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"My fantasies turned to lust, and I began to have a problem with masturbation. I needed help desperately."
Searching for a place to fit in, Venice turned to the church, joining the youth group and Bible quiz team. Four times during the 1980s, his quiz team won the national finals, with Venice the team's ringer being named "Quizzer of the Year" in 1986. Had he not been overwrought with sexual guilt and confusion, Venice says, he might have joined the ministry straight out of high school.
"I knew what the Bible said about homosexuality and perversion," he muses. "But I still had my secret problem with fantasizing and masturbation. It became my thorn in the flesh to keep me humble and continually on my knees asking for God's forgiveness."
Least likely to suspect his homosexual yearnings was Venice's girlfriend, Debbie. The two met at church youth camp and became fast friends, attending sweetheart banquets and church functions together. Still, Venice says he never lusted after his girlfriend, not the way other high school boys do. The couple split up after graduation.
Then, the unexpected happened: Venice found his first male friend. The two became roommates before their relationship blossomed into something more.
"I blatantly sinned against myself and God," admits Venice. "Neither of us wanted to be homosexuals. Our sexual relationship only lasted a few months. I knew it just was not right and could not live that way."
Venice says he returned to Debbie, and they married six months later. For years he repressed his feelings, all the while praying God would make him straight. When divine intervention never came, Venice again turned his sexual attentions to men.
"I bought into the lie that since God had not changed me, there must be a reason," Venice recalls. "For the first time, I accepted myself as a homosexual and was glad about it."
Venice told Debbie the painful truth and they agreed to separate, but not before learning she was pregnant with their son. For the next eight years, Venice lived as an openly gay man in Boston and Washington, D.C., becoming involved in two long-term relationships.
By 1996 Venice had all but renounced God until one day, after visiting the church of his youth during a trip back to Missouri, he remembers being swept up by the spirit of the Lord. He prayed, saying: "'Lord, I know that you love me, and if you can change me there is still no one who would want it more than me.' We prayed for what seemed like hours. There was no divine flash of lightening, no glorious transformation. But when I got up, I knew that I did not want to be a homosexual any longer.... I was a brand new man, a new creation without a past. I was no longer a homosexual!"
Debbie's photos on the ministry's Web site reveal a woman in bright red lipstick, with jet-black hair cropped close to her ears. She declined to be interviewed for this story. In her defense, Venice says, "I chose to make my life an open book. My family didn't."
A month after Venice's about-face, the couple remarried and, less than a year later, Debbie was pregnant with their second child, a daughter.
Venice's conversion didn't happen overnight. As Debbie writes in her own testimony, a copy of which also appears on the Pure Heart Web site, the couple became active in an ex-gay ministry in Oklahoma City.
"We still had so much to learn about how Jim had gotten into this situation and what we would need to understand to protect him from falling into sin again," writes Debbie. "In His loving providence, God had provided a ministry which would help Jim learn the roots of homosexuality, how to break the hold that this sin had over his life, and how to walk in complete freedom."
God, says Venice, called the couple home to St. Louis three years ago to begin their own ministry.
"I think most people in the gay community would consider Venice a crackpot," says John Lovin, president of Pride St. Louis, the city's largest gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered organization.
"If I could wake up one day and be straight, I'm sure my life would be easier," Lovin adds. "But that's not going to happen. I think most people realize this is something you're born with and a burden you have to bear."
"It's not about a cure; it's about willpower," argues Wayne Besen, author of Anything but Straight: Unmasking the Scandals and Lies Behind the Ex-Gay Myth. "But if you believe you're going to Hell because you're a homosexual, well, that's a pretty big penalty. Jim and Debbie get to walk down the street and be quote-unquote normal. A lot of people desperately crave that. They're willing to deny who they are to fit in."
Some of the biggest charlatans, says Besen, are the very people behind the conversion movement. The ex-gay ministry has weathered many scandals, perhaps none greater than the one involving Michael Bussee and Gary Cooper.
Two founding members of Exodus International, Bussee and Cooper made names for themselves in the late 1970s as former homosexuals who'd gone on to marry women and rear families as heterosexual men.