Brainwashed no more

The firestorm over Zach, an out teen trapped in an “ex-gay” program in Tennessee, has uncovered the far right’s aggressive efforts to force gay youths to act straight. Some have escaped and share their harrowing tales

BY Kelly Griffith

August 15 2005 12:00 AM ET

The low point for
Katie Frick was when a traveling evangelist had her
stand up at the front of a church and had the faithful lay
their hands on her, praying for the change. Jesus
could do it, they assured her, if only she followed
closely enough.

Frick, 18 at the
time, was still fresh from a three-day Exodus
International rally where emotions ran high and nightly
altar calls forced gay teens on their knees. Maybe
they could be shamed into repenting their sexuality.

Frick tried. She
had been sent to the program by her parents after she
came out at 17, a move that led to her two-year journey with
guilt and God. “They are destroying
people,” she says.

Yet Frick
survived. She is now 21, completely out, and an active
member at the Metropolitan Community Church in
Sarasota, Fla. She hopes to become a minister in the
gay-affirming denomination. “My current pastor
has been with her partner for 26 years, and they are very
happy,” Frick says.
“[‘Ex-gay’ programs] don’t show
you that. I wouldn’t take all the money in the
world to go back.”

That world is
only getting more chilling: While programs that promise to
turn gay men and lesbians straight have existed for more
than two decades, experts say that during the past few
years the religious right has banded together like
never before to spend millions on such programs. An
article in the September/October 2004 issue of YouthWorker
Journal, a magazine aimed at those who minister to
young people, says sexuality will be a top issue to be
addressed by ministries in the next 20 years.

“What
makes these programs so effective is the large
infrastructure that supports them, both directly and
through their constant influence,” says
Peterson Toscano, who unsuccessfully tried to “turn
himself straight” in the Love in Action ex-gay
ministry almost a decade ago. Today, he satirizes the
experience in his one-man comedy routine Doin’ Time
in the Homo No Mo Halfway House.

The issue reached
a crescendo in June when 16-year-old Zach described on
his blog at www.myspace.com/specialkid his unwilling
enrollment—by his parents—in a
restrictive program called Refuge, a youth organization near
Memphis affiliated with Love in Action International. A
firestorm of controversy, government inquiries, and
protests by gay rights groups resulted. The Tennessee
Department of Mental Health and Developmental
Disabilities began looking into the program in July, wanting
to know if it conducted improper counseling with
unlicensed employees, and the state’s
Department of Children’s Services investigated the
group on a child abuse complaint, finding the claim
unsubstantiated.

The effort to get
teens to turn straight is being led by Focus on the
Family and Exodus, an umbrella organization for more than
120 programs. Focus, with $136 million in annual
revenue, in 2003 spent $10.2 million on antigay
efforts including its ex-gay program, Love Won Out, and
fighting marriage equality. The year before it reported only
$4.9 million for “public policy
awareness.”

Exodus officials
say launching Exodus Youth, aimed at teens, was one of
their major accomplishments of 2002, and the marketing is
intensifying. The Exodus annual conference in
Asheville, N.C., in July, specifically targeted both
teens and parents who would do practically anything to make
their kids straight.

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