Straightness 101

Christian Conservatives Take Their Antigay Campaign to the Schools

To most of the 700 people at the recent conservative Christian conference on homosexuality in youth, same-sex sex is a sin, plain and simple. "Satan has counterfeited sexuality," emcee John Paulk told the crowd of teachers, counselors, and worried relatives of homosexuals who gathered in a church outside Philadelphia. The only way out for those "trapped in the hellhole of sexuality," said Paulk, is to cast off their sinful ways and find Christ.

Though groups like Focus on the Family, which hosted the April 21 event, have been working to convert adult gays for almost a decade, their efforts haven't been going well. Even with the help of a beneficent deity, conversion therapies tend to have low "success" rates. With their tortured testimony about "lapses" and the persistent pull of the "the enemy," the ex-gays brought to the dais to extol the healing power of Christ seemed better illustrations of the agony of staying in the closet.

No less than Paulk himself, who publicly boasts of being straight for 14 years and is perhaps the country's best known ex-gay, was photographed in a gay bar last year. The manager of Focus on the Family's gender and homosexuality department and husband of a prominent ex-lesbian, Paulk preemptively brought up the incident at the conference, sheepishly telling the crowd he is "still susceptible to familiar temptations."

All of which helps to explain why some Christian conservatives are turning their antigay energies toward youth. Focus on the Family—which has waged grassroots campaigns against medical marijuana, euthanasia, and stem cell research—is now unleashing its formidable network of politicized Christians to fight homosexuality from toddlerhood on up. The "Love Won Out: Addressing, Understanding, and Preventing Homosexuality" road show has been making its way around the country since 1999 and is headed next to Cincinnati, Atlanta, and Orlando. For July, the group is planning a protest outside the National Education Association's annual conference, where the nation's largest teachers' group will be voting on a plank that would recognize the "complex needs of gay, lesbian, transgender, and questioning students." Meanwhile, other activists have taken the battle over teen sexuality to the courts, suing and countersuing over how to handle sexual orientation in schools.

Advocates for gay youth see this wave of activity as a backlash. "As more young people are coming out and demanding to be treated fairly, the right wing is paying more attention to lesbian-gay-transgender youth issues," says M.K. Cullen, director of public policy for the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN).

In Philadelphia, participants got coaching in a variety of ways to stop homosexuality in its tracks. Workshops focused on identifying threats to straightness first in the home and family and then in the schools, where "a one-sided agenda [is] being seductively pushed on innocent minds," according to conference materials.

The key, according to Joseph Nicolosi, a psychologist with the National Association of Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, is to "attack early." His idea, which serves as the starting point for Focus on the Family's multi-tiered campaign, is that an errant sexuality is more easily stopped early than reversed later. Accordingly, he offered the parents, teachers, and school counselors in the audience a list of the warning signs of "pre-homosexuality," which, for boys, included having a sensitive temperament, being aesthetically inclined, and responding strongly to either well- or badly dressed women. Janelle Hallman, a daintily attired therapist, gave a parallel accounting of tomboy red flags, which included wearing army boots.

What to do with a fashion-obsessed sissy boy? Nicolosi recommended corrective nudging toward macho recklessness. When an audience member worried that such an approach might stifle a budding artist or performer, the therapist responded that a boy wouldn't necessarily have to give up piano entirely; he could simply tickle the ivories a little less and toss the football a little more.

Musical instruments are not the only corrupting forces, of course. Conference leaders also worried over Hollywood and the Internet. Mike Haley, an ex-gay who serves as Focus on the Family's youth and gender analyst, gave a slide presentation on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Felicity, and Dawson's Creek, shows aimed at young people that have gay characters. But schools are the group's main concern, both because they have more authority over children and because they are easier to influence. After all, that's where the pro-gay activists are already hard at work, promoting "diversity," "safety," and "tolerance"—and, their foes insist, corrupting those words in the process.

"What they want is for people to shrug their shoulders," Haley said sadly. On this at least, Focus on the Family and its opponents agree: Normalization of homosexuality is at the core of this battle. To Haley and his brethren, tolerance of homosexuality is intolerance of their own belief that homosexuality is a sin. So the very videos that GLSEN and other pro-gay groups use at their conferences to promote recognition of gays in the schools were shown at "Love Won Out," to just the opposite effect. One clip, in which little Emily reads an essay she wrote about having two mommies, inspired horrified gasps and audible "tsk-tsk"s.

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