According to This American Life, Smid realized that he was gay after marrying a woman in his late teens and having two children. Smid and his wife divorced, and after living as a gay man, Smid converted to Christianity and came to believe that he didn't have to live "that way." During his time with Love In Action, he observed that parents of gay teens were reaching out to the organization, motivating him to develop an ex-gay program intended for teenagers, Refuge.
One young gay man had a nightmarish experience with Refuge. In 2005, 16 year-old Zach Stark wrote that he was gay on his MySpace account. When his parents discovered that he was gay, they forced him to attend Refuge against his will. Stark wrote about his experiences at Refuge on MySpace, drawing the attention of his friends and LGBT activists. The controversy prompted an investigation by the Tennessee Department of Children's Services, which concluded in June 2005, according to ABC News.
This American Life shared what Stark wrote about Refuge, including the program's stringent rules: no hugging or physical contact (save for things like brief handshakes); men were supposed to dress like "men" and women like "women,"; no one was to wear clothing from Calvin Klein or Abercrombie & Fitch; and any sensual dreams, fantasies, or temptations were to be reported to a staff member.
Soon, pro-LGBT protests were taking place outside of Love In Action, protests that included gay filmmaker Morgan Jon Fox. Fox would later release a documentary about Stark's order called This Is What Love In Action Looks Like. "It was impossible not to want to help him," said Fox, who added that John Smid was elusive during the protests.
"We knew that John Smid was head of the organization, and essentially he was the enemy in this situation ... He never came and addressed us. There was a one day, he was driving and then he stopped for one moment, and we made sure at that very moment we saw him, because it was kind of like this ... like seeing Sasquatch. We never got to see him."Smid admitted that he was nervous when the protests first took place. Several weeks later, Fox asked to meet with Smid. In Smid's office, Fox told Smid about his life as a gay man, including the process of coming out, the pain of feeling unaccepted by his family and peers, and the joy of feeling accepted by the Memphis community. Smid was pleasantly caught off guard.
"And I thought, wait a minute. This is not what I expected. This guy seems to be vulnerable and honest and humble ... I don't hate this guy. How could I hate him? He just came into my office and treated me with respect and was honest himself, and he seemed open, and I didn't know what to do with it."Even though Smid refused to participate in an on-the-record interview with Fox, the two men were on friendly terms, meeting over coffee and talking for hours. Eventually, Love In Action shut down the Refuge program. Smid admitted to Fox that Refuge had been a bad idea and was not an effective way to reach out to teens.
The ongoing dialogue between Fox and Smid eventually bore fruit. In 2008, Smid resigned from Love In Action, and in 2011, he came out with several startling admissions. In a blog post at Grace Rivers ministries, Smid wrote that sexual orientation is intrinsic and innate, adding that "... transformation for the vast majority of homosexuals will not include a change of sexual orientation. Actually I’ve never met a man who experienced a change from homosexual to heterosexual." He added that while immersed in the ex-gay subculture, he had ignored interpretations of the Bible that didn't match up with his own. After leaving that subculture, Smid began to see scripture in a new light.
"When I was at LiA I never taught a session on the scriptures regarding homosexuality that I understood. I know that sounds strange but it is true. I didn’t teach them because I really had never studied them for myself. I merely quoted what I saw that others had written on the issue ... Now that I am not submerged into one sided perspectives, I am open to studying and reading the scriptures for myself, I am finding so many rich truths that I wasn’t ever made aware of before. For the first time in all of these years, the scriptures that many have said refer to homosexuality are making sense! I am reading them in context. I am asking questions about who the passages were written to. I am asking what was being talked about, and why the words were written in the first place."The April 13th edition of This Modern Life serves as a reminder that fundamentalists can and do open their eyes. Smid is a living example of how people can leave behind restrictive belief systems and evolve. While Smid admits that he is still trying to figure out what it means for him to be gay, his new found honesty with himself has made the world a little healthier for his LGBT brethren. The story also reminds listeners that the activism of people like Fox can have surprising results. For those of us committed to LGBT rights, Fox's story is a reminder to keep striving for equality.
(Hat tip to Box Turtle Bulletin.)