I've been gay for as long as I can remember, and for the most part I've been happy about it. Sure, there was a time not so long ago when I thought about having a relationship with a woman again (I briefly experimented with heterosexuality as a teen), but I am now convinced that I was meant to be gay. I don't care if it's nature or nurture. I'm here, I'm queer.... Well, you know the rest. So it was with some trepidation that I made my way to the Love Won Out conference Saturday (September 20) at a Baptist church on Sheppard East in Scarborough. Three words that send shivers up the spines of many gay men are "Baptist," "church" and "Scarborough."
But there I was at an event for people who want to "leave the gay lifestyle" that was organized by Vancouver-based Focus on the Family (FOF), the Canadian branch of an association dedicated to "supporting" traditional families.
Although I hadn't really thought about leaving the gay life, I was open to hearing about the benefits of converting. In the past, I've been convinced to switch my long-distance provider, so anything is possible. However, I was concerned that my boyfriend might not still love me if I came home straight, and I wondered to whom I would give my Madonna and Cher CDs.
Within seconds, it's obvious that the conference organizers are well aware just how controversial and irrational their message is. At least half a dozen paid-duty police officers are keeping watch. Signs are posted on the doors warning participants that their bags and purses may be searched.
Reporters are given a list of restrictions and asked to sign a contract, and Kelly Walker, public relations coordinator for FOF - and the type of young woman I would probably bang if I were an ex-gay - asks me not once, but twice, for the angle of my story.
Once inside, Alan Chambers, the ex-gay director of a bizarre conversion organization called Exodus - and whom I might also bang if I were single - greets me warmly and thrusts his propaganda into my hands. Exodus, he tells me with a bit of leftover feyness, is for people "affected by unwanted homosexuality."
Despite the conference's name, there isn't much love in the air, but I am overcome by the stench of pity. Most of the people here are decidedly condescending when they talk about homosexuality, exposing their own profound sadness and desperate need to feel better about themselves. It's soon apparent that they all believe homosexuality can be eradicated.
It's interesting to note that a significant number of the 900 attendees are from the U.S., where the religious right is much more active. Apparently, most Torontonians have better things to do.
One of those who made the trip to Toronto is Ralph, who asked that his surname not be published, from Watkins Glen, New York.
I bond with him by telling him that I went camping in Watkins Glen State Park a few years ago, but I resist mentioning that my then-boyfriend and I had amazing sex in the woods.
Ralph tells me he's made it a mission to help people who are "hurting," so he wants to learn more.
"There's a lot to absorb in one day," he says of the conference, "but I will take it all home and go over it during the next week." Clearly, someone so obsessed with the sex lives of others is doing some hurting of his own.
The sessions themselves, with titles like Addressing The Pro-Gay Agenda In Your School and Someone I Love Is Gay, are nothing more than preachy monologues filled with right-wing rhetoric.
Cries of "Amen" and "Praise Jesus" are heard throughout the room, and people gasp and shake their heads in disgust at all the right places. The speakers, all Americans, some with gay porn names like Dick Carpenter and Joe Dallas, are slick and well rehearsed.
Frankly, I don't think there's anything wrong with groups like FOF exposing the lies the gay community has repeated for decades. You know, those bogus claims that 10 per cent of the population is gay and that 30 per cent of teens who attempt suicide are queer. And, yes, we made a big deal out of the murder of Matthew Shepherd.
But suggesting that Will & Grace and Elton John's contributions to The Lion King have made children think about becoming gay is preposterous.
The aforementioned Dick Carpenter, introduced as Dr. Dick, no less, even takes issue with the TV hit Queer Eye For The Straight Guy, pointing out that "it's entertaining to tell a straight man to change, but to tell homosexuals to change is blasphemy." It's a huge leap, but Carpenter nails it, and the crowd nods in righteous agreement.
One of the scariest speakers at the conference is Dr. Joseph Nicolosi, a shrink who believes male homosexuality can be prevented and treated.
"Every culture has rejected homosexuality," explains Nicolosi, who tells parents to watch boys for warning signs like alienation from same-sex peers, the lack of a close relationship with Dad, a dislike of getting dirty and an interest in trying on Mom's clothes.
Nicolosi, whose practice is built on making parents feel like failures and gay kids feel like they're mentally ill, backs up his theories with arguments that are comical and hypocritical.
He points out that gays and lesbians have higher rates of depression, anxiety and substance abuse, then adds, "Granted, if you live in a society where people don't like you, it's going to add to the stress in your life." Duh!
Nicolosi's so-called conversion therapy has been discredited by the American Psychiatric Association, American Psychological Association, American Medical Association and American Academy of Pediatrics, but conference attendees lap it up and rush to buy copies of his book and tapes.
That's what the conference is all about - making money for a bunch of American speakers and an American-based right-wing organization.
As the conference winds down, some ex-gays wander outside to greet a group of about 20 protestors holding signs that read, "Rescue an ex-gay today" and "Homophobia makes baby Jesus cry." One cheeky demonstrator offers a shiny new toaster to the first ex-gay to convert back.
Victor Bagnato, who runs a ministry for ex-gays in Buffalo, shakes hands with the protestors and has a respectful dialogue with one well-spoken lesbian. He wants to make it clear that his brethren "don't preach a message of hate."
Currently dating a woman, Bagnato says he was once very active in the gay community. "But I was hurting," he says.
When pressed, he concedes that being ex-gay doesn't mean you've changed your sexual orientation, but merely learned to suppress it. "It's not like you're going to stop being gay and become straight," he says. "It's just about letting God work it out."
Indeed, the Holy Father and His son are widely credited with helping these ex-gays see the light. "No man or woman will complete me," says conference participant Bob Wilson, who was actively gay for 25 years but these days only gets down on his knees for God. "Only He can complete me. I could never go back. I've been too far."
Paul Bowser of the University of Toronto's queer student group and an organizer of the protest, says people who believe FOF are being conned.
"The ex-gay movement requires people to surround themselves with this sort of ministry to keep themselves convinced that they've successfully broken free," he says. "It's a shell game, really. A lot of people in there are getting messages from the right, but they aren't getting them from us any more. I think they need to hear that it's OK to be gay."