Friday, June 17, 2005

Youth's blog stirs uproar over 'ex-gay' camp

SUMMARY: A youth's online postings about being sent to a rigid "ex-gay" program has troubled LGBT leaders and sparked daily protests at the ministry's Alabama headquarters.

Sixteen-year-old "Zach" is apparently enduring a rite of passage still too common for gay youth: His parents say he must change. When they enrolled him last month in a Christian camp-like program to turn him straight, he documented his fears in his online diary, or blog.
The PlanetOut Network could not confirm Zach's identity or his story, but the blog has sparked a firestorm of protest against the program, known as Refuge, and renewed scrutiny of similar "ministries."
A residential program run by Memphis, Ala.-based Love in Action (LIA), Refuge "ministers to adolescents struggling with broken and addictive behaviors, such as promiscuity, alcohol and drug addiction and homosexuality," according to its Web site.
An estimated total of 150 people -- including parents, children, psychiatrists and other concerned Memphis residents carrying signs that have slogans such as "This is Child Abuse" -- have gathered over eight consecutive days outside LIA headquarters. On Thursday LIA held a press conference in response to the protests.
For LIA, homosexuality is not an orientation but a set of behaviors that lies at the root of all dysfunction. And homosexual desires can supposedly be reprogrammed, through Refuge, at a cost of $2,000 for two weeks, or $4,000 for six weeks.
Patterned after teen drug and alcohol programs, Refuge minimizes contact with familiar things that it claims encourage homosexual behavior: no secular music, no more than 15 minutes per day behind a closed bathroom door, no contact with any practicing homosexuals, no masturbation, no secular music, and -- for reasons not explained -- no Calvin Klein underwear.
The rules above were posted on Zach's blog, which has been inactive since June 3. The policies were confirmed by Alex Polotsky, a spokesman for Queer Action Coalition, a Memphis group formed to provide alternative information for struggling youth.
"Nobody can be straight enough in the program," said Polotsky, whose group staged the protests outside LIA. "We're outraged at the treatment youths receive [in Refuge]."
Exodus International, an umbrella organization for nearly all regional "ex-gay" ministries, provides funding and marketing support for groups such as LIA, Lifeguard Ministries, New Hope Ministries and others. Although "reparative therapy" for homosexuality has been denounced by the mainstream psychological community as tantamount to abuse, "ex-gay" ministries offer hope to conflicted parents (usually devoutly religious and conservative) who are unwilling or unable to accept their kids' sexuality or seek traditional counseling.
Youth (and adults) who enter "ex-gay" programs may suffer from genuine self-destructive behaviors that go far beyond their struggle with same-sex attraction, said Wayne Besen, who wrote the book "Anything But Straight" about the "ex-gay" movement.
"To get help they have to swallow the lie that it's because they are gay that they're having these problems. It works by confusing people. It doesn't matter to them that they don't get results. They get a lot of money from people who really believe this stuff."
"Love in Action seems to be the worst of these reckless religious activities," said Craig Bowman, executive director of the National Youth Advocacy Coalition. "These programs are dangerous because they systematically work on a young person's psyche using junk science as a foundation."
Jack Drescher, M.D., a New York-based psychiatrist and chair of the American Psychiatric Association Committee on LGBT Issues, told the PlanetOut Network that such programs do far more harm than good for impressionable teens. "They may delay the child's coming out for many years, but by the time they are ready to come out, there's been a lot of psychological damage."
Shawn O'Donnell spent eight years in and out of therapy to change his sexual orientation. As a depressed and suicidal 18-year-old, O'Donnell was referred by his pastor to a three-year residential program, New Hope Ministry, located 10 miles from San Francisco. O'Donnell said it only made his issues worse.
"It was hell, very controlling. We couldn't be alone. We were always told to pray harder, and it made us feel ashamed that we weren't using the program correctly," he recalled.
Peterson Toscano spent 17 years and $30,000 to get straight as an adult, but nothing worked. Now a "performance activist" in Connecticut, Toscano has toured the United States and Europe with a satirical theater piece about his two years in LIA.
"'Ex-gay' programs use the term 'gay lifestyle,' which to them includes unsafe sex [and] emotionally dependent relationships," Toscano said. "They know they can't really turn anyone straight, but they can make them not live the 'gay lifestyle.' They are purposely deceiving people."
Though relatively few people participate in 'ex-gay' programs, Drescher believes their influence goes far beyond changing individuals. "They are a pawn in the culture war," he said. "They support the idea that homosexuality can be changed, therefore it is a lifestyle and not worthy of civil rights legislation."
Drescher pointed to an 'ex-gay' convention called Love Won Out, organized by the anti-gay Focus on the Family and held in Texas to coincide with the state legislature's biennial sessions.
"The timing is not a coincidence," he said. "Their purpose is to shape public policy."
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