A ground-breaking new study on homosexuality threatens to change the terms of the debate. It's conclusion? It's possible to change your orientation.
"Homosexuality is not about sex. It's about relational brokenness," Rich Goddard said.
Goddard grew up going to church -- but abuse at home and struggles with his sexuality led him to seek out the gay lifestyle. It became a 12-year journey.
"My 'M-O' was, I would go to a bar, me and my buddies, and I would have a beer and a shot of Yukon Jack and then I would be gone for the rest of the night and I would either find someone to go home with, or when I left there, I would go places to cruise to find men," Goddard said.
Rejecting the Gay Lifestyle
But today, Goddard says he's following Jesus and has rejected the gay lifestyle. A purity ring symbolizes his new life.
"When I was in the life I was probably 99 percent homosexual attraction. Today where I'm at I'm probably 99 percent attracted to women," Goddard said.
Until now, such stories have been all the ammunition the church has had in a culture that says there's no choice: You're either born gay -- or you're not.
But new research shows change is possible.
Psychologists Stan Jones and Mark Yarhouse followed 98 people as they entered Exodus ministries. The Christian group is dedicated to helping those who struggle with homosexuality.
The Pain of Isolation
"They're conservative, religious people often -- in our sample that was certainly true," said Yarhouse, co-author of Ex-Gays. "They don't feel understood by the gay community. They don't feel understood by the Christian community and so they're doubly isolated."
In the midst of such pain, Jones and Yarhouse found 38 percent were able to change their orientation. Some reduced their same-sex attraction substantially. Others were also able to shift to opposite sex attraction.
"The major mental health organizations have made very strong claims that sexual orientation cannot change and that attempts to do so would be harmful," Yarhouse said.
These arguments by groups like the American Psychological Association or APA have been very effective. Today, research shows the majority of Americans agree. Gays and lesbians cannot change their orientation -- even if they want to.
We wanted to talk with the APA about these latest findings but they refused, citing an on-going investigation of its own.
And don't expect the mainstream media to provide much coverage about the research either.
Counseling, Peer Support, Pastoral Care
Alan Chambers heads Exodus International and says he's not surprised about the lack of attention.
"People don't want to promote the truth, especially the mainstream media. They don't want to add that component to the debate," Chambers said.
Now more than 30 years old, Exodus has become a coalition of more than 100 ministries to gays. Counseling, peer support and pastoral care are all part of the mix. Exodus doesn't claim any one surefire method to help those who want out -- but Chambers say the church is key.
"What I see as a common denominator in the people who live out a life of success for decades long-term is that they have community, people who they can be honest with and I mean the body of Christ," Chambers said.
For Goddard, it was unconditional love from church friends who supported him through the up and down years of his recovery.
"They never said, 'you can't come back. Ok, you've sinned too much. You can't come back,'" Goddard said.
As many churches help those coming out of homosexuality, liberal churches that promote tolerance often stand in the way. Chambers says they remain the greatest threat to developing a biblical view of sexuality.
Maggie Bain is a former lesbian who thought she could have it all. She started living with her partner at 17. A Christian, she wanted to believe the pro-gay theology promoted by her new friends.
Pro-Gay Theology: Love is Never Wrong
"They're like -- 'Love is never wrong. God made us, we can love who we want to love,'" Bain said.
Today, she works at an evangelical church and credits Christian friends who helped her get out.
"When I left the relationship with her and decided not to be gay anymore, not be in the lifestyle anymore, I was surrounded by people that cared about me, loved me," Bain said.
Maggie's story also contradicts the major mental health groups, that say it's harmful to even try and change your orientation. But Jones and Yarhouse's research says no. Their study shows none of the 98 subjects were harmed psychologically.
Still, Yarhouse says the church must be careful not to oversimplify the process, which usually takes years -- and does not always lead to complete healing.
Healing a Difficult Path
"This is a very difficult path to take so we're not suggesting it's easy," Yarhouse said.
And what about the 56 percent in the study that reported minor or no significant change? Chambers says he's not giving up on them -- and neither should the church.
"The research found that not everyone did change. Is everyone able to change? I think that's still up for debate," Chambers said.
"It's probably one of the most difficult things I've done in my life but I wouldn't go back at all," Goddard said. "At the end of the day, my best day in that lifestyle doesn't compare to my worst day serving Jesus."
*Original broadcast February 19, 2008.