Gay activists and clergy are planning a silent protest Saturday morning outside a conference of ex-gays who contend homosexuality can be cured by religious counseling. The conference, called "Love Won Out" and sponsored by the conservative Colorado-based Christian organization Focus on the Family, has sparked controversy and outrage with several billboards in Orlando and other cities that host the traveling event. The billboards declare: "I Questioned Homosexuality and discovered love won out." The group's message is that change is possible.
"For gays, this is the same as saying you don't have to be black, you don't have to be Jewish," said Wayne Besen, executive director of TruthWinsOut.org, a Brooklyn-based gay advocacy group. "They represent us as broken and incomplete people."
Protesters, organized by Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians and Gays, will meet outside First Presbyterian Church in Orlando, where organizers say the conference is expected to draw about 500 participants. The conference coincides with Gay Days, which annually attracts thousands of gays to Orlando and Disney World.
Earlier in the week, leaders of Orlando's gay community denounced the conference and the billboards as part of the larger agenda by Christian groups to deny gays rights -- including same-sex marriage -- and portray gays and lesbians as deviant and abnormal.
Before Orlando, Love Won Out had erected the controversial billboards in eight cities. In some cities, the billboards have been vandalized.
The ex-gays conference is the setting for the latest battleground between conservative Christian ministries and gay activists over the unsolved question of what determines a person's sexual orientation. The ministries argue that same-sex attraction results from specific events in a person's life -- such as sexual abuse, personal trauma and dysfunctional families -- that can be corrected with Christian-based counseling.
"Same-sex attraction is the result of a number of influential factors, but, no, we don't believe people are born gay," said Melissa Fryrear, director of gender issues for Focus on the Family. "We believe homosexuals can be converted and same-sex attractions can change."
Research by the American Psychological Association and other mental-health organizations disputes that view of homosexuality, said Kathryn Norsworthy, a licensed psychologist in Winter Park.
"Homosexuality is not a deviant behavior or abnormal. There is no need for a cure," Norsworthy said.
Jill Bley, a psychologist with the American Psychological Association, said there is no evidence that therapy can change a person's sexuality -- only that some people can repress their sexual desires.
"They cannot change because, we believe, it is a chemical, biological thing that happens in very early stages of development," said Bley, whose practice is in Cincinnati.
Love Won Out points to a recent study as proof that change in sexual orientation is possible. Researchers followed a group of gays and lesbians who had been referred for "conversion therapy" by Exodus International, an Orlando-based ministry for ex-gays. The study found that 15 of the 98 gays and lesbians had become heterosexual.
But Besen says the therapy is a false hope that Love Won Out sells to unhappy homosexuals, their families and friends. Scores of ex-gays who marry believing they have turned straight end up in divorce court after discovering they hadn't changed after all, Besen contends.
"They show you the marriage licenses," he said. "They don't show you the divorce papers."
Vicki Nantz and her partner, Mary Meeks, shot this wonderful video at our press conference yesterday - where we spoke out against Focus on the Family's "ex-gay" Love Won Out road show. The two women also filmed a documentary about Ryan Skipper, a man who was murdered in Florida because of his sexual orientation.
One thing we Floridians loathe is being upstaged by California - that other bastion of sun and fun. We have worked hard to outdo them. For example, we countered their Disney Land with Disney World - a version of Mickey on steroids. Both states grow oranges - but we one-upped them by making the orange our state fruit. Still, California seems to get all the love with its glamorous movie stars who cruise in their fancy convertibles, enjoying humidity and mosquito free evenings.
In 2008, Florida was poised to become the center of the gay activism universe after the right wing placed a proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot that would prohibit same-sex marriage and civil unions.
I attended the initial meeting of Florida Red & Blue, the organization that was created to fight the Amendment. It took place inside the luxurious condo of a storied political operative. Seated in a circle, some of the most powerful and well-connected people - Democrats, republicans, gay and straight - strategized on how to win. Several of the major gay organizations and foundations announced they were on board for this epic battle. An Equality Florida led coalition, Fairness for All Families, was also created to organize at the grassroots level.
All eyes were on Florida - until the California Supreme Court ruled that the state's ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional. This was a monumental victory and the cause of mass celebration across America. While marriage in little ole Massachusetts was an appetizer, this was the four-course meal at the best restaurant in town.
The decision gave birth to countless news stories and endless chatter on the blogs. Unlike Massachusetts, there are no residency requirements for gay couples to marry in the Golden State. This led to New York Gov. David Paterson directing state agencies to recognize same-sex marriages performed in states and countries where they are legal.
Unfortunately, California was back in the news this week because the initiative to ban same-sex marriage received enough signatures to qualify for the ballot. So far, California polls have split on which side will win. A Los Angles Times survey suggested that the anti-gay amendment would narrowly pass. However, a few days later the Sacramento Bee released a field poll showing the amendment would fail 51 to 42 percent. This is clearly going to be a multi-million dollar nasty brawl that will capture the nation's attention.
While California is back in the spotlight, we can't let it eclipse what is happening in Florida. The right wing is gearing up to launch a huge campaign to win here. Indeed, Focus on the Family is hosting its ex-gay road show, Love Won Out, this week in Orlando. The group has placed billboards in the city and brazenly scheduled the event the same week as Gay Days at Disney - to receive maximum exposure. The conference will be fertile ground to recruit volunteers to work on passing the Amendment. My organization, TruthWinsOut.org, will join local advocates at a media conference to help counter the ex-gay symposium and its political implications.
The Florida measure is clearly a cynical ploy to get conservatives to the polls in a key election year - when Republicans are showing weakness in the south, losing special congressional elections in once "safe seats" in Louisiana and Mississippi.
The good news is, it will take 60 percent of the vote to amend the Florida constitution - increasing the likelihood that this amendment will fail. However, this means we can't allow California to be a distraction. It is crucial that we keep one eye on Hollywood California, and the other on Hollywood, Florida. An affirmative win for marriage in California, combined with turning back a negative amendment in Florida, will take the air out of this issue nationally.
It would be a Godsend if we surfed to victory in California. But we also can't get bogged down in the notorious Florida political swamp that led to the failed presidency of George W. Bush. The west coast wonder will once again be the leading man, but we must ensure the Election Day production isn't spoiled because we forgot about the supporting cast in the Sunshine State.
The Huffington Post reports that Hillary Clinton has summoned top donors and backers to attend her speech tomorrow night in an unusual move that is being widely interpreted to mean she plans to suspend her campaign and endorse Barack Obama.
Obama and Clinton spoke Sunday night and agreed that their staffs should begin negotiations over post-primary activities. In addition to help raising money to pay off some $20 million-plus in debts, Clinton is known to want Obama to help out black officials who endorsed her and are now taking constituent heat, including, in some cases, primary challenges from pro-Obama politicians.