Focus on the Family, the infamously conservative and anti-gay national organization, has for years been trying to sink its teeth into Massachusetts. And finally, the group and its local affiliate, the Massachusetts Family Institute, took a bite out of the Bay State, staging a “Love Won Out” conference on October 29 for “ex-gays” and backing an anti-gay ballot measure to overturn marriage equality in Massachusetts.
And so, on an overcast snowy Saturday at the Tremont Temple Baptist Church in downtown Boston and in front of a packed audience of no less than a thousand, “Love Won Out” host Mike Haley, an “ex-gay” and director of gender issues for Focus on the Family’s Public Policy division, declared, “We have been trying since 1998 to find a church to host us here in Boston. I am proud to say we have finally arrived.”
The conference’s arrival, however, caused much consternation, rousing protesters outside the conference and launching many spies – like me – inside. So I was there as, in a patronizing tone, they welcomed LGBTQ folks to the conference, claiming they want us to know that they don’t hate us, at least not anymore. They just want to help.
Although Focus on the Family is a staunch reactionary organization that opposes LGBTQ equality, their message may seem far gentler and kinder – at least, when measured against the vitriol of years past. However, this facade merely disguises their right-wing “traditional values” as a kind of pastoral care.
In the workbook the conference gave to all the attendees – except those who identified as being from gay media – Dr. James C. Dobson’s opening letter explained the need for such a ministry as “Love Won Out.”
… in a patronizing tone, they welcomed LGBTQ folks to the conference, claiming they want us to know that they don’t hate us, at least not anymore. They just want to help.
“Most of us have been impacted by homosexuality in some way,” Dobson wrote. “Perhaps you have wondered how to respond to the news that a neighbor, co-worker, friend, family member, or fellow Christian is dealing with the issue. Homosexuality hits home for thousands of families each year, and yet the media, the professional community, and the educational system are routinely guilty of disseminating misinformation on the subject. This lack of honesty can be particularly devastating to young people who already struggle with identity issues and who may find themselves even more confused by pro-gay messages that encourage them to ‘experiment’ with their sexuality. We want to share the truth that there is freedom from homosexuality. In fact, there is hope for anyone who believes in the life-changing power of Jesus Christ.”
Focus on the Family is the largest anti-gay organization on the UNited States’ evangelical Christian right, with tentacles not only in the church, but also in electoral politics. In fact, Dobson is so influential among George W. Bush’s conservative base that Bush operator Karl Rove called Dobson for approval of both one-time Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers and Chief Justice John Roberts.
Much of Focus on the Family’s budget is generated by using anti-gay rhetoric in fund-raising letters. They outspend the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and National Gay Lesbian Task Force, which are the top LGBTQ civil rights organizations, by a margin of four to one.
And with that money, Focus on the Family is able to produce politically and religiously Biased Agenda-Driven (aptly abbreviated as “B.A.D.”) science like “reparative therapies,” attempting to justify them by presenting LGBTQ people as genetically flawed – a charge eerily reminiscent of the scientific racism and sexism that once undergirded treatment of blacks and women morally inferior due to supposed genetic flaws.
However, the truth is that these “ex-gay” reparative therapies have a failure rate of 90 percent, and several “ex-gay” groups have had to shut down when their leaders finally dealt with the reality of their own homosexuality.
“Focus on the Family” doesn’t focus on families, but blurs the distinctiveness that makes us who we are.
Case in point: John Paulk, “ex-gay” poster boy, who appeared in HRC’s 2000 photo album with a one-word caption: “Gotcha!”
That Kodak moment was captured by Wayne Besen, then the associate director of communications of HRC, as he snapped a picture of the then-37-year-old Paulk in a Washington D.C. gay bar. In the moment, pandemonium broke out in the bar, as the series of flashes from Besen’s camera were assumed by some to be those of a homophobe harassing a patron. But as Paulk hunched down trying to conceal his face, he learned that he could neither run nor hide. Paulk says he went into the bar just to use the bathroom – an unlikely story, as 40 minutes after entering the bar, he was still there, keeping company with both a drink and a fellow patron.
Paulk, a former drag queen known as Candi and a one-time first runner-up in the Miss Ingenue pageant, is presently married to a self-proclaimed former lesbian who also underwent counseling in an “ex-gay” ministry run by Exodus International. Today, they both don the drag of being heterosexually married. They prominently graced the cover of Newsweek in August 1998, appeared on 60 Minutes and Oprah, and wrote the book that gave Focus on the Family its name for its “ex-gay” conferences: Love Won Out, a memoir depicting the Paulks’ flight from gayhood.
Focus on the Family sees its mission as doing God’s will. However, its “Love Won Out” conference was an act of rhetorical violence aimed squarely at LGBTQ people.
When we miss the essential point that human life is varied, precious, and of equal worth, we ignore the unique gifts that each life brings to each other and to the world. “Focus on the Family” doesn’t focus on families, but blurs the distinctiveness that makes us who we are. God created humanity as a tapestry of variety: diminishing that variety diminishes ourselves.