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July 28th, 2004 Taylor Clark | News Stories
 

CURED

Changing from gay to straight isn't easy. But Portland Fellowship swears it's possible.

     
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On a hot July evening, 32 people mill around in the stuffy living room of a Southeast Portland house. They are all strangers--in fact, they're not even allowed to talk outside of this room.

The guests, all but seven of them men, shuffle awkwardly around a water cooler. An elderly gentleman in an olive three-piece suit sits patiently as a ponytailed twentysomething girl in a sleeveless top chatters nearby, making liberal use of the word "dude."

They are all here for one reason: They want, desperately, not to be gay.

A goateed 27-year-old named Drew Berryessa calls the group to order. Smiling, he welcomes everyone to Portland Fellowship, Oregon's refuge for those trapped in a vicious spiritual war between their sexuality and their allegiance to God.

To the crowd, Berryessa is living proof that homosexuality can be overcome. Five years ago, Berryessa was a gay man who had never desired a woman. Today, he's married to one, and says he is free of lust for other men.

And it's all thanks to Portland Fellowship.

Berryessa--who is now a ministry assistant at the Fellowship--has had sex with a man but believes he was never really "gay." In fact, he explains, nobody is gay.

"I don't believe homosexuality is natural," he says. "I believe that I had an unhealthy need for male intimacy that formed during my childhood, and that was how it was being met."

Unperturbed by the political incorrectness of his words, Berryessa speaks with the calmness of a man accustomed to sharing intimate details of his life with congregations of people. Homosexuality is not an innate condition, he says, but a reversible psychological dysfunction that anyone can defeat--if they want it badly enough.

The group shifts uncomfortably. A fan whirrs in the background.

"Well," Berryessa announces. "Let's get started."

With a historic battle for gays' right to marry looming on the November ballot, Portland Fellowship may seem like a quaint, even anachronistic, organization--one that is so on the fringe as to be unworthy of attention. Perhaps. The 50 people who sign up annually for the fellowship's two-year "reparative" therapy program don't quite constitute an army of the faithful.

But the Fellowship's view that gayness is a matter of choice undercuts the very argument in support of gay marriage: that gayness is immutable, like race, and homosexuals therefore deserve every right heterosexuals have. Without that belief, some conclude, homosexuality is an indulgence--one that doesn't necessarily deserve a stamp of approval from the government.

Nobody at Portland Fellowship believes "fixing" one's queer yearnings is easy. The path to heterosexuality is a twisted one, and the first task budding straights undertake is that of tracing their gay desires back to their origins. In Drew Berryessa's case, he says he just lacked a strong father figure.

Berryessa's father, a chief in the Yakima, Wash., sheriff's office, disappeared after a messy divorce when Drew was 9 years old. His mother, a Qwest call-center worker, so wished for her three sons to disconnect from their father that she changed their last names and even suggested they change first names as well.

For five years, Drew didn't see his father once, though he lived a 10-minute drive away.

"He'd send birthday cards," Berryessa recalls. "And...he'd just send birthday cards. We got the child-support check every month, though."

With his mother working full-time, the 10-year-old Drew took on the role of homemaker.

"If we were going to eat, someone had to cook," he says. "I learned how to cook, to clean, to do yardwork. I'd walk to the grocery store if I needed to."

Berryessa says his housekeeping responsibilities stopped him from learning to play sports and relate with other boys. Instead, he bonded with girls and gossiped with them about TV shows and school.

Drew remembers the moment he first found himself attracted to other boys. He was in sixth grade, changing clothes in the locker room at his middle school after gym class, when he noticed that he felt drawn to the shirtless older boys.

"I'm a shorter guy, so I looked at that and wished I was like them," he says. "It wasn't like I was fixating on a penis, just older boys with their shirts off. When I discovered masturbation, that was the image I went with."

When Drew was 14, his mother shipped him to a Christian retreat on the Oregon coast. He immediately dedicated himself to the church, latching on to the idea that people would love and accept him despite his sin. Still, he was too petrified to breathe a word of his desires to anyone.

Berryessa was never attracted to women. He dated one girl in high school for two years without them so much as hugging--"I guess she should have known something was up," he says, laughing.

After high school, Berryessa traveled to Colorado Springs, Colo., to work in youth ministry with the Church of the Nazarene. The youth pastor he worked under, a "good old boy from Oklahoma," bragged that he used to spend his time beating up gays he came across in public parks.

"This pastor believed that people who struggled with homosexuality had demons inside them," Berryessa recalls. "What was I supposed to do? Yell 'Demons OUT'?"

The conflict between his faith and his sexuality worsened with his discovery of gay Internet porn. The guilt-sickened Berryessa shuttled back and forth between youth groups and the images on his computer until finally, when he was 20, his desires found an outlet; he befriended another man at his church in Yakima.

Though the two started as friends, after a few weeks they began spending nights together at the man's apartment. Soon, the two men were sleeping in bed together, groping, cuddling, and gradually working up to sex. Drew stayed with the man for three months, hiding his sexual exploits from those at his church.

Hounded by guilt and feeling empty, Berryessa cut off the relationship and never spoke to his ex-boyfriend again. Two more years passed before he confessed his desires for other men to his pastors. But there was hope for him yet. Within weeks, he moved to Portland and met Jason Thompson, the director of Portland Fellowship, who told him something that changed his life: With enough effort, he could stop being gay.

If Drew Berryessa is the Fellowship's pep squad, then Jason Thompson is its head coach. Officially the executive director, the 33-year-old minister does individual counseling, keeps in touch with the local churches who refer his clients, and manages publicity--including making appearances on television shows like 60 Minutes and Geraldo.

A good-natured man whose demeanor rivals Berryessa's in its placidity, Thompson says the mission of Portland Fellowship is twofold. Clients must learn to form healthy (read: non-sexual) relationships with same-sex peers, and they must reinforce their relationship with God. Only then will their gayness disappear, he says.

"I'd never argue with someone who believes they were born gay and is happy with it," says Thompson, who has been with the ministry almost since its founding in 1988. "I say, 'Great, have a nice gay life.'"

Still, he believes those people are just forming empty relationships to satisfy a psychological deficit; there's something lacking in this lifestyle, he says, and some gays know it.

"There are people out there who hate themselves for having gay desires, who are ready to commit suicide," Thompson says. "That's who we're here for: those who want to change.

"I know I'll sound kind of nuts for saying this," he continues, "but I almost feel like we're less judgmental than the gay community."

Berryessa, Thompson and the rest of those in the ex-gay movement have no shortage of theories about why people "choose the gay lifestyle." Thompson says more than 95 percent of those who enter his two-year program tell him they felt distant from their same-sex parent and close to their opposite-sex parent as a child. With nobody to teach them to be "manly" or "girly," they end up emulating the opposite-sex parent and never bonding with same-sex peers.

Another common factor Thompson sees--especially in women--is sexual abuse.

"What gets communicated then is that the woman's femininity is not acceptable," Thompson says. "There's a rejection of men as safe, so women connect with one another."

So how do they "cure" gays? In weekly meetings that are part worship, part group therapy, Portland Fellowship guides struggling men and women through the process of forming healthy platonic friendships with those of the same sex, overcoming memories of abuse, and reconnecting with God.

Thompson doesn't like to talk about success rates, because he says making somebody completely un-gay isn't the point of Portland Fellowship.

"Portland Fellowship exists to draw people into a closer relationship with God," he says. "A byproduct is that you regain the heterosexual orientation."

Portland Fellowship, and the ex-gay movement in general, is disproportionately male. Joanne McBride, Portland Fellowship's women's-ministry coordinator, thinks this is because lesbians struggle less with sexual addiction than men, and also have a better safety net.

"I think that women tend to be more emotionally dependent," McBride says. "The lesbian community has a strong support group that keeps them in the gay lifestyle."

Though the organization isn't political and doesn't offer an official opinion on gay marriage, its teachings have obvious implications in the debate.

"What the Bible says is that it is morally wrong to have sexual contact outside of the bounds of marriage," Thompson says. "Homosexuality is just one thing on a long list of that. Even if it's a heterosexual couple engaging in sex outside of God's plan, then it's morally wrong. I don't differentiate that from having sex with an animal, a dead person, a little boy; it doesn't matter."

Portland Fellowship is almost exclusively composed of people who come from religious backgrounds--those who were taught at an early age that the homosexual lifestyle is one of sin.

"In 15 years here at the ministry, I just don't know a whole lot of atheists who want to overcome homosexuality," Thompson says.

One Portlander who can attest to that is Zarah Dupree, a 49-year-old piano saleswoman who was in "the lifestyle" for 25 years until she had a born-again experience in 2000. Dupree, who suffers from chronic pain from a series of car accidents in the 1970s, says she went to a Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir performance in New York City and found that her pain had been lifted from her body.

Within a couple of years, she was attending Portland Fellowship's Tuesday-night meetings so she could pass on advice to those at her new church who were struggling with gay desires.

"If you talked to me 10 years ago and said I would be a born-again who was helping people come out of the lifestyle, I would have said you were crazy," she says.

Dupree had been a lesbian since her youth in the San Francisco Bay area, had gone to some of the first Gay Pride parades and was in a lesbian marriage for six years. But when God came a-callin', she left it all behind.

"I always felt that being gay was a choice," she says. "It's hard being gay. It's very liberating not to have to deal with all of that anymore. Jesus is my main man now. He fills every need I have."

Berryessa, Thompson, McBride and Dupree are convinced that Portland Fellowship's teachings work, so it doesn't faze them that virtually no one in the psychiatric community thinks the Fellowship is anything more than a circus act.

"There is really no evidence that reparative therapy works, and there's a lot of evidence that it doesn't," says Oregon State University psychologist Jennifer Connor-Smith. "People may stop engaging in homosexual behavior, but the therapy is unlikely to increase their desire for the opposite sex. They generally still have same-sex fantasies."

She adds, "It's not because they're out of touch with God that they have these feelings."

Connor-Smith says Portland Fellowship's claim that failing to bond with a same-sex parent can cause homosexuality has no scientific traction.

"Lots of kids grow up without a father, and there's plenty of evidence to show that it doesn't make a child more likely to be gay," Connor-Smith says. "In fact, having two gay fathers doesn't make you more likely to be gay either."

The dominant theory now is that homosexuality has at least some biological underpinning. For example, identical twins--who share 100 percent of their genetic makeup--are much more likely than non-identical twins to share a sexual orientation. And here in Portland, Oregon Health & Science University researchers earlier this year confirmed that gay male sheep have quite different brain structures than heterosexual sheep.

The science of sexual orientation is still more convoluted. Joseph Marzucco, a Portland sex therapist, points out a popular theory proposed by the famed sexologist Alfred Kinsey, which states that people are rarely completely gay or completely straight; they usually land somewhere in the middle. Hence, queer desires are more common than many believe.

"This is probably normal behavior, so why pathologize it?" Marzucco asks. "If you allow a person to practice their sexual orientation unfettered by negative public opinion, it doesn't cause any stress in their life."

Trying to de-gay a homosexual, Marzucco explains, is as pointless as trying to gay up a heterosexual.

"How about I give you 10 free visits and we'll see if we can make you into a gay man," he says. "You think that'll work?"

Stephen Simpson believes it doesn't. Until he was 34 years old, Simpson did time in a variety of reparative-therapy programs, wherein he tried to reconcile his homosexuality with his fundamentalist Christian upbringing.

"All I can say about it now is that it cost me a lot of money out of pocket," he says.

Now 48 and a software tester at ADP, Simpson believes his reparative therapy backfired. Though he has been fascinated with men for as long as he can remember, Simpson bottled up his feelings out of fear of the wrath of God. Having spent two decades in reparative programs, he feels he can say with authority that they only made him into an emotionally stunted, self-hating gay man--not a heterosexual. An ex-ex-gay today, Simpson believes that the only byproduct of reparative therapy is repression, guilt and psychological harm.

"The whole thing is founded on the false premise that there's some kind of damage that makes you gay, and that you can be healed from it," he says. "That's just not true."

Connor-Smith agrees. She says the problem for these ex-gays is more social than psychological.

"At some point, you have to pick," she says. "Do you want to express your sexuality, or do you want to be a part of a religious organization that doesn't allow you to do that?"

Back at the Portland fellowship meeting, the men and women gathered here have made the choice to battle their homosexuality and are striving to follow it through.

Flanked by Suzanne, his wife of six months, Drew Berryessa plays a video featuring Sy Rogers, a noted ex-gay speaker. The skeletal Rogers--whose flamboyant gestures suggest that his personal road to recovery must have been particularly long--tells the crowd what they can expect in their quest to defeat homosexuality.

"God's goal is not to make you into a heterosexual," he exhorts. "You will struggle until the grave."

In other words, there's no guarantee that staying the course will eradicate one's gay desires--one might only learn to control them. In the discussion after the video, the disciples speak vaguely of "struggle" and "sacrifice"; words like "gay" and "homosexual" are the giant pink elephant sitting in the corner, which no one wants to talk about.

At best, Portland Fellowship can help diminish this struggle, but its therapy doesn't seem to plant heterosexual desire where homosexual desire once was.

"I'll be as totally honest as I can be," Jason Thompson says. "Women don't sexually attract me. My wife sexually attracts me."

Berryessa echoes this sentiment. While he doesn't desire men, he says, he doesn't desire women, either--only his wife. The sight of Halle Berry climbing out of the water does nothing for him.

"I think that what some people perceive here is that we'll help replace one sexual lust with another, and that's not the case," Berryessa says.

At Portland Fellowship, this is what it means to be cured. If you're lucky, your homosexual desires will wane. But so will fantasy, lust and the trappings of human sexuality--for good or ill.

There is healing here, but what is healed isn't necessarily homosexuality.

Shocking Behavior

The "cure" for the common queer--1950s style.

Before there was God, there was insulin.

From the 1940s through the 1960s, a popular "treatment" for homosexuality wasn't spiritual conversion, but prolonged convulsions, brought on by electricity or, in the case of Phil Staley, insulin.

In many ways, Staley was your average Portland teen. He attended church, had a paper route, played football for Cleveland High and helped build a float for the 1958 Rose Festival parade.

But Staley was different in one big way: He was attracted to other boys.

His parents divorced when he was 12. Four years later, in 1959, his mother, concerned about a defiant teen who liked young men, shipped him off to the Eastern Oregon State Hospital in Pendleton.

The admitting doctor writes in Staley's medical records, which he obtained years later, that the 16-year-old wouldn't "mind his mother," had crushes on other boys and had been adopting "effeminate attitudes."

The diagnosis: schizophrenia "in remission." Treatment: insulin shock therapy.

Although less publicized than electroshock (think of Randall McMurphy in One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest), insulin therapy was used widely from the '40s to the '60s to treat schizophrenia (John Nash in A Beautiful Mind). Insulin is a hormone that maintains the body's proper blood sugar levels. In excess, however, it lowers blood sugar and leads to coma and convulsions.

Repeated insulin-induced comas were believed effective for treating schizophrenia. When Staley was admitted to Eastern Oregon, now a medium-security prison, homosexuality was often labeled a manifestation of schizophrenia.

At the hospital, Staley was subjected to "treatment" five days a week, for a period of 10 weeks. Every day, at 8 am, he was taken in his bathrobe into a room with up to seven other boys and strapped to a table. Insulin was injected into his buttocks.

Staley recalls that for the first few days, before the proper dosage was determined, he didn't enter a coma. "I was scared more than anything," he says, "lying there watching the other boys go into convulsions."

Eventually, however, he, too, would go into comas, followed by seizures, from which he awoke covered in sweat feeling weak and lethargic, intensely thirsty and hungry. It often took a glucose-filled hypodermic needle to rouse him. His records show that on four occasions staff worried that he might not wake up; he recalls a nurse once telling him, "We almost lost you."

The state hasn't compiled any data showing the prevalence of insulin-shock treatment in Oregon, or how often it was used for homosexuality. But Albert Baxter, a retired doctor who worked in Oregon state and county hospitals from the late '50s to the early '80s, says "We were using a lot of electroshock therapy [and] using insulin shock therapy...for people who were out of control and crazy." And, Baxter concedes, treatments were sometimes used for punishment.

Steley suspects that some of the other boys at Pendleton were also being treated for homosexuality/ schizophrenia, but he has never been able to confirm it. He was released from the hospital in 1961 and went on to be a bartender and emergency-room technician. He is still gay.

Staley, now 61, remembers his doctor at Pendleton saying, "If you want to stay homosexual, there's nothing I can do about it." ---EMILIE RAGUSO---


If Drew Berryessa looks familiar, there's a reason: When he was a Qwest employee last year, he starred in one of the company's national television ads. His photo also appeared in bills.

Portland Fellowship's program attracts about 50 people a year for three 10-week terms, at a cost of $150 per term.

Seventy-five percent of Portland Fellowship's funding comes from public support, through private and church donations.

To protect confidentiality and "keep everyone accountable," Portland Fellowship's members are not allowed to have any kind of relationship outside of the fellowship's building.

Portland Fellowship is an arm of Exodus International, a reparative-therapy umbrella group founded in 1976 that supervises 135 affiliate ministries in 17 countries.

In 1978, the two men who founded Exodus, Gary Cooper and Michael Bussee, fell in love and left their wives and the ministry behind.

By the late 1990s, Exodus' poster children were the Portland couple Anne and John Paulk--two ex-gays who married, wrote a book, and appeared in Exodus ads across the country as well as on the cover of Newsweek.

The Paulks declined to comment for this story.

Two other major groups preach the curability of homosexuality. One, Homosexuals Anonymous, is a 14-step program for shedding gayness.

The other prominent gay-cure organization, the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuals, is a small group of psychology specialists who disagree with the American Psychiatric Association's decision in 1973 to remove homosexuality from their list of mental disorders.

 
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