David Pickup, ex-gay psychotherapist, takes the stage at the Southwest Baptist Theological Seminary’s conference center in south Fort Worth. Pickup specializes in reparative therapy, the process by which people with deviant homosexual urges are rid of them. Run out of California, the land of looney liberals, he’s come to Texas to ply his trade and now presides over a conference on “traditional gender and sexuality,” with an eye to the young. #Teens4Truth, the mid-November conference is called. The event is an act of love, he says, as he kicks it off. “The two key words here are truth and compassion,” he tells the room. No hate in anyone’s heart, here.
The overwhelmingly beige auditorium has many empty chairs. Pickup asks in prayer that the collection of speakers he’s gathered — ex-gays, pastors, Christian lobbyists — will have “a special influence on our beloved teenagers, our children,” of whom few are in the audience. The world must be made whole again, and the young are the ones to do it. There’s one in attendance, Pickup says, an ex-gay man named Derek Paul, who has prepared a musical interlude. “I don’t know what he’s doing, actually, I haven’t heard it yet,” Pickup says. “We’re going to do a song thing. Whatever that means. Derek, come on up.”
Paul, a clean-cut young fellow in slacks and a tie, takes the stage, carrying two sizeable, multicolored flags. A syncopated Christian pop song starts playing and he begins to dance, twirling the fabric around him in spirals and circles. Despite the name of the event, the average age in the room is about 45. Attendees watch quietly as Paul hops and spins around the stage, whipping the flags around him as the song’s crescendo builds. It’s skillful choreography. The audience politely, and quickly, applauds.
Over the next two days, a few dozen attendees will learn what has gone wrong in America’s moral universe, and what to do about it, and also receive a box lunch and breakfast, included in the $25 ticket price. The rot will be exposed. To kick that off, here’s Pastor Stephen Broden, of Fair Park Bible Fellowship Church in Dallas. He tells the crowd that he “just got back from Birmingham, Alabama,” where he participated in “a press conference to support Judge Roy Moore for his candidacy for the Senate.”
Moore, who allegedly used his influence as an assistant DA to pick up 14-year-olds outside of their custody hearings, is “a fine Christian gentleman,” Broden says. Moore gets a loud and extended round of applause. Now, to the matter at hand: “What do we do with the homosexual community?”
The first night of the #Teens4Truth Conference concludes with a screening of the movie Light Wins. In one scene, a stalwart Christian soldier stands in the middle of a road at night, two headlights speeding toward her from the rear. “Like a tank in Tiananmen Square, the homosexual agenda has been running over people since Anita Bryant’s courageous stand in the 1970s,” she says. More recently, “Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty stood. The difference was, America stood with him.” So Robertson kept his show. “If we are to keep our freedoms, we must have the courage to stand.” The headlights draw closer — it turns out it’s merely two motorcycles, and they whiz past her. Lesson learned.
That’s the culture war in a nutshell. For decades, Christian conservatives used apocalyptic language to warn of the damage that would come to society, to children and to straight couplings if homosexuality were normalized. The bus was speeding toward us, and it would mow us down. And then gay marriage came, and it was barely anything at all. It faded almost instantly as a matter of contention and was replaced immediately by the new threat of the public acceptance of transgender people, as that will eventually be replaced by something else. It’s culture war as Zeno’s Paradox — the end of the West draws ever nearer, but never seems to hit. It must be exhausting.
A sign posted outside the hall reads “Women Make Lousy Dads.” Onstage, a succession of ex-gays testify about grace and their hatred of their old way of being. A man in a leather jacket and black tie introduces himself as George before telling the pious crowd that he was the wayward son of a pastor. He spent much of his young adult life “in the L.A. club scene,” before being called back to God one rough night at the Copa.
Then Paul, of the flag dance, speaks. “I was in the competitive cheerleading scene for 11 years. I studied fine arts at a fine arts high school,” he says, back in Gainesville, Florida. He tells his story with the intonations of a veteran recalling his rough year in Fallujah. “I know what it’s like. I saw it up close and personal super early. I got to see what happened to them when they came out, before and after. I’m sorry it happened to them, and, if you are watching me,” he tells the camera in the room, “I am so sorry. But I’m praying for you.”
Other speakers were trying to extend the public debate about gay rights, which they seemed to know had been lost, by tying it to the current debate about transgender rights, and by bundling both inside an overarching message about the “de-gendering” of society. It’s a wrap-around critique that touches on a lot of disparate social and cultural arguments, a line more in tune with that of the world’s new nationalist tendencies. (Recently, in a sign of the times, the gender theorist Judith Butler, little-known outside liberal arts colleges, was burned in effigy at a right-wing protest in Brazil.)
Jennifer Morse of the Ruth Institute tells her audience that the goal of the Left is the “complete elimination of the categories of male and female.” They’re waging a “war against the human body,” in which there “could be no quarter.” The way to combat it, she says, is to encourage children’s sense of themselves as strictly male or female. “If you’re going on a fishing trip, be sure to take that kid who’s a little effeminate, who thinks he’s gay.” There was a political imperative to do so. “Who benefits from transgender ideology?” she asks. “The state.” The toleration of sexual difference, she explains, is the leading edge of a “totalitarian ideology” that will end in blood and tears.
At the end of the second day, the 12 speakers get up on stage for a final question-and-answer session, leaving only 16 people in the audience. (Some had left early.) There are a few young people, but most who have stayed are middle-aged or older. Pickup acknowledges the situation. “I sometimes wonder why there’s not 1,000 people in here,” he says. He expresses his hope that the conference is the start of something, rather than the tail end of it.
The speakers pass a mic around. Churches are mistakenly separating homosexuality and transgenderism, they agree, because of the misapprehension that the latter poses a threat to children while the former does not. That could not be more wrong. One woman, a grandmother, tells the audience that if homosexuals are not forced back into the closet one day soon, “the age of consent laws will disappear” and “the North American Man Boy Love Association will come for our children and grandchildren.” She is almost in tears.
Pickup agrees. Researchers in Canada, he says, are now in the process of normalizing pedophilia, through clinical research that says they were “born that way,” and so must be respected. (The opposite is the case: Researchers are trying to find the causes of pedophilic attraction, to help both sufferers and their victims.) Morse reiterates that the stakes are even higher — that the end goal of progressivism is the obliteration of maleness and femaleness.
Another speaker, Brian McAuliffe, takes the mic. “I started to agree with you,” he says to Morse, but the stakes are much higher. “The ultimate goal is the death of Christianity,” through the annihilation of sexual morality, and with that would return the pre-Roman world of “might-makes-right,” where life would be brutal, nasty and short. A woman in the audience posits that homosexuality is instead a plot by the devil to prevent procreation and make God lonely in Heaven.
Before the audience leaves, there’s a message from an honored figure — state Representative Ron Simmons, R-Carrollton. Simmons, who authored versions of the unsuccessful bathroom bill last legislative session, cut a video message to play for the crowd, from what looks like his office in Austin. But he seems to think the conference is filled with teens — a reasonable assumption, given its name. So he waxes, very briefly, about the need the great state of Texas has for “teens standing up for truth.” Teens, he says, are “the leaders of the future.” There are at best two of them in the room. As the message ends, the graying adults applaud.
I’ve been to a few dozen events like this, and they melt my brain every time. It’s easy to sit back and focus on the surreal elements. It’s harder to empathize and to try find areas of mutual agreement, particularly in this case, because reparative therapy is capable of doing great psychological harm. It’s not possible simply to write these people off as a kooky fringe.
But the strange thing about their misdiagnosis is that it’s easier, maybe than ever before, for disparate groups to agree that something is rotten in the culture. There is something deeply disordered about a society that can field so many positive eulogies of Hugh Hefner — his superficial and empty life, his authoritarian relationship with and objectification of generations of young women — before expressing so much shocked indignation over Harvey Weinstein’s abuses a month later.
The most sympathetic speakers at #Teens4Truth point to that sickness, like McAuliffe, a “Christian life coach” who talked about his work with teens and his effort to build up a conception of non-sexual love and mutual respect in young people. Which is admirable stuff, within reason. The messages the culture sends to young people about sex and self-worth are poison.
But the urge to blame Rupaul’s Drag Race for the nation’s moral disorder is as comical as it is grotesque, particularly at a time when a person who bragged about serial sexual assault is president, and particularly given that most of the people in this room surely voted for him unquestioningly. I didn’t hear Trump’s name once.
On Friday, a respected pastor in Dallas flew from a press conference in defense of a child molestor to a gathering of Christians at a Baptist seminary committed to the moral defense of the nation against sinners, and received rapturous applause for doing so, from an audience for whom the foremost enemy are the boys on the competitive cheerleading circuit. He spoke up to save a nation led by a multiple-times-bankrupt conman and adulterer who uses people as tools, who regularly sexualizes his own daughter and has been accused of marital rape, and who won the highest office in the land by an ample margin. I used to go to these things and think — man, these people are lost. Now I think, we all are.