For decades, Michelle LeClair was a faithful disciple of the Church of Scientology. Giving her time, money, and relationships over to the secretive organization, LeClair was a convert of the highest order. But when LeClair met a gay woman named Charlie, her life was upended and her eyes began to open to the church's many questionable practices. In her new memoir with Robin Gaby Fisher, Perfectly Clear, LeClair describes her escape from the church's clutches and her enduring love for Charlie. LeClair spoke to The Advocate about the memoir and why she calls the Church of Scientology a "cult" that's complicit in "conversion therapy."
The Advocate: What kind of feedback have you received from the book?
Michelle LeClair: Overwhelmingly positive. I feel a greater sense of security than at any time in my life. The comments have been extremely positive and the media has been positive. The Church of Scientology has definitely come out with their statement, which we expected, but you’re talking about a group that’s built on lies; I don’t think too many people care about what they have to say. We had Scientologists following us everywhere in New York on the media tour. That was very obvious. Their job is to try and intimidate, but they didn’t intimidate me, so I feel pretty good!
Your mother introduced you to the church, but what do you think attracts most people to the Church of Scientology?
The good news right now is that [former Scientologists] Leah Remini, Mike Rindler, and Paul Haggis really have forged this path before me and put a great big cork in that hole we fall down into with Scientology. From what I hear, their membership is down somewhere to 20,000 to 30,000, that their churches are empty, and people are not coming into the church.
I can tell you that for me at the time, in the late '80s, moving from Oklahoma to California was very hard for me. I had moved from a world where I was friends with everyone and knew everybody. People smiled at you in the grocery store and had you over for barbecues. California is not quite like that. It was very difficult for me, on top of the fact that I was grappling with my own sexuality and couldn’t quite figure out who I was. The church opened their arms up to me and gave me solutions to things. The church introduced me to people quickly; they’re all about making you feel welcomed, and they seemed to have an answer for everything. At that time, I think I was looking for a group to be part of and they happened to be there.
You say in the book that homophobia is rampant in the church but not as vocal as it once was. Are there efforts within the church to bring it more in line with the times?
[Scientologists] have to be very careful of the image they’re trying to put out and what happens when you're a church member. As a Scientologist, [founder] L. Ron Hubbard’s word is scripture, so those words do not get changed. The Church of Scientology will say to the public, especially because they have such a huge presence in California, "We have no stance on homosexuality or those relationships," but in Dianetics, L. Ron Hubbard is extremely clear on the fact that he believes homosexuals are the lowest of the low, that gay people are sexual deviants, and that we are in the category of criminals. He restates in Science of Survival that "[LGBTQ people] should be disposed of quietly and without sorrow."
When you're a Scientologist, you believe that anybody who is gay is purely an apparition of something else that is going on in their life that is bad. Or they have had one too many bodies in too many lifetimes and they’re just a little confused.
The public needs to know that [this teaching] is gay conversion therapy. I did not know one single person when I was in the Church of Scientology that was out and gay. I only had my own experience that I can tell you that when I did finally come out to the church, there were a handful of women that came out to me so excited and telling me what they were dealing with and "Oh, my God, Michelle! You came out and nothing happened to you! This is so amazing!" and they would tell me about their girlfriends, introduce me to the woman that they were madly in love with, and all of a sudden they disappeared. One person had to go to Florida for session; another girl ended up breaking up with her girlfriend and she was back in session.
I know from personal experience that when I came out in 2010 to them, the few women that I did meet were immediately sucked back into the church.
In the book, you describe going to a restaurant with your future wife and bumping into fellow Scientologists who were horrified you were with a "butch" woman.
Yeah, they really have this vile kind of reaction to it. I remember when I was running human rights [efforts at the church] and I was wanting to team up with the Human Rights Campaign on a child advocacy program. When I went to the human rights director of the church, it was just an absolute no — we will have nothing to do with HRC and I got pulled back into the ethics department about why I would ever think about teaming up with a group that promoted homosexuality. Where I believe it changed is when Paul Haggis wrote his open letter and he left the church because he had two gay daughters and they were being discriminated against. That 17-page op-ed in The New Yorker hit the Church of Scientology very hard, and I believe at that point they stopped being outright discriminatory and decided that they would just change their stance and just say "we don’t get involved," but they cannot change what’s written in the church’s scripture.
When you encountered some of the odd, esoteric, or cruel rules of the church, did you struggle to justify them?
It’s a very long progression. They don’t start off with harsh rules at the very beginning. They are very sleight-of-hand, and they and L. Ron Hubbard actually talk about that you must apply ethics based on a gradient or the person will run immediately, but that your goal is to make sure that they receive the harshest of punishments. So when you’re first in, you don’t realize that. Kind of like when I talked about my feelings. Here I was, 18 and 19 years old, and yes, I was told at first to read what L. Ron Hubbard said about gay people, but it really wasn’t until I was in the church a couple years later and actually talked about an experience that I had with a woman that the punishment was harsher. You are brainwashed to believe that every single situation that happens to you is your fault. If you were raped, you are in session figuring out what you did wrong to pull that in. If somebody is molested as a child; what did they do wrong to create it? If a person has cancer, what did they do wrong to pull in cancer? If they have a disabled child in their life, what did they do wrong to have a disabled child? You are so indoctrinated that you have done something wrong that you never look back at the church, you only look at yourself. It’s not until you get beaten down so badly that, there’s a few of us, that rise up and start to fight back — and if you fight back the punishment is worse.
The church's methodology doesn’t seem loving, it just harsh and cruel. Why would that attract people?
I have people ask me how would I explain Scientology, and I would say that it’s a little bit of a rip-off of Buddhism, Tony Robbins, and wrapped with Star Wars when you’re way far down the line to get out. The thing is, it’s been really well documented that in the 1950s, L. Ron Hubbard decided "How can I make more money? I’m gonna start a religion." This was not a man who sat on the mountain and had this spiritual awakening. Some of the basics of Scientology — when you first get in, is there are past traumas and pains that are holding you back in this life now — sounds like Buddhism to me. There are many lifetimes that you have had and this whole concept of karma kinda sounds like Buddhism. What I found after getting out of the church, I felt like a sponge, I would pick up books of many other religions and all of a sudden my first thought was Wait a minute, L. Ron Hubbard wrote stuff like this, and I would automatically go "OK, wait a second, this was in effect thousands of years before L. Ron Hubbard even came into this world."
The Church of Scientology preys on people that are young and naive. Especially in California, everybody is looking for something different, not the traditional religion, and to walk in and say, "Yes, there are painful things that have happened to me in my past and I do believe they are affecting me today," that would be fine if you addressed those. Instead, when you get taken in session, you get directed to where they want you to address them. You keep getting asked, "Well, what did you do to create it?" and you truly start to believe it.
When you walk out of session, you don’t think to yourself Wow, they were really mean to me; the auditor is very nice when they’re asking you these questions, but you really start to internalize. You learn that any sort of emotion is purely from something that you have withheld or something that you’re hiding in your life, that we should be able to go through life without emotions — that also means love. You do not see very loving people, but you do see people who act loving. You know the difference between acting. Somebody comes up to you with a great smile on their face and they’re always happy, but you just can’t quite connect. They really don’t care about you, they really don’t love you, and there is no element of compassion. I never found a compassionate person in the Church of Scientology.
It’s such a shame that this modern religion couldn't abandon all the dogma that goes along with other, older religions.
What we have to realize is that this religion was created to create money. So this was not somebody who was trying to do something different because he was harmed by the Catholic Church or by Mormonism or by a religion that was going after him; this was the man who created his own money. So Scientologists are made to believe that the definition of success is not about how much you love or how many beautiful relationships people have; it is how much money you make, how well-known are you, and how successful is your business. It is sad to me that we in the LGBT community have to deal with so many religions in an environment that is not about love and acceptance. This group stands there and says that "we have no stance on it" but yet they do.
If you’re the Catholic Church and you wanna be very open and say, "We do not believe in gay marriage," OK, if you were a gay person who decided to now become Catholic, that’s probably not the best choice. They kinda laid it out there, but the Church of Scientology doesn’t lay it out there. It scares me and I feel a sense of responsibility to protect anybody from walking in those doors, but especially people like myself and any gay person out there who is searching for answers. They will do everything in their power to put you through gay conversion therapy and a lot of the times, they win.
Would you describe the Church of Scientology as a cult?
One hundred percent. It is mind-altering, it is all-controlling, there is brainwashing attached to it. I read an article after I got out by a very well-known psychiatrist who studies Scientology and the fact that they use this e-meter with a little bit of electricity that runs through you, he said that the effect of that electricity running through your body, even at a very low level, creates this opiate-like state. It puts you in a very suggestible state, and now things are being said to while you in session, and that is purely the definition of brainwashing — hypnotism.
It is extremely important that there has to be some sort of legislation on mind control. The state of California right now has a bill up on gay conversion therapy. but one of the worst things about this bill is that it’s going to ban gay conversion therapy if the groups label it gay conversion therapy. [Editor's note: The bill failed to pass this year.] Well, all these groups are going to do is just stop saying it’s gay conversion therapy, right? I think that’s more dangerous than these groups being up front with it, so I think the state of California needs to look into this further and look into groups like Scientology.
So many of their practices — like sending people to camps that you describe as bug-infested and filthy — has there ever been an effort to get authorities and police involved, or the FBI, to take a good look at the severe punishments that they meter out?
They have. Leah and Mike Rindler, a top executive of the church, he’s left, and he’s a producer now on Leah’s show, they have spoken to the FBI, there have been investigations. The issue that you have is these church members who get put there like my mother was, they believe they are there voluntarily. It takes them usually a couple of years before they’re willing to speak to anybody once they're outside of the church, but now you’re past statute of limitations. My mother has been out since October of 2013. She only started revealing all the things that had happened to her about a year ago. That’s sad and the church knows that. Statutes of limitation are so tiny on things, and as we all know two years passes by before you blink your eyes — rape inside of a marriage is only a two-year statute of limitations. It takes you that long just to get out of the marriage.
There are so many things that need to be done on a bigger level, but it takes more stories and more voices and the public demanding it.
Tell us about your relationship with your mother now.
It’s wonderful. We definitely went through a rocky time when she got out of the church. My mother has always been my best friend, and when I came out to her, she was upset, and she was more upset at the fact of how would the church respond and what would happen to her. Once she started seeing how bad they were coming after me — she was privy to the reports and they were asking her so many questions — she started to realize that they were coming after me because I was gay.
When I came out to my mom and told her, she started crying. I looked at her and I was like, "Mom, let me get this straight, you are like a woman of the '60s, like free love, you’ve been married four times, and you’re going to sit here and cry because I tell you that I’m in love with a woman?"
Now she lives out in Georgia with us; we have this great house for her right across the street from us. She is always telling me, "Did you see this gay person in the news?" She’s hilarious. We have a beautiful relationship.
What does your spirituality look like now?
I was baptized Episcopal. Obviously, All Saints in Pasadena [Calif.] is one of the most amazing churches out there and at the forefront of gay rights. That’s kind of our home now. Tina, who is Charlie in the book, is Episcopal. Ed Bacon, who was one of the priests that was there, really helped walk me back down my spiritual path. I tell you that I will never be dogmatic about a religion again. I do not believe anyone has the secret to the universe or knows all. I cannot tell you that I believe that the Bible is 100 percent true. It is a beautiful, accepting place for me now, and I want to have something spiritual.
I believe in God. I believe that there is a much greater, powerful something out there in the world, but I cannot say that the Episcopal Church is better than a synagogue. I have some amazing Jewish friends that I think are just some of the most compassionate, wonderful people. I read a lot of Buddhism and Tao and Hinduism. Mark Nepo, who is a writer, who is one of my very favorites, combines all religions in his writings. I would say that I am not a seeker so much as I am a sponge. I pray, I meditate, I try to follow what I believe is the truth. I believe that loving everyone for who they are and not being judgmental is truth. I believe that silence will help you find the voice that you’re looking for. I think being a compassionate person is one of the greatest gifts that we can have. That’s what I’m trying to teach the children. As long as they see love wrapped around them, I think they’ll be able to find their way and we’ll find our way. I think love is my greatest religion.
With LGBTQ people, it’s sort of just assumed that they’re not religious, for good reason, because churches and other institutions have been so resistant to us. It’s a shame because there is a desire for so many of us to be spiritual but we don’t feel welcome.
So true! I have found a beautiful home at All Saints. It is the most accepting and loving place that I have ever been inside of church walls. I have met many, many gay couples; they do gay weddings. It’s been a beautiful place. I know that there are many other churches that are just as accepting. I think that it is important, especially for the gay community to realize that spirituality is something that touches us all. Whether you only believe that there is this universe that we all have connection in, or if you believe that there is a higher power, if you believe in Jesus or if you don’t, I do think spirituality is something that is important in our lives. Sometimes we have to make sense of why are we going through. I believe in karma, and I hope that anybody who is hurting or has been wronged by a religion will not give up on this wonderful universe of love and that comes from somewhere.
What do you think the future holds for the Church of Scientology?
Let me be very clear; I don’t think that there is anything about the Church of Scientology that is a true religious organization. I believe that the Church of Scientology is 100 percent a cult that is based on money and greed and evil dogma. I have read almost every single book that L. Ron Hubbard has put out there, listened to every lecture, been through 20 years of session and auditing; there is nothing good that that man has put into this world. I would hope that these churches start to go by the wayside. The bad part is, this is a church that has, the last number I heard, which I don’t have proof of, was about $1.7 billion. With that kind of money, they’re not going anywhere. I don’t care if it just means that there’s 100 Scientologists left. What they will do is they will morph themselves into something else. That’s what the public has to be aware of. If anybody is telling you that you are 100 percent in control of this universe or that they have the secret to the universe or that they can get you to have 100 percent control of the universe, if they tell you that every situation that has happened in your life is your fault, that is somehow Scientology. That is a lie.
Perfectly Clear by Michelle LeClair and Robin Gaby Fisher is out now.