Gay conversion conference criticized
Wednesday, June 7, 2006
A conference on homosexuality that a national Christian organization is bringing to a Silver Spring church on Saturday is drawing the ire of some community members, gay rights groups and clergy, who say its message is ‘‘dangerous and spiritually disenfranchising.”
‘‘Love Won Out” is a daylong conference sponsored by Focus on the Family, a Colorado-based evangelical group. A Web site promoting the conference said it would answer questions about homosexuality such as ‘‘Is it genetic?” ‘‘Can it be prevented?” ‘‘What’s being taught in schools?” ‘‘How will gay marriage affect our society?” and ‘‘How do I help my friend who’s gay?”
A number of groups, including the gay rights organization Equality Maryland, have denounced the conference as ‘‘dangerous and spiritually disenfranchising to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth.”
The groups are sponsoring a vigil in front of Immanuel’s Church on New Hampshire Avenue in Silver Spring before and after the conference.
Focus on the Family approached the church more than a year ago about hosting the conference. Many conference attendees have gay or lesbian friends and family members and are ‘‘having to deal with these situations,” said Mike Haley, director of gender issues for Focus on the Family and one of the conference’s speakers.
‘‘We’re honored to host Focus on the Family,” said Dianna Whittle, community relations pastor at Immanuel’s Church. ‘‘We really do trust them as an organization.”
Love Won Out presents speakers from Focus on the Family and other organizations, including Joseph Nicolosi, president of the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality. NARTH promotes conversion therapy or reparative therapy, a practice that some claim can make a gay person straight.
The controversial practice is a major point of contention between conference organizers and the protesters.
‘‘The main point is conversion therapy is dangerous and that homosexuality is not something that needs to be prevented,” said Dan Furmansky, executive director of Equality Maryland. ‘‘We are all God’s creatures regardless of our sexual orientation.”
Even one person changing is proof that change is possible, said Haley, who said he lived as a gay man for 12 years and now has a wife and two sons.
‘‘Change has been proven to be possible,” he said. ‘‘There are studies out there that show that.”
Whether someone can truly change his or her sexual orientation has been at the heart of the ongoing debate over the county school system’s sex education curriculum.
‘‘One of the big pushes has been to have something about ex-gays in the curriculum,” said Jim Kennedy of Rockville, who sits on the panel reviewing the curriculum and is president of Teachthefacts.org, one of the groups organizing the protest vigil. ‘‘It seems the whole concept is a hoax and a cruel one.”
Regina Griggs, executive director of Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays, said there is lingering animosity from a federal lawsuit her group brought against the county school board last year over sex education curriculum that included a discussion of sexual orientation and a video demonstrating condom use.
‘‘People have a right to meet and interact and find out that change is possible,” said Griggs, whose group was guaranteed a seat on the curriculum review panel as part of a settlement with the school system. ‘‘If anything [the conference] promotes love and tolerance towards the gay community.”
Haley said he was not surprised to hear that people planned to protest Saturday. Protests have been common at Love Won Out conferences across the country, he said.
‘‘What’s interesting is when gay activists come in and hear what we have to say,” Haley said. ‘‘While they disagree with it, they’re surprised at the tone of what we’re saying.”
Still, the timing, at the end of a week where President George W. Bush reignited debate about a constitutional amendment on marriage, was not lost on one vigil organizer.
‘‘Montgomery County is a large county adjacent to D.C. and sexuality is one of those issues that can be counted on to scare people,” said the Rev. Sandy Dodson, associate minister at Christ Congregational Church in Silver Spring and a lesbian. ‘‘It’s hurtful as I listen to my president and different conversations of people running scared of me and the threat people like me pose.”
The vigil is to be silent and placards are to be respectful, Dodson said.
‘‘The purpose is to provide friendly faces, especially for people who are in the conference as a result of coercion,” Furmansky said.