By Cary Leider Vogrin
Colorado Springs Gazette

The Rev. Ted Haggard story has reignited discussion about what makes a person gay ‚Äî and whether someone can switch sexual orientation and become an “ex-gay.”

On one side are organizations like Focus on the Family and Exodus International, which at conferences across the country teach that homosexuality is a lifestyle that can be overcome.

On the other are groups such as Truth Wins OUT, formed specifically to counter such ministries and whose director, gay activist Wayne Besen, says there’ no such thing as an “ex-gay.”

“It’ a recloseted homosexual,” Besen said. “I have never met an ex-gay who isn’t on the payroll of a group like Focus on the Family or Exodus.”

Besen monitors both ministry groups, sometimes attends their conferences and said he has exposed “ex-gays” ‚Äî including a former Focus on the Family employee ‚Äî in compromising situations.Just last week, Truth Wins OUT posted two videos on YouTube aimed at further debunking what Besen calls “the ex-gay myth.”

A video released Thursday features Robert L. Spitzer, a Columbia University psychiatry professor who says Focus on the Family is using his research on homosexuality out of context. And on Valentine’ Day, Besen posted a nineminute video that features a Mormon couple who are divorcing after 25 years because the husband is gay.

Besen said the movement to reform gays by encouraging marriage ends up hurting spouses and children.

“There is a lot of pressure to be normal and get married,” Besen said. “They treat the spouse as collateral damage in their social experiment.”

Besen said no amount of therapy ‚Äî he calls it “praying away the gay” ‚Äî can turn a gay person straight.

“It’ about denial. If you look at the programs themselves, it’ about actors playing roles,” he said.

“All roads run through Colorado Springs,” Besen said of the ex-gay movement. “James Dobson’ calling the shots.”

Besen’ Web site calls the “Love Won Out” conferences sponsored by Focus on the Family “the single biggest exgay threat individual communities face.”

Focus on the Family holds six such conferences a year that average 1,000 attendees each, according to Melissa Fryrear, the ministry’ director of gender issues and self-described former lesbian. The most recent conference was Feb. 10 in Phoenix.

“We’re addressing a number of topics related to homosexuality from an orthodox Christian viewpoint,” Fryrear said. “We’re offering attendees an explanation as to what we think is the development of same-sex attraction.”

Fryrear and others in the movement believe environmental factors, temperament, childhood influences and a person’ interactions with peers all can contribute to the formation of same-sex attractions.

She said a disproportionate number of people she’ worked with have had a breakdown ‚Äî real or perceived ‚Äî in their family relationships.

“Understand we’re not saying that in every case. We’ve talked with some men, for example, and their father wasn’t able to be really physically and emotionally present to them.”

The result, she said, is that some men then seek out the affirmation of other men in homosexual relationships.

“We don’t believe there’ a gay gene. We also believe that by and large, men and women don’t choose these feelings,” she said.

Fryrear said she spent 10 years immersed in the gay community, beginning at age 16. In 1992, when she was 26, she said she “made a conscious decision that homosexual behavior was wrong” and began intensive work that included counseling, support groups and conferences.

“I’ve come out of so many closets, it’ a wonder I can find my shoes,” she said. “And by the way, they’re pumps now instead of Army boots.”

Fryrear believes her attractions to women were influenced by the fact she was adopted and by other childhood issues.

She said that even if science can prove a genetic link to homosexuality, it would not change what Focus teaches.

“The reason why is because homosexuality for us is also a moral issue,” she said. “It’ really what we believe and what we’re for is sexual behavior expressed within the boundary of marriage between one man and one woman.”

Fryrear said she has not talked with her former partner in more than a decade. She said she is very happy with her life and has a preference for red-headed men.

She doesn’t have a boyfriend, but is “accepting proposals.”

At Focus, she has the position once held by John Paulk, whose story of leaving homosexuality and getting married was on the cover of Newsweek in 1998. Paulk also was on the board of Exodus International and became the face for the organization’ cause.

He made national news again in 2000, this time when Besen photographed him at a gay bar in Washington, D.C. He resigned from Focus in 2003 and moved with his family to Oregon, where he is a chef and owner of a catering company.

Paulk declined a request for an interview, saying he is living a normal life out of the media glare with his wife and children.

Floyd Godfrey, director of Family Strategies & Coaching in Phoenix who works with men wanting to change their sexual orientation said he, too, spent several years in counseling. He said he’ now been married 14 years and has three children.

Godfrey, like Fryrear, cited “a constellation of factors” behind same-sex attraction, which often includes “a disruption in the connection with their father,” and that his work focuses on the emotional issues behind those factors.

“If a young boy misses the bonding or insufficiently bonds with the same-sex mentor, that need for bonding doesn’t go away,” he said.

“This is not a fast therapy,” he said, adding he only works with people who want to change. “If a kid is coming (to therapy) and their parents want them to change, we don’t do that.”

Besen believes no amount of therapy or prayer will make someone straight.

“I think Haggard has done more damage to the ex-gay cause than any activist could do in a hundred years,” Besen said.

“If this guy couldn’t pray away the gay, who can?”