I was driving to work when I saw the first billboard assuring me I could change. It was winter on the Gulf Coast of Texas, and the wetlands buffeting the highway sparkled every so often with the fall of another cast net capturing bait. Just beyond the McDonald's, where the drive-thru was already aglow with the headlights of morning breakfast orders, was the blown-up photo of an Adonic man with a confident smile beside the message:
"I Questioned Homosexuality. Change is Possible. Discover How."
I spotted another billboard, nearly identical to the first, just past Texas City's mini-metropolis of petrochemical plants. Only this time it was a smiling woman. Both listed a website called Love Won Out.
At my desk that morning, rather than shifting through emails from sources or story assignments from my editors, I went to the billboards' website. Love Won Out, I learned, was a conference run by Focus on the Family that tours the country every year teaching "the truth that homosexuality is preventable and treatable." I read that phrase out loud to my coworker.
"Crazy" she said, and went back to checking voice messages. I wrote an email to Michael, our editor in the main newsroom and suggested a story.
"Wait," he wrote back. "I need to check first."
Michael was an ex-union organizer, a former military man, and a poet. He was also the best boss I'd ever had. Usually he made decisions quickly and with conviction. Usually if the story was good, I never had to wait. I wrote back.
"Just because I am a lesbian doesn't mean I can't cover this fairly and objectively. I'm a Democrat and that's never an issue when I cover a story about the Republican Party."
Later that day he gave me the go-ahead. People were calling and emailing about the billboards already. Most of them were livid. He told me to get something for that weekend, and then he added: "I would equate it more with a black reporter covering the Klan. We've done that before, too. But we had to think about it first."
The difference in that case, of course, is that a black reporter can't hide her blackness. But I could easily hide my sexuality. I did it all the time without even trying.
I called Focus on the Family and was connected to a squeaky-voiced spokesman named Christopher who told me the conference would be at a mega-church, that hundreds were expected to attend, and many had been "saved" already.
"And the billboards?" I asked. There were fifteen in total, I'd learned.
"Those weren't from us," he said.
"They weren't?" I was confused.
"Well, they're our design, but a local businessman funded them."
His name was B. Joe Cline and he ran his own ex-gay ministry on Galveston Island. He had a son who once identified as gay, but now didn't. Christopher asked if I wanted to be put in touch with him.
"Of course," I said.
I was never trained as a journalist. I studied literature in college. Then I graduated and someone offered me a job at a small newspaper on an island in Florida. Two years later, I landed another newspaper job on another island, this time in Texas.
Being a journalist without training meant I learned everything on the job. I learned what a lede is, how to have an anonymous source, and the importance of being objective. Trying to become objective, I stopped going to political rallies. When sources asked my opinion on a proposed tax hike or murder trial, I told them I didn't have one; that having one would impede my ability to report the news.
It was 2005 and I was 26. George Bush had just been inaugurated for his second presidential term. Texas voters had just outlawed gay marriage. I voted against that measure, called Prop 2, and against Bush, though I knew some journalists who went so far in their quest for objectivity that they refused to vote. The day I cast my ballot, I held the door for an old woman who hobbled up the stairs toward the poll booth with determination. We smiled at each other.
"We gotta make sure Prop 2 passes," she said. I wanted to let the door go in her face, but I didn't.
I lived like that for longer than now seems possible. If I was writing about Republicans, I tried not to think like a Democrat. And if I was going to cover the ex-gay movement, I told myself not to react like a lesbian. It makes little sense to me now, but at the time I believed it was possible to write as if I wasn't there.
Narratively is an online magazine devoted to original, in-depth and untold stories. Each week, Narratively explores a different theme and publishes just one story a day. It was one of Time's 50 Best Websites of 2013.