Category: Love in Action

Throwback Thursday: Doin’ Time in the Homo No Mo Halfway House

Fun fact: I spent 17 years and over $30,00o on three continents trying to de-gay myself. This failed sexual re-orientation odyssey including ex-gay support groups, exorcisms to drive out the demons of homosexuality, and a two-year stint in the notorious Love in Action gay conversion therapy camp in Memphis, TN.

I lived to tell my tale (and to settle down in a delightful relationship with the man I love) and found that I needed humor to get a grip on the madness that nearly destroyed me. It’s been 12 years since I first sat down to write Doin’ Time in the Homo No Mo Halfway House. I do not perform the play any longer, but you can watch it for yourself. I play nine different characters and give you a personal tour of the Homo No Mo Halfway House. You will discover many things about this ex-gay boot camp, including why they can boldly declare: Yes, we have no bananas.

Love in Action shuts down residential program

According to the Love in Action Website the Memphis-based ex-gay group no longer operates it residential program:

Love In Action’s Residential program has been suspended indefinitely. Simply put, there is a significant need to bring all of LIA under one location for it to be more cost effective. We continue to counsel and grow through our 4-Day Intensives, Hourly Counseling, Conferences, Support Groups, and Church Assistance Program.

I am thrilled that the sun has finally set on this part of the program–one that housed and harassed many of us these past 30 years. While they will continue to offer some limited services, it appears that they have begun to dismantle operations.

What better way to celebrate than you see the new documentary by LIA protester and filmmaker Morgan Jon Fox. This is What Love in Action Looks Like chronicles what happened when a 16 year old boy was forced to attend Love in Action and how his friends responded and ultimately help shut down the youth program back in 2007. Or pop in your DVD of Doin’ Time in the Homo No Mo Halfway Housse, now a HISTORICAL satire of the Love in Action program. =D

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Beyond Ex-Gay Goes to Nashville

This year Christine Bakke and I have committed to organize regional events in order to connect with other ex-gay survivors as well as stand as witnesses to the destructive results that often occur from submitting to ex-gay theories and treatments.

So far this year Beyond Ex-Gay has partnered with local LGBT groups in Memphis, TN and Barcelona, Cataluña to put together series of events that has helped to educate the public about ex-gay experiences, their potential harm and the ways that people can recover.

One of my hopes has been to take part in existing LGBT conferences to add an ex-gay survivor track or presence to them.  Next month Christine and I will go to Nashville, TN to take part in the Our Family Matters Conference. The conference will cover many topics about faith and sexuality, but specifically the organizers have given us time to speak about ex-gay experiences and to connect with fellow survivors.

Tennessee’s Out & About paper ran a story this week about ex-gay survivors and the upcoming conference.

For nearly 20 years, Peterson Toscano underwent a variety of treatments meant to suppress his homosexuality. Two of those years were spent at Love in Action, a residential treatment center in Memphis.

The religious-based ex-gay movements are meant to straighten gays out but often do more harm than good, Toscano said.

“Right now, people in some churches feel that they must hide the fact they are gay for fear they will be thrown out,” Toscano said. “Many of us have tried to change, but instead of finding a blessing, the programs I attended nearly destroyed my faith and my life.”

Toscano will offer his unique perspective as part of the Our Family Matters Conference held Oct. 22 through 25 at Second Presbyterian Church in Nashville.

Launched as a live version of Kim Clark’s acclaimed documentary, God and Gays: Bridging the Gap, the conference will address questions related to the relationship between God and the GLBT community. The event will include a film festival, live concerts, national keynote speakers Jack Rogers and Rev. Deborah Johnson, and three days of workshops

Other presenters will include Mary Lou Wallner, who I first met through participating in the film project Fish Can’t Fly and Christian singer (and now publically out gay man) Ray Boltz.

On Thursday October 23 Christine, Darlene Bogle and I will take the evening to share about our ex-gay experiences and how we survived and now thrive as we worked through our ex-gay pasts. You may remember that Darlene joined two other former Exodus leaders in issuing a public apology for their roles in promoting and providing ex-gay treatment. I will also do excerpts from some of my plays including Doin’ Time in the Homo No Mo Halfway House—How I Survived the Ex-Gay Movement!

On Saturday October 25 we will get to meet with ex-gay survivors in a workshop setting which will give folks a chance to connect with each other, share their own stories and find strategies for recovery from the harm they experienced through ex-gay treatment and theories.

Since Christine and I will not be the key organizers  of the conference, we will have SO MUCH more time to hang out with survivors during the many breaks, meals and other sessions. Check out the full schedule and please consider coming to the Our Family Matters Conference!

November 7-9 Christine and I along with Daniel Gonzales and several local groups will organize a series of events in Denver, CO in response to NARTH’s annual anti-gay conference. We will host an art show, a performance, ex-gay survivor gathering and a summit for LGBT-affirming leaders. You can learn more about our Denver event here.

Trapped in the Ex-Gay Board Game

Hello, my name is Vlad. I have been in this Homo No Mo Halfway House for 27 days. Here in Homo No Mo Halfway House we have five phases, we do 12 Steps and there are approximately 275 rules. First I tell you about the phases. When we move from phase to phase, this is called a “Phase Bump,” and technically only the staff is allowed to bump you.

-Excerpt from Doin’ Time in the Homo No Mo Halfway House

At the Love in Action residential program that I attended for two years the staff led participants through a game know as The Five Phases and The 12 Steps. Participants preoccupied themselves with moving up (and down) artificial gradations like a twisted version of Chutes and Ladders.

  • In Phase One the staff forced participants to look at themselves in order to acknowledge they had a problem, in fact that we were a problem— sinful, addicted, and broken.
  • In Phase Two the focus turned to God, the ultimate perfection and means of escape.
  • Phase Three turned the spotlight on the family where we created new mythologies about our childhood and family dynamics to fit in with the program theories about dysfunctional families and the developmental model.
  • In Phase Four we deconstructed former friendships rebranding them as unhealthy, emotionally dependent, and sick with the charge to develop new, healthy relationships with heterosexual mentors from the church.
  • Finally, we moved to the Fifth Phase where we began to transition into the world outside the program.

While slowly working through the phases, the staff also pushed us through an intensive 12-Step program with the belief that our desires for people of the same sex had to be wrong, sinful and addictive. We needed to account for every past sexual encounter and reframe them to fit in with the addiction model the staff gave us. Through our weekly “Moral Inventories” we wrote about and discussed former sexual experiences reworking them into a clinical narrative designed to reinforce the construct provided by the staff. Instead of a way of expressing love or just being horny, we had to restate our motives for sex so that they instead sprung from our own emotional, psychological or spiritual illnesses.

The Steps, the Phases, and the hundreds of written moral inventories required many hours of concentration and will power. The effort distracted me from the reality that “change” was not possible and was not happening, except for the negative change leading to depression, hopelessness and faithlessness. Instead advancement through the steps and our celebrated “Phase bumps” (which took on the quality of a some sort of tribal celebration with clanging of pots and pounding on the walls) gave the illusion that we experienced actual movement and growth.

Whenever we faltered in our resolve to sublimate our sexual desires and gay identity, the staff and fellow participants urged us to work the program! Instead of questioning the failure or the methods, the staff compelled us to dive into the “therapy” with greater effort and intensity. Whenever progress in the Steps or Phases, the staff lessened some of the many restrictions placed on our time and activities thus giving a false sense of autonomy. Once we failed again to meet program expectations, the staff returned us to an earlier Phase slapping on us restrictions and sanctions on free-time and hard-won privileges.

At times it felt like I lived in an elaborate board game where I got to move three spaces forward only to find that I somehow landed back in jail. I spent so much time and energy on the structure of the program and the hurdles I had to vault that I had little left to question just how ineffective the process proved. We labored towards the goal of graduation when we would stand before the community affirmed by the staff—victors of the game—examples to others that we could achieve success. Little did I understand just how much they deluded me (and I deluded myself) into believing that program success equaled some sort of real change. And little did I realize the paradox that only in losing the game that they set before us did I actually begin to win in life.

The Shame & Blame Game in Ex-Gay Programs

The program leaders at Love in Action (LIA) and in all the other ex-gay programs I attended (along with the counselors I saw and authors of the ex-gay books I read) believed in a development model leading to homosexual desire and activity. Although each ex-gay therapist or minister used different and methods often contrary to each other, they universally agreed that boys became gay because of an “overbearing mother and an emotionally or physically absent dad.” In addition, they taught that sexual abuse contributed to same-sex attractions.

In LIA and elsewhere, the leadership made us create a mythology about ourselves based on the developmental template they placed before us. By mixing psycho-babble, scripture, and language from the AA 12-Step program, they constantly reinforced their authority over us. When any of us questioned the template they provided by stating our lives did not fit it, they insisted that we needed to look more deeply. They warned us, that as “addicts,” it was in our nature to deceive ourselves and minimize not only the consequences of our actions but also the causes.

Adhering to the belief that our parents failed us, the LIA program leaders then served as surrogate parents who attempted to undo the damage inflicted by our actual parents. During The Family and Friends Weekend, they not only confronted each participant with their development theories, they also pushed parents to admit that their child’s faulty development stemmed from a dysfunctional family structure.

The program buttressed the their teaching with the belief that everyone lives in a flawed sinful state. By being flawed and sinful parents, the program leaders reasoned that our folks ended up harming their own offspring. “Sin begets sin.” The staff then endeavored to lead the families in a corporate confession which included fathers of program participants confessing the ways they had ceded leadership to their wives. The Family and Friends Weekend thus operated under the notion that only by returning to the God-sanctioned patriarchy could the flawed son or daughter begin to experience success in divorcing themselves from homosexuality.

The Family and Friends Weekend created a climate of fear and shame, a toxic mix that made it difficult to think clearly. The environment placed us in a vulnerable state where we looked to the program leaders as authorities to lead us out of the mess stemming from our sinful nature and poor choices. When any parent or loved one questioned the teachings, program leaders responded with program jargon, scripture or pseudo-psychological language. The leaders stood as the final authority, almost as Gnostics who had come to the place of hidden knowledge. They then attempted to share that knowledge with those of us still darkened by ignorance and inner rebellion.

I only learned years later that my parents experienced deep personal distress as a result of their first Family and Friends Weekend. My sister told me that for the first two weeks after they returned home, “there was something wrong with Mom and Dad.” They seemed depressed and spoke little. It even affected their appetite. She said it was like a light had gone out in them. She felt so concerned that she called the LIA office and demanded, “What did you do to my parents?” LIA never followed up.

Years later when I told one of the LIA leaders who had been part of that weekend about my parents’ distress and how it resulted in years of self-doubts and emotional upheaval, he responded with program jargon and put the blame back on my parents by stating, “Healthy people ask for what they need.” He suggested that since my parents were not healthy to begin with, they didn’t know how to seek the help they needed.

By constantly turning the blame around and pointing to the flawed nature in each one of us, the program leaders chronically avoid responsibility for the unethical and harmful practices and theories they promote and provide. I do not know if the current staff of Love in Action still forces parents and participants through the shameful and harmful steps of The Family and Friends Weekend. If they genuinely care for people and about pastoral care, I invite them to listen to some of our stories to reconsider their methods before they do more harm.

See a video about The Family & Friends Weekend.
Read an article at Beyond Ex-Gay.

Memphis Pride & the new director of an Ex-Gay Progam

Wow, what a super Pride event in Memphis this weekend! The organizers put together a fun, family friendly and well organized series of events. They wisely chose a park with lots of shade for the festival, and they had loads of booths. The diversity of the crowd especially impressed me in a city where one can see people travel in their homogeneous packs. Young, old, black and white, transgender, straight, bisexual, lesbian and gay, the crowd showed off a wide cross-section of the population.

I enjoyed being in the parade more than I thought I would. Sitting in a car waving at folks felt like it would be awkward (let me be on stage doing stuff or a chance to talk, but just sitting waving–weird). I saw many friends along the way from the various groups that have helped me through the years–Holy Trinity Community Church of Christ, Integrity and most recently Mid-South Pride with their help during Beyond Ex-Gay’s big weekend back in February.

Lindsey Melvin, a writer from the Commercial Appeal, read a recent blog post of mine and asked if she could interview me. The story appears in today’s paper.

She shares a little of my journey going from participant of Love in Action, an ex-gay residential program in Memphis.

In the Pride parade’s fifth year in Memphis, there was a big push for it to be a family-friendly gathering, and Toscano fit that mold, said Sean Alexander of Mid-South Pride Inc.

“He was chosen for putting a positive image on being gay,” Alexander said.

Toscano also has become a highly recognizable figure in the Memphis gay community for leading ex-gay survivors’ conferences and performing his one-man
plays.

A Catholic who became a born-again Christian as a teenager, Toscano was told he could not be a Christian and a homosexual.

Ashamed, and terrified for his salvation, he entered multiple church-operated gay converting programs.

“It was in many ways psychological warfare. Day after day you were hearing that there was something wrong with you,” he said.

In this article we also get to hear from Love in Action’s new director and a taste how he responds to the media and to criticism of his program.

But according to the group, Toscano’s experience differs greatly from those of most other people getting treatment. Of 400 people who have gone through the program, more than 300 have been turned straight, the group says.

“Our success rate is higher than our dropout rate,” said Love In Action director Jim Scott.

“It works for some people, and for some people it doesn’t.”

Really? 300 out of 400 are successful? Turned straight? Or does he mean that 300 of 400 actually finished the course and graduated? But how often does Jim Scott check up on these folks? What sort of on-going follow-up does he do? What sort of follow-up has Love in Action done over the past five years? 10 years? How long do these successes remain ex-gay? A year? Two? Three months? Two weeks? Who knows and who cares once they graduate and stop paying the outrageous fees that the program charges?

This is false advertisement–dishonest. I believe that Jim Scott bears false witness. Of the six people who entered LIA with me back in 1996, five have come out and accepted the reality that they are gay and there is nothing wrong with it (and two of us were in yesterday’s Pride parade–one in drag!)

Love in Action has maintained a practice of “challenging” participants–(I wanna challenge you! See Homo No Mo for lots of examples) So I have two challenges for Jim Scott.

  1. Over the next five years keep track of these 300 newly straightened people, and then let us know where they are at and how it all worked out for them.
  2. Meet with 50 former participants who have tried the program and have experienced harm as a result of their experiences. Find out what goes wrong and the horrendous cost of pursuing the straight dream.

From my personal experiences and from connecting with over 1,000 ex-gay survivors, I have concluded that the process is not effective (no one actually becomes heterosexual), and it is unnecessary. Most importantly reparative therapy and ex-gay ministries almost always cause more harm than good.

I know a tiny handful of people with lesbian and gay backgrounds who have gone ex-gay and say they are happy as such. They are not ex-gay leaders nor do they pretend that their desires for the same gender have disappeared. For some it is a daily struggle that they willingly admit. They live in the reality that the ex-gay route is not possible for most people.

As Jim Scott begins his term as Love in Action director, I hope he chooses to be humble enough to listen to his detractors, to see that we are not a minority group of disgruntled failures for whom it did not work. We are the large percentage of people who came to Love in Action (and more importantly to God) looking for a cure and instead we found a curse. For some of us it has taken years to recover. We want to help spare other people from making the same mistakes we made. We want to counter the misinformation about people who are not straight. We want to help unearth the many reasons why people have pursued change. reasons often based on fear, shame and oppression.

Perhaps Jim Scott needs to come to next year’s Memphis Pride to see the vibrant, healthy, well-adjusted group of transgender, bisexual, lesbian and gay citizens who help make Memphis a wonderful place. Perhaps he needs to spend time at Holy Trinity Community Church of Christ or Integrity to experience the Spirit of God and the fruit of the Holy Spirit among Christians who also happen to be transgender, bisexual, lesbian, gay, or straight allies.

I get the privilege of spending the morning with the folks at Holy Trinity where I will present the morning message–so I must get offline and finish preparing.

New Videos on the Ex-Gay Experience

For the first time since the 2005 summer protests in front of Love in Action, Zach Stark, who was 16 at when he was placed in LIA, is now 19 and speaks out in this new clip from Morgan Fox’s film, This is What Love in Action Looks Like. Morgan first showed this clip in February during Deconstructing the Ex-Gay Myth—A Weekend of Action & Art in Memphis, TN.
[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tmbnvVVMpU0]

Special Orders

Anyone remember Burger King’s big ad campaign a few years back?

Hold the pickle.
Hold the lettuce.
Special orders don’t upset us.

In their attempts to position themselves in the fast food market, BK encouraged customers to “have it your way.”

Being a vegan, I am the queen of special orders. Restaurants in the US, Canada, Europe and the UK have accommodated me with my non-animal product-based diet, sometimes begrudgingly and with attitude.

When I attended the Love in Action residential ex-gay program in Memphis, TN, I needed to suspend my vegetarian lifestyle. Each participant took turns cooking the evening meal. With a budget of sometimes less than $20 for 14 people, participants served lots of casseroles filled with greasy ground beef. Although no one ever challenged the inappropriateness of it, at least twice a month someone served up corn dogs (which looked strangely like a dick on a stick).

I stayed away from the beef and hot dog products, and for my turn most always prepared a vegetarian dish (my baked ziti was a house favorite). If someone wanted a special diet, they had to finance it themselves. With monthly fees of $950 per month (which was A LOT of money in Memphis 10 years ago) no one had extra cash on hand. And if we did somehow make it happen, no doubt someone in the house would challenge us and the special diets for being, well, special.

The unwillingness to accommodate participants extended to other issues beyond the kitchen. One young man came to the program from a Christian faith tradition that worshiped on Saturdays (technically the Sabbath). He felt morally and spiritually convicted to find a similar church in Memphis. The staff forbade it. One could not go to a church of one’s own choosing until at least the fourth phase of the program (which back then could take up to two years to attain).

The staff demanded all participants to attend Central Church, an Evangelical mega church with its own fitness center and congressman. No matter if you were Catholic, Adventist or Methodist, the program required each participant to assimilate into the white Evangelical Church semi-Charismatic tradition. We dressed in business casual attire to blend in with the gender norms of the church. We joined the righteous band of Promise Keepers with our straight male mentors in tow to show us the way.

Not that the church was necessarily a safe place for an ex-gay. One Sunday morning a Love in Action participant got cruised by a teen (of legal age but just barely) in one of the many restrooms in the big church. Over the next few weeks he routinely met up with the young man for sexual trysts. (Subsequently the participant, weighed down by the guilt and shame of failing in his program, attempted suicide and barely survived. The young cruiser’s parents eventually shipped their son off for ex-gay treatment at Love in Action. Um, after how they witnessed the program in action, did they really think that was the best place for their kid???)

Conform. Assimilate. No special orders. No regard or respect for a participant’s convictions. In order to get freed, they placed us in straight jackets. In order to get saved, we had to lose much of ourselves.

The closet holds much more than just our orientation. Whole parts of our personalities, preferences and expression get stuffed in there next to our dreams and desires. That we emerge and reclaim our lives is nothing short of miraculous. That I choose to be part of a faith community today after having one imposed on me so aggressively, I find hard to believe. But I have emerged and integrated my life after years of living a fractured existence. You see, change is possible. And special orders are welcome.

Talkin’ Trash about John Smid

Shortly after I reported that John Smid had resigned from Love in Action, lots of folks have speculated as to the reasons. We may know soon enough. Yesterday evening I heard from someone who had read the letter that went out to supporters announcing John’s resignation, who told me it does not take effect until July. Perhaps we will know more when the program makes their official public statement in their newsletter in April.

Last summer John gave a talk about masturbation where he made what sounded to me and many others bizarre references to his wife and to her vagina. Since the news broke of John’s resignation, stories have begun to swirl along with jokes quoting John’s talk.

For me perhaps some of this vagina talk would be funny right now if I didn’t know John Smid and especially his wife. She is a lovely, kind woman. I also was married to a woman when I was ex-gay, and she suffered greatly because of my gay orientation and our failed marriage. I suffered greatly too.

We have no indication that John has been unfaithful. From everything I hear from folks in Memphis, he is not leaving in disgrace. Although some folks may wish to see such an outcome after all the harm that many of us experienced in Love in Action, some of this sounds downright cruel and petty. Lord knows I get angry about a lot of this stuff. It has affected me and my family in devastating ways. I attended that awful program for two years.

But these are people we are talking about.

No question, Ex-Gay leaders need to be held accountable for the harm they cause, for the uniformed misguided programs they create, and the dangerously misleading statements they make. But that doesn’t give me license to treat them like shit.

Perhaps I am just a sappy Quaker who believes the crazy notion that that of God is in everyone. But I cannot forget that for most of my adult life I had been a born-again, Evangelical, Conservative Republican Christian who was very very anti-gay (and self-hating). I have changed dramatically. Change is possible. It was a hard road to make the changes I had to make, to question my world view, to see just how wrong I was. But it becomes even more difficult when people assume the worse and hurl insults.

I have been one of the most constant critics of Love in Action, and I will be thrilled the day that program completely shuts its doors. May that day come quickly! But I was one of them, and I care what happens to them, and I hope that they find a better way.

Premiere of New Film about Ex-Gay Movement

Someone has to make the mockumentary, Not Another Ex-Gay Movie! The film festival circuit is about to be glutted with a rush of ex-gay docs and films. Although I have yet to see it, I hear wonderful things about Jessica Yu’s film Protagonist, which features four very different men who each follow a similar journey. One of the subjects is Mark Pierpoint, a former ex-gay and ex-gay minister.

The newest ex-gay doc to hit the screens is Bill Hussung and Mishara Canino’s Chasing the Devil: Inside the Ex-Gay Movement which premieres March 29th at the Birmingham SHOUT Gay & Lesbian Film Festival.

CHASING THE DEVIL: INSIDE THE EX-GAY MOVEMENT is a feature documentary film presenting an unflinching look at the personal journeys of four people who claim to have changed their sexual orientation from gay to straight. Their stories mark the first time documentary filmmakers have been allowed inside the “ex-gay” movement and provide an empathetic and, at times, devastating portrait of those who claim homosexuality is an illness that can be healed

You will see lots of familiar (overexposed?) faces in the film–Richard Cohen, Joanne Highley, Me. You will also see some new folks who speak about their experiences for the very first time including my father, Pete Toscano. He agreed to sit down with Bill and Mishara to tell his story as the father of someone who was once ex-gay. I was in the other room when they did the interview so as to give him privacy, but he told me afterwards that he shared about the painful and surreal experience of attending Love in Action’s Family and Friends Weekend.

I interviewed my dad once about the experience. He said,

We went to the meeting and had no idea of what we were going into. We met a lot of parents in the same category. Lots of kids had no parents there.

Everything seemed to be on the up and up at first. Yeah, but we found out these things aren’t so. I said to them, “You can’t change a zebra’s stripes.” They didn’t go along with me, and they were very aggravated with me for saying so. Some people go through two colleges and they don’t have common sense. I hate when people keep things locked up.

They made me feel that I failed you. That’s how I felt after they got through with me. That’s how they made all the parents feel.

More and more diverse voices have begun to emerge from the many people who have been negatively affected by ex-gay programs like Love in Action. Former and current spouses of ex-gays or ex-gay survivors, former ex-gay leaders and now parents are speaking out. When each person comes forward and tells their story, we get a fuller picture of the many ways that ex-gay experiences cause more harm than good.

You can read an interview with the film’s producer Bill Hussung here and watch the trailer below.