Christine Sneeringer, a 35-year-old blond with light blue eyes, sits in Barnie's Coffee & Tea Co. in Fort Lauderdale. Her legs are crossed tightly, and her left foot dangles about eight inches above the ground. Her toenails are painted dark red, the same color as her blouse. Sneeringer is attractive, thin, and eloquent.
She's also wary. The media have burned her organization before, publishing easy hit-and-run articles with the passion of a man planting C4 at an abortion clinic. That's why Sneeringer sets an iRock Mp3 recorder on the table. She's taping this conversation so that she could use the recording as evidence that she was misquoted or taken out of context. "I have the most politically incorrect job in the universe," she explains.
But we'll get to that. Sneeringer's story starts in Tampa, more than two decades ago. As a child living near the Gulf of Mexico, she was a tomboy, one of the guys, playing tackle football and stripping off her shirt when she was on skins. Her father was an alcoholic who kept pornography under the bed, she says, and her mother was his punching bag.
Sneeringer was 12 when her parents divorced. She and her older brother and younger sister went to live with an aunt. An older cousin, intrigued by Sneeringer's burgeoning womanhood, had his way with her. She began to hate men and cut her hair short. Sneeringer asked friends to call her Chris. "I believed that to be feminine was to be weak," she says.
Then Sneeringer fell in love. In high school, an older classmate became her best friend. They played sports together, talked at all hours of the night, and shared their deepest secrets. Her friend was 17 and she 15 when the two first had sex. Her new lover's name was Kim.
A senior in high school, Kim had received athletic scholarships to a number of universities. She declined them all and stayed in Tampa. Kim had to be with Chris. They'd been talking about marriage, about being together for the rest of their lives. "My dearest Kimbo," Sneeringer wrote in a letter, "You make it worth living. I want to spend the rest of my life with you because I love you more than anything."
But her mother found the letter before it was delivered. As Sneeringer ate breakfast, her mother dropped the note on the kitchen table. "Do you want to tell me what this is about?" she asked.
Her mother successfully ended the relationship. "I think she was just embarrassed to have a gay daughter," Sneeringer says.
A series of lesbian relationships followed. Some were serious, others flings. "I was looking for my mother's love in the arms of a woman," she admits. In 1989, Sneeringer began an affair with a married woman. It would be her last lesbian relationship.
At the time, she had begun to play on a church-sponsored women's softball team. The other players were there to have fun and raise awareness of the church, but Sneeringer was there to compete, to win at all costs. "My jersey said, 'Say Yes to Jesus,'" she remembers, "and I'm out there cussing like a sailor."
Eventually, her teammates were able to calm her and bring her into the church's fold. By fall 1989, Sneeringer had become a Baptist. Months later, she entered a faith-based program known as "reparative therapy." Its design was to convert her from homosexuality.
She went straight in 1990.
"I came to a place of believing that [homosexuality] wasn't God's plan for me," she says. Not long after the conversion, she moved to Fort Lauderdale and started working as a sports stringer for the Sun-Sentinel.
She discovered the fundamentalist Calvary Chapel of Fort Lauderdale and began to volunteer for Worthy Creations, a small nonprofit organization that offers a conversion therapy similar to the one Sneeringer had undergone in Tampa. The ex-gay became the director of Worthy Creations in 1999 and currently runs programs for homosexuals and their families.
Stories such as Sneeringer's are controversial. In a society slowly accepting the idea that homosexuality is biological, conversion therapy stands to threaten the minority protection gays receive. The basis of anti-discrimination laws to protect gays assumes that homosexuality is genetic and unchangeable.
"I believe it is your genes," says Jay McLaughlin, health coordinator for the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of South Florida. "I grew up knowing that I was gay."
Despite greater cultural acceptance of homosexuality, the current place for same-sex relationships in American society is being debated. At the same time that Hollywood released the box-office dud Gigli, a movie that in part touches on the possible fluidity of sexuality, President George W. Bush and the pope individually denounced gay marriage.
Meanwhile, organizations offering conversion therapy have been gaining momentum. Worthy Creations is part of an interdenominational Christian organization known as Exodus International. The Jewish, Presbyterian, Catholic, and Mormon religions all run similar conversion programs that recently joined under an umbrella organization known as PATH (Positive Alternatives to Homosexuality). The secular NARTH (National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality) anchors the organization with its scientific studies on the purported benefits of "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 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.
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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."