Camp no more: inside the ex-gay movement
Published in YEN, April/May 2006. Copyright Rachel Hills 2006.
You know those films where naïve and sexually confused teenagers get sent off to camp to learn that blue is for boys, pink is for girls and Calvin Klein underwear is for sinners? Well, it doesn’t just happen in the movies. YEN takes a look at a movement where straight isn’t just great – it’s the only way to be
Rule 1: Men must remove all facial hair each day, and sideburns must not fall below the top of the ear. Hair must be long enough to be pinched between two fingers. Rule 2: Women must shave legs and underarms at least twice weekly. Rule 3: No Calvin Klein underwear.
If it all sounds like the rulebook of an unusually grooming-obsessed boarding house for juvenile delinquents, you’re not far off the mark. The rules are custom-designed to house and heal a special brand of wayward teen: homosexuals. The metaphorical boarding house being ex-gay groups, mostly religious-run ministries designed to turn gay people straight, and the treatment of choice reparative therapy – all about prayer, scripture, counseling and finding the psychological ‘root’ of one’s sexual deviance.
Films like But I’m a Cheerleader and Saved! make ex-gays seem comical, wheeling wholesome but sexually confused Christian kids off to camps where hyper masculine and feminine instructors teach them how to apply make-up and scrub floors, or throw a football and tinker beneath a car. In the face of a secular society more accepting of sexual diversity than ever before, ex-gay groups, with their narrow ideas of what it means to be male or female and their designation of homosexuality as sin, seem like a relic of a time long since passed.
But while it might look like a laugh on screen, outside the movies the ex-gay movement is a much more serious matter. Depending on who you talk to, ex-gay groups offer people struggling to accept their sexuality salvation, a choice about how they live their lives, or years of pain that could have been avoided simply by coming to terms with themselves.
A BOY NAMED ZACH
While the majority of ex-gay groups are located in the US and Canada, their reach extends across the globe. Exodus International, the world’s largest Christian group dealing with homosexual issues, claims to have over 150 affiliates in 17 countries, including Australia. These groups range from live-in ministries to drop-off centres and prayer groups. Their methods range from the relatively benign, like youth organisation and website Inqueery.com – which, in the words of 26-year-old founder and ex-gay Chad Thompson, aims simply to open students to “the idea that someone could change their orientation” – to groups that crash gay pride parades with signs reading, “God hates fags”.
For a controversial and often quirky phenomenon that’s been around for a few decades, the ex-gay movement has hit the mainstream radar surprisingly infrequently. According to queer activist and ex-gay expert Wayne Besen, author of the book Anything But Straight: Unmasking the Scandals and Lies Behind the Ex-Gay Myth, ex-gay groups operated in near anonymity for most of their 30-year existence.
That all started to change in 1998, when a number of ministries funded public service-style advertisements promoting sexuality change, peaking with the appearance of husband and wife ex-gays John and Anne Paulk on the cover of Newsweek. More recently, ex-gay groups made headlines in mid-2005 when Zach Stark, a 16-year-old from Memphis, Tennessee, published an emotionally wrought journal entry on the website Myspace.com about his parents’ reaction to his coming out.
In a May entry, Zach wrote: “Somewhat recently, as many of you know, I told my parents I was gay… Well today, my mother, father, and I had a very long ‘talk’ in my room where they let me know I am to apply for a Christian fundamentalist program for gays. They tell me there is something psychologically wrong with me, and they “raised me wrong”. I’m a big screw up to them, who isn’t on the path God wants me to be on. So I’m sitting here in tears, joing (sic) the rest of the kids who complain about their parents on blogs – and I can’t help it.”
Zach later posted Refuge’s rules in his blog – including no secular music, no contact with any practicing homosexuals and no Calvin Klein underwear. Little more than a week after he’d entered the program, Zach’s journal was making headlines everywhere from PlanetOut.com to the US ABC news, and a local activist group called the Queer Action Coalition was protesting on his behalf outside Refuge each day. Within three weeks, Zach’s Myspace profile had received over 1000 messages of support, and Love In Action was under investigation by the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services in relation to child abuse allegations. The program was later cleared of the allegations.
TAPPING INTO THE TEEN MARKET
Part of what made Zach’s story so compelling was his youth. Most people who attend ex-gay programs are adults who are intensely conflicted about the tension between their sexuality and their (usually Christian) faith. Their stories are often harrowing tales of self-hatred and self abuse, but ultimately, most of them made the choice to be there. With teenagers, it’s a different story.
While much of the attention Zach’s story attracted hinged on Refuge’s larger than life regulations, it also hinged on the fact that he didn’t appear to have a choice over whether he went or not. Zach, it seemed, was a young man who was fairly comfortable in his sexuality, and his parents were making him feel like a “screw up” and trying to change something he – in the eyes of the secular world at least – had no control over. As one blogger put it, “In fat camp, kids are shamed into eating less. In gay camp, they’re shamed into eating less cock.”
And while adolescents comprise only a small proportion of people in the programs, ex-gays are ramping up their efforts to attract them. Besen points to colouring books for kids and a slick interactive CD ROM called ‘The Map’, which asks users questions like, “what would my friends think?” and “can I change?” But the main way the ex-gay movement is getting its message out to teenagers is the same way Zach’s journal got out – the internet, through websites like the Exodus-affiliated livehope.org, Thompson’s Inqueery.com, and even Myspace.
“We have people as young as 11 contacting us, and it’s mainly through our website (exodusintl.org),” former Exodus Executive Director Bob Davies has said. “Youth can go there and find out all the information about Exodus and nobody else has to know.”
Ex-gay ministries are also increasing their efforts to attract young people offline. Exodus had no youth program until the late 1990s – now it spends a quarter of its $1 million annual budget on it. Love In Action’s Refuge is a similarly recent invention, officially launching in 2004.
According to Besen, the reason for the increased focus on teens is simple – money. “Adolescents are coming out at earlier ages and parents are often desperate to make their children straight after they come out,” he says. “Minors can be forced into these programs, with no way out, which allows therapists to keep getting paid, no matter how much children object to this quackery.”
“These programs often lead to depression and even suicide. It is as absurd as sending a person to a camp to make them taller. Obviously the outcome is preordained. It creates a lot of tragedies.” David Moutou, Project Coordinator of GLYSSN, a social support group for same-sex attracted youth in Sydney’s Sutherland and St George areas, shares Besen’s concerns. “I would have grave concerns for the wellbeing of young people forced to participate in a program that told them they were intrinsically disordered and needed curing or saving,” he says. “It is exposing young people to a concentration of all the negative attitudes that have led other people to take their own lives.”
Indeed, many clients of ex-gay ministries leave more despondent than they entered. Exodus founder Michael Bussee, who has since embraced his homosexuality, tells the story of a man he counseled who “deliberately slashed his genitals repeatedly with a straight-edged razor and poured Drano on the wounds because he wasn’t able to change his feelings.”
Inqueery founder Chad Thompson disagrees. “There’s a myth out there that organisations like mine which tell people they can change are leading to suicides in gay youth,” he says. “There’s no research at all to prove that.”
In fact, he says, it’s just the opposite. Thompson points to research by psychiatrist Dr Robert Spitzer, who in 2001 announced the controversial finding that some gay and lesbian people were able to change not only their sexual behaviour, but their sexual orientation. Spitzer, until then best known for his role in removing homosexuality from the American Pyschiatric Association’s diagnostic manual of mental disorders in 1973, found that not only had those he’d spoken to changed their sexual orientation, but they were happier for it. Thompson says, “What [Spitzer] discovered was very significant, because what he found is that people who are conflicted about their sexuality are actually happier after they find a way for their sexuality to live in peace with their faith.”
“It is not the goal of my organisation to force people to change,” he says. “We try to help people who want to change.”
Good intentions or not, the scientific odds are against the ex-gay movement. Both the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association have strongly discounted reparative therapy, declaring it an unsound practice that can hurt those who undertake it. The American Psychological Association further says that homosexuality is not a choice, and that most people’s sexual orientation is shaped at a very young age. And the famous Spitzer study has been criticized by the scientific community for recruiting subjects mostly through pro-change groups Exodus and NARTH, and for intentionally excluding anyone whose experiences with reparative therapy were not successful.
MAKING ROOM FOR DIALOGUE
But for all the studies and statistics being thrown around, this isn’t an argument about science. Ex-gay ministries and the gay activist community aren’t just up in arms because each has political goals that threaten the other – they start from such different premises that they may as well be speaking different languages. Where modern medicine views sexuality as a trait – like hair or eye colour – ex-gay groups see it as a behaviour that can be modified, like thieving or adultery. And if that behaviour doesn’t change, they can look forward to eternal damnation.
Beyond the extremities, it seems there’s some room for dialogue though. As one gay blogger weighed into the debate, “I won’t call you self-hating denial queens if you don’t call me a spiritually empty, sexually promiscuous disease carrier. If you can show me the respect that I deserve as someone who has had a positive experience as a gay person, I will happily extend the same respect to you as someone who has had a negative experience as a gay person.”
Thompson says, “I think that a lot of people in the gay community see someone who’s ex-gay and assume that I’m against them. That’s not true. Some of my best friends are openly gay people who have no desire to change. It’s okay for Christian people to disagree ideologically with people and still love them.”
And the teenager who brought the ex-gay movement back to the attention of the mainstream now claims that the media misrepresented both him and Love In Action. In the only journal entry to appear on his Myspace since he left the camp, Zach wrote, “I really can’t blame LIA for my problems, unless I’m simply blaming its existence. While I was in LIA I wasn’t pressured into doing anything that would hurt me. Overall I think the [other teenagers] helped more than anything, to make it bearable, like I said they are awesome people.” Fears about him being brainwashed straight seem unfounded though – Zach still identifies as homosexual.
To this point, the ex-gay movement has kept a fairly low profile in Australia. But that’s not to say it’s not there – groups like Courage, Exodus and Liberty Ministries run programs for same-sex attracted people. David Moutou says, “The psychology and health services community in Australia has maintained a skeptism towards the claims of ex-gay ministries, which has limited their mainstream appeal and credibility. With the rise of a visible conservative, Christian-based, political movement like Family First, this may change.”