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The Ex-Gay Movement and the Christian Right: A Shared Agenda

The contemporary gay rights movement was born in the 1950s and erupted into national view on June 27, 1969, when police made a routine raid on the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Greenwich Village. For the first time, patrons rebelled in protest and that night is now commemorated as the beginning of the US movement for lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender liberation. Stonewall, as it has come to be known, was followed by a severe backlash, organized by Christian Right leaders in the 1970s and succeeded by a coordinated effort by several right-wing organizations in the '80s and '90s.27

The organizations that collaborated to place ads promoting the ex-gay movement in national newspapers in July 1998 are the architects of a profound assault on lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender rights. They are part of a large, coordinated, and well-funded movement that has been active for the last two decades, promoting a "family values" agenda that emphasizes traditional gender roles and the submission of wives and children to the father as head of the family. In the late '70s and '80s several right-wing leaders began to understand the appeal of anti-homosexual propaganda as a means to organize and mobilize conservative Christian constituents, recruit new followers, and raise money. Several anti-homosexual campaigns conducted during this period, including Anita Bryant's anti-gay campaign and the Briggs Initiative in California, used language that demonized and scapegoated lesbians and gay men.

In 1989, Traditional Values Coalition president Rev. Louis Sheldon wrote: "Going to a behavior-based status, as opposed to a true `discrete and insular' minority opens up minority status to all behavior-based groups like smokers, bikers, adulterers, pedophiles, thieves, prostitutes, basketball players, outdoorsmen, etc. `Gay rights' activists have parasited the civil rights movement thereby causing society to accept the behavior of same-sex sodomy on equal standing with those born to a certain race or color."28

In the 1990s the Christian Right has continued its attack on lesbians and gay men, often slandering them by painting the "gay lifestyle" as unhealthy and obsessed with sex. Throughout the 1990s, the Right used ballot measures at the state level and legislation at the federal level in an attempt to deny civil rights legal protections to gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender people, and to repeal existing laws granting those protections. In the early part of the decade, right-wing leaders vilified gay men and lesbians through their publications as well as through vehicles such as The Gay Agenda, a twenty minute video featuring sensational scenes from pride marches and interviews with homophobic doctors. The Gay Agenda was followed by Gay Rights, Special Rights, produced by the Traditional Values Coalition in conjunction with Jeremiah Films, an organization that specializes in producing videos promoting Christian orthodoxy, conspiracy theories, and apocalyptic warnings. Gay Rights, Special Rights had one explicit goal: to convince conservative people of color that gay men and lesbians were trying to co-opt the civil rights movement in order to secure "special rights."29

For years the Christian Right has used homophobic rhetoric to raise money and recruit followers.30 "We are at war in America today...We don't want our children taught that the sin of homosexuality is an acceptable lifestyle `choice,'" wrote Beverly LaHaye, former president and current chairman of Concerned Women for America in a 1992 fundraising appeal. "Young boys and girls must not be taught that for a man to love another man is as normal as the relationship between a man and a woman in marriage." By picking on a group of people for whom the general public often shows little sympathy, organizers of the Christian Right found a profitable target, a symbol for the so-called liberal attack on the traditional family.31

Currently, prominent Christian Right organizations continue to be in the forefront of opposition to gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender rights. Now the Christian Right has forged a formidable alliance with the ex-gay movement and its leaders, and, in conjunction with the ex-gay movement, has reinvigorated its old message of "no special rights" for homosexuals, casting these rights as the illegitimate demand of an undeserving group.

Christian Right organizations are increasingly using the ex-gay movement in their anti-gay campaigns, lending credibility and legitimacy as well as organizational and financial support to ex-gay organizations and leaders.32 There are several examples of ex-gay leaders and Christian Right leaders working together, often within each other's organizations:

      n Recently, Focus on the Family hired ex-gay leader John Paulk, a former drag queen and current chairman of the board of Exodus International, to serve as its legislative and cultural affairs analyst.33

      n Focus on the Family's sister organization in Washington, DC, the Family Research Council (FRC), has provided organizational and financial support to Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays (P-FOX) and Transformation Ex-Gay Ministries in Washington, DC. In October 1996 FRC sponsored a press conference to launch P-FOX.34

      n Robert Knight, Cultural Director for FRC, sits on the board of P-FOX.

      n Michael Johnston, president of Kerusso Ministries, which sponsors the annual "National Coming Out of Homosexuality Day," is also on the steering committee for the National Campaign to Protect Marriage, a Cincinnati-based coalition of approximately twenty organizations working to oppose same-sex marriage legislation.35

      n Tony Marco, a key architect of Colorado's anti-gay Amendment 2,36 and author of an influential 1992 paper titled "Special Class Protections for Gays: A Question of Behavior and Consequences," is also a co-author of John Paulk's 1998 book, Not Afraid to Change: The Remarkable Story of How One Man Overcame Homosexuality37.

In addition, Exodus and other ex-gay organizations get referrals from, and maintain close links with, many major Christian Right organizations, including the Family Research Council, Focus on the Family, Promise Keepers, Rev. Pat Robertson's 700 Club, Campus Crusade for Christ, Rev. D. James Kennedy's Center for Reclaiming America, Concerned Women for America, the American Family Association, Minirth-Meier Clinics, and Coral Ridge Ministries.38

Support from high-profile Christian Right leaders has been an invaluable tool in bringing the ex-gay movement to prominence. Donald Wildmon, president of the American Family Association, summarized the importance of a partnership with the ex-gay movement in a press release: "The homosexual rights movement in America is bringing us to a very significant crossroads. Indifference or neutrality toward the homosexual rights movement will result in society's destruction by allowing civil order to be redefined and by plummeting ourselves, our children and grandchildren into an age of godlessness. A national `Coming Out of Homosexuality Day' provides us a means whereby to dispel the lies of the homosexual rights crowd who say they are born that way and cannot change."39

In Not By Politics Alone: The Enduring Influence of the Christian Right, author Sara Diamond gives an example of how the Christian Right frames the issue of (ex)gayness, by recounting a 1994 Focus on the Family cover story on ex-gay Christians. In the story, one of the testimonies was by a woman named Jamie Breedlove, who had first "fallen into" homosexuality after the tragic death of her boyfriend, whom she had hoped to marry.40 After his death, the grief-stricken Jaime had an affair with her female Bible College roommate. While she remained a Christian, Jaime went from one lesbian relationship to another. Her parents were crushed and their devastation led Jaime to struggle with the question of whether she would be kept out of heaven because of her sin. She then met her future husband, who knew she was a lesbian but still wanted to date her. Jaime married Ben and gave up her lesbian lifestyle. Together they started His Heart North, a Colorado ministry for homosexuals seeking change.41

"Left unexamined," writes Diamond, "are questions of what `lifestyle' Jaime might have chosen had she not been stigmatized by her own parents and by a religious dogma that would keep her from entering heaven. Might she have avoided years' worth of painful guilt, started another kind of family, and still, also become a helpful counselor?"42 By tapping into people's fears and insecurities, the Christian Right is advancing a rigid definition of personal and family identity, claiming that the only path to personal happiness is a heterosexual identity.

The broader goal of the Christian Right is to impose its narrow worldview which mandates a rigid set of values for men and women. Many Christian Right leaders advocate Christian nationalism, an ideology that seeks to use government laws and regulations to impose fundamentalist Christian values on the entire nation.43 Rev. D. James Kennedy, president of the Center for Reclaiming America, envisions the US as a Christian nation. "I am sure that only a Christian-controlled country is going to be able to stand up to the impending threat and avert the approaching disaster that our nation is facing."44

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