Turning off gays

A loose network of Christian ministries and social workers, with the blessing of the political right, are putting gays and lesbians on the couch, determined to "cure" them.

Published July 18, 2005 7:33PM (EDT)

Last month, the Montgomery County Board of Education in suburban Maryland settled a lawsuit over sex education in the county's public schools, brought in part by PFOX (Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays). The group is a branch of a national network of "ministries" that claim homosexuality is a chosen and dangerous lifestyle, and that through "reparative therapy" a gay person can be turned straight -- into an "ex-gay."

PFOX won a restraining order in May and successfully halted the county's new sex ed curriculum, intended, among other things, to promote tolerance toward gays by treating homosexuality as natural and benign. A judge concluded the school curriculum did exclude other views on homosexuality -- namely, those of PFOX. Under the settlement last month, the county agreed to pay $36,000 of PFOX's legal expenses. The group also gets a seat at the table in drafting a new sex ed curriculum for county schools.

With homosexuality and gay marriage at the vortex of the culture wars, religious conservatives say the victory in Montgomery County will be the shot heard around the world. "This has national significance because Montgomery County is a wealthy, influential school district and the lid has been ripped off an agenda that has crept into schools nationwide," declared Robert Knight, director of the Culture and Family Institute at Concerned Women for America.

"We are going to march across the country and we are going to help parents organize in every county," says Richard Cohen, president of PFOX. "We want parents to check out the curriculum in every place where sex ed is being taught, and if they are advocating homosexuality without any other diverse views being offered to the children, we will help them with a legal defense."

Cohen says he will press Montgomery County to teach that homosexuality is an unhealthy lifestyle that can be fixed. "With respect to the risks of homosexual behavior, that would be fair," he says. A PFOX pamphlet states that homosexuality is a "developmental process not genetically determined" and can be treated with therapy. It notes that gay sex results in surging AIDS rates, drug abuse, "gay bowel syndrome," psychological problems and violence.

The pamphlet insinuates that men having sex with men is what causes AIDS. It fails to mention that HIV can be transmitted through either heterosexual or homosexual contact. It does not acknowledge that of the 50 million people currently living with HIV -- 3 million of whom die annually -- nearly half are women. Nor does it point out that officials worldwide are most alarmed by the rise in AIDS among girls and that AIDS rates among homosexual men in the United States have fallen 27 percent since 1990.

Despite the Maryland settlement, PFOX's claims about homosexuality are, according to virtually all mental health professions, wrong, bizarre and potentially dangerous. "I can give you a short answer of where reparative therapy fits in with the modern mental health profession: It does not," says Dr. Douglas Haldeman, president of the Association of Practicing Psychologists, a group affiliated with the American Psychological Association. "These theories have been discredited for years."

Despite their dubious scientific and therapeutic standing, reparative therapy ministries, some of which accept kids and operate like a cross between churches and boot camps, largely function without oversight and licenses.

Not that science or psychiatry has ever been a roadblock to the religious right. In the nation's divisive culture wars, gay issues have proved to be winners for Christian conservatives, who helped power right-wing Republicans into control of two branches of the federal government (the third may soon be in hand). In the last election, gay-marriage bans passed in all 11 states where they were on the ballot.

Religious conservatives are on a mission to ban more than gay marriage. They want to outlaw civil unions giving same-sex partners some of the legal privileges of married heterosexuals, reinstate state sodomy bans, and defeat hate-crimes legislation that would increase penalties for violence against gays. They are also taking their battle to the states. This spring, the Texas House considered a measure that would have banned gays from becoming foster parents. Opponents argued the measure would uproot 3,000 foster kids. It didn't pass.

The Christian right's political agenda rests on its contention that sex is natural only among heterosexual couples. A sexual preference for partners of your own gender is therefore a psychological disorder and a sin. In the words of the Rev. John J. Smid, who left "homosexuality and its entanglements in February of 1984," and is now the executive director of Love in Action International, a reparative therapy group in Memphis, Tenn., people who identify themselves as gay or lesbian are in the hands of the devil: "Satan, working behind the scenes, has succeeded in redefining the meaning of key words, and therefore we only reinforce and strengthen a false identity by calling individuals by a name that does not apply."

In the trenches to change gays is a loose network of organizations and individuals. Licensed counselors may charge $200 an hour for treatment in an office, complete with a sofa; Bible study support groups may meet for free in a church basement; and Christian ministries will provide inpatient care that can last years and cost thousands of dollars. Exodus International is the umbrella group for reparative therapy ministries, a clearinghouse for information and a referral service for counseling. The group claims over 120 ministries in the United States and Canada with links to 30 more in 17 countries.

Reparative, or "conversion," therapy, as described by its practitioners, resembles something like Freudian psychoanalysis mixed with a dose of Christian theology. The basic theory is that a young boy's futile search for love and affection from an emotionally unavailable father gets contorted into sexual desire for men. "What we are seeing, almost without exception, is the classic triadic family pattern," says Dr. Joseph Nicolosi, president of NARTH (National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality). "That is, a distant, detached, critical father, an overinvolved, intrusive, domineering mother, and a temperamentally sensitive, introverted artistic son." As for women, "We see an early breach between the mother and the daughter at an early age."

This summer, the ministries' controversial methods flared up in public. Gay rights protesters hounded Love in Action after the parents of a 16-year-old boy, "Zach," sent their son to Refuge, an intensive Love in Action therapy program -- apparently against his will -- after he told them he was gay. Just before going into the eight-week program, Zach wrote in his blog, "I can't help it, no, I'm not going to commit suicide, all I can think about is killing my mother and myself. It's so horrible," he wrote.

According to Love in Action's rules, posted on Zach's blog, clients must report sexual fantasies to the staff. The program specifies the exact length of haircuts and how many times men must shave each week (seven). Love in Action bars jewelry and clothing by Abercrombie and Fitch. The rules prohibit "campy gay/lesbian behavior and talk." New clients are not allowed to talk to or make eye contact with anyone for the first three days. Clients have to wear pajamas to bed and if they get too cozy they "must always have exactly one person between them." Clients cannot keep a diary, and all their belongings are searched every morning by the "Chain of Command." All secular media, including music and movies, are forbidden. Also, during counseling -- no "disgusting" faces.

The Refuge program is "like a boot camp, but worse," Zach wrote. "What is it with these people? How could you support a program like this?"

The Tennessee Department of Children's Services investigated the Love in Action facility for possible child abuse but discontinued it because of lack of evidence. The brouhaha exposed an oddity of the ex-gay ministries, which is that they are largely unregulated. Ministries claim they are not hospitals or any other facility that would typically require regulatory oversight or licensing. Love in Action spokesman Tommy Corman says the facility does not need to be licensed by the state at all because it is not doing anything "therapeutic." A bold declaration, considering the group promotes "the prevention or treatment of unhealthy and destructive behaviors facing families, adults, and adolescents," according to its Web site.

Nevertheless, the ministries fall into a regulatory blind spot. "There has been some question of who licenses that facility," said K. Danielle Edwards, a spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Children's Services. "This would not be under our jurisdiction. I have not been able to ascertain who licenses that facility." On July 11, the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities sent a letter to Love in Action, warning the facility that it may be operating without a required license. Results of the investigation are pending.

James Dobson's powerful lobby, Focus on the Family, claims that "thousands" of gays and lesbians have been changed. But statistics are hard to come by, and change is hard to measure. Many of those who have been enrolled in the ministries say conversion programs are emotionally destructive and destined to fail.

Writer, actor and comedian Peterson Toscano did a two-year stint at Love in Action in an effort to cure his homosexuality. "I felt like I was in a biblically induced coma," he says. Toscano, Christian, struggled with his homosexuality as a young man and even considered throwing himself in front of a train. It was only after leaving Love in Action that he gained peace of mind and accepted his sexuality. He says that even if the reparative programs do convince gays and lesbians that they are cured, "It is a ruse because they have to give up their sexuality.

Wayne R. Besen, author of "Anything but Straight, which tracks scandals inside conversion groups, says much of the close coordination between ex-gay groups and the religious right started in 1998, when a conglomeration of 15 religious right organizations sought new traction in the culture war, launching $600,000 in ads in major U.S. newspapers, touting the achievements of the ex-gay ministries, complete with a photo of a crowd of beaming ex-gays. Besen quotes Robert Knight, then with the Family Research Council, who called the ad campaign the "Normandy landing in the larger cultural wars."

During a flurry of media coverage that followed the ad blitz, Newsweek put the ex-gay issue on its cover, along with a picture of Exodus International chair John Paulk and his wife, Anne, who had both allegedly left homosexuality behind. In his book, Besen photographed John Paulk cruising in a Washington, D.C., gay bar while he was still chair at Exodus and worked for Focus on the Family. Besen tracks down a dizzying array of former ex-gay leaders who later came out of the closet for good, including the two founders of Exodus.

Besen also pegs current PFOX president Richard Cohen, who is leading the charge against liberal sex ed in Montgomery County. He writes that Cohen is a former Moonie and an acolyte of the Wesleyan Christian Community Church on Vashon Island near Seattle. According to Besen, citing a 1977 Associated Press report, the group was exiled from an Illinois church for allegedly practicing therapy sessions where men, women and children breast-fed on women stripped to the waist. Cohen responds that he did get therapy from the Wesleyan church but witnessed no such activity. "I have no idea of such nonsense," he says. I have not a clue what [Besen] is talking about. I got counseling from a religious organization that he tried to call a cult. Wayne is a little boy whose main cult is character assassination."

Besen says the religious right is pushing the ex-gay philosophy particularly hard right now to buttress its aggressive agenda on gay marriage. "They are really getting behind this, he says. Exodus spokesman Randy Thomas responds that his group aims to help people and not to serve as a political foil to advance the policy positions of the religious right. "I know a lot of people think that we are pawns of the religious right, but we are not," Thomas says. (The Exodus Web site does include some reports on policy issues, like opposing hate-crimes legislation. "The hate experienced, in the majority of hate crimes, is not necessarily coming from those who disparage others as much as it is from the victim toward himself," one report reads.)

Gay rights groups are not buying it. Ex-gay ministries, and the religious right, are "distorting the truth and the scientific and medical evidence to move their political agenda forward," says Steven Fisher, vice president of communications for the Human Rights Campaign, the country's largest gay rights organization.

It is not just gay rights activists who say that efforts to change gays and lesbians are voodoo therapy. The nation's two mainstream psychiatric and psychological associations, the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association, deny reparative therapy's very premise. Along with the National Association of Social Workers, these groups say homosexuality simply is not a mental disorder. Being gay by itself is not a problem, they point out; rather, the negative mental health consequences of discrimination have been well established and cited as a factor in higher suicide rates among gays. Therapy to change homosexuality may simply telegraph to patients they are sick when they are not, that they can fundamentally change their sexual orientation when they cannot. If so, failed efforts to change could prove disastrous, particularly for deeply religious gays.

"The mental health professions in this country do not value or credit conversion therapy at all. And we are increasingly aware of the potential harms of this misguided treatment," says Haldeman, of the Association of Practicing Psychologists. "There are a substantial number of people who go through this who are harmed for some period. This is just a dressing up of old, old theories that have never been proven."

The American Psychiatric Association has asked ethical psychiatrists to refrain from reparative therapy. "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." The legislative body of Drescher's APA approved a statement this past spring that endorsed gay marriage to help reverse gay stigma. They also cite evidence that stable, monogamous relationships are beneficial for mental health, whether gay or straight.

It was the rejection of homosexuality as a mental disorder that launched the "ex-gay" movement in the first place. In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. But a relatively small group of mental health professionals rejected that move, arguing that the APA caved in to aggressive political pressure from the gay rights movement, as opposed to science.

"That opinion is a political and not a scientific position," says Nicolosi from NARTH. "These major mental health associations have been hijacked by small political interest groups." That's nonsense, says Drescher. However, Drescher says the mental health profession does agree with the reparative therapy crowd about one thing: No one knows for sure what guides sexual orientation, gay or straight, but mounting evidence suggests a biological component. "We do know there is a very good likelihood that [homosexuality] is biologically related. We do have some studies that indicate a biological component," he says. That homosexuality may be innate, Drescher says, bolsters the argument for gay rights. "And that's what the religious right is fighting against," he says.

But Drescher says that whether you take the nature or nurture side of the argument doesn't matter when it comes to protecting the health and civil rights of gays and lesbians. "Even if homosexuality is not innate, you could still argue for civil rights."

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Tomorrow: "It is not what the body is for" -- my private session in reparative therapy.

By Mark Benjamin

Mark Benjamin is a national correspondent for Salon based in Washington, D.C. Read his other articles here.

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