Undercover as an "ex-gay": Inside the sordid world of conversion therapy

Posing as a confused gay man, I sampled these religious conmen's snake oil -- and lived to tell the tale

Published November 26, 2014 11:30AM (EST)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

AlterNet Conservative Christian ministries believe that homosexuality can be cured through therapy in which gay people can be converted to being straight. Muckracking religious groups like the Family Research Council firmly live by this mantra. Back in September these conservative zealots deemed that homosexuality is linked to pediophilia. This is what’s stated on their site.

"Homosexual conduct is harmful to the persons who engage in it and to society at large, and can never be affirmed. It is by definition unnatural, and as such is associated with negative physical and psychological health effects. While the origins of same-sex attractions may be complex, there is no convincing evidence that a homosexual identity is ever something genetic or inborn… Sympathy must be extended to those who struggle with unwanted same-sex attractions, and every effort should be made to assist such persons to overcome those attractions, as many already have."

Believe or not, this was written by a human in the year 2014. Groups such as the Family Research Council firmly believe that being gay is something that can be cured and treated, like poison ivy or frostbite.

This month, the UN Committee Against Torture (CAT) heard testimony from the National Center for Lesbian Rights on “ex-gay,” or conversion therapy. NCLR officials lobbied the UN in an effort to adopt legislation that would ban attempts to change a minor's sexual orientation or gender identity.

CAT heard from NCLR’s Samantha Ames and a ex-gay therapy survivor Samuel Brinton; the two traveled to Geneva as part of NCLR's #BornPerfect campaign whose purpose is to end the dangerous and discredited practice of attempting to change a person's sexual orientation. NCLR has already worked to ban conversion therapy for minors in California and New Jersey, with legislation being considered in New York, Massachusetts and Illinois. NCLR’s basic argument is that unwanted conversion therapy is equivalent to torture and child abuse.

What methodology are these conservative Christian groups dishing out to vulnerable people who are overcome by religious guilt? I went undercover into the sordid world of ex-gay therapy to get a firsthand taste of their process of conversion. Their manifesto is that homosexuality can be cured by embracing an attractive man with long hair and washboard-abs: Jesus. Posing as a confused gay man seeking guidance, I journeyed into the world of charlatans and religious conmen dishing out snake-oil therapy. The underlying message: if you’re gay, God hates you and if you don’t get straight, you’re going to hell.

Back to Hope

I found myself sitting in a small office inside a church community center ready for some conversion therapy.On the wall were several pictures of Jesus, along with a framed portrait that read: “Can Homosexuality Be Cured? The Answer Is YES!” In my hand was a pamphlet showing smiling, well-groomed men hugging smiling, well-groomed women.

It read:

Proclaiming Victory Over HOMOSEXUALITY How Should the Church Respond?

  • Do not fear the homosexuals.
  • Recognize that at the core of the homosexual struggle, there is a deep-seated sense of rejection.
  • Ask the Lord to open a door of communication.
  • Pray for them.

“The best relationship you’ll ever have is with Jesus Christ,” explained a large man named Curtis, who confessed to having struggled with homosexual temptations in college (he claimed to be cured). We sat across from each other. He asked me—as a confused gay man—to describe my history of same-sex attractions. Several times, he referred to himself in the third person when trying to drive home a point with a personal anecdote. When I found loopholes in his logic, he developed an eye tic that involved rapid blinking.

He said, “I used to look into what is best for the church of Curtis.”

Curtis, who cast away the homosexual devil and was now married, listened intensely as we sat alone in his office. I went into graphic details, while slowly rubbing my chest, about my sordid past.

“If you let Jesus into your life, then he will go right to the trouble area and help you with whatever you are struggling with,” advised Curtis, who, like methadone for heroin addicts, prescribed Jesus as a cure for all sins.

“So, Jesus is just like a personal trainer?” I asked.

Curtis smiled. “I like that."

“Feel free to use that if you want,” I said.

Curtis went on to tell of the great perks of becoming an ex-gay, which can include a lifetime of complete, utter celibacy. He then reached for the oft-used cliché, “The best relationship you’ll ever have is with Jesus Christ!”

According to these Christian ministries, homosexuality, can be prevented, if you look for the signs. Pick up a copy of A Parent’s Guide to Preventing Homosexuality, which provides guidelines for concerned parents who want to keep their children from entering the World of Gay:

  1. Masculinity is an achievement. Growing up straight isn’t something that happens. It requires good parenting.
  2. Dad is more important than Mom. Mothers make boys. Fathers make men.
  3. Recognize that most homosexuals were not explicitly so when they were children. More often, they displayed “nonmasculinity” that sets them painfully apart from other boys: They’re un-athletic, somewhat passive, unaggressive and uninterested in rough-and-tumble play. Tip: Single mothers may need to recruit a trustworthy male role model.
  4. Be concerned if you see gender confusion or doubt in your child from ages 5 to 11. There is a high correlation between feminine behavior in boyhood and adult homosexuality.

No mindfuck here, just pure shaky, unaccredited science. These religious zealots rely on the Bible as their main medical science journal.

In 2009, the American Psychological Association condemned conversion therapy and issued the following: "Mental health professionals should avoid telling clients that they can change their sexual orientation through therapy or other treatments." Just last year, Exodus International, an organization whose mission was to "help" gay Christians become straight, shut down after 37 years and issued an apology to the gay community for "years of undue judgment by the organization and the Christian Church as a whole."

Still, PFOX(Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays) has put up large billboards trumpeting its campaign for a heterosexual America. This rambunctious group, based in Alexandria, VA, once sponsored an ad campaign in the subway system of Washington, DC showing a smiling clean-cut man and reading, “Ex-Gays Prove That Change Is Possible.”

As far as homoerotic images go, Jesus on the cross is probably one of the most alluring. On the other hand, Christian anti-gay groups claim the reason for falling into a gay lifestyle is a lack of Jesus in one's life. With that in mind, it was time to seek more unqualified ex-gay treatment. I call a number listed on a Christian website.

"Are you professional counselors?" I asked a man named Jose, who was assigned to help me through my ordeal.

To my surprise, Jose openly acknowledged his lack of credentials: "No, we are not professional counselors. We're people who have dealt with same-sex attractions ourselves. Or we are people who have a desire to help people that do."

I told Jose I started in the gay lifestyle when I was in the military. "It happened with my commanding officer during the Gulf War," I explained. "That was the first time, when I was in the U.S. Army."

In response, Jose explained the cure: "Recovery is not something that happens overnight. Yes, there have been people who have said yes, it's happened for them overnight. Some people think if the sexual side of things is gone, then they are cured more or less.” Jose added: "We call it the process, because it is a process of recovery."

"Do you think it's like envy?" I asked, referencing an ex-gay website which said male homosexuality can start because of envy of the size of someone else's Johnson.

"You know, just from reading up," Jose said, "I think it could be envy of other guys, like if they are more well-endowed... that could be an envy trait."

"For me, it's the complete opposite," I said. "I was much larger than all the other kids in that department.”

"Uh-huh," Jose said, then quickly changed the subject. "Heterosexuality is not our overall goal, because we have a lot of married people come to us. Our main goal is to help them with their relationship with Christ, and from there, sexuality will change them into the person that God created us to be."

It was time to turn the religious tables. "It's kind of weirdly religious based for me," I said, bringing the focus back to my problem.

"Uh-huh," Jose said.

"It's kind of a messed-up sort of scenario. It's really complicated."

"There's actually different roots and different causes," Jose said. I wondered if he was reading from a script. "Some people stem from a sense of envy. Some stem from a sense of anger and rejection. It would really depend on each individual person.”

"Has this case ever come up?" I asked. "The first time I ever felt attracted to a man—this sounds kind of weird—but it was from seeing pictures of Jesus when I was little. I would have this picture of Jesus hanging in my room and it would get me really, really aroused."

Long silence.

"Yeah, it's this weird scenario. I want to go to church and get close to Jesus, but these sexual feelings come up, and it's really inappropriate," I said.

Long pause. "OK."

Gay Shame

I was then directed to a “A Christ-Centered Ministry designed to help people struggling with homosexuality leave their past lifestyle and to fully EMBRACE THEIR TRUE IDENTITY IN JESUS CHRIST."

If there was ever a group to organize a gay-shame parade, this would have been it.

The ex-gay support group’s monthly Friday night meeting was held in an office complex that resembled a meth-addict trucker motel. About a dozen ex-gays were gathered in a circle as I entered a cramped back office filled with numerous books on the subject at hand.

“Welcome Rodney and Steven,” announced the second-in-command, who had excited eyes and wore a large wooden cross. (I was using the pseudonym, "Rodney.") “It’s their first night. Make them feel welcome.”

After being trumpeted as fresh meat, I took my lead from the other new guy, Steven, a teenager with tattoos on all his knuckles who gripped a Bible while staring straight ahead with a distant look in my eye.

For the most part, it was a congenial bunch. I was offered tea and cookies and noted that only two really old guys could be described as “creepy.” (They remained silent throughout the meeting.) I was instructed to take my place on the cozy couch next to the second-in-command. As laughter and talk of a "fallen member" who was back in the lifestyle died down, the meeting began.

“Father, thank you for turning my life around,” prayed the leader, who mildly resembled Mel Gibson with 30 years of hard living under his belt. Like a wise ex-gay prophet, he explained how the “program” began in 1995. He bitterly noted, “That’s when I started my walk out of this mess.”

The group’s goal wasn’t necessarily for members to become heterosexual, but for them to be holy in God’s eyes. “The focus right now is walking with the Lord.” The leader added, “When it’s time, God will pray my wife into me.”

He told the group what he found the hardest thing to deal with: “Several years ago, there was some construction going on down there. And there was this kid down there. Really nice body,” he described. “And he would have the jackhammer going and have his shirt off.”

Laughter erupted and I sensed that some members were slightly aroused.

“It’s important to recognize that men are attracted to men. We’re drawn to masculinity. There’s nothing sexual about it,” explained the leader, which prompted me to wonder, what about guys who are into Thai lady-boys?

The conversation turned to a discussion about masturbation: who was doing it, when and why. As the discussion continued, it became clear—surprisingly, or perhaps not so—that almost all the group members had had serious drug and alcohol problems. Yet they attributed their most severe problems to being in the gay lifestyle.

“I lost my job, my house, everything."

“I did a lot of coke."

“I got to go to my 12-step meeting tomorrow."

“My sexual drive was not normal."

“When I was in the deepest, darkest depths of my sin, that’s when Christ died for me."

It seemed the group members were mistaking personal excess and screw-ups for something to do with gay standards in general.

The leader, who had no psychological degree, went on to explain what homosexuality was: “It’s not a sexual problem. It’s a relationship problem,” he said, stressing each word. “Men feed off of each other’s masculinity. It’s a relationship problem!”




“And that’s the key. God, he accepts me with all my frailty in all my screwed-up-ness, but he has the plan, the desire, to transform me into something that is going to bring him glory.”




“When I had a wife, I was not intimate. When I had a lover, I was not intimate. God was showing me that it was lust. Because you don’t know the difference,” a guy in a baseball cap added.

“What about Rodney and Steven? Do you want to share anything?" asked the second-in-command.

I had forgotten I was calling myself Rodney and was momentarily caught off guard.

Since everyone here had a drug or alcohol problem and had slept with thousands of partners, for reaction’s sake, I changed my game plan. How would they counsel someone who was quite normal but happened to be gay? I told the group I’d never touched drugs or alcohol and that I’d been in one long, monogamous relationship.

“CANNIBALISM!” the group shouted in near-unison.

The leader explained cannibalism, again slowly stressing one word at a time: “You take on the attributes of the other person.”

“I know,” the second-in-command said, turning to me and nodding. “I was in a relationship for 17 years.”

“Men want lust, not intimacy,” the leader said to sum up this and all other gay scenarios.

A guy across the circle leaned toward me. With strong, crazed eye contact, he added: “An erection put into a woman’s vagina is like going into the paradise of heaven. An erection put in anything else is unnatural, and it’s a sin!”

“OK,” I replied.

Keeping the eye contact, he made hand gestures and used the word “erection” at least six more times.

“Can I still hang around my old friends?” I asked. “We’ve all got the same taste in music.”

“I’ll answer that,” piped up the intense teenager, suddenly sitting up. “An alcoholic shouldn’t go into a bar!”

“It will be worth the sacrifice,” stressed the leader. And then again: “You’ll find the best relationship you’ll ever have will be with God.”

I was feeling really bad for these guys. Clearly, they were confusing drug and alcohol problems, coupled with sex addiction and extreme guilt, as sins against God and the world.

Their heartfelt comments were nothing if not depressing.

“To become a heterosexual is not my goal; my goal is holiness, spirituality.”

“Images still plague my mind, but I dismiss them at the door.”

“I used to take the approach that Jesus loves drag queens; now I know it’s wrong.”

It sounded very lonely. The options their religion provided were heterosexuality or complete celibacy, yet obviously, these men weren't into women and never would be.

“I work around a lot of homosexuals, so what should I do?” I asked the leader.

“You might consider changing jobs,” he advised.

“But I work as a costume designer for musical theater,” I said. “That’s what I do. I can’t really change jobs. That’s how I make a living.”

“Then I would suggest putting up a barrier,” the leader counseled. “Because they will try to tempt you.”



“I’m confused. First you’re saying to develop nonsexual relationships with men; then you’re saying to put up a wall?” I asked.

The leader had an easy solution: “Just say, hey, I’m a Christian now!" He raised his hand in a “stop” gesture to illustrate his point.

“I used to be a DJ at a top gay nightclub in New York,” the former coke enthusiast in the baseball cap said. “It’s worth the sacrifice. Give yourself to God.”

“OK, time to get into the hot seat!” the leader announced.

I was herded over to the coffee table in the center of the room. I sat down and bowed my head. Suddenly, 12 fellow ex-gays put their hands on my body, most particularly my shoulders and upper torso, and the praying began. Like freestyle rappers coming to the mic, each took a turn praying my sinful soul would stay on a straight path. As the ex-gays put their hands on and prayed over me, I swore one was massaging my shoulders. The group prayed that the Lord would prevent me from falling back into the gay lifestyle.

“Rodney has a scary journey ahead of him.”

“Evil days! Evil days!” someone cried.

“Please watch over Rodney, oh Lord!”

“Amen! Amen!” someone else exclaimed.

“The righteous man falls several times. Look after Rodney and guide him!”

“Yes, Jesus! Yes!”

This went on much longer than I felt comfortable with. When the praying finally ended, I was handed a box of Kleenex; apparently, I was expected to be in tears.

“Wow!” I remarked, moving my hands to suggest some sort of energy field. “Yeah, that was really great. I really felt something there. Yeah, it was like feeling a force or something like that!”

Afterward, a guy with glasses pulled me aside. I thought he was going to call my bluff. Instead he said, "The Lord showed me a sadness in you."

True, the whole scenario made me feel like crying.

By Harmon Leon

Harmon Leon has written for Details, Gear, Maxim, POV and the London Guardian. He has written for and appeared on the BBC, and performed comedy at the Edinburgh Festival, the Adelaide and Melbourne Festival. He has also performed in England, Ireland, Holland, Denmark and New Zealand.

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