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Memphis Area Love In Action Offers Residential Program to “Cure” Homosexuality

The Christian “ex-gay” movement, which claims to “cure” homosexuals, is booming across the country. At the same time, it has left a trail of shattered lives in its wake.

Psychotherapist Richard Cohen, a self-described "ex-gay" himself, demonstrates his "healing touch" therapy on CNN's "Paula Zahn Now." The appearance, meant to promote Cohen's method of "curing" homosexuality, was a public relations disaster.

John Smid has a high school diploma, a minister's license and five acres of land outside Memphis, Tenn., where he "cures" homosexuals. For most of the past two decades, Smid's residential "ex-gay" program was known as Love in Action. The majority of the young men who entered the program came from the kind of conservative religious upbringing where being gay is a sin that will cast a person out of church, family and home. To rid themselves of "unwanted same-sex attractions" they paid $1,000 a month, with some staying at the facility for years.

At LIA, as it was known, staff would lead clients in group sessions to trace out childhood trauma alongside lessons in throwing footballs, changing motor oil and learning how to cross their legs in a manly fashion. In much of the world of ex-gay ministries, same-sex attractions are thought to result from childhood sexual abuse or parents who failed to instill masculinity in their sons. Since the goal is to rewire parent-child dynamics, LIA clients were forbidden to call their families. Those who worked in Memphis while living on the LIA compound had to navigate around a "forbidden zone" that covered nearly half the city, keeping them miles away from its handful of adult book stores. They were ordered to drive straight to and from work without speaking to strangers.

"On our way to work, we saw two cars get into an accident. We actually debated over whether we should stop," said Peterson Toscano, who lived at LIA for two years in the early 1990s and now helms an ex-gay survivors' movement. They didn't stop. "Looking back, I see how brainwashed we were. We were sick the whole day. We could have helped the people."

Toscano still has the 374-page LIA handbook that governed every day he spent trying to become heterosexual. Tom Otteson, another former client of Smid's, said he was told that "it would be better if I were to commit suicide than go back into the world and become a homosexual again." In 2005, Smid tried to clarify those comments to a reporter from the pro-gay Memphis magazine Family & Friends: "I said [to Otteson], 'It would almost be better if you weren't alive than to return back to the life that you have struggled so much to leave.'"

Unlike his clients, Smid was not isolated from the world. In 2005, when Tennessee officials investigated LIA for dispensing psychotropic medicine and treating minors without a license, it seemed certain the place would be shut down. But Smid kept his operation alive by countersuing the state of Tennessee with the help of senior counsel from the Alliance Defense Fund, the powerhouse legal arm of the Christian Right.

Today, Love in Action is part of a booming phenomenon that is also known as the "sexual reorientation therapy" movement, an effort that is reflected in the hundreds of programs attached to religious organizations across the United States. Although the stated aim of the movement is to turn gays straight and bring them to God, it actually now has as much to do with battling the gay rights movement by trying to prove that sexuality is not an immutable characteristic like race or gender. Ex-gay ministries began as redoubts for men and women trying to reconcile their faith and sexuality. But in the hands of the anti-gay Christian Right, they have become full-fledged propaganda machines depicting gays as sex-addicted, mentally ill, and stunted heterosexuals.

A Flourishing Movement
Love In Action no longer describes itself as therapy but as a "ministry." It's scaled down its residential program in favor of a $2,000, four-day "intensive" encounter for families and teens called Refuge. Focus on the Family, the largest and wealthiest Christian Right organization in the country, now invites Smid to appear several times a year on an ex-gay lecture circuit called Love Won Out, where he speaks on masturbation and "healing homosexuality."

Residential ex-gay treatment centers like LIA was in the 1990s are still rare. There are currently just three in America — one in northern California, one in Kansas and one in Kentucky. But ex-gay "ministries" like Refuge are numerous. There are at least 200 such programs among the country's churches, religious counseling centers and religious college campuses. Smid serves on the board of Exodus International, an umbrella group representing 150 ex-gay ministries in 17 different countries.

Most of the people who run ex-gay ministries are not hatemongers and see their activities as a labor of love and compassion. "[They're] sincere, well-meaning people who are not in it for the money," says Toscano. But in recent years, the ex-gay movement has been co-opted by virulently anti-gay groups who routinely refer to homosexuality as an evil force that threatens to destroy America. These groups increasingly are hiring ex-gay activists as spokesmen, funding ex-gay research and establishing ex-gay ministries.

Focus on the Family, based in Colorado Springs, Colo., now runs its own traveling ex-gay ministry, Love Won Out, which has drawn crowds of several hundred in more than 50 cities since 2001. Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson finances studies on ex-gay "conversion therapies," and the late Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell, who once infamously claimed that gays, lesbians and other agents of liberalism spurred the 9/11 terrorist attacks, was a keynote speaker at a 2006 ex-gay conference. In Lynchburg, Va., both the church and the university Falwell founded have ex-gay ministries.

The American Family Association, another Christian Right group, distributes "It's Not Gay," a video that uses ex-gay testimonies — including that of a man who has since admitted to holding gay sex parties — to claim that 95% of gay couples are not monogamous. Separately, the AFA employs anti-gay junk science to claim that gays die very early and are far more likely to molest children than heterosexuals. (These claims, made by propagandist hatemongers like Paul Cameron of the Family Values Institute, are completely false and have been discredited numerous times by legitimate scientists.)

Leaders of Watchmen on the Walls, an international anti-gay group that blames the Nazi Holocaust on homosexuals, tell audiences that "one of the most important things you can do is start an ex-gay movement here." One of the Watchmen's members was a featured keynote speaker at its recent conference. The Traditional Values Coalition, a major California-based organization listed by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group for its virulent anti-gay activities, and Florida-based Coral Ridge Ministries have even created their own ex-gay holiday, National Coming Out of Homosexuality Day, falling one day after National Coming Out Day.

"Indifference or neutrality toward the homosexual rights movement will result in society's destruction," the American Family Association declared in a press release. "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."

'New Creations'?
Reparative or sexual reorientation therapy, the pseudo-scientific foundation of the ex-gay movement, has been discredited by virtually all major American medical, psychiatric, psychological and professional counseling organizations. The American Psychological Association, for instance, declared in 2006: "There is simply no sufficiently scientifically sound evidence that sexual orientation can be changed. Our further concern is that the positions espoused by NARTH [the National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality] and Focus on the Family create an environment in which prejudice and discrimination can flourish." The powerful American Medical Association, for its part, officially "opposes the use of 'reparative' or 'conversion' therapy that is based on the assumption that homosexuality per se is a mental disorder or based upon the a priori assumption that the patient should change his/her homosexual orientation."

Jim Burroway, who runs Box Turtle Bulletin, a website that tracks the ex-gay movement, says a key theme in ex-gay ideology is the idea that "there's no such thing as gay." Instead, gays and lesbians are described as "sexually broken" or heterosexuals who suffer from "same-sex attractions."

Sexual brokenness, according to ex-gay doctrine, usually occurs early in childhood, the result of an overbearing mother, an emotionally distant father, or sexual abuse. Focus on the Family ex-gay lecturers routinely and flatly declare that all gays and lesbians are victims of childhood sexual abuse.

About the only time the word "gay" appears in the ex-gay lexicon is in the phrase "gay lifestyle," which is largely seen as describing a hedonistic mix of one-night stands and sexually transmitted diseases that culminates in early death or abandonment when youthful beauty fades. The ex-gay movement has little language to describe the real world in which lesbians and gays hold elected office, appear on TV shows and raise families. At best, people like U.S. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and talk show host Ellen DeGeneres are labeled as "gay-identified." Exodus President Alan Chambers and other, harsher ex-gay leaders call them "militant gays," simply because they are not actively working to renounce their same-sex attractions. Churches that accept gays are branded "false churches."

A younger Peterson Toscano with his then-mentor John Smid, who worked to rid Toscano of his "unwanted same-sex attractions."

Still, even many ex-gay proponents admit that total conversion to heterosexuality is at best an elusive goal. Frank Worthen, who runs the ex-gay residential program New Hope out of an apartment complex in San Rafael, Calif., writes in his curriculum workbook Steps Out: "Our primary goal is not to make heterosexuals out of homosexual people. God alone determines whether a former homosexual person is to marry and rear a family, or if he (or she) is to remain celibate, serving the Lord with his whole heart."

'Ancestor Sin' and 40-Day Fasts
Exodus, which has a $1 million budget, and NARTH both provide referrals to ex-gay programs and therapists that offer a bewildering array of techniques and philosophies.

Exodus has over 150 evangelical ministries throughout the U.S. and in Australia, Canada, China, Europe, Japan, Latin America, the Philippines and Singapore. Most of the ministries are locally run but remain under the Exodus umbrella. A few of them target Latinos and African Americans, as well as the deaf. In the U.S., coordinators for 14 different geographic regions make sure that local ministries have Exodus accreditation and trained staff. Despite that, Exodus ministries seem to have as many approaches to ex-gay work as they do regions.

Exodus makes referrals to ministries like Living Waters, a popular neo-Pentecostal ex-gay program that treats homosexuality as a spirit that can be induced by "ancestor sin" and pushed out through exorcism. "We had pretty much a whole day dedicated to going through our entire genealogy and asking for forgiveness for the sins of our ancestors," said Eric Leocadio, who went through the 30-week program in his early 20s. He says he was also told to keep "certain boundaries in your friendship, never connecting with someone emotionally because you might fall in love with them."

During his time with an ex-gay ministry, Toscano said a pastor had him fast for a week at a time. "He said it was a matter of breaking through physical appetites related to lust. … There were others who fasted, sometimes for up to 40 days."

Secular ex-gay therapies, even if less physically demanding, are no less bizarre. On Ex-Gay Watch, a watchdog website, a woman named Pamela Ferguson describes the reparative therapy her ex-husband underwent as a last-ditch attempt to save their marriage. "I was once told to hold [my ex-husband's] penis in my hand as we fell asleep. After a week or two of this, [he supposedly] would be suddenly and inexplicably inflamed with desire for me." The couple declined the suggestion.

At "ex-gay barbecues" held at her house, Ferguson says she met several men who said they were asked to measure their penises and report the results to their group. All of them refused.

The longtime president of NARTH is Joseph Nicolosi, a licensed psychotherapist who teaches that any man who thinks he's gay simply "has failed to enact his masculinity." NARTH, based in Encino, Calif., is a referral service for its more than 1,000 members, who are both religious and secular ex-gay counselors (NARTH does not require members to be licensed or accredited). NARTH was founded by Charles Socarides, whose openly gay son later served in the Clinton administration as the first-ever liaison to the gay community.

One of Nicolosi's own former ex-gay patients, Daniel Gonzales, said most of his therapy sessions took place over the telephone. "Whenever I found myself attracted to a guy, I was supposed to befriend him and demystify him," said Gonzales. "It never occurred to [Nicolosi] that some of the guys I'm attracted to weren't straight." After spending a year in the $250-an-hour sessions, Gonzales didn't feel any less gay. He says he quit the therapy after realizing that "I would have to do these mental gymnastics for the rest of my life."

Wayne Besen, a former researcher for the pro-gay Human Rights Campaign, spent four years looking into ex-gay therapies for his 2003 book Anything But Straight: Unmasking the Scandals and Lies Behind the Ex-Gay Myth. At one ministry that he attended undercover, gay men were instructed to keep rubber bands on their wrist and snap them any time they felt themselves "watching someone erotically or engaging in fantasy." In another ministry, he held hands with other "strugglers" as they read an anti-masturbation prayer: "I build high dikes on the right hand and on the left hand and in Jesus' name I command that it shall not overflow to the left hand or the right hand, but it shall flow quietly in its normal channel."

Emphasis on the alleged link between masturbation and homosexuality is widespread in ex-gay therapy. Exodus board member and family therapist Jayson Graves, for instance, teaches on his call-in radio show that masturbation is a gateway to "same-sex attraction" because "it is a form of sex with yourself."

When Moms Go Bad
One of the most controversial ex-gay therapy techniques is "healing touch," which involves men striving to become ex-gay cradling and rocking other men in their arms. Last January, Richard Cohen, a licensed psychotherapist who claims to be personally ex-gay, demonstrated healing touch on CNN's "Paula Zahn Now" and Comedy Central's "The Daily Show." Cohen also demonstrated "bioenergetics," which involves beating on chairs with tennis rackets and screaming, "Mom, Mom, why did you do this to me?" When Cohen appeared on ABC's "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" one month later seated next to George Foreman, he demonstrated healing touch therapy by putting his arms around the former heavyweight boxing champion and explaining, "You comfort him and love him like he's your own boy."

Daniel Gonzales said most of his counseling sessions with Dr. Joseph Nicolosi, a leading proponent of "ex-gay" therapy, took place on the phone. Today, Gonzales speaks out frequently about the therapy that he now believes damages men and women.

After his disastrous TV appearances, both Exodus and NARTH scrubbed any mention of Cohen from their websites and released statements publicly disavowing healing touch therapy. Yet both organizations continue to promote healing touch through a program called Journey Into Manhood, whose leaders are featured at Exodus conferences and highlighted on NARTH's website. Journey Into Manhood is a nominally secular program founded by Catholic, Jewish and Mormon counselors. The counselors operate weekend outdoors retreats throughout the country that require men to bond with one another through wilderness adventures and holding each other in "non-sexual healing touch."

Alex Liberato went through 10 weeks of the Journey Into Manhood curriculum after he was outed as a gay man while a student at highly conservative Brigham Young University in Utah. Much of the curriculum centered on recovering early child-parent memories. But men were also required to hold one another. "It just seemed like it allowed guys to touch each other without there being sex," said Liberato. The thought of spending a concluding weekend in the Utah wilderness, having to uncomfortably touch and be touched by male strangers repulsed him. He says he was made to understand that nudity might also be involved. "I was in the parking lot. I just got [back] in my car and drove off," said Liberato.

Just this September, Texas ex-gay therapist Chris Austin was convicted of two counts of felony sexual assault on a patient and sentenced to 10 years in prison. (A judge later reduced that sentence to seven years of probation but fined Austin $2,500 and stripped him of his counseling license.) The charges were based on a complaint filed by Mark Hufford, a client of Austin's for over a year. Hufford testified that Austin held healing touch sessions that progressed to include nude massage and oral sex. Hufford originally sought treatment while married to a woman but has since accepted his gay identity, divorced and begun dating a man. In addition to his own counseling practice, Austin also operated the Renew homosexual recovery program at South MacArthur Church of Christ in Irving, Texas.

Austin was a member of NARTH and had written a treatment curriculum called "Cleaning Out the Closet." His wife ran a program for the spouses of "husbands who struggle with homosexuality." Austin's criminal conviction is the first widely known case of a therapist being convicted of sexual assault in conjunction with ex-gay therapy.

Arousing the Extremists
In the late 1990s, the most powerful anti-gay groups of the evangelical right underwent their own version of ex-gay therapy. It was an unlikely conversion — most churches at the time held ex-gay ministries at arm's length, with their noses pinched. While many preached that homosexuality was a sinful choice, few wanted the stigma or controversy of hosting an ex-gay ministry.

Ethnographer Tanya Erzen spent a year observing New Hope Ministry, an ex-gay residential program in operation since the late 1970s, for her 2006 book, Straight to Jesus: Sexual and Christian Conversions in the Ex-Gay Movement. The program's director told Erzen: "Initially, all our opposition came from the Christian community, rather than the gay community. … It will take the church about one hundred years to really understand what we're doing."

Actually, it only took about 20 years. In 1998, two dozen of the country's leading Christian Right groups convened in Colorado Springs, Colo., at Focus on the Family's sprawling headquarters complex. Led by Janet Folger of the Center for Reclaiming America for Christ, the coalition of anti-gay groups called themselves "Truth in Love." They decided to spend $600,000 on advertisements in the New York Times and USA Today to try to make "ex-gay" a household word.

Folger spelled out the new strategy in an NPR interview, saying, "That ex-gays exist shatters the foundation of the homosexual movement." On ABC's "Nightline," she admitted to wanting to imprison gays through enforcing anti-sodomy laws that were later thrown out by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional. Regardless, Truth in Love officials maintained that their message was one of hope and compassion.

Initially, ex-gay therapists and ministers were elated at the money and attention from the wealthy and powerful Christ Right groups that had shunned them for decades. In 1999, the Family Research Council, created as a political arm of James Dobson's Focus on the Family, gave $80,000 to fund PFOX, or Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays. In return, PFOX president Anthony Falzarano — a former male prostitute and confidante of closeted prosecutor Roy M. Cohn, the rabid anti-communist who persecuted homosexuals before dying in 1986 from complications of AIDS — lobbied to keep anti-sodomy laws from being repealed in Louisiana. But Falzarano quickly realized that the new money infusion was really for lobbying against gay rights rather than expanding ex-gay ministries. Before the year was out, he had called a press conference to denounce anti-gay leaders. "Many of us in the ex-gay movement," he said at the event, "feel we're being used."

A Reach for Power
Today, PFOX is headed by Regina Griggs, the mother of an openly gay son. The group's goals have as much to do with transforming public schools as they do with changing people's sexual identities. In a move its officials aim to replicate nationally, PFOX, with the help of Alliance Defense Fund and the Thomas More Law Center ("Christianity's answer to the ACLU"), sued the Montgomery County School District in Maryland for the right to operate a high school ex-gay club. PFOX lost the suit but continues to distribute ex-gay literature in Maryland schools.

Exodus, which for decades had been an apolitical ministry, has transformed itself into a lobbying apparatus seemingly at odds with its nonprofit status as a ministry. This August, Exodus hired Amanda Banks, a lobbyist with Focus on the Family, to direct lobbying in the Congress and the U.S. Senate. Since her hire, Exodus says it has met with 55 national lawmakers. Banks claims that one unnamed U.S. senator regularly consults with Exodus to learn "how to talk about gay issues without sounding like a bigot."

A new spin-off organization called ExodusRoots sends out daily alerts to readers, telling them how to contact their local congressmen to testify against hate crime laws that would protect gays and lesbians. Incredibly, Exodus Vice President Randy Thomas uses his own experience being assaulted and gay-bashed at a Thanksgiving party in 1988 to argue against legislation that he calls "thought crimes laws." Thomas says he was rescued from the attack by a "pair of angry lesbians" but nonetheless insists that hate crime laws would make his life "as a former homosexual less valuable now than when we were living as homosexuals."

Other heavy hitters on the Exodus board include Phil Burress, a star organizer for the Christian Right who tapped into a personal database of 1.5 million voters and raised more than $3 million in a few weeks to support Ohio's 2004 anti-gay marriage initiative. Exodus Chairman Melissa Coffey headed the ex-gay Regeneration Ministries while working as an aide to U.S. Rep. Rich Boucher (R-Va.) and a staff assistant to the government's 9-11 Commission. She now travels as a guest lecturer and speaks on "The Journey Through Lesbianism."

Both Chambers and Thomas, the president and vice president of Exodus, met with President George Bush in the summer of 2006 as part of a delegation to lobby for a constitutional amendment barring same-sex marriage. And James Holsinger, Bush's current nominee for U.S. surgeon general, founded a church in Kentucky that operates an ex-gay ministry. In 1991, Holsinger submitted a white paper to his church — "Pathophysiology of Male Homosexuality" — that argued that gays and lesbians can alter their sexuality through prayer and willpower. Holsinger has since changed his views and now runs workshops on lesbian health issues.

But enthusiasts and ideologues of the ex-gay movement haven't given up hope that science will confirm their view.

Playing With Numbers

Exodus International President Alan Chambers doesn't merely seek to help people overcome their homosexuality. He accuses gays of having "an evil agenda" that will sweep up anyone "standing idly by."

To back up their claims that homosexuality is purely a deviant lifestyle choice, ex-gay leaders frequently cite the Thomas Project, a four-year study of ex-gay programs, paid for by Exodus, that recruited subjects exclusively from Exodus ministries. It was conducted by Mark Yarhouse, a psychology professor at Pat Robertson's Regents University, and Stanton Jones, provost of Wheaton College, an evangelical institution in Illinois. Both are members of NARTH. The study was conducted through face-to-face and some phone interviews conducted annually over the course of four years. Results were published this September.

Of nearly 100 people surveyed, only 11% reported a move towards heterosexuality. But no one in the study reports becoming fully heterosexual; according to the study's authors, even the 11% group "did not report themselves to be without experience of homosexual arousal, and did not report heterosexual orientation to be unequivocal and uncomplicated."

The researchers had originally hoped for 300 subjects but, according to an article in Christianity Today, "found many Exodus ministries mysteriously uncooperative." Over the course of the four-year study, a quarter of the participants dropped out. Their reasons for quitting were not tracked. Nevertheless, the study was hailed by Exodus, Focus on the Family and the Southern Baptist Convention as "scientific evidence to prove what we as former homosexuals have known all along — that those who struggle with unwanted same-sex attraction can experience freedom from it."

Even more remarkably, Focus on the Family cites a 67% success rate. It came up with that number by counting as "successes" subjects who practice chastity or were still engaged in homosexual acts or thoughts "but expressed commitment to continue" the therapy.

Despite its rhetoric that "freedom from unwanted homosexuality is possible," Exodus officials seem quietly aware that few, if any, of the thousands of people who participate in their ministries actually change their sexual orientation. Exodus pamphlets with titles like "My Fiancé(e) is Ex-Gay: Are We Ready for Marriage?" and "Women & Ex-Gay Men: Establishing Healthy Boundaries" present ex-gay status as essentially an act of faith.

"Why do ex-gay men pursue women?" one pamphlets asks. The answers offered describe the ex-gay movement itself: "Social Expectation … Self-Reassurance … Blind Faith."

Wink and Nod
One of the first things to strike a newcomer to any Exodus conference is how much it seems to play to stereotypes of gay men. At Revolution, the name Exodus gave to its conference this June at Concordia University in Irvine, Calif., the young men attending wore designer jeans and tight-fitting T-shirts. They had pierced ears and expensive haircuts. Burroway, the gay man who tracks the ex-gay movement for Box Turtle Bulletin, describes Exodus conferences he's attended as "one of the gayest things I have ever been to."

At the June conference in Irvine, which promised "complete, sudden, radical change," Exodus Vice President Randy Thomas, the master of ceremonies, dangled his wrists as he made self-conscious jokes about how much he likes the Seattle Seahawks since Tiger Woods took them to the Stanley Cup. Announcing a free Friday afternoon for conference attendees, his voice grew high-pitched when he told the audience, "There's plenty of shopping."

In short, Exodus attendees were free to nod and wink at their gay pasts. After all, as many ex-gay leaders say, "No one chooses to struggle with same-sex attraction." But a glance at Exodus seminars reveals that the road to "healing" is paved with plenty of self-hatred.

Seminars at the Irvine conference boasted militant-sounding titles such as "A Hero's Journey: Fighting the Battle of Your Life." One of the featured speakers was Michael L. Brown, author of Revolution: The Call to Holy War and a millennial Jew. On Exodus' opening day, Brown made certain that his ex-gay audience understood that their lives were part of a religious and political battle. "You folks here, so many of you that have come out of homosexuality or are battling to come out, listen, you are right in the middle of the battle because if you exist, then this whole gay civil rights thing goes out the door," Brown said to applause. "That is why there is a pitched attack from hell."

Five minutes later, Brown quoted from the Black Panthers and told the members of his audience that they need to develop a revolutionary mentality, including the maxim, "life as is it is is not worth living, but the cause is worth dying for."

Before the four-day Exodus conference came to an end, Focus on the Family and Exodus spokesman Mike Haley showed a final video clip on the gargantuan multimedia screen. By that time, the audience was in a weakened emotional state. Over the past four days, they'd been repeatedly told they had failed as parents, failed as boys and girls, failed as husbands and wives, and that their failure to change may lead them to fail God as well.

The video showed a local evening news segment from a town in the Midwest. A soldier is granted an unexpected furlough from Iraq. He makes a surprise visit to his son's first-grade classroom. The boy curls up in his father's arms, crying uncontrollably. Most of the audience was soon doing the same.

"I want you all to have the strength of that little boy," said Haley.

Harm? What Harm?
The same weekend as the Exodus Revolution conference, just a mile down the road at the campus of University of California-Irvine, 100 men and women gathered for the first-ever Ex-Gay Survivor's conference, subtitled "Undoing the Damage, Affirming Our Lives Together." For some, it was a space to heal. Scott Tucker, another alumnus of LIA who is now openly gay, said that for years he faulted himself for failing to turn straight until he realized the programs had the opposite effect, isolating him in a "ghetto" of gay men trying to become straight.

For others, it was a place to challenge Exodus and turn its message of "change is possible" upside down. "Yes you can pursue change. But at what cost?" said Toscano. He and other ex-gay survivors invited Exodus President Alan Chambers and other ex-gay leaders to an off-the-record dinner. "From knowing quite a few of you personally, we know that you have a heart to help people and to serve God. You meant to bless us," read the invitation. "Too often once we leave your programs, you never hear about our lives and what happens to us."

Exodus officials declined the invitation.

Shawn O'Donnell, who spent a decade in ex-gay ministries beginning when he was 15, chalked up his experiences on a blackboard at the Ex-Gay Survivor's conference. "I see now that going through these ex-gay experiences caused harm in my life. I heard the message loud and clear that I was a horrible person. I began cutting on myself at such an early age because I just couldn't deal with the fact that I was gay," wrote O'Donnell. "I grew to hate myself and tried to take my life a few times."

O'Donnell later posted the same comments on his blog, receiving a stream of supportive comments. Exodus' Chambers, who frequently challenges the posts on ex-gay survivors' sites, wrote back: "Harm? Come on, Shawn. No one is being harmed by Exodus offering people a choice. You KNOW better."

Behind closed doors, though, Exodus' president admits to struggling with homosexuality every day of his life. "Every day, I wake up and deny what comes naturally to me," Chambers told a private audience of about 75 "strugglers" at an ex-gay conference held in Phoenix last February.

If there's any doubt where the ex-gay leaders are taking the movement, Chambers clarified it this September, speaking to a Who's Who of the anti-gay Christian Right at the Family Impact Summit in Brandon, Fla.

"We have to stand up against an evil agenda," Chambers told his fellow hard-liners. "It is an evil agenda and it will take anyone captive that is willing, or that is standing idly by."

Emily Brown and Janet Smith contributed to this report.