At 7:30 PM, Houston enters the Park Street Church in downtown Boston, like he does every Wednesday, to a meeting of Alive In Christ. This week, there are five men who have come to him looking for help.
“I used to believe the lie of homosexuality, too,” he tells the group. “But Christians shouldn’t be gay.” Over the course of the next hour and a half Larry Houston offers them the sort of support that can only be offered by a self-proclaimed ex-gay.
And if he has his way, the seats in this room will soon be filled with Harvard’s homosexuals.
Larry Houston didn’t come to Harvard to cook. In fact, he constantly tells people that “the food in Annenberg sucks” and picks fights with the management. Larry Houston came to Cambridge to spread Christianity. More specifically, heterosexual Christianity.
Houston may not be the only one at Harvard on a mission to convert homosexuals. Although he is the most vocal about his goal to “fix the gays,” as his coworkers put it, some on campus believe that there are other Harvard groups who hope to accomplish the same objective in a less transparent way.
FROM GAY TO STRAIGHT TO HARVARD
Larry Houston doesn’t hail from an area known for much of a gay scene. He was born April 3, 1957 on a grain and livestock farm near Chapin, IL into a Lutheran family with six brothers and sisters, a mother, and a father who had a drinking problem, stayed out late every night, and constantly had affairs. Houston cites his father as the source of his homosexual “issues,” a pattern that he says is typical for many gays.
“I walked down the stairs one morning and walked into my parents’ bedroom and saw my mother and father together in bed. And for some reason, at that moment I said, ‘I am not going to be like that man.’” Houston believes that his rejection of the person who was supposed to teach him how to be a man and husband was a direct cause of his gay behavior.
By the time he was 13, he says, he was engaging in “mutual masturbation” with his twin brother Jerry every night in the bed that they shared. “I had emotional needs that were not met, and those became sexualized as I entered puberty,” Houston recalls.
Houston dated “a bit” with girls in high school, but never had any real relationship emotionally or sexually. What he calls his “homosexual problem” didn’t improve once he arrived at the University of Illinois, where he majored in agriculture, he says. “I substituted sex acts for connecting with people.”
It started one day in a usually unfrequented bathroom on campus where Houston was surprised to find another occupant. “Somehow we made eye contact, and I got these vibes. The guy’s standing there masturbating, and then we start masturbating together.” That was the first of what Houston says have been almost 20 such encounters.
“I wasn’t hanging out in bathrooms—I would never initiate the process,” he says. “If the opportunity arose, sometimes I took it, sometimes I turned it down.” Part of turning it down, Houston explains, was his way of rejecting the gay identity. Nonetheless, he often turned up in “nice, private bathrooms” in YMCAs and health clubs that he knew were “good places to go.”
After college, Houston says that he was able to temporarily escape his homosexual demons. He worked on a farm for several years and even dated a woman named Renée for three years. But their relationship fizzled out in the end, Houston says, because he still wasn’t capable of having a healthy emotional relationship. For the next few years, he bounced from a Christian boarding school in Wisconsin that specializes in “helping families with problems” (where he learned to cook), to a Christian camp in Southern California (where he had a couple more “bathroom encounters”), to the Associated Free Lutheran Bible School in Minneapolis, where his life would take a dramatic turn.
He received a degree in Biblical studies there and enrolled in the three-year seminary program. But only one semester short of graduation, a classmate turned him in for what Houston will only describe as a “homosexual activity” that took place two years before. “There are some things that I don’t tell people even in my ministry,” he explains.
Houston never received his diploma from the seminary. “They said I had to get counseling and I did, but they still won’t let me back,” he says. But his conversations with five friends the evening after his dismissal changed the course of his life.
Before Houston could open his mouth to explain what happened, he said each of his five told him, “Larry I know you have a problem” and “Larry, you’re not a homosexual.” For Houston, it was an epiphany.
“Don’t we live in a democracy?” he says. “I was outvoted.”
From there, it was a pretty quick road to Harvard. Houston subscribed to the newsletter of Exodus, a Christian organization promoting the message of “freedom from homosexuality through the power of Jesus Christ” that has 135 ministries in 17 countries. One issue contained a “prayer request” seeking a volunteer to start an Exodus ministry in Boston.
With no job or housing lined up, Houston came to Boston, assuming that God would provide. And, says Houston, he did. Soon he was cooking five days a week in Annenberg and living in Cambridge. He began to set up a ministry called Hope Restored. But there is a long process to become officially recognized as an Exodus Ministry (requirements include a board of trustees and several years of successful operation) and Alive in Christ had beat him to it, so he joined the already established mission.
But Houston is still intent on working with Harvard students who are “struggling with homosexuality.” To that end, he has joined the ranks of what he calls “the Christians from the Quad,” a group of Evangelical Christians involved in Christian Impact (CI) and the Harvard-Radcliffe Christian Fellowship (HRCF). Their leader: Benjamin D. Grizzle ’03.
At breakfast one Friday morning at Au Bon Pain, the thin, mousey-looking 44-year-old Houston and slightly pudgy, bright-eyed 19-year-old Grizzle form an unusual pair. Houston is almost frighteningly forthright: “I am using you buddy, so be careful,” he says. “My motives are up front. Uh, perhaps you may want to sleep with one eye open.” Grizzle, who is also a Crimson editor, however, seems more like a political spinmeister than a college student.
After seeing Grizzle’s name mentioned in a Crimson article about the VERITAS forum, Houston contacted him last spring. Since then, the two have prayed together and talked about plans to reach out to the gay community. So far, only one idea has actually made it onto paper.
Last December, Grizzle, on behalf of Christian Impact in conjunction with Cornerstone (a Catholic Student Association Bible study group for gay Catholics) and members of BGLTSA, was granted $250 by the Undergraduate Council’s Anti-Homophobia Project Challenge Fund. The proposal called for “between 3 and 5 groups of 8-10 students” with a “balanced representation of both Christians and homosexuals, recognizing that these two groups are by no means mutually exclusive.” The groups would meet each week for an hour over the course of about two weeks, Grizzle’s application proposed, to discuss how each participant’s “views about Christians and homosexuals have been shaped and why.”
How did a Christian Evangelical from Houston, Texas end up so interested in homosexuality? The area he grew up in was actually a “gay neighborhood,” Grizzle explains, and gay neighbors would often help him with his homework. When he arrived at Harvard, he spoke before the BGLTSA board during his first year.
“The hymn says, ‘They’ll know we are Christians by our love,’ but in this country, Christians are not famous for their love, especially to the gay community,” Grizzle says. “I think that Christians have been too quick to bring judgment and not bring enough love.”
Grizzle seems sincere as he talks about Jesus’s love for people of all sexual orientations. But in his goal of achieving God’s will, some wonder if Grizzle is not being entirely upfront about his ultimate intentions. On a liberal campus that was already being called Godless more than 250 years ago, a large number of Christian Evangelicals feel reticent to publicly air their less P.C. viewpoints.
Grizzle says he will be upfront about his religious views. “We think what they’re doing is wrong,” he explains. “But we love them and want to spend time with them.” But Blake J. Boulerice ’04, a member of the Student Affairs Committee that approved Grizzle’s grant and the sponsor of the resolution that created the fund, says it is counterintuitive to combat homophobia by saying that homosexuality is wrong.
“The committee would not have decided to give money for that [project], if they were aware that the concept of this project is based on the idea that homosexuality is an unnatural thing,” says Boulerice, who is also political chair of the BGLTSA.
Some members of the gay community, even those involved with Grizzle and his proposal, remain skeptical of his motives in bringing together the gay and Evangelical Christian communities.
“I understand that he wants to bridge the gap,” says Clifford S. Davidson ’02, co-chair of BOND, a BGLT group focusing on social support and outreach. “What he wants to do after he bridges the gap…that remains to be seen.” He adds: “We’re all being very cautious about this.”
Christian Impact and BOND have planned a Habitat for Humanity project in the interim in order to build trust between the two communities. Davidson thinks that if they launched immediately into a discussion, he could see it “ending in disaster.”
Most people find the idea of these two traditionally antagonistic groups working together to be surprising, according to Grizzle: “When I tell people that BOND and CI are doing a service project together, they’re like, ‘What going on? You’re not going to throw the hammers at each other?’”
Grizzle says both communities have a lot to gain from interacting with each other. “I’ve learned a lot from Cliff and his boyfriend about how to love another person,” Grizzle says, referring to Davidson as “a good friend.”
Davidson, who says he has only spoken with Grizzle three times, says that he is “more trusting of Ben personally than many people would be,” but says firmly that if “he wants to start evangelizing afterwards, that’s unacceptable.”
But Grizzle says he is not interested in shoving scripture down anyone’s throat. As Houston puts it: “I want my love to convince you that what I’m saying is true.” Grizzle says he believes that the very presence of Christian Evangelicals can help others find Jesus: “Its my hope that they will experience the love of Christ, and that it will be manifested through me and other believers.”
The “City on a Hill” rather than Crusades model of conversion is common among the Evangelical community, according to David Smith ’00, a gay member of both CI and the Harvard-Radcliffe Christian Fellowship during his time at Harvard. “My guess is that organically they would hope that gays would see something about Christianity and question their own life.”
The issue of what is or isn’t proselytizing isn’t a black and white issue, and becomes even more confusing when speculation about specific individuals’ motives is taken into account.
“Where is the line?” asks Jeff P. Morgan ’02, the coordinator of Cornerstone, who submitted the UC proposal with Grizzle. “Proselytizing and conversions are obviously big issues,” he says, but quickly adds, “I think Ben is an honest person.” Although he hopes that the participants will be “people of good faith,” he admits that he’s worried about what could happen.
“Is it a risk? Yes, it’s a big risk. But, if it works, it’s a risk worth taking.”
The UC-funded project might never even take place. Grizzle says the he’s not sure if he will execute the project this year. “We would like to, but we don’t want to sacrifice the goals of the program in order to just have a program.” But UC President Paul A. Gusmorino III ’02 says that most UC grants expire after three semesters, which for this proposal would be the end of this school year.
Blake Boulerice believes that the presence of the ex-gay movement on campus “creates a debate whether or not sexual orientation is a choice and the existence of that debate illegitimizes the whole gay rights movement. There shouldn’t be that debate.”
“My gut reaction is that [Larry Houston] should be expelled.” Boulerice laughs and then adds more seriously. “I think it’s not constructive to have that on campus.”
But the reluctance to have a debate about homosexuality irritates Houston. Although much of the gay community see groups like Exodus as cults that suck in impressionable, troubled persons, Houston ironically views the gay community in the same way.
“I bluntly use the term recruitment,” Houston says in describing the Harvard gay community. “[Plummer Professor of Christian Morals] Reverend [Peter J.] Gomes and the BGLTSA are telling people if you think you are, you are. I don’t want them to get swallowed up by the gay community.”
“Before they came to Harvard they never had gay sex,” speculates Houston. “Maybe they had anonymous sex in a bathroom once, and they had some sexual identity questions, and then they try to convince them to become gay.”
Although this kind of thinking is rarely articulated in public at Harvard these days, many Christian Evangelicals and other Harvard students espouse similar beliefs, according to David Smith, and just won’t share them as part of the public discourse. He says the “muting” of conservative Christian voices was noticeable over the course of his four years at Harvard.
“It’s almost a survival technique for Christians at Harvard. For funding and credibility, but also for personal relationships, they feel the need to temper their rhetoric,” Smith says.
As David B. Orr ’01 declared in the pages of The Salient last semester, members of the gay community say they are “past” the morality debate. This means many conflicted evangelical gays hear only the “homosexuality is sinful” line offered, however sweetly, by the Harvard Christian community.
Mike, who asked that his last name not be used, was formerly a member of what he calls a “small, conservative, insular Christian group on campus.” He realized he was gay in junior high, but tried not to think about it since he was raised in a “pretty conservative family.”
During his first year at Harvard, Mike occasionally experimented sexually with men, but, since he was still in the closet, only with people outside of Harvard. “It left me feeling empty,” he recalls, “because I wasn’t dating people, I was just meeting people and having sex with them. So I reached for my Christian faith.”
He got very involved with the group and eventually became President. In the process, Mike says, “I just cut off my feelings for everything sexually.” When he eventually came out to some of the pastors at the church, they said it “wasn’t a really big deal. They said it was like I had a problem with gambling. They said it was a lust problem, and that some people were more prone to certain sins.”
But then, Mike started developing feelings for one of his roommates. “That was really bad,” he recalls. “It led to an ever mounting feeling that I was not living up to being a Christian person.” Eventually, he left school without telling anyone.
“I was just so confused about who I was. I thought I really wanted to become a straight person, this sort of person that I pictured myself being. But then I thought that maybe I didn’t really want that. I knew I was gay, but at the same time I didn’t want to be gay.”
Reading Mel White’s Stranger at the Gate “sparked” something in him, Mike says, that made him believe it was OK to be a Christian and gay. But a pastor recommended that he go to an Exodus ministry in New York, and Mike agreed to give heterosexuality one more chance.
The ex-gay pastor of the Exodus ministry was named James Bond. “I thought he was a very nice man and he probably believes what he says,” Mike explains, but he was not convinced by the relationship between Bond and his wife. “I just didn’t feel like there was any chemistry between the two. It just seemed like they were really close friends. But it didn’t speak something to me in the same way that I see something between a gay couple.”
When he came back to campus as a gay Christian, Mike says that members of his former group thought of his identity as an oxymoron. “They wouldn’t directly talk about homosexuality or even use the word ‘gay.’ They call it a ‘problem.’ That really upset me.”
But what upset him the most was what members of the group said to him with good intentions. “They said they would pray for me,” Mike remembers. “As if I’m confused, as if I need their prayers. I don’t need their prayers. I should be praying for them, because they’re so ignorant.”
Mike doesn’t attend church regularly anymore or belong to his former Christian group anymore, but says he still feels like a Christian. “I feel like I’ve already been saved and I will continue to be saved,” he says. “I feel you are saved when you have faith in God.”
Dave Smith’s involvement with Exodus was even more extensive. Raised in Georgia in a small town where he says everyone was a “fundamentalist evangelical,” he said he didn’t really know what it meant to be homosexual. “But my first year at Harvard,” Smith recalls, “I knew that I was gay.” As an active member of Christian Impact, he says he wondered, “Can I be straight?”
“For someone from my background,” Smith says, “When you realize that you are gay, that is the most horrible thing in the world… I used to pray every night that God would make me blind or lame so that I could never be attracted to another man and have gay sex.” When he couldn’t change himself, Smith says, he felt extremely depressed. But when he heard of the ex-gay movement, it was “a beacon of hope.”
The Adams House resident started going to Exodus meetings the summer after his sophomore year when he was in Washington working with Coca-Cola. What he saw at the meeting surprised him. Smith says he saw 25 of “just the most haggard, depressed people I had ever seen in my life,” some who had been going for five years. “What I saw at that meeting were the most broken people. God didn’t create anyone to be like this.”
“They were dead people with nothing to say,” according to Smith. “They were fearful. They would be there for a few months, and then slip up and have a brief relationship, and then they’d come back feeling even more depressed.”
“The movement preys on the desperation of gay Christians,” Smith says. “It’s fundamentally an anti-yourself statement.” Over the course of the ten Exodus meetings that Smith attended, he says he heard remarks from the ex-gay minister like “Oh, AIDS is God’s punishment for the gay man” and about harassment: “That’s what gays should expect or deserve.”
“They are friendly as long as you agree with the them,” Smith recounts, “but the minute you question and say you want to be gay, you see a lot more evil in their face and hear that you’re going to hell and maybe you should have been in the World Trade Center.” Hearing that, according to Smith, “started ringing some bells.”
“In a strange twist of fate,” Smith says, “it was at those meetings that I started thinking that maybe I shouldn’t try to change. I started to think that people can’t change.” Senior year, David Smith came out to most of his friends, including those from CI and HRCF. “I was finally at peace,” he says.
But a few individuals, recalls Smith, “were almost violently against the fact that I came out,” including many of the leaders from HRCF. But for Smith, it was doubly positive, because he says three HRCF and CI members approached him in private to confess that they, too, were gay.
In the spring of his senior year, Smith formed a group he called “Gay Discuss” to talk about homosexual and Christian issues. He estimates that almost 50 people were attending each week, and one of them was Larry Houston. The two began meeting and e-mailing each other, even after Smith moved to Hollywood, where he manages a post-production studio that worked on Wesley Snipes’ upcoming film, Undisputed.
“Larry is a unique story and a unique man,” Smith gushes. “ He has a tons more love and compassion than any other ex-gay person I have met. He is so much more open-minded, a huge tribute to him is that he stayed my friend even though we never came to an agreement. Most ex-gays who I knew in the ministry wouldn’t even have associated with a gay man.”
“We don’t talk about the specifics of his life,” Houston says about his relationship with Smith. “I’m just waiting for him to open up, and until he does, all we can do is talk. On Easter he got an email from his dad saying, ‘I want to fix you.’ I helped him to work through that.”
But despite his praise for Larry Houston, Smith still has a great of contempt for the Exodus movement, and thinks that its claims are patently untrue. “I think the vast majority of people in the ex-gay movement are unquestionably of the homosexual orientation, and I say that from my experience.”
THE PROMISED LAND
Unsurprisingly, Bob Davies disagrees. Davies is not only North American Director of Exodus International, he’s also a client. For the past 16 years he has been married to his wife, Pam, after a life of struggling with homosexuality (although he says he was never actively homosexual). Davies says he is just one of thousands of others who have moved toward heterosexuality through Exodus.
Over a quarter of a million people have contacted Exodus since its founding in 1976, according to Davies, although he says there is “no way that we can possibly follow up on these people,” so Exodus does not know its success rate. But he believes that “the majority of people are still in the place where there is some same sex attraction,” and Davies admits that his gay thoughts have “been have greatly subsided, but they aren’t totally eradicated.” He adds, “I think it’s a mistake to divide people into heterosexual and homosexual, and you’re 100 percent one or the other.”
Exodus believes that homosexuality is not “primarily genetic or inborn,” Davies says. “We believe that its due to emotional circumstances or traumas. I believe there are certain underlying emotional desires and needs that lead to sexual relationships.” Most of the lesbians who come to Exodus have been abused by men, and are turned off from men sexually because they view them as a threat, according to Davies. He says that “the huge majority of men” who come to them had difficulty relating to their fathers.
“Often times a man will start in on his story, and I can finish it for him because I’ve heard the story so often.”
But regardless of the cause, Davies says that “God has been very clear to say that homosexual lives are never an option for a biblical Christian.” It is possible for gays to find salvation in Jesus Christ, but he says homosexuality is not a real option for a Christian who has submitted himself to God. “They are being disobedient to God,” Davies explains, “They are putting their relationship with God in jeopardy.”
The key concept of Exodus is that although a trait might be “very deeply ingrained,” it can be changed...Davies prefers the term “resolution” instead of “suppression.” “We believe that men and women have free will,” he says, “God allows men and women to go out and make choices.”
But not all Christians believe that. Although some in the gay community think of Exodus as a radical right group teaching hatred of homosexuals and preaching that they are condemned to burn in hell, the organizations seems downright progressive compared to the Reverend Fred Phelps.
...BUT HAVE A NICE DAY
Soon after the September 11 attacks on the nation, Fred Phelps of the 213-member Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas rushed to write a press release. By the next day, it was already posted on his church’s website, www.godhatesfags.com, declaring: “The Rod of God hath smitten fag America!”
Phelps and his church have picketed in the streets every day for the past 10 years carrying signs such as “AIDS CURES FAGS” and “FAGS BURN IN HELL.” He says his church has held more than 21,300 pickets all across the country, most famously at the funeral of Matthew Shepard. Phelps is a 71-year-old Calvinist Bible preacher who believes in predestination, the concept that only God’s Elect are saved. “It’s a lie that god loves you,” Phelps proclaims, “He hates you.”
“There should be a death penalty for fags. That is the law of God,” says the father of 13 children and grandfather of 52. “It’s the worst sin in many important ways,” he believes, because it is the only sin that people are proud of. “You never heard of a murderers’ pride parade. It is a unique sin. Fags can’t blush for their sin.”
“These arrogant sons of Baal and daughters of Jezebel only think of flaunting their filth,” Phelps preaches. “And then those idiots like Falwell tell them that God loves them. Does God love people in hell? Of course he doesn’t.”
But Phelps has no kind words for groups like Exodus, whom he calls “money-grubbing fags.” According to Phelps, “They know if they preached the truth, their revenue would disappear like the morning dew.” And the fact that they publicly admit to former homosexuality is a sign they are bound for hell, according to Phelps, who received 15,000 votes for the Democratic nomination for the governor of Kansas. “I don’t think one of the Elect would brag about being a fag,” he says. “You would be so ashamed of it, that you’d keep your mouth shut and never talk about it.”
He believes that a few ex-gays might be members of the Elect, “But I don’t think they were deep-down fags from San Francisco bathhouses.”
Phelps also has especially harsh words for Harvard, which was founded by Calvinists.
“Harvard is a great, well-endowed institution of total depravity,” he says. “The word apostasy ought to be emblazoned on all their literature. They had such wondrous beginnings, and now its a cesspool of inequity.” He adds: “But have a nice day though.” Phelps laughs.
“I don’t think anyone’s preaching the truth, anywhere in the world, but us,” Phelps says wistfully.
“YOU CAN STOP THE BIRD FROM MAKING A NEST”
But ironically, a central pillar of Phelps’s philosophy is not very different from that of the gay community: people cannot change their sexual orientation. And while Houston and Grizzle try to disseminate the idea that people can change, at least one Harvard student believes he provides living proof that sexual orientation is a plastic human trait.
The fact that “James” (not his real name) liked guys was no longer a secret by his sophomore year in high school. He told his parents. He started wearing tight, revealing clothes. He would joke about cute guys with his friends. Most of his high school knew that James was a bisexual.
And then one day, he was straight.
It was religion that changed him. James’s transition from bi to straight began freshman fall when he was approached by missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and ended with his baptism spring semester.
“I won’t date men now,” he says. “I’ll only marry a woman.”
James, who asked that his real name not be used because Mormons believe it is wrong to speak of past sins, says he just won’t allow himself to “dwell on those kinds of feelings.”
“You can’t stop a bird from landing on your head, but you can stop it from making a nest there,” is the analogy he often cites.
Mormons believe that homosexual couples are unable to be a family unity, James explains, and therefore are “counteractive to God’s plans.”
Now, James is just an average member of the Harvard hetero dating seen. He hasn’t had any serious relationships, but he dated one girl for a month before he left for a two year mission abroad to proselytize about the Mormon Church.
If you had seen James on one of those Saturday nights, catching the 8:30 showing of Message in a Bottle before heading to a romantic Indian dinner at Bombay Club with his female date, it would have been hard to guess that he used to live a life that would have certainly led to his excommunication from the Mormon Church.
“We can suppress our homosexual feelings and we should suppress them,” he says.
Larry Houston is looking for a wife.
Over the summer, Houston visited the Ukraine, partly to visit friends but also “10 percent for matchmaking,” he says. He found the women very receptive: “In Eastern Europe, all the men are alcoholics, so the women don’t want to marry them.”
Angela, a divorcee with a 10-year-old son and a 33-year-old nurse named Inna caught his eye. He plans to write them and visit soon.
“That’s what I would love to do—get married.”