The Battle Over Gay Teens

What happens when you come out as a kid? How gay youths are challenging the right--and the left

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KATJA HEINEMANN / AURORA FOR TIME

HELPING HAND: A trust-building exercise at the Point Foundation retreat for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered students

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It's important to note that nearly all mental-health professionals agree that trying to reject one's homosexual impulses will usually be fruitless and depressing--and can lead to suicide, according to Dr. Jack Drescher of the American Psychiatric Association, who has studied programs that attempt to alter sexuality. Last month Tennessee officials charged that one of the longest-running evangelical ministries for gays, Love in Action of Memphis, Tenn., was operating unlicensed mental-health facilities. The state said Love in Action must close two residential homes--which include beds for teenagers--or apply for a license. (The ministry's attorney, Nate Kellum, said in an e-mail that the licensure requirement "is intended for facilities that treat mental illness" and not for a "faith-based institution like Love in Action.")

Few young gays actually want to change: six surveys in The New Gay Teenager found that an average of just 13% of young people with same-sex attractions would prefer to be straight. Nonetheless, gay kids trying to change can find unprecedented resources. As recently as the late '90s, Exodus International, the premier organization for Christians battling same-sex attractions, had no youth program. Today, according to president Alan Chambers, the group spends a quarter of its $1 million budget on Exodus Youth; about 80 of Exodus' 125 North American ministries offer help to adolescents. More than 1,000 youths have visited an Exodus-affiliated website called live hope org to post messages and read articles like "Homosexual Myths" (No. 2: People are born gay). The website, which started as a modest Texas chat board in the late '90s, now gets referrals from scores of churches in 45 countries. "Twenty years ago, most churches wouldn't even let Exodus in the door," says Scott Davis, director of Exodus Youth. "Now there are open doors all across the country."

Davis and I met in July at Exodus' first ever Youth Day, held at a Baptist convention center outside Asheville, N.C. About 100 people ages 15 to 25 were there to worship, sway their arms to Christian rock, listen to advice about how to stop masturbating ("Replace thoughts that aren't worthy of God with thoughts that are," Davis said) and hear the testimony of adults who say they now live heterosexual lives.

An attractive, married 27-year-old, Davis says he was never drawn sexually to men. Rather, he represents a new group of young, straight Christians who are criticizing older Evangelicals for long denouncing gays without offering them what Davis calls "healing." Davis looks nothing like a stereotypical Fundamentalist; he wears spiky hair, Fauvist T shirts, an easy smile. He first noticed the wave of young people coming out when he was pastor of a student church at Virginia Tech. I asked how his group could succeed when homosexuality has been so depathologized among kids. "GLSEN has 3,000 GSAs, but who knows how many student ministries there are, how many Bible clubs in schools?" he answered. "And my hope is they will be the ones who care for these kids."

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