(WB) About 200 people gathered at the outdoor Sylvan Theater on the grounds of the Washington Monument on June 5, for a rally and march to promote the debunked belief that people can change their sexual orientation from gay to straight through faith in Jesus Christ.

The event, which organizers called Freedom March, was led by an organization called CHANGED, which says on its website that it provides support for men and women who are sexually attracted to the same sex or who are “uncertain of their gender” who seek a transformation away from those characteristics.

More than a dozen people who self-identified as having changed their sexual orientation or gender identity spoke on the Sylvan Theater stage with a four-member band playing background music. A male vocalist sang religious hymns, creating an atmosphere of an Evangelical Christian church service. 
“It is not about going from gay to straight,” said a man who identified himself as a minister named Joshua. “It is about going from lost to saved.”

Among the speakers were Ken Williams and Elizabeth Woning, who were identified as co-founders of CHANGED or the “Changed movement.”

“I’m a father of four and I’m a former LGBTQ identified person,” Williams told the gathering.

Like many of the speakers, Williams offered a prayer in which he said Jesus Christ saved him and many others by guiding them away from “temptations” leading them to same-sex attractions they do not want.

“I pray Father that you would wake up the people that are supposed to be crossing this path this afternoon,” he said. “I pray that those that are trapped, those that are sad, those that are depressed, those that don’t know you personally, that you would have them get up from whatever they’re doing and come through here this afternoon.”

Williams added, “Would you offer a brand-new life to every person who’s confused about their identity, who’s confused about their sexuality, who feels that there are labels placed upon them that they can’t remove but don’t want?”

Organizers announced plans upon the conclusion of the speakers to walk from the Sylvan Theater around the Washington Monument grounds to the Lincoln Memorial reflecting pool and back to the theater, where the event would end.

Among those attending the event as observers were Wayne Besen, executive director of the LGBT advocacy group Truth Wins Out, which since 2006 has waged public awareness campaigns opposing the “ex-gay” movement; and Jared Dixon, an official with Conversion Therapy Survivors, a group that provides support for people who have experienced what the group says were harmful effects of conversion therapy.

Dixon, who describes himself as a gay man in a fulfilling relationship with another gay man for the past nine years, said he entered conversion therapy back in 2011 as a 21-year-old college student at the urging of his parents, who raised him in a religious setting. He said the conversion therapy caused him to suffer depression that led to a suicide attempt.

He said he joined and became a member of the leadership team of Conversion Therapy Survivors, known as CT Survivors, after several years of therapy with LGBT supportive therapists who helped him fully accept himself “for who I am.”

Besen said he believes his group has been successful in debunking what he and other LGBT advocacy organizations have long pointed out — that attempts to change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity through so-called conversion therapy or “reparative” therapy are strongly opposed as being harmful by all of the nation’s major medical and mental health professional associations, including the American Psychiatric Association and the American Medical Association.

Besen said widespread reports of how conversion therapy, including religious oriented “counseling” programs seeking to change people’s same-sex attractions have led to serious mental health problems, including suicide, led to the disbanding of several prominent “ex-gay” organizations, including Exodus International about five years ago.

But Besen said CHANGED, the group that organized the June 5 event on the Washington Monument grounds, reflects what he believes is an effort to revive the “ex-gay” movement through the use of sophisticated social media campaigns that he says will put many vulnerable people, especially young LGBT people, at risk.

“What we’re witnessing here is disturbing to me,” Besen said. “What we’re looking at is a slick rebranding and rebooting of the same toxic message,” he told the Washington Blade. “And they’re getting better at it.”

Besen noted that ex-gay organizers appear to have abandoned the “fire and brimstone” approach of denouncing homosexuality and LGBT people who don’t want to change and instead are expressing an outward “love” and “support” for LGBT people with the aim of leading them to become “free” from same-sex attractions if they choose to do so.

Many of the speakers at the June 5 Freedom March wore white T-shirts with a rainbow-colored design above the slogan, “Rainbow Revival.”

“So, we’re seeing a new and improved ex-gay industry right now,” Besen said. “And that’s why we’re upping our game too, in fighting them with our new campaigns.”

Besen was referring to Truth Win’s Out’s newly launched social media campaign to challenge what it calls a resurgent “ex-gay” industry.

“You can’t ‘pray away the gay’ and efforts to do so inevitably lead to denial, depression and despair,” Besen says in a statement released by his group. “Our videos will debunk the lies peddled by the Freedom March and other ‘ex-gay’ programs in an effort to educate and save lives,” he said.


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