February 15th, 2007
Note: As I describe my conversations with Love Won Out participants, I have changed several important details in order to protect the anonymity of those I talked to. The individuals who talked to me have a right to expect that their stories not be made individually recognizable. Nevertheless, the situations I describe are fully accurate in their substance.
I’ve been asked several times now and it seems like people are dying to know: “Who goes to these conferences anyway? What were they like?” I’ve wondered how they imagine those who go to Love Won Out, but I’ve never asked. The tone of the question is often one of strange fascination, as if I had just told them I visited a tribe of cannibals in the South Pacific and they responded, “Good God! What were they like?” I can hardly blame them. I asked that question myself many times, before I had the chance to see them with my own eyes.
Well I can now report that there was nothing exotic or frightening about the seven hundred people who attended Focus on the Family’s and Exodus’ Love Won Out conference in Phoenix on February 10. In fact, I found the people there to be exceptionally warm, friendly and cheerful. It was a crowd which, much to my surprise, I found to be very pleasant and easy spend the day with. I enjoyed my time chatting and laughing with everyone as we stood in this line or that one. For the most part, I think the people I met there would make great friends and neighbors.
There was definitely a very friendly vibe here. And while I wasn’t open about my own sexuality, I suspect most would have accepted me quite well if I had told them I was gay. In fact, I suspect they would have treated me like a rock star, because even though the conference was all about homosexuality, there were surprisingly few homosexuals there. I would have been the living, breathing homosexual everyone was talking about.
Come to think of it, maybe that’s why some of the people I talked to treated me so well. Maybe they took one look at me and just knew, sort of the way I knew sometimes. I don’t know. But if I had told them explicitly, I’m sure it would have gotten in the way. I would have become a talker instead of a listener, and I wouldn’t have been able to hear what they had to say in their own words. So I kept those things to myself. Nobody asked and I didn’t tell. I was just there.
So who attends conferences like this? Love Won Out, which claims that “individuals don’t have to be gay and that a homosexual identity is something that can be overcome,” appears to draw mainly from three groups of people.
The first group consisted of church leaders, Bible study groups and youth groups who attended as part of their ongoing Christian education. For them, this was an all-day seminar on “the seldom-told side of the homosexual issue.” These were either true believers in their church’s stance on homosexuality or were well on their way toward becoming one. While this group was quite visible, they weren’t especially large. And since they all knew each other, they tended to hang around in clumps and talk among themselves. I didn’t interact with them very much at all. But there were specific breakout sessions for pastors and youth group leaders and I will probably address some of this much later in the series.
The second group consisted of those who were, in the parlance of Love Won Out, “struggling with same-sex attraction.” Now I have to confess that my gaydar isn’t necessarily the most accurately calibrated device on the planet, but it registered several loud, unmistakable pings throughout the day. Even so, like I said, this was a very small group, probably the smallest of the three. They were sometimes with their families, but they were more likely to be alone or with one or two others. They were generally rather subdued, not talking very much among themselves or with anyone else. Their reticence made them, to me at least, somewhat unapproachable. I was never good at mingling with people who were themselves quiet, something I guess I’m going to have to work on. So as it was, I didn’t have a good opening with which to casually strike up a conversation while standing in line for lunch or the coffee bar or during breaks in the lobby. I got the impression they generally wanted to be left alone and I respected that. As I looked through the day’s agenda, I saw only a couple of sessions that would be of direct interest to them, something I found to be a bit surprising.
But the third group — and this was by far the largest group (I think about two-thirds according to a show of hands during one of the general sessions) — consisted of relatives of those “affected by homosexuality.” And by my unsubstantiated estimation, it appeared to me at least that most of these were either parents or grandparents of gays and lesbians. The rest were brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles or close friends. Because of their sheer numbers, this was the most approachable group of the three.
I’ll probably address the relevance of Love Won Out to the first two groups, but it’s the third group, especially the parents and grandparents, who I want to keep in mind as I tell you about Love Won Out. I don’t think anyone can really understand what Love Won Out means without looking at it through the eyes of the mothers and the fathers of gays and lesbians, particularly those with children who came out to them and continue to live as “gay- or lesbian-identified,” to use Love Won Out’s way of speaking.
Many of my gay and lesbian friends assume that anyone who went to these conferences would be filled with incredible hate toward the gay community. When I attended the Love Won Out protests in Palm Springs last fall, I was dismayed to see that the local protest organizers kept pounding on the word “hate”, declaring Palm Springs a “hate-free zone” and characterizing everyone associated with Love Won Out as being motivated by “hate.”
Folks, I can now state categorically that this is not true and we need to stop saying that. Now mind you, I can’t look into the hearts of the conference leaders and I’m certainly won’t mount a defense on their behalf. They will have to defend their own actions and motivations however they can. But those who attend Love Won Out don’t go there because of hate. To say otherwise is to commit a terrible slander and we should abolish that kind of language from our discourse.
Instead, let me draw your attention to a gentleman I talked to in one quiet little corner of the church courtyard. He was there with his wife and we were talking when he began to tell me about his son. For a long time, this gentleman had been wondering why his very good-looking and popular son hadn’t gotten married yet, when about eight years ago his son came home for a special visit in order to explain why that wasn’t going to happen. This father was very forthcoming in telling me that he took the news very badly, and he said a lot of things that he shouldn’t have said. And when he talked to his son more in the months that followed, he repeated some of those awful things which brought their relationship to a terrible break.
Since then, he’s talked to his son on the phone many times, but too often it often hasn’t gone very well. There are too many times when the conversations between them break down as old patterns repeat themselves. There’s just too much pain and anger on both sides, although he’s careful not to blame his son. He wishes he knew how to talk to him, and as he said this he began to cry very softly. His wife, who had been standing silently next to him the whole time, gently reached for his hand and she began to cry as well. But she remained silent. She never shared her side of the story and I didn’t ask.
I just stood there and watched this man’s heart break before my very eyes. His lower lip quivered ever so slightly as he continued speaking — the hopes that he had for his son, the many things he admired about him, his pride in his son’s successful career, and yet, his utter puzzlement that his son could possibly be gay. Eight years later and he still can’t quite bring himself to fully believe it. All he wants is for his boy to come home.
And with that, he couldn’t say any more. The conversation came to a very awkward end. He struggled for just a few, very brief seconds before regaining his composure, and I struggled to keep mine.
This part of the conversation lasted, I don’t know, maybe thirty seconds, tops. Such profound stories can come tumbling out so quickly when you least expect it. But at that moment, as we stood there in that mercifully quiet corner of the church courtyard, it felt like a lifetime. And in a way, it was. It was two lifetimes intertwined, with the irony being that their lives were drawn together by a chasm which stood between them.
I wished that his son could have seen his father as I saw him right then. This man revealed himself to me in a way that he couldn’t to his son, and that is so incredibly unfair. It made me mad a little. Not at him or at his son, but at the whole situation. It was his son who deserved the great gift of seeing his father’s love, not me, and I wondered if his son had ever had a chance to see him like that. My heart broke for that father because of the incredible pain he felt, and my heart broke for his son for having missed the chance to see what I saw.
A grown man does not often shed tears in front of a perfect stranger when talking about his son unless he loves him with a power and depth that few people are privileged to witness. Those who say that Love Won Out is all about hate have it all wrong. It’s not. Tragically, it’s about something much deeper and far more personal for most of those who attend.
I want you to remember that gentleman and his wife as we go through the things I saw and learned at Love Won Out. I also ask that you to remember that couple and their son in your prayers.
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Prologue: Why I Went To “Love Won Out”
Part 1: What’s Love Got To Do With It?
Part 2: Parents Struggle With “No Exceptions”
Part 3: A Whole New Dialect
Part 4: It Depends On How The Meaning of the Word "Change" Changes
Part 5: A Candid Explanation For "Change"
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