Some claim a 'cure,' but gays dispute the illness Groups clash over whether homosexuality should be viewed as aberration or lifestyle

October 10, 1993|By Angela Winter Ney | Angela Winter Ney,Staff Writer

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."

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