"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
On the front page of the Exodus International Web site is a photograph of several dozen men and women. The allegedly changed homosexuals, or newly minted ex-gays, are beaming at the camera, apparently celebrating their newfound freedom from homosexuality. Standing in the center of the photograph is 29-year-old Shawn O’Donnell, who was enrolled in Exodus programs on and off for 10 years.
Exodus is the umbrella organization, information clearinghouse and referral service for “ex-gay ministries.” These organizations claim they can help gays and lesbians become heterosexual. Exodus was founded in 1976 as part of a backlash against the American Psychiatric Association’s 1973 determination that homosexuality is not a mental disorder. Exodus leaders are embraced by the religious right, including the politically influential Focus on the Family, which holds conferences touting the success of the “ex-gay movement.”
The only problem with the Exodus photo is that O’Donnell is still gay. In fact, he is out of the closet and says he is the happiest he has ever been in his life. The efforts to change him from gay to straight were what sank him into despair. At age 21, in his bedroom at his parents’ house, O’Donnell slashed his arms. “No one was home,” O’Donnell says. “I was in my room and just started cutting. I definitely did not want to live anymore. I bled through my clothes. I had pretty deep cuts.” O’Donnell’s parents rushed him to the hospital, and he spent a week in a psychiatric ward. At the time, he was getting counseling from a group called Overcomers Ministries.
Mental health professionals fear there may be many stories like O’Donnell’s. They say that efforts to change a person’s sexual orientation, notably through therapy programs modeled on boot camps, with Draconian regulations, can be psychologically destructive. The American Psychiatric Association has asked ethical psychiatrists to refrain from “reparative therapy” that is supposed to change gays. “We are finding that the numbers of people claiming to be harmed by reparative therapy are increasing,” says Dr. Jack Drescher, chair of the American Psychiatric Association’s Committee on Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Issues. “I don’t know about the suicides because it is hard to determine why somebody killed themselves afterward. But the harm is increasing.”
O’Donnell grew up Elgin, Ill., about 40 miles outside Chicago. He mostly attended Pentecostal churches as a kid. As for his sexuality, he says he knew something was up at age 6. But he was told that being gay was a sin. At age 18, he began counseling to overcome homosexuality at Leanne Payne Ministries, which he visited once or twice a week for two years.
In 10 years of therapy, O’Donnell was told that a bad relationship with his father may have made him gay, that he may have been sexually abused, and that his mother was overbearing. He says none of those things are true. “At times I was told that I just wasn’t praying hard enough or reading the Bible enough,” he says. But O’Donnell says his sexual orientation did not change. Like a half-dozen gay Christian men I interviewed who participated in ex-gay programs, O’Donnell felt trapped between his faith and his sexuality. “At the time, I could not be gay and I could not be a Christian,” he says. “I could not stop being gay and I did not want to give up my faith.”
Even after his first suicide attempt, O’Donnell tried to change from gay to straight. For three years, he went through therapy with New Hope Ministries. This time, O’Donnell was an inpatient, so he could get round-the-clock help. And again, the therapy didn’t work. While he was there, he made a second suicide attempt, although this time the slashes to his wrists didn’t require him to be hospitalized. He eventually gave up trying to change. “After three years, I finally went AWOL,” O’Donnell says. He adds that he now happily attends a church that welcomes him and his sexuality.
Recently, O’Donnell asked Exodus president Alan Chambers to take his photo off the Exodus Web site. But Chambers, O’Donnell says, told him that Exodus owns the picture and it still signifies that people can change. “I said, ‘How can you say that is true when I know there are at least three people in that picture who have not changed?’” Exodus did not return my calls seeking comment about the photo.
Earlier this summer, I went to a New York screening of “Fish Can’t Fly,” a documentary about Christian gays struggling with their faith and sexuality. The film profiles seven men and women, including O’Donnell, and their futile efforts to change from gay to straight.
While I was sitting in the audience, I met another viewer named Micah, a 23-year-old computer consultant from Des Moines, Iowa. His family went to a Pentecostal church and he had attended Christian schools since the ninth grade. When I called him a few days after the screening, he asked that I not use his full name because he does not know how his suicide attempt might affect his career. “When I left [reparative] counseling, I found myself being more depressed than I was when I started the whole thing,” he says.
Micah says he knew he was probably gay by the eighth grade. “My family would constantly make remarks about gay people and how they were just not right,” he says. “I grew up in a very homophobic environment.” He first saw a Christian counselor about his sexuality at age 16. Being told homosexuality was a sin and a disorder made him feel more guilty and depressed. At age 17, Micah tried to commit suicide. “I basically cleared out the medicine cabinet and luckily enough I ended up just getting really sick.”
By the time he moved to Chicago at age 19, he was still struggling with his feelings. There, Micah tried more Christian counseling through a support group at Willow Creek Community Church, in South Barrington, Ill. Again, though, the experience only left him feeling suicidal. “I was literally at a point that I was ready to cut my wrists,” he says. A friend talked him out of it.
“I’ve been told that I was not close to my father growing up, or that my mother was overpowering, or that I was ashamed of my body,” Micah says. “I’ve heard all sorts of reasons why somebody becomes gay. None of them ever applied to me. I actually have a much better relationship with my father than I do with my mom.” Ultimately, he adds, “I didn’t feel like I could change. I didn’t feel like I had brought this on myself. It is something that has been a part of me as long as I can remember.”
Micah says he is out of the closet now. He is also feeling a lot less conflicted and a lot happier. He blames botched counseling and discrimination for his suicide attempts. “Absolutely, that was the source of it,” he says. “I can’t be what I am and be what my parents want me to be. You feel like you are letting down your family on some level and it is very difficult and very depressing.”
Christian counselors who practice reparative therapy or other techniques to change gays say it is their clients’ unnatural homosexual behavior that causes them emotional pain, not guilt or stigma. Gays can change, they say. As counselors, they say they have a right and a duty to relieve the mental anguish inherent in homosexuality.
Dr. Joseph Nicolosi, president of the National Association for Research and Treatment of Homosexuality, says that gays who are unhappy with efforts to change their sexual orientation are no different from patients who are disgruntled by some other medical treatment. “That can happen in any treatment,” Nicolosi says. “You name any kind of procedure or treatment, and you are going to find people that are really dissatisfied with it.”
He dismisses any alleged harm caused by his methods. “They say we are doing harm,” Nicolosi says. “There is not one case against me. There is not one legal or ethical case against me. Where are all these people who have been harmed? There should be a small busload.”
I tell Nicolosi I have spoken to a half-dozen people who have been through reparative therapy. All are still gay. All feel hurt by the therapy. None are gay rights’ advocates. Nicolosi’s group claims that 25 to 50 percent of those seeking treatment get “significant improvement.” So I ask him if he can introduce me to any men or women who have been converted from gay to straight who are not on the payroll of an ex-gay ministry. He responds that his patients will not talk to me because they don’t get a fair shake in the press. They are done with homosexuality and have moved on with their lives. They don’t want to talk about it now.
Exodus spokesman Randy Thomas also declines to help me meet ex-gays to interview. He says that I can read about the experiences of ex-gays on the Exodus Web site. The testimonials are written by those who say they’ve had troubled relationships with parents or gay and lesbian friends. Some say they were molested as kids, and as adults have had hundreds of sexual partners and used drugs. They describe significant improvements in their mental health when, through therapy, they were able to overcome their homosexuality.
In his testimonial, Tom Cole, the director of Reconciliation, an Exodus ministry in Detroit, says he was harassed, called a “fag,” and beaten up at school because of his femininity. He says he was sexually molested by an older boy in his neighborhood and soon started having sex with other boys. To ease his emotional pain, he says, he had “300 to 400 sexual partners,” hung out in gay bars, drank heavily and used cocaine. A friend turned him on to a Christian church, and he soon met a “former lesbian” woman, Donna.
“After two years of studying the Bible and praying together, I knew my feelings for her were more than friendship,” he writes. “One day Donna came to visit me at work. For the first time, I noticed her well-endowed figure and felt strongly attracted to her. I realized that, at age 26, I was experiencing something most boys go through at puberty. Soon Donna and I were dating. Three months later, we were married. Today, our vision is to help Christians who long for change in their homosexual desires.”
In his testimonial, Exodus president Alan Chambers says his “desires” have changed since he left homosexuality. However, he notes, “a struggle-free life is not what I have found. What I have found is freedom in the hope that after this short life, God will fulfill His promise of healing to completion.”
Damon Bishop, 35, was involved in Joshua Fellowship, a program under the Exodus umbrella, in 1994. He grew up in San Francisco and went to Bible school in Tulsa. He felt that he might be gay from a young age. At 16, he says, his dad found a men’s underwear catalog in his bathroom and threatened to kill him. “He was an ex-Marine and he was a lot bigger than me,” Bishop says. “He said, ‘I brought you into this world and I will bring you out of it. This will not be an issue.’ Talk about being scared straight.”
Bishop willed himself into a marriage, but it soon fell apart. In a desperate act to save his marriage, he got involved in the fellowship. “When Exodus came on the scene, it seemed like a godsend,” Bishop says. “I thought, ‘This is a panacea. This is going to save my marriage.’ You are at this perfectly vulnerable place when you get to Exodus.”
Bishop says he dropped out when he learned that his counselor was still tempted by gay sex 10 years after claiming to be changed. Others in his therapy group had been trying to get “cured” for years, to no avail. Bishop never became suicidal, but he understands how reparative therapy can lead to despair. “There is something implied in all of it that you are not good enough, that you did not try hard enough,” he says. “That can lead to despair and suicide. I have friends who are living their whole lives feeling like shit.”
Many of the men I interviewed were profoundly dedicated to Christianity. What left them feeling so distraught, they said, was when people told them that, according to Christianity, they were sick. Peterson Toscano, a writer, actor and comedian, spent 17 years in various ex-gay ministries before coming out for good. He says that reparative therapy thrives, in part, because the gay community does a poor job of welcoming gay Christians. “If we took better care of our own, we would put these programs out of business,” he says.
Bob Gratcyk, a pastor at Chicago’s Open Door Community Church, is trying to do just that. As a teenager, he struggled with the guilt and shame of being gay. He grew up in Parma, a suburb of Cleveland. At age 17, he went to Bible college. There, he pulled the APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders from the library shelves. It was 1973, the same year the APA determined that being gay was not a disorder at all. Gratcyk’s copy didn’t contain that key change. “All it said was that it was a mental health disease,” he says. “I decided I must be a horrible person. I decided to pursue the Christian side of my life.”
At one point, Gratcyk underwent five weeks of intensive therapy that was supposed to cure him of his homosexuality. “You are put in a situation where you, by nature, are considered evil,” Gratcyk says. “The Christian version is that you are not evil, but your actions are evil. But you cannot separate the two.” Today, Gratcyk, 48, lives with his partner and has reconciled his sexuality with his faith. “I am a man who is loved by God and loves God,” he says.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)