Protest Greets Boston Ex-gay Conference

by Megan Smith

EDGE Assistant Travel Editor

Tuesday November 1, 2005

At first glance, the dressed-for-church conference goers and bundled-up protestors picketing around coffins don?t have a whole lot in common. On Oct. 29, while Focus on the Family?s ?Love Won Out? conference at Boston?s Tremont Temple Baptist Church had a speaker tell his solemn story of converting from male prostitute to pastor, protestors held ?I?m an ex-str8? signs and encouraged passing cars to ?Honk Against Hate.?

Karen Stebbins said she attended the conference because she ?wanted to hear and see people who devote so much of their time to preventing a certain kind of love.? Walking out at mid-day, she said she could not face staying through the afternoon program. Opening her conference guide, she pointed to ?A Checklist to Determine the Level of Homosexual Promotion in Your School? as one of the reasons why she chose to leave early. The list included among its 12 criteria: ?a safe schools non-harassment policy,? ?non-discrimination policy based on sexual orientation,? ?programs to stop homophobia, hate or bias,? and ?teacher in-service meetings promoting diversity and complaining about homophobia.?

As the conference was criticizing policies of non-discrimination and non-harassment, the groups that the conference denounced were outside with a message of acceptance for gay youth. Pam Garramone, representing Greater Boston PFLAG, declared that PFLAG was there ?to support gays and lesbians who are in the conference against their will, who are doing it for their parents. We want to be a visible presence to those people to let them know they are not alone.?

Protesting beside PFLAG was Project 10 East, a group that builds gay-straight alliances in schools. Executive Director Ashlee Reed said Project 10 East strives to ?create safe space and mutual respect in schools? because ?LGBT young people deserve support and a fair chance to be safe and healthy as they are.? About Focus on the Family, she stated, ?Groups like this endanger the well-being of young people by providing programs that have been universally debunked as dangerous for youth. Reparative therapy is hateful and is formalized bullying in its attempts to change people.?

While Focus on the Family does not deny the reality of same-sex attraction, it believes homosexual individuals can and should change. The organization views homosexuality as an affliction and prescribe reparative therapy and fundamentalist Christian ideology for gay individuals. Stephen Bitar, a teacher and an avid Focus on the Family supporter, ?fought a 10-year battle to control my thoughts and desires.? He summarizes Focus On The Family?s message as the simple words of Jesus Christ: ?Speak the truth in love.? When presented with the protestor?s argument that coming out is speaking the truth about who they are and how they love, he replied, ?What people feel is not the truth, you need to check your feelings against a standard like the Bible.?

Not all conference attendees agreed with Bitar?s belief that Focus on the Family is about love. Ira and Ben Kawaller, a father and son from New York City, were at the conference because ?the issue of homosexuality is central to our family, and we wanted to understand their approach, objective, and technique.? After a day of speakers and small group sessions, Ben said of the conference, ?This organization believes homosexuality has no genetic basis whatsoever. It?s a choice, and they?d like to shun and shame anyone who makes this ?choice.? Their message to parents of kids who identify as gay is that it?s okay for parents of such kids to ?let their kids go? if their kids can?t conform to the heterosexual norm. With smiles on their faces and professing love in their heart, they?re telling parents that it?s better to abandon their kids than accept them for who they are. The amazing and frightening thing to me was that a huge audience of people, who at least looked normal, seemed quite willing to go along with this program.?

His father Ira, an active member of PFLAG in New York City, agreed: "Their agenda is clear: Under the guise of love, they are taking steps to marginalize gays and push them back in the closet.?

Fighting against that marginalization, protestors braved the brutal Boston weather to picket from 7:30 a.m. until late afternoon. Protests are as much a part of Focus on the Family conferences as fundamentalist Biblical interpretation, but even with its history of picketed events, the Boston protest seemed a landmark.

QueerToday?s Mark Snyder had coordinated the Focus on the Family protest with the anti-war rally in Boston Common. For most of the day, about 50 protestors marched around two coffins labeled ?Homophobia is Deadly. Focus on the Family = Queer Youth Suicides.? When anti-war speeches ended, approximately 1,000 protestors marched to the glass doors of Tremont Temple Baptist Church. Boston?s first snowstorm of the year precipitated a noisy blizzard as the protestors? shouts exploded from 50 voices to hundreds. In front of police blockaded doors, the mass of protestors chanted against a right-wing agenda that in their minds promoted both the war and homophobia. Corey Craig, the Carolina regional representative for Rock the Vote, commented on the appropriateness of a coalition protest, saying ?Especially with this administration our civil rights have been muted.?

For the most part, the protests remained muted for the conference?s participants who, according to www.queertoday.com, cancelled their lunch break and ordered in rather than brave the storm that raged beyond the church?s glass doors. However, for a protest whose primary chant was to ?Shut It Down,? forcing ?Love Won Out? to stay in can be considered a success.

Megan is the Assistant Travel Editor for EDGE Publications. Based in Australia, she has been published in gay and lesbian publications in both America and Australia, and she has been on assignment as a travel-writer for Let's Go travel guides in Australia, New Zealand and Hawaii.

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