The National Association of Research and Therapy of Homosexuality opened its Pennsylvania convention on Friday, kicking off three days of talks on "The Scientific & Ethical Treatment of Unwanted Homosexuality."
The convention, unsurprisingly, has drawn protests from gay rights groups who say the organization is spreading a message that is false and hurtful to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.
A coalition of gay rights groups such as Truth Wins Out and Equality Pennsylvania, are staging the "Lift Your Luggage" protest at NARTH's conference to dispute the psychology of homosexual healing.
"We don't deny the right for them to gather or to have their point of view," said Ted Martin, executive director of Equality Pennsylvania. However, he and others in the GLBT community challenge the Christian philosophy of trying to treat or cure homosexuality. The coalition asserts that gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people are fine the way they are.
NARTH, an organization with faith-based views on homosexuality, acknowledges on its website that there are those who are comfortable with their homosexual identity. It values an individual's right to choose. But it also upholds the rights of individuals with unwanted homosexual attraction to receive effective psychological care and the right of professionals to offer that care.
Those experiencing unwanted homosexual desires and who are conflicted by their values deserve treatment and spiritual counsel, NARTH maintains.
While the organization encourages therapy, it maintains that it is a professional organization that only promotes practices have been proven scientifically effective. NARTH urges against claims that there is "scientific knowledge" that settles the issue of homosexuality. Instead, it encourages a broad view based upon diverse understandings of the family, of core human identity, and the meaning and purpose of human sexuality.
Still, Martin argues that such therapies are based on "junk science." The gay rights coalition asserts that groups like NARTH can't "pray away the gay."
But NARTH maintains that its stance that homosexuality is the product of biological, psychological and social factors that begin at a young age is the same stance held by the American Psychological Association. However, it places emphasis on the psychological influences over that of biology. It also maintains that is has research findings from those have previously struggled with same-sex attraction.
Martin asserts that homosexuality is something that is inborn. To suggest otherwise is harmful, he argues, and can lead to more gay suicides.
In the wake of a number of widely reported suicides by gay teens, some Christian groups have taken initiative to tread more carefully on the controversial issue and show more compassion while still holding that homosexuality is a sin.
Ex-Gay ministry Exodus International distanced itself from the Day of Truth campaign this year, saying that the day-long event opposing the GLBT community's Day of Silence carried an "adversarial" tone.
Martin welcomed the honest conversations in the faith community, but he is not convinced. Christians cannot claim to be tolerant when they are advocating against gay marriage and the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell, he contends.
"To say 'we are tolerant of you' without saying 'we accept you' is not [progress]," he said.
NARTH stresses that it is tolerant of those who embrace their homosexual identity. The organization denounces homophobia – the irrational fear of homosexuality. At the same time, it maintains that those who disagree with homosexual behavior on moral, psychological or mental grounds are not homophobic.
The Nov. 5-7 convention is taking place at the Renaissance Philadelphia Hotel. Protesters plan to sport luggage along with signs to bring attention to NARTH's former official George Rekers, who was recently caught with a male escort he says was helping lift his luggage. Rekers resigned from the board this year.
NARTH officials were unreachable on the eve of Friday. The theme of the conference is "Preserving Personal Freedom: The Scientific and Ethical treatment of Unwanted Homosexuality." An aide who asked to remain anonymous said NARTH is aware of the coalition's plans and respects their right to protest.