Sean Greystone chose Foodles, an out-of-the-way San Rafael restaurant, to meet his rescuers from Evangelicals Concerned. The nervous Greystone scheduled the clandestine April 1994 rendezvous for his lunch break because members of Love in Action, a strict association of Christians who have renounced homosexuality, watched his every move at all other times.
Greystone, 32, felt his life had hit rock bottom after signing up with Love in Action, one of a growing number of fundamentalist Christian ministries nationwide that offer gays and lesbians "freedom from homosexuality." The live-in program of stern discipline and unwavering obedience didn't curb Greystone's gay sexual desires, but it did leave him feeling beaten down, suicidal and a failure in the eyes of God.
"The program isolates you -- I had no money and no contacts," recalls the computer-company employee, who six months earlier had packed up his car and left Montana hoping to straighten his homosexual soul and get back in line with the Lord's design.
To break free from Love in Action's cult-like grip, Greystone contacted Evangelicals Concerned, a little-known gay Christian association with 600 members in the Bay Area. As an evangelical group that specializes in helping refugees from local "ex-gay" ministries like Love in Action, E.C. confounds expectations. "In this world there are the Christian gay haters and the gay Christian haters," explains E.C. volunteer Jallen Rix of San Francisco. "But we see gay sexuality as a gift from God."
Theologically speaking, says Rix, evangelical Christianity and homosexuality are perfectly compatible, although this fact has been muffled by the anti-gay rhetoric of the religious right. "Evangelicals have such a bad rap today," remarks Rix, who is a Baptist, "but the definition of evangelical comes from the word used in history, evangel, a person who brings good news. That's all it is."
The number of ex-gay ministries in the United States has grown steadily over the last 10 years, mirroring the ascendancy of the conservative Christian political movement. There are four in the Bay Area: New Hope Foundation, based in San Rafael (which replaced Love in Action after that group moved to Tennessee last year); New Ministries, in San Leandro; Transformed Image, in San Jose; and an operation in Fremont run by a lone individual. All of the ex-gay groups are members of a clearinghouse ministry called Exodus International, whose world headquarters is in San Rafael. Exodus claims a total of 75 ex-gay ministries in its North American network. Large organizations like Focus on the Family, in Colorado Springs, and Pat Robertson's 700 Club regularly refer people to Love in Action, according to the group's literature.
"With over 20 years of research and experience, Love in Action has gained worldwide recognition as a leading authority on healing for the homosexual," proclaims one Love in Action pamphlet. Director John Smid, reached by telephone in Memphis, placed his group's success rate at about 70 percent. "I would say someone is successful if they live under sexual chastity," he says, "but it's unrealistic to think that people won't have another sexual thought."
Yet several people who dropped out of Love in Action view the program as anything but a "success," describing its rigid regime as abusive and harmful. The group housed about 50 men in two buildings in residential areas of San Rafael. The participants, who paid $550 a month plus expenses, entered a world where their behavior was tightly controlled and monitored. "The control measures were ridiculous," says Greystone. "They had [many restrictions] to guarantee there was no sex," he asserts, yet he eventually felt betrayed because the program didn't address the more fundamental issue of his continuing sexual yearnings for men.
Residents generally had to be escorted upon leaving the house and were encouraged to spy on each other to prevent any contact with strangers. After work, residents were required to return directly to the house and to participate in scheduled events until curfew. Treatment included instruction in how to cross their legs: Knee over knee is feminine and forbidden, while ankle on knee is masculine and permissible. A house leader told one resident to remove his wristwatch because it "looked gay."
"If the program isn't working for you and you ask honest questions, you are called a rebel and they turn everyone against you," explains Greystone. "Love in Action promises that there is a way out but their methods don't work. And they know it. [They create] an illusion of freedom."
Also unable to kick his sexual appetite, Tom Ottosen, 25, plunged into a suicidal depression toward the end of his second year at Love in Action in 1993. Months earlier, Ottosen's house leader had attempted to kill himself by swallowing an assortment of pills. Rushed to the hospital, the man lived but never returned to the ministry.
After a secret lunch-hour visit to a pro-gay counseling group in Marin, a guilt-stricken Ottosen confessed his waywardness to Smid, Love in Action's director. As the two sat alone in a small bedroom, Ottosen told Smid of his feelings of suicide. "I wasn't surprised at what John said. Almost word for word, he said he'd rather have me commit suicide than go back to the gay lifestyle," recounts Ottosen. "He said if I committed suicide, I could at least save myself spiritually. That was the final icebreaker for me."
Smid denies he encouraged the resident to kill himself. "I said he had to commit to the Lord," the director says, "and it isn't a good thing to walk outside what God tells you to do."
Ex-gay ministries boast of plenty of "success" stories like that of Kevin Oshrio, a conference director at Exodus who went through the program in Los Angeles called Desert Stream. Part of his breakthrough was learning, as ex-gay ministries tend to preach, that envy is at the core of homosexuality. "The fact that I didn't like my physical appearance made me feel inadequate as a man and therefore I found security in the arms of another man," explains Oshrio, adding that Desert Stream helped him feel more content with how God created him. "It's okay if I'm not going to qualify for the cover of G.Q."