A Christian group holding a national conference this weekend in San Diego is bracing for protests over its advocacy of counseling gays and transgenders to go straight.
Critics call the practice “abusive,” “dangerous” and “despicable.”
“Join us for a special conference filled with powerful biblical teaching, dozens of workshops, worship, and inspiring life stories of those who have dealt with same sex attraction or transgenderism and been transformed by the living God,” says its event site.
“California outlawed conversion therapy, which makes it really weird because they’re having a conference here where it’s illegal,” said Gina Roberts, a transgender and local Log Cabin Republican Club leader. “Like, huh?”
She called conversion “totally despicable.”
But Anne Paulk, executive director of Restored Hope Network, told Times of San Diego that the conference “does not seek to break the law; nor do our members.”
She pointed to a note on the eventbrite registration page that says: “Individuals under 18 are allowed when accompanied by parent or guardian. No counseling will be provided for minors.”
The California law, she says, bars “not a method of counseling but a goal for teens” and “applies only to those under 18 years of age and impacts licensed counselors in the state.”
Transgender leader Roberts had a darker take.
“It is a travesty,” she said. “The absolute worst cases of PTSD I’ve ever met have been kids” who had conversion therapy. “They were seriously screwed up. And became nearly suicidal. And stayed gay.”
Roberts said she knew a transgender woman persuaded by such a group that she wasn’t trans, “and she sold all her stuff, started living as a guy again and committed suicide about six months later.”
Paulk, one of the founders of the 5-year-old network, said Restored Hope came to San Diego “as it is familiar area for supporting care for those who deal with unwanted same-sex attraction.”
She said City View Church lead pastor Troy Singleterry is not a member pastor, “but his church has long been a friend of those seeking to overcome sexual and relational struggles.”
Page Robinson is a secretary for the church, which dates to 1922 and a visit to Balboa Park by famed evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson. (The church was called the Gospel Tabernacle and later San Diego First Assembly of God, and moved several times.)
“We are a church where we love people, and every person counts,” Robinson said Tuesday, but declined to answer any questions about the two-day event. “I’m going to have to redirect you … to Restored Hope Network.”
Four key speakers are set for the conference, first held in 2012 in Sacramento. (In 2013, it met in Oklahoma City, and 2014 was in Portland, Oregon. The past two were in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and Orland Park, Illinois.)
But an original speaker — Pastor Ron Citlau of Calvary Church in Orland Park — withdrew “to focus on his young family for a time,” Paulk says.
“Citlau and wife Amy have been asked by their denomination, the Reformed Church of America, to take a much-needed break from all ministry commitments for the next several months in order to strengthen the foundations of their life together as a young family of six. RHN accepts Ron’s resignation from its Board and blesses this much-needed season of renewal for the Citlau family,” Restored Hope said.
The Reformed Church of America didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Restored Hope’s Paulk said the meeting is prepared for protesters “and intend to be kind to them, realizing they are operating out of misunderstanding and misconceptions about who we are and what we do.”
She said via email: “We expect the respect and freedom to leave homosexuality as much as respecting their right to remain homosexual or transgender. Tolerance is truly a two-way street. Those who do not wish to leave homosexual relationships do not speak for those of us who do or have left homosexuality.”
Will Rodriguez-Kennedy, president of San Diego Democrats for Equality, didn’t mince words about gay conversion, saying his predominantly gay Hillcrest club “absolutely opposes the dangerous practice.”
“This hateful practice is a result of the bigoted and misguided beliefs of religious extremists, and there is no place in San Diego for its promotion or execution,” he said.
“This conference stands against the values of Californians, San Diegans and any decent human being. We will resist, organize and protest any effort to bring these backwards teachings to this state and we call upon our elected officials, activists and allies of any party to condemn this hateful event and practice.”
Rodriguez-Kennedy said he was reaching out to protest organizer Lilly Holiday for how his club could take part.
A site rallying foes said: “There will be a protest presence the entire time they are there, so please feel free to stop by, rally, and gather with the LGBTQ community at any time!”
One of the scheduled conference speakers, radio talk-show host Janet Mefferd, told the news site of the conservative American Family Association that protesters “are trying to paint it as a ‘pray away the gay conversion therapy’ conference, and it is certainly not that.”
“I don’t know of anybody at Restored Hope Network who believes in conversion therapy – whatever that is – or ‘pray the gay away,’” she said.
Restored Hope — called a “coalition of ministries serving those who desire to overcome sinful relational and sexual issues in their lives” — plans to “bring people together to encourage one another in the Lord, build one another up, and present the latest research on this topic.”
“Restored Hope is working to have adequate security in place in case the protesters develop a mob mentality,” said the story. “And conference organizers believe that any potential disruption can be met with prayer.”
Paulk added: “Although San Diego is generally a conservative community and has a smaller gay and trans population than where our national office is in Portland, Oregon, the gay community tends to be more active” in San Diego.
She said counselors and pastors with Restored Hope Network — which has posted a 900-word Doctrinal Statement — offer care nationwide for those who want to “align their lives with their biblical values.”
“What we do is offer one-on-one talk counseling, group support and pastoral care exactly like what is offered for those facing any other issue in their lives such as marital, relational, sexual, or addictive behavior,” she said. “We are glad to be dedicated to restoring hope to those broken by sexual and relational sin, especially those impacted by homosexuality.”
Gina Roberts, the GOP transgender, said she wouldn’t be involved in the protest. (In fact, she’s in Washington again this week to meet with Department of Education officials on transgender-youth policies.)
“I’m just not a big fan of jumping up and down, and holding signs,” she said. “I’m working with a guy within the religious community. He’s trying to set up some meetings with some of the more conservative religious organizations.”
Roberts said people she meets one-on-one “have a hard time being cruel and nasty.”