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 Familywhich has waged grassroots campaigns against medical marijuana, euthanasia, and stem cell researchis 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.
A recent lawsuit might be considered the legal equivalent of those outraged sounds. In Saxe v. State College, David Saxe, a professor in Pennsylvania, successfully argued that the anti-harassment policy in his local school district infringed on the right of Christian students to express their belief that homosexuality is a sin. The February decision, in which the Third Circuit Court of Appeals found the policy to be overly broad, was "a ray of light on a dark issue," according to Dick Carpenter, Focus on the Family's education-policy analyst. The school district is now reexamining its policy, which originally prohibited harassment based on hobbies, values, and clothes, as well as on sexual orientation.
Questions of wording aside, gay and educational groups continue to insist on the need to protect kids against taunting and violence. One 1998 survey done in Massachusetts showed gay teens to be 3.4 times as likely as their peers to have skipped school because they felt unsafe, 5.5 times as likely to have been threatened or injured with a weapon, and 2.9 times more likely to have been in a physical fight in school. In a 1995 study, 34 percent of 194 lesbian, gay, and bisexual teens surveyed reported having an object thrown at them because of their sexual orientation.
According to GLSEN's Cullen, this "white noise" of continuous affronts is a distraction that makes it difficult for students to learnand at worst, threatens their lives. While Focus on the Family contends gay advocates have inflated the teen suicide rate for political purposes, there is little question that it is higher in gay than in straight teens.
In fact, gay teens who have attempted suicide often link their misery to harassment. Timothy Dahle, a gay 18-year-old who slit his wrists in Crawford County, Pennsylvania, is even suing his school district for not protecting him from his classmates' abuse. The suit alleges he was teased about his sexual orientation from the time his peers first realized he was gay in sixth grade. According to a deposition by his mother, Dahle was so terrified of school that when she tried to wake him up in the mornings, "He would start throwing up, literally shaking, almost like a panic attack." The school district denies the claims.
The various efforts to avert such situations have, not surprisingly, been contested as promoting homosexuality. Until recently, the loudest such conflict has been over gay-straight student alliances, extracurricular groups in which students talk about issues of sexual orientation. With more than 800 GSAs now in existence and five recent suits all resolved in the student groups' favor, Christian conservatives have shifted their legal focus from after-school activities to in-school education. According to David Buckel, a senior staff attorney for the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, what can be taught about homosexuality is increasingly at issue. Lambda is now representing two Michigan teachers who were asked to take down a gay pride display they made as part of a diversity education project.
School-based education about sexuality has also become a target outside of court. Earlier this year, Focus on the Family took on the National Education Association, which is producing a nine-part video series called "Safe Schools." "They're pissed at us because the seventh episode dared to say that gay and lesbian students should be treated like normal human beings," explains NEA spokesperson Darryl Figueroa, who says the teachers' organization is still receiving angry e-mails, letters, and calls about the video from Focus on the Family members.
Such grassroots activism is Focus on the Family's forte. The group, which is nonprofit, also publishes a how-to book telling members how to get their message out. In "Teaching Captivity? How the Pro-Gay Agenda Is Affecting Our Schools," children are advised to ask questions like "It's documented that thousands of people have come out of homosexualitywhy do some people say it's not possible?" The book supplies outraged form letters as well as practical advice on tracking down offensive material in textbooks, AIDS and sex education curriculums, and school libraries. (The group also wisely counsels parents against quoting scripture or using clichés like "God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve" in school board meetings.)
To people like Jane Boyer, who preached to conference-goers about her decade-long struggle with lesbianism, such efforts are all about preventing sin and moral destruction. To her opponents, however, it is the antigay youth movement that is the source of pain and devastation. Lambda's Buckel, who is now trying a case involving multiple attacks on a gay student in Nevada, expects that an increase in antigay violence will accompany this wave of activism.
Others focus on the damage to young psyches. The American Academy of Pediatrics recently criticized therapy meant to convert gay kids as provoking "guilt and anxiety while having little or no potential for changing orientation." And a coalition of professional groups, including the American Federation of Teachers, the American School Health Association, and the National Association of School Psychologists, has directly responded to events like "Love Won Out" with a report urging schools to keep out "ex-gay" messages.
Indeed, mainstream psychology dismisses make-them-play-football approaches like Nicolosi's as ridiculous. "They take us 30 years backwards," says Karen Anderson, director of the Center for Psychology in Schools and Education for the American Psychological Association.
Sexual-orientation conversion efforts are both futile and crushing, says Manhattan psychologist Ariel Shidlo, coauthor of a forthcoming study of 201 people who have been through conversion therapy. "It's equivalent to a black family trying to teach their child to pass as white," says Shidlo. "It teaches a child that an important part of them isn't desirable, and that's a very hard feeling to shake off."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.