Toronto student activists from three universities rallied on Saturday against a conference aimed at converting gays and lesbians to heterosexuality. “Love Won Out” has toured the United States for five years, but this is the first time it has taken place in Canada.

Protesters with home-made signs stood and chanted slogans in front of Churchill Heights Baptist Church in Scarborough. “We will be bringing along a shiny new toaster to present to the first ex-gay member to leave the conference and come back to the loving arms of the queer community,” claimed Mark Riczu, a student and activist, before the protest.

‘Ex-gay’ refers to gays and lesbians who have been ‘cured’ of their homosexuality and identify as straight, often marrying members of the opposite sex and raising children. The ex-gay movement is largely a fundamentalist Christian one, although there is a significant secular stream of psychologists and psychiatrists who practice so-called ‘conversion therapy.’ This therapy claims that it can ‘reprogram’ the sexual orientation of a patient, but no reliable evidence exists to support its effectiveness.

The conference was presented by Focus on the Family, the largest right-wing religious fundamentalist group in the United States, who is planning to hold the event yearly in Canada.

“I think they’re trying to promote [the issue] because they’re afraid of the progress we’re making here,” said Paul Bowser of U of T’s LGBTOUT, who organized the rally. He was referring to the federal government’s bill to recognize gay marriages, and Canada’s generally liberal attitude towards issues of sexual orientation.

“Ex-gay therapy is a pretty face put on the same old homophobia,” Bowser said at the rally. His comments echoed the statement of Riczu that “Ex-gay ministries promise hope and compassion, but what they offer is really only a smokescreen for their vendetta against gays and lesbians.”

Is “Love Won Out” just homophobia masquerading under the guise of outreach? “Not at all,” said Laura, who attended the conference. “The point of the meeting was to send a message that homophobia is a sinful way to deal with this issue. This isn’t about converting gays. We’re trying to tell the church that they’re human beings too.”

Laura, who attended with her husband, is self-professedly ex-gay. “I used to be a homosexual, and I was saved 30 years ago.”

When asked if the church was practicing a form of discrimination, Laura was equivocal. “Well, of course it is discrimination, but [the activists] discriminate against us too when they chant that we’re making baby Jesus cry.

“Yes, the movement is anti-gay. We’re challenging the homosexual agenda, but it’s not homophobic. There’s a difference between anti-gay and anti-gays,” she explained.

There wasn’t much difference to the 40-odd students of Ryerson, York, and U of T who came to the rally. They believe the ex-gay phenomenon is designed to erode the progress that has been made protecting gay rights. “If they can convince the public that being gay is a choice, not something inborn, then they can argue that we don’t need rights,” said Bowser, “even though religious choice is protected as a right.”

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