Mark Benjamin has the last of his four-part article in Salon.com on the “ex-gay” ministries.
On the front page of the Exodus International Web site is a photograph of several dozen men and women. The allegedly changed homosexuals, or newly minted ex-gays, are beaming at the camera, apparently celebrating their newfound freedom from homosexuality. Standing in the center of the photograph is 29-year-old Shawn O’Donnell, who was enrolled in Exodus programs on and off for 10 years.
Exodus is the umbrella organization, information clearinghouse and referral service for “ex-gay ministries.” These organizations claim they can help gays and lesbians become heterosexual. Exodus was founded in 1976 as part of a backlash against the American Psychiatric Association’s 1973 determination that homosexuality is not a mental disorder. Exodus leaders are embraced by the religious right, including the politically influential Focus on the Family, which holds conferences touting the success of the “ex-gay movement.”
The only problem with the Exodus photo is that O’Donnell is still gay. In fact, he is out of the closet and says he is the happiest he has ever been in his life. The efforts to change him from gay to straight were what sank him into despair. At age 21, in his bedroom at his parents’ house, O’Donnell slashed his arms. “No one was home,” O’Donnell says. “I was in my room and just started cutting. I definitely did not want to live anymore. I bled through my clothes. I had pretty deep cuts.” O’Donnell’s parents rushed him to the hospital, and he spent a week in a psychiatric ward. At the time, he was getting counseling from a group called Overcomers Ministries.
Mental health professionals fear there may be many stories like O’Donnell’s. They say that efforts to change a person’s sexual orientation, notably through therapy programs modeled on boot camps, with Draconian regulations, can be psychologically destructive. The American Psychiatric Association has asked ethical psychiatrists to refrain from “reparative therapy” that is supposed to change gays. “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.”
Many of the men I interviewed were profoundly dedicated to Christianity. What left them feeling so distraught, they said, was when people told them that, according to Christianity, they were sick. Peterson Toscano, a writer, actor and comedian, spent 17 years in various ex-gay ministries before coming out for good. He says that reparative therapy thrives, in part, because the gay community does a poor job of welcoming gay Christians. “If we took better care of our own, we would put these programs out of business,” he says.
Bob Gratcyk, a pastor at Chicago’s Open Door Community Church, is trying to do just that. As a teenager, he struggled with the guilt and shame of being gay. He grew up in Parma, a suburb of Cleveland. At age 17, he went to Bible college. There, he pulled the APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders from the library shelves. It was 1973, the same year the APA determined that being gay was not a disorder at all. Gratcyk’s copy didn’t contain that key change. “All it said was that it was a mental health disease,” he says. “I decided I must be a horrible person. I decided to pursue the Christian side of my life.”
At one point, Gratcyk underwent five weeks of intensive therapy that was supposed to cure him of his homosexuality. “You are put in a situation where you, by nature, are considered evil,” Gratcyk says. “The Christian version is that you are not evil, but your actions are evil. But you cannot separate the two.” Today, Gratcyk, 48, lives with his partner and has reconciled his sexuality with his faith. “I am a man who is loved by God and loves God,” he says.
When a pharmaceutical company finds out its pills cause harm or kills people, they pull it off the market and brace for lawsuits or sanctions from the FDA. On the other hand, these so-called “reparative therapists” are out there poisoning people with this false science and fraudulent claims — and taking their money at the same time. It’s a huge con, and what’s worse it exploits the two most volatile subjects in our society: sex and religion. That’s why none of the people who have suffered at the hands of these snake-oil artists will sue them and why no district attorney will attempt to prosecute them: it would be seen as an attack on religion, and it would be in defense of gays and lesbians. No one wants to be seen attacking a church even if it is committing a massive fraud, and no one who has any political ambition would have the courage to stand up for the queers.
(Footnote: I got an e-mail from a friend last night who went to one of these “ex-gay” meetings on a bet six years ago. He met a guy there, and they’ve living together for five years now. So I guess these meetings can bring happiness after all.)