This Is What Love In Action Looks Like
In 2005, a 16-year-old named Zach Stark came out to his parents as gay. Their response was to ship him off to Refuge, a program run by "ex-gay" group Love In Action, a Christian fundamentalist organization that formed in 1973, the same year that the American Psychological Association declared that being gay is not a mental pathology.
For unwilling teens to be subjected to "ex-gay" programs that fill them with shame and feart, we hear in the course of Morgan John Fox’s documentary "This Is What Love In Action Looks Like," is completely unacceptable. Zach began a blog about his time at Refuge, calling it "boot camp, but worse," and saying that he was, by turns, "depressed," "worried," and "numb." His blog sparked protests outside the facility, the media got wind of the story, and suddenly the issue became a global controversy: Just how far do parental rights extend? To what extent can faith-based choices that non-gay people make on behalf of gays, many of them restrictive and controlling, be justified by personal faith?
Love In Action’s approach to "curing" gays was profoundly wrongheaded. Their approach was to treat their clients like addicts and impose top-down, external change in the hope of altering the innate sexual and romantic feelings of men and women who are attracted to others of the same gender. The "treatments" they devised included bizarre psychological torments and incredibly Draconian restrictions. Some of those restrictions, such as not letting people wear clothing by Calvin Klein, or listen to show tunes, would be laughable if they weren’t so shockingly rooted in stereotypes of limp-wristed, lisping men prancing around and chattering excitedly about Judy Garland. Then there was the housing situation: When four guys were assigned to a room with only two beds and "things happened," the counselors seemed shocked and aggrieved. But, it seems fair to ask, what were they thinking?
All unintentional humor aside, this is no laughing matter: The results include not only the inevitable failure of such programs to help most gays, but deep and lasting harm that drives some gays to such depths of despair that they kill themselves. Playwright Toscano Peterson speaks movingly about the suicide of a friend and his own time in the program (it only prolonged his suffering; the only "cure" he needed was relief from the closet, and having come out he’s now fine).
This is a film that anyone even glancingly concerned with such issues absolutely must see if they are to consider themselves informed. One of the most important elements of the documentary is the participation of former Love In Action Executive Director John Smid, who became so conscience-stricken over the way the programs like Refuge treat gay people that he resigned. Now Smid says that programs like Refuge don’t turn anybody straight. Indeed, Smid no longer seeks to "cure" anybody; rather, he focuses on ministering to the GLBT community without trying to turn them into part of the heterosexual majority.
There is a happy ending to Zach’s story. The young man, now in college, appears in the film, and he seems like any happy, normal young man. He’s also involved in the campus LGBTQ group. But there’s also a note of warning here: Love In Action eventually shut down Refuge in the face of a growing outcry over the practice of "shaming kids," but Exodus International has taken up the slack and now aims its message of faux salvation at kids as young as 12.
The DVD release offers several worthwhile Special Features. The sweetest among them is a clip showing Fox proposing on stage to his partner, Declan; the most informative is a video of a panel discussion that includes Fox, film editor and fellow activist E. J. Friedman, Smid, and others. Smid in particular has a chance to shine here, speaking about trying to make amends to the GLBT community. There’s also a photo gallery and theatrical trailer.