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The ex files.

"I'm in recovery. I'm a recovering homophobe," Raul Gonzalez says. He made his transformation this spring at a national conference for parents of homosexual children. But this "success" story isn't owed to the support group most associated with parents of gay children--Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. Gonzalez's recovery began in Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays, an organization emerging on the national scene. And while both groups deal with parents of gay children and share similar acronyms--PFLAG and PFOX--their agendas differ greatly.

Gonzalez, founder of the Austin, Tex., chapter of PFOX, says he supports his gay son, but what he's really advocating is his son's conversion to heterosexuality. "[Homosexuals] can live their life the way they choose--that's their choice," he says. "[PFOX] is for strugglers who want to change. If you don't want to change, that's your choice. The Lord judges--I try to be genuinely loving and compassionate. Whether you're gay or straight, an adulterer or a fornicator, sexual sin is sexual sin." Therein lies the logic of PFOX: Love the sinner, refute the sin. Unlike PFLAG, which encourages parents to accept their children's homosexuality, PFOX rejects "the homosexual lifestyle."

In Gonzalez's case, his son has turned from "sin." Although still attracted to men, Jaime Gonzalez, who attended PFOX's national conference with his father, is now celibate. "I choose to live my life according to my faith, so I no longer believe that God created me to be [gay]," the younger Gonzalez says.

While not all PFOX members have succeeded in changing their children, they can perhaps find inspiration in national founder and executive director Anthony A. Falzarano, an "ex-gay" who regards himself as living proof that homosexuals can change. Falzarano says he started PFOX in response to a need he witnessed while starting an ex-gay group, Transformation Christian Ministries, eight years ago in Washington, D.C. He points to astounding growth for the three-year-old PFOX, which boasts 15 chapters nationwide and eight now in development.

Falzarano expects PFOX to continue its growth, citing the group's high-profile news coverage--PFOX will be featured in an upcoming segment of CBS's 60 Minutes and has been on both Fox news and The 700 Club, a nationally syndicated religious news show--and an aggressive expansion plan. In addition, Falzarano anticipates a $100,000 grant from a Christian philanthropic organization, money he plans to use to expand the group to 60 chapters and to add more staff by next March's national conference. "We see PFOX being as large as the Exodus [ex-gay] movement, to be the Al-Anon of ex-gay networks, " he says.

This quick growth, however, is unsettling to some, particularly to Maggie Heineman, a member of PFLAG's Philadelphia chapter. Wanting to learn more about the group, Heineman attended PFOX's national conference and was disturbed by Falzarano's methods of helping parents deal with their gay children. "Love dominated the room," she wrote in a PFLAG newsletter. "Love of family and of Jesus. But hate was there too.... I heard the hate through the voice of the executive director. As he spoke of Satan and `evil organizations'--PFLAG [and other groups that support gay men and lesbians]--he preached that parents should pray for their gay children to fall to the depths of despair as he did ... because it is only then that they will call upon God for deliverance. Would PFOX parents act to hasten their child's fall?"

Sharing Heineman's concerns is former ex-gay Doug Upchurch, operator of a Web site for "ex-ex-gays." Upchurch, who is also active in PFLAG, sees PFOX's philosophy as detrimental to the parents and their children. "The whole premise of the ex-gay theology is that it's the parents' fault that the child is gay or lesbian, that something happened in the parental relationship to cause it," he says. Upchurch adds that the group is trying to twist not only the children's thinking but the parents' as well.

Yet it is Falzarano's own transformation to being an ex-gay that gives him a strong basis for his conviction, one that hopeful parents often cling to. Falzarano says he was "in the lifestyle" as a gay man from age 17 to 26. After spending two years in "reparative therapy" with Exodus, he has now been married to a woman for 13 years--a union that has produced two children. "The way I recovered is, I dealt with my sexual abuse as a child," Falzarano says. "I was molested as a child. And I dealt with my father, who was an absentee father, and with my mother, who was a dominant, Italian-Jewish mother--she really did a trip on me as a child. When I dealt with all those anger issues and got rid of the porn that was in my house..."

David Villaggio, 25, son of the Atlanta PFOX chapter's coleader, thinks the group is giving his mother false hope. "It wouldn't make any difference how they treated me when I was growing up--I'd still be gay," he says. "My parents call and apologize for how they treated me in the past and say they wish things could've been different--especially if that means I would not be gay anymore."

But Villaggio's mother, Suzanne Villaggio, says she finds comfort in PFOX--where she estimates she has peer-counseled more than 75 families. "It's a place where we can share our feelings with one another, where we can help people along through issues that we've dealt with," she says. PFOX, she claims, has also helped her communicate with her son. "It gives us more of an opportunity to dialogue with him," she says. "If anything, I would say one of the things we focus on at the meetings isn't so much about changing our kids but about where we can change as parents. It's given me a different attitude--that I don't know everything." She points out that while the group rejects the gay "lifestyle," it advocates the acceptance of homosexuals. She believes that PFOX will help the church address homosexuality as openly as abortion and other once-taboo issues.

PFOX is also trying to start dialogue about homosexuality in the classroom. Jean Rosenthal, head of PFOX's New York City chapter and a physical-education teacher, has already consulted a school board member about taking PFOX's message to campuses. She thinks her group can dispel some fears about homosexuality. "This is not something that has to be hidden, so they're going to take a bottle of sleeping pills or put a gun to their head," she says, adding that gay students need to know there is some hope that they can change. However, while Rosenthal thinks that a parental support group such as PFOX could do some good in the schools, she says PFLAG should be kept out because of its endorsement of homosexuality.

Yet while PFOX members may not support PFLAG's approach to gay children, pro-gay parents are hesitant to condemn PFOX National PFLAG president Nancy McDonald says her organization will not respond to PFOX in any formal way but instead will maintain its own course with regard to gay men and lesbians. "The thing we need to recognize is that people are acting out of honesty and care for their loved ones," she says. "I hope they eventually will come to understand that sexuality is something you can't change."
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Title Annotation:Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays - P-Fox helps ex-gays cope
Author:Schwartz, Harriet
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Date:Jun 10, 1997
Previous Article:The ad buck stops here.
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