Anti-Gay Pundits Attack ABC for Bachmann ’Ex Gay’ News Segments

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Thursday July 14, 2011

The question of whether Bachmann & Associates, the clinic run by Marcus Bachmann -- husband to Tea Party favorite and contender for the GOP presidential nomination Michele Bachmann -- promotes so-called "reparative therapy" reached the mainstream media on July 11, with a report aired on ABC News.

A follow-up on July 12 reported on the stance that reputable mental health professionals take with regard to the practice.

A staffer for Truth Wins Out, an organization dedicated to countering the message that gays are somehow unhealthy because of their sexual orientation and can be "healed" from their sexuality, went undercover, posing as a Christian struggling with unwanted homosexual urges. The staffer, John Becker, attended a series of sessions at Bachmann & Associates, carrying concealed video cameras to record what his counselor told him.

Among other things, Becker heard that God had meant for him to be heterosexual.

Reputable mental health professionals see same-sex romantic and erotic attraction as part of the normal variation within the realm of human sexuality, and warn that attempts to "convert" gays into straights can have dangerous, perhaps even lethal, consequences.

The ABC News item referred to reparative therapy as "discredited," and included an interview with Dr. Jack Drescher, who is the president for the Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry.

"This is mostly faith healing," Drescher told ABC News. "There's a lot of technical language that sounds like mainstream psychology or mainstream psychiatry, but it's not." Drescher went on to add, "This is so far outside the mainstream it's practically on Mars."

Wayne Besen, founder of Truth Wins Out, told EDGE something similar.

" 'Ex-gay' therapy is junk science used to justify a fundamentalist worldview," Besen wrote in an email to EDGE. "Anti-gay activists realize that they cannot beat back LGBT equality with religious arguments alone. So they try to win over mainstream voters by distorting real scientific studies or inventing fake science that appears to back their beliefs. So-called ex-gay therapy fits into this mold."

But the campaign to characterize homosexuality as some form of moral failing or illness can have drastically negative consequences for the very people to whom it purports to offer healing. Drescher warned that gays and lesbians who undergo the therapy "may feel more depressed, more anxious, some people may feel more suicidal because this treatment didn't work."

The report included snippets of the video footage taken by Becker. The Truth Wins Out staffer himself wrote an article on his experiences, which he posted to the group's website on July 8.

The counselor told Becker that God had created male human eyes to register the female form with delight, and suggested that there are no such thing as gays or lesbians -- only heterosexuals who have somehow become confused about the who it is they find attractive. He also speculated that Becker had "become gay" in part because he had seen gay pornographic magazines as a young child -- a memory that Becker made up for the occasion.

"Marcus Bachmann had denied the family's suburban Minneapolis treatment centers employed so-called reparative therapy in a newspaper interview five years ago, but ABC News reported Monday on the experience of a former patient, and on an undercover operation mounted by gay rights advocates. Both provided evidence that practice is occurring there," the text portion of the story recounted.

Marcus Bachmann told a Christian radio program last year that gays are "barbarians" who need "discipline." He also expressed the idea that homosexuality is contagious and could imperil schoolchildren.

Mental health professionals expressed concern at the idea that state and federal funds Bachmann's clinic has taken in -- more $160,000 -- might have gone toward counseling gays that it was possible for them to "convert."

But mental health professionals were not the only ones weighing in on the original July 11 news segment. Anti-gay blogger Peter LaBarbera, who runs a website called "Americans for Truth About Homosexuality," blasted the report in July 12, calling it a "hit piece" on Michele Bachmann and criticizing ABC News for not interviewing an outspoken "ex gay" activist who is close friends with the Bachmanns.

"Folks, it sure didn't take long for the liberal media to go into Christian-bashing mode against GOP presidential candidate Michele Bachmann," LaBarbera posted following the July 11 news report.

Going on to call the ABC News segment "comically biased," LaBarbera lambasted the program for seemingly taking the side of Truth Wins Out, and went on to call the organization " 'Focus on the Failures' because their nonsensical argument seems to be that since many practicing 'gays' fail in their quest to change, transformation away from homosexuality is a myth.

"Incredibly, ABC even went so far as to title its piece 'Pray Away the Gay at Bachmann Clinic?' - recycling TWO founder Wayne Besen's mocking and bigoted attack-slogan for the idea that people can overcome homosexual desires through faith in God," LaBarbera wrote. "Shouldn't it have occurred to Ross to sit down with and interview a SUCCESSFUL former homosexual like Janet Boynes..." ?

In his comments to EDGE, Besen dismissed the idea that Boynes is a spokesperson for any genuinely "ex-gay" individuals.

"Janet Boynes is a fraud," Besen stated bluntly. "She misrepresents herself as an 'ex-lesbian' when she has always been actively bisexual. She is a former drug-dealing thief, habitual liar, bar brawler, and crack addict who allegedly found Jesus.

"I find it quite interesting that, according to her book, she was up on stage preaching about 'ex-gays' while she was still living with a woman and had not actually changed," Besen added. "It shows an intense thirst for the spotlight.

"Boynes, in my view, is a street hustler who quit her job as a maid to peddle her book and become a public speaker. It is important to note that she has not once put forth success stories from her ministry. The one person she did parade on a Lisa Ling special on the Oprah Winfrey Network -- a man named Christian -- had not changed. He was still super-gay and Boynes had him trying to change with cartoonish methods like trying to lift weights."

Besen is not alone in his skepticism. Others have also pointed out that although there are individuals willing to say that they were once gay or lesbian and now have managed to "convert" to heterosexuality, there are just as many, if not more, who say that attempts to be "cured" or even "exorcised" of homosexuality were unsuccessful, and deeply shaming, experiences.

Moreover, it is impossible to know objectively whether individuals claiming to have been "cured" of their same-sex romantic and erotic feelings were ever truly gay or lesbian to begin with. It is not uncommon for heterosexuals to experiment with same-sex relationships when they are young. This does not, however, make them homosexual. As with gays who dabble in heterosexual relationships before understanding who they are, straights in gay relationships cannot simply "change" into gays because of those experiences.

Some individuals describe their "conversions" as a matter of squelching same-sex attractions while concentrating on sexual and romantic feelings for people of the opposite sex. What is unclear in such cases is whether the "Ex gays" are truly gay, or bisexual.

Moreover, many "ex gays" describe their inner lives as a daily "struggle" against innate same-sex attraction. Some describe conquering homosexual attraction only at the cost of all sexual impulses, leaving them without conscious sexual urges of any sort.

Nature, Nurture... Choice?

But ABC News did speak with Andrew Ramirez, who was sent to Bachmann's clinic at the age of 17 by his conservative Christian stepfather. Ramirez told ABC News that his counselor told him that the "path for my therapy would be to read the Bible, pray to God that I would no longer be gay." Also: "And God would forgive me if I were straight."

The notion that to be gay is "sinful" and gays are destined to be damned to Hell is widespread among evangelical churches, which believe that gays and lesbians "choose" their sexuality. The religious idea that gays can, and should, change into heterosexuals is a religious tenet that translates at the ballot box into votes denying civil equality to GLBT individuals and their families. It also puts pressure on politicians to block GLBT friendly measures or to promote anti-gay legislation.

That notion also seems to pervade critics of the GLBT civil rights movement, who decry the very idea that gays are denied equal rights and object to the characterization of GLBT activists working to gain civil parity.

Anti-gay writer Cliff Kincaid posted a July 12 item at Accuracy in Media that blasted ABC for the segment and declared that reporter Brian Ross had "been reduced to recycling left-wing material from the homosexual lobby.

"But the pathetic hit job he narrated on Monday's ABC Nightline show on GOP presidential candidate Michele Bachmann has backfired in a big way," Kincaid continued. "The charge was that the Bachmann family counseling service engages in terrible things by teaching homosexuals how to leave their disease-ridden lifestyle."

Added Kincaid, "Of course, the notion of the Bible condemning homosexual behavior, reflected in several passages, was viewed as bizarre and intolerant."

At the similarly themed site NewsBusters, a site dedicated to "Exposing & Combating Liberal Media Bias," a July 13 article attacked not only ABC but also NBC, claiming that both outlets had implied that the undercover investigation undertaken by Truth Wins Out had, in fact, been carried out by their respective news teams.

Characterizing the video Becker made with hidden cameras as a "sting" operation -- perhaps not unlike that carried out against Planned Parenthood earlier this year by an anti-abortion -- the NewsBusters piece declaimed, "Of course, Besen's group doesn't use a moral foundation of truth when they're trying to fool the Bachmanns about their need for counseling."

Similar stories of what happens behind closed doors or in remote locales where "reparative therapy" is offered have surfaced on previous occasions, and have entailed a writer or journalist (sometimes straight, sometimes gay) entering into such a program under the pretense of being gay and unhappy about it.

In one instance, a heterosexual writer named Ted Cox undertook to glean insight about what makes so-called "conversion" operations tick. Cox took part in a voluntary retreat for adults struggling with "SSA," or same-sex attraction -- in short, gay men who want to be straight.

Cox's article, published first at AlterNet and then at men's online magazine The Good Men Project, described how Cox infiltrated a retreat called "Journey into Manhood," or "JiM" for short. Many of the men at the retreat, Cox wrote in his account, were married and had children. They also had a secret they wrestled with and concealed in shame: They had sexual feelings for other men.

Although Cox came away having witnessed what he called " 'Are you kidding me?' moments," he also felt sympathy for the men at the retreat hoping that the weekend would nudge their innate and spontaneous feelings toward members of the opposite sex.

"To be fair, I had several positive experiences that weekend," Cox wrote. "I saw several men, some for the first time in their lives, lose the anxiety they felt about their sexual orientation. Up until that weekend, some of them had never told anyone about their struggle with SSA. In the course of the retreat, they would relax around other men who struggled the same way they did."

However, Cox did not believe that the retreat was going to be therapeutic in the manner advertised. None the men at the retreat, Cox suggested, was going to be "cured" of their homosexuality. Describing one exercise in which men explore non-sexual therapeutic touch in a bid to re-create lost moments of masculine physical affection -- moments of security from a central male figure, namely a father -- Cox talked about how he felt the erection of his partner in the exercise pressing into his back as he settled into the man's embrace.

But Cox, too, struggled with secrets and shame. He was, during this retreat weekend, a closeted straight man. His cover story was a mixture of truth and falsehood created to establish his fictitious same-sex attraction and account for his largely fabricated motives for being there. "Yes, I'm lying to them," wrote Cox at one juncture. "And I feel horrible for it. It doesn't help that from our long conversation during the ride to camp, I learn that these guys are good men, the kind of people you hope to have as neighbors."

The NewsBusters article were unclear about whether all undercover investigations are, by nature, "immoral" or constitutes "sting" operations. The article acknowledged that, "Reparative therapy is certainly controversial," and went on from there to declare, "but when networks say 'experts' condemn it, viewers ought to understand there's a lot of political lobbying involved, not just a pristine scientific inquiry.

"There's also an actual journalistic point here if the Bachmanns have misled the public about what goes on inside the clinic," the article allowed. "The question then is whether there's a liberal double standard on who will be investigated, or 'stung.' "

Besen agreed that the undercover nature of the staffer belonging to his organization could be seen as a "sting."

"I would agree that this was a sting operation in the same way all solid investigative reporting is essentially a sting operation," Besen told EDGE. "The right wing is whining the same way sleazy restaurant owners whine when the health department has surprise inspections and find rats and roaches.

"I find it interesting that this moral values crowd does not seem the slightest bit concerned that Marcus Bachmann lied about the therapy that his clinic practices," Besen added. "If Bachmann & Associates had not practiced unethical therapy, we'd have nothing to report."

Even as right-wing bloggers were furiously attacking ABC News, Michele Bachmann herself remained silent on the issue, as did her husband. In the ABC News video, Bachmann, approached by reporters, wore a fixed smile as she hurried past, saying that she would not be speaking to the press.

Michele Bachmann ignited another controversy when she was the first GOP presidential hopeful to sign onto a 14-point campaign agenda by an extremist anti-gay Iowa group. The document claimed that gays are a health menace who "choose" their sexuality, and suggested that African American children were better in the days of slavery than they are now. Another anti-gay politician, Rick Santorum, also signed on.

Bachmann's fellow front-runner among GOP hopefuls, Mitt Romney, refused to sign the document, the Associated Press reported on July 13.

"Andrea Saul, a spokeswoman for Romney, told The Associated Press in a written statement Tuesday that Romney 'strongly supports traditional marriage,' but that the oath 'contained references and provisions that were undignified and inappropriate for a presidential campaign," the article said.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.