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On Thursday, December 15th, I had the pleasure of attending a talk about the harms of so-called "ex-gay" programs, hosted by the Southern Poverty Law Center and Truth Wins Out. The event took place at 2640 Co-op, a beautiful venue housed within St. John's United Methodist Church in Baltimore, MD. In this retired worship space, amidst stained glass windows and pillars, an audience had gathered to hear Wayne Besen, Chris Camp, and others speak.
The evening began with a presentation by Ashley, an LGBT community advocate with the Southern Poverty Law Center. Ashley provided an introduction to the SPLC, including its background, its work monitoring U.S. hate groups, and its Teaching Tolerance project, which encourages educators to promote justice and equality. She encouraged audience members to share input with the SPLC about what issues they should address through their LGBT rights efforts.
Next, the audience listened to a presentation by Sam Wolfe, a staff attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center and a member of its LGBT Rights Project. Wolfe introduced listeners to the SPLC's legal efforts in the name of LGBT rights, the first of which involved two Minnesota girls -- Desiree Shelton and Sarah Lindstrom -- who were forbidden to walk as a couple in their high school's Snow Days processional. After the SPLC filed a federal lawsuit on the girls' behalf in early 2011, the school agreed to a settlement that allowed the girls to walk in the Snow Days promenade with the other students.
The SPLC also filed a lawsuit challenging an Anoka-Hennepin School District policy that mandated teacher neutrality on sexual orientation, arguing that the policy contributed to a hostile environment for gay students. According to the Minnesota Independent, the Parents Action League, a conservative group with ties to the Minnesota Family Council, urged the school to retain the policy. The Minnesota Independent also reported that the Parents Action League pushed the school district to include "ex-gay" programming and oppose LGBT content in classrooms. The ex-gay agenda, Wolfe observed, is trying to enter schools and send homophobic messages to youth.
Wolfe, himself was a survivor of "ex-gay" therapy, reminded listeners that the ex-gay movement is a political movement, noting that Religious Right groups that opposed LGBT equality such as NARTH and the Family Research Council espouse ex-gay thinking. If people can allegedly change from gay to straight, their thinking goes, why give LGBT people a seat at the table?
Given that the talk was taking place in Maryland, Wolfe spoke briefly about the International Healing Foundation, an ex-gay program based out of Bowie, MD. It was ludicrous, he argued, to think that the IHF's "touch therapy" (i.e., cradling exercises) could make gay people straight.
Wolfe shared his story of growing up in a Mormon family and attending Bringham Young University after his two-year mission. To live in the Mormon community, he developed coping mechanisms to appear straight, but concluded that this strategy was unsustainable. While at BYU, he sought help through Evergreen, a Mormon ex-gay program, but was surprised by what he observed in the group. Older men in the group seemed clearly gay, and their men's marriages to women were disastrous, often resulting in divorce and unhappy children. After attending Evergreen and a BYU reparative therapy group and failing to become straight, Wolfe came to embrace his gay identity and affirm who he truly was.
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Next, Wayne Besen of Truth Wins Out spoke next, sharing his own experiences with homophobia and ex-gay efforts. From a young age, he felt societal pressure to appear heterosexual. For example, in high school, after the high school basketball team he played with lost a game, their coach berated them by saying that everyone "played like a fag" except Besen. When Besen came out to his parents, they bought him "Gay and Unhappy" cassette tapes, which were intended to hypnotize the listener into heterosexuality through pro-heterosexual messages and ambient music (!). Besen shared a hilarious excerpt from The Daily Show which featured the "Gay and Unhappy" tapes, as well as Richard Cohen of the International Healing Foundation defending reparative therapy.
Besen noted out the faulty logic and sexism behind ex-gay theory, which attributes homosexuality to problems with one's relationship with one's parents. Lesbian women supposedly reject their mothers and their associated femininity, while gay men supposedly reject their fathers and masculinity. Thus, much of ex-gay theory associates binary ideas of gender with sexual orientation.
Besen pointed to the early 1990s as the time when the ex-gay movement came into its own. As more LGBT people were coming out, and more people knew someone who was LGBT, hateful anti-gay messages were becoming less effective. Thus, the Religious Right turned to ex-gay programs to create the appearance that they cared about LGBT people while still opposing LGBT rights.
Unfortunately for the ex-gay movement, several prominent ex-gay voices were found to be less than heterosexual. As examples, Besen listed John Paulk (whom he'd photographed in a Washington D.C. gay bar in 2000) and Michael Johnston (a former employee of Jerry Falwell who resigned after allegedly having encounters with men he met on the Internet).
Besen listed five reasons why observers should care about the ex-gay movement: (1) it's a wealthy industry, (2) ex-gay groups are political, in that they strive to keep anti-LGBT discrimination legal by lobbying against pro-LGBT laws, (3) the ex-gay movement focuses on youth, in that it is trying to get ex-gay literature and speakers into schools, (4) the ex-gay movement does great harm, and (5) the ex-gay movement's scope is international. On this final point, Besen added that Exodus board member Don Schmierer, ex-gay counselor Caleb Brundidge, and Pink Swastika author Scott Lively took part in an anti-gay conference in Kampala, Uganda in 2009. Uganda, as readers may recall, later became the center of an international controversy over its proposed "kill-the-gays" bill.
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The next presenter to speak was Chris Camp, a non-denominational minister and an ex-gay program survivor. Camp told listeners of his upbringing in a loving conservative California family, his early realization that he was gay, and his attempts to mask his sexual orientation as a young man by playing sports and having girlfriends. He spoke of the hopelessness and sorrow he felt at having to hide his identity, unable to confide in anyone about his attraction to the same sex.
In college, Camp fell in love with his best friend, later having an intimate encounter with the friend that left him wracked with guilt. When he confided in his pastor, the pastor referred him to an ex-gay church group that had received its training from Exodus. Like Wolfe, Camp was convinced that the men in the group were still gay, suggested by the lingering gazes and too-long handshakes of some of the men. Even though Camp was not physically intimate with men anymore, his feelings had not changed, and he poured himself into faith studies and the Bible in response.
Camp eventually went to Dallas Theological Seminary as a world missions major, where he had the realization that after all his efforts, he was still gay. He's always felt that way, he admitted to himself, and he'd never chosen that sexual orientation, in contrast to what the church had taught him about homosexuality. After this realization, Camp came to accept his sexual orientation as inborn and morally neutral, like eye color, finally accepting himself as a gay man. He expressed his happiness that he no longer had to hide who he was, and that his faith has deepened since accepting himself.
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Wayne Besen provided the final presentation of the night, exposing the many hidden facets of the ex-gay movement. For example, he noted that while reparative therapy groups glorify heterosexual marriage, they don't tell observers about the nightmares that result when "ex-gays" enter opposite-sex marriages, including extreme sexual incompatibility, divorce, and straight spouses' sense of betrayal. Besen shared several video clips in which the straight spouses of supposedly ex-gay people shared their feelings of being used and deceived.
Besen also shared the many stories of the ex-gay movement's failings, as well as the triumph of truth and healing for many formerly ex-gay voices. Among them were Michael Bussee and Gary Cooper, the co-founders of Exodus International who later left the group, accepted their gay identities, and married each other. Also among them was John Smid, the former executive director of Love in Action who admitted this fall that sexual orientation cannot change and that he is indeed gay. Brazilian ex-gay leader Sergio Viula also reached conclusions similar to Smid's. And, of course, who can forget George Rekers and his rentboy?
With no minced words, Besen accused the ex-gay movement of false advertising, in that it promises change of sexual orientation without delivering that change or even defining what "change" entails. People in ex-gay groups are encouraged to deny what they feel and behave like actors reciting lines, he argued, but eventually the "final curtain of reality comes crashing down." To boot, he accused the ex-gay movement of targeting people at vulnerable times in their lives and grasping at contrived reasons to blame their homosexuality on. Chillingly, many groups that promote reparative therapy have also been classified as hate groups by the SPLC, including the Family Research Council and the American Family Association.
The evening was an amazing education into the politics of the ex-gay movement, one that more people need to hear. I applaud Truth Wins Out, the SPLC, and Chris Camp for sharing their stories and educating the public about ex-gay groups!