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>Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, 7 February, 1999
>Struggling to be straight
> "Religiously we thought God had accepted homosexuality,"
> says Durost, "though it wasn't necessarily part of
> His original plan."
> By James Bandler
>In the dying hours of an autumn night, Steven Durost and Mike Howatt sift
through the relics of a love affair abandoned. In a trunk, they find the
love poems. They both giggle as Durost reads one aloud: ``While you were
gone, I found myself sitting alone, daydreaming about you.'' Tucked away in
the attic, they find the photographs. Here's a picture of Howatt on
Christmas Day, clasping his hands with childish glee as he opens a present
from Durost. And there's a photograph of the two of them kissing under the
mistletoe. Reclining on his bed, Durost stares at the photograph and
blushes. ``It's hard to imagine that it happened to us,'' he says quietly.
``I don't identify with it.'' Howatt concurs: ``I'm really not that person
>Though they still share the same house, it's been five years since Durost
and Howatt have been intimate. In 1993, after three years together and
decades of struggling with their sexual orientation, both men renounced
their homosexuality and began new lives as ``ex-gays.'' ``We began to
realize that maybe that lifestyle wasn't what God had planned for us,'' says
Howatt, who is 33 and a nursing-home aide.
>Over the last five years, the two men have immersed themselves in the gay
conversion movement. They've participated in twice-a-month group counseling
sessions and driven cross-country to attend conferences for ``recovering
homosexuals.'' They've listened to ``reparative'' therapy tapes and studied
books with titles like Homosexual No More: Practical Strategies for
Christians Overcoming Homosexuality.
>Today, Durost and Howatt, who are deeply religious, share this house off a
busy street in Manchester, New Hampshire, with two other self-described
ex-gays. The house rules are nonnegotiable: Everyone must attend weekly
church services and meetings at the local ex-gay ministry. Once a month, the
housemates gather for a prayer and accountability meeting. ``We wanted this
to be a house of healing,'' says Durost, 34, a slight, soft-spoken man with
a goatee. ``We didn't see how anyone could come out of the lifestyle without
>In choosing to forswear ``the lifestyle,'' as they call homosexuality,
they've taken a road that is at odds with the recommendations of most
mainstream mental health experts, who argue that sexual orientation is at
the core of human identity - that is, although it may be repressed, it
cannot, and should not, be changed. Even some of Durost and Howatt's closest
Christian friends confess to being initially startled by their decision to
``come out'' of homosexuality. ``I once wrote in my journal that Mike and
Steven had the kind of relationship I'd always dreamed of having,'' says
Theresa Brooks, who has been friends with Durost and Howatt for nine years.
``They were very caring, very loving to each other.'' When she learned of
their decision, she was puzzled that they would want to change.
>Their choice would not be considered quite as unusual today, however.
Ex-gays are very much in the news these days. You can find ex-gays' stories
and pictures on the inside pages of supermarket tabloids - ``Gays Cured by
Prayer'' - and on the covers of national news magazines such as Newsweek.
The media frenzy was ignited by a series of full-page advertisements that
ran last summer in leading newspapers, promoting gay conversions. Funded by
conservative Christian groups on behalf of Exodus International, a
Seattle-based referral network of ministries that counsel homosexuals
seeking to change their sexual orientation, the ads featured sunny-faced men
and women rejoicing in their newfound heterosexuality. In one ad, a
self-described ``wife, mother, and former lesbian'' declared: ``I'm living
proof that Truth can set you free.''
>The truth, however, proved difficult to discern in the political firefight
that followed. Gay-rights activists accused the sponsors of the ads of
cloaking hatred in the mantles of pseudoscience and faith-based compassion.
``It's just a glossy, glitzy, glamorous attempt to show a kinder, gentler
form of verbal gay-bashing,'' says Wayne Besen of the Human Rights Campaign,
one of the nation's largest gay-rights organizations. The savage murder in
October of Matthew Shepard, a gay student at the University of Wyoming,
intensified the battle. Besen and others accused conservative Christians of
complicity in Shepard's death for creating a climate of intolerance. Gay and
lesbian activists urged television stations around the country to boycott a
new round of ``Truth in Love'' ads, one of which ends with the message:
``It's not about hate. It's about hope.''
>For Howatt and Durost, the Sturm und Drang surrounding the ad campaign seem
far away. Like most Americans, gay and straight, they're too preoccupied
with the vicissitudes of daily life to worry much about politics. Durost,
the assistant manager of a pet store, has immersed himself in ministry work
and is now the assistant director at the local ex-gay ministry. Howatt
juggles a full-time job as an assistant activities coordinator at a nursing
home with a part-time business of taking animals to day care and senior
centers to provide pet therapy for their clients.
>Both men say they've grown spiritually and emotionally since they walked
away from their homosexuality. ``I have become more confident about who I
am,'' says Howatt. ``I've grown up tremendously.'' For Durost, the
conversion counseling has nothing to do with politics. ``It's about quiet
changes that are taking place in my heart,'' he says.
>But even after five years, their desire hasn't been doused. Durost still
fantasizes about men. ``If I'm really tired, that tends to be a trigger for
me,'' he says. And three or four times a year, when he's lonely or
depressed, Howatt finds himself alone in the car, driving to a gay cruising
spot. He never does anything, he says, just parks his car and watches. ``I
stay there a few minutes, and then I shake myself and say, `This is really
stupid. This is so dumb,''' he says, his voice trailing off.
>When Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi likened homosexuals
to alcoholics and kleptomaniacs during an interview with a conservative
cable-television host last June, he gave voice to a sentiment widely shared
by his allies on the religious right. A month later, a coalition of
conservative Christian groups launched their ``Truth in Love'' campaign, a
sophisticated print-advertising blitz promoting gay conversion and arguing
that homosexuality is immoral.
>``The ex-gays are living proof that you can change your behavior and that
you are not born gay, as people are born black and white,'' says Robert
Knight, director of cultural studies for the Family Research Council, a
group based in Washington, D.C., that has poured tens of thousands of
dollars into ex-gay ministries over the last several years. ``The civil
rights arguments for homosexuality that have been adopted from the
traditional civil rights movement do not apply.'' The council, one of the
sponsors of the ad campaign, also supports the preservation of state sodomy
laws that criminalize homosexual behavior.
>The ad campaign came as a sobering reminder to gay activists of the
fragility of their hard-won gains. Polls suggest that Americans are deeply
ambivalent about homosexuality. While 80 percent believe that gays should
have equal job rights, 56 percent say that homosexuality is a sin.
>The emergence of ex-gays has reopened a genie's bottle that gay activists
thought had been closed a quarter-century ago. In 1973, after rancorous
debate and heavy lobbying from gay activists, the American Psychiatric
Association deleted homosexuality from its Diagnostic Standards Manual,
signaling that the psychiatric establishment no longer considered
homosexuality a disease in need of cure. Last year, the American
Psychological Association passed a resolution asserting that there was no
sound scientific evidence supporting the efficacy of therapies that attempt
to ``cure'' homosexuality.
>Nonetheless, small numbers of gays and lesbians have continued to seek help
to change their orientation. Some have consulted mental health practitioners
affiliated with NARTH, the National Association for Research and Therapy of
Homosexuality, which maintains that homosexuality is a disorder that should
be cured. Others have turned to faith-based groups, including Homosexuals
Anonymous and Courage, the Catholic Church's ministry to homosexuals. The
largest of these Christian organizations is Exodus International.
>Founded in 1976 by members of nearly a dozen previously unaffiliated groups
that ministered to homosexuals, Exodus has adopted a dual mission: to
educate churches about homosexuality and to support gays and lesbians who
want to change. Bob Davies, Exodus's North American director, says he
struggled with homosexual feelings for decades but now describes himself as
a happily married heterosexual. ``There are hundreds of people like
myself,'' he says. ``My whole world consists of people who have changed.''
>Publicly, Exodus eschews the harsh, homophobic rhetoric of many
fundamentalist groups, arguing that churches should open their doors to
these men and women so that they may feel the ``transforming love of Christ
and his church.'' But the group, which subscribes to a literal
interpretation of Scripture, has a harder edge as well. An Exodus
fund-raising letter portrays the fight between conservative Christians and
gay activists as a struggle between the forces of light and darkness.
Homosexuality, the letter states, is one of ``Satan's'' attempts ``to
destroy and prevent human life.''
>Despite the recent burst of interest in gay conversion, the movement
remains minuscule. Exodus estimates that since its inception, more than
200,000 individuals have contacted the group and its affiliates. But the
organization, which raises $600,000 a year through private donations,
conference fees, and grants from conservative Christian foundations, keeps
no statistics on how many men and women have gone through treatment, or how
many of them it considers to have successfully converted. Approximately
12,000 people subscribe to Exodus's free monthly newsletter, ``The Exodus
>New England has proved to be rocky, if not inhospitable, soil for the gay
conversion movement, which has seen its greatest successes in the South.
Today, there are small Exodus affiliates in Maine, Connecticut,
Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. An Exodus affiliate in Boston at the
Ruggles Baptist Church collapsed in the late 1980s after two of the
directors returned to ``the gay lifestyle.'' More recently, another Exodus
affiliate in Boston, Transformation Ministries, closed after the director
died suddenly. The affiliate that Howatt and Durost attend - ReCreation
Ministries, which meets in Concord, New Hampshire, and Quincy, MA - has
fared better. Over the last four years, ReCreation's membership has
increased nearly tenfold, to 55 members.
>On a warm, cloudless Saturday night, Durost and Howatt drive north to
Concord, New Hampshire, for their biweekly meeting at ReCreation Ministries.
The meetings are held in a brick Nazarene church in a pleasant, tree-shaded,
middle-class neighborhood. Nine men and five women, most in their 30s and
40s, take their seats. The group includes a doctor, a school teacher, a
minister, a nurse, a therapist, and a truck driver; several are former
Catholics, one is a former atheist, and the rest are from evangelical
Christian backgrounds. Three of the women are mothers or girlfriends of gay
>One of the mothers recalls that she was devastated when she learned that
her son was gay. Since she began attending ReCreation meetings, 18 months
ago, ``My views have changed a lot,'' she says. ``I didn't realize that God
could heal a homosexual. I've grown to love these people.'' Her son
disapproves of her coming to the ex-gay meetings, she says, and ``isn't
motivated yet to change.'' She's holding out hope that he will, but she's
worried. ``I'm afraid that he won't go to heaven,'' she whispers.
>ReCreation's director for the past four years has been Bill Taylor, a
Tennessee native with master's degrees in counseling, psychology, and
divinity. Always on the move, Taylor, 42, exudes nervous energy and a
self-deprecating sense of humor. ``Do you think it says something about my
character,'' he asks in the car on the way to one meeting, ``that my
favorite people are ex-prisoners, ex-psychotics, ex-alcoholics, and
ex-gays?'' Taylor laughs. ``And my favorite show is The X-Files.''
>Lasting three hours, the meetings Taylor runs are a mix of the spiritual
and the secular. There's lots of singing, praying, and discussion that's
steeped in the rhetoric of the recovery movement: talk of emotional
brokenness and codependency. It's not unusual for hours to pass with no
mention of the words ``homosexual'' or ``gay.'' ``My take,'' Taylor says,
``is that the main issue with most of these men and women has nothing to do
with sex but has to do with having emotional needs met or medicated. I mean,
sex is a great anesthetic. It numbs the pain.''
>ReCreation Ministries, like all Exodus affiliates, rejects the idea that
homosexuality is inborn. Despite highly publicized reports a few years ago
suggesting that a ``gay gene'' had been discovered, most scientists believe
that sexual orientation is probably caused by a complex interaction of
environmental factors and chromosomes.
>``We don't really understand why people make the choices they make,'' says
Gerald Koocher, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical
School. ``We don't know why one person is gay, one is bisexual, why another
gets excited and aroused putting on clothing of the opposite sex. There
probably are people who have the capacity or the potential to be either gay
or bisexual or straight. And there are other people who, by virtue of their
makeup, don't really have a choice.''
>Exodus and its affiliates believe that homosexuality is a pathology rooted
in a person's childhood; they believe that it's caused by a combination of
factors, including sexual abuse, absent or sadistic fathers, and overbearing
mothers. A weak sense of gender identity, the argument goes, compels the
homosexual to seek masculine and feminine fulfillment through sexual
relationships with members of the same gender.
>Change, Taylor says, occurs only with abstinence from gay sex and prayerful
hard work in which clients grapple with childhood deficits. In time, Taylor
says, his clients can replace their homosexual longings with healthy
same-sex friendships. Heterosexual desire, he says, may or may not follow.
``There are individuals who lay claim to total healing,'' Taylor says. ``But
the bulk, I'd say, have been healed as follows: If their lives were out of
control, their lives are now under control. If they were perhaps 100 percent
attracted to men, they're now 50 percent attracted and have 50 percent
>On this summer evening, Durost leads the group in prayer. ``Lord, we pray
for those of us who are hurting, who are broken,'' Durost says. ``We pray
that change may happen.'' After watching a video that argues that the Bible
is ``blatantly clear'' that only heterosexual monogamy is acceptable to God,
the men and women break into smaller groups to discuss recent highlights and
``hot spots'' in their lives. The stories that follow are wrenching. A
quiet, reserved, heavy-set man named Steven describes his struggle with
masturbation and gay pornography. Should he tell his girlfriend that he's
sneaking off to adult bookstores to look at porn? She's already suspicious.
Most of the members of the group are in agreement: It will be better for
both of them if he is honest with her. A married man named Henry speaks with
anguish about a recent sexual encounter in a park with another man. ``I
don't want to lose my wife and two girls,'' he says later. ``I realized I
would if I didn't get help.''
>When the time comes for Howatt to talk, he confesses that he's in
``emotional turmoil.'' In less than a month, he's headed on a business trip
to New York. While he's excited that his bosses have decided to give him
more responsibility, he's worried about temptation. ``For some reason, my
fantasy life is running wild,'' he says. ``It's been five years since I
started my walk, and though I haven't fallen yet, I'm afraid.''
>At least two group members agree to call Howatt every night that he's on
his trip to make certain that he does not stray.
>Raised a Pentecostal Christian in an upper-class family in the suburbs of
Los Angeles, Howatt never developed a close bond with his father. He says he
was sexually abused by his doctor, a urologist, at the age of 13. ``I never
said a word about it,'' Howatt says. ``I was very scared, very ashamed, and
he told me that if I ever told anyone about it that he'd recommend surgery
>In high school, Howatt developed longings for a close, emotional
relationship with a man but dated women nonetheless. A four-year
relationship with a Ms. Southern California ended after she moved east to
pursue a modeling career. Feeling rejected and depressed, he swallowed
fistfuls of Valium and Extra-Strength Tylenol and climbed into the back seat
of his car to die. Instead, he just passed out. ``When I woke up the next
morning, I felt this tremendous amount of anger toward God,'' he says. Two
years later, he decided to surrender to his sexual fantasies and walked into
his first gay bar. ``For the first time in my life,'' he says, ``I thought I
>It wasn't long, however, before Howatt's life was again on a downward
spiral. Insecure and unable to find a partner who wanted a long-term
relationship, he plunged into a world of drugs, alcohol, and anonymous sex,
racking up, he estimates, more than 200 sexual partners.
>By 1990, Howatt was at his wits' end. On St. Patrick's Day, he swore that
he would take a vow of celibacy if he did not find a long-term relationship
with a man soon. That same night, at a gay bar in Pomona, California, Steven
Durost walked into his life.
>Like Howatt, Durost found the gay social scene emotionally unfulfilling and
was looking for a change. Durost, who grew up in a working-class family in
New Hampshire, says he was sexually molested in second grade by the janitor
at his Catholic school. After a year at Wesleyan University in Middletown,
Connecticut, he enrolled in Atlantic Union College, a small Seventh-day
Adventist college in Lancaster,ma where he received joint degrees in
religious studies and English literature. ``I had a sense, growing up, that
there was something different about me,'' Durost says. ``I just didn't feel
like I fit in with the other guys, and I wanted to. When I got to college, I
started hearing more about people who were gay and started having questions
about that possibility.'' He found the idea disquieting, but after moving to
California, he finally reconciled himself to the fact that there probably
was no escaping his sexual orientation. ``I decided that the only way of
finding happiness was to find a man, a lifelong companion in a monogamous
>He found it in Mike Howatt. Both men loved theater, inspirational music,
camping, cuddly pets, and all things Disney. Neither Durost nor Howatt
believed in a God so censorious that he would condemn a couple as pious and
loving as themselves. ``Religiously, we thought God had accepted
homosexuality,'' says Durost, ``though it wasn't necessarily part of His
>Two years after they met, Howatt and Durost moved to New Hampshire. One
morning, as they lay in bed, Howatt asked Durost if he had given any thought
to the subject of God and homosexuality. Durost was quiet for a while before
answering: ``Every night, I hear in my head a voice that says I shouldn't be
getting in bed with a man,'' he said.
>``Then that's the answer,'' Howatt said. ``If God is calling you out of
homosexuality, then I love you enough not to stand in your way.'' For two
weeks, Durost slept on the floor of their apartment, and every night they
both cried themselves to sleep. Eventually, they decided they wouldn't be
able to ``go straight'' on their own and found out about ReCreation
Ministries. At their first meetings, they were told that if they were going
to continue living together, they would have to develop strict boundaries:
no hugging, no kissing. ``I really thought I was going to die,'' recalls
>Today, the two men are no longer emotionally entwined, says Bill Taylor,
their counselor. ``It's a completely different picture. You wouldn't
recognize their relationship,'' he says. ``Before, I didn't know Mike. I
didn't know Steve. I didn't know them as individuals.'' But in many ways,
the two men are still very much a couple. They still perform mime routines
in front of Christian audiences, they still go camping together, and, once a
year, they stay up late to watch the Oscars. The harassing calls on their
answering machine have not subsided - a chilling reminder that bigots don't
necessarily differentiate between gays and ex-gays.
>Taylor agrees that the two men have a long way to go. ``Many times we've
confronted issues that are directly related to the fact that they're living
together,'' he says. ``It's kind of an uphill climb for them, because they
are under the same roof.'' Indeed, Durost and Howatt still kiss on the lips
when they greet each other - a fact that is news to Taylor. ``You're
kidding!'' he says, stunned, when he learns of it. ``You just wrecked my day.''
>``It's one of those boundaries we haven't set up yet,'' Durost explains,
haltingly. ``It's one of those things we've wondered about.''
>But recently, for the first time in his life, Durost says, he's starting to
feel the flickers of heterosexual desire. He almost asked one of the women
at the ministry out on a date, in fact, but decided against it, not quite
ready to make that move. Durost says he is confused about this change. He
also worries about Howatt, who hasn't yet felt any attraction toward women.
``I think Mike finds it hard sometimes that I'm further along on my
journey,'' Durost says. ``If I get to a certain point, saying it's time to
move on for a date or get married, it's going to force matters for him.''
>That point hasn't come yet for Durost. When Howatt returned this fall from
his business trip to New York, he was euphoric. The trip was a success, and
he managed to resist temptation. A few nights later, the two men packed up
for a spur-of-the-moment camping trip to Tolland State Park, near
Springfield. After dinner, they sat by the fire, talking. Later, in the
tent, as they lay side by side in separate sleeping bags, Durost says, he
was overwhelmed by conflicting emotions. He was proud of Howatt and wanted
to enjoy his triumph. At the same time, he was almost overcome by desire.
Turning to Howatt, he asked, ``Can you help me not to sexualize this moment?''
>Howatt was silent for a bit. Then, voices rising over the chirping of the
crickets and the lapping waters of the lake, the two men began to pray.
> Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, 7 February, 1999
> Struggling to be straight
> "Religiously we thought God had accepted homosexuality,"
> says Durost, "though it wasn't necessarily part of
> His original plan."
> By James Bandler
Rick's Condensed Version of how ...
> ... Steven Durost and Mike Howatt ... renounced their homosexuality
> and began new lives as ``ex-gays.'' ...
> ... they've taken a road that is at odds with the recommendations
> of most mainstream mental health experts, who argue that sexual
> orientation is at the core of human identity - that is, although
> it may be repressed, it cannot...be changed ...
.. and have disproven the "mainstream mental-health experts"
by having "changed their sexual orientation".
Straight from the horse's mouth:
> ... But even after five years, their desire hasn't been doused.
> Durost still fantasizes about men. ...
> ... And three or four times a year ... Howatt finds himself alone
> in the car, driving to a gay cruising spot. He never does anything,
> he says, just parks his car and watches. ...
> Durost and Howatt [at] ... their biweekly meeting at ReCreation
> Ministries ... A...man named Steven describes his struggle with
> masturbation and gay pornography. Should he tell his girlfriend
> that he's sneaking off to adult bookstores to look at porn? ...
> A married man...speaks with anguish about a recent sexual encounter
> in a park with another man ... Howatt ... confesses that he's in
> ``emotional turmoil.'' ... he's worried about temptation ...
> ``...my fantasy life is running wild,'' he says ...
> ... Today, the two men are no longer emotionally entwined, says...
> their counselor. ... But in many ways, the two men are still very
> much a couple. They still ... go camping together, ... they are
> under the same roof ... still kiss on the lips when they greet
> each other ...
> ... Howatt ... hasn't yet felt any attraction toward women ...
> ... When Howatt returned this fall from his business trip ... A few
> nights later, the two men packed up for a spur-of-the-moment camping
> trip ... in the tent, as they lay side by side in separate sleeping
> bags, Durost says...he was overwhelmed by conflicting emotions. ...
> he was almost overcome by desire. ...
(Stay tuned for the soon-to-be-released sequel, "Steven and Mike II:
One Sleeping Bag Unto God".)