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In the wake of legislation legalizing civil unions in Connecticut that went into effect this month, one couple that continues to speak out against homosexuality as a lifestyle choice is bringing their message to the local area.

Christian minister and former homosexual Stephen Bennett and his wife Irene will visit West Haven this weekend to host their organization’s annual Fall Weekend in New England Conference, a three-day retreat for “those looking to overcome unwanted same-sex attractions.” Although Bennett said his organization is strongly opposed to the recent civil union legislation, he said his ministry focuses on those who wish to renounce their homosexuality.

“There are people out there who are happy with their [homosexual] lifestyles, and we aren’t out there to change them,” he said. “We are here for those who are seeking help.”

Bennett, who spent 11 years as a self-identified homosexual, said he believes it is possible for people to overcome homosexual tendencies and choose to lead a heterosexual lifestyle with God’s help.

“As someone who has come out of the lifestyle many years ago … I no longer struggle with this issue whatsoever,” Bennett said.

But University Chaplain Frederick Streets said although Bennett’s approach might be an option for men and women who believe homosexuality is a learned behavior, for others, it is not.

“For men and women who feel sexual orientation is part of how God created them, to ask them to be something they cannot be is a form of discrimination,” he said. “It rejects the possibility that the same God who loves us all may have created us sexually differently.”

Although many Christians do oppose homosexuality, Streets said, that opinion is not universally shared. He said the Church of Christ in Yale does not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.

Bennett, whose ministry is based in Huntington, Conn., said he expects a large attendance at this year’s event, although he could not give an estimate of how many people might go to the retreat.

“Our October conference is our largest conference,” he said. “We’ve got people flying in from all over the country for this event, so we should have a pretty good turnout.”

While opinions on campus vary widely over the place of homosexuality in Christianity, many gay students said they disagree with Bennett’s beliefs concerning the nature of homosexuality and his approach to ministry.

Noah Mamis ’08, a gay student at Yale, said he believes homosexuality is not a learned trait nor is it a choice. Otherwise, he said, individuals would not maintain gay lifestyles in spite of discrimination and persecution.

“Religious people who believe that homosexuality is a trait that can be changed clearly don’t know what they are talking about,” he said. “If [Bennett] claims to have been homosexual in the past and is currently married, I would ask him if he has been capable of suppressing all of his homosexual desires. If he said yes, I would find that preposterous.”

While some Christian students at Yale said they are opposed to homosexuality as a lifestyle, others said they believe Christianity and homosexuality are not mutually exclusive.

One Christian student, Rachel-Maria Brown ’06, said she believes an individual can choose not to participate in homosexual activities despite having same-sex attractions. She said she approves of the ministry and the help that Bennett provides to people struggling with gender orientation issues.

“I think [Bennett’s] program … is a worthy cause,” she said. “If people want to acknowledge [homosexuality] as something they can choose to resist, more power to them.”

But Andrew Beaty ’07, who identifies himself as both gay and Christian, said he thinks Bennett’s approach could be damaging for individuals attempting to reconcile their faith and sexuality.

Beaty said he suffered a “crisis of faith” during his middle and high school years when he began questioning his own sexuality, until he decided that he could be both gay and Christian.

“I tried to fix myself for years and years [and] at some point, I realized I could not,” he said. “I think this ministry, while it probably has good intentions, is probably very harmful for people who have these questions … and probably leads to denial and repression.”

Bennett’s conference, entitled “Coming Out of Homosexuality: Change is Completely Possible,” will take place at the Haven of Rest Baptist Church in West Haven and will feature several discussions on topics ranging from homosexuality in the Bible to preventing homosexuality. All of the events will be closed.