The Childrens’ Crusade email Jayelle Lukash


The Children's Crusade
by Jayelle Lukash

Teens: The New Soldiers

Back in September, I wrote this sentence in my infamous "Boy Scouts article": "Increasingly, this culture war is becoming a Children’s Crusade." Within months, Exodus, the large "umbrella network" of ex-gay ministries, would lend weight to my words. Though they’d had an embarrassing year, what with the Will and Grace episode that savagely lampooned them, the high-profile defection of 22-year-old activist Wade Richards, and the infamous sighting of John Paulk at a seedy gay bar, Exodus refused to slink off the national stage. On November 7, Exodus announced the launch of Exodus Youth (EY), led by 30-year-old Jason Thompson, which will point teens to new ministries, websites, literature, and a CD-Rom designed just for them. Many sexual minorities whom I told about EY were shocked and angry. But is the fear and anger justified? To find out, I asked a gay youth worker, ex-ex-gays, and ex-gay youth ministers themselves. 

Helping Orlando Teens, One Way or Another

Mike McKee, 34, is the leader of GALIXY, the LGBT youth group that meets at the Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual community center every Wednesday. McKee is also a physics teacher at Cypress Creek High School. He is brash and opinionated, but his concern for sexual minority teens is obvious. GALIXY, whose members range in age from 14-21, is a discussion (not support) group. "There are very few advocates for the kids," he complains. Forty to sixty teens attend weekly. Members suggest topics and advise each other. "A lot of kids evolve," he says. "They progressively get stronger and come out." 

McKee tells me that some of the teens he sees are conflicted about their sexuality. "Those kids come from more religious families. Southern Baptist, Assemblies of God—forget it, you’re gonna have problems! But within the Christian and Jewish religions, there’s a large range from complete acceptance to complete non-acceptance." McKee, a former conservative Christian who describes himself as "not particularly religious," states that teens shouldn’t have to choose between their sexuality and their faith. "Where they feel the pressure is in a specific religion. They should feel like they can get unlocked from their religion and go somewhere more accepting." 

In his view, Exodus members are locked inside a prison of their own making. "They’re not based in any reality whatsoever. They didn’t grow up in any kind of tolerance, and they’re in denial about a lot of things. They try to make this false distinction between behavior and feelings." We agree that heterosexuals are never asked to make distinctions between their emotions and behavior. "Exodus is a bunch of freaks," he says. "They’re dangerous because they reach out to vulnerable, hurting people. I’ve tried and failed to argue with them. It’s like trying to argue with people who claim the sky’s green. There is no common ground." 

Alan Chambers disagrees with many of these assumptions, especially the "no common ground" part. Chambers, 28, is the director of Eleutheros, Orlando’s Exodus affiliate. He is also the founder of the first-ever ex-gay youth ministry, the Fringe Youth Outreach (FYO), which is housed at the Calvary Assemblies of God Church on Clay Street. Ironically enough, this is the church I left so acrimoniously at age 18. (Chambers is on the church’s pastoral staff, but Eleutheros pays him to conduct FYO. The ministry is not officially sponsored by the church.) Chambers is a popular ex-gay speaker. He co-produced The Map, Exodus’ CD-Rom, and moderates an e-mail list with 300 members. But his main duty is one-on-one counseling with teenage boys. "I have met with girls," he says, "but I try to connect them with ladies. I think guys need to talk with guys." Chambers is a "success story"—he was in Eleutheros counseling from 1990-1992, and married his best friend Leslie in 1998. In late 1992, the then 20-year-old Chambers joined Eleutheros’ staff. "I had a desire to reach out to teenagers," he recalls. "There wasn’t much for me then." In January 1999, he realized his dream by launching FYO. 

Teens are referred to FYO through churches, websites, word-of-mouth, and the occasional public school guidance counselor. Most of the teens are Christian. "Most parents think, ‘I gotta take ‘em to church, to a pastor,’" he says. "[Teens] come and think they’re gonna get beat over the head with a Bible. But we just have a conversation, and it’s not about them being gay or straight. I surprise most of them—I’m 28, in Doc Martens and jeans, not some starchy 50-year-old." He laughs, but quickly turns serious. "No matter what I think is right or wrong, these kids need a place where they won’t be turned away. Oftentimes, those who say ‘I wanna be gay’ stick around because they feel that I understand." In that situation, Chambers tells both the teens and parents to "be honest. Relationship is about disagreement and dialoguing. My goal isn’t necessarily to turn the kids straight, but to help them with their issues." According to Exodus, "about half of the boys in Chambers’ group have a history of sexual abuse." 

Two Sides of Portland

Jason Thompson, the son of an Episcopalian pastor, grew up in Portland, Oregon. By his account, he had all the advantages a gay boy could ask for: fairly liberal parents, a church with a gay group, a liberal city with LGBT youth groups, bookstores, and access to role models. Thompson gave them a chance, but there was one small problem. He wanted to be a heterosexual husband and father. People who understood this were in shorter supply. When he found the Portland Fellowship (PF), a venerable ex-gay ministry, at age 19, he felt as though he had come home. He married Amy in 1997, and is the father of baby Abbie. 

"I know there are other young people today who want the same thing I was looking for," Thompson says. He is dedicating his time to providing it, for sure. The Map was Thompson’s brainchild. In addition to leading EY, he is co-director of the Portland Fellowship. His ministry is not directed solely at youth—there are services for men, women, and relatives, from one-on-one counseling to a two-year-long support group. Teens are referred to PF "mostly through churches", though a spate of recent media appearances has also pointed teens to them. 

"After the parents leave, the very first thing I ask is, ‘Do you want to be here or are you pleasing your parents?’ If they’re here to please their parents, I ask them…if they would like to leave or listen for a while. Most listen to my story and what the place is about. Some are intrigued, while others are ready to go. For those who don’t want to be here, I talk to the parents and encourage them to lay off, yet hold to their beliefs. Some kids hear my story, and they’ve been looking for years for a place to find freedom. They pursue it and find victory," he wrote in an e-mail. As for those kids who don’t want PF’s help, "We encourage them to get all the information….to understand that there are men and women who find freedom from homosexuality." Norm Birthmark, 25, also came to PF at age 19. He spent two years in their support groups. Unlike Thompson, he has no intention of returning. He is the host of Yahoo’s Ex-Ex-Gay Ministry club. He points out that while Exodus decided to launch EY in October, it was announced on Election Day. Oregon voters were voting on an anti-gay measure to keep all positive information about homosexuality out of schools, and the leader is based in Oregon. The timing seemed suspicious to him. 

Birthmark attended several counseling sessions with Thompson and PF director Phil Hobizal. "The teaching was done from two angles: theology and psychology," he says. "Theologically, we were taught that the Bible teaches that homosexual behavior was sinful and therefore outside God’s will." He lists several psychological "roots" for homosexuality that he was taught: "being too close to your mother, having an absent or distant father, not developing same-sex friendships, being sexually abused by someone of the same sex, being sexually abused by someone of the opposite sex, feeling insecure about your masculinity or femininity. It seemed to me that…anyone, gay or straight, could have fitted into at least a few of the "root" categories. I and other participants felt that we had to dredge up a lot of childhood issues in order to have material for the small group discussions." 

Two things compelled him to leave. He claims that PF discourages questioning of "doctrinal differences", methodology, et cetera. "I talked to the leaders and expressed doubt about my progress. They told me I wasn’t enthusiastic enough and I expressed too many doubts during the program." Birthmark eventually had an epiphany. "I had joined the program with the intention of growing closer to God in my Christian faith. However, instead it seemed like my whole spiritual life focused on fighting against my sexual attractions." 

Birthmark isn’t bitter. "I don’t want to imply that PF or ex-gay ministries intentionally hurt gays and lesbians. I think some ex-gay leaders genuinely believe in what they are doing and are sincere in their motives. Retroactively, I view my ex-gay experience as part of my coming-out process. I had to reconcile my sexuality and beliefs. The ex-gay ministry provided a way of exploring my beliefs that I could not in a fundamentalist or evangelical church. But I’ve had to spend a lot of time and energy rebuilding my sexual and spiritual identity." 

Gratitude, Freedom and Understanding

I began my research with a sanguine approach. As a Bisexual and a Pagan who demands sexual and religious freedom, I feel that my only proper response to ex-gays is to respect their sexual and religious freedom as well. When I first read about EY, I thought of a friend of mine. She had asked her co-workers if they could help her move. One of them volunteered his vehicle—a compact car with a sound system that took up half the trunk. I saw EY as that compact. Though it’s not the sort of help that many people ask for, it is generously offered nonetheless. You can’t get mad at someone for that. 

But as I researched, I found myself getting sad and angry. Bitter memories returned to me. Some of the political opinions expressed by ex-gays made my jaw drop. I openly cried at times. Many times, I whispered, "Thank the Gods I left that behind." If my personality was slightly different, I might have ended up in ex-gay ministry, too. 

Birthmark is also thankful. He is happily gay and actively Christian, and no longer feels that he is "a moral and spiritual failure". Jallen Rix, an ex-ex-gay who wrote a workbook called "Ex-Gay? No Way!", is grateful that his spirituality and sexuality are finally in balance. He compares ex-gay ministry to slavery and cults, and advises teens not to "chop yourself into little boxes with your spirit in the clouds and your sexuality in the gutter. You are all of you wherever you go—completely spiritual, completely sexual. It’s a great thing!" 

But Chambers and Thompson also express gratitude that they’re not what they were, and their contentment motivates them to help teens join them. Thompson says, "I was suicidal, empty, alone and afraid when I was gay. I am now happy, full of life, confident, and secure as a straight man." His one major source of sadness is his beloved daughter, who was born with only half a heart. I won’t question them. I’m too used to being questioned myself, and I’m not in their hearts, minds, or bedrooms. 

"If God loves unconditionally, why can’t you?" Rix demands of EY’s leaders. "I’d like to ask the readers of Watermark to live by the words they’re so proud of: Honor diversity," says Thompson. "There are men and women who want to, and do, overcome homosexuality. I hope we can all come to respect people’s decisions." No matter how old we are, or how we deal with sex and spirituality, we all need understanding. 


Jayelle Lukash's review of "The Map"



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