Another "ex-gay" bites the dust
John Smid, the former Executive Director of Exodus International’s oldest ministry Love in Action, now says: "For many years I tried to fit into the box of heterosexuality. I tried my hardest to create heterosexuality in my life but this also created a lot of shame, a sense of failure, and discouragement. Nothing I did seemed to change me into a heterosexual even though I was in a marriage that included heterosexual behavior."
Yup. He’s gay.
Smid was executive Director of Love in Action until 2008, where he claimed his ex-gay Christian ministry could "restore those trapped" in homosexuality.
In the June 23, 2005 issue of Bay Windows, then-editor Susan Ryan-Vollmar brought to light the plight of a "16-year-old Tennessee teen who came out to his parents and was promptly shipped off to a reparative therapy program has struck a Matthew Shepard-like chord among bloggers and Memphis-area Tennesseans."
Here’s an excerprt from her report:
So here’s the story: a teen from Barlett, Tennessee named Zach (I was unable to confirm his last name; nor have any other news outlets) started a blog on MySpace.com, a Web site popular with teens that makes it easy to create blogs with custom profiles, post photos and send instant messages. He posted the biographical information you’d expect on such a blog: his favorite music (The Killers, No Doubt and Josh Groban among many others); flashes of attitude (he included the tagline "Stereotype me, I dare you." on his home page) and a flattering photo of himself wearing shorts, a t-shirt and sunglasses while sitting on a bed. And he posted more personal information about himself and his family that he likely never intended to reach the audience that it has: he had come out to his parents and his parents, in turn, had decided to send him to a religious-based program to cure him.
He also posted an e-mail he had intercepted from the program, Refuge, a branch of the Love In Action (LIA) ministry in Memphis, Tennesseee, that was sent to his parents. The e-mail contained a copy of the list of rules that new "clients" are expected to adhere to: no "sexual/emotional misconduct," which means that "temptations, fantasies, or dreams" of a sexual nature are to be reported to an LIA staff member; no communication with anyone else, including making eye contact, for the first two days in the program; no contact with friends or family; no wearing Calvin Klein or Abercrombie and Fitch clothing; only clients who are home schooled may continue with their education while at Refuge; and Refuge clients must be in the presence of at least two other clients (one of whom must have at been in the program for at least eight weeks) at all times.
Before the teen had posted the item about coming out to his parents and their subsequent reaction, his blog had caught the attention of E.J. Friedman, a Memphis-based producer and editor who writes for Scenestars, an online MP3 blog geared toward young people age 15 to 28. Friedman, who also blogs at http://cherrybloss.org/, is often on the lookout for younger people who can write about music. He liked the boy’s taste in music and saw, via his posts, that he had a flair for writing. So he e-mailed the teenager and asked him if he had any interest in writing for Scenestars. They e-mailed back and forth a little. But just days later, the teen had come out to his parents and learned that he would be sent to Refuge.
Friedman says he advised the boy "to just run away." But the teen wrote back that he "couldn’t bring himself to do that. He just felt like if he went through the program and did what his parents told him to do" things would eventually blow over, Friedman says. But after the boy posted an item in which he said he wanted to kill his mother and himself, Friedman says, "At that point, I said, ’I can’t sit here and do nothing.’" He fed the story to a friend of his who works for the Memphis Flyer, an alternative newsweekly. The friend wrote about the story. Friedman also forwarded the boy’s blog URL to as many people as he could. The story was quickly picked up. It spread through the Tribe sites, a collection of linked blogs. Within two weeks you couldn’t call up a queer news blog without reading about the story: PageOneq linked to it. Margaret Cho wrote a letter to Zach urging him to hang in there. The Washington Blade covered it. Terrance Heath, an occasional contributor to Bay Windows who blogs at www.republicoft.com, taped a podcast on the story. And Alternet published Mubarak Dahir’s column on it.
The story sparked intense discussion on blogs and online forums about whether or not the teen could legally be considered to have been kidnapped, whether someone could file a complaint of child abuse on his behalf, whether his parents could be sued for guardianship of the boy.
Back in Memphis, the story moved just as quickly. A group calling itself the Queer Action Coalition formed in response to Zach’s story. They demonstrated daily outside the campus of LIA. Local Memphis news broadcasts covered the story as did the Commercial Appeal, a Memphis-based daily. Respondents to an online poll by WMC Channel 5 in Memphis overwhelming opposed the idea of sending a teen into reparative therapy. On June 16, John Smid, the executive director of LIA held a press conference in response to the protests calling for "open-mindedness and toleranace."
Meanwhile, Zach, who was originally scheduled to be in the program for two weeks, which would have seen him released by June 17 or 18, will be in the program for an additional six weeks, according to one of his close friends, who e-mailed the information to other bloggers.
Friedman now worries that the protests outside of LIA may, ironically, have put Zach in even more danger than he was originally. "That’s the big problem with the whole demonstration concept," says Friedman. "He became a poster child for John Smid’s ministry. [Smid’s] like, ’I’ve got to make this one work, otherwise I look stupid.’"
Wayne Besen, author of Anything But Straight: Unmasking The Scandals And Lies Behind the Ex-Gay Myth, says LIA is "the oldest program of the modern ex-gay ministries." It’s also one of the most controversial. One of the founders left the program after a good friend killed himself because he couldn’t come to terms with being gay. Another founder published a book documenting the experiences of six patients who’d gone from gay to straight. But all six came forward to say it wasn’t true. The book was eventually pulled from publication. The most prominent graduate of Refuge, Wade Richards, came out not long after leaving LIA and now advocates for gay rights. (Richards did not return an e-mail for comment.)
The tactics employed by LIA on its clients, Besen says, are the "most cultlike" of the ex-gay programs. "They tell you what you can listen to, they take away everything, family photos, friends, they time you in the bathroom," he says. "We’re talking about some serious, serious mind control."
Reparative therapy programs in general have been widely discredited. The American Psychiatric Assocation says: "The potential risks of ’reparative therapy’ are great, including depression, anxiety and self-destructive behavior, since therapist alignment with societal prejudices against homosexuality may reinforce self-hatred already experienced by the patient."
Or, as Chip Berlet, an analyst for the Cambridge-based Political Research Associates, puts it: "The very idea of trying to change someone’s sexual identity through an authoritarian campaign is Orwellian and can lead to permanent psychological damage. The whole idea of reparative therapy is fantasy. It’s not considered serious except by a group of fanatics."
All that said, there’s nothing to stop an adult from voluntarily signing up. Peterson Toscano spent 17 years and $30,000 on such programs, including two years with Smid at LIA, which also purports to help clients overcome alcohol, drug and sex addiction as well as pedophilia and bestiality, before he finally came to accept himself as a gay man. He willingly subjected himself to "Biblical counseling...[and] extreme religious practices such as exorcisms and laying on of hands." At LIA, he "wrote moral inventories every week" and exhaustive summaries of his sexual experiences and "why they were so wrong."
Upon graduating from LIA, Toscona joined Exodus International, the largest gay reparative therapy program in the world. He volunteered in South America. While there, he stocked shelves with literature claiming that homosexuality is a choice. He had plenty of time to think about what he’d been through and compare his experiences against the claims made by Exodus in the pamphlets and brochures he was handling every day. "I thought, ’Wait a second, this is not right,’" he recalls. "It took three months before I finally woke up one day and said, ’What the hell are you doing? This is crazy.’"
That revelation, combined with the exhaustion Toscano says he felt at having to censor his "every exchange" with other men in order "to avoid any possible sexual temptation" led him to deal with the issues that had made him so miserable but that he had conflated, thanks to his adherance to a right-wing strain of Christianity, with his homosexuality: abuse he’d suffered as a child as well as sexual addiction.
Today Toscano is a self-described "theatrical performance activist" who stages one-man productions such as "Doin’ Time in the Homo No Mo Halfway House," about his experiences in LIA, at schools and colleges around the country. (Last spring, he performed for the Boston Academy of the Arts; visit www.homonomo.com.) This weekend, he’ll perform his show about LIA at the Memphis Gay and Lesbian Community Center.
Toscano also keeps tabs on the ex-gay movement. Last fall, in fact, Smid e-mailed Toscano asking him if there were any ways in which LIA had been helpful. Toscano replied back that it had been helpful to interact with people who could help him with his sexual addiction and depression. Earlier this month, he ran into Smid at Atlanta airport. Toscano had heard from others that Smid was running group therapy sessions that mixed minors from the Refuge program with adults in the residential LIA program. "I asked him directly, ’John is this true?’ He said, ’Well, yes, but this is all very appropriate" [because the therapy sessions focus on talking about feelings and not actual acts].
"How can you have young people in the room with adults with severe sexual dysfunctions?" says Toscano. "I know 16-year-olds and they’re not stupid. They’re going to think, ’My same-sex attraction is on par with a guy screwing a pony.’ No one comes right out and says that but how can they not get that message?"
Smid did not return a phone call or an e-mail for comment.
What Toscano endured was painful. But he was an adult who signed himself up for reparative therapy. Sending teenagers and those who are even younger to such programs is another matter altogether.
It’s impossible to know how long residential programs have been around for children under age 18. No one keeps track of this information, says Berlet. Mel White, author of Stranger At The Gate: To Be Gay and Christian In America and the founder, with his partner Gary Nixon, of Soulforce, an organization dedicated to ending religious oppression of LGBT people, says that ex-gay ministries have been treating children with counseling programs for years. Indeed, the 4parents.gov site of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, constructed in consultation with the National Physicians Center for Family Resources, an organization that advocates for abstinence-only programs for youth and has ties with anti-gay, right-wing religious organizations like Focus on the Family, advises parents of teenagers who may be gay to send them to therapy: "If you believe your adolescent may be gay, or is experiencing difficulties with gender identity or sexual orientation issues, consider seeing a family therapist who shares your values to clarify and work through these issues."
But "the idea of isolating them in a camp" is relatively new, says White, who dismisses reparative therapy as being on par with "leeches and lobotomies."
So what about Zach? No one who’s talking has any real idea of how he’s doing. After eight weeks in Refuge, he may emerge as a squeaky clean, if psychically damaged, spokesman for reparative therapy. He may be horrified to learn about the protests outside LIA, and the intense local focus on his story and his family. His stay may even be extended longer than the six-week term tacked onto his original two weeks.
At this point, the story needs to move beyond Zach. Not just for his own sake, but for ours. He’s not the only teenager committed to Refuge. There are others. And Refuge isn’t the only residential program for gay teens. There are others.
That’s a national disgrace.