The new film, Boy Erased, has sparked heightened interest in sexual orientation change efforts (SOCE). The movie tells the story of a young gay man whose religiously conservative family, desperate to turn him from gay-to-straight, enrolls him in Love In Action, an intensive “ex-gay” ministry. While the experience portrayed in the movie was shocking to many people, it was largely an accurate depiction of such programs. I should know, because I’m the former Love in Action executive director played in the movie by Joel Edgerton.
The film was difficult to watch because it vividly illustrated the horrific reality of my own journey over a 25-year period. In 1987, I was taught that my homosexual desires were rooted in sinful places in my dark heart. I was told to submit to God so that he would forgive me of my sinful nature. I was also taught that God was a miracle and through obedience and a faithful life, my sexual orientation could be transformed and I would discover my latent heterosexuality.
When one comes from a conservative Christian background where homosexuality is discouraged, it is easy to get caught in this cycle of shame. I was desperate. I was led to believe I could never be a man of integrity if I didn’t change. So, when I discovered Love In Action, it seemed to be an answer to my prayers. That ministry was part of a now defunct umbrella group of “ex-gay” programs, Exodus International. At the time, I truly believed that they were experts and a “worldwide recognized authority on helping men and women find freedom from homosexuality.”
After 24 years of heart wrenching attempts to live as a married heterosexual man, I became honest and began my journey to authenticity. I realized that through my own desperate attempts to alter my sexuality I also led thousands of others down that fraught path. I’ve spent the last 10 years making amends for the harm that was caused through my faulty messages of change.
While leading Love in Action, I attended numerous conferences through Exodus International where all I saw were desperate, wounded people crying at the altars of prayer in hope that God would give them the miracle they were seeking. Leaders shared stories of their own transformation while covering up that they actually remained unchanged. Year after year, the same stories surfaced about distressed people falling away to their own shame caused by the conditional messages that if they didn’t become “straight” it was their fault. Many succumbed to suicide due to their own despair.
Although Exodus and Love in Action shut down due to a lack of efficacy, there are still ministries across the globe today who peddle fraudulent sexual orientation change efforts. Unsuspecting, vulnerable people still enter these programs because they are terrified of the stigma and rejection they may face, by family, church, and friends, if they accept their genuine sexual orientation or gender identity.
What haunts me today is that the remaining organizations know nothing but failure. Yet, they blithely disregard the mountain of evidence: Thousands of people in their care are not becoming straight as advertised, yet these programs cruelly condition God’s love on transitioning to heterosexuality. This causes painful cognitive dissonance and leads to emotional, mental, and spiritual scars. For many clients, paying for residential programs and therapy sessions can also be a drain on finances.
As a former leader in the “ex-gay” movement, I wholeheartedly agree with the leading medical and mental health organizations that condemn sexual orientation change efforts. The American Psychiatric Association says that such efforts can lead to “anxiety, depression, and self-destructive behavior,” including suicide. The American Psychological Association says, “There is simply no sufficiently scientifically sound evidence that sexual orientation can be changed.” Such “therapy” is considered so detrimental that 14 states and the District of Colombia ban practicing it on minors.”
I also agree with Apple, Microsoft, and Amazon’s recent decisions to stop selling, in their online stores, a “pray away the gay” app created by Arlington, Texas-based Living Hope Ministries. Google should rapidly follow their lead before the app ruins more lives. Such apps are easy to access and compound shame and stigma, while often dispensing psychological advice by people who aren’t qualified and have little or no medical training.
I am particularly concerned by the effects such programs have on young people when their families reject them. Dr. Caitlin Ryan, a researcher at San Francisco State University, found in her 2009 study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, “LGBT teens who were highly rejected by their families were 8 times more likely to have attempted suicide, 6 times as vulnerable to severe depression, and 3 times more likely to use drugs.”
A November 2018 study by Dr. Ryan, who also directs the Family Acceptance Project, reports in the Journal of Homosexuality, “Parent-initiated attempts to change participant’s sexual orientation during adolescence were associated with more negative mental health problems for young adults.”
As I look back to my own 22-year history as an “ex-gay” leader featured on programs such as ABC’s 20/20, I can now say that I was swindled into believing I could change. In so doing, I subsequently deceived many because of my own inability to be honest with myself. I continued to solicit clients and donations for our ministry with a watered-down message that somehow God was providing the miracle of change.
Thankfully, I finally became free enough that I could honestly evaluate my life vocation. I’ve spent a tremendous amount of energy attempting to make amends and clearly speak the truth. It is imperative that sexual orientation change efforts stop before more young people, as well as adults, are harmed. Conversion therapy in any form is dangerous and potentially lethal. The answer is not self-denial and lies. It is self-acceptance and living one’s truth.
If one person, hopefully many, could be spared a life of conflict, guilt, unending confusion and pain through my story, it’s worth sharing it.
JOHN SMID chronicled his journey in his book, Ex’d Out, How I Fired the Shame Committee. He participated in the documentary film, This Is What Love In Action Looks Like. Smid was a special consultant in the recent film, Boy Erased and told his story on a podcast, “Unerased.”