A question of conversion Their quest was the same: to be healed of their homosexuality.; The results were different, but both thank God for who they are today. Y: ROB HIAASEN

By the time Scott Melendez-Stewart was 19, he had spent half his life asking God to "cast out his demons." The young man from Arizona prayed, fasted and prayed some more. "I had to do," he says, "whatever it took not to be a gay person."What it took, in his mind, was religious rehabilitation. Scott entered a self-help group for homosexuals in Phoenix in 1985. There he found 10 other gay men, all wanting desperately for God to set them straight. In the company of the others, Scott says, "I felt hope."

Three years later, in another city, another man struggling with his sexual identity tested his faith and himself. At 28, Jeff Johnston joined 200 other souls in a Los Angeles auditorium. There, he would begin his journey with a ministry aimed at "healing" homosexuals. His family remembers believing God surely would make Jeff right with the Lord again.


"The word that stands out," says his mother, "was 'hope.' "

Both men turned to God for help and healing. And through ardent prayer, they both survived a crisis of faith to become the men they are today: One, a married man; one, a gay man.


Last summer, when newspaper ads featuring the testimonials of "healed" homosexuals appeared, the country learned a new term: ex-gay. Bankrolled by a dozen conservative groups such as the Christian Coalition, the "Truth in Love" campaign was just beginning.

"The dream that I thought could never happen - having a wife and kids - has finally come true," says a TV spot scheduled to air this fall.

"Most people still don't take us seriously," says Bob Davies, executive director of an ex-gay ministry called Exodus International. In its 23 years, Exodus has viewed homosexuality as a moral disorder that can be overcome through prayer. "But with so many thousands of people now in the ex-gay ministry," he says, "can they all be brainwashed? Or is there a real phenomenon going on?"

The gay community's response is that homosexuality is not a sin. Men and women can be Christian and gay. We are all God's children. They say ministries such as Exodus prey on vulnerable souls.

"They tend to have a negative self-image and a negative image of their God-given attraction to other people," says the Rev. David Smith of Baltimore's Metropolitan Community Church. Of its 110 gay and lesbian members, about 30 have sought "conversion" in ex-gay ministries, Smith says.

"They realize after leaving that it didn't work," he says. "And I deal with picking up the pieces of somebody's life."

Between the lines of any ad, sermon or testimonial are basic, ageless questions: Who am I? How do I fit in? Can I accept who I am?

Just ask Jeff Johnston and Scott Melendez-Stewart.


One man happens to be gay. One man happens not to be.

And both call themselves Christians.

One of Exodus' oldest chapters, Regeneration Inc., resides in a two-story suburban house in Towson. Inside, the office feels like a campaign headquarters: Downstairs, volunteers stuff envelopes with pledge cards and testimonials. Upstairs, Jeff Johnston sits under a picture of Christ and the words, "I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me."

Jeff, director of Regeneration since 1996, knocks his head back and chuckles while asking a question only he can answer:

"When did I grow up and become a man?"

Jeff is 38 but looks like a young camp counselor, which he was summers ago in San Diego. Growing up in the evangelical Plymouth Brethren church, Jeff went to Bible camp, where he gathered around the fire to hear testimonials. His fellow campers confessed to smoking, cursing, shoplifting or "listening to bad music."


Jeff couldn't confess what he did.

"As a young child, when I tried to be friends with boys, our play would sometimes turn into sexual exploration. I felt extremely guilty and ashamed about the sexual nature of these friendships," Jeff would write much later in a testimonial called "Just a Good Christian Boy." His faith clearly viewed homosexuality as a sin.

As his mother, Carol Johnston, remembers, Jeff was "a quiet, cooperative child who spent more time with books than with other kids." He was a sickly child, often sidelined with asthma.

"I played inside with my sister rather than outside with the guys." Girls were safe; boys were not. Jeff knew from a young age he was attracted to other boys.

All through high school and college, Jeff struggled with his homosexuality. There were encounters at adult bookstores, meetings that were both thrilling and repulsive. He'd pray for forgiveness - but then return to the bookstores and his fantasies.

"I figured if I kept praying real hard it might just go away, or maybe I would grow out of it," his testimonial says.


Jeff's parents saw a young man who had many friends and at least one serious girlfriend "who broke his heart," Carol Johnston says. Yet, call it mother's intuition, she knew her son was unsettled somehow. "I knew there was some sense of unhappiness. I just didn't know how to discuss that with him."

Jeff doesn't use the word "cause" when discussing the origin of his early same-sex attraction. Rather, he talks to Regeneration support groups about the "set of factors we have in common." In his case, Jeff felt he couldn't get close to his father, who could be sarcastic with his son, emotionally distant.

"I never felt safe around him. I felt closer and safer around my mom."

Jeff did not know how to stop becoming the man he loathed to be in the eyes of God: a homosexual. But one of the first steps toward recovery, he felt, would be to tell his parents his secret. Put everything on the table. Face their reaction, the tears, the shame. And in the next breath, assure them he would get help, somehow, somewhere.

Jeff was 25 when he invited his parents out to a Chinese restaurant, where he told them he was struggling with his "sexual identity." The word "homosexuality" was not uttered. It didn't need to be.

"I wasn't terribly surprised when he told us," Mrs. Johnston says. Still, "I remember sort of feeling ... a little sick."


That night, Jeff told his parents he would seek God's help. He would find a cure.

"I grew up," Scott Melendez-Stewart says, "believing He was a God of judgment."

Scott was raised in a small, heat-stroked town called Parker, Ariz., where he was a Boy Scout and a 4-H Club member. His parents divorced when he was young. Scott's mother and stepfather were schoolteachers who gladly introduced their son to books, music, museums - and church. In the Pentecostal Assemblies of God, the Scriptures are the infallible, authoritative rule of faith and conduct.

Church was the core of Scott's life. "People cared for each other. There was love everywhere." While other kids whined about having to attend church on Sunday, Scott worshiped three times a week. "My most important goal was to please God in everything I did."

By the fifth grade, "I felt different," Scott says, "but I didn't know what the difference was." He did know that homosexuality, according to his faith, violated God's will and plan. If I just have enough faith, Scott thought, I can rid myself of these evil thoughts.

In high school, Scott confided in a few close friends who were also gay. It felt good to not feel alone anymore.


Still, "I felt like two people," he says. "Scott, the good scout, and the gay Scott. It splits you in half."

At home, he couldn't hide his mood. "I knew something was wrong. He just pulled back, shutting me out," says his mother, Noreen Stewart.

Attending the University of Arizona, Scott "escaped" to church five days a week. "I was doing everything I could to avoid temptation." To avoid the desire to be held and loved by another man.

In his freshman year, he read an article about Exodus. "I found what can fix me," he thought. He felt hope. He made a phone call.

Based on a referral from Exodus, Scott learned of a group in Phoenix that attempted to "heal" homosexuals through prayer. He moved to Phoenix the summer of his freshman year and worked for a roofing contractor. He spent his spare time attending Homosexuals Anonymous.

After an opening prayer, the Christian gay and lesbian members would "go through a time of sharing their struggles and pitfalls," says Scott, who loved the closeness of the small group, the openness of its members. As instructed, he memorized the group's 14 steps, especially No. 5: "We came to perceive that we had accepted a lie about ourselves, an illusion that had trapped us in a false identity."


And, as Scott believed, "if you trust God enough, he will heal you."

During one visit that summer of 1985, Scott's mother peeked into his checkbook. Wonder what he's doing with the money he's making? Mom saw checks made out to a counseling service. What's this?

"I told her I was struggling with homosexuality," Scott says.

His mother adds, "My gut reaction was typical, I suppose. Denial. Sadness." Scott assured her that Homosexuals Anonymous would cure him. At the time, "I was bound and determined to 'overcome' my homosexuality because I believed what I had been taught: homosexuality was unacceptable to God."

This is what his mother wanted to hear. One problem remained, however. How to tell Scott's stepfather? Tell him you're in a support group so he doesn't think you're a "faggot," Scott says his mother told him.

But I'm going to be cured, Scott tried to reassure her. And then he told his stepfather.


"If you're a dad, you can't imagine," David Stewart says. "You blame yourself. "Maybe if

I had spent more time with him, done more manly things with him. Then you realize there are things in life you can't help."

Scott's parents had hoped one day their only child would make them grandparents. There's no point discussing that now, says his mother, no longer trying not to cry.

"All I want," she says, "is for him to be happy."

At 25, Jeff Johnston started attending Homosexuals Anonymous San Diego. About 10 people came to the meeting, Christians who all had kept their homosexuality a secret. For the first time, they discussed the feelings and actions that caused them so much shame and guilt, Jeff remembers. And for the first time, they were told they could be healed through prayer.

Jeff came to believe strongly in a main tenet of the ex-gay ministry - that homosexuality is a false identity, a choice. "It's not who you are." Jeff spent 18 months in the program. But he wasn't "cured." If anything, he says, he was even more confused about his sexual identity.


As he says, "I finally gave in." Gave in to those childhood urges. Jeff had his first adult sexual relationship with a man - someone from his Homosexuals Anonymous group. And when that relationship ended, he started another.

Despite all his praying, he could not shake his double life. I would go to church most Sundays, but hang out at gay bars and clubs during the week, his Regeneration testimonial says.

Jeff wanted to return to his relationship with Christ. Homosexuals Anonymous clearly had not worked. So in 1988, Jeff attended his first Exodus Conference.

"Mainly, Jeff was weary. He had spent most of his life trying to be the good boy," says Mary Heathman, director of an Exodus ministry in Denver called Where Grace Abounds. Then a speaker at Exodus conferences, she met Jeff and was impressed by the scope of his soul searching.

She listened as Jeff asked, "Where is God? Is life really about hanging on by your fingernails? Where is life and life abundant?"

Jeff kept coming back to Exodus conferences. He absorbed the literature, including a training section called "Victory Over Sexual Sin - Knowing Your Enemy":


We take a look at the principles regarding sexual sin, and then we look at specific sexual sins and their consequences; acting out with another, pornography, cruising and masturbation, the ministry instructs.

By identifying "our enemies - the world, the flesh and the devil," Jeff says, he was eventually able to refrain from sexual sin. While he still might notice an attractive man, Jeff says, he avoids people and situations that could lead him astray.

"It's not like the struggle went away," he says. But through prayer, Jeff says, his homosexual urges eventually stopped. "Slowly I began sharing with others what I was learning of God's healing."

His parents noticed a difference.

"A weight had been lifted," says Carol Johnston. "He had wanted to be at harmony with his maker and serve his maker and now was definitely more at peace."

Jeff had regained his spiritual footing.


"After three months," Scott says of his time at Homosexuals Anonymous, "every guy in there was as gay as the day they walked in." They just had less self-esteem and more self-hatred. Their spirits were broken.

"As a Christian, your No. 1 goal is to please God. But when you're told over and over that if you're gay, you can't be pleasing God ... you begin to view yourself as a continual failure," Scott says.

The best he could be, they told him, was "80 percent healed." That other 20 percent would still struggle with "those" feelings. "I read and know my Bible, and I never saw a place where God healed just 80 percent," Scott says.

No one moment or incident turned Scott against the ex-gay ministry. All he did was look around the room. "The evidence was right in front of me that it wasn't working." Scott left the ex-gay ministry in 1985.

"I had prayed as much as I could muster," he remembers. "After seven years of trying, I now believed God's promise of an abundant life was not going to be fulfilled through trying to change."

Leaving Phoenix, Scott clung to the hope he could lead a happy life as a gay man. For him, the ex-gay ministry was the false identity. "Anybody can change behavior; it's orientation that doesn't change."


But Scott couldn't square his homosexuality with his church. "I was very angry. God was not going to change me. He wasn't going to do this important thing for me."

He felt unwelcome at his old church in Parker. After Scott came out as a gay man, a member told him he should find another place to worship. Scott boxed up his albums of Christian music. He put away the books of prayers and teachings that had comforted him.

Scott's mother felt his rejection, too.

"I don't go to church anymore because I'm so tired of hearing you have to live exactly the way they say," says Noreen Stewart. "I felt the church turned against him.

"It broke my heart."

"I have devoted my life," Jeff says, "to helping people step out of their homosexuality."


In 1996, Jeff moved to Baltimore to head Regeneration. The groups he runs typically have about 10 members who sign a pledge not to have sexual relations with anyone in the group while participating in the ministry.

Yes, people drop out, he says. But the organization doesn't chart so-called success rates. The hope is that people eventually do leave. "I hope their behavior has stopped, no more acting out. And that they're not just huddling around here as if this is their whole life. Ideally, the men are learning to have relationships with women."

Jeff learned.

"I thought he was cute," says Judy Johnston, remembering the young church-group leader she met in San Diego in 1990. (They now have a 13-month-old son, Nathaniel.) She remembers the night Jeff confided in her.

" 'Oh, that's no big deal,' I thought. So, he was in that lifestyle. I had friends who were, too. They can get out of it. I never thought homosexuality was a genetic thing," says Judy, 31. "And I don't believe anything is beyond God's healing."

In five years of marriage, has she ever wondered whether her husband might pursue a sexual relationship with a man?


"It was a concern, but it wasn't a greater concern than worrying whether he'd have an affair with a woman one day." She means, she says, the general insecurity people sometimes have over whether their spouse would ever cheat on them.

Dan Neeley roomed with Jeff in San Diego nearly a decade ago. They met at an evangelical church and have become close friends over the years. Dan watched his friend come to grips with his Christianity while deciding to leave "the lifestyle."

"I'm sure the struggle goes with him each day - those old patterns that sort of knock on his door," Dan says.

"Oh, yeah," Jeff says, "I agonize over stuff all the time. What if I turn 50 and wonder whether I made a mistake? What if I'm not healed enough?"

Which begs the underlying question: Is homosexuality a choice or an orientation? As ex-gay ministries maintain, homosexuality is a false identity, a lifestyle decision. But who would choose to go through the kind of struggle that Jeff had?

"Nobody," the director of Regeneration says. "But the larger issue is one of spiritual formation.


"How does God change people so that we become more like Christ?"

"I had to take a chance on God again," Scott says.

By 1990, he had moved to Washington, where he found the Metropolitan Community Church, whose primary outreach is to lesbians and gays.

"It takes a long time to rebuild spiritual self-respect," Scott says. But in time, Scott regained his faith. "Wow. God doesn't hate me. Newsflash."

The first man to meet Scott at his church in Washington was the Rev. Clay Witt, who considers himself a surrogate father to Scott. Witt worries as much as any father. "At best, the ex-gay ministries create a lot of really neurotic gays. And Scotty had been thrown the worst of it," says Witt, 57.

"Scotty's made enormous progress, but I'm not sure all the anger has played out," Witt says. Does he like himself? "That's a constant concern for me. I hope and pray so."


Scott is an operations officer for the Academy for Educational Development, a nonprofit service organization in Washington. He just spent two weeks in the Dominican Republic helping coordinate relief supplies in the wake of Hurricane Georges. Scott's pet project has been overseeing grants to Central America to increase AIDS awareness in those countries. The work satisfies him.

When his parents visit, they attend church with Scott. "It's the only church I feel comfortable in," Mrs. Stewart says. There, she says, her son is accepted for who is he - a good, decent man who happens to be gay.

Scott's stepfather still struggles to understand his son's homosexuality. "He's my son. I don't reject him," David Stewart says. "I love him. But I certainly don't approve of his lifestyle."

When he first learned Scott was gay, "it was hard not to judge him, and in the beginning, I did. Homosexuality is not normal or right," Stewart says. It was harder still, Stewart says, to remember his son's own words - that if he could, he would press a "magic button" and not be gay. Life would be easier.

But there is no magic button. And Stewart has come to believe that being gay is not a choice, not a learned behavior. It's just the way some people are.

People, David Stewart says, such as our sons and daughters.


Pub date 11/1/98