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

Child welfare
advocates are deeply concerned about programs that take in
children on a residential basis and even on some overseas
“boot camps” or “ranches.”
Such camps exist in the United States and in places like
Jamaica and Mexico, where there is little or no government
oversight. Many programs aren’t required to
file even the most basic public record information
since they fall under the umbrella of churches and have a
religious exemption from state licensing and taxes. They may
not tout themselves as ex-gay in advertising, yet they
harbor the same disdain for gayness—far from
the watchful eyes of federal authorities.

Federal
representative George Miller, a California Democrat, filed a
bill in the House in April that would require more
federal oversight of any programs that attempt to
treat children outside the country, citing
specifically the World Wide Association of Specialty
Programs, a secular group of teen-aimed facilities
that have been investigated for abusive and neglectful
conditions. The watchdog group International Survivors
Action Committee declares not only WWASP as dangerous but
also warns parents against Refuge, a program touted by
leaders of the ex-gay movement.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that there is a
concerted, organized, and coordinated effort to target
kids,” says Wayne Besen, author of Anything But
Straight, a 2003 book on the ex-gay movement. He’s
fearful of get-tough conservative religious programs
like Refuge, which offers two- and six-week
residential programs for teens. And outside the United
States, Besen says, such camps “are harder to
monitor. It’s like tracking nursing homes that
abuse the elderly. They don’t exactly advertise [the
abuse].”

Gays and lesbians
may not realize the lengths to which the groups go to
get youths’ attention. In some cases they’ve
resorted to one of the oldest tricks in the Internet
porn industry: using benign keywords to lure Web
surfers. One ex-gay Web site for youths, for instance, uses
“Yugioh!,” the name of a card game popular
with young children, as a keyword that will be picked
up by search engines. Another uses “Walt Disney
World.”

Evergreen
International, a Utah-based Mormon group that targets
youths, has opted to use a scientific-sounding
name—the Center for the Study of
Gender-Affirmative Therapy—to lend credibility to its
teachings. Expanding the program was one of their
major goals for 2003.

Such programs are
often denounced by former members—most notoriously
Exodus itself, as two of its founders, Gary Cooper and
Michael Bussee, in 1979 fell in love, rejected the
organization, left their wives, and remained committed
to one another until Cooper’s death in the 1990s.
(They are pictured on page 45, in the blue tuxedos.) John
Evans, a cofounder of Love in Action, renounced the
program 30 years ago, and a recent statement details
his objections. “Since leaving the
‘ex-gay’ ministry I have seen nothing
but shattered lives, depression and even suicide among
those connected with the ‘ex-gay’
movement,” he wrote in a statement released by
Besen July 30. “I challenge Christians to
investigate all sides of the issue of being gay and
Christian.”

The
ministries’ long-term effect on impressionable young
gay people continues to worry advocates such as E.J.
Friedman, 35, one of about 10 activists and media
representatives who attended a Refuge meeting in July
to hear the “ex-gay” pitch firsthand.
“These are children,” Friedman says.
“I’m so afraid this is going to be the kind of
thing that they don’t even realize the full
effects of until months or even years later. That as
their natural sexual feelings come out, they won’t be
able to enjoy anything. They won’t be able to
enjoy life. They won’t be able to be
whole.”

For Zach, the
Tennessee blogger, being forced into Refuge was a direct
result of being honest with his parents. Unmindful of his
son’s privacy, Zach’s father talked to
Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network,
saying he would never regret placing his son there. (His
parents did not return repeated phone calls, and The
Advocate is not printing Zach’s last name
because he is under 18.)

Zach’s
perspective is related on his blog: “May
29—Well, today my mother, father, and I had a
very long ‘talk’ in my room, where they let me
know I am to apply for a fundamentalist Christian
program for gays. They tell me that there is something
psychologically wrong with me, and they ‘raised
me wrong.’… I wish I had never told them. I
wish I had just fought the urge for two more
years.… I had done it for three before then,
right?”

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