Local: “In this world there are the Christian gay haters and the gay Christian haters”
Sean Greystone chose Foodles, an out-of-the-way San Rafael restaurant, to meet his rescuers from Evangelicals Concerned. The nervous Greystone scheduled the clandestine April 1994 rendezvous for his lunch break because members of Love in Action, a strict association of Christians who have renounced homosexuality, watched his every move at all other times.
Greystone, 32, felt his life had hit rock bottom after signing up with Love in Action, one of a growing number of fundamentalist Christian ministries nationwide that offer gays and lesbians “freedom from homosexuality.” The live-in program of stern discipline and unwavering obedience didn't curb Greystone's gay sexual desires, but it did leave him feeling beaten down, suicidal and a failure in the eyes of God.
“The program isolates you — I had no money and no contacts,” recalls the computer-company employee, who six months earlier had packed up his car and left Montana hoping to straighten his homosexual soul and get back in line with the Lord's design.
To break free from Love in Action's cult-like grip, Greystone contacted Evangelicals Concerned, a little-known gay Christian association with 600 members in the Bay Area. As an evangelical group that specializes in helping refugees from local “ex-gay” ministries like Love in Action, E.C. confounds expectations. “In this world there are the Christian gay haters and the gay Christian haters,” explains E.C. volunteer Jallen Rix of San Francisco. “But we see gay sexuality as a gift from God.”
Theologically speaking, says Rix, evangelical Christianity and homosexuality are perfectly compatible, although this fact has been muffled by the anti-gay rhetoric of the religious right. “Evangelicals have such a bad rap today,” remarks Rix, who is a Baptist, “but the definition of evangelical comes from the word used in history, evangel, a person who brings good news. That's all it is.”
The number of ex-gay ministries in the United States has grown steadily over the last 10 years, mirroring the ascendancy of the conservative Christian political movement. There are four in the Bay Area: New Hope Foundation, based in San Rafael (which replaced Love in Action after that group moved to Tennessee last year); New Ministries, in San Leandro; Transformed Image, in San Jose; and an operation in Fremont run by a lone individual. All of the ex-gay groups are members of a clearinghouse ministry called Exodus International, whose world headquarters is in San Rafael. Exodus claims a total of 75 ex-gay ministries in its North American network. Large organizations like Focus on the Family, in Colorado Springs, and Pat Robertson's 700 Club regularly refer people to Love in Action, according to the group's literature.
“With over 20 years of research and experience, Love in Action has gained worldwide recognition as a leading authority on healing for the homosexual,” proclaims one Love in Action pamphlet. Director John Smid, reached by telephone in Memphis, placed his group's success rate at about 70 percent. “I would say someone is successful if they live under sexual chastity,” he says, “but it's unrealistic to think that people won't have another sexual thought.”
Yet several people who dropped out of Love in Action view the program as anything but a “success,” describing its rigid regime as abusive and harmful. The group housed about 50 men in two buildings in residential areas of San Rafael. The participants, who paid $550 a month plus expenses, entered a world where their behavior was tightly controlled and monitored. “The control measures were ridiculous,” says Greystone. “They had [many restrictions] to guarantee there was no sex,” he asserts, yet he eventually felt betrayed because the program didn't address the more fundamental issue of his continuing sexual yearnings for men.
Residents generally had to be escorted upon leaving the house and were encouraged to spy on each other to prevent any contact with strangers. After work, residents were required to return directly to the house and to participate in scheduled events until curfew. Treatment included instruction in how to cross their legs: Knee over knee is feminine and forbidden, while ankle on knee is masculine and permissible. A house leader told one resident to remove his wristwatch because it “looked gay.”
“If the program isn't working for you and you ask honest questions, you are called a rebel and they turn everyone against you,” explains Greystone. “Love in Action promises that there is a way out but their methods don't work. And they know it. [They create] an illusion of freedom.”
Also unable to kick his sexual appetite, Tom Ottosen, 25, plunged into a suicidal depression toward the end of his second year at Love in Action in 1993. Months earlier, Ottosen's house leader had attempted to kill himself by swallowing an assortment of pills. Rushed to the hospital, the man lived but never returned to the ministry.
After a secret lunch-hour visit to a pro-gay counseling group in Marin, a guilt-stricken Ottosen confessed his waywardness to Smid, Love in Action's director. As the two sat alone in a small bedroom, Ottosen told Smid of his feelings of suicide. “I wasn't surprised at what John said. Almost word for word, he said he'd rather have me commit suicide than go back to the gay lifestyle,” recounts Ottosen. “He said if I committed suicide, I could at least save myself spiritually. That was the final icebreaker for me.”
Smid denies he encouraged the resident to kill himself. “I said he had to commit to the Lord,” the director says, “and it isn't a good thing to walk outside what God tells you to do.”
Ex-gay ministries boast of plenty of “success” stories like that of Kevin Oshrio, a conference director at Exodus who went through the program in Los Angeles called Desert Stream. Part of his breakthrough was learning, as ex-gay ministries tend to preach, that envy is at the core of homosexuality. “The fact that I didn't like my physical appearance made me feel inadequate as a man and therefore I found security in the arms of another man,” explains Oshrio, adding that Desert Stream helped him feel more content with how God created him. “It's okay if I'm not going to qualify for the cover of G.Q.” [page]
Oshrio has remained celibate since he entered the program in 1986. “I don't wake up and grit my teeth and think, Darn, I can't have sex, which isn't to deny that sex would be enjoyable,” he says. But he has yet to developed a strong attraction to women. “It's an intriguing thought. It isn't repulsive.”
Those who don't make it through the ex-gay ministries in the Bay Area often end up with Evangelicals Concerned, which advertises its services in the gay press and through fliers. “When they come to us, they have no job or place to go,” says Rix, whose group provides contacts and support groups to help people back on their feet.
While ex-gay ministries have drawn attention and criticism from gay rights groups, the 17-year-old E.C. is struggling to make it onto the radar screen of the gay community. Mainstream groups like the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation haven't even heard of E.C. But the San Francisco activist group Lesbian Avengers has been working with E.C. Members of the Avengers recently entered the San Rafael office of Exodus, chanting, “We don't need to be cured,” while releasing 1,000 crickets to symbolize a biblical plague.
“It's so easy for the gay community to stereotype us,” says Rix. “During gay pride we put up a booth and people freaked. But some people are beginning to realize we are creating a bridge to the Christians that [nonreligious groups] can't reach.”
Local: The survivor of a shooting spree reaches out to young gang-bangers
The anti-gun club
We ran down the hall, away from the gunshot sounds into an open office,” Michelle Scully tells the half-dozen teenage gangsters seated in a circle around her. Scully's description of Gian Luigi Ferri's murderous rampage in 101 California flows from her like a piano recital: She survived the assailant's bullets because her husband John Scully shielded her with his body. Eight died and six were wounded in the July 1, 1993, shooting spree.
“While trying to block the door, we ended up on the floor pushing a file cabinet with our feet,” she continues. “[The gunman] somehow got in and we heard pop … pop. As he lay on top of me, John's whole left side was sprayed. I ripped off my skirt to put pressure on the main wound but it didn't help. He said to me, 'I'm dying, I love you.'”
John's murder transformed the 29-year-old Michelle Scully into a tireless gun-control activist and propelled her onto the speaking circuit as a spokesperson for Handgun Control Incorporated (HCI), addressing politicians like Bill Clinton, members of the National Rifle Association and comrades in the corporate world. But those white-collar audiences are a world apart from the crowd Scully is reaching today: HCI and Scully are the only outreach organization in the Bay Area working with gang kids about guns.
The gang enters HCI's offices at 101 California — which the landlords provide gratis — with a strut, as if they're staking out the place. (Names of all the gang members have been changed for this article.)
“Hey,” asks Rudy, “can I borrow that cassette player for one day?” Another mutters under his breath that Scully is “a fine lady — but a little too old for me.”
As they take their seats, the kids catch a bad case of the giggles. But when Scully begins the discussion, they retreat behind nonchalant nods and remain tight-lipped. “I have permanent nerve damage in my arms,” Scully says, pulling aside the shoulder of her blouse to reveal deep gunshot scars.
Not until she criticizes the San Francisco Police Department do the kids stir. “I honestly feel that had they come sooner, my husband or others could have been saved,” Scully says.
Rudy speaks up: “The cops send us to jail and we come out worse. Someone gets out of the joint with more hate and fucks things up for the rest of us in the streets.”
“What do you use?” Scully asks, changing the subject back to guns. “Nine millimeters, .32s, .38s?”
“Mostly Saturday night specials,” says Rudy.
“That's interesting,” she says, then explains the legal distinction between standard revolvers and semiautomatic handguns — weapons with a sliding chamber that self-load from a magazine with each round fired.
Antonio offers that cuetes (Spanish slang for guns) in the barrio are easily purchased in housing projects, but that bullets are scarce because minors can't buy them over the counter. Adolescents will often save a quarter a day until they've collected $20 to purchase a hot handgun. A “clean,” untraceable gun is more expensive, starting at $50.
“We don't want to kill anyone, but stopping [the violence] has to come from the outside because here on the inside it's too intense,” says Antonio. “The only way is to make it impossible for us to get guns.”
“How can we as white people in this political world help you who live in violence every day?” asks Scully.
“'You as white people,'” mimics Ricky, “can stop making those guns. You make them, then lock us up for using them. Makes no sense to me.”
Scully agrees, and recounts a conversation she had with representatives of the National Rifle Association. “They told me that only gang kids use assault weapons so, 'Why don't you just let them kill each other. Why are you worried about it?'” The NRA's idea of a gun-deterrence program for kids includes a video and comic book starring a character named “Eddie,” who wears a feathered eagle suit and dances to this rap-music rhyme: “If you see a gun, stop, don't touch, leave the room, tell an adult.” A copy of Guns and Ammo with a profile of the NRA's Eddie is passed around the room. [page]
“Fuck that,” says Antonio. “Let's go shoot Eddie the Eagle.”
Antonio isn't kidding. He's an experienced shooter. “We don't shoot to kill,” he states. “We just want to score. I try to aim low on purpose. So if they die, maybe it's their time. And [other gangs] do the same with us.”
“Yeah, like the ones that shot at us an hour ago,” says Walter. Everybody, including Scully, laughs out loud.
Rudy underscores the point that not all shootings are meant to kill by paraphrasing a refrain from Snoop Doggy Dogg: “Murder was not the case,” he murmurs a few times.
“I have nightmares of getting killed,” confesses Rudy. “At three in the morning every night I wake up with the sweats.”
“Ahhh: What a wimp,” says Antonio, as everybody moans. Hats and wads of paper fly across the room at Rudy.
“Have you seen Boyz N the Hood?” Scully asks.
Antonio takes offense at mention of the film.
“We don't shoot just for the hell of it. We're not like that man that shot you,” he says, explaining that no Latino gang in San Francisco will shoot another gang member while he's in the presence of children — and never when the mom is around. “You never hear of innocents getting shot. This is a gang-on-gang thing,” he says.
After two hours of informal talking, someone mentions the “bribery” that enticed the gang to visit 101 California in the first place — the promise of free burritos. Antonio takes command and declares the meeting over. It's been a tiring afternoon.
On the way out the door, some gang members question Scully's sincerity. “Why would she be interested in us — only to get our secrets?” says a kid named Ricky.
Scully promises a followup meeting, pledging she'll visit them where they hang out in the Mission District. “If she comes, we'll know she's not just a fine lady, but a true lady,” says Antonio. Consensus is reached that if Scully reappears on their turf, the kids will believe she was sincere.
“I've spoken to many people about these kids,” says Scully a few days after the meeting. “The most striking thing about them was that they were basically good, intelligent and articulate but caught in this deadly game of gang warfare. We have got to do everything possible to remove guns from their situation.”
Fourteen-year-old Mario, another “shooter,” didn't speak during the downtown meeting. But during the ride home he confesses, “You know, I have nightmares, too. I pray that when I shoot someone I won't kill them. What would be worse than getting shot is shooting someone else.” He walks away from the car, alone and contemplative.