By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
As if they're browsing at a mall, the faithful and the seeker circle the upper floor of Prestonwood Baptist's spacious recreation center on a recent Saturday. Some 550 men and women have braved the pounding rain to be here for this singles seminar, and they walk from door to door, scanning the signs that advertise topics to be discussed inside.
In one room, there's "Spiritual Recuperation." That packs them in. In another, there's "The Importance of Apologetics." It's popular enough, far more so than, say, what's offered across the way in Room 206.
There, like a lone wolf, a sign on a black metal stand challenges those who pass by.
"Prescription for the Sexually Wounded," it reads. For those who have enough moxie or whatever else it takes to admit their wounds, Randy Thomas is waiting inside for them, for those he calls the sexually broken.
The Plano church has invited him to speak today, and to anyone who'll listen, he has much to tell: of his work with an "ex-gay" ministry called Living Hope, where he ministers to those yearning to cast off their homosexuality, and of his own former gay lifestyle.
Thomas, a Southern Baptist himself, refuses to make peace with the popular culture, one that's increasingly tolerant of homosexuality. So here he is at this church, in a kind of no-man's land all his own, distanced from the secular culture at large and even from many evangelical Christians, who remain wary of dealing with sexual issues, particularly homosexuality. Through his eight years of professed abstinence from sex, Thomas says he hasn't stopped addressing the desires that lie in people's hearts or speaking about his own encounter one day with a God that told him that homosexuality--and any other sex outside of marriage, for that matter--is a sin.
The mostly empty seats before him, though, indicate that few people want his help today. Many pass by the room. Others briefly stop at the threshold, as if they're on the cusp of admitting--just by their silent peek into Room 206--that they have some dark, secret shame lodged in their hearts and minds.
Inevitably, though, they move on. It takes a while for Thomas to get a full audience. But like the now-ebbing rain outside, they eventually trickle in. Without much exchange of words, about 20 men and women take their seats before Thomas, a heavyset, bearded man of 32 whose facial features resemble those of fitness guru Richard Simmons. All look at him; they're ready to hear what he has to say.
"This is a very important issue, one that is a very 'hot potato' topic in the church," says Thomas, standing with a mini-microphone in his hand, while Ricky Chelette, another leader in his Arlington-based ministry, sits to the side. (Chelette, who says he was sexually abused as a child by his step-grandfather, runs the ministry's private online forum, which receives about 40 posts a day from teenagers grappling with their sexuality.) "Eight years ago I began a process of leaving homosexuality," says Thomas, his soft-spoken, subdued voice barely changing its tone or giving any hint of his old wild self: his nights of dancing in clubs until dawn while high on ecstasy, his days of frequenting Dallas' gay bars. Those times are gone, he says. "I say that with much love for my savior Jesus Christ, who is willing to go oftentimes where the church won't.
"Eight years down the road," he says evenly, seriously, as a thick silver cross hangs from his neck, "I can say for a fact and without reservation that I am no longer a gay man."
A middle-aged man in the back of the room claps. Others join in, awkwardly, in a short spurt of broken applause that lasts a second or two.
"I do not identify myself as gay," says Thomas. Brazenly, unflinchingly, he then reveals, "That doesn't mean that I'm not affected from time to time by same-sex attraction.
"However, I have experienced a significant orientation shift," he quickly adds, sounding clinical about this "shift," which he says only occurred four years into his conversion. "I had a physical attraction [for a woman], not a lustful attraction," he later says of this "longing to be tender and romantic" that made him feel for the first time as if "having sex with a woman was not repugnant, but actually something that I felt was possible." All that talk about homosexuality being genetic isn't proven, he tells the group before him now. Rather, it was sin--and a father who left his family when Thomas was 10 and from whom Thomas is still estranged--that made him fantasize about men, beginning at the age of 10, with the beefy Bo and Luke from The Dukes of Hazzard. Sin and sin alone, he tells them, led him to have sex with another teenager when Thomas was 16. But even if it were true, even if homosexuals were born that way and not made, that reality wouldn't change what his Bible tells him.
"We're spiritual beings first," he says. "Even if it were proven to be genetic, that wouldn't make it a moral right." God, he reminds them, doesn't have a whole lot of good to say about mankind after Genesis' third chapter.
He passes the mike to Chelette, who worships every Sunday with Thomas at the First Baptist Church in Arlington. (About two years ago, that church donated an office suite to house Living Hope's headquarters.) Today, Chelette offers a pat view of same-sex attraction, reminiscent of one presented by that Jewish psychoanalyst, Sigmund Freud, who said that people wrestle with homosexuality because of some emotional "arrests" in childhood sexual development.
Detached fathers, Chelette says, stunt sexual growth by not encouraging their children to develop secure, wholesome gender identities. The reasons may be earthly, he says, but the prescription lies in accepting that in this fallen world one needs a heavenly redeemer to rein in the will.
Forget what the popular culture says, adds Thomas. "For those of you who are struggling with homosexuality," he says, "there is a life beyond that identity."
Hay is credited by many with originating the idea that lesbians and gay men differ from heterosexuals just as blacks and other ethnic minorities differ from Americans of European descent. He concluded that homosexuals should overcome their self-loathing and shame and revel in their "lovely sexuality."
These days, pop culture largely portrays homosexuality as an inalienable characteristic, no more alterable than, say, left-handedness or eye color. And so in recent Hollywood fare with gay leads, most notably The Talented Mr. Ripley and Boys Don't Cry, there's never any mention of what elements in these characters' pasts might have contributed to their sexual orientation. In Ripley, for instance (which is based on a 1955 novel by Texas native Patricia Highsmith), director and screenwriter Anthony Minghella eliminated Highsmith's Freudian explanations for the main character's infatuation with another man.
If, as gay activists argue, homosexuality is a genetic trait rather than a choice, one can't possibly raise moral objections to it. That's the way God created them. In both Christianity's and Judaism's liberal branches, religious leaders have reinterpreted their respective Bibles to view Biblical condemnations of homosexuality as cultural statements confined to those ancient times, not as outright, moral absolutes for all ages. Writes the Rev. Michael Piazza in an article posted on the Web site for his Cathedral of Hope, the largest gay and lesbian congregation in the world, located in Dallas, "Early writers [of the Bible] had no understanding of homosexuality as a psycho-sexual orientation." Here in the Bible Belt, Piazza's church, numbering 3,000, is "busting at the seams," as its spokeswoman, Kris Martin, puts it. In the Oak Lawn area, a large billboard is up this month, promoting the church's Sunday-morning worship, which has grown to three services. Another sign will go up in early August along Inwood Road in North Dallas.
For those who still voice the traditional Judeo-Christian view of homosexuality, there's a rising public backlash. The most recent example is the furor caused by radio talk-show host Dr. Laura Schlessinger, an observant Jew whose heated references to homosexuality as a "terrible sadness" and "deviant sexual behavior" made her the butt of jokes by Billy Crystal at this year's Academy Awards telecast and have caused sponsors to bail out of her proposed television show. According to a recent Harris poll, almost half of all Americans identifying themselves as heterosexual say they would be less likely to buy a product from a company if it advertised on a show that expressed negative views of gays and lesbians.
Little by little, the gay rights movement is becoming part of the American mainstream. Tune in to NBC each Tuesday night, and there's the consistently Top 10-rated show, Will & Grace, which ridiculed ex-gay ministries in one episode by having its main character, Jack, succeed at seducing a man who leads such a group.
There was a time when Randy Thomas might have related to the flirty Jack. Twelve years ago, after being kicked out of his mother's home in Nashville, Tennessee, because she found out he was gay, Thomas was working as a cashier at a Kroger store. Another employee, a college student in his early 20s named Bruce, invited him to his church's Bible study. Thomas accepted. With his frosted Duran Duran haircut and pierced ear from which a cross dangled, he showed up at the church, but only because he thought he could seduce the tall, blond Bruce. He would not succeed.
It was a month later, when Thomas hopped a Greyhound to Dallas, where his aunt lived, that his life slowly began to change. He still used alcohol and drugs ("just about anything except acid") and went to gay bars. But he wanted to get sober, and soon he joined a 12-step program. About two years later, a female friend from the group told him she had just accepted Jesus Christ. He had not been raised in a churchgoing home. All he had heard was what his mother, a nominal Christian, had told him: God is real, and Jesus is His son.
Later, as Thomas and his friend sat together at a pancake house in Bedford, he asked, "So what do you think about us gay people now?" She was direct: "I believe it's a sin." But she added, "If God calls something a sin, that means He has something better for you."
Thomas was angry, perturbed. He believed wholeheartedly that he was born gay. But he couldn't stop thinking about her newfound faith, and two months later, while alone in his living room, he thought of a passage from Leviticus--one of the few he knew from those times when Christians had tried to convert him. "You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination."
From that scripture, the word "it" stuck out. In his mind's eye, Thomas could see the first man he fell in love with, Ron, who a year after their involvement died of complications from AIDS. Even today when Thomas recalls their sexual relationship, he does so in sensuous terminology. "The Lord," he says, "reminded me of my very first lover, and the Lord was standing beside my bed of sin." Thomas understood then: God doesn't hate me, but "it," the "abomination."
"In that moment, I knew that He had seen everything that I and my partner were trying to do for each other." God had watched them having sex, and, Thomas sensed, God also knew that they both had been fruitlessly trying--in their "erotic, romantic way"--to fill an emotional and spiritual void. Thomas "felt the Lord's grief." Now, "it's one of the most liberating scriptures that I know." He finds comfort in this "non-compromising, sovereign God."
His gay friends didn't like what he had to say. "I'm a Christian," he would tell them, "and I don't want to be gay anymore."
"What you're doing is hateful," was one's response, a man with whom Thomas worked in computers at a downtown Dallas corporation. "You're being brainwashed." Other gay friends thought the same; they stopped seeing him.
These days, Thomas says he no longer harbors his "gay dream" of finding the perfect man with whom to share the twin Accords and live behind a white picket fence with a cat and a dog and some adopted kids. "I do not identify as gay or ex-gay or a straight-wannabe.
"I am a lot more than my sexuality," he says. "One part of who I am is the heterosexuality, which I'm developing. I'm also struggling with my homosexuality, which is falling away."
But he says, "My worst days as a Christian are better than my best days as a non-believer."
Thomas clearly gives the impression that he wants to shake his effeminate side. During another point in the interview, he mentions that his voice has become deeper since his conversion, though he still sounds "nelly" when he's upset. He's also begun to like football.
Eddie Traughber, his friend and, as Thomas calls him, his "accountability person," sees "progress." "His voice is deeper," says Traughber, a 32-year-old minister affiliated with a Church of Christ congregation in Garland. He's less flamboyant and doesn't gesture with his hands as often when he's talking, says the minister, who met Thomas at an Irving church seminar for "homosexual recovery" back in 1994. Married with two daughters, Traughber's been straight his whole life, but he still relates to Thomas. "I struggle with lust also," he says. They usually speak once a week, with Traughber offering prayer and encouragement for those temptations that, Traughber says, "come up from time to time" for Thomas.
Still, Thomas insists he's experienced a genuine "orientation shift."
"I'm attracted to women on every level," he says. "I have a desire to get married and have children, but even if it doesn't happen, a life lived celibately is better than a life lived gay."
He does see women, but rarely. In the last year, he's been on three dates with people he met at his church. A few years back, Thomas was briefly engaged to a young woman, a former lesbian. They never went further than holding hands. Never kissed. "But that's going to change the next time," he says, grinning. "Kissing is an important part of a relationship." Theirs fizzled, though, because "we were more in love with the idea of each other." But, he says, God continues to open his eyes "on a spiritual level" to the "beauty of my sisters in Christ." And his involvement with Living Hope, which began in 1992 when he heard about it through a worship leader at a church he was attending, is for real, he says, even though he will "always struggle with temptation."
Of course, the most famous ex-gay ministry, Exodus International, a network of ministries from which Living Hope gets referrals, has a blight on its reputation: Two of its founders, Michael Bussee and Gary Cooper, became lovers and left the organization in 1979. According to Newsweek, some 13 Exodus ministries have closed because their directors returned to homosexuality.
Thomas has no intention of joining them. "I have no desire to be in a gay relationship," he says. Today, as director of Living Hope, he leads many of its meetings in the Dallas area, which usually attract between 80 and 100 people a week. He won't let any member of the media attend, nor will he say where the groups meet. "It's to keep it a safe place," he says, adding that he doesn't want to spark protests or acts of vandalism. Thomas will say this, though: The inter-denominational Living Hope Ministries isn't about reparative therapy or any 12-step program. It's about finding change through a belief in Jesus Christ.
Thomas has no previous work as a minister and no counseling credentials. (He completed only two years of college, mainly at Tarrant County Junior College, where he studied social work.) His role, as he sees it, is to minister to and pray for people. He spends his days at Living Hope's office, where he answers calls from people grappling with issues, even those not related to homosexuality. One woman called because she was a survivor of abuse, another because he's a heterosexual sex addict. And he meets with people interested in attending Living Hope's meetings.
Most of the people who come through his door identify with a major Christian denomination. The remainder have no religious background or are coming straight out of a gay lifestyle.
As Thomas sees it, an "orientation shift" starts only when those to whom he ministers begin to see God's "original intent" for creation. For Thomas, homosexuality isn't an illness; it's just another example of the world's fallen, spiritual state.
At Living Hope, there is no formal membership. Often, news of the ministry spreads through word of mouth. Those who come may give a donation of $3, but it's never required. Of the ministry's annual budget of $51,000, most of it is generated through the 1,200 newsletters that are mailed to individuals and churches in North Texas and nationwide. From that sum, Thomas draws a weekly salary of about $265. Once in a while, he also receives a donation from a church. "Nothing ever big," he says.
Four times a week, he attends the ministry's nightly meetings, which are held in Dallas, Garland, and Arlington. At those times, he joins attendees in what he calls praise and worship, as well as Bible study. Later, people break off into groups of four or five to discuss issues they're facing.
Through the years, Thomas says, he's seen between 500 to 600 people come to the ministry, and of those going to the weekly meetings, anywhere from six months' to two years' attendance indicates significant strides in shaking their homosexuality. Those who don't last long in the group are the ones who continue to go to gay bars or fail to let go of their gay identity, he says.
For the many ex-gays--or "overcomers," as Thomas prefers to call himself--there are the inevitable tears that come from revealing secrets that have plagued them with shame and guilt for years.
Kelley is one of those who has found her way to Living Hope. The 39-year-old woman, who doesn't want her last name printed, knows that if she turned her back on God, even for just a little while, she would be bisexual. When she started going to the ministry's group meetings two years ago, she shared her secret shame: masturbation. "It's what I do with my mind in order to masturbate," she says vaguely. "My thoughts are not good." It had been 10 years since she left behind the "perverted realm" of a same-sex relationship that lasted three years. But masturbation was still an issue; always had been, in fact, as far back as the third grade, when a teacher caught Kelley sitting at her desk with her hand down her skirt.
She can share that secret now, she says, only because little by little, her time at Living Hope has taught her to overcome the shame and to answer for her actions.
"Sometimes," says Kelley, a short, blonde woman, "the group leader will say, 'Would you like us to hold you accountable to that?'" She tells them yes. "That gives them permission to ask.
"The masturbation thing," she says now, "I've been abstaining for a year."
Many others would call her abstinence an unhealthy repression. (As Madonna, with her in-your-face bravado, sings in her ode to self-expression, "It's human nature and I'm not sorry...express yourself, don't repress yourself.") But Kelley views it as a spiritual accomplishment, one she set out to achieve from the day she first walked into Thomas' ministry office and told him that she needed an "accountability group."
Now, at the singles seminar in Plano, Thomas looks at a fresh batch of faces waiting to hear what else he has to say. "I want you to know that God cherishes you and your sexuality," he says softly. "Let the Lord show you what that means." He puts the mike down; he's done speaking.
Soon, a heavyset woman approaches him, with tears brewing just beneath the surface. In a barely audible voice, she tells him she's been racked with guilt for a year, ever since that day when--for the first time in her 35 years--she and another woman shared a long, passionate kiss. She's come to Thomas for strength, to know she'll be all right.
After listening to her story of how childhood molestation led her to kiss a woman, Thomas puts his hand on her shoulder and lowers his head. "Lord, come to her as a protection," he says softly, his eyes closed. "Lord, I ask for forgiveness for people who have hurt your daughter. Lord, I turn my sister to you. Ordain her steps. In Jesus' name."
"Satan can lie to you so much," says the woman, a secretary named Becky. "I've been a straitlaced Christian all my life," she says, dabbing at tears, "but there's been so much abuse that I fell into a same-sex relationship.
"I care for her soul," she says of the woman whom she kissed. "I don't want her to go to hell."
"I know this sounds really weird," said Thomas, who claims that the Holy Spirit compelled him to speak to the man. "I'm not trying to pick you up, but if you ever need someone to pray for you, let me know."
Blake Phillips did.
He remembers when he was 13, sitting in the pew of a charismatic church, listening to the preacher speak about Sodom and Gomorrah. As if he had just tasted a lemon, the pastor scrunched his lips when he uttered that dreaded word--homosexuality. Young Blake felt caught, as if the pastor were personally addressing him. Blake hadn't told anyone of his intrigue with the male form, of his fascination with the body that went beyond mere curiosity. But during gym class at his Plano school, the other boys always teased him. He was a faggot. A fairy boy. He was terrified.
He remembered that time when he was five, when his mother--the wife of an alcoholic salesman who spent most of his time away from the family--told Blake she had given her life to Christ. There, in his bedroom that day, he had knelt with his mother, Mary, and recited the sinner's prayer.
As he grew older, he understood that, as a Christian, he had been saved by grace. But there were also feelings--and an awakening brewing inside him--that he couldn't resolve.
When he was 20, his parents confronted him one night. They saw his late hours, the male friends who came home with him.
He was lying on his bed, listening to the Pet Shop Boys' "Opportunities," when they came in. "Are you gay?" asked his father.
"Yes," he shot back defiantly.
"Are you happy?"
But he wasn't. "Far from it," he now admits.
In the past 12 years, he has tried--with his mother's help--to overcome both his homosexuality and an addiction to cocaine. His gray-blue eyes seem tired, the dark circles beneath them alluding to lifelong pain. He has endured two suicide attempts in the 1980s--one with sleeping pills, the other with carbon monoxide--and the on-again, off-again life of a sexually abstinent Christian. There was the now-defunct ex-gay group, Emmanuel Ministry, which he attended for a year in San Antonio. "A live-in program." That's what the 34-year-old Philips, a stocky man with a penchant for silver rings, calls it. There, he lived in a four-bedroom house with seven other men. Those who ran the ministry watched his every move. His only escape came during the day, when he did administrative work for a company called Power Controls. He also found time for a "couple of encounters," full ones, with other men. The ministry asked him to leave. He didn't have the right "heart attitude," they told him.
In the years ahead, he sought out gay encounters, but he also tried another ministry, this time in Austin. Again no luck. He soon found himself in what became a two-year, "very co-dependent" relationship with a man. That same empty feeling, that spiritual void, always returned, he says. In 1994, he was with his mother at Grace Vineyard Christian Fellowship, an Arlington church, when Randy Thomas offered to pray for him.
A few months later, he started attending Living Hope. He's had setbacks since then. A few more gay encounters. But in the last three years, he hasn't had sex. And he goes to the ministry's nightly meetings every Thursday.
"People know that I'm coming out of the homosexual lifestyle," he says, his voice lowered almost to a whisper as he speaks in an Arlington coffee shop.
Asked why he's speaking so low, Philips says, "I guess it's a stigma because...OK, you're already a minority because you're gay. Then you're doubling your minority when you're ex-gay."
"This should be interesting. We have this dude on the line who claims to be ex-gay," says Larry Wachs, one of the two radio hosts. "Let's see. If I get this straight, you are a former homosexual and you say you were converted to heterosexuality."
"Well, I was a homosexual who converted to Christianity," Thomas says.
"Yeah," says one of the DJs, sounding skeptical.
"...And now I'm in the process of becoming more Christ-like," Thomas continues, "with heterosexuality being a by-product of that."
"So the voice goes last," says Wachs, alluding to Thomas' slightly high-pitched, soft-spoken intonation. "I guess that's the last thing that falls."
"Yeah," says the other DJ, "that affectation."
"Congratulations, first of all," Wachs says.
Thomas sounds a bit hesitant. "Thank you."
"So you like gals now, huh?"
"Um, I have experienced an orientation shift, yes."
"So when was the last time you were with a woman?"
"I've never been with a woman."
"Oh, so you're still converting," says the other host. "You're like mid-change or something. You're like pre-op."
Thomas' voice goes flat. "I don't know about pre-op. But I'm in change, yes."
"But how do you know if you're heterosexual yet if you haven't been with a woman?"
"Because I'm attracted to them?" Thomas offers tentatively.
"Yeah, but have you ever had any yet?"
"At some time, rubber meets the road."
"Yeah," says the other DJ, chiming in, "push comes to shove."
"And you're going to have to perform," Wachs says, "and you won't know if you're truly heterosexual until you can perform."
"Well," says Thomas, "I guess I'll have to wait till I'm married."
"Oh," says one of the hosts in a mocking, gosh-shucks tone. "Well, that's tough."
"Boy," says the other, "don't you think you oughta give it one practice run before you, uh..."
"I'll pass," says Thomas, sounding disgusted. "Some of us can live according to our spiritual convictions instead of our sex drives."
The hosts turn their scrutiny to Thomas' sex drive, discovering he hasn't had sex since he was 24.
"I mean..." One of the hosts coughs. "You've handled yourself, right? I mean, since there are no women around to take care of you, there are...you know...you've...solo, right?"
"Li...listen, guys," Thomas says, "I thought this was going to be about ex-gays and how change is possible."
"I really don't want to get into talking about masturbation," Thomas says, spitting out the last word.
"No, this is a good question," says the DJ, not backing down. "When you think about things like that, who do you think about? Do you think about men or women?"
"That is a ridiculous question, and I'm not sharing that information with you."
"Ah, you're still gay, that's why."
"Have a good day," Thomas says.
"Come on, be honest."
Thomas hangs up.
They laugh. "Don't come on my show talking like Truman Capote telling me how heterosexual you are," says one, laughing. "Just be honest. Be who you are."
"That's why he likes the Bible," says the other. "It allows him to lisp...'The Lord sayeth...'"
"Oh, my God," the host says, catching his breath between laughs. "Oh, me. That man is confused. He's having a real hard time.
"You are what you are. That's it. If you're gay, you're gay. If you're not, you're not. Live with it."
There was a time when the 39-year-old Rose, a Baptist by upbringing, thought that being a real Christian meant renouncing his own homosexuality.
In 1986, Rose joined a now-defunct ex-gay ministry in Dallas called Alternative Identification Ministries. Every week, the handful of men and women met. To avoid any temptations of the flesh, no one could wear shorts. Biblical passages were memorized for encouragement. For Rose, however, nothing helped.
Months into his involvement with the ministry, he and another man in the group began seeing each other.
"We both had horrible guilt about secretly having sex and coming to the group," says Rose, a cartoon animator. And after that year, he left the group for good. About three months later, he stopped seeing the man, who had moved away. For the next seven years, in his attempt to be a "good Christian," Rose abstained from sex. Looking back, he says he realizes it was a time of "acting a role."
"Here's the nutty next-door neighbor," says Rose, an amiable short man with dirty-blond hair, "who's the effeminate heterosexual who's really a homosexual trying to please everyone around him."
Years before, when he was 18, his family learned that he was gay. By then, his parents had divorced, and for a while Rose lived in his father's home. The elder Rose was away one night, spending the entire night, his son thought, with a girlfriend. So Rose brought home a date of his own. But with only a twin bed in his room, he decided to take his male friend to his dad's king-size bed.
That is where his father found him.
In the days ahead, his parents made him see a therapist, a crass, heavy man in his 50s whose white suit, string tie, and cigar made him look like Boss Hogg from Hazzard County. The solution, the man told Rose, was to find a woman who could sexually arouse him.
"I just thought, 'You idiot.' If I had his name, I'd give it to you," he says. "I never had sex with women. I would barely hold hands. I could never do that without having a cold sweat. It felt like I was dating my mother--the same creepy feeling."
Rose says that seven years ago, he finally came to terms with his homosexuality. As for ex-gay ministries, "They're designed by some people who can't stand the idea that homosexuality is designed by God.
"If Jesus Christ has truly forgiven me for all my sin, then this is over with," says Rose of his long-term struggle. "I won't go to hell for that nor any other sin, because I believe that was all taken care of."
So, one morning in June, he boards a plane headed for Orlando, site of this year's annual Southern Baptist Convention, to lend his support for the group's condemnation of homosexual acts.
It's been years since he visited Florida, the last time being as a high school senior for MTV's spring-break fest of '86. Drinking and getting high--those are his memories of sun-drenched days in Daytona. He knows what he'll find in Florida this time: a counter-demonstration against the Southern Baptists' position on gays by Mel White, a well-known gay activist who came out of the closet in 1994 after 35 years of prayer, fasting, exorcism, and electric shock did nothing to eradicate his homosexuality. (During that time, he was a ghost writer for evangelical Christian bigwigs such as Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson.) In the past six years, White has traveled the country with his partner, Gary Nixon, and others from the group they founded together called Soulforce. White, a resident of the posh Laguna Beach, California, area, bills his group as part of a modern-day civil rights movement, one that adopts Mahatma Gandhi's principles of peaceful demonstration, in this case on behalf of what White and others call "sexual minorities."
And at many of the places White and his Soulforce demonstrate--such as in Lynchburg, Virginia, where White recently met with Jerry Falwell--Randy Thomas has shown up to voice his belief that change from homosexuality is possible.
In Lynchburg, though, Thomas saw an unsettling side to those who claim to be Christians. On a sidewalk, a small extremist Christian group headed by a Kansas man named Fred Phelps stood holding signs.
"God Hates Fags," read one. "Hell is real. Ask Matt," read another, alluding to Matthew Shepard, the 21-year-old gay student whom two young men pistol-whipped until his skull collapsed.
For Randy Thomas, real Christianity isn't about being a hatemonger, but it's not about abandoning absolutes either. "Jesus offered forgiveness and mercy without compromising truth," he says. True Christians, he maintains, try to demonstrate Christ's redemptive power through love and compassion. Any other approach, he says, is "bad theology."
But he readily admits it's that latter approach that even his mother practiced when she found in her 19-year-old son's jeans pocket a Valentine's Day invitation for a gay party. The next day, she confronted Thomas, asked whether he was gay, whether he'd had gay sex. "Yes," he replied to both questions. Sobbing uncontrollably, she called him "demon-possessed," told him he was going to hell, and kicked him out of her home.
"She's repented," he now says.
The day after he arrives, a small group of protesters gathers outside the Orange County Convention Center, where the Southern Baptists are meeting.
"Good morning," says Deb Nelson as people pass her by on their way to the center across the street. "I am a proud lesbian," reads the sign she's holding. Two small flags, one showing a rainbow, the other the blue and yellow symbol of the Human Rights Campaign, stick out of the side pockets of her khaki shorts.
"We're just here to say hello," says the 33-year-old self-employed jeweler. "We're not a disease. We're not evil." With her girlfriend, Nelson drove about an hour from her home in Cape Canaveral to be here today. She isn't Baptist. Her father was Jewish, her mother a Catholic, and she was simply raised as "a caring human being," she says, not a member of any religion. She's not a "Bible reader," but she believes in God and "I know in my heart what's right and wrong." Today, she doesn't mind sweating it out under the hot Florida sun to try to open a few Baptists' minds about homosexuals.
"I was born that way," she says of her sexual identity.
Nelson and her girlfriend, 25-year-old Jessica Thuillier, are some of the few protesters here this morning. Mel White's Soulforce hasn't shown up yet, though they're expected in another hour, around 9:30 a.m. Until then, the hordes of eager media swirl around Nelson and Thuillier, trying to get a good quote. The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun--Nelson talks to them all, all the while managing a salutation every few seconds to oncoming Baptists, many of whom respond in kind.
Standing near her in the courtyard are members of PETA, here to plug their own agenda--animal rights. A young man in a fake beard and long wig stands dressed in a long brown robe. "For Christ's Sake," reads the sign he's holding, "Go Vegetarian." If he's hot in this 90-plus degree weather, he's not showing it; he stands to the side, smiling serenely. There's another PETA activist near him, hidden beneath a yellow chicken costume.
Most vocal this morning are Nelson and her girlfriend of five years. "Back in the Jews...in the Holocaust, when they were doing stuff with the Nazis, they actually...you know, the pink triangle? They put those on gay people," says the blonde Thuillier, employing the oft-used tactic of mentioning Hitler's regime in order to stop any debate dead in its tracks.
Later, a Baptist approaches Nelson. The media, with cameras and notepads in hand, swarm around him. "I hope you don't get the wrong impression. We don't hate people like y'all," says Lindy Reed, a lanky, tanned man of 39 who leads a 400-member church in Kansas City, Missouri. "There's another lifestyle for you." Nelson simply nods. The hordes of media, for their part, soon lose interest. From across the street, they see that Mel White and an entourage of 50 supporters have finally arrived. They rush toward him.
Under the hot sun, White, a tall, balding man wearing a minister's collar, kneels in prayer in a half circle with the others, who wear white T-shirts that read, "We Are Thy Neighbor." For several moments, the only audible sounds are of nearby traffic and the clicking of cameras and the harried steps of a frenzied media.
And this is a show just for them. White didn't apply with the county for a permit to demonstrate today. He's here to get arrested in front of the cameras.
Soulforce begins their demonstration. "We shall overcome," sing the mostly middle-aged group of about 50 men and women. Joining in this anthem is Jim Lawson, a black activist who marched alongside Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s. "It's an issue of nondiscrimination and justice," he says.
Minutes later they stand, and with White, many field media questions. "You need to hear this," White says. "If we're wrong, if we should have struggled longer against our sexual orientation, if we should have stayed in therapy the rest of our lives...when the Final Judgment comes, it's what Christ does for us that redeems us. It's not what we do. And we're trusting, just like the Southern Baptists are trusting, that His grace will cover our sins too.
"Jesus might say to me, 'Mel, I wish you'd struggled longer, but if he says that, he's going to also say, 'But you spent the rest of your life telling people that God loves them. Well done, good and faithful servant.'
"So if I'm wrong, it's OK," concludes White matter-of-factly.
He turns his attention to his group. "Groups of four," he says, directing about 25 of those who will cross the street with him toward the convention center. The lines form.
He blows kisses to those who will stay behind. (For those arrested, bail will cost up to $500.) One woman gives White a hug. Then, minutes later, he holds his hands up, pressing them together in supplication as if he were the Pope. After embracing his partner, Gary Nixon, the march begins, almost in a shuffle, so as not to trip over the throngs of photographers trying to get a good shot.
"Nice and strong," orders White, who holds a small sign, "Father Forgive Them." And soon, he and the others pass by the street, the traffic, and the vegetarian Jesus who's still smiling in the heat. They arrive at the center of the courtyard.
In this orchestrated drama unfolding before the media, a uniformed officer comes down the path from the convention center and reads from a small piece of paper telling the group to disperse its unlawful assembly. He then waves to nearby colleagues to take White and his group into custody.
One by one, members of Soulforce wait their turn, as those ahead of them extend their hands to be fitted with plastic handcuffs by police.
Now, it's White's turn, and amid the cameras, he raises his hands to the officers on both sides of him. Escorted by them, White walks down to the paddy wagon. There inside sit about 25 of his Soulforce, and, as fate would have it, PETA's chicken man and smiling Jesus. The doors slam shut.
"Anyone catch the chicken man's name?" asks a sweaty Reuters reporter.
"I'm always disappointed that the media ignores us," says Thomas, leaving the room. As he walks away, a sign dangles from his hand. "Gays and Lesbians Can Change," it reads. "It's Possible."
But what about those erotic thoughts to which Thomas admits? There's a difference between thinking and acting on them, he says. When I ask later if his calling himself celibate means he hasn't masturbated in the last eight years, he hedges his answer. Masturbation has been an issue "here and there," he says, but he's been completely abstinent in the past "couple of years." The conversation soon ends.
An hour later, he calls back and leaves a message on my answering machine.
"Hey Lisa, this is Randy...and I'm calling back because the Lord won't let me not call you back. About the celibacy thing, I still struggle with...um...what we talked about earlier. I'm not totally free from the...the...uh...act that we were talking about as far as...masturbation, might as well just say it. But I have made tremendous progress in the last couple of years. If you get anything out of this article, it's all about progress."