Battleground Virginia: "Recovering" Homosexuals
Set Free ministers say straight behaviors can be learned

Richmonder Marla Anderson considers herself something of an expert when it comes to the topic of gay marriage. After all, she was “married” in a lesbian holy-union ceremony in 1979, a union that lasted 18 years until her “divorce” in 1997.

Perhaps surprisingly, though, Anderson, 47, doesn’t support legalizing gay marriage anymore. She is one of a small minority of “recovering” homosexuals who have turned to Set Free, a local Christian ministry aligned with Exodus International, a controversial global ministry that preaches that homosexuals can become heterosexual through counseling, “reparative” group therapy and God.

Anderson, a state employee, and Ty Ivory, a 47-year-old postal worker who led a secret “down-low” life of gay affairs for decades while he was also married to his wife, both spoke to Richmond magazine about their lives, Set Free and why they believe homosexuality is a choice that can be overcome. It’s a view at odds with most schools of thought in the mental-health mainstream.

Set Free was founded 15 years ago and caters to people with “relationship problems,” including addictions to pornography and sex. “We’re not an organization there to proselytize or there to condemn people, because Jesus didn’t operate that way,” says Set Free director Jeanie Smith. “We’re not there to tell the gay community how wrong they are. We’re simply there to support those who choose what we have to offer. … We’re there for people who say, ‘I am not comfortable with [leading a gay lifestyle]. I need support and help.’ ”

Smith says she believes one’s sexuality is shaped through many developmental and environmental factors and that no one is “born” gay or straight. Most of Set Free’s clients are able to go on to heterosexual relationships, Smith says, though some lapse or decide they would rather be gay. “Recovery is a messy process. It’s not neat; it’s not in a box; it’s not something where you can say there are three steps,” says Smith. “It’s a wonderful, excruciating, messy, beautiful, variegated journey. It’s different for everybody.”

Victoria Cobb, director of legislative affairs for the local nonprofit Family Foundation, says, “Science has not found a genetic link to homosexuality. Even with the completed genome project, no evidence was found to suggest it is connected with one’s DNA. I think those that have stepped away from their lifestyle as a gay individual and are now married with children would tell you that they made a choice.”

However, the American Psychiatric Association, which has not considered homosexuality a mental disorder since 1973, rejects the notion of “reparative therapy” definitively in a statement on its Web site, saying in part, “There is no evidence that any treatment can change a homosexual person’s deep-seated sexual feelings for others of the same sex.”

And for Anderson, her struggles with same-sex attraction go back as long as she can recall. Her first crush was on an actress in a Gidget movie that Anderson saw when she was in kindergarten. Then it was her third-grade teacher. Then a classmate. Eventually, she took on a second personality, “Tony,” the male she believed herself to be inside. “I prayed to God to make me a little boy. There was a time when I went to church and prayed that I would wake up and be a little boy so I could be normal just like everybody else.”

Anderson now believes that she was heterosexual but developed phobias about sex with males, some induced by her stern mother and weak, female-dominated father who really wanted a boy and encouraged her to be a tomboy, a phenomenon Set Free calls “mother wounding” and “father wounding.” For example, Anderson recalls at age 5 how she was caught lying on her bed and kissing a little boy and how her mother went hysterical. Other incidents reinforced it, she says, including when an 18-year-old explained to her at age 6 or 7 what the F-word meant in graphic detail, or when a 14-year-old boy playing hide and seek with her when she was in third grade pinned her down and engaged in some inappropriate behavior with her, though he didn’t remove her clothes.

As a young adult, Anderson entered the military and met other lesbians. “When I hit 20, I thought obviously I must have been born this way,” she says, “because I’m not changing, the older I get, the stronger the attraction [to other women] gets.”

At 21, she met another lesbian woman and fell in love. A year from the day they met, they were wed in a holy-union ceremony performed by the Metropolitan Community Church at the Quaker Meeting House on Kensington Avenue. “It’s not legal [like a heterosexual marriage], but I come from a Christian home and I struggled with some issues [and] it was my way of saying I want to commit to this person. ... There was a certificate, there were witnesses; it was just like a marriage. We had photographers and performers for our reception. … When we made our vows we really believed we’d be together forever.”

Even though both of their families knew about the relationship and supported it, living as a gay married couple was never easy, Anderson says. “We always said we would never wish this life on anyone, especially back 20 years ago. [Then] you just couldn’t be open. Now everybody’s out in the open, holding hands and everything, but [then] you had to stay somewhat in the closet.” By this point, Anderson had deeply embraced being a lesbian. Although she was never unfaithful to her partner, she says, she recalls with humor her “crushes of the month” and ogling women. “I was as bad as some guys,” she says, laughing.

But over the years Anderson became deeply unhappy in the union, at one point praying to God to do whatever it took to help her get out of the relationship, even if that meant no longer being lesbian. “Don’t ever tell anything to God that you don’t mean,” she says, “because he will hold you to it.”

Though she was raised Christian, Anderson became disillusioned with churches that didn’t know how to deal with her conflicts over sexual identity, and she found the local gay church to be too political, so she drifted away. At the end of her relationship, she found herself wanting a relationship with Jesus again.

She and her partner split amicably, she says, dividing up property without a lawyer, though it was emotionally painful, she says. “We were so enmeshed. One couldn’t do anything without the other. It was like taking Siamese twins who had been together for 18 years and cutting them apart.” Remarkably, she counts as her two best friends her ex-partner and her ex’s new lesbian lover. “We’re all like sisters, we’re like family,” Anderson says.

These days the majority of her lesbian friends have mostly taken the tack that they don’t agree with Anderson trying to change into a straight woman, but they accept that it seems to make her happy. After several years of therapy, though, Anderson has yet to date or be romantic with a man and continues to battle tempting thoughts of women, but usually only when she is very stressed, which makes her think she is returning to behavior that is safe, behavior she knows. “I’m a work in progress,” says Anderson, who hopes to find a kind, patient man to help her love.

One of the reasons Anderson initially thought she was born gay, she says, is that, unlike other gays she knew, she had never been sexually or physically abused. But for Anderson’s Set Free classmate Ty Ivory, abuse is the reason he believes he became gay.

A close male relative sexually abused Ivory from the ages of 3 to 5. At 13, he became sexually involved with a 30-year-old man who he now believes was a pedophile. Once obese, he says he suffered from low self-esteem and was also physically and mentally abused.

He is a part of a longtime sector of male African-American culture chronicled in the recent book On the Down Low, by J. L. King, which tells about “down-low” men who appear straight to the world at large but engage in strictly sexual secret liaisons with other men. Ivory went into the military, still having sex with men, but married his present-day wife at age 20. For the next two decades he carried on a secret life of gay affairs.

Ivory says what he really wanted were close relationships with other men, to get affirmation, to get the male companionship he wanted as a child, “but most of the fellas I would run into were, as you call it, ‘down low.’ It was very interesting. It wasn’t a name for it, married men, single men, men with girlfriends, very straight-appearing men with straight wives. That can happen at a club, a lot of times it could happen in the mall, bathrooms, church. It has its own secret language, eye contact, hand gestures, things of that nature, and it’s sort of like a built-in homing device.” Most of the time, he just wanted companionship or to be able to talk, he says.

It all came to an end for Ivory when his wife found him in bed with another man. Ivory wanted to be caught, he says. He wanted to end his secret life of gay sexual addiction because he was tired of trying to reconcile the two halves of his life. He and his wife have been in therapy for more than six years and recently co-founded a ministry preaching to people with backgrounds of abuse.

“The gay lifestyle is anything but gay,” says Ivory, who also says he hasn’t engaged in gay sex for more than five years. When he was doing it, he knew about the dangers of unprotected gay sex but he did it anyway, because he was depressed and because “that was a good way to get killed without doing it myself.” He’s been tested for HIV but won’t reveal the result. His wife tested negative, he says.

He says homosexuality comes from brokenness inside, from not knowing how to have positive, nonsexual friendships with the opposite sex.

Yet neither Ivory nor Anderson are unsympathetic when it comes to others who are still leading gay lifestyles, a fact that comes out in their opinions about gay marriage.

Ivory says, “I don’t know what Set Free’s take on this is. I’m against [gay marriage], but I sort of feel like their rights need to be protected as far as life insurance and the will and all of that. That might sound paradoxical. Whether you interpret it as sin or not, they still are a family in a sense, so I guess with me that would be the controversy.”

As for Anderson, she says, “It breaks my heart … because I can see both sides of the fence. I know why they want to do it, because I did it. You want to be just like everybody else. You just want to be normal. … And you want that security and you want that respect but now that I know the circumstances … it’s not right.

“I don’t want to get into that whole Christian thing, but I really believe in God the creator, and it’s just if you look at a man and a woman ... we’re like puzzle pieces. We fit together. … In God’s plan, everything fits together in a natural way. Homosexuality is a very unnatural act.”

subscribe  |  about us  |  contact us  |  advertise  |  customer care  |  promotions & events  |  contests  |  e-newsletters
Copyright © 2014 Richmond magazine All rights reserved. Contact Us.