Living la Vida Straight

Christine Sneeringer was gay until she underwent controversial "reparative therapy"

But all those studies run in opposition to institutional research. Both the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association have taken stances against the use of conversion therapy, citing studies finding that such treatments can be potentially damaging.

"People who practice these forms of treatment overstate the benefits and understate the harm," says New York psychiatrist Jack Drescher, author of Psychoanalytic Therapy and the Gay Man. "In my practice, I see people who were in one of those treatments and for whom those treatments did not work or for whom those treatments are harmful."

It's fringe therapy, says the psychiatrist, funded by religious organizations pushing a conservative political agenda. "The reparative therapy movement," Drescher says, "is primarily a tool of the religious right to make the case that homosexuality is not biological, that homosexuality is mutable, and that therefore there is no reason to pass anti-discrimination laws."

Sneeringer holds tight
Colby Katz
Sneeringer holds tight

Sneeringer moves her chair closer. Several people at the coffeeshop have started to sneak peeks, hearing her spirited conversation about sex. She knows what she does is unpopular, she says. After all, Fort Lauderdale has the most per-capita gay households next to San Francisco. She also knows her organization comes from a storied background. When Exodus was only three years old, cofounders Gary Cooper and Michael Bussee fell in love. The two divorced their wives, became partners, and denounced the organization they'd founded as a fraud promoting "homophobia and self-hatred."

Similar departures have plagued Worthy Creations. Jerry Stephenson, a former Baptist minister, came to the organization in the mid-'80s and underwent conversion therapy. He lived as a straight man for three and a half years, but despite repeated efforts, he could never perform sexually with a woman. Stephenson left Worthy Creations in 1989 and went back to being gay.

"It never works," says Stephenson, now senior pastor for the New Hope Community Church in Delray Beach. "If you're gay, you're gay. If you're straight, you're straight. I don't think there's any kind of therapy that's going to help someone change who they are."

Despite failed conversions, Exodus has flourished by creating an international network of nonprofit affiliates. Exodus chapters perform limited marketing and do not proselytize or pursue converts. Those wanting to change enter into a ten-week faith-based program designed to counsel them through the process. About one-third of homosexual patients convert successfully, according to Exodus.

"I've heard numerous stories from clients who went to therapists seeking change because they were unhappy with their sexuality, and they were told by their therapists, 'There's nothing we can do about it. You're gay,'" says Julie Heran, a marriage and family therapist who is on the board of Worthy Creations. "If a client is seeking change, we should be able to provide that."

But how one defines that change -- what must happen for a patient to convert from homosexuality to heterosexuality -- is dicey. Sneeringer leans forward, a little embarrassed by the personal questions being asked. "I'm attracted to guys, yeah," she admits. But since becoming a heterosexual in 1990, Sneeringer has never had sex with a man. Her only heterosexual encounters occurred when she was an experimenting teenager. All were bad. "I felt used and degraded," she says of those experiences.

Sneeringer is a born-again virgin saving herself for marriage. But her lifestyle begs the question: Can a former lesbian now practicing celibacy consider herself a real heterosexual?

"I believe, and God did this for me, that there can be resolution to the attractions and orientations," she responds, "real resolution where I don't have that kind of sexual response to women." She hesitates to use the word lust but admits that when she's dated men, she has fantasized about having sex with them. She says she no longer has such fantasies about women.

An afternoon storm rolls out across Andrews Avenue and dumps a heavy shower on the lot outside Barnie's. Sneeringer frets. "Hairspray and rain," she says, "don't mix."

Sneeringer looks out the window. Her long thin legs fill out a perfectly pressed pair of white pants. Her feet are propped up gently on open-toed heels. A ruby crucifix hangs from a silver chain around her neck. She's playing the delicate damsel who doesn't want her makeup to run. It's hard to believe this is the same woman in the photographs, the jock with her hair cropped short and a baseball cap pulled down to hide her pretty face. "I was the walking billboard for homosexuality," she had said earlier. "I was the poster child for Queer Nation."

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