200 protesters decry message that gays can be made straight

The morning calm outside North Heights Lutheran Church in Arden Hills was broken Saturday morning with sounds of protest.

Focus on the Family, a Colorado-based religious organization that aims to help gays and lesbians become heterosexual through counseling, conducted the daylong “Love Won Out” conference, which focused on youth homosexuality and featured speakers who identified themselves as former homosexuals. More than 200 gay-rights activists from Outfront gathered outside the church to speak out against the conservative Christian group.

Demonstrators, many of whom had been at the church since 7 a.m., greeted conferencegoers with gay-pride flags and banners, chanting “Focus on the Family stop the lies.” Other marchers stood alongside Ramsey County Road 96 urging passing cars to honk in support of the protest.

Ann DeGroot, executive director of Outfront, exhorted protesters dressed up as Tinky-Winky, the children’s-show character that evangelist Jerry Falwell accused last year of being a symbol of gay pride. The group has since used the character as an icon of protest, said spokesman Doug Federhart.

Police said they prepared for the demonstration but reported no problems with protesters, who dispersed shortly before 9 a.m. Some attendees watched the protest, occasionally holding up a Bible or shaking their heads at the demonstrators.

“(The protesters) don’t know their friends and who their enemies are,” said Thelma Knauke of Minneapolis as she walked by the protesters en route to the church. “They believe a lie and refuse to believe the truth that change is possible.”

Jeff Marchant, director of Focus on the Family, said the protests did not affect the conference and that the group had anticipated protests from gay-rights groups.

“We’re not terribly concerned,” Marchant said. “Things haven’t gotten out of hand, and we just want our attendees to come without being harassed (by the protesters).”

Marchant said that more than 1,100 people attended the conference, which featured speakers John Paulk, chairman of Exodus International, a group that says it represents former gays and lesbians around the world, and former gay-rights advocate Yvette Cantu. Gay-rights advocates say that Focus and other conservative Christian organizations ignore scientific studies that show homosexuality is genetically based, not a lifestyle choice, and that the groups frequently make no mention of bisexuals and transgender people.

“The term `former homosexual’ is interesting,” said Scott Fearing, one of the protest organizers. “Are bisexuals former homosexuals and former heterosexuals? (Focus on the Family) is saying that you have to be straight, or God will be against you.”

Fearing added that Focus on the Family was spreading an anti-gay message using religion, politics and mental health as justification for its stance.

Jeff Ford, a former member of Focus on the Family who was at the protest, added that the organization was only suppressing homosexuality and that gay and lesbian members are in denial. Ford said he spent 10 years receiving shock therapy and counseling in order to be heterosexual before realizing that he could not change his sexual orientation.

“They’re claiming change in orientation is possible when it really isn’t,” he said. “I feel sad because they’re trying to do away with a part of themselves to conform and be accepted.”

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