'Ex-Gay' Movement Draws Criticism, Mixed Support on Harvard Campus

* Divinity School student relates experience with Exodus International, reparative therapy

About 100 people filled a courtroom at Harvard Law School recently, as Michael D. Johnston, a "former homosexual" who has AIDS, described how he had "walked away" from the gay lifestyle.

In downtown Seattle the next day, several hundred people rallied in support of the third annual "Coming Out Of Homosexuality Day."

And around the country, millions more heard the testimonials of "ex-gays" like Johnston on the radio.

At the forefront of the ex-gay movement is Exodus International, a Seattle-based coalition of 90 ex-gay ministries founded in 1976 that encourages gays and lesbians to cast off their sexual orientation through devotion to Christ.

With branches in Latin America, Europe, the South Pacific, South Africa and Asia, Exodus has delivered its message to more than 100 million people in the last three months, says Bob Davies, the organization's executive director, in an interview.

Between 500 and 600 people inquire about the movement at Exodus' headquarters each month, Davies says.

But for all the enthusiasm of its promoters, the ex-gay movement has been beset by failures since its inception.

Michael Bussee, one of the organization's leaders in the 1970s, fell in love with a male employee and began denouncing Exodus to the media.

Davies compares the ex-gay movement to Alcoholics Anonymous: "As in any recovery type of program...there's a certain percentage of people who do drop out," he says. "That's just the reality."

While some Harvard students agree with the movement, many scoffed at the "National Coming Out Of Homosexuality Day" event at the Law School and some said they were appalled by it.

Members of the Law School's Society for Law, Life and Religion, which sponsored it, said they were uneasy about their organization's involvement.

They added that the president, second-year law student Brian J. Burt, planned it without asking for their approval.

Burt declined to comment for this article. But he did say that he does not know of a "former homosexual" on campus.

There is an "ex-ex-gay" here, however: like Bussee, Benjamin D. Perkins, a second-year Divinity School student, was part of the ex-gay movement. Perkins underwent reparative therapy for four years before coming out as a gay man.

Perkins says that although the therapy didn't help him, repressing desire may be the only way for some fundamentalist Christians to reconcile their homosexuality with their religious beliefs.

'Seek Help or Go to Hell'

Perkins says he knew he was gay before he knew the words to describe his feelings. As a child growing up in a pious Baptist family in Los Angeles, however, he quickly learned to hide his desire.

In high school during the late 1970s, his peers taught him names for himself: words like "fag" pushed him further into the closet.

At the age of 25, Perkins sought a way out. He wanted to become straight.

"I basically didn't feel like I had any other choice," says Perkins, now 32. "It was either seek help or go to hell."

He turned to Exodus. For four years, Perkins paid a reparative therapist there $70 a week, hoping to be transformed.

"Initially there was a tremendous amount of hope," he says. "Someone is promising you that the thing that you consider the bane of your existence is going to be eradicated or exorcised."

Believing his own struggle to be over, Perkins entered graduate school in psychology, planning to leave his job at a computer software company and become a reparative therapist.

But as he met more and more homosexuals outside Exodus, the foundation began to crumble.

"The thing I feared most I had to confront," he says. "I started to realize that gay and lesbian people are just like everyone else."

He thought about the ex-gays at Exodus. One of them, who was married and "seemed like he had it all together," eventually had a nervous breakdown and attempted suicide.

"You start to look around you and see that the people who are supposedly the exemplars are struggling and doing all sorts of unhealthy things," Perkins says.

So at the age of 29, after years of internal strife, Perkins gave up his fundamentalist religious beliefs, left therapy and came out of the closet.

Yet he says he doesn't hate the reparative therapists and ex-gays who told him he was sinning and tried to make him squelch his desires. Rather, he says he feels pity for them.

"It's easy to cast them as these horrible villain-types," he says. "It's more a reflection of society that people feel they have to go through these means to be accepted."

Repressing Desire

"There is a kernel of truth in what they say, that those of us who have chosen to follow Christ...are repressing," says Johnston, who says he lived as a gay man for 11 years before renouncing his homosexuality in 1988.

Afflicted with full-blown AIDS since last October, Johnston now lives off a small pension from his former job and receives no income as chair of the "National Coming Out of Homosexuality Day" project and president of Kerusso Ministries.

The event is sponsored by more than 40 national organizations representing millions of members, Johnston says. Completely funded by private donations, it does not earn enough to cover its costs.

"The Christian message is never going to be popular to the masses," Johnston says, adding that it is his "burden" to show people "the road to life."

"What comes naturally to us is not righteousness...it is sin," he says. "Repressing that which is contrary to God's council to us is a virtuous thing."

Although critics of the "ex-gay" movement say that repressing one's desire is psychologically devastating, Randolph Catlin, chief of mental health at University Health Services, says it is not necessarily damaging.

"Although people can, if they are homosexually oriented, participate in a heterosexual lifestyle, it's extremely unusual for them to no longer feel that they have a homosexual orientation," he says.

The only danger of the "ex-gay" movement would be "if people were made to feel that being gay was somehow a disease or a disability," he adds.

His statement resonates with the words of Johnston and other "ex-gays," who say they are healthier now that they are repressing their homosexual orientation.

"I don't think there's any doubt [that Johnson] is living a much healthier life right now," says Peter J. LaBarbera, president of Americans for Truth, a Washington-based organization that opposes the gay-rights movement.

"It galls me that there is a segment of the homosexual movement which would seem to want to ban the idea that you can change." he says. "They are so intent on promoting gay-rights propaganda that they would deny people happiness of the Michael Johnston variety."

The Pursuit of Happiness

But many gay students on campus, including Brian J. Saccente '98, believe that events like "National Coming Out of Homosexuality Day" breed unhappiness.

Raised in a Catholic family, Saccente turned his back on his Catholicism because of the church's espousal that homosexuality is a sin.

"It's unfair to dupe someone into thinking that you can change your sexuality," he says. "This whole 'Come Out of Homosexuality Day' is sort of like, 'Hey, Come Lighten Your Skin Day,' which wouldn't be tolerated."

Seth J. Persily, a second-year law student and co-chair of Lambda, the Law School's gay students' association, agrees.

"The level of suicide within these organizations is astronomical and it makes sense when you take such a large part of yourself and try and hide it or ignore it or actively fight against it," he says. "Being gay transcends having gay sex. It's a huge part of your identity and they can never get rid of that."

"All Michael Johnston is doing is stopping [ex-gays] from being truly happy and from living out who they really are," Persily adds.

Pursuit of 'Manly Virtues'

But some Harvard students, such as Burt, believe the University was founded to pursue "divine truth" and "manly virtues," above personal happiness.

At the "Coming Out of Homosexuality" event at the Law School, Burt said the University has strayed from its Puritan roots by endorsing gay-rights initiatives such as the same-sex commitment ceremonies that now are permitted in Memorial Church.

"Harvard has simply crossed the line in its embrace of the dangerous homosexual agenda," he said. "Growth need not come at the expense of Harvard's Christian heritage."

Mary L. Naber '98, co-chair of Christian Impact and a Crimson executive, says she believes gays and lesbians are "searching for affirmation" that only devotion to God can supply.

"It is our prayer that all students would realize this need for deeper love in their lives, and that Jesus can fill it," she says. "Upon coming to this understanding [they] would find that His love for us is more powerful than any half-hearted craving for sex or ambition."

And despite Persily's assertion that "ex-gays" can never be truly happy, a few members of undergraduate Christian organizations, including Zack C. Phillips '99, say that if they were gay, they would repress their desires because they believe homosexuality is a sin.

"If I felt homosexual desires...I would pray that God would take them from me," says Phillips, who is a member of Christian Impact.

"Do I think that there will ever be an earthly society in which there are no homosexuals? No," he says. "Do I desire people to repent of their sins? Yes."

"I would completely desire for every person to turn from all of their sins, including homosexuality," Phillips says.CrimsonUche A. BlackstockCOMING OUT OF THE CLOSET: Divinity School student BENJAMIN D. PERKINS tried therapy, believing he could change his sexual orientation.