MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Jeff, a 35-year-old computer technician, believes if he loves Jesus enough he will stop having sex with men. Marc, a 39-year-old father of four, studies the Bible with the hope it will help him stop having homosexual affairs.
Both men live in an unusual group home. It has only gay residents and is run by Love In Action, an independent Memphis ministry which preaches that homosexuals can become heterosexuals through Christian faith -- and will pay the price of an unhappy, disordered life if they don't.
"I believe God holds us accountable for choices that are inappropriate," said John Smid, Love In Action's director and a self-described former homosexual.
Jeff, who like the other residents declined to give his last name, has seen changes in himself since he joined Love In Action about two years ago.
"I have a renewed connection with God," he said. "I'm finding joy in embracing masculinity, traditional masculinity."
The belief that homosexuality is a choice rather than a predisposition is not new, nor is the idea that homosexuals can be "converted" by following the Bible. Some fundamentalist Christians refer to that conversion as "reparative therapy."
Last year, Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council and the Christian Coalition began a national advertising campaign urging gays to find +religion+.
In December, the American Psychiatric Association's board rejected Christian-based therapy for homosexuals, saying it could cause "depression, anxiety and self-destructive behavior." The American Psychological Association reached a similar conclusion a year earlier.
"Somebody can be a real, true Christian but at the same time have sexual feelings which are very different. You get kind of an irreconcilable conflict. Am I really this or am I that?" said Leon Hoffman of the American Psychoanalytic Association.
Steven Baines, a Southern Baptist minister and member of Equal Partners in Faith, a Washington, D.C., group that preaches religious tolerance and inclusion, said campaigns like the one started by the Christian groups can be dangerous.
"It creates an environment that allows the extremists to act on their hate. We have to stop rhetoric that demonizes individuals simply because they are attracted to the same gender," said Baines, who is gay.
Love In Action is one of more than 90 ministries drawing referrals from Exodus International of Seattle, one of the largest organizations for "ex-gays" in the country.
Exodus officials say they know of three other residential programs for gays -- New Hope in San Rafael, Calif.; Freedom at Last in Wichita, Kan.; and CrossOver Ministries International in Lexington, Ky.
Love In Action has three group homes in Memphis with room for 16 men and four women. Currently, 14 spots are filled. Most of the participants come to Memphis from other parts of the country.
Each house has staff managers on duty 24 hours a day, and clients are closely monitored over the 18 to 24 months they are in the program. They pay $950 a month rent and must find jobs approved by Love In Action that will not interfere with counseling sessions or other program functions.
Participants follow a 12-step program similar to those used by recovering alcoholics and drug addicts. The first step is to admit "we are powerless over homosexuality and compulsive sexual behavior, that our lives had become unmanageable." Other steps include believing that Jesus Christ can "restore us to sanity," and making "a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves." The last step is experiencing a "spiritual awakening" that will control the rest of their lives.
Group discussions are held four to five nights a week. Residents who feel compulsions to act on homosexual tendencies can call Love In Action counselors 24 hours a day.
Jeff, a St. Louis resident, repeated more than a year in the program after he was caught looking at gay pornography.
"He could either leave or start over," said Smid, who estimates 60 or so of the 185 clients who have come to his program over the past 12 years "remain free of homosexuality."
Jeff said the incident renewed his commitment to becoming straight. "I know now that absolute sobriety is necessary," he said.
While the ultimate goal is a change to heterosexuality, abstinence of homosexual acts is imperative, Smid said, even if gay thoughts persist.
"What you starve, dies," he said.
His group considers any sexual act outside a Christian marriage as a sin, including [filtered word] and viewing pornography.
Marc, the Louisiana father of four, said he came to Love In Action after his wife filed for divorce. He said his homosexual feelings and infidelities raised tensions in his household to unbearable levels.
"These behaviors were the things I turned to when I got angry, when I was upset, when I was hurt, as someone else might turn to drugs or alcohol," he said.
Stephanie, 28, of Memphis, said she joined the program because of "inappropriate emotional attachments" to other women, though she has never had sex with a woman.
"I definitely have struggled strongly with lesbianism and would have ended up in the lifestyle eventually," she said.
Baines said the idea that there is such a thing as a "gay lifestyle" is a misnomer propagated by groups like Love In Action.
"We do the same things everyone else does. We go to movies. We take walks on the beach. It's about an intimate connection with another human being," Baines said. "There is no gay lifestyle. It's a phrase to scare sincere people of faith into saying this is some kind of national evil."
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