Inside an ex-gay conference in Robbinsdale

A local church protested the Restored Hope ex-gay conference in Robbinsdale, which was led by self-proclaimed ex-lesbian Anne Paulk.

A local church protested the Restored Hope ex-gay conference in Robbinsdale, which was led by self-proclaimed ex-lesbian Anne Paulk. Hannah Jones

Outside the Redeemer Evangelical Lutheran Church in Robbinsdale, a small crowd of protesters carrying rainbow flags gathered on the street corner. It was Saturday afternoon—Pride weekend. The demonstrators had come from the Robbinsdale United Church of Christ to express their displeasure with what was happening inside Redeemer at that very moment.

What that could actually be, they had no idea. All they knew was that an ex-gay Christian Group, Restored Hope Network, had taken over the church for the afternoon. A few passing cars honked in agreement while police officers watched from the church parking lot.

Restored Hope was holding its HOPE 2019 conference. A sizeable crowd filled the pews. These, according to event organizers, were queer and trans people who no longer wanted to be queer or trans. They wanted to be “healed.”

June Hunt, founder of Christian nonprofit Hope for the Heart, was standing in front of the sanctuary alongside a PowerPoint slide that was labeled, “What is incest?” It included a list of terms like “fondling,” “intimate kissing,” and “satanic ritual abuse.”

Yes, she assured—satanic ritual abuse is a real thing.

Hunt explained she had chosen to talk about childhood sexual abuse because she believes it’s got a lot to do with the gay community. Every queer person she’s ever “counseled” has had abuse in their background, she said.

“The LGBTQ community does not want you to do statistics on them” because they want to “normalize” their lifestyles, she says. 

Despite the size of the group, the room was quiet. A few nodded and said “mm-hmm” when Hunt made a point. A few scrawled notes. One snored softly in the corner. More than a few were crying. After Hunt was done speaking, everyone was invited to come to the front of the church and have volunteers pray over them.

Afterward, there were breakout workshops on topics like “Why God Cares about Sexuality” and “Future Focus,” which addresses the “apparent darkness in our culture and the shift of values.” There was a busy afternoon ahead, and much “healing” to be done.

Restored Hope’s website describes the group as a “coalition of ministries serving those who desire to overcome sinful relational and sexual issues in their lives,” as well as “those impacted by homosexuality.” God, the site says, has the ability to “redeem” people “according to His best intentions” for what gender we should be and who we should love… “including those beset by homosexuality and identity.”

Not everyone will recognize Restored Hope by name, but you may recognize the organization from whence it came: Exodus International, which for 37 years attempted to give people “freedom from homosexuality through the power of Jesus Christ.”

In 2000, after years of being one of the largest and most powerful ex-gay organizations of the world, one of Exodus’ most prominent members—self-described “ex-gay” John Paulk—was spotted exiting a gay bar in Washington, D.C. He originally claimed he’d only stepped inside to use the bathroom, but later confessed he missed his "community.” By 2003, he'd left the organization, feeling like “a liar and a hypocrite.”

Exodus closed a decade later, shortly after the American Psychiatric Association declassified homosexuality as a disease and retracted its claim that sexual orientation was something that could be fixed or changed by the “highly motivated.” It would go on to condemn the practice of attempting to change someone’s sexual orientation in 2009.

Exodus’ more fundamentalist members went on to form the Restored Hope Network and “grieve” the death of their formerly "venerable” group as “the unnecessary death of a dear friend.” Anne Paulk, an ex-lesbian and John Paulk’s ex-wife, is Restored Hope’s executive director.

“We’ve been misrepresented,” Paulk says. They’re not a “hate group”—she doesn’t “hate” people she “disagrees with”—and “conversion therapy” is a “made-up term.”

“It’s an ideological term,” she says. “It’s a straw-man argument… It’s a phrase that’s not accurate—never was accurate—and it’s used to malign people like me, who use…” she pauses. “…Traditional spiritual support.”

That, she says, mostly means prayer and counseling in small groups. Nobody has to do it if they want to keep being gay or trans. They don’t “grab people off the street.” And everyone at the conference was there of their own volition, she says. 

Conversion therapy, according to the American Psychiatric Association, is any psychiatric treatment “based on the assumption that homosexuality per se is a mental disorder,” and that a patient “should change his or her homosexual orientation.” It’s banned in 14 states as well as the District of Columbia. The association calls it a “harmful, discriminatory practice” that represents “significant risk” to patients.

Minnesota came close to having its own conversion therapy ban for youth this year, but it stumbled in the Republican-controlled Senate. Representatives from Restored Hope also appeared at a “victory lap” event in St. Paul for the bill’s failure on Sunday.

But not everyone who joins an ex-gay group looks back on what they experienced as “healing.” Alan Chambers, the former leader of Exodus, publicly apologized to the gay and trans community for the “pain and hurt” caused by his organization in 2013. He later said that “gay and lesbian people who are in committed relationships… can reflect the image of God.”

“Heterosexuals don’t have a corner on the market of healthy, holy relationships.” 

Paulk is less clear about what she thinks about the holiness or health of gay couples. She sees leaving homosexuality as choosing “faith and values” over “feelings,” but she tends to waffle when asked if she believes it’s wrong to be gay, or if, in an ideal world, nobody would be gay or trans. But this much is straightforward:

“The Bible says [homosexuality] is a sin.”

By 4 p.m., the protesters outside were packing up their signs and flags. They’d be back that evening, they promised.

Elsewhere in the metro, rainbow flags were flying and crowds were assembling for a raucous celebration of all things queer. The community affirmed once again that it’s proud, it’s beautiful, and it doesn’t need to change.

There is nothing inherently flawed about love.