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Gay conversion group invites teachers to meeting

Focus on the Family says the group had difficulty advertising its upcoming conference in Tampa.

By TWILA DECKER

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 12, 2000


A Christian group that seeks to change the sexual orientation of gays and lesbians is coming to the Tampa Bay area next week, hoping to attract teachers, administrators and parents to a one-day conference on preventing teenage homosexuality.

Focus on the Family mailed letters to Tampa Bay area teachers, urging them to attend "Love Won Out" on Feb. 26 at Bell Shoals Baptist Church in Brandon and "hear the real story behind homosexuality."

John Paulk, a spokesman for the Colorado Springs-based group, declined to disclose how many teachers were sent the letters, which promised to educate them so they could better serve their students.

"Those were private," he said of the letters, one of which was forwarded to the Times.

Paulk, who says he converted to heterosexuality with God's help, complains his group has had difficulty advertising the event in the Tampa Bay area media, its sixth such conference, because of pressure from local gays and lesbians.

"I think the climate of the gay community in Tampa and the liberal mind-set is that you don't do or say anything that would anger the gay community," said Paulk, adding that the group hasn't had any problem advertising in other cities.

About 400 people have signed up for the conference, half the number that attended gatherings in other cities. It costs $55 to attend.

Nadine Smith, executive director of Equality Florida, a statewide group based in Tampa that is devoted to ending discrimination, harassment and violence based on sexual orientation, says she has been urging local news agencies not to run the ads because they are bigoted and dangerous.

"This kind of conversion tactic directed at any other group would be offensive. The entire community would be outraged," she said. "I don't think any rational person would believe the school system ought to be a place where telling kids who don't believe what Focus on the Family believes, that something is wrong with them."

Charles Throckmorton of St. Petersburg, co-chair of Equality Florida, was one of almost 30 people who gathered on the steps of the Pinellas County Courthouse on Friday to protest Florida laws prohibiting same-sex marriages.

He says the Focus on the Family campaign is dangerous because it targets vulnerable gay teens. "It causes them a lot of internal anxiety and sometimes even sets them up for suicide."

Equality Florida is organizing a rally at noon on Feb. 26 at the University of Tampa to counter the message of the conference. Smith considers complaints by Focus on the Family about censorship to be ludicrous, considering the ministry has its own national radio program.

"As far as the far-right organizations go, this is one of the wealthiest. You can't listen to the lower end of the radio dial without hearing them," she said.

Paulk says five radio stations were pressured to drop advertisements for the conference. Carmen Connors of the Carmen & Chris morning show on WSSR-FM 95.7, apologized for airing one of the 10-second spots. Eller Media Co. of Clearwater backed out on a verbal agreement to post the ads on bus shelters in Pinellas County, Paulk says, even though it had already accepted a $5,000 down payment. Paulk says his organization still has not received a refund.

Shawn Ulrich, director of public affairs for Eller, said she is not aware of receiving any money from Focus on the Family. She said her company offered the group an opportunity to change the wording, but it refused.

The planned ads, which would have been placed in space the company rents from the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, urged people to attend the conference and claimed that homosexuality in young people is preventable.

The Tampa Tribune and the Orlando Sentinel, meanwhile, have run ads promoting the conference. The ads say, "Homosexuality is Preventable," and, "Tired of Being Gay?"

Reid Ashe, publisher of the Tampa Tribune, says his newspaper, which has received letters from gays and lesbians complaining about the ads, judges each potential ad individually.

"We try to be as liberal as possible," he says, adding that the newspaper won't accept anything misleading, illegal or offensive. "I thought this was within the bounds."

The St. Petersburg Times, which also decides on a case-by-case basis whether to run ads, was not approached by Focus on the Family.

Focus on the Family is among a handful of Christian ministries that teach that being gay is a choice and against God's wishes. Last year, the group and several others, including the Christian Coalition, funded a national ad campaign calling on gay men and women to "be healed of homosexuality."

The full-page ads ran in several of the nation's leading newspapers, including the New York Times, USA Today, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal. The ads featured married couples who say they converted to heterosexuality. After that campaign, Focus on the Family launched a series of conferences around the country led by Paulk. So far, the conferences, which have attracted from 700 to 900 people each time, have been held in Columbus, Ohio; Seattle; Memphis, Tenn.; Wheaton, Ill.; and Sacramento, Calif.

-- Staff writer Alicia Caldwell contributed to this report.

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