FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Over the last decade, gay-rights activists have pushed programs to support gay and lesbian students in public schools. Their success is striking:
More than 3,000 Gay-Straight Alliance clubs meet across the country. Nearly half a million students take a vow of silence one day each spring in an annual event to support gay rights. California may soon require textbooks to feature the contributions of gays and lesbians throughout history.
Critics, mostly on the religious right, view all this as promoting the "homosexual lifestyle." Unable to stop it, they have turned to a new strategy: demanding equal time for their view in public schools and on college campuses.
Conservative Christians and Jews have teamed up with men and women who call themselves "ex-gay" to lobby -- and even sue -- for the right to tell teenagers that they can "heal" themselves of unwanted same-sex attractions.
They argue that schools have an obligation to balance gay-pride themes with the message that gay and lesbian students can go straight through "reparative therapy." In this view, homosexuality is not a fixed or inborn trait but a symptom of emotional distress -- a disorder that can be cured.
Alan Chambers, a leading ex-gay activist, recalls how scared and depressed he felt when a high-school counselor advised him to deal with his attraction to other boys by accepting his homosexuality. He had no choice, she told him: He was gay. "It was very damaging," Chambers said. "I didn't want that. I hadn't chosen it."
His senior year, Chambers found his way to Exodus International, a network of groups that support ex-gays. He is now married to a woman, a father of two -- and the president of Exodus.
Mental-health professionals overwhelmingly warn against therapy to change sexual orientation, calling it ineffective and potentially harmful to patients' self-esteem. But ex-gays say they have managed to eliminate or reduce their pull to the same sex, though it often takes years of struggle.
"That's an important perspective," Chambers said. "If you're going to allow one side into the schools, you need to allow the other side, too. People want alternatives."
That rhetoric echoes the creationist campaigns of the 1980s and '90s: Just as conservative Christians demanded equal time for Genesis whenever Darwin got a mention, ex-gays and their allies are insisting on equal time for their views whenever homosexuality is discussed. Several ex-gay websites offer equal-time policies that parents can urge their local school boards to adopt.
Teachers, too, are beginning to raise the subject with their principals and in the classroom. "It's been our hottest issue over the last two years. Without a doubt," said Finn Laursen, executive director of the Christian Educators Assn. International, which represents 7,000 teachers, mostly from public schools.
Though the equal-time argument didn't work for creationists, ex-gays have begun to notch some successes.
A high school in New Hampshire invited ex-gay activist Aaron Shorey to present his story on Civil Rights Day last year. He told several standing-room-only classes that he refused to let his attraction to men define him as gay. "I have experienced change," he told them. "Change is possible." He's working with several other New England schools to get permission for similar presentations.
The ex-gay group Inqueery, based in Des Moines, has also sent speakers to public high schools, including one in Chicago this spring.
In Boulder, Colo., educators are considering including an ex-gay pamphlet in a resource guide to help teachers handle questions about sexuality. The pamphlet states that sexual identity is fluid and that conversion therapy can help some gays and lesbians overcome depression. The district -- in one of the most liberal cities in the country -- does not endorse that philosophy, but "we're a big believer in providing all viewpoints," spokeswoman Maela Moore said. "It would be negligent to omit."
The ex-gay movement's biggest victory came last year, when a federal judge sided with Parents and Friends of ExGays and Gays, or PFOX, in a lawsuit against a Maryland school district.
PFOX, a national advocacy group based in Alexandria, Va., had sued to block the district's new sex-education curriculum, arguing that its treatment of homosexuality was one-sided. The judge agreed that students should hear other perspectives, and PFOX took a seat on the committee charged with drafting new lesson plans.
Similar lawsuits may be filed soon. New Jersey-based JONAH -- Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality -- is seeking parents and students willing to sue to get the ex-gay view into schools. So is Liberty Counsel, a Christian law firm in Orlando, Fla. The firm joined PFOX last month in urging teens to form Gay to Straight Clubs and hang "Choose to Change" posters in their schools. If an administrator tries to censor that message, Liberty Counsel promises to provide legal backup.