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LIVE FROM THE HEADLINES

Interview with Elizabeth Birch, Stephen Bennett

Aired June 18, 2003 - 20:38   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: The Southern Baptist Convention ends its annual meeting tonight. Now the church is the nation's largest protestant denomination. It long has taken a prominent stance against homosexuality. But now it's launching an inisitive, aimed at liberating gays from their lifestyle. The Southern Baptists say they'll befriend gays and lead them to accept Jesus as their savior. The insitive is drawing fire form gay activist.
Joining us from Washington is Elizabeth Birch, executive director of the Human Rights Campaign.

Joining us here in New York is Stephen Bennett, a Christian song writer and recording artist who describes himself as former homosexual.

Stephen, Elizabeth, thank you very much for being with us.

Elizabeth, let me start with you.

How concerned with you about this new effort from the Southern Baptist Convention?

ELIZABETH BIRCH, EXCUTIVE DIRECTOR HUMAN RIGHTS CAMPAIGN: I think we're very concerned. This has been going on from other institutions for some time. And every single major mental health, medical, psychological institution in the country has condemned this so called gay conversion therapy. We're concerned because it is a terrible message to young people in born again homes. It's a terrible message that somehow they are incomplete or flawed or incapable of spirituality. In fact, Jesus said nothing about homosexuality. As a sin, it doesn't even make it in the top 10. And truly, most aspects of the bible if you go back to the source and truly study it, the only thing that survived is leviticus. And you have to see that in context of a tribe that was trying to survive.

Let me bring in Stephen here. You obviously disagree. You welcome this movement by the Baptists.

STEPHEN BENNETT, STEPHEN BENNETT MINISTRIES: Completely. First let me tell the audience that I was a former homosexual. I lived that lifestyle until I was 28, probably well with over 100 men sexually with being many of whom are dead today from AIDS. And it was A christian woman who showed up at my door one day when I was living with my partner who I was in love with. And she shared with me the gospel of Christ, and she told me what the bible said on the issue and it started to make me think. It was about a year and a half after that time that I made the decision, I left the homosexual background, I became a Christian. That was over 12 years ago. I'm happily married now to my wife of 10 years, have two beautiful children. And that was the best thing. I applaud the woman who came and did that. My life changed forever completely. Which goes to prove that homosexuals are not born that way. And homosexuals can completely change. Just has a drug addict or alcoholic can walk away from that destructive behavior, the same has to be said of homosexuality.

COOPER: All right. Let me bring in Elizabeth. Obviously this -- what Stephen is saying is deeply offense to a lot of gays and lesbians out there.

Your reaction?

BIRCH: Well, it is -- first of all, I don't deny Stephen his experience. It's authentic. I don't know what happened in his heart or in his mind or in his experience. I would never condemn it. But the fact is, we have seen the results of these ex-gay ministries. We've seen the ex-ex-gays come out and end up more psychologically damaged and it takes more work for them to come back to a kind of healing.

BENNETT: See, I completely disagree with that.

BIRCH: The fact is that this practice has been condemned again by every single major psychological association.

COOPER: Let me jump in, Elizabeth. Let me quote, the American Psychiatric Association says that, quote, "It opposes any psychiatric treatment such as repairative or converge therapy which is based on the assumption it's a mental disorder or the patient should change his or her sexual orientation."

Stephen, what do you say to this?

BENNETT: Well, first of all, I again, with the people we minister to, hundreds of homosexuals around the country who are not happy with their lifestyle. I challenge Elizabeth, because it's firm that homosexuals can change. They said that the best thing that's ever happened to them was our ministry. Exodus international who has been around for so long.

COOPER: You know, there are plenty of homosexuals, millions in the United States, who are very happy being gay, being lesbian.

Do you understand why it would be very offensive to them that this...

BENNETT: I sure could. Because I was there. I was happy with my partner. But the thing is that I was deceived. I was truly deceived by this. With my partner and I who was going to be my long- term partner we were playing house. It was a deception. I'm married today and have a wife and children. I've become the man that god has created me to be. A real man. I had the courage to step out. And again, I firmly -- I love the homosexual. God loves the homosexual but he hates the sin. And these people have to realize there is a root cause that they've gone down this path and if you deal with that root cause and there is a variety of ways, you can come out of this.

COOPER: Elizabeth.

BIRCH: Anderson, unfortunately, this is what happens. We end up seeing the hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people that go through this process, and end up, frankly, far more damaged. No one is condemning the spirituality that Stephen has found. No one is condemning spiritual people. In fact, I think one of the biggest mistakes the gay movement ever made was to feed spirituality to the right. The fact is there are millions of whole and complete and serving and dedicated parents who are gay in this country, who are happy, who have children, and lead wonderful and committed lives in their community.

So, unfortunately, you have a small group of people that have had a certain experience, and sadly, no one denies them that experience, but they want to project it on to others. The problem is not gay people. The problem is the prejudice against gay people.

BENNETT: There is no prejudice. Our message, Elizabeth, is a message of love and hope.

BIRCH: No.

COOPER: We are going to have to live it there. I'm sorry. I'm sorry. We appreciate both of you having the opportunity to speak.

Elizabeth Birch and Stephen Bennett, thanks very much.

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