Hundreds of conservative Christians are attending a national conference in the Twin Cities to discuss how to reconcile their faith with same-sex attraction.
Exodus International is one of the largest ministries to address the subject of homosexuality. Its followers maintain that same-sex relationships are sinful, but that people can manage their temptations. The group has softened its approach to counseling gays and lesbians and has urged evangelical churches to show more compassion.
But as the question of same-sex marriage heats up in Minnesota, gay-rights advocates are protesting the gathering at Northwestern College in Roseville, Minn. They say the ministry's underlying message is hurtful.
Exodus International President Alan Chambers is many things, but he bristles at one term.
"I hate the term 'ex-gay.' I wouldn't call myself a gay man. I'm a husband, I'm a father, I'm a Christian, I'm a pastor, I'm a darn good gardener, I can decorate with the best of them," Chambers said. I think 'gay' falls short of the description of who I am, and 'ex-gay' falls equally short."
Chambers may not like the ex-gay label, but he did write a book called "Leaving Homosexuality." He grew up in a Southern Baptist church in the 1970s and 1980s, where he felt ashamed for his secret attraction to men. Today, he is married to a woman and has two kids.
Chambers says he is remaining true to his faith and to a belief that sexual relationships should exist only between a married man and woman.
“I think 'gay' falls short of the description of who I am, and 'ex-gay' falls equally short.”Alan Chambers; president, Exodus International
"I didn't ask for this, I didn't choose it," Chambers said. "I still do have temptations where same-sex attractions are a concern, but I've also experienced a dramatic change in my life, where same-sex attractions, those things no longer define me. They don't have power over me. I'm not walking around wanting to do something I might have wanted to do before."
Nor does Chambers want to sway Minnesotans this fall, when they'll vote on whether to define marriage in the state constitution as between one man and one woman, effectively banning same-sex marriage in the state.
Chambers said the decision to bring the Exodus conference to Minnesota right now was a coincidence.
"For us at the conference, we will talk about it zero," he said.
But Chambers has not avoided talking about other matters. He stirred up some conservative Christian circles by distancing his group from what is known as reparative therapy, which sets out to make gay people straight.
The American Psychological Association said that kind of counseling is ineffective and potentially harmful. Chambers also believes "99.9 percent" of people he's met who experience same-sex attraction will continue to have it for the rest of their lives.
So why repress it?
"It does not feel like repression to me, at all," says Brenna Kate Simonds, who runs an Exodus-member ministry in Boston.
Simonds came out as a lesbian when she was 15, but after becoming a Christian several years later, she said she chose to not "act out" on her impulses. Simonds married a man she met through church nine years ago, and said she sees it as a choice.
"When you commit to being in a relationship with someone, or commit to anything, there's sacrifice involved," Simonds said. "When I married my husband, I forsook all others — men or women."
Others attending the conference say they practice celibacy. And some claim to have felt a shift in their attractions to the opposite sex.
It's not hard for someone like Jeffry Ford to see himself in the conference-goers. Ford is a Roseville psychologist who is speaking out against the kind of ministry he once promoted. As a married, born-again Christian in the 1980s, he led an Exodus-affiliated group in Minnesota while struggling with his own gay feelings. Ford believed he could make them go away, and tried prayer, electroshock therapy, an exorcism, and a 12-step program called Homosexuals Anonymous.
"I was sincere, and I was sincerely deceived, and I was sincerely doing things and encouraging things for people that were ultimately very hurtful."
When he was the ministry's director, Ford says committed gay couples would ask him how to come to terms with their relationships while adhering to a strict interpretation of the Bible.
"I told them they could be best friends, but they couldn't keep living together and they couldn't keep sexualizing their relationship anymore," Ford said. "My heart breaks when I think about what that kind of teaching does to people."
Ford said the underlying message of groups like Exodus -- that it is wrong to love someone of the same sex -- is harmful. And Ford is wary of political forces on the far right who will use the ministry to bolster their case that homosexuality is a choice and a lifestyle undeserving of equal benefits.
Ford said he learned many years ago that repressing his feelings was not the answer for him. He says as a therapist, he is trying to undo the damage he believes he caused and now counsels gays and lesbians to be comfortable with who they are.