One Family's new focus

Mary Lou Wallner lost her daughter. She doesn't want Dr. James Dobson to take your child, too.

In the eight years since her daughter Anna's suicide, Mary Lou Wallner has traveled across the country to stand before audiences in churches and living rooms and recount the most painful years of her life. But the people Wallner would most like to address will not have her. "We would like to be able to tell our story in a more conservative, evangelical setting, but we've never been invited to a church like that," she says.

"I was raised in a strong, conservative, Christian home and church, and so was Anna," Wallner continues. "She came out to us when she was 21, and having been taught the way I'd been taught, it was very, very difficult. I never doubted that [Anna] was a Christ follower, but I had been firmly taught by [Dr.] James Dobson and others that passages in the Bible say homosexuality is an abomination. And I thought it was a choice and that she had chosen to be gay."

Wallner and her husband, Bob, will speak at "Love Welcomes All"(Saturday, July 9, at Newport Presbyterian Church;, a conference organized by local chapters of PFLAG to counter Dobson's upcoming Focus on the Family "Love Won Out" conference at the Northshore Baptist Church in Bothell during Seattle's Pride weekend. Over the past seven years, former child psychologist Dobson—who is not a minister but helms a multimedia evangelical empire in Colorado Springs, Colo.—and his traveling ex-gay road show have been spreading the word that, contrary to all scientific evidence, homosexuality is the result of poor parenting.

Melissa Fryrear is Focus on the Family's gender issues analyst and a featured speaker at "Love Won Out." A 39-year-old woman who decided to "try to come out of homosexuality" after a decade of living as a lesbian, Fryrear explains, "We're educating Christians with regard to homosexuality—that it's not genetic, that it is something that can be overcome. And we're helping families that hold to a Christian view to respond in a loving, compassionate way."

Photos of Anna taken just weeks before she took her own life show a smiling, attractive woman with an open, friendly face and curly hair.

"I think Anna had a hard time reconciling her spirituality and her sexuality—I think that was at least one underlying cause of a mental illness she had been diagnosed with," her mother says carefully. "I think when any of us can't be who we really are, we wind up with emotional problems."

Other photos of Anna, her sister, and the grandchildren line the walls of the Wallners' home. Wallner wishes she had more happy memories of her daughter but says that they had few good times as a family in the last nine years of her daughter's life.

After Anna died, Wallner embarked on a campaign to understand how the bright, precocious child she'd loved had become so filled with despair that she'd hanged herself at age 29. "We started to investigate the topic and wonder whether what we'd been taught all our lives was correct," Wallner says. After reading Mel White's biography, Stranger at the Gate: To Be Gay and Christian in America, Wallner and her husband traveled to Lynchburg, Va., to participate in a Soulforce gathering of gay Christians.

"We met 200 [LGBT] Christians, and they were the most wonderful, wonderful people," Wallner says, the relief still audible. "We hadn't known any Christian gay people—except Anna."

At the time, she and Bob belonged to Willow Creek Community Church, a large church in Illinois whose services drew more than 15,000 people. "We were on our journey, and we wanted to talk in a kind way about how our beliefs were transformed," Wallner says. "We've lost many friends as a result of our changed beliefs, but we're at the point that we can't be a part of a church that isn't welcoming and affirming of gay people."

Now living in Little Rock, Ark., the Wallners worship at a small community church where most of the congregation is gay or lesbian and the pastor and his partner have been together for 15 years.

Initially, Wallner blamed herself and her divorce from Anna's father for causing Anna's lesbianism. She often listened to Dobson's radio show and says she bought into "all this rhetoric that it's because of a weak father or a strong mother."

The reparative therapy movement embraces the language of psychiatry and psychology while rejecting the conclusions of the field's professional organizations, none of which views homosexuality as a disease. Fryrear describes the typical audience of "Love Won Out" events as "pastors and church leaders who want to know how to address these issues within their church, and folks who are Christian and concerned about the culture and want to know how to address issues that relate to homosexuality." The aim of the conference is not to help a few unhappy gays return to Christ, but to marshal the evangelical community in condemning homosexuality and defining the national debate over gay marriage and civil rights. The conference's stated goal is to promote "the truth that homosexuality is preventable and treatable."

Last year, Dobson stepped boldly into politics with the creation of Focus on the Family Action, a 50(c)4 organization free from the lobbying restraints placed on the nonprofit Focus on the Family. FOFA is poised to play a major role in promoting state initiatives to outlaw same-sex marriage in upcoming elections. After Dobson endorsed George Bush, the group distributed 8 million voting guides. Dobson is also a member of the Arlington Group, a coalition of 76 religious activists that has already proved to be effective at mobilizing powerful coordinated responses to national issues.

"We are kind of on the receiving end of the harm done by the other side," says Jon Wartes, a local PFLAG board member and chairman of the "Love Welcomes All" conference. "Families will come to PFLAG saying, 'We've been trying this, and it isn't working. It's a choice between our youngster or our church.' It's not moral to catch people in this bind."

Wallner is aware of the difficulties, particularly for evangelical families. "I have come to believe with all my heart that had Anna lived, we never would have [arrived at this understanding]," she says with resignation. Yet she hopes to encourage other parents of gay children to accept and love their children unconditionally and not waste precious years trying to cure them.

"We're not on a crusade to change anybody," Wallner says. "We are out there to tell our story. No one can change a person—they have to figure it out, by the grace of God. We just tell our story and hope that people will hear."

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