(This article first appeared in the Huffington Post)
(This article first appeared in the Huffington Post)
Back in 1998 Lucinda Williams released Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, an album so rich and raw and real it jarred me, in a very good way. At the time I lived in Memphis, TN, not far from many of the places where Lucinda sets her songs. Her country-fried, bluesy, rock with heavy guitar licks and her tender growl came to me at the perfect time.
I was beginning life all over again. I spent 17 years foolishly trying to de-gay myself through ex-gay ministries, and I had just completed two years in the notorious Love in Action program, a Christian residential rehab designed to make gay men straight for Jesus and the homophobic church. In December 1998 I finally came to my senses and begin to tentatively come out of the closet.
In addition to needing a new wardrobe and new friends (all the church ones dumped me and the ex-gay ones were forbidden to associate with a “practicing homosexual,”) I DESPERATELY needed new music. From about 1984 I stopped listening to any music that did not glorify God, even if most of the Contemporary Christian Music I consumed was so lousy music it most certainly God repent of creating music in the first place. I lived in a born-again Christian cultural bubble and had not seriously listen to secular music since Billy Joel’s 1983 Innocent Man album (which was far from his best.)
In my new life everything felt unformed, which both was scary and exhilarating. I had a whole city to explore–Memphis–which I had already lived in for two years but was forbidden to go to most parts because it was too gay. I traded in my old car for a brand new 1998 VW Beetle with a sunroof and began to live a new life.
There was lots of press around Lucinda William’s new album. I read about it in Oxford American Magazine, and how Lucinda wrote like a poet, influenced by her poet father, and knew how to write and sing about loss and pain and everyday life. That same day I ran out to the big music store on Poplar and Highland (in what had been known as “The Forbidden Zone”) and bought Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.
Then for the next six months I played it on a constant loop in my car as I began a new life. The words of the songs are amazing because they sound so simple, something one person says to another. They sound authentic that way. They sound both familiar and nostalgic.
After nearly two decades of living in the a dark, cramped, dusty closet allowing myself to be micromanaged by church leaders, the title song became my theme song as I sped around Memphis.
Can’t find a damn thing in this place
Nothing’s where i left it before
Set of keys and a dusty suitcase
Car wheels on a gravel road
There goes the screen door slamming shut
You better do what you’re told
When i get back this room better be picked-up
Car wheels on a gravel road
Yeah, I’m outta here! And after living for two years at the end of a dirt track in a house stuffed with oppressed homosexuals repressing everything in our lives, I imagined I was tearing out of that awful time in my life to a new place of sanity and freedom.
But it was the music–the power of it and the meat of it that I needed back then. Even now I hear one of the tracks–Metal Firecracker, I Lost it, or Concrete and Barbed Wire, and I am immediately back in that VW Beetle in the Memphis heat with the AC on high heading to meet new friends at In the Grove or Integrity, still just coming out of the shadows of fear and doubt and shame.
Yesterday I received in the mail the LP (yes, the vinyl LP) of Lucinda William’s latest album, The Ghosts of Highway 20. I have loved all of Lucinda’s albums, some more than others of course, but this new one feels like the first one, but richer–so lush and so tender and so fierce. It tells the story of a strong women who bears scars from the past, still feels the pain, but is still moving forward. Immediately as the first song played I was back in the VW Beetle, but older and wiser and more sure of myself.
In an age of Spotify and digital songs stuck in my head as I make dinner or walk to the store, I am happy to have my hands on this album so I can sit and play it in my room, listen attentively to it, and praise the Lord and Lucinda and the many friends that have helped me embrace a new life.
I went thru hell when i was younger
Deep in the well you’ll see the hunger
To find the strength i got within me
To wrestle with the ghosts of highway 20
Lately I have been faced with the opportunity to extend forgiveness to someone responsible for harming me, some of my loved ones, and many other people–some I know–most I do not. One thing I have concluded is I can offer private, personal forgiveness for someone who directly harmed me (particularly if I wish to continue in relationship with that person.) But sometimes, as a community, we are confronted with the issue of public forgiveness for someone who has injured many in very public ways.
In the case of the personal offense, I can, if I choose, extend forgiveness. It will likely serve as an essential step in rebuilding a broken relationship. It is most effective if the offender communicates regret over their actions, can articulate what they have done, and actually requests forgiveness. My forgiveness does not mean I can (or should) trust the person again immediately or ever. Forgiveness does not give me permission to overlook reality. Also, personal forgiveness is often a private matter.
The public forgiveness is complicated mainly because I cannot forgive someone on the behalf of others. I can personally let go of my resentment towards an individual or a group, but it is not my place to forgive them for all that they have done. Nor do I think it does anyone any good when we immediately offer forgiveness in reaction to an announcement by someone who has begun to consider his previous harmful actions.
Restorative justice requires more than a quickie public exchange–
“I am sorry.”
“You are forgiven.”
Immediate forgiveness and absolution distracts from the necessary cathartic process for both the offender and those harmed. This is not a matter about being too hard on someone like John Smid, who has publicly apologized for his work promoting and providing ex-gay treatment and has begun to unpack his former beliefs. Rather it is a validation of the harm people suffered and the need for an honest and often painful process. While many of us rejoice in happy endings and prefer to skip over the conflict to the resolution, usually its the complicated, messy process that results in a satisfying ending.
When someone, like John Smid, announces a change of heart and seeks to make amends, (after overseeing a residential program that brought misery and confusion to hundreds if not thousands,) I believe that reconciliation with the community he harmed is a process that needs to be conducted thoughtfully and sensitively. If a family member has abused others and then repents, it is complex and difficult work to bring that person back into family life and gatherings. Not impossible, but I believe we must not overlook history or the gravity of offenses committed.
Also, when someone, who regrets their harmful and abusive behaviors, requests entry into groups inhabited by former victims or wishes to be a spokesperson on behalf of those harmed, he has work to do–much to learn and unlearn. In the case of John Smid, it makes much more sense that he speak to his former ex-gay peers still working to undermine the health, well-being, and rights of LGBTQ people, than to present at gay Christian events.
Perhaps as the dust settles from his recent announcements, he is beginning to see what his role can be in the public discourse and in bringing about justice. Yesterday he appeared on MSNBC’s Hard Ball with Chris Matthew and advocated extending equal rights to LGBTQ people. I find that more valuable to me than a written apology. In insisting on rights for the people he formerly oppressed, John Smid pursues restorative justice.
As Sally, a Facebook friend, concluded:
Seems to me that forgiveness is a process of the heart. Reconciliation is a commitment to a relational process.
Finally, I do not believe anyone should ever feel obligated to forgive. If an ex-gay leader approaches me directly and says, “I am sorry,” I am free to respond, “Yes, and you have good reason to be. Now do something about it.” This may sound harsh, but in pursuing restorative justice, peace does not come about by overlooking wrongs. It requires action–amends–a necessary step that not only acknowledges those who have been oppressed, but may also lead to the liberation of oppressors weighed down by their cruel and misguided beliefs and actions.
UPDATE: Two more episodes about Kirk’s story has aired since I posted this entry. You can view the stories and read about it over at CNN Anderson Cooper 360.
Abigail Jensen, a friend and activist over at Transmentors International, contacted me about Kirk Murphy’s story. Abigail and I have worked together on initiatives to address the oppression of transgender people at the hands of non-transgender gays and lesbians. She shared with me a link to the story: Reparative Therapy for Trans Youth: Kenneth Zucker is different from George Rekkers how? It is well worth reading.
Yesterday (as I was in the cosmetic aisle buying new eyeliner and concealer for my transgender Bible play) Abigail and I talked on the phone about how so often transgender and gender non-conforming narratives get co-opted by gays and lesbians on blogs and such and then get absorbed into a political discussion about sexual orientation. As a result, the reality of transgender identities and experiences get erased and get folded into the “gay” narrative. In Kirk’s case he ultimately identified as gay, but there are many sissy boys (and tomboys/butch girls) who identify with a gender different from the sex assigned at birth based. They may be assumed gay or lesbian because they present in gender non-conforming ways, but in reality theirs is a distinctly different narrative.
When addressing stories with gender variance in a child, we simply do not know who that child will grow up to be. Transgender and gender non-conforming children and young adults may fall into the hands of reparative therapists who attempt to “fix” their gender. The impulse to seek “help” from parents and other adults in the child’s life arise from a gay panic with the hope that therapy will curtail any gay or lesbian desires/identities in the future. But the gender presentation may very well have nothing to do with the individuals orientation.
In sharing Kirk’s stories and others like it, we need to be careful to be inclusive of the transgender experience. This sort of terrible treatment does not just happen to gays, lesbians, and bisexuals.
Last night Anderson Cooper 360 featured the story of Kirk Andrew Murphy, who as a young boy exhibited gender non-conforming behavior. Kirk did not act like the other boys, and after seeing a therapist on TV, his parents turned for help to who they thought were experts. Seeking a cure they ended up subjecting their child to cruel and dangerous treatments at the hands of George Rekers and other anti-gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender practitioners.
Kaytee Murphy (Kirk’s mom) took Kirk to UCLA, where he was treated largely by George A. Rekers, a doctoral student at the time.
In Rekers’ study documenting his experimental therapy (PDF), he writes about a boy he calls “Kraig.” Another UCLA gender researcher confirmed that “Kraig” was a pseudonym for Kirk.
The study, later published in an academic journal, concludes that after therapy, “Kraig’s” feminine behavior was gone and he became “indistinguishable from any other boy.”
“Kraig, I think, certainly was Rekers’ poster boy for what Rekers was espousing for young children,” said Jim Burroway, a writer and researcher who has studied Rekers’ work.
And of course the treatments did not “work” in the ways that Reker’s reported. Kirk did not change, he simply suppressed whole parts of himself. Like many ex-gay survivors he went underground. He took on masculine roles, and according to his sister, avoided love and possible partnership. He ended up moving far away from the US to India where we ultimately took his life at age 38.
This is a tragic tale about the dangers of people who offer help while dishing out colossal harm. People like Alan Chambers of Exodus International. People who run local “ex-gay” ministries. Ministers and Christian therapists who counsel lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender people in their congregations that “change is possible.” People who insist that heterosexuality and gender conformity are God’s best and the only healthy way to live. People who target girls and boys who do not behave according to society rules regarding gender and desire. People who offer false promises of a happy fulfilling life if one embarks on a straight and very narrow self-abusive path.
I once forced myself down that very path.
While a few claim they are happy and healthy living ex-gay, seeking an alternative to a lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender identities, the vast majority of us who went down this path say we experienced a world of woe as a result. I spent 17 years chasing the promised change in hopes of being a masculine, heterosexual man of God. Oh I changed, but not how I had dreamed. I grew depressed, isolated, self-destructive, and confused. I have met thousands who have had similar experiences. We have begun to gather, to connect and to share our stories. You can read about some of our experiences at Beyond Ex-Gay.
I am so grateful to Jim Burroway for his in depth, thorough, and thoughtful research and reporting about Kirk and his experiences. I have consistently been impressed with Jim’s attention to detail and his compassion that runs deep and in many directions (read his report about parents who seek a cure for their queer children.) I feel grateful that Kirk’s brother and sister found in Jim someone willing to get to the bottom of the story. I am also grateful to Anderson Cooper and his producers for properly covering this story–highlighting the harm and not falling into the trap that they somehow have to “show all sides.”
If you went through “change” treatments or on your own attempted to change or suppress your gender identity, gender presentation, or orientation, and you see the harm that has come from it, please get help. As Kate Bornstein repeats over and over–Stay Alive. To me this means not merely surviving, but finding how to reclaim our lives, to embrace lief as we undo the damage of these soul crushing experiences.
One resource that may help is Dr. Jallen Rix’s excellent book Ex-Gay No Way–Survival and Recovery from Religious Abuse. For my part I used comedy and storytelling to expose the horror of my own experience. Also, visit us at Beyond Ex-Gay where you will discover narratives, many articles, artwork (including our survivor collages created by Christine Bakke) and more.
Dr. Jallen Rix, co-facilitator of Beyond Ex-Gay, an online resource for people who suffered harm as a result of trying to change and suppress their sexual orientation or gender difference, spent a lot of time listening to former ex-gays. He shares scores of stories in his book Ex-Gay No Way! Survival and Recovery from Religious Abuse. He recently compiled short but powerful messages from those of us who endured anti-gay therapies and ministries. He writes:
It seems that the Ex-Gay Movement continues to be oblivious to the harm they are causing. Here’s just a few tweets that came in since Friday morning. They reveal some of the harm ex-gay survivors have faced and have had to overcome. Each tweet was tagged #exgaysurvivor
Whenever I make a mistake, I still fight the voice in my head that tells me it’s because I’m evil and possessed by a demon – @cylestnichole
After my gay-related exorcism, the only thing that went away was my love for myself – @vcervantes
My family was deeply wounded by Exodus International staff – @p2son
Has barely begun to scratch the surface of the ways they have been harmed by their ex-gay past… it is all too painful... – @never_again4
In ex-gay ministry, I was told if I wasn’t changing to str8t then I wasn’t trying hard enough – @gaysexpert
The twisted Emotionally Dependent Relationship teaching is an invasive species that digs into the brain. Awful – @MJaneB65
The thing is, the silent or implied messages were often more insidious than the direct and explicit ones. – @JarredH
I became depressed and suicidal after ex gay therapy. – @jeraskew1
Never would I have considered that there was a problem with the system. I was made to believe I WAS the problem – @gaysexpert
Being told not to form Emotionally Dependent Relationships kept me in fear of love. http://t.co/97hetHL – @MJaneB65
It was awful because so often ex-gay leaders blamed ME for not trying hard enough or trusting Jesus – @p2son
The only time I’ve ever felt separated from God was during my ex-gay experience – @cylestnichole
I was told that if I was gay, God would utterly reject me – @gaysexpert
God is not the author of confusion, but of love. My time in reparative therapy produced nothing but confusion and hate – @never_again4
They told me that I had gay demons. Then that abuse made me gay. Then my parents failed. #exgay ministers misled me -@p2son
They told me my “boy” was too much and my “girl” was not enough. I became nothing. @MJaneB65
college sent me to ex-gay therapy & all I got was a hospital bill after trying to kill myself bc they told me I was sick&sinful – @never_again4
After 10 years of reparative therapy I was hospitalized because I was suicidal – @MJaneB65
Actual Suicide note: “God would rather have me die now than to live with another gay thought.” – @gaysexpert
‘Love Won Out’ came to my college. After that, I attempted suicide 3 times within one year. I never told any of my friends – @cylestnichole
My counselors didn’t believe I existed. And, like Tinkerbell, poison and disbelief almost killed me. I do believe in fairies! – @connoley
Do you have experiences of ex-gay harm? Tweet yours by using the hash tag: #exgaysurvivor
Wow, I feel like I woke up into an alternate reality–a mind bending Inception-like film. Nothing new for me. I am an ex-gay survivor. I spent 17 years in what is known as the Ex-Gay Movement. As a gay teen I falsely believed I would be more valuable to God, the Church, my family, and my country if I were heterosexual–or at least “less gay.”
So I signed up for string of Exodus programs starting in New York City where I attended support groups nearly every Saturday night for three years. (Exodus International is the group who had an Iphone App that Apple removed after a successful petition pointed out that the app was objectionable and violated Apple’s policies.)
At the NYC ex-gay program they tried to cast out gay demons and insisted, “If any man be in Christ Jesus he is a NEW creation! The old is gone. Behold, all things are made new.” Ultimately I spent over $30,000 on three continents pursuing an elusive cure. The treatments differed from program to program, but the message remained the same. In so many words they taught—“Gays (lesbians and the rest) are immoral. You are broken and need to be fixed. You are sick and need to be healed. We will help you.”
What a surprise when yesterday I read the following statement from one of Exodus’ spokespeople:
“In no way shape or form is our message about trying to cure or do we try to promote that type of methodology or message,” Jeff Buchanan, Exodus International’s Senior Director of Church Equipping & Student Ministries, told The Christian Post.
So I turned to a sexpert, Dr. Jallen Rix, co-facilitator of Beyond Ex-Gay and author of the book Ex-Gay No Way: Survival and Recovery from Religious Abuse. Jallen, was I caught in the Matrix all those years? Is Jeff Buchanan saying that thousands of ex-gay survivors were dupped into believing something Exodus didn’t actually offer?
Jallen shared with me the words of Sean, a fellow survivor interviewed for Jallen’s book,
Living in an isolated area of the country, I relied heavily on the integrity of my group’s literature to help me decide whether or not to join their ministry. I read their promises of “freedom” and “change” with great hope and decided to move to California to join them. Once there I endured months of painful struggle to deny my sexual orientation with no favorable results, and even more disappointing was the fact that no one, no matter how long they had been there, could look me in the eye and say they had really changed. Only then did I realize that the Ex-gay promises were false. Their literature creates an illusion of freedom that does not exist, and they know it.
“Cured,” “healed,” “changed,” “heterosexually challenged,” — There’s no end to the lingo ex-gay leadership coins to infer that homosexuals are damaged goods. They’ll find another term as long as heterosexuality remains supreme. All the while, the leadership ignores the harm it causes in their attempts to enforce their views.
Now perhaps Exodus has a communication problem. I know that some of the folks in the organization struggle over words. For instance, they don’t always know what to call themselves—ex-gay, former homosexuals, post-gay, straightish?
Alan Chambers, the head of Exodus since 2001 particularly struggles to get his point across. In the following clip he wrestles with Montel Williams over the words freedom and liberate. He also insists he doesn’t urge youth into ex-gay treatment (yet his number one goal this year is to reach out to middle school and high school programs)
Only after 15 years of attending a variety of Exodus-member programs, I finally heard one of their leaders admit that actual change in orientation was not a realistic goal. During my first week at the Love in Action ex-gay residential program in Memphis, TN (what would become a two year stint) the director informed us that we would never be heterosexual. Wait! What about the big fat slogan on their website and brochures–Freedom from Homosexuality through Jesus Christ? Turns out it’s just PR. They have a public message and then a private reality.
Still the staff at Love in Action (LIA) insisted that I was malformed, misshappen, sinful, addicted, unwell and desperately needed to be healed; they had the cure. If I endured their therapeutic program, walked through their steps, spilled my guts, allowed myself to be humiliated, than just like the heterosexually-married former ex-gays who led the program, I too could experience “change.”
And I did. Sadly not the change they promised. In fact, I wished I had been warned that as a result of demonizing my desires and going to war against my sexuality and personality with the weapons that they supplied, I would change into a confused, depressed, self-hating, and suicidal mess. The “cure” was awful. During my time in LIA one client attempted suicide and another, during a psychotic break, was stuffed into a strait jacket and carried out by the police.
If you read Exodus’ literature, attend their conferences, follow their links to organizations they endorse, and buy the books they sell, you will hear over and over again that “there is hope for the homosexual. Change is possible” and similar messages worded in clever, misleading ways. And when they say Change, they don’t mean two 10’s for a 20. They target gays and lesbians weighed down with the burden of a family that rejects or may reject them, a church that says “come as you are—except queer,” and a legal system that consistently values heterosexuals over anyone else. Ripe for the picking Exodus offers hope, a way out—a cure.
I have no idea which Exodus International Jeff Buchanan works for. Perhaps he should review the About Us section of the Exodus site.
Christ offers a healing alternative to those with homosexual tendencies. Exodus upholds redemption for the homosexual person as the process whereby sin’s power is broken, and the individual is freed to know and experience their true identity, as discovered in Christ and His Church. That process includes the freedom to grow into heterosexuality.
Being an ex-gay survivor myself and personally speaking with over 1,500 fellow survivors, I can say that Buchanan is correct on one point—Exodus has no cure to offer. Instead they issue a curse for those who submit or are forced to submit to their teachings. They offer harm—psychological, emotional, and spiritual damage. They tamper with their clients’ relationships, careers, personal development, and finances. They make a mess of our lives in Jesus’ name.
So what exactly does Exodus do? They now publicly admit that no one changes from gay to straight. They claim they don’t offer a cure. They say they don’t therapize. What services do they provide? Basically they will undermine your sense of self as they reinforce the notion that you are not good enough as a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer person. They will demonize your desires, and will not even be satisfied if you choose to be celibate yet insist on honestly calling yourself lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer. To add insult to injury they have fought to deny happy homosexuals and transgender people legal rights and protections. They malign LGBTQ people, our relationships, our desires, our dreams, and then they export this message to Uganda, South Africa, Croatia, Singapore, Costa Rica and beyond.
It took me nearly 20 years to understand that Exodus’ vague promise, “Change is Possible” was false and to discover and embrace that Authenticy and Integrity are possible and well worth pursuing.
In September I met Drew, a fellow ex-gay survivor attending the progressive seminary where I performed my transgender Bible play. Like me, Drew once enrolled himself into the notorious ex-gay residential program Love in Action (LIA.) What I call the Homo No Mo Halfway House–gay rehab where gays try to get straightened out in Jesus’ name.
Drew attended the program for a time in the late 1980’s when it was housed outside of San Francisco while I spent two years in the program a decade later under a harsher regime in LIA’s new home in Memphis, TN.
As we spoke about our experiences, Drew insisted that his time was far less severe than what I went through. Compared to the rules and madness of the Memphis-based LIA, his was a holiday camp of sorts. At one point in the conversation Drew almost seem to defend the LIA program and staff even though he had since come out gay. I have seen some ex-gay survivors side with ex-gay programs at times when they feel that the media, activists, and other ex-ex-gays paint a dishonest portrait of the programs.
I understand that no two ex-gay programs are alike. One may advocate “casting out homosexual demons” while another would NEVER condone an exorcism and instead uses a bastardized version of the 12-Steps in hopes of curbing the gayness in clients. The methods may differ, but the primary beliefs are the same–they insist and infer that it is wrong to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, and you must annihilate your sexual orientation, queer identity, and gender differences.
Something else these programs have in come is the potential harm they bring to their clients. Facing that we were harmed and still may suffer from the damage is difficult and painful. It is an acknowledgment of abuse for some of us.
Drew purchased a copy of my DVD Doin’ Time in the Homo No Mo Halfway House, a one-person 90 minute comic exposé of my time in LIA including scenes I reenact of my mom and dad at the now infamous Family and Friends Weekends. (You can see a trailer here)
Yesterday Drew posted a review of my play over on a Facebook note which immediately caught the eye of a famous ex-gay who was once a poster child of the movement until he was caught hanging out at a Washington, DC gay bar. First here is some of Drew’s review:
I watched Peterson Toscano’s Doin’ Time at the Homo Nomo Halfway House tonight. It was difficult to watch, challenging and delightful and heart-rending all at the same time. And although it wasn’t “totally” reflective of “my own” personal experience of Love in Action (mine seemed to be a much “kinder” and “gentler” version when it was in San Rafael, CA under the auspices of Frank Worthen and supported by a small church called the Open Door in comparison and before the ministry was absorbed into a mega-church with lots of fundamentalist money), it really opened my eyes to what the ex-gay movement turned into after I was outcast in the late 80’s/early 90’s, put God on the shelf and swore like Norma Desmond that “if I was going to be a homosexual, then by God, I was going to be a HEALTHY homosexual” (although at the times in my heart I still wondered if that wasn’t a contradiction in terms).
Looking back, and due to Peterson’s marvelously crafted work, I can now see just what kind of bad fruit the seeds of an idea that we witnessed planted in our time (Love in Action 1988) manifested into a ravenous beast sucking the life and joy out of, and even causing the deaths of many of, my brothers and sisters.
As Peterson states at the end of the DVD, our stories need to be told and we need spaces, opportunities and platforms to tell them.My prayer tonight is that God would liberate all those who toil under the weight of an oppressive theology that denies them the happiness of an abundant and fulfilling life. Bring them freedom in all aspects of their humanity and in every act and expression of their divinity. May we find ourselves becoming more and more ourselves and more fully responsive to the God within as S/He is manifest. And may we resoundingly give voice to the call of that Spirit to once again return to the garden; naked and unashamed…After all…We are the only expressions of God upon this earth.
Thank you Peterson for having the courage to tell your story.
I am so glad I decided to use art and comedy to tell my story. Good art can move people in so many different ways.
Within the hour a well-known ex-gay chimed in. He has long since lost his position as a national spokesperson, but he comments from time to time about the issue. I was shocked by his comment:
WOW….I had no idea you felt that way, Drew. It’s ironic how you and I went through the exact same program, the same year, led by the same people and our impressions and outcomes ended up so differently. I am happy, content with my life and choices, marriage of almost 20 years, three sons, and a life that is fulfilling and at peace.
I reeled at the hubris and insensitivity of his statement. In response I wrote:
WOW, you sound like the skeptical sibling when a brother or sister admits that a parent had been abusing them throughout childhood. “But I grew up in the exact same home as you?! Look, I turned out okay, and you really need to not be …so hard on dad.” I am sure you are aware that the vast majority of people who attended LIA ultimately came out gay. Many of these had to work hard to recover from the damage done. I will not invalidate your happiness. If you are genuinely happy lving a straight life, great for you. But for the majority of us, such a life was not possible or healthy. The theories and teachings of Exodus programs caused many of us psychological, emotional, and spiritual harm (as well as tampered with our relationships, development, and finances.) My story should not invalidate yours. Neither should you experience invalidate the experiences of the majority of people who claim ex-gay treatment caused more harm than good.
To help deepen the conversation, Anthony Venn-Brown, the excellent LGBTQ rights activist and ex-gay survivor from Australia suggested the famous ex-gay take a look at Anthony’s article about Situational Heterosexuality, which includes a section about homosexuals in heterosexual marriages.
There is lots of news going on right now about the Ex-Gay Movement including a petition for Apple to dump an Exodus International iphone app. Lots of people get confused about the Ex-Gay Movement, and ex-gay leaders do not help. They massage their message for the public so they almost sound like they are doing gays a favor. But they are not. They insist that heterosexuals and heterosexuality are superior to anything else. I argue that they are straight supremacists. And sadly their efforts to “help struggling homosexuals” has mostly hurt us.
Need to laugh? Need to cry? Need to better understand the ex-gay world? Check out Doin’ Time in the Homo No Mo Halfway House for yourself.
So much is happening in ex-gay world I thought I would update folks with some links and excerpts.
Maria M offers an insightful post about bisexuality and the ex-gay industry. For my part I have seen the erasure of bisexual identities by both the Ex-Gay Movement and in the larger LGBTQ “community.” Along with gender policing so prevalent in both worlds, bi people’s experiences are invalidated, ignored and denied by both ex-gay leaders and by many lesbians and gays. Maria M raises the critical question, How would paying attention to bisexuals change the face of the “ex-gay” industry? She writes:
A question I’ve heard asked time and time again is: how do bisexuals figure into this whole “ex-gay” business? You almost never hear about bisexuality in regard to the “conversion” process. It’s all about being gay and going to straight. The“ex-gay” industry mostly acts like bisexuality doesn’t even exist (unfortunately not too different from the rest of society), and mostly talks about “gays and lesbians”. Every once in a while when bisexuality is brought up, it’s often used by both sides to bolster their arguments of “gay people can change” vs. “they can’t change”. I’ve also seen bisexuality mentioned one time when someone was writing about how they thought that some of the “success stories” presented by “ex-gay” organizations were actually bisexuals who just were not acting on their same-sex attractions. I had hoped this would be elaborated on, but that turned out to be the only thing mentioned about bisexuals.
In its September issue Poz Magazine has included a detailed article, Thou Shalt Fear AIDS, which explores the role the Ex-Gay Movement has had in using of HIV/AIDS epidemic to further its cause with disastrous results.
It’s ironic then, that the ex-gay movement puts everyone—regardless of sexual orientation—at a higher risk of HIV. On the surface, the movement teaches that homosexuality is a choice. But it really pathologizes gay people as threatening the family structure, harboring mental illness, spreading disease and molesting children. And it actively promotes discriminatory laws.
Society responds by denying gay people their civil rights (if it’s a choice, you don’t deserve protections or equality), and by ensuring that schools and federal programs don’t “promote” homosexuality—or basic information about sexual health, including HIV.
All of which fuel the epidemic. It places the LGBT community—and those in ex-gay treatment—in physical and psychological danger.
Trenton Straube interviewed Ex-Gay Survivor, Daniel Gonzales and me for the piece. The article also includes great quotes by Wayne Besen and a historical overview referencing Zach Stark, the 16-year old forced into the Love in Action Refuge program in 2005 and the recent anti-gay legislation in Uganda that was inspired by US promoters of ex-gay treatment. (Over at Box Turtle Bulletin you can see video of some Ugandans’ response to the proposed legislation. )
There’s been lots of buzz about two well-known crusaders who recently publicly announced they are gay. The first is David Yost who played the Blue Power Ranger. Advocate magazine announced that it will publish a long interview with Yost in which he discusses the homophobia he experienced on set and how he ultimately left his career to pursue therapy to straighten himself out. No surprise, that ended badly.
“There were times when I would call prayer hotlines like Joyce Meyers prayer hotline or Pat Robinson’s 700 Club prayer hotline and instead was condemned over the phone.”
Instead of helping, all the prayer ultimately led to a mental breakdown and a five week stay in the hospital — and because his parents didn’t know he was gay at this point, they assumed it was the pressure of having not worked in a while.
Yost states that part of his reason for coming out because “he’s tired of hearing stories about teenagers still taking their lives and committing suicide because of who they are and not understanding that there are resources for them to get help.” (see video with Yost telling his story here)
How refreshing to see an Ex-Gay Survivor take responsibility to turn the ugly machine around. I understand why some people disappear to sort themselves out, but it is essential that some ex-gay survivors come forward to tell their stories. This is especially true for those who served as leaders and promoters of this movement that has attempted to eradicate gays, a movement Dr. Christine Robinson reasons is a form of genocide.
Which brings us to the other “crusader” to come out this week, Ken Mehlman, the former GOP/George W. Bush operative who worked tirelessly for the Republicans which employed a staunchly anti-gay strategy in the 2004 and 2006 elections. According to an article in the Atlantic Monthly:
He said that he “really wished” he had come to terms with his sexual orientation earlier, “so I could have worked against [the Federal Marriage Amendment]” and “reached out to the gay community in the way I reached out to African Americans.”Mehlman is aware that his attempts to justify his past silence will not be adequate for many people. He and his friends say that he is aware that he will no longer control the story about his identity — which will simultaneously expose old wounds, invite Schadenfruede, and legitimize anger among gay rights activists in both parties who did not hide their sexual orientations.
To sumarize, Mehlman has three steps to take before he is warmly welcomed:1) Repent for past sins2) Be honest with the LGBT community3) Work tirelessly to undo the damage and propel the LGBT towards equality
I have seen some former ex-gay leaders walk through these steps and make proper amends. I admire people like Jeremy Marks, Darlene Bogle, Anthony Venn-Brown who have worked for years to undo the damage they caused as Ex-Gay leaders. Others like Michael Bussee have also begun to speak out about the harm of ex-gay treatment.
Warren Throckmorton, who had at one time promoted the idea of change therapy through a video he produced, has begun to be critical of some of the more extreme forms of reparative therapy and ex-gay ministry. As far as I know Dr. Throckmorton still advocates for his own kinder, gentler version of change therapy, albeit one that makes minor attempts to address the reasons people may have conflict with their own sexuality and faith as well as the potential harm of pursuing therapy to alter one’s sexuality to fit into an anti-gay religious context. I have found in the past that Dr. Throckmorton can be defensive about his work and reasonable questions that some of us have raised. As a former oppressor, he needs to understand the suspicions that some of us still feel towards him. His motives and goals are not clear, and while he has been quick to criticize his fellow Evangelicals, he has not provided much critique of his own past efforts. In other words, there is room for redemption.
Perhaps not on the same level as the completely unrepentant ex-gay leaders like Alan Chambers and Randy Thomas, who continue to misinform parents and the public about sexual orientation, bisexuality, transgender issues, “success rates” of change therapies and the potential harm of ex-gay treatments, one oppressor still has a lot of redemption work ahead of him. John Smid, former director of the Love in Action program, recently offered an apology of sorts. Some may see his words as light years from where he was back in 2005 when he justified holding Zach Stark and other teens against their will, but in light of the thorough apologies by his peers followed up by real action, Smid’s words remain hollow and pointless.
The more these ministers of the Gospel realize that the “Ex-Gay Movement” is really an anti-gay movement designed to annihilate anything that does not conform to heterosexuality and gender normative identity and presentation, the quicker they can clear their brains out from all of the smoke and mirrors that keep them oppressed and as oppressors. Heterosexuality and gender normative behavior have their privileges, and these ex-gay leaders have cashed in on these for years through both their salaries and the warm welcome they get from fellow Evangelicals.
Many of us have expended so much energy in denying reality for ourselves and others. Besides a colossal waste of time, these attempts to suppress, contain and alter one’s sexuality almost always prove destructive to oneself and family. I have heard from current ex-gay leaders who feel miserable because they cannot live up to the standards they preach. I know of at least one whotook his life because he could not conform his sexuality to his chosen religion. I know some stay in limbo because they fear the loss of family, friends, careers. Instead of coming clean, they continue to soldier on, sometimes living a double life or else they end it all tragically. What a world of woe with so many victims.
How grateful to see people like Daniel Gonzales and so many other ex-gay survivors reclaim their lives, challenge their former ways of thinking and find peace and joy in authenticity.
Sometimes it’s a good thing to be a failure, particularly when one tries to destroy their personality and sexuality (or assist others in destroying theirs.) The vast majority of people who have attempted to “de-gay” themselves through reparative therapy, straight camps and ex-gay ministries ultimately come out gay. Sadly many of these come out psychologically disheveled and need therapy to recover from the therapy. With stories flying around about George Rekers, a strong proponent of treatments to “cure gays” and legal actions to deny LGBT people rights (all the while using some of his anti-gay earnings to fund European vacations with a gay rent boy while asserting “I am NOT gay!) I thought it might be useful to hear from some folks who took part in some of these failed treatments.
Dr. Jallen Rix is an ex-gay survivor. He has already told his story through his widely read sex column and in the feature length documentary film Fish Can’t Fly. He now has a new book, Ex-Gay No Way! Survival and Recovery from Religious Abuse.
Jallen Rix, as a young Southern Baptist, joined an ex-gay ministry when he discovered his same-sex attractions. Although the ministry did not make him heterosexual, it did manage to destroy any sense of stability and self-esteem.
Ex-Gay No Way is Dr. Rix’s journey through the ex-gay world and what he did in the aftermath to reintegrate positive sexuality with healthy spirituality. Further, he demonstrates that the tactics used in these oppressive environments are many of the same damaging schemes used everywhere in power-abusive religious organizations today.
Jallen along with singer/songwriter Melissa Etheridge will appear on LA Talk Radio today May 14, 2010 from 6-8 PM PST. Check out the Tony Sweet program and learn more. Also check out this video of Jallen talking about his book.
Unlike ex-gay leaders like George Reker’s and others caught out there failing to live a life that they demanded of others, Micheal Bussee, one of the original founders of Exodus International, left the anti-gay ministry and chose to come out with his ministry partner (and then life partner Gary Cooper.) You may remember that Michael was one of three former Exodus officials who issued a public apology in 2007. This apology can serve as a model for people like John Smid, the former director of Love in Action, who has struggled to come up with a clear statement that reveals why he is apologizing and the steps he is taking to undo the damage.
In Michael’s personal apology he issued the same day as the group apology, he talks about the early work of offering “alternatives” to gays, and how it did not work, and more importantly it caused great harm.
I need to say that some had a positive, life-changing experience attending our Bible studies and support groups. They experienced God’s love and the welcoming fellowship of others who knew the struggle. There were some real “changes”—but not one of the hundreds of people we counseled became straight.
Instead, many of our clients began to fall apart – sinking deeper into patterns of guilt, anxiety and self-loathing. Why weren’t they “changing”? The answers from church leaders made the pain even worse: “You might not be a real Christian.” “You don’t have enough faith.” “You aren’t praying and reading the Bible enough.” “Maybe you have a demon.” The message always seemed to be: “You’re not enough. You’re not trying hard enough. You don’t have enough faith.”
Some simply dropped out and were never heard from again. I think they were the lucky ones. Others became very self-destructive. One young man got drunk and deliberately drove his car into a tree. Another (a fellow leader of the ex-gay movement) told me that he had left EXODUS and was now going to straight bars – looking for someone to beat him up. He said the beatings made him feel less guilty – atoning for his sin. One of my most dedicated clients, Mark, took a razor blade to his genitals, slashed himself repeatedly, and then poured drain-cleaner on the wounds—because after months of celibacy he had a “fall.”
In the midst of all of this, my own faith in the EXODUS movement was crumbling. No one was really becoming “ex-gay.” Who were we fooling? As one current EXODUS leader admitted, we were just “Christians with homosexual tendencies who would rather not have those tendencies.” By calling ourselves “ex-gay” we were lying to ourselves and to others. We were hurting people.
Over at the blog Box Turtle Bulletin, ex-gay survivor (in a very sexy This American Life voice) Daniel Gonzales has begun to post a series of short videos where Michael talks about his role in Exodus, his regrets and the terrible things that happened in a ministry that set out to help the struggling homosexual.
In this video Michael talks about the the inherent harm that comes from ex-gay treatment and comments on John Smid’s “apology.” Bussee makes it clear that:
It’s the message that’s destructive, it’s the overall message.
As that message sinks in to your sense of self that you’re damaged, you’re broken, you’re in need of repair… that’s the damage.
There are people that don’t become aware of that damage until years later.
In this video Michael talks about what happens after people LEAVE ex-gay treatment and reveals how they never offered any kind of after-care or even checked in to see how people where doing. (Read full transcript here.)
And in this video Michael Bussee, who has known LOTS of ex-gays in his life reveals that NO ONE including the leaders actually changed in spite of what they publicly said. We Were All Still Struggling Silently As We Promised Change (Transcript here)
The holidays can be a drag. My all time worst and weirdest Christmas was spent at a residential ex-gay program in Memphis, TN where they attempted to de-gay me. Hair can be straightened. Gays? Not so much. In the midst of the bizarre rules, the gender realignment exercises and the mayhem of a bunch of gay guys living together trying not to be gay, we attempted to have Christmas. See for yourself what happened.