'Ex-Gay' Chef Makes D.C. Lobbying Trip

Calling himself a target of discrimination as a member of the “ex-gay” community, an Annenberg cook traveled to Washington, D.C., last week to lobby on behalf of an organization that believes gay people can choose to become heterosexual.

Larry Houston said that working in the first-year dining hall is a “day job to pay the bills,” but that he originally came to Boston to join other former homosexuals as part of the “ex-gay ministry.”

Late last week he traveled to the nation’s capital with Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays (PFOX), an organization that promotes the view that people are not born with a homosexual orientation and “can and do make the decision every day to seek help in overcoming unwanted same sex attraction,” according to the group’s website.

Houston said the group returning from D.C.—which included some people who identify as “ex-gays” and some who are friends or supporters—met with aides of more than 40 senators and representatives.

The purpose of the lobbying trip with PFOX was to educate political leaders about the ex-gay movement, since many in Washington are unaware of its issues, he said.

“Overwhelmingly people said, ‘We’ve never heard of an ex-gay,’” according to Houston.

He said members of the movement face social discrimination because they are not allowed to speak at high schools, participate in workshops and use public meeting spaces, while many gay-straight alliances are.

“We’re not anti-gay, we’re pro-choice,” he said. “Whenever someone has questions [about sexual identity], we’re asking, ‘May we be there, too?’”

Houston said he was invited to join the trip because of the publicity he received after a Crimson profile published in September 2001—and the discrimination that he said he faced as a result.

Following the profile, both Harvard’s United Ministry and Associate Dean of the College David P. Illingworth ’71 investigated whether Houston was actively proselytizing to students but did not take any action against him.

Deputy General Counsel Robert W. Iuliano told The Crimson in Nov. 2001 that Harvard protects the free speech of its employees and would be unlikely to restrict an employee’s contact with students.

And in response to letters from several gay students who questioned Houston’s presence on campus, Dean of Freshmen Elizabeth Studley Nathans wrote in a letter dated Nov. 1, 2001, “[Harvard] can—indeed sometimes must—also provide protection for what most in this community might find uncomfortable or offensive or even extraordinarily misguided or wrong ideas.”

Houston said yesterday that University officials have never spoken to him about the investigation—which he said is a violation of his rights.

“My treatment here at Harvard is a specific incidence of discrimination towards an ex-gay person,” he said.

Houston said that since Harvard has not given him any guidelines for his role on campus, he speaks to students “by invitation only,” meaning when they approach him.

If the students “need help overcoming homosexuality or are seeking personal help,” he said he refers them to the Park Street Church in Boston, an evangelical congregational church of which he is a member—but he said he also engages in private conversations with the estimated 10-12 students on campus who have become his friends.

He said he would also encourage gay students to speak to him, either in a public forum or on a personal basis, if they find his message offensive. But he said he feels negative sentiments about his lifestyle are discriminatory, as well.

“It’s a two-way street,” he said. “One way to overcome that is to meet and discuss and develop a relationship.”

He said he has friends and co-workers who are gay and that he serves as the union representative for the evening shift workers at Annenberg.

“They are fully aware of my background and what I do, and yet they’ve still elected me to represent them,” Houston said.

Since The Crimson’s profile and resulting University investigation—which he said made him “infamous around the country”—he has been contacted by the Associated Press and received the invitation to take part in the PFOX lobbying trip.

Houston, who will teach English in the Ukraine this summer, emphasized that he still has his job and doesn’t feel victimized, but said he will use his story as a way to get attention for the movement.

“I don’t see myself as a victim at Harvard, but I’m going to play that game for the political benefit,” he said. “Other ex-gays are facing discrimination and don’t have a hand to play with.”

The PFOX trip to Washington D.C. came two months after Republican National Committee Chair Marc Racicot came under fire from conservative members of his party for speaking at the March board meeting of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), a gay rights advocacy group.

The Washington Times reported last Thursday that the far-right leaders feared Racicot might hurt President Bush’s chances for re-election in 2004.

Houston said gay rights advocacy groups like the HRC objected to the possibility that Racicot might meet with members of the “ex-gay” movement, as well.

Racicot did not return a call last Friday for comment.

Although members of PFOX were not granted an appointment with Racicot, Houston said the number of aides who did want to meet with them doubled after the publicity.

“It worked to our advantage to have this big uproar going on,” he said.

—J. Hale Russell contributed to the reporting of this story.

—Staff writer Jessica R. Rubin-Wills can be reached at rubinwil@fas.harvard.edu.