The Columbia Journal
P.O. Box 2633 MPO,
Vancouver, British Columbia,
Canada V6B 3W8
Is it love?
Christian conference preaches homosexuality
On the morning of May 1, I enter Vancouver’s Broadway Church, home to a
Pentecostal congregation better known for its annual Christmas show
than its views on sexual orientation. I’m not alone. About 550
conference goers have paid $70 to $90 admission hoping to find answers
to their questions about homosexuality.
I’m here to cover Focus on the Family’s travelling conference on
homosexuality, Love Won Out. Focus on the Family is a Christian
organisation based in the United States with ministries in 18 other
countries. Almost 16,000 people have attended 27 Love Won Outs since
1998. Last year’s Toronto event sold out.
In the crowded foyer, I meet Kelly Walker, Focus on the Family Canada’s
public relations coordinator. It’s not the last I’ll see of Walker; two
trips to the washroom are the only times I’m not chaperoned by her or a
conference volunteer while at the church.
The media guidelines are strict. I’m told not to interview attendees or
photograph their faces, and I sign an agreement to not attend two
question and answer sessions in the afternoon.
Attendees seated in pews listen attentively as the first speaker, Dr.
Joseph Nicolosi, a clinical psychologist from California and the
president of the National Association for Research and Therapy of
Homosexuality, tells them homosexuality is a gender identity disorder,
rather than a sexual matter. Indeed, he asserts, it’s a psychological
“We’re all heterosexual,” Nicolosi says. “If you’re not sure, look in
the mirror naked some day; you’ll see that the body parts are designed
in a certain way.”
The psychologist maintains homosexuality is rooted in early family
relationships. The foundation of male homosexuality, he claims, is a
hurtful relationship between a father and son.
“We advise fathers: If you don’t hug your sons, some other man will,”
A study by his organisation found 500 articles linking homosexuality
with self-destructive behaviour, he says. The good news, the
psychologist tells us, is homosexuality is preventable and treatable
through so-called reparative therapy.
Citing scientific research and anecdotes from his patients, the
psychologist delivers what appear to be persuasive arguments to his
overwhelmingly white, all-ages audience. Attendees frequently nod their
heads in agreement and laugh at his jokes, which deploy a variety of
generalizations and stereotypes about lesbians and gay men.
The next speaker, the witty and articulate Mike Haley, says he has been
transformed from a gay activist to an ex-gay man who has overcome
As a teen, Haley felt compelled to leave his homophobic church and find
acceptance in the gay community. Several years later, he says, the
support of other Christians helped him leave homosexuality. Now, he’s
married with children, as well as the manager of Focus on the Family’s
homosexuality and gender department.
(While discussing he and his wife’s struggle to have children, Haley’s
language reveals his views on abortion. “My wife’s post-abortive,” he
says. “She’s killed two babies.”)
Haley says he hopes to change the language Christians use to reach out
to lesbians and gay men because it’s often offensive. His message: only
love, not hate, will solve what he sees as the problem of homosexuality.
“We need to have days like this more and more and more—where we can
educate people about how do we accept the people without accepting the
behaviour,” says Haley, who often cites biblical passages during his
speech, “and I believe it can be done.”
Next, Melissa Fryrear, who says she’s overcome lesbianism, takes the
stage. But I, accompanied by the public relations coordinator and a
volunteer, sit down with Haley and Nicolosi for an interview downstairs.
Haley speaks first, challenging me to write a fair article that
promotes tolerance, not division.
“We do these interviews all the time, and with the gay media, we tend
to get slammed,” he says.
“What I’m seeking to do, and what I believe this conference is seeking
to do, is while there’s difference between the gay community and the
Christian community—some differences—we’re hoping to bridge a gap, and
not further push one another away.”
I ask Haley if it’s difficult to find churches to host the conference.
No, he answers; churches belonging to many denominations have welcomed
Love Won Out. He maintains the conference promotes understanding and
compassion, and doesn’t fuel hate. But, Haley says, the conference
usually sparks a protest in every city it visits, and he’s surprised by
the absence of one in Vancouver.
“But often times, gay activists will come into the conference, and one
of the things that’s interesting—when they come in—they’ll say, ‘You
know, hey, I didn’t agree with everything I heard, but the tone in
which it was presented was very different than what I expected,’” he
says. “So, we encourage the gay community to come.”
Turning to Nicolosi, I question the psychologist about his advocacy of
reparative therapy, which is rejected by his own professional
organisation, the American Psychological Association, as well as the
other major mental health institutions in the U.S. and Canada.
“I think for political reasons they discourage treatment,” says
Nicolosi, who claims to have treated over 1,000 gay men.
“The scientific claims that they make to justify discouraging the
treatment are ungrounded,” he adds.
The American Psychological Association’s lesbian, gay and bisexual
concerns officer disagrees.
“We don’t think that it’s appropriate to make people think they ought
to change their sexual orientation because there’s something wrong with
it,” Clinton Anderson says by telephone from Washington, D.C.
That’s because reparative therapy, according to his organisation’s
official statement on the practice, is based on a discredited
understanding of homosexuality.
In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality
from its manual of mental disorders. Two years later, the American
Psychological Association supported its decision. Since it is not a
mental disorder, the statement says, homosexuality requires no
“That decision,” Anderson says, “was grounded in approximately 20 years
of research that had attempted to test the idea that homosexuality was
a mental disorder and was unable to confirm that.”
But that doesn’t mean the de-listing of homosexuality wasn’t at all
political, he notes.
“To imply that to identify something as political makes it not
scientific is absurd,” Anderson says. “Things can be both scientific
Back at the conference, I enter one of the “breakout sessions” to
discover an unadvertised talk by Dr. Chris Kempling, the Quesnel school
counsellor suspended in 2002 for writing a series of anti-gay letters
to a local newspaper.
In February, the Supreme Court of British Columbia upheld Kempling’s
suspension, and he decided to appeal the ruling to the B.C. Court of
Appeal. Some attendees thank Kempling for standing up for their beliefs.
He tells us the proliferation of gay-straight alliances and the
implementation of curricula supportive of homosexuality in B.C.’s
public schools must be fought—albeit carefully.
“If you come across as a Bible-thumper,” Kempling says, “frankly, I
don’t think you are going to be able to achieve your goal.”
As people leave the church in search of lunch, I stop a couple of
attendees to ask them why they came to the conference.
“It’s such a controversy right now. So, I think it’s good to know what
it’s all about,” says a thirty-something Burnaby parent, who would only
identify herself as “Mrs. Wong.” “Also personally, I want to be here
because a friend of mine has a sibling who has some issues.”
What would she do if one of her children were lesbian or gay?
“I don’t know. I haven’t thought about it.”
Love Won Out will travel to Raleigh, North Carolina in June followed by
stops in Minneapolis, Minnesota and Fresno, California. Focus on the
Family plans to bring the conference to Winnipeg next year.
Stephen Hui is a
freelance journalist who contributes to Xtra West, a lesbian and gay
newspaper in Vancouver, where this article originally appeared. It is
reprinted with permission.