it, they should not be shunned. The evangelical stance has not changed; you only receive scorn when you refuse to acknowledge your sins and repent. You are shunned if you reject such perspectives.

I think you're giving them too much credit. Either way, the amount of misinformation those children and parents are being exposed to will negate anything remotely well-meaning they might do.

My intent isn't to weigh the negatives of their message against the positive. I wholeheartedly agree that the negative would out weigh the good.

But I'm heartened by the monumental step forward that evangelicals have taken here. Without realizing it, they've learned something about tolerance. It wasn't that long ago that Christianity taught that we should be put to death. Then imprisoned. Then shunned. Now we at least moved beyond that to the basic recognition that we are fellow humans too.

The Germans slaughtered us because they didn't see as worthy of life in World War II. Right beside the Jews and Gypsies, we died in the most horrific manners. Less than 100 years ago our lives were valueless. While the ex-gay believers are still full of crap, they've at least made the logical leap to our right to exist and they've progressed the evangelical movement beyond their previous boundaries.

After all, isn't that the basic message of coming out? "We are people too"?

Agreed, although a correction should be made to the shun part: Not shunned by YOUR parents. It is still pretty commonplace to see shunning by non-family members, and this happens most often in places with religious affiliation. The most gay-unfriendly colleges that have been ranked so far are for the most part ones with religious service and affiliation.

It is good to see some change no matter how abysmal it may be, although the current rate of change does not meet my standards. Like other groups, Christians have had the same time to become more accepting, but they have chosen to fall well behind. Despite claiming to be the completed version of Jews, Christians fall rather behind in terms of attitudes to their Biblical predecessors.

It probably has way more to do with money.

Divorce didn't become acceptable until the church realized that it was already happening, and they could either continue to condemn it, and watch attendance plummet at the same time, or soften the stance and keep the money rolling in.

Most studies I've seen lately show the younger you are, the more likely you are to not care about someone's sexuality. I'm guessing that their internal data suggests they might need to change some attitudes.

Yeah, I'm pretty cynical when it comes to church.

Not without good reason, Paula. Abrahamic religions, even organized religion, in general do not have the best in terms of honesty, leadership on the fight for protecting diversity, and world improvement without strings attached (as in the feeding of Africans for the small price of little Catholic souls) throughout history.

First, Bil, it was obviously brave of you to share such personal stuff, so thanks.

I can't disagree with either you or Lucrece. It's a pretty poor showing for church folk to merely NOT exhort their flock to autmatically hate their gay offspring. Do they really deserve points for this? But then, as Bil points out, for such people simply to acknowledge our humanity is an enormous, almost unimaginable step FOR THEM.

Of course as more and more of those church faithful come to have relationships with ACTUAL gay people--including, often, their children--it becomes harder for the church leaders to keep the faithful toeing the official line on the (literally) goddamned homos. I think there's some recognition here, on the part of both the church dogma-keepers but perhaps even more the worshippers, that demonizing gay people is lousy spiritual practice for the worshippers, warping their own humanity.

Just think of Mom.

I know this is fighting dirty. It may be our most basic cultural image-stereotype-cliche-whatever. But whoo, is that image powerful! And is there anything more humanly unnatural than encouraging a mother to hate her children?

I think we're all familiar anecdotally with the situation, so common that it's a cliche, where both Mom and Dad are shocked (if not really surprised) by Junior's coming out, but Mom comes around soon enough. Sometimes quickly, sometimes not so quickly, but soon enough--because Mom is Mom, and loving their children is "wired in" for moms. Leave them to work it out for themselves, and in most cases they're going to get it right: My boy or girl is still my boy or girl.

If you watched "Queer as Folk," didn't you just know that Justin's mom was going to come around?

Of course dads are supposed to love their kids too. For whatever reasons, though, dads are more prone to screw this up. Still, in the real world, in our culture, more and more often the dads come around too, eventually. (Justin's dad didn't, of course, but then, he was an asshole.)

For that matter, we're ALL supposed to respect each other's humanity, as a wise man once advised. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," he said, and it remain about the advice, practically as well as theologically--except maybe for "Buy low, sell high."

My point is that any church that tries to upset this basic order of humanity is disserving its faithful, distorting their humanity, and should probably be looking for another calling, like perhaps promoting dogfights. I guess what I'm suggesting is that if we're seeing some movement among the rough 'n' tough evangelicals, it may actually be driven more from BELOW rather than from above. More than most of the older-line religions, the evangelicals sell their faith like a product. Perhaps they're having to redesign the package a bit in the face of rising sales resistance. (See, the forces of "the market" DO work. Sort of.)

Unfortunately for the hard-line church leaders, this really can become one of those often-advertised "slippery slope" deals. Once people begin discovering that gay people simply aren't any different from anybody else in terms of basic humanity, it becomes harder to get the genie of gay-hating back in the bottle.


Boston Butch | November 12, 2007 7:33 PM

Bil, I hear what you're saying and I appreciate you sharing your painful history here (loved the Isaiah passage, btw).

Saving a gay kid from being cast out by his/her family does lower the risk of homelessness, dropping out of school, and a massive hit to one's self-esteem. This is all true.

But continuing to stay with a family that is trying to change your sexual orientation (or gender identification) has its own set of risks and psychological trauma associated with it. Don't you think? It keeps the kid connected to the negative and harmful ideology and possibly to physical abuse. It keeps the kid away from the gay community and/or other supportive influences.

I can't help wishing there was a third alternative.

There is a third alternative, and I'm glad that Bil posted about this. Churches are changing; the work we've all put in to winning over hearts and minds is coming to fruition; obviously mean spirited homophobia is dying out. Things are improving!

From what I've heard of these conventions (and Bil knows more than I now) they are trying to move people away from trying to pray for their children to change and are more focused on helping the parents set guidelines about "behavior". Parents of the generation that they're reaching out to I don't think would be as receptive of hearing the fire and brimstone about their children as would a previous generation. Visibility has helped out, as has changing conventions on parenting.

Anyway, I look forward to a more fun post on this conference tomorrow, Bil!


Your blog post is nicely written and I'm glad to see other bloggers recognizing the "kinder, gentler" approach of Focus on the Family.

However, this is nothing new -- evangelicals led by Focus on the Family have been using the language of Love Won Out for more than 10 years.

Focus became a $150-million-a-year megaministry in recent decades by hiring high-paid wordsmiths to sugarcoat its misinformation. They are smart enough to know that few parents and friends can be fooled by fire and brimstone anymore, so they mislead families and friends through smiles and lots of love-talk. But as you seemed notice on some level, behind the lovey words, the message of LWO is the same old misinformation:

All gays can change. All homosexuality is caused by abuse or recruitment. Exposure to homosexuality in the schools breeds more homosexuality. Gay marriage and civil rights are a threat to Christianity because homosexuality undermines morality and all gays can change. Talk of tolerance in the schools means tolerating evil, and this teaching of evil to kids is the most evil part of the homosexual agenda. "True" tolerance means requiring schools to uphold good Judeo-Christian mores.

That underlying message has been unchanged for the 10 years that I've been monitoring the ex-gay movement. And for much of that time, Exodus and Focus have simultaneously used lovey talk with relatives and bogeyman-baiting with donors and politicians.

I agree that lovey talk may be better than teaching families to throw their kids out on the street, but please don't forget that Exodus and Focus are still encouraging parents to forcibly subject their kids to ex-gay live-in boot camps.

From my perspective, their superficial niceness just makes the injustice and deception easier for families and friends to swallow.

Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | November 13, 2007 5:42 AM

Like others here, I thank you for sharing your story, Bil, and I appreciate the support you've been able to glean from Christianity despite its inherently homophobic stance.

It seems like the approach you're describing here is "Love the sinner, hate the sin," which has always struck me as false. For one thing, it reduces who we are to a sex act, which as you know is so very far from the truth. And it’s a recipe for cognitive dissonance to say the very least.

I have a major problem with Christianity due to the harm it has done throughout the ages to women, LGBT folks and so-called “non-believers”. I think the world would have been a better place had Christianity, Islam and Judaism never gained a foothold.

Moreover, for me it's personal. My homosexual* brother has always been very religious and, responding to Catholicism’s proscription, married a woman he wasn’t physically attracted to almost 40 years ago. The result has been pretty catastrophic for the two of them and at least one of their two sons. Oh, yes, my brother and his wife are still married. But happy? From what I can see, my brother is so cut off from his feelings he wouldn’t know the meaning of the word. He's counting the days til he makes it to heaven to “enjoy life”.

*I’m intentionally using that word, as my brother has done everything he can to repudiate his sexual feelings.

The last issue I tackled prior to coming out was the religious angle. I had not been in what I would call a very religious family. I'd obviously been to church enough to get the main message since I knew alot of the stories of the bible, but we definitely didn't go every sunday.

When my dad died, most of the family started going to a very small and very conservative church. I ignored it mostly, but eventually decided I needed to explore my spiritual side. Long story short, I ended up going there for about 3 years, then both there and JMCC for 6 months, came out and never looked back.

The pastor at the conservative church preached two sermons that have always given me much comfort. I won't go in to detail, just a short synopsis. Of course, neither were delivered to be taken the way I took them, but I still think I got the message God wanted me to get.

Esther. Being in the closet isn't a good thing.

Jonah. Even though you (the Christianists) don't think the Assyrians (Gays) are worthy of my love, I (God) do.

Yeah. I know, like I said, I have a very odd way of looking at things.

The danger of LWO is that the folks most likely to depend on that kind of message are the same folks that need to have rules to follow to feel structure. Nothing wrong with that at all, except that everything is simplified into black or white and someone else is defining what that means.

That is how we end up with "I know you are my child, but Pastor Pete says you are evil, so I need to send you away to be fixed".

I appreciate your sentiments but even too many of us have seen - and felt the impact of "love the sinner hate the sin"

that said, by having parents at the VERY LEAST not completely sever ties, reject or abuse their kids gives them more of a chance to get out of the home with less damage