It has been a while since presidential aspirant Michele Bachmann has described homosexuality as "personal bondage" or remarked that the word "gay" is "part of Satan." Now that she is running for the Republican nomination, she has been taking a slightly more neutral line when questioned about homosexuality. Asked last month whether she thinks that one's sexuality is a choice, she had this to say: "I am running for the presidency of the United States. I am not running to be anyone's judge." Meanwhile, the work of her therapist husband, Marcus, who is accused of offering controversial "reparative" therapy to gay patients at the Bachmanns' Christian clinic, has emerged as a possible political liability. The Bachmann campaign is playing down accusations by two gay men against the Lake Elmo, Minn., counseling center, which is helmed by Marcus and co-owned by Michele, saying counselors there merely follow the wishes of patients.
If the Bachmanns still believe that being gay is a sinful lifestyle from which it's possible to be delivered, they aren't about to explain their thinking right now. In the past, however, they have pointed to the testimony of one particular friend as proof of their belief that it is possible to leave the gay "lifestyle." This friend is devoting her life to the proposition that homosexuality is not only destructive but, in some sense, contagious, and her beliefs may provide some useful context for the Bachmanns' past comments. Her name is Janet Boynes, and she calls herself an ex-lesbian.
"You can change from gay to straight—I'm a living example of that," Boynes, 53, told me. Having renounced lesbianism 13 years ago, she now runs a Maple Grove, Minn. organization called Janet Boynes Ministries that proclaims to minister to those who don't want to be gay anymore. Over the course of our conversation, Boynes likened homosexuality to drug addiction and pointed to a variety of causes for it, from domineering mothers to hanging around too much with gay people. She voiced her fear that half the nation's families might one day be helmed by same-sex couples.
Although Boynes would not talk to me about the Bachmanns, she has known them for years. On her website, she boasts an old endorsement from the then-state senator ("Janet's life is a powerful testimony of the changes that Christ can bring"). In 2005, Marcus Bachmann gave a talk called "The Truth to the Homosexual Lifestyle" at the Minnesota Pastors' Summit, and, according to attendee Curt Prins, Boynes was part of the presentation. Prins, a gay tech marketer who attended the conference to gather intelligence on "the other side," recalls Boynes, a long-haired woman with striking features, putting up a "before" photo of herself as a lesbian, with short hair and mannish clothes. The contrast prompted gasps and laughter from the audience. More recently, in her 2008 memoir, Called Out: A Former Lesbian's Discovery of Freedom, Boynes thanked "Marcus and Michele," saying "you never left my side when things got tough." For his part, Marcus Bachmann has since been selling the book in the lobby of his clinic alongside a typed placard saying "Janet is a friend," according to this photograph taken by an undercover gay activist.
"I was not born homosexual," Boynes writes in her memoir. "I made a decision." In her telling, a slew of environmental factors tempted her to make that decision, the way a weakened immune system might make the body prone to infection. Boynes writes that she was born into poverty in Norristown, Pa., one of seven half-siblings by multiple fathers. Her mother was abusive and unloving. Her father was absent. A stepfather molested her. She was tough and tomboyish and liked sports, and people teased her that she might be gay. "Then you start thinking, 'Well, maybe I am gay,' " Boynes told me. She grew up attracted to both men and women, she writes, and in her 20s left her fiancé for a woman, beginning 14 years of lesbianism.
Boynes's life as a gay woman was chaotic; she cheated on her girlfriends and was cheated on. For awhile, she was addicted to—and sold—cocaine. But from time to time, she writes, her churchgoing childhood would kick in, and she would think of God and recognize that she was on a sinful path. At last, she writes, in 1998, a chance encounter with a Christian woman in a parking lot prompted her to renounce her lesbian ways.
As Boynes describes it, her path away from homosexuality sounds something like a 12-step program, with prayer as its centerpiece. She writes about how she fought temptation by removing herself from situations that tempted her. She asked her girlfriend and her girlfriend's daughter to move out of her house. She joined a Christian women's group to which she vowed to report her homosexual urges. And she moved in for more than a year with a Christian family that not only modeled heterosexual family life for her but also kept track of her phone calls to make sure she wasn't talking to her ex-girlfriend. Today, she says she wants to marry a man and is just waiting for the right one to come along.
Boynes believes that her life experiences leave her specially equipped to minister to people who want help combating their homosexuality. "Yes, there is freedom from temptation," Boynes promises in her book. Like Marcus Bachmann, she says she only works with people who come to her interested in change. She also advises churches and family members to approach gay people with love and patience. "If you open each conversation with, 'So, are you still gay?' you will find your relationship quickly unraveling," she writes.
But Boynes does not make abandoning homosexuality out to be easy. In Pray Away the Gay?, a recent documentary on the Oprah Winfrey Network, Boynes appeared with one of her mentees, a young man named Christian who described the experience of resisting his sexual urges as "bleeding out of my eyeballs." She says she, too, can never let down her guard. "The devil" is out there, she says, and he "will always entice me." If a woman walks past her at the gym, Boynes told me, she keeps her eyes to herself.
And her emphasis on loving the sinner is often undercut by a fire-and-brimstone judgmentalism. In her book, Boynes tells the harrowing story of her gay brother's death from AIDS over a decade ago–noting that he bled out of every orifice. When I asked her what she made of his death, she said, "Sometimes sin has consequences." As she sees it, sin is trying to take over the culture: The fight for same-sex marriage is just a prelude to normalizing pedophilia and bestiality, she writes. Gay activists are "recruiting" children in schools.
The belief that homosexuality is highly contagious is at the heart of the perspective propounded by Boynes and shared by the Bachmanns and many other conservative Christians, but it is not new. As Nancy Knauer, a Temple University law professor, has written, the notion of homosexuality as a contagion has been a staple of American culture for almost 100 years, if not longer. Among the tenets of the contagion model Knauer describes are the ideas that homosexuality is a choice, that homosexuals target children, and that "everyone in society is potentially at risk because homosexuality is very seductive and, apparently, has universal appeal."
That homosexuality has such irresistible appeal may come as a surprise to many straight people. But OK. If it is so irresistible, if many of us are just one experiment away from being gay, it makes perfect sense for Marcus Bachmann to say, as he once did, that because parents and schools are encouraging kids to act on "sinful" feelings, "the percentage of homosexuals in this country … is starting to increase." It makes sense for Michele Bachmann to say, as she once did, that a school teaching tolerance of gay people might prompt a boy to think, "Hmm, I don't like girls, I like boys, maybe I'm gay"—and then somehow become gay. And it makes sense for Boynes to suggest, as she did to me, that for many people, "if I'm out there in the homosexual community, hanging out with them on a daily basis, that's what I will become."
What doesn't make sense is why, if homosexuality is so darn tempting, more of America isn't already gay.