“Thank you guys for coming on a sunny, Friday evening,” a smiling woman said, greeting us as we strolled past the table in front of the East High auditorium.
Peter Hubbard, a pastor and author of Love Into Light (which describes “same-sex attraction” as a struggle to be overcome through love) was offering an opening prayer from the stage. He was seated on the far left.
Next to him sat Andrew Walker, a clean cut gentleman brushing up against 30 with his head bent in prayer. Walker is a policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank based out of Washington DC, and the director of policy studies for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC). ERLC is the lobbyist arm of the Southern Baptist Convention. The group is, essentially, a religious lobby — encouraging congregations around the country to adhere to “the moral demands of the gospel,” including their mission to “preserve the traditional definition of marriage and to oppose acceptance of homosexuality for one primary reason — biblical revelation.”
“We’re blessed to have four speakers here today from across the North American continent,” Alaska Family Action President Jim Minnery, seated to the left of Walker (in the middle) announced. He gestured to the panelist immediately to his right, Jeff Johnston. Johnston currently serves as a gender issues analyst at Focus on the Family and dabbled in homosexuality (which he blames on early exposure to pornography). He credited conversion therapy with providing him a “road out of homosexuality” — a term he equates with “guilt and shame.”
Next to Johnston was Melinda Selmys. Selmys resides in Canada, and is the author of Sexual Authenticity: An Intimate Reflection on Homosexuality and Catholicism. Selmys described herself as a former lesbian (though still identifies as queer) and atheist who now is a devout Catholic in a heterosexual marriage.
In the middle was Minnery, the most outspoken opponent of equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Alaskans in the state. Jim Minnery orchestrated the opposition to Anchorage Ordinance 64 (a 2009 assembly ordinance to codify basic workplace protections to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Alaskans), and led the campaign against a 2012 ballot proposition (Prop 5) aimed at achieving the same results. He served as the moderator for the night’s “town hall.”
“Father, this is a great privilege for us… to invite the Holy Spirit to move freely in our hearts; to reveal Jesus more personally and more clearly,” Hubbard began. “Lord, you know how desperately need this fullness, and how easily we fall off the cliff on one side or the other… and may you bring clarity or hope.”
Minnery began with a slide featuring Lady Gaga and her song title “Born this Way,” presented on the giant screen behind him, and asked: “Why would God put this desire in folks and not want them to actually fulfill it?”
The Internal Struggle.
When I started to think about converting to Catholicism, I kind of made a deal with God. I was like, okay, this is not the religion I want, but if this is the religion you’re going to make me join, than I understand what the teaching is about homosexuality, and I’ll break up with my girlfriend, because, you know, he’s God and I’m only me.
Selmys said that break up, after several years together, wasn’t done in “as Christian a manner” as she would have preferred, but she needed to keep her deal with God. Shortly after, a longstanding friendship with a man transformed into a romantic one. Even in that relationship, she admitted, she experiences “significant but not overwhelming gender disphoria.”
But she likened those feelings to bad habits fought with prayer and obedience to scripture, and objected to the term “struggle.”
“For me, it’s always been more about, this is someone who I really intended to love.”
Jeff Johnston grew up in a “real conservative fundamentalist, Bible-believing church.” He went to several church servicesLeft to right: Jeff Johnston and Melinda Selmys
and prayer meetings per week, memorizing the Bible. “That was just a big part of our life, was being involved in church.”
Johnston said that he began to “struggle with sexuality” during junior high school, especially after the discovery of pornography and masturbation. He would try to absolve himself through confession, but despite myriad pleas for forgiveness, he said he not feel forgiven. When working at a Baptist church as a youth intern, a pastor recommended he attend a conference entitled “Hope and Healing for the Homosexual.”
“It was the first time I heard someone really honestly talk about their struggle with sexuality,” Johnston described the event to the Anchorage audience.
He was told that his struggles were likely the result of certain elements of his upbringing: a strained relationship with his father, early exposure to porn, anxiety, questions about sex (you know, things that only gays experience). Johnston followed up the conference with the 14-step “recovery program,” called “Homosexuals Anonymous.” HA corroborates the message Johnston embraced during the “Hope and Healing” conference, which asserts that homosexuality stems from childhood trauma.
Both the conference and HA are dwindling appendages of the now defunct Exodus International, an umbrella organization that coordinated hundreds of conversion therapy programs, over a 37 year period, all over the world. Conversion therapy is a thoroughly debunked pseudoscience claiming an ability to “reorient” people away from same-sex attraction. The American Psychological Association condemned the practice in 2009. Exodus International shut down in 2013. “For quite some time, we’ve been imprisoned in a worldview that’s neither honoring toward our fellow human beings, nor biblical,” Exodus president Alan Chambers said in an apology announcing the organization’s closure of its “cure” ministry.
Jim Minnery, president of Alaska Family Action and the town hall moderator, hasn’t given up on the concept, referencing it repeatedly in the lead up to the event. It should be noted (which it wasn’t at the event) that Exodus International partnered extensively with Focus on the Family, the religious group founded by James Dobson, based out of Colorado Springs — which is the parent organization of Alaska Family Action.
It seemed bizarre that the two panelists meant to help attendees understand same-sex attraction both are still preaching a treatment long since abandoned by science, statistics, and basic human dignity (New Jersey even banned the practice for minors) — despite both conceding that they still experience same-sex attraction, and omitting the APA’s finding that “the attempt to change is highly likely to produce harm for those who make such an attempt.”
Johnston asserted that his “ex-gay” status came into fruition not because he had chosen to be straight, but because he had chosen to prioritize his doctrinal beliefs above sexual identity — and that those doctrinal beliefs necessitated that he see same-sex attraction as something to discipline himself against. It raised a fascinating ontological discussion, but reinforced the largely religious crowd’s dangerous instruction that they were tasked with liberating LGBT citizens from their sinful nature; that they were all seeking to be saved.
“I’d never really heard anyone say [that] just because you have these attractions — or even if you act on them — that doesn’t mean that has to be your whole world,” Jeff Johnston reflected on HA’s fifth step (“We came to perceive that we had accepted a lie about ourselves, an illusion that had trapped us in a false identity.”). “I had to decide, am I going to try to follow God and live the way I believe the Bible taught that I should live, or am I going to identify as homosexual and move into those sorts of relationships.”
“If there’s really one thing that is the most important thing in all of Creation, it’s that God wants his son to be united with the bride — which is God,” Minnery said, launching a segment on “Biblical Sexuality: Theology of the Body,” and how it was irreconcilable with homosexuality. “The church is always the bride.”
One strain of evangelical doctrine that spans many sects of Christianity stresses that the relationship between man, woman, and childbirth, is reflective of the Holy Trinity: God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. Through procreation, we see God. As part of Johnston’s “recovery,” he underwent training from “Living Waters,” a ministry most known for its ties to former Growing Pains actor Kirk Cameron’s involvement. The group uses end times rhetoric and disaster-porn movies reminiscent of Westboro to vilify homosexuality — and, yes, Johnston referred to it as part of his treatment, saying:
We’re made male and female in the image of God, and that is the most consistent metaphor or picture throughout all of scripture of our connection with God. That all through the Old Testament, God is the husband reaching out to his errant and runaway bride. And Israel is his wife. In the New Testament, it’s Christ and the Church. Where the Church is the bride and Christ is the groom. So, there’s this picture. And when that picture gets distorted, it’s a distorted picture of our relationship with God. So, two men together don’t image the full image of God, and they’re a distortion of our relationship with God.
Selmys said the Biblical picture Johnston described is intrinsic to how we should understand sex and marriage. But, she acknowledged this wouldn’t be the experience of LGBT citizens coming into the church, and that the faith community shouldn’t strictly call for them to reject their same-sex attractions. Instead, she emphasized that they should be instructed to embrace lives of celibacy. Just as priests are celibate, and as Christ had intimate relationships with friends but did not marry, Natural Law dictated that these attractions became distortions when they surpassed friendships. “Part of the reason why Biblical Sexuality can be very alienating to people within the LGBTQ community, is that we’ve kind of lost this dual focus,” she explained, “where on the one hand there is the love of marriage, and on the other hand there is this love of friendship.”
It was a strange assertion, that since Selmys and Johnston view all things through the context of their doctrinal lens, that everyone else should too — and that same-sex couples should be satisfied with their relationship being recognized as, and nothing more than, a friendship. No touchy.
Similarly, the gathering at East High largely looked at the national discussion surrounding marriage equality and applied the same confusion: How are all these people looking at their relationships solely through the context of their love, and leaving God out of it?
The disconnect on both sides is genuine — and, at least within the confines of this town hall, deliberate.
“I would start with the assumption that the Bible starts out with,” Walker added, once again invoking Natural Law. “Biblical sexuality is actually human sexuality.”
Which means that anything else is simply, well, inhuman.
Designed Disapproval.Jim Minnery
Jim Minnery has a lengthy track record of intentional dishonesty in campaign and lobby efforts. Whether or not one agrees with his political ideology, one should take an honest look at his methods, rife with red flags far past reproach.
Procedure should matter.
The Prop 5 debate in 2012 ended in massive ballot shortages exacerbated by Minnery’s last minute appeal to voters that same day registration and voting was permitted in the municipality. This was not the case, and he knew it. But, he did it anyway.
Before voters had the opportunity to weigh in, Minnery ran an egregious misinformation campaign, conflating transvestites with transgender Alaskans, and wrongly asserting that Prop 5 would allow crude cartoon men in dresses to work at daycare facilities. Anyone who refused hiring a transvestite, alleged the anti-Prop 5 campaign “Know Your Rights,” would be fined or imprisoned. The advertisements closed with the disclosure: “I am Jim Minnery, Chairmen of Protect Your Rights, and I approve this message.”
Melinda Selmys actually condemned such practices while sitting next to Minnery at the town hall, specifically pointing to the opposition of employment rights for trans people.
When that becomes an excuse for discriminating against a group of people who — I mean, most transgender we don’t wake up and think, ‘hmm, I really think I’d like to change my identity….’ As Christians, we do not want trans people to end up as prostitutes. So, we have to make sure we don’t allow people to become demonized and to become political enemies to the point where we are not willing to stand up for their legitimate rights, and to take a Christlike approach to people who are marginalized.
Shifting uncomfortably, Minnery responded: “We tried to do a campaign that was filled with integrity,” he said. “If there’s a
gas station or a restaurant or, you know, any place that would deny service to a GLBT person based on their sexual identity then I would be the first to say that’s absolutely wrong. It’s idiocy to even think that that would survive, I think, in today’s culture.”
Said the man who led the opposition against the last two proposals to make that statement law. Through deceit.
The broadcast intent behind the town hall was to have a discussion about “loving my gay neighbor;” to “engage a culture that has almost fully embraced homosexuality.”
But of the four expert panelists recruited to take on this important community dialogue, there wasn’t a single person to represent the “gay and okay with it” community. Being out and in love was never broached as something that might just possibly be acceptable. Not even by the two members who were put on a pedestal (albeit in a bit of circus side show fashion) as members of the LGBTQ community — or “in recovery” — for attendees to attain perspective from.
Hubbard and Walker were present to give voice to the conservative evangelical worldview, and Johnston and Selmys were framed as the leftist, LGBT-supportive parity. This, despite both being largely against the concept. Selmys — who both Minnery and Hubbard went so far as to jokingly call the liberal in the room — only believed homosexuality was to be permissible within the context of heterosexual marriages or same-sex partners who had sworn themselves to celibacy. That is a handcrafted spectrum, skewed past absurdity and bounding into the realm of disrespect and blatant dishonesty.
Throughout the first two hours of the meeting, the crowd was tense. This was not a representative sample of the Anchorage community, nor was it designed to be. The evening was a planned presentation for a faith community struggling to process a societal shift that they do not understand. Many of them probably had stumbled across a gay family member or coworker, and were unsure of how to reconcile that with the interpretations of scripture that filled their Sunday mornings.
Minnery created a customized agenda to deliver his message to that demographic; to calcify opposition to change. It was the perfect build up. Create confusion and unsureness. Were we actually going to be told to start “loving our gay neighbor?” People tapped their feet; whispered to their friends. The concern was palpable — thick in the air — that someone onstage might actually blurt out: “This issue is decided and we need to move on.” The majority of attendees were biting their lips at the thought. That lip-biting and head-scratching climbed to a crescendo, but ended back at the start.
Scripture disallows acceptance of same-sex attraction and homosexuality. It’s a distortion of God, and thus an affront to our faith in Him.
The domineering theme of the night was an expression of homosexuality being an action that should be internally addressed by the individual suffering same-sex attraction, not a definitional aspect of who people are that should be accepted. There needed to be an act of discipline on their part, not any acceptance on ours. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Alaskans are in need of the saving grace of the church. We shouldn’t be mad at them, or hateful; we should feel sorry for them. No go save them, folks. Good talk.
The evening was not a dialogue between two communities struggling to “find a middle” and “stop pointing fingers,” as Minnery claimed. It was an act of prevention against people who might be considering LGBT friends, neighbors, love ones as equal in the eyes of God and society, likely for the first time — and, as Minnery would have it, hopefully the last.