The Toughest Call: Conversion Therapy

Jennifer Lee thought she'd found the man of her dreams when she met Steve Lee. He was handsome, sensitive and most of all funny.

They quickly fell in love and after Jennifer converted to Mormonism, they married. After a few years, they welcomed a son. Despite their seemingly happy, secure relationship, Steve was hiding a secret, one he'd had since he was 19 years old.

Jennifer was devastated when her husband told her he is gay.

She was suddenly faced with the toughest call she could imagine: should she stay with her husband who has just come out to her or should she leave him? Although the news shocked and upset her, Jennifer decided something could be done.

"I started to convince myself it didn't have to be," Jennifer said, "and I started to convince him it didn't have to be and he agreed."

Steve, a devout Mormon, feared God would not accept him if he were gay. The couple met with their bishop who urged Steve to rid himself of his homosexuality by going through conversion therapy, a controversial program intended to eliminate homosexual feelings. Steve felt he had no choice.

"I wanted to be accepted by God," he said. "I wanted to be loved. That was everything to me. And so I saw no other route."

So every week Steve joined other Mormon men for group therapy. Most conversion therapy involves different forms of behavior modification, attempting to make people straight by having them act straight. Some programs even teach men about stereotypically "male" activities, such as talking about football and changing motor oil. Steve did not find that his experience with conversion therapy was at all therapeutic.

"I would definitely call it brainwashing," he said. "It was an exercise in humiliation."

There is much skepticism surrounding conversion therapy and whether it's even possible to reverse someone's sexual orientation. Most professional health organizations reject the theories behind conversion therapy, and many have even deemed it a potentially harmful "treatment."

Jack Drescher is a psychiatrist in New York and warns that not only is conversion therapy unlikely to work, it can be very dangerous.

"Patients feel more depressed and anxious when the treatment doesn't work," Drescher said. "They blame themselves. Some people became suicidal."

Are Conversions Successful?

The largest faith-based conversion therapy program in the country is Love in Action, which is located in Memphis, Tenn. Eight years ago "20/20" was invited to meet nine participants in the program who were attempting to purge themselves of what they called "homosexual behaviors."

James Serra, one of those men, says he is one of the program's success stories. Serra stayed in the program for three years, and today he's a counselor at Love in Action.

When asked whether he was a gay man or a straight man, Serra answered, "I'm a man, period. And the way I see it, it's a behavior. Homosexual, heterosexual is a behavior."

While Serra admits he is still attracted to men, he emphasizes that he has not acted on those feelings in eight years. Even though he has yet to have a relationship with a woman, he hopes that one day he will get married and have children.

Wade Richards was Serra's roommate when "20/20" visited Love in Action. As a devout Christian, Richards says he was faced with the difficult call of whether to accept his attraction to men or try to change. Despite the time he spent in conversion therapy, he now lives his life as a gay man.

"I believe that a loving God would not have someone go through such a struggle," said Richards.

Big Bucks on Sexuality Conversion

The faith-based movement to convert people's sexuality is a lucrative industry. Last spring the conservative Christian organization Focus on the Family hosted a conference called "Love Won Out" at a megachurch in Nebraska. Parents were encouraged to bring their children to the conference so they could learn the church's take on homosexuality.

In addition to the $60 entrance fee, attendees could purchase books and videos, including a book by John Paulk, former chairman of Exodus International, a network with more than 11,000 affiliated ministries. Claiming to be "ex-gay" for more than a decade and happily married to a woman, Paulk was considered a poster child for conversion therapy.

Then in 2001, "20/20" reported that Paulk was photographed coming out of a gay bar in Washington, D.C. He is still married, but stepped down from Exodus. His book about his own conversion from homosexuality is still being sold.

Like many of the attendees at the "Love Won Out" conference, Steve and Jennifer had hoped that conversion therapy would be effective. After Steve went through a Mormon therapy program, Jennifer made the tough call to stay in the marriage. They subsequently had two more children, but all along, Steve felt painfully trapped.

"There wasn't a 15-minute segment of any day that went by that I did not feel terrible inside my head," Steve said.

After 16 years of marriage, Steve admitted to Jennifer that he had been having a long-term affair with another married man. The couple has now been divorced for four years, and Jennifer has written a book called "My Ex Is Having Sex With Rex."

Jennifer says, in retrospect, one of her biggest regrets in life was to believe that her husband's sexuality could be changed by conversion therapy. She wishes churches would embrace anyone and everyone, but doubts that will ever be a reality.

"In a utopian world, the churches would open their arms and accept everybody in the world for who they are," she said, "but I don't believe that's going to happen."