News: Going Straight

Some see the benefits of choice, others menace in sexual-conversion ministry

Dec 24, 2003 at 2:06 pm
Jymi Bolden

Jerry Armelli says he only wants to offer others what he chose: a chance to "convert" from gay to straight. Many, however, find the concept offensive.

If individuals desire to "leave" homosexuality, what's wrong with helping them do it? To hear Jerry Armelli describe the work of Prodigal Ministries — a religious program offering sexual re-orientation — decisions and choices are all that's at issue. But to others, the ministry is wrongheaded and potentially dangerous.

Armelli helped found Prodigal Ministries in 1986 to restore purity and wholeness to the "sexually broken," with an emphasis on homosexuality. For people struggling with their sexuality and religion, Prodigal Ministries offers weekly support groups, one-on-one mentoring and counseling.

"We don't see homosexuality as part of God's divine intent for men and women," Armelli says. "There are thousands of men and women acquiescing to homosexuality."

Change is possible through religion, he says. He describes his own his journey from homosexuality to heterosexuality.

"In April of 1984, I was in a church in Cleveland when I had a supernatural encounter with the Lord," Armelli says.

"He asked me to trust him, to follow him and I did. I was a mess, and he was my savior."

'Being squelched'
But can people who are gay or lesbian ever be fully rid of their desires for the same sex? Armelli says it's worked for him.

"I may not be Burt Reynolds, but I am light years from pantyhose," he says. "Do I struggle? No. Am I heterosexual? Yes. It's been a change in my entire being. Sexuality goes very well into the core of your being."

The ministry does struggle, however, to get its message out.

"Political correctness keeps their stories of recovery out of secular media," says the Prodigal Ministries Web site.

"Our message is being squelched," Armelli says. "It's not given the same time, space and energy."

Both a college newspaper and a Cincinnati daily refused to run advertisements for Prodigal Ministries, Armelli says. (CityBeat accepted its ads.)

"I don't know why. We're not going out into the streets saying all gays are going to hell," he says. "We're just saying if you desire change, we're here for you."

Married for seven years, Armelli says his wife didn't hesitate to accept him.

"She knew of my history before we met," he says. "She was in the theater and wasn't afraid of being around gays. She has a personal relationship with God as well. My marriage is not a cover up. My wife and I have a rich, emotional, sexual and physical relationship. She is my soul mate."

In Armelli's office are books for people contemplating re-orientation: Beyond Gay, The Broken Image, Steps out of Homosexuality and Temptation. He was part of a clinical study by Dr. Robert Spitzer released in October in the Archives of Sexual Behavior. Among his findings, Spitzer concluded that reparative therapy is sometimes successful.

But sexual reorientation or reparative therapy can be damaging, according to Jill Bley, a clinical psychologist and member of the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors and Therapists.

"Society doesn't know what the hell homosexuality is," she says. "People have their own prejudices and religious upbringings. I don't know (that) most humans alive today have studied this issue. It is dangerous to base political and societal opinions on someone's personal emotions and religious beliefs."

Bley posed a question of her own to those who denounce homosexuality in the name of religion.

"How many Christians are practicing Christianity?" she says. "It's all about love. That's what God taught: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' It's extremely hypocritical to go around and tell people how they should live. I wonder what God thinks about people going around saying things in his or her name."

Armelli and Prodigal Ministries believe homosexuality stems from developmental conditions such as repeated failed relationships. Bley says they're wrong.

"We know it starts early in life," she says. "Things that start early in life, it is difficult to decipher whether it is nature versus nurture. Research is moving quickly in the direction of genetics."

If Prodigal Ministries were to call Bley, she'd urge them to stop their ministry.

"I would ask them, 'How many souls are you going to ruin?' " she says. " 'You are not a mental health professional, and you have no clue on the effects on a person's emotions or their psyche. Stop! Let people who are trained to deal with sexuality and emotions handle it.' It's not a question of religion. Certain issues religion needs to stay out of."

'It's who you are'
If people want to make a change, they should do it for themselves and not because of external pressures, Bley says.

"There is a possibility to change depending on who you are and how you feel," she says. "Most people — not all — would give their right arm not to be homosexual and have to deal with it all. It angers me to hear religious people say, 'It's a sin.' It's who you are."

Conversion therapies offer an approach that isn't relevant, according to Doreen Cudnik, former director of Stonewall Cincinnati.

"If something is not an illness, then it doesn't need to be cured," she says. "They [Prodigal Ministries] should minister from a place of compassion. Anyone can change their behavior. You don't change who you are fundamentally."

People seeking help from groups such as Prodigal Ministries would do better to find their answers within, Cudnik says.

"People in reparative therapies should look at their choices," she says. "I'm going to make choices that are good for me. That has nothing to do with my religion. God's love knows no boundaries."

In 1998 The New York Times reported that the two men who founded Exodus Ministries — the parent organization of Prodigal Ministries — denounced the group after falling in love and leaving to start a family together.

Cudnik says groups promoting sexual re-orientation are less than candid.

"The failure rate far exceeds the success rate in these therapies," she says. "The short-term behavior change is seen as success. From a faith-based standpoint, teach that God's grace is available to all people. That's a message of hope and healing."

Cudnik criticized CityBeat for accepting advertising for Prodigal Ministries.

"CityBeat ought to know better than that," she says. "Accepting money from this ad when turning down others in the past was like a kick in the teeth. Why was it OK to offend the sensibilities of your gay and lesbian employees and readers?"

Armelli says he doesn't understand that attitude. He believes individuals in the gay community are part of the reason his message is being stifled.

"Certain gay circles are very hostile and defensive when you talk about an alternative, a choice," Armelli says. "Maybe it's because people don't know me. The gay community receives second-, third-hand information about me. You never talked to me. Come and meet me. Don't slam me or make judgments."

Being a former member of the gay community, how would Armelli describe the climate?

"No comment," he says. "I don't have a heartbeat pulse of the community." ©