Staff Photo by D. Patrick Harding
Chris Delaney, head of Joseph's Coat Ministries, helps council people with same-sex attractions who want to change. Delaney, who was once gay, decided to change after years of being unhappy with his life.
After 12 years of boyfriends and gay bars, Chris Delaney decided he was miserable as a homosexual and ready to change.
“I realized I didn’t even like that behavior. I more so needed male affirmation,” said the 38-year-old resident of Ringgold, Ga. “So I decided I was willing to give faith another chance. I told God, ‘I’ve run my life for 12 years, and it’s been a mess. I’m going to hand it back over to you.’ ”
Fifteen years later, Mr. Delaney now proudly labels himself an “ex-gay,” having undergone what he describes as a lengthy spiritual transformation in which he was sexually reoriented. Since 1996, he has ministered to hundreds of others through the nonprofit evangelical organization Joseph’s Coat Ministries.
Mr. Delaney, who said he has found true happiness in ministry, six years of marriage and two children, is part of a contested movement in the United States: sexual conversion, or “reparative” therapy.
Conservative Judeo-Christian religious groups applaud the strategy for its adherence to traditional religious beliefs in a “sexually broken world” that has become too accepting of what they say is sin disguised as diversity.
Members of the gay community and the traditional psychotherapy profession criticize such efforts, arguing they target vulnerable individuals and force them to deny natural tendencies in the name of religious dogma.
But the “reparative” movement is catching on locally. Harvest USA, a Pennsylvania-based ministry whose Web site states the group aims “to transform the lives of those affected by sexual sin,” opened its Mid-South Regional office in Chattanooga in 2001.
And Exodus International — whose 230 member agencies in the United States and Canada make it the largest Christian organization in the country focused on conversion therapy — held a training session in Chattanooga in November for 28 ministry leaders from Tennessee, Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama.
“Because of the current cultural climate and political climate surrounding this issue, I think there’s more attention coming around it,” said Exodus Church Network Director Jeff Buchanan of Nashville, who conducted the seminar. “It may be more of an awareness, in conjunction with the issues we’re facing as a nation.”
The concept of conversion therapy, couched within decades-old debates about science versus God and nature versus nurture, isn’t new; experts say it has been around since at least the 1970s.
The American Psychological Association in 1973 removed homosexuality from its list of treatable disorders. The APA, American Psychiatric Association and the National Association of Social Workers have ethics policies discouraging the use of conversion therapy on the grounds that it is has not been proven effective and might cause more harm than good.
“It doesn’t make sense on any level,” said Richard L. Pimental-Habib, an openly gay, Chattanooga-based clinical therapist. “The ultimate result is that it doesn’t work. It flies in the face of how a person is born and who they are to the core.”
Mr. Delaney said he doesn’t have specific data to track his clients’ outcomes, but acknowledged some people don’t respond to the therapy and return to the gay lifestyle.
In 2007, the American Psychological Association put together a task force to evaluate its position on reparative therapy in light of new research. Results are expected to be released within the next few months, said Clinton Anderson, director of the organization’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Concerns Office.
The question of whether someone can choose to be gay is at the heart of all gay-rights issues, Mr. Delaney explained. By saying that a homosexual is genetically born with gay tendencies in the same way a black person is born with dark skin, gay rights advocates are trying to bolster their arguments for equal treatment of gays, he said.
“What I do flies in the face of their agenda,” said Mr. Delaney, who noted that he periodically is the target of hate messages on his Web site and threatening voice mails.
But Mr. Delaney and Mr. Buchanan say they aren’t going to let resistance interfere with their work. Mr. Buchanan said he believes the ex-gay movement will not only continue but will expand.
“I work with a network of about 115 churches. It’s continuing to grow, and I have reason to think it will multiply into the thousands,” he said.
“A broken, fallen world”
Professional therapists argue reparative therapy lacks proven benefits and may harm patients by increasing unnecessary self-hatred and guilt.
These therapists point to studies showing that genetics play a significant role in sexual development and say that, based on such evidence, there is no way to sidestep the conclusion that people are born as homosexuals.
“Of course we know there is a genetic component to homosexuality now,” said David Kaplan, chief professional officer of the American Counseling Association.
“We do not know of any situation where a homosexual has been converted to heterosexuality,” Dr. Kaplan continued. “What you can do is you can change behaviors. You can force somebody to stop eating, but they’re not going to stop getting hungry.”
Those who support conversion therapy counter that these scientists’ evidence is biased and flawed. But even if it weren’t, they say, whether someone is born gay is irrelevant to whether that person should act on it.
“Some people are born with a genetic disposition to become alcoholics,” Mr. Delaney said. “Does that give them permission to live that way?”
Dan Wilson, director of Chattanooga’s Harvest USA, said God states through the Bible that homosexuality and other types of sexual sin are wrong and that people need to struggle against committing that sin.
“We inherited a broken, fallen world, and we inherited a propensity to sin,” he said. “We need to be aiming life toward repentance and change.”
The issue goes beyond Christian doctrine and into morality in general, said New Jersey-based Arthur Goldberg, executive secretary of the National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality and co-founder/co-director of Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality.
“We have this whole political-correctness philosophy now, in terms not only of language but just the way we function,” Mr. Goldberg said. “Part of it is a breakdown of church and family, and part of it is a breakdown of overall morality in the communities. There’s this greater philosophy of whatever feels good is good.”
Association therapists use secular science to support their view that anyone who wants to choose to live a moral lifestyle should have the right to seek treatment to change, Mr. Goldberg said.
“HERE TO HELP”
Harvest, Exodus and Joseph’s Coat advocate for the rights of those who want to change, yet officials with each group note that the organizations are not out to judge or condemn those who embrace the gay lifestyle.
“We’re not in the business of forcing somebody to change, but if they do come to us, we are here to help those who desire change to accomplish their goal,” said Mr. Delaney, who does not charge for services and depends on donations to provide therapy, support groups and seminars through Joseph’s Coat.
Still, Dr. Anderson of the American Psychological Association contends conversion therapy is rooted in subtle criticism.
People who decide to turn to such therapies “are often people who are involved in social groups that have a high level of negativity toward homosexuality,” Dr. Anderson said. “They are seeking such therapies not necessarily because they’re going to benefit from them, but because they are trying desperately to fit into communities they seek to fit in.”
Randy Thomas, executive vice president of Exodus North America, said he resents that attitude.
“The media and gay activists want to make it all about some sort of fight between us and them, and that’s just not true,” said Mr. Thomas, who says he has not identified himself as a gay person in 16 years. “Yes, we do have moral disagreements, but we don’t exist to oppose the gay community.”
To Mr. Delaney, homosexuality is a complicated mix that includes many environmental factors, and he trusts that God offers guidance for true change.
As for himself, he believed “something better” was possible.
“I trust Him that those issues will never control me again,” Mr. Delaney said. “Once you mature in the Lord, I’ve seen that your feelings can change.”