The date was Thursday, June 30, 2011. I turned on the television and listened half-heartedly to the commercials as I busied about doing other things. All of a sudden I heard a voice saying, "Over the past few days, NBC News has learned how Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann and her family have benefited from the very government programs she denounces."
At the mention of Bachmann's name I stopped what I was doing and looked up. The speaker was the Rev. Al Sharpton, who was guest hosting The Ed Show. Rev. Sharpton continued talking about the counseling clinic run by Bachmann's husband: "As the Minnesota Independent reports, the clinic has been previously accused of engaging in reparative therapy, or treatment aimed at changing one's sexual orientation. Dr. Marcus Bachmann denies this..."
I chuckled when Rev. Sharpton said this. He won't be able to deny it for much longer, I thought. After all, I was watching this broadcast from a basement in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, having spent the previous eight days undercover in the Twin Cities receiving reparative therapy sessions at Marcus Bachmann's clinic.
The organization I work for, Truth Wins Out (TWO), fights anti-LGBT religious extremism and the "ex-gay" myth. We'd been receiving questions about the Bachmann clinic and reparative therapy for months, and they only grew more intense after the June 13 GOP presidential debate in New Hampshire. Like everyone else, we were aware of the rumors and that no one had yet been able to independently verify them. TWO Executive Director Wayne Besen decided that we were going to obtain that verification: I was to go undercover to Bachmann & Associates in Lake Elmo, MN posing as someone seeking counseling for homosexuality, schedule as many appointments as I could, and document what went on during my appointments with hidden cameras.
When I called Bachmann & Associates to schedule my initial appointment, I told the receptionist who answered the phone that I was struggling with homosexuality. She referred me to Timothy Wiertzema, a counselor at the clinic, and scheduled me for a June 23 appointment.
I decided that the wisest course of action was to make my story fit as closely as possible to my own experience. Of course I'd have to embellish a bit and make a few things up, but it stood to reason that the closer the story I told was to the truth, the easier it would be for me to keep track of what I had said. After all, I was once a deeply-closeted teenage Catholic boy awakening to my own sexual orientation, terrified of what it might mean, too ashamed to tell anyone, and desperate to change it by any means necessary; although those memories are now far behind me, it was surprisingly easy to bring them back and put myself in a similar mental and emotional place. Still, I'd never done anything like this before. As the date of my departure grew nearer, my excitement and nervousness mounted. Could I pull it off? Would the cameras be well-hidden enough? Would they figure out what I was up to? What would we find? I packed my bags, made my social network profiles unsearchable, bid adieu to Michael, my husband of more than five years, and boarded a flight to Minneapolis to find out.
Preparing for my first visit was a surreal experience. I couldn't pay by check since my checks had my name, my husband's name, and a Vermont address. This meant I would be paying with cash and opening my wallet before each appointment, so I realized I'd have to go through my wallet and remove or hide anything that would invite suspicion. My Human Rights Campaign credit card had to go, lest anyone recognize that organization's ubiquitous logo. I left our ACLU membership card behind as well. I also hid my out-of-state debit card and library card, and took the photo of Michael and me out of my wallet along with the copy of our marriage certificate that I always keep close. Despite the hot and humid Minnesota weather, I wore long pants to conceal a tattoo on my ankle of a pink triangle, the badge of gay prisoners in Nazi concentration camps and a symbol of the struggle for LGBT equality. At the last minute, in the parking lot, I remembered that Michael's picture was set as the background image on my phone, so I hurriedly changed it. Finally, I took a deep breath and slipped off my wedding ring, placing it in a plastic bag inside my satchel, right next to one of the hidden cameras. My identity as a proud, openly gay, happily married LGBT rights activist was totally erased. I was ready.
The first session was introductory in nature. Wiertzema introduced himself as a licensed marriage and family therapist who enjoys working with men, adolescents, kids, and married couples. I spoke briefly about my experience and education in music, talked about my recent (fictitious) move to the Twin Cities from my home state of Wisconsin, and answered Wiertzema's detailed questions about my personal and family medical history, significant life events, religious background, etc. When asked why I came in for counseling, I said that I had been struggling with homosexuality for a long time and tried a lot of things, up to and including suicide, to make it go away - exactly how my 16-year-old self would have responded. I said that I was upset: this struggle has lasted for so long that I started to wonder if I was doing it right and decided to seek outside help. All of my sexual experiences, from age 14 onward, had been with men. What I wanted, though, was to get rid of my homosexuality and eventually marry a woman. Wiertzema asked if I had a support system, anyone who I could talk to about this. My response was that I hadn't spoken with anyone. We only had time to briefly touch on my first sexual experience before the session ended.
I felt strangely relieved as I walked to my car that evening. I was totally emotionally spent - inhabiting and conveying the role of a troubled, self-loathing man looking to change his sexual orientation was exhausting, and I missed Michael terribly - but at least I knew I could do it.
At the start of our second session I went straight to the point: what could I do? Would I ever be able to be completely rid of homosexuality, or merely learn to cope with and manage it? Wiertzema's response was that it's situational. Some people have been able to get rid of it completely over a long time period, others over a shorter time period. Still others are able to get it to "subside," down to a "manageable" level, but it's still there in the background. He asked me, "Are you okay with knowing that it might take awhile, and that it might not... maybe not happen at all? ...Obviously, it's not okay, in a way, but..." I said that I wanted to give it a go, that it was better to try than to not try.
Interestingly, this exchange was the only time during all of my sessions at Bachmann & Associates that Wiertzema or anyone else ever brought up the risk of this treatment failing. In later sessions he would say that he "...think[s] it's possible to be totally free of [same-sex attraction]. For sure." and that "It's happened! It really has happened to people." I was never told that every professional medical and mental health association rejects "ex-gay" therapy including the American Medical Association, American PsychologicalAssociation, American Psychiatric Association, and the American Counseling Association, or that the treatment I was seeking was totally unsupported by research. I was never informed about possible alternative treatment options such as gay-affirmative therapy. Nobody ever told me about the potential for harmful side effects like depression and suicidal thoughts. And although I was asked to sign a treatment plan outlining my problem, desired outcome, and treatment strategy, I was never given nor asked to sign any kind of informed consent document that disclosed the above information about "ex-gay" therapy. As such, I believe Bachmann & Associates to be practicing unethically, even by the standards of the American Association of Christian Counselors. This is particularly disconcerting given the fact that Marcus Bachmann's clinic has received significant funding from the State of Minnesota and the federal government.
In the second session, Wiertzema also began what amounted to an extended fishing expedition to find a "cause" for my homosexuality, asking me if I had experienced any physical, emotional, or sexual abuse. In later sessions we would turn again and again to my first sexual experience at age 14. He also insinuated that "there's maybe a feminine sort of tie" between my self-consciousness about my high speaking voice and my sexuality concerns and that I had somehow conditioned myself to respond sexually to male stimuli by masturbating to gay pornography. After I mentioned a (fictitious) memory of discovering a hidden stash of male pornographic images in the bedroom of a friend's older sibling, he said that this experience "obviously... had at least a little bit of a part" in the development of my homosexuality and asked, "What if you would have saw [sic] female pornography [instead]? Maybe you would be talking to me right now about your addiction to lust."
Despite the fact that I never once mentioned having insecurities surrounding my own masculinity, Wiertzema took it upon himself to reassure me in our fifth session that "...because you have feelings of homosexuality, [it] doesn't mean you don't have masculinity. I'm just gonna go ahead and say that." I was encouraged to further develop my own sense of masculinity and my personal definition of what it meant to be a man. When I mentioned that I can objectively acknowledge a woman's beauty without having any sexual feelings toward her whatsoever, I was told that whenever I saw an attractive woman I just needed to reinforce in my mind that she was, indeed, attractive, and that God made her this way and made me to notice her. After all, "God designed our eyes to be attracted to the woman's body, to be attracted to everything, to be attracted to her breasts." Further, according to Wiertzema, "We're all heterosexuals, but we have different challenges." Attraction to the same sex "is there, and it's real, but at the core value, in terms of how God created us, we're all heterosexual."
This faulty reasoning parroted the words of Dr. Joseph Nicolosi, the co-founder of the "ex-gay" organization known as the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH): "There is no such thing as a homosexual, just heterosexuals with a homosexual problem."
Here are a few more highlights from my therapy sessions at Bachmann & Associates:
- I was advised to find a heterosexual "accountability buddy" as I struggled to increase my attraction to women and decrease my attraction to men. I was to confide in, pray with, and be held accountable to this person.
- Bachmann & Associates sells a book written by Twin Cities minister and self-proclaimed "ex-lesbian" Janet Boynes. This book chronicles her supposed journey "out of the lesbian lifestyle." Next to the stack of books was a prominently-displayed, typewritten note that read, "Janet is a friend. I recommend this book as she speaks to the heart of the matter and gives practical insights of truth to set people free. - Marcus Bachmann, PhD."
- I pretended to have just told my brother that I was seeking counseling to help me deal with homosexuality. My brother's (fictitious) response was that I should just come out, because a person can be happy and gay and still go to heaven. My therapist said that my brother "didn't choose his words wisely."
- I mentioned Marcus Bachmann's by then well-publicized remarks calling gays "barbarians" who "need to be educated." "Am I a barbarian?" I said through tears. Rather than contradict his boss' words, Wiertzema opted to doubt the authenticity of the recording I had heard: "It sounds like... something that someone just did. It doesn't sound accurate."
- Several sessions after asking for information about "ex-gay"-friendly churches, programs, and support groups, Wiertzema passed along a colleague's referral to Outpost Ministries, a Robbinsdale, MN-based "founding member ministry" of the discredited "ex-gay" group Exodus International.
- I mentioned the marriage equality ruling in New York and the possibility that some of my close gay friends might now get married. When I asked him for advice on whether or not I should attend any future same-sex weddings, he acknowledged that it was a tough and highly personal decision, but if he were in my situation he wouldn't go - at least not without a heterosexual accountability buddy in tow. When I expressed concern for the well-being of my gay, soon-to-be-married friends' eternal souls and asked if they could go to heaven, Wiertzema reassured me that indeed they could, "if they repent before the Lord and are right with God, later on." When I sought clarification as to whether or not he meant they would need to turn away from homosexuality first, he responded in the affirmative.
Based on my experiences at Bachmann & Associates, there can no longer be any doubt that Marcus Bachmann's state- and federally-funded clinic endorses and practices reparative therapy aimed at changing a gay person's sexual orientation, despite the fact that such "therapy" is widely discredited by the scientific and medical communities. It's time for Michele and Marcus Bachmann to stop denying, dodging, and stonewalling. They owe it to all Americans to provide a full and honest explanation for their embrace of these dangerous and fraudulent practices.
John Becker is the communications and development director for Truth Wins Out, and this account was re-posted with permission from the organization.