Roger Tritapoe, a gay prostitute in Baltimore, chose Christmas Eve 1989 to kill himself.
But he wanted to take communion before he died. Drunk and drugged, he staggered to midnight Mass at Our Lady of Victory on Wilkens Avenue, where, he says, God found him.
At the other end of the dusty pew was a self-described former homosexual who talked Mr. Tritapoe out of suicide and back to faith. By Christmas morning, he had begun what he calls his healing from homosexuality.
Now, Mr. Tritapoe and the self-described former lesbian he married last month are among a growing number of gay people who say they have gone straight, a claim that puts them at the center of an intense debate over whether homosexuality is inborn and genetic or abnormal and treatable.
The Tritapoes are the product of the ex-gay movement, which sprang up 20 years ago when the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of disorders.
Since the time of Sigmund Freud, psychotherapists had considered homosexuality a destructive aberration that could be treated. But in 1973 the APA concluded that homosexuality was not a mental illness, and most therapists stopped treating gays who sought to change their sexual orientation.
A Christian "ex-gay" movement stepped in. Exodus International, the largest of several religious organizations, coalesced in the mid-1970s. It has grown to 100 chapters in more than 30 states and several countries. In the Baltimore-Washington area, some 1,500 people have gone through one of four Exodus chapters in the last decade.
At the same time, a small minority of secular therapists have continued to uphold Freud's analysis. Therapists argue, however, over the size of that minority.
The debate escalated this year, the 20th anniversary of the 1973 decision, when an American Psychiatric Association committee argued that treating homosexuality as a disorder is abusive and should be banned as unethical, says Greg Philips, an APA spokesman.
The committee's conclusion has not yet been adopted by the association.
APA members who believe homosexuality is treatable reacted by forming NARTH, the National Association for the Research and Therapy of Homosexuality.
"As psychotherapists, a number of us support the right of people who desire change to seek and receive treatment," says NARTH psychologist Joseph Nicolosi.
As the question becomes more politicized, the controversy over whether people can change their sexual orientation increases. People disagree about what constitutes normalcy, what constitutes change and who gets to decide. Psychologists and biologists argue over what their studies prove.
The emotions felt by men and women on both sides of the argument are even more intense.
Source of help or suffering
Gays oppose a movement they say tears at the heart of their hard-won political and social progress. Joel Payne, a gay man from California, says he suffered from a religious ex-gay program.
"I don't understand why this church of the loving Jesus is putting so much energy into trying to push us down as gay people," he says. "I know people are committing suicide because they're wanting to love Jesus but getting the message that gay is such an evil thing."
Yet self-described former gays defend the movement as their lifeline in an emotional and spiritual wasteland.
David, a 23-year-old member of a Washington ex-gay group, says he was a sex addict who slept twice a week with strangers he met through anonymous party lines. Like many, he agreed to be interviewed only if his last name was not used.
"It's fun for a minute, and then you're by yourself again," he says. "I hated myself."
But in the seven months since he has been in the program, he has slipped only once, David says. "It's changing my life."
Former minister Joe Dallas of California, who calls himself a former gay, says he's proof that people can change their sexuality. "Some of us do change dramatically and ultimately have no homosexual feelings," he says.
But the Rev. Joseph Totten-Reid, pastor of Baltimore's Metropolitan Community Church, a gay denomination, says no one he knows has been cured of homosexuality. "God would not create people with aberrant sexuality," he insists. "My God is not that sick."
The personal struggles
At an Exodus meeting in Catonsville, a lesbian in black leather pants clutches a black leather-bound Bible, eyes closed, tears pouring down her face. "Humble thyself in the sight of the Lord, and he . . . will lift . . . you up," she sings.
A big, bearded man who used to be a prostitute tells the group of nearly 100 that the attempt to change sexual identity isn't easy, but it's possible. "God is our father, looking for his prodigal children, always looking," he says. "You're not alone."
The prodigal children who say they are returning to God through the Christian ex-gay movement range from David, the former sex addict who says he'll remain celibate even if his sexual desires never change, to Anthony Falzarano, a former homosexual who says he slept with 400 men but says now he is as straight as any "heterosexual, red-blooded male."
They include leaders of the ex-gay movement who insist that all gays and lesbians can change their desires as well as leaders who carefully qualify that claim to say that some people may change only their behavior.
But all accept the historic Christian belief, based on the biblical story of creation, that a male-female union is God's plan. From this perspective, anything else is sexuality gone awry.
"I had a partner who was committed to me for the rest of my life probably, but I was still empty. It wasn't enough," says Shari Tritapoe, who once was married to a woman and encouraged her partner to have a sex change operation. "I was so unhappy."
What she needed and found was Jesus Christ and heterosexuality, Mrs. Tritapoe says. "[Roger and I have] committed ourselves to God," she says. "We've thanked him for making us male and female. We believe if a person will continually do that, God will give them an increasing appreciation of their heterosexuality."
Some say desires can change
She and her husband say they struggle occasionally with homosexual lust, but they also say their sexual desires are changing. Five years ago, Mr. Tritapoe, who grew up in an alcoholic and abusive home, was managing a pornography shop and selling himself to men on the street. A year ago, he and Shari broke their engagement after realizing they were friends but not sexually attracted to each other.
But through their affiliation with Exodus, they say they had to work hard to keep from having sex with each other before their wedding. "It's possible to change," says Mr. Tritapoe. "No one has to be in that bondage to homosexuality. But if they don't feel it's wrong, they'll never be able to change."
Exodus leaders acknowledge that not everyone's sexual desires will change. But Mr. Falzarano, director of the Washington group, says he has seen significant change in the 300 men and women who've stayed with that chapter for several years.
"First, low self-esteem drops off, then addictions to masturbation and pornography stop, and we see lots of sexual attraction to the opposite sex develop," says Mr. Falzarano, who has been married for 10 years and has two children. "I, myself, am free from all of it. It's gone."
To many gays, however, the very idea that someone could change basic sexuality provokes anguish and rage. Those who have tried Exodus programs and failed are especially bitter.
"The ex-gay movement is blatantly dishonest. It's just a lie," says Mr. Payne, 33, who has begun touring TV talk shows to protest what he calls the damaging approach of the ex-gay movement.
Mr. Payne was part of an Exodus chapter in California for five years. Like others, he says his promiscuity propelled him into the ex-gay movement, but he didn't find what he was looking for.
"I got fliers from Exodus saying things like 'Gay no more' and this whole word 'change' was used," he says. "I thought God was going to heal me."
Some find no change
But the only change he observed, he says, was "how to deal with your homosexual 'temptations.' "
"That's what their change is," he said. "One of the leaders told me that two years after his marriage, in the middle of his sexual act with his wife, they've had to stop because he fantasizes about having sex with a man."
Mr. Payne also says he knows people, including leaders, who have used ex-gay groups to meet others for sex. Exodus says such scandals are rare; every year the organization expels one or two of its 100 chapters for such liaisons, Mr. Dallas says.
But Mr. Payne sees homosexuality among ex-gays as proof that the promise of change is a sick joke. He had sex once while in the program and got AIDS, he said. He then left the organization and his Christianity, determined to enjoy what time he had left.
"My life has become so much fun," he says. "I'm very clear with who I am and not bogged down with what Christianity or the mainstream says about me. Gay people are on the cutting edge of having sex a lot."
Mike, a 23-year-old Baltimorean who asked that his last name not be used, says the month he spent in Exodus only delayed "the ultimate realization there was nothing I could do to change my sexuality."
"It worked for a while, but then I had all these feelings. It delayed the joy and peace I have now in knowing who I am," says Mike, who also is a recovering alcoholic.
He left Exodus; immersed himself back in the gay lifestyle and joined Alcoholics Anonymous, where he finally found himself and freedom to be gay, he says. "Enjoying the fact that I'm gay is the most rewarding thing I have."
The specialists debate
Therapists and scientists disagree just as stridently as gays and former gays.
Those who consider homosexuality a treatable disorder point to a recent study that indicates that about one-fourth of people who enter therapy to change their sexual attractions succeed.
The study last year by Houston MacIntosh, of the Psychoanalytic Institute of Washington, found that 23 percent of about 1,200 homosexual men and women around the country lost their "homosexual urges" and developed the capacity to love the opposite sex.
Charles W. Socarides, a professor of psychiatry at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, says the study "puts the lie to the idea that no homosexual ever changes."
"Certain homosexuals can be successfully treated by psychotherapeutic means," says Dr. Socarides, who has counseled hundreds of homosexuals. "If this were just a gay gene, nobody would be changing. But they are changing."
However, such therapists emphasize that therapy is not a cure and that treatment goals include growth in self-acceptance and alleviation of guilt. "Psychoanalysts do not expect that patients will change," says Dr. MacIntosh. "If it happens, fine. If it doesn't happen, that's fine too."
Analysts who practice reparative therapy -- treating homosexuality as a disorder -- generally agree with Freud that homosexuality in men is a developmental problem often resulting from early problems between father and son.
Mr. Nicolosi of NARTH says he has treated more than 200 men during the last 12 years and found that "the male homosexual . . . did not gain an adequate sense of his own masculine identity from his father, so he seeks out that masculinity through homosexual contacts."
Psychologists who work with lesbians unhappy with their sexuality say such women typically have experienced some type of physical, sexual or emotional abuse as children, particularly from emotionally distant parents.
Therapists who consider homosexuality a disorder also cite compulsive, addictive behavior among some gays. A 1978 study published by the Kinsey Institute found that 28 percent of homosexual males had sexual encounters with 1,000 or more partners. Seventy-nine percent in the study said more than half of their partners were strangers.
Countering such findings is the American Psychiatric Association, which holds that a disorder should either regularly cause emotional distress or impair social functioning. Homosexuality does not meet these criteria, the APA has concluded.
"A significant portion of gay and lesbian people clearly were satisfied with their sexual orientation and showed no signs of psychopathology," says an April 1993 APA report.
Richard Isay, former chairman of the APA's committee on gay and lesbian affairs, says attempts to change someone's sexuality can result in "psychological damage to the person," causing depression and anxiety.
"There is no evidence whatsoever that sexual orientation can be changed," he says.
Gregory Lehne, a psychologist on the faculty at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, says he's had a number of patients who have gone through religious ex-gay programs. Such programs appear to help people decrease homosexual attractions but fail to increase heterosexual attractions, he concludes.
"People in these groups had their hopes really encouraged that they could eliminate their homosexual interests, and they went through a lot of depression when they found out they could not," Dr. Lehne says.
He also calls the religious ex-gay approach wrongheaded because it assumes homosexuality is immoral and tries to change a person's basic orientation. "Instead of . . . encouraging people to accept themselves, they devote their energy to turning people against themselves," he says.
Therapists and gay activists who deny the possibility of change also point to recent genetic studies as proof that homosexuality is inborn.
Some genetic basis
In highly simplified terms, genetic studies have shown that sexual orientation in men may be influenced by heredity. One study has found a correlation between an area of the X chromosome and male homosexuality, although the author emphasizes that other factors may be involved.
Other research found an anatomical difference in the brains of cadavers of homosexual and heterosexual men. A third study showed a higher rate of homosexuality among identical twins than fraternal twins.
The studies point to the probability of a genetic link for homosexuality, but scientists also acknowledge that the research has not isolated a specific gay gene, or ruled out the interaction of other genes, the brain and the environment.
The two most vocal factions in this debate -- gay activists and religious conservatives -- are unlikely to be swayed by new information about what causes people to be gay and whether they can -- or should -- change.
The former have a vested interest in proving they are normal; the latter are convinced homosexuality is a perversion of God's intentions. What the scientists say will not make much difference to either.