Psychologists say no, but hundreds of Ex-Gays disagree. They also say it’s the hardest thing they’ve done.

Glen Hysom remembers.

Six years later, the memory is still raw. The memory is his companion, his nemesis, and yes, his teacher. The memory broke his heart, but it also taught him well, for when he speaks of the memory, when he unwraps the package and shares it with others–as he is doing right now–that is when it happens. For it is in the retelling–the reliving–that the memory demonstrates its power. That is when the memory reduces this stoic man, this hardened man born of the Depression, to tears.

Glen Hysom is crying. Not weeping, not bawling–no, he is too sturdy for that– but crying nonetheless. Beside him, his wife, Joan, also begins to tear. She silently reaches for his arm, as she has so many times over so many years, and looks upon him lovingly. It is a look at once proud and compassionate, a look refined by decades of marriage.

You see, Joan is part of the memory. It was she who sat Glen down on the patio– on Mother’s Day, no less–and it was she who handed him the letter. Ah, yes, the letter, postmarked somewhere in West Africa. It was a letter she had held on to for the better part of six months, a letter she was supposed to give to Glen at the appropriate time. But when was the appropriate time? Joan didn’t know. After all, when is the appropriate time to tell your husband that his son is attracted to men? How do you tell a gruff man, a churchgoing man, a man’s man who up till now was sure he’d never even met a homosexual, that his son is one?

Forget appropriate. Tim was on his way back to Denver after an 18-month missionary trip, and–appropriate or not–Glen needed to know. Joan handed him the letter and braced for impact. The letter was accusing. The letter was angry. Tim didn’t want to be gay, and he blamed his father.

“A child needs to hear and feel affection,” the letter read. “I needed to be hugged. I needed you to say,’ I love you.’ I needed you to spend time with me, to teach me how to shave, how to play soccer, how to drive. All of the things that a father should show his son. Most of all, I needed YOU!”

I’m gay because of you, the letter screamed. You were never there for me.

“And he was right,” Glen says into the microphone. “That really gave me something to think about.”

He speaks slowly, his voice deep and rumbling. He pauses just long enough to maintain his composure. He’s already cried once–he will not let it happen again.

“It was like a bomb went off right in my lap. One of my kids could not be homosexual. This is an impossibility. They weren’t raised that way.”

A hundred sympathetic ears are listening. A hundred sympathetic eyes-some dry, some moist–gaze back at him. Whether in print or on the phone or face-to-face, they too have received the letter. They too share the memory.

They have come to the DoubleTree Hotel in Seattle for the annual conference of Exodus International–“a coalition of Christian ministries to men and women seeking freedom from unwanted homosexuality.” Gathered in various sessions throughout the hotel are hundreds of “ex-gays,” but Glen’s audience is parents, mothers and fathers of homosexuals, who have come to a workshop entitled “Hope for Hurting Parents.” Indeed, most are hurting very much.

“My next reaction was that I’d just go blow my brains out,” Glen continues. “But I knew that there would be people hurt. So then I thought, ‘Well, I’ll just go blow his brains out, so he doesn’t have to be a homosexual.’ But I knew that would hurt all of us, too. So, ‘I’ll just go blow that guy’s brains out that got [Tim] into the homosexual lifestyle. That’d solve it all.’ well, then I’d go to prison. So I couldn’t do any of those things. That’s when I decided that since I was part of the problem, I had to be part of the repair.”

When Tim’s flight landed, the man’s man did the things he had failed to do for most of 20 years: He embraced his son, told him he loved him, and he cried. They all cried. A few weeks later, father and son found themselves on a plane to San Diego. Joan somehow convinced them both to attend the 1992 Exodus conference, and they’ve been coming ever since.

Six years later, Glen is no longer among the masses at Exodus. He has graduated to the platform, Joan and two other couples at his side, sharing what the memory has taught him. The audience hangs on his words, for his words offer hope. Glen offers them hope that homosexuals can change, for he and Joan possess what most of them crave: a child who actually wanted to change.

Some 800 people come to Exodus each year-gays, ex-gays and never-been-gays. Parents of gay/ex-gay children, spouses of gay/ex-gay partners, and friends of gay/ex-gay friends. Pastors, counselors and ministry leaders. For some, homosexuality is a thing of the past; others are just beginning their journey Some have “acted out” hundreds of times, with nearly as many partners; others have never once consummated their desires, embracing abstinence over indulgence. Most are somewhere in between.

This is the 23rd annual Exodus conference, though most Americans have never heard of the organization. That’s about to change. Few in attendance realize that this year’s event is the calm before the storm. They don’t realize that a couple of weeks hence, a series of full-page ads in The New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today and a dozen other major newspapers claiming that homosexuals can change their orientation-will ignite a contentious national debate. They don’t realize that their motives will be denounced as discriminatory, hateful and just plain evil. They don’t realize that their personal stories of transformation will be questioned, doubted or summarily dismissed: They are living in denial, they’ve been brainwashed by the religious right or they were never gay in the first place.

Those who make such claims have probably never sat down with Tim Kalb, HIV-positive and the son of a Baptist preacher, who once marched in a gay pride parade wearing only combat boots and a G-string. They’ve never gotten to know Karen Wood, who called off an engagement to a man when she found her feelings for him couldn’t compete with her attraction to a former girlfriend. They’ve never met Scott Kingry, who spent nearly every night at the bars, doing drugs and enduring three “really dysfunctional, really painful” same sex relationships.

None of them say they were born gay–all of them have childhood memories of extremely detached parents or sexual encounters, or both. All of them embraced the gay lifestyle, a lifestyle that felt right, at least for a while. In the end, it left them empty and, in some cases, bitter. “Everybody expected something,” Kalb says. “Nothing in that life was free.” Agrees Wood: “My anger was out of control.” Ditto Kingry: “I hated pretty much everything then.”

Plenty of churches provide support groups for alcoholics and divorcees, but there are few offerings for gay strugglers. Thus all three wound up at Where Grace Abounds, a Denver-based ministry to homosexuals and one of more than 100 Exodus referral agencies worldwide. There, all three found a community of like-minded people–people who shared their struggles and their pain. All three found refuge, love and acceptance.

What they didn’t find was a magic pill or potion–an infomercial-style treatment that cures same-sex attraction in three easy applications. No, if there is one thing this community shares, it is the realization that changing their sexual orientation is perhaps the hardest thing they have ever done. Some say it was far easier to “come out” as a homosexual than to quell their same-sex attractions. Some say the hardest step was to “betray” their gay friends, to say that the lifestyle wasn’t for them. Some say they face more ridicule and hostility as an “ex-gay” than they ever did as a “fag” or “queer.”

To be ex-gay in the 90s is to join the Flat Earth Society. Sociologists tell them they can’t change, psychologists tell them they can’t change, biologists tell them they can’t change. The evening news tells them they can’t change. Ellen DeGeneres tried to tell them they can’t change. Even their desires tell them they can’t change.

But their convictions tell them otherwise, as does their Lord–for Exodus International is a Christian organization that believes homosexuality is a sin, that it is not God’s intention for sexual expression, and that through a proper relationship with God and others, homosexuality can be overcome. Exodus is not a political organization; it endorses neither candidates nor initiatives, but it does endorse the Bible.

If you’re out and proud, Exodus isn’t for you. People come because they want to. I see no deprogramming sessions here, no hypnotism, no electro-shock treatments.

No, what I see is ordinary people, laughing and weeping, sharing and praying, learning and healing. I hear a lot about “healing” at Exodus. They don’t call it “conversion”–most have already been converted. Their goal, I learn, the one they will move heaven and earth to achieve, is healing–healing from sinful desires, sexual addictions and broken relationships.

They are different, and they are the same. They come from across the country and around the world, to see old friends and make new ones. They come to worship God, in silent reverence and with reckless abandon. With God, they say, all things are possible.

Tim Hysom remembers. One day he was your average high-schooler, laughing at the “homo” jokes like everybody else. But at the local mall, while his buddies commented on the pretty girls, Tim noticed only the attractive men, or the men showing affection toward their sons. It was something he’d never known.

At age 17, Tim had his first same-sex encounter, initiated by another boy his age. The encounter took Tim by surprise, but he did not resist. Afterward, he recalled feeling a mixture of horror and despair. After all, he had been raised in a Bible-believing family. He attended a Baptist school. He’d sinned, and he knew it.

“But then it made sense,” he tells me. “All of the things I was feeling my whole life began to . . . I realized what I was really struggling with.”

Tim and I are sitting in a vacant ball room, away from the rest of the conference. Tall and husky, with soft features and an Andre Agassi-style haircut and goatee, Tim is not enthused about sharing the details of his life, about remembering. Still, he wants people to know that change is possible. He also wants them to know that it doesn’t happen overnight. Tim, you see, has been working at it for 10 years.

Soon after that first encounter, Tim chanced upon an article on gay parenting in a Denver newspaper, an article that mentioned a ministry to homosexuals called Where Grace Abounds. Tim had never heard of gay Christians, much less Christians who were struggling with homosexuality. But every time he called WGA, he got an answering machine, and he couldn’t leave a message; actually, he wouldn’t leave a message, because that would mean leaving a phone number–his parents’ phone number–and the thought of them finding out about his struggle was just too much to handle.

A few months and several unanswered phone calls later, Tim collected his diploma and headed off for six months of missionary training in Sweden. While overseas, his mother, Joan, happened to mention a news report she’d seen about homosexuals congregating in a city park. For a moment, Tim was suspicious. He wondered, Does she know about me? But he dismissed the thought.

He couldn’t dismiss his feelings. He wasn’t home long before he had another encounter, and a second. No longer could he deny the truth.

“I had gone to a new level,” he says. “I realized that this was something I was seeking out.”

He resumed calling WGA, and this time he got through. Group director Mary Heathman, who started the group when her own son “came out,” answered the phone.

Tim sat down with Mary and a couple staff members, and felt an immediate connection. He’d finally met others who shared his struggle, and he quickly immersed himself in WGA.

Tim met privately with Mary and other staff members, he attended weekly group meetings without fail, he devoured every book he could find on the subject. He also continued to struggle. Despite his best efforts, despite his prayers, Tim continued to seek affection and affirmation with other men.

“I went there thinking . . . that I would come to Thursday night meetings for a few months, that I would deal with it–not ever having to tell my parents, then move on, get married and have kids. I quickly began to realize, as I saw many people who had been involved in WGA for a long time, that it wasn’t going to be that way.”

When he was 20, Tim finally confessed his struggle to Joan. Glen, however, was another story. Besides, Tim was about to leave for 18 months abroad, and he made Mom promise not to tell. But she wrote to Tim, saying she couldn’t contain the secret. So Tim wrote the letter–the angry letter– and when he got home, his father was crying. At that first Exodus conference, the father and the son went to an orientation session, where Glen stood up and said, My name’s Glen, I’m here with my son.”

Spontaneous applause. That’s right, the man who did not want to come to Exodus, who did not want to spend a week with several hundred homosexuals, received an extended standing ovation. Again, the tears came.

Tim continued to attend WGA meetings for several years. His parents began attending as well. In 1994, Tim decided that he wanted to go deeper. In January 1995, he entered a California-based live-in program for ex-gays called New Hope Ministries. He ears at New Hope, and while he says the program didn’t get him “into full and blooming heterosexuality,” it did teach him that the change he seeks is not found in some program alone.

“I was assuming that my healing would come through WGA, that my healing would come through the plethora of books I immersed myself in, that my healing would come through the live-in program, . . . You know what? It’s only gonna be through my relationship with God.”

He still struggles, and occasionally stumbles, but he’s come a long way since he wrote the letter. He no longer blames Glen, he’s no longer angry. He finally has the relationship with his father he’s desired since childhood; Glen says he’s always loved Tim, and now isn’t afraid to say so.

No one knows for sure how many homosexuals have gone straight. An estimated 200,000 people have contacted ex-gay ministries over the past 23 years, but Exodus doesn’t keep records, and there has yet to be an in-depth scientific study. Depending on one’s definition of successful change–is celibacy change enough, or is heterosexual marriage required?–I found quoted success rates ranging from 25 to 69 percent. The standard Exodus estimate is about 40 percent, though it’s based purely on anecdotal evidence.

The organization doesn’t sugarcoat reality: Ex-gay ministries do not, can not and will not guarantee successful passage out of homosexuality.

Truth is, many have tried and failed. Bob Davies, executive director of Exodus International, freely relates the story of early leader Michael Bussee and co-worker Gary Cooper, who first embraced the ex-gay movement, then each other. The pair eventually left their families, divorced their wives and moved in together. Their story is chronicled in the 1993 documentary One Nation Under God, a film that claims to expose the failings of ex-gay conversion.

A weary smile appears behind Davies’ dense salt-and-pepper beard. He’s been questioned on this issue more times than he can count. Davies does plenty of talk radio, and he’s no longer surprised when Bussee comes on the line for a Jerry Springer-style ambush. (Cooper died of AIDS shortly after completing the film.)

“First of all, we’re in a recovery ministry, and any recovery ministry has its successes and its failures,” Davies explains. “This is a very difficult process–it’s not a black and white process where you start here, end up here, and you never have any difficulty.”

Davies, for example, never acted on his same-sex attractions and is now married, leading to accusations that he was never truly gay, that he was simply confused. His critics are the confused ones, he says. For years he was attracted only to men, not women. If that didn’t make him a homosexual, then the jury is fixed.

“If you’re a 20-year-old with the same attractions I had when I was 20, the gay community would look at me and say, ‘Well, of course you’re gay. You just need to come out of the closet and get going into the lifestyle .’And for them to tell me now, ‘Well, no, you never were gay’–they’re totally talking out of both sides of their mouth.”

Many Exodus leaders are perplexed by what they perceive as a double standard. Former Exodus President Joe Dallas–who himself spent several years as a gay activist before leaving the lifestyle and getting married-enjoys pointing out to reporters the irony of actress Anne Heche’s seemingly newfound attraction to Ellen DeGeneres.

“While it is often assumed that one is gay for life, it is not necessarily assumed that one is straight for life,” Dallas says. “[Anne Heche] says very plainly, ‘I was heterosexual until I met Ellen DeGeneres.’ And nobody has grilled her and said, ‘Well now, Anne, are you sure you’re really a lesbian now? Are you sure you’re not going to go back to heterosexuality? Are you sure you’re born this way . . . or have you just talked yourself into this?’ ”

Donnie remembers. By February 1995, Donnie was more dead than alive. He’d survived eight years of gay bars, anonymous encounters and destructive behavior–risky sex in risky places with extremely risky people–not to mention the threat that his wife might discover his secret life. He’d already confessed it all once, admitted the truth, swore up and down that it was over, that it would never–ever–happen again.

It was a lie. It wasn’t a lie that day, or even that week. Donnie meant what he said, believed what he said, and his wife wanted so badly to believe him, too. But Donnie couldn’t follow through, because Donnie was addicted.

Yes, Donnie has a last name, but he doesn’t want me to use it. He prefers anonymity. His wife demands it. His wife remembers.

She remembers the day she found Donnie’s little black book. She remembers the day the strange man called their home, asking for her husband. She remembers that he kept calling, even though Donnie said she had nothing to worry about. She remembers confronting Donnie. She remembers crying–a lot.

Donnie remembers it all, too. That’s why he laid it all on his therapist–his third therapist–in February of 1995. His therapist was scared, thought Donnie should be medicated, hospitalized, whatever. Donnie’s sexual addiction was so expensive, so extensive, that he was shoplifting his wife’s Christmas presents. Then, seemingly out of the blue, his therapist mentioned a local group called Where Grace Abounds; said Donnie might want to check them out.

There’s a saying among many homosexuals that the first time they walked into a gay bar was like coming home to a reunion of long-lost family members. “You feel like you have just found the happiest, freest, most inviting place,” Donnie tells me. “You would kiss the ground.”

Donnie called WGA, talked to Mary Heathman, and agreed to come. He kissed the ground.

“It was the freshest breath of air I’d ever taken in my life,” he says. Thank God there were people who actually understand. I was not alone.”

It all clicked. Soon Donnie was meeting with people almost every day of the week. He went to WGA meetings, private meetings with Mary and other staff members, his therapist. He even got a mentor. Then one night m the summer of 1995, sitting around a campfire, Donnie made what he calls “the biggest decision I ever made.”

“In my mind, I said, ‘You know, my goal is not to be straight, it’s to figure out who God is.’ . . . Once I did that, I felt myself changing and growing.”

Yet there was still unfinished business. Donnie came clean to his wife. It was at once terrifying and intimate, intense and amazing; but at least the healing process had begun. He even called up the stores he’d stolen from, gave them the money he owed and watched the owners shake their heads in amazement.

It’s been three years since he last acted out. Donnie now mentors others and is a member of the WGA leadership team. He’s also teaching an Exodus workshop this year called “Dealing with Guilt and Shame in the Healing Process.” He’s a gifted speaker, calm and confident as he shares his deeply personal story. His wife sits in the audience, anonymous, yet proud of her husband’s vulnerability Their memories have taught them well.

“It felt like the whole healing process was just taking one horrifying risk after another,” Donnie tells me. “It was stepping out to places I thought I would never go– and finding God there.”

Like the others, like Tim Kalb and Karen Wood and Scott Kingry, like Tim Hysom, Donnie is on a journey. It may be a long, hard journey, but he remembers where he once was, and he likes where he’s going.