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A few years later, they sent shock waves through the ex-gay movement when they announced that, during their time as spokesmen for Exodus, they'd fallen madly in love with each other. The men divorced their wives, held a commitment ceremony and became outspoken critics of the ex-gay movement, telling their story to producers of the 1993 documentary One Nation Under God.
Besen got inspiration for Anything but Straight when he outed ex-gay spokesman John Paulk in a Washington, D.C., gay bar in 2000. At the time Paulk was arguably the world's most famous ex-homosexual, having appeared on 60 Minutes and the cover of Newsweek magazine.
Reached by phone last month, the New York-based Besen says Venice has kept a fairly low profile within the ex-gay ministry.
"Perhaps Jim and Debbie are sincere, but I think regardless, the leaders of Exodus show a lack of sincerity in that you have to willingly uneducate yourself about your identity and follow quack theories," Besen says. "Praying away gay doesn't work."
Trying to convert homosexuals is nothing new. From a medical standpoint, the practice reached its peak in the 1950s and 1960s, with researchers attempting various procedures to change one's sexuality, including shock therapy.
When the American Psychiatric Association (APA) scratched homosexuality off its list of mental illnesses in 1973, most conversion therapies practiced by medical institutions fell by the wayside. In their wake rose a bevy of church-sponsored ministries claiming to "heal" homosexuals through a combination of prayer and love.
Exodus International currently lists over 150 affiliates in 17 nations. The ministries' growing popularity concerns psychiatrist Jack Drescher, chairman of the APA's committee on gay, lesbian and bisexual issues. One of his chief complaints is the way the ex-gay movement trumpets its success cases, even though scant research exists on the subject.
"What little research there is is mostly all anecdotal, and they never report the side effects," says Drescher when reached by telephone at his New York office. "Then, when some of these side effects have come to light, they're quick to blame gay-rights groups for undermining them. It's like the cigarette industry arguing that only the anti-smoking lobby believes tobacco is harmful. I mean, hello!?"
Ordained in 2003 by Fellowship Evangelism in Alabama, Venice has no license or degree in psychotherapy and refers to his sessions with clients as "pastoral care," always careful to draw a distinction between his line of work and that practiced by mental-health counselors. After graduating from Herculaneum High School in Jefferson County, Venice took courses in computer science at vocational schools but never received a college diploma.
"There's nowhere you can go to get a degree that teaches people not to be gay," he says. "It doesn't exist. I got my education through the school of hard knocks."
Drescher says scientists still do not know the cause of human sexuality, with most medical researchers agreeing its roots are part biological and part environmental.
"At its core this is a political issue," Drescher asserts. "The modern gay-rights movement has implicitly adopted the biological argument to make their case. If being gay is some intrinsic part of who you are, then you shouldn't be discriminated against because of it."
Venice says his ministry's status as a nonprofit prohibits him from espousing one political party over the other, but clearly his allegiance lies with the Republican Party. A window sticker on his car reads: "W. Stillthe President."
"This morning I was nauseated with the Today show, with some of their agendas and slamming the president and their liberal bias," he says. "I finally had to turn the TV off."
But Venice directs most of his venom toward the church as an institution and believes a conspiracy is afoot within such denominations as the Presbyterian and Episcopalian churches.
"What I think what we're seeing is a small percentage of people who've infiltrated the offices of these churches to turn them pro-gay," Venice insists. "They've bought into the notion that people are born gay."
Jim Venice and the Reverend Carol Trissell share a flair for questionable art.
Venice's subterranean work station is decorated with a quasi-paint-by-numbers portrait of Jesus and a print of a hazy, tranquil waterfall. Trissell's sunny, second-floor office in south St. Louis sings a nautical tune, full of pastel paintings of austere lighthouses and windswept seascapes the type of work that shows up at starving-artist sales.
Beyond this bond, the pastors are worlds apart. And the same holds true for their ministries. As senior pastor for Metropolitan Community Church of Greater St. Louis, the openly lesbian Trissell heads a congregation of 350 people. The overwhelming majority of them are gay.
"We don't ask their sexuality at the door," says Trissell, whose ministry holds its Sunday services within a Methodist church in the Central West End. "But probably 95 percent of our congregation is homosexual. We believe God created us all. God created diversity and sexual orientation is part of that."
Venice dismisses such churches as nothing more than homosexual dating services. "God didn't create Adam and Steve," parrots Venice, echoing an oft-recited adage of the ex-gay ministry. "These gay-affirming churches are not following the Bible and God's authority."