Sodom and Gomorrah in suburbia
At the registration table for Lovelinx, a national conference run by a Christian organisation, an array of educational books and DVDs are on display. Titles include The Battle for Normality, The Courage to Be Chaste, God’s Grace and the Homosexual Next Door and Healing Homosexuality. Their variety risks being overwhelming, but mums and dads can turn their attention to one clearly targeted book, a practical-sounding volume titled A Parent’s Guide to Preventing Homosexuality.
Lovelinx is taking place in The Factory, a church in Melbourne’s outer-eastern suburbs, which used to be a furniture workshop. The two-day conference aims to share the gospel “in the midst of the homosexuality conflict” and comes with the backing of Exodus Global Alliance, an international organisation representing a range of Christian “member ministries”. Exodus claims it is possible for people to free themselves of their homosexuality through the power of Jesus Christ.
By 11 am, about 50 people have been registered and name-tagged, and Shirley Baskett, the kindly spoken, sturdily built organiser of Lovelinx, invites us to sit down. Even though she expects “pro-gay” activists to blockade the entrance at any moment, she says she doesn’t have anything against gay people; after all, she used to be one of them. After a hymn, the proceedings get underway with a session called “Homosexuality and Stuttering: Parallel Afflictions and Answers”. The keynote speaker is Briar Whitehead, a New Zealand native, whose late brother was gay. Whitehead compares same-sex attraction to the struggle she had with a speech impediment so severe it almost drove her to suicide. Her stuttering, she says, stemmed from a poor relationship with her father. “And if I had the same problems with my mother,” she explains, “I would have been a lesbian. There’s no question in my mind.” Whitehead believes that, just as God cured her of her stuttering, anyone can be cured of homosexuality.
Whitehead doesn’t endorse hatred or homophobia, opting instead for feelings of compassion and lavish amounts of pity towards homosexuals. “With homosexuality, they can’t get out of this thing in a hurry!” she says. “They got into it so slowly, and they’re trapped. They’re trapped!” She adds that there’s hope. Recently she read about scientific research involving “neuronal pathways”, in which the brain-synapses of London taxi drivers were found to change with the recurrent task of navigating the city’s maze-like streets. Briar says any behaviour, including homosexuality, can similarly be changed with training. As the conference goes on, parallels are not simply drawn between homosexuality and stuttering, but also between homosexuality and incest, pornography, alcoholism, violence, adultery, gambling, smoking and substance abuse.
After Whitehead’s address, I accompany Shirley to lunch and ask for her definition of homosexuality. I become confused pretty quickly. She says she doesn’t classify homosexuality as a disease, but insists it’s not genetic either (“there is no gay gene; where’s the proof?”). For her, homosexuality is an “orientation”. “Like left-handedness?” I venture. “Not really,” she says. “I think you’re born left-handed. I don’t believe you’re born gay. You can change the orientation.”
Shirley was in her early twenties when she first fell for a woman. They met – of all places – at Bible college. “The thought of sexual relationships with guys was repulsive to me,” she says. “At that point, I thought, ‘I can’t fight this thing.’” After a stormy relationship, her lover ran off with another woman. Depressed, Shirley started drinking heavily, had flings – sometimes with several women at once – and found it difficult to maintain relationships. Having convinced herself that she’d never find love, she became suicidal. One psychologist told Shirley her Christian upbringing was to blame, but Shirley wouldn’t accept this view. At 28, she came back to the Church and, two years later, married Peter, her current husband of 26 years.
Shirley introduces me to a couple from Brisbane, Paul and Janis Wegner, both in their late fifties. When Janis finds out I’m writing a story, she quickly fetches me some photocopies that detail the story of their marriage. Though I’ve barely spoken to them, I learn that Paul was charged with “homosexual behaviour” in a public toilet 16 years into their marriage, devastating Janis. I read about the absence of sex on their wedding night and of Paul being sexually abused as a child. Now, after vigorous Christian counselling, Paul proclaims himself healed of homosexuality and runs Liberty Inc., an organisation that offers counselling to people in similar situations, as well as 12-week courses for “men and women struggling with homosexuality”.
Reading about these courses conjures up terrible scenarios in my mind: desperate parents making road trips to straightening-out camps, their gay teenage child strapped in the back, howling and suicidal. However, Shirley says Lovelinx doesn’t target parents wanting to reprogram their kids; instead, it aims to assist Christian leaders who are struggling to deal with homosexuality in their parishes. “Parents don’t bring their children to things like this,” Shirley says. “Look around.” She’s right. The median age of people here must be 45, maybe even 50.
At a time when where Methodist, Lutheran and Anglican communities around the world are debating the place of gay clergy, it would be easy, but wrong, to assume that Exodus Global Alliance is a shrinking fringe network. Since its inception in 1976, Exodus has extended its international reach and now has affiliated ministries on every continent.
Still, like any major religious enterprise, at times it has faltered. One of Exodus’ greatest humiliations came early, in 1979, when two of its co-founders, Michael Bussee and Gary Cooper, left the organisation – and their respective wives – to be with each other. In a public apology in 2007, Bussee said of Exodus: “No one was really becoming ‘ex-gay’. Who were we fooling? … By calling ourselves ‘ex-gay’ we were lying to ourselves and to others. We were hurting people.”
At the heart of this lies one fundamental question: What’s so wrong with being gay? Shirley says she doesn’t have an answer. “I’m not condemning gay people. But the Bible does seem very clear. It’s not just homosexuality. It could be thieving. God doesn’t categorise it. I don’t understand why people seem to think – and Christians do too – that homosexuality is the big one.”
This strikes me as disingenuous and I tell her so. After all, Lovelinx isn’t a conference about theft or adultery; it’s about homosexuality. Shirley stands firm. “If I thought, I’m sick of this conversation, and whacked you in the face, that’s still something I’ve done that’s offended God.” For a moment, I’m stunned. And though we smile politely, I take it as my cue to head to the next session: a roundtable forum that promises to heal men of their sexual brokenness.