Tuesday, February 1, 2005

A national group has posted a billboard in Rockville that says homosexuals can become heterosexuals, a message critics say is misleading and only persecutes homosexuals.

The billboard, on Hungerford Drive, states, “Ex-gays prove that change is possible.”

Next to the message is a photograph of a smiling young man.

Officials with the Parents and Friends of ExGays and Gays (PFOX), a nonprofit advocate for the ex-homosexual community, said people can choose to change from a homosexual to a heterosexual orientation.

“We believe that no one is born with same-sex attractions,” said Richard Cohen, a former homosexual who is the group’s president.

Homosexual rights activists said the billboard is offensive.

“It’s an ugly, destructive message that persecutes gay people,” said Wayne Besen, a homosexual activist and author of “Anything But Straight.”

Officials with Equality Maryland, a homosexual rights group, agreed.

“If it wasn’t so sad that people are spending so much money, energy and time that could be used on something constructive, like dealing with tsunami victims, it would be ludicrous,” said Dan Furmansky, the group’s executive director.

The billboard was put up in mid-January, and PFOX group officials say they will keep it posted for a short period of time because they have limited funds.

The sign was funded by families who are involved in the organization’s “ex-gay” program, said Regina Griggs, the group’s executive director.

“We do not have a single organization or church that is funding that billboard,” she said. “It’s all an independent effort.”

PFOX has chapters in 18 states and the District. Officials said they chose to display the billboard in Rockville because the city is close to the group’s headquarters in Northern Virginia.

“We also have about 40 families involved in the program that live in [Montgomery County],” Mrs. Griggs said. “It made perfect sense to put it up here.”

The Montgomery County Council has not received any telephone calls or letters complaining about the billboard’s location or content, said Michael Faden, a staff lawyer for the council.

The American Civil Liberties Union said it defends the rights of the PFOX group to display its message.

“All speech deserves protection,” said Stacey Mink, a spokeswoman for the ACLU’s Maryland chapter.

Mr. Cohen has been married for 22 years and has three children.

“I help people who want to change their sexuality,” he said. “Change is possible, and my three kids prove it. So does my happy wife.”

Melissa Coffey, a ministry associate at Regeneration Ministries, a Christian ministry that provides support to men and women “struggling with homosexuality,” said the billboard’s message is meant to provide hope.

“You’re always hearing the other side of the issue — that it’s genetic, that’s the way it is,” she said. “If you’re homosexual and you’re happy, we’re not gonna come knocking on your door. If you’re homosexual and you’re unhappy, you have choices. That’s hopeful for people who don’t have hope.”

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