SAN DIEGO (CBS 8) - Is it possible to "pray the gay away"?
Riverside resident Michael Bussee was aware of his same-sex attractions as early as the first grade. During his teenage years, he turned to the church to "fix" what he felt was wrong with him.
"I grew up during a time when being gay was a sin - a sickness and a crime. We started holding a weekly prayer meeting that God would change us. We were all waiting for that miracle to happen - which of course never happened," he said.
The small prayer group Bussee was part of, called EXIT, joined other similar groups around the country, eventually creating Exodus International.
Exodus International went on to become the world's largest network of Christian ministries to gay people. The group promised their followers that through prayer and behavioral modifications techniques known as 'conversion therapy' they would be able to change their sexual orientation.
"You can pray the gay away: that was the idea," Bussee said.
Instead, according to Bussee, followers desperate to 'become' heterosexual were hurting themselves, from alcohol and drug abuse to deepening depression and suicide attempts.
The guilt really got to me," he added.
Bussee eventually fell in love with and married another man in his prayer group. Together they became outspoken critics of Exodus International.
"[We] decided we needed to come out. We [needed] to speak out against this," he said.
After decades of intense pressure from critics and infighting, Exodus International finally ceased operations in 2013. However, a more extremist splinter group called 'Restored Hope Network' continued in its place.
Recently, Restored Hope Network announced it would hold its annual conference here in San Diego. Opponents have already begun organizing petitions and protests.
Gay rights activist and former San Diegan Sean Sala grew up in a conservation community in Texas. In his late teenage years he joined a ministry affiliated with Exodus International that practiced conversion therapy.
After a couple months, Sala said instead of helping, the "therapy" proved to be destructive and dangerous to its young disciples.
"This is not about religious freedom," Sala said. "These people are hurting people. People would walk out really psychologically wounded."
San Diego-based psychologist Dr. Alisa Robinson said scientific research does not suggest religious 'reparative' therapy can truly alter someone's sexual orientation.
"The medical community has come out saying that being gay is not a disease. It's a normal variant of the human condition. To try to force somebody or really coerce somebody to change something about themselves that cannot be changed really can put these people at greater risk for suicide or other mental health issues." said Dr. Robinson.
Restored Hope Network did not agree to speak with CBS News 8, despite repeated attempts to reach out for their side.
Critics also said they are concerned groups like Restored Hope Network will become emboldened in an already divisive political climate.
"It's a lie. It's a scam. They are not there for your best interest," said Sala. "I don't want this to happen to another teenager."
California banned conversion therapy on minors in 2012. However, the law only applies to licensed mental health professionals not to religious ministries.
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