Brainwashed no more

By Kelly Griffith

Originally published on Advocate.com August 14 2005 11:00 PM 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.

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?”

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.