Possibly unbeknownst to many who live in large cities where diversity is the norm, efforts to 'cure' gay people of their sexual orientation are still very much going on across the United States. Those so-called ex-gay ministries exist with the explicit support of an array of conservative forces. Wayne Besen has gone undercover to get an intimate look at the shady religious groups advocating reparative therapy.
Besen worked for the Human Rights Campaign as associate director of communications for five years before he left to devote the bulk of his time to the promotion of his first book, Anything But Straight: Unmasking the Scandals and Lies Behind the Ex-Gay Myth. It would seem that the change of career was worth it as the book has been nominated for this year's Lambda Literary Awards in two categories.
But winning prizes was not Besen's motivation. The more unsavory information he discovered while researching the ex-gay ministries, the more he became convinced that exposing their morally fraudulent ways was essential to breaking their destructive spell.
Marie-Jo Proulx: What has writing this book meant to you?
Wayne Besen: I started writing this book for political reasons while working with HRC. I saw how the right wing were using ex-gays as political tools to defeat gay rights. While I was doing that I started getting letters, calls, e-mails from people I was helping. To me it's meant turning people's lives around, helping them get out of the ex-gay trap, putting families back together that had fallen apart. To me it's very personal, it's seeing the look on somebody's face when they say, 'Thanks, you helped me live openly and honestly and free for the first time ever.' That's why I'm doing 60 cities [ for the book tour ] . I'm going to take a loss on these smaller cities. … There are people, in particular in these [ remote ] communities, that are suffering because of this ex-gay myth.
MJP: And now, what specifically do you want the book to achieve? What real changes do you hope it will bring about?
WB: When I was working at HRC, the right wing launched a $1 million ad campaign in '98 and I was sent to research this. There were hardly any resources at the time. ... I wanted to put together a book … to counter this. The second thing is I kept hearing stories about people going home for the holidays and having this ex-gay literature put in front of them. I wanted to create something where somebody would go home for Thanksgiving or Hanukah or Christmas and when their relatives start in on 'you can change' they can hand them a book and say, 'Here, read this, look what you're asking me to do.' I believe that even conservatives, when they read my book, they will not support these groups. … When people read and see the meat behind it, the real substance, or lack thereof, even a right wing person cannot support these groups. And I actually think it's backed up by the fact that the [ ex-gay ] ministries are not supported financially by the groups that advertise them. They put gigantic ads in the USA Today and The New York Times but they give virtually nothing to the [ ex-gay ministries ] themselves. James Dobson, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell know these groups don't work, or they would have put millions more into them.
MJP: Do you think that right wing conservatives will read the book?
WB: I think many of them will because they're in the book. I'm talking about them and they're going to want to see how they're mentioned. … But this really isn't for them. … They have very calcified views. This book is for activists in our community … to support parents who are thinking about putting their kids in these ex-gay ministries but aren't part of the religious right per se … It's for people who have been in these groups for years and are starting to recognize the patterns.
MJP: How do these groups work?
WB: They work by trying to pray away the gay. The first moment somebody walks in an ex-gay ministry they say, 'You're ex-gay. … If you say you are and you repeat that you've changed, God will reward you for your faith.' … It's really faith healing. … They give people tactics in order to gain God's favor. For instance they blame everything on a distant same-sex parent. That's the essence of it. You had a bad relationship with your father if you're a man and with your mother if you're a woman. So the key to overcoming this is to make friends with somebody of the same sex who is heterosexual and by having a non-sexual relationship with them you'll … be on the path to heterosexuality. …
MJP: It sounds very depressing.
WB: What's dangerous about them is that they create a culture of miracle where you've got the leaders who are on the payroll often from the right wing groups saying that they've changed. … And you've got all these other people for whom nothing's happening. What happens is they start blaming God. [ They think ] 'God must hate me, he's helping this person but not me.' The ministries reinforce that. When it's not working they blame the individual instead of their failed program. … Exorcism is a big part of it, don't let them deny it. … In some cases though not many anymore they still revert to the old shock treatments. … I was just in Salt Lake City, where I believe it's more common through the LDS [ Latter Day Saints ] church.
MJP: When you infiltrated the ex-gay groups, were you able to connect with individual participants and ask them about their reasons for attending?
WB: There were many people who were there just because they wanted their car or college payments. They knew it didn't work. A decent minority were there because of pressure from relatives and lots of times they'd go right to the gay bar from the ministry. … And the ministries count those as successes. … I saw no success stories undercover. Ever. All I saw was pain and suffering and misery and just shattered people and broken lives.
MJP: How many people do you estimate the ex-gay ministries reach?
WB: They have over a hundred minstries in Exodus. How many people they'll reach we don't know because they don't keep statistics. … It's impossible for their membership to grow and be sustained. … Will the people entering these ministries stay is the question and the answer is a resounding and emphatic 'no.' The whole point is to trick America into thinking homosexuality is a choice. … People who think that sexual orientation is a simple choice … are less likely to support gay rights. …
MJP: Did you time the release of the book with the election season?
WB: I timed it with the Christmas season for sales. I timed this tour though with the political season. … I was thinking [ the Republicans ] were going to use [ the ex-gay ministries ] against gay marriage, which they have. And I believe if the [ presidential ] race remains as tight as it is that this may be an issue we see from the top, the change issue, [ they may ] attempt to look compassionate by pushing these programs. I'm also worried because of the faith-based initiatives. … On this marriage issue, the right wing has a two-prong strategy. The first one is to try to divide African-American churches to have them come out against us. The other one is ex-gays. … We have to scrupulously be aware of this to combat this myth.
The Lambda Literary Awards are June 3, Chicago Mart Plaza, www.lambdalit.org .