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

After receiving
the rules for the program—including bans on
“campy” behavior and private
journaling—Zach reported, “All new Refuge
clients will be placed into Safekeeping for the
initial two to three days of their program,” a
period during which the youths are forbidden any
communication “or eye contact” with anyone.

Zach was livid.
Even prisons let people talk. “May 30—What is
with these people? Honestly, how could you support a
program like this? If I do come out straight,
I’ll be so mentally unstable and depressed that it
won’t matter. I’ll be back in therapy
again. This is not good.”

Many deeply
religious parents are more supportive of their children than
Zach’s dad. Longtime Southern Baptist Kay Holladay,
60, says her 41-year-old son came out to her and her
husband when he was just an Oklahoma teenager, and
they had no problems accepting him. They only recently
left their Baptist church to help start their own group for
“thinking Christians.” A cofounder of the
PFLAG chapter in Norman, Okla., Holladay also helps
staff the group’s hotline. Religion often plays a
role in the anguish of parents who call, she says.
“It’s a constant thread that runs
through everyone’s fears. It’s been hammered
in for decades.”

Holladay stresses
that not all Christians reject GLBT people. She
believes one of the greatest tragedies of modern religion is
the mistaken idea among many believers that a person
can’t be gay and Christian.

Certainly the
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints clings to that
idea with a vengeance. Bryan Olfen, 21, grew up Mormon, a
religion he says counts homosexual acts and murder as
the two most abominable sins. After coming out in high
school he was sent by his parents to a Mormon-run
“behavioral modification” boarding school in
Mexico in the hope that they could “fix”
him.

The program,
specializing in delinquents, wasn’t billed as ex-gay,
but Olfen says it was an unspoken understanding that
they could “deal” with gay kids. For the
four months he was there, he met weekly with a
psychologist, who said he believed Olfen would “come
around.” The program took a rigid approach, and
Olfen says it was shut down on abuse allegations in
2003 by the Mexican government.

Olfen only
escaped the program after he wrote home to his parents to
tell them he was “cured” and had met a
girl there he liked. He says he waxed poetic about how
much the program showed him about himself and how he was
ready to come home and live a straight life. Upon arriving
home, he went back to his closet, where he stayed for
another year.

He began dating
his current partner when he was 17, after which he came
out to his parents again and was told he needed to leave
their home. Being gay was not OK in his
family’s house.

Olfen is now a
junior and a Point Foundation scholar at Emory University
in Atlanta. The foundation awards scholarships to GLBT
youths with leadership qualities who have been
financially disenfranchised by their families.

“It’s very damaging,” says Olfen of
ex-gay programs. “I think the thing that saved
me was that I had come out early enough that I had enough
exposure with the gay community to know this world is out
there. Had I not known that, I think it would have
been much worse.”

Today, Olfen
lives happily with his partner of over three years in
Atlanta.

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