This article is an account of someone who was forced to undergo the Exodus International "ex-gay" program at age 18 as well as that of a friend of hers who underwent a different program.
As politicians speak out on whether they support or condemn the ex-gay ministry in order to get votes, those of us who have experienced this horror should let others in on the details. When I was 18 I attempted to go through the Exodus International program. The encounter didn't last long, but it left burning scars.
I came out in 1999, the summer I graduated high school. I'd grown up going to church and had kept my secret since I was 10. When my Marine ship-out date was changed from October to March, I decided a semester of college would be best because I needed to get out of town. I had applied to one school: Kentucky Christian College ( now a University ) . I wanted to study religion and learn whether God and my sexuality were really at odds with each other. I loved the place at firstit was like living at church camp. Then I made the mistake of paying a visit to the campus counselor.
"Where does it say in the Bible that homosexuality is wrong?" I asked. "Because I'm a lesbian!"
Well, the counselor showed me the clobber passages right away. He told me that if I acted on my homosexual impulses I would be expelled and that we should meet once a week. He asked how I felt about God.
"Sometimes I'm happy and believe in God, and sometimes I'm mad and don't think he exists," I answered.
The counselor jumped to his bookshelf and pulled down a DSM-IV. He flipped through the pages and told me he thought I had bipolar disorder. I reluctantly went to a psychiatrist at the counselor's urging. Soon after, some people from Exodus International came to the college and spoke about their organization. The campus counselor recommended I go through the program online.
I consented and was assigned a female accountability partner who was supposed to e-mail me regularly and support my effort to turn straight. I also received a packet in the mail containing the testimonies of 6 or 7 "ex-lesbians" which can only be described as depressing. All but one of these women had become celibate. I almost threw the papers out the window, but with eternal damnation hanging over my head I decided to give the program a try. One problem: I didn't know what I was supposed to do. I e-mailed my accountability partner a couple times, and then she disappeared. I e-mailed someone else in the program to ask what had happened, and was told she had fallen back into a relationship with another woman and that I would get a new accountability partner soon. I never did get one.
By winter I realized if I went to the military I'd just get kicked out so I stayed in college. I informed my recruiter that I'd been put on medication and couldn't go to boot camp. I continued trying to change myself without knowing how. In February I told the campus counselor I'd been having suicidal thoughts, so he dropped me off at a psych ward for a few days. I kept struggling to conform, and I wasn't the only one. A lesbian in the grade above me got expelled just before Spring Break for inappropriate conduct with another student. The other student had snitched and was given a warning, but her identity was not revealed. Several people suspected me, and I announced that I wouldn't have told on her if it had been.
On summer vacation I did a lot of partying, but I went back to school in the fall to try again. I resumed weekly counseling sessions on campus and monthly psychiatric appointments. In October I got caught writing a suicide note in my dorm room. I tried to escape from my friends and kill myself, but they wouldn't let me out of their sight and called for help. ( I'm still sorry about what I put them through. ) After another few days in a psych ward, the campus counselor summoned me to his office, where I was asked to withdraw from school to save myself the shame of being kicked out. He told me I was "a danger to myself and others" and a "liability". And then my mom walked through the door! The counselor had called her hours before and timed her approximate arrival with our meeting. He had lied to her, claiming I wanted to go home. I returned to Indiana after two weeks of unsuccessful lobbying to stay at school. When I eventually gave up my efforts to turn straight and renounced all organized religion I knew happiness. The ex-gay ministry is a waste of time, and I'm not the only one who thinks so:
Brent Walsh, 38, attended a program eight years ago called Love in Actiona division of Exodus International. Brent is an FTM transgender man who identified as lesbian during that time. Raised in the church, he felt he must turn straight to be right with God. Brent explained the details of the organization to me since my experience with reparative therapy had been so confusing:
"Love in Action is a residential twelve-step program that works on the same principles as Alcoholics Anonymous. The idea is to admit we are powerless over our homosexual desires and that because of our sexual addiction our lives have spun out of control.
"We were told that our homosexual desires might never go away, but like alcoholics, the feelings could be controlled and overcome with prayer and determination to live the perfect plan that God had for our lives. We also had counseling sessions with a staff member in order to dig deeper into our pasts. We needed to acknowledge all the pain we had caused our families, friends and fellow church members by living out our homosexual hedonism with utter disregard for all that our loved ones had done to try to keep us healthy and whole.
"The men and women were separated into two different houses and assigned two different churches. I didn't completely understand the reasoning for this, since our attractions were to members of the same sex. On a regular basis the men and women would have their own group Bible studies, and on occasion we would all have a joint gathering."
Brent learned that many rules were set in place to discourage homosexual urges. Residents were not allowed to do anything considered gender-inappropriate. This included every aspect of life from clothing to hobbies and, eventually, their careers. Brent's toolbox was confiscated and he was told to ask a man for help if his vehicle needed maintenance. His guitar was not permitted for fear he might seduce a housemate. No one was allowed to wear perfume, cologne, scented deodorant or shampoo. Brent's previous jobs had been as a correctional officer and a truck driver. These were considered too masculine by Love in Action, and even Brent's proposal to work as a dispatcher in the office of a trucking company was denied. Residents were not allowed to view any media, and for a time could not even contact their families. As a final deterrent from impure thoughts, no one was allowed to be alone, with the exception of a 15-minute shower.
Brent complied with all of this: "At first I felt a certain amount of hope that this kind of intense program could help me go straight and develop a closer relationship with God. I was willing to jump through all the hoops and follow all the rules if it would make me straight. But two weeks into the program, I realized my hopes were built on a shaky foundation. When I went through the one-on-one counseling sessions, I was grilled about my life as a lesbian and it was said that I was a predator, seeking to lure young women into my clutches so I could have my selfish way with them.
"As much as I wanted to get help, I knew that my own nature was not predatory and that this kind of brain-washing was not 'washing' anything. I also realized that I would not be allowed to have a sense of humor. The group of women went to a card shop together and I picked one up that had a cartoon picture of the backside of a donkey. When I opened it up, it said, 'Nice ass!' I laughed and showed it to one of the other women in the group, who also laughed. The next day I was rebuked in my counseling session because one of the women complained about me. She had said that I used a greeting card to surreptitiously make a pass at her. These kinds of things made me realize that this environment was not healthy for me. I wasn't being cured of anything, just humiliated and mentally manipulated."
Brent's rehabilitation ended on his own terms: "There was a pool in the back yard of the residence where the women liked to swim and visit before turning in for the night. I sat beside the pool one evening after everyone went inside and evaluated my experience. I'd been so traumatized by my individual counseling sessions and with my inability to have contact with the outside world or with anyone I knew and loved. The other women in the program were in the same boat I was, but there was no chance for any camaraderie with them because of all the ridiculous rules and prohibitions.
I didn't feel myself going straight or developing a healthy relationship with God. The God I was getting to know here was fierce and judgmental; disappointed with my entire life up to that point. I detested the church I was forced to go to and I didn't want to work at a strange place where I didn't fit. I needed to leave and I didn't want anyone to try to talk me out of it.
"I walked into the house, past the women who were visiting in the living room before bed, and into the bedroom that I shared with another resident. I got my car keys and wallet from my bedside table and went back out to the pool. Some of the women had seen me go out, so they followed me. I sat down on one of the lawn chairs and visited half-heartedly for a while. When the other women said they were going inside again, I said I wanted to just sit outside alone for a while. After about five minutes, when I decided no one was looking, I opened the privacy fence gate and slipped out to the street where my car waited. I started it up and drove away. I never looked back.
"For most things in my life, even negative, I can look back and see how they helped me grow. In most cases, I'd say that I wouldn't change anything because it's made me who I am today. This experience at Love in Action might be the closest I come to an exception to that rule. I see the damage it did to me personally and to my ability to trust God's plan for my life. I have to say that it did make me a stronger person, but the credit can't go to the program. The credit goes to the strength it took to leave the program and embark on a journey in the opposite direction. That was where I found God and that was when my relationship with God took a brand new turn. Maybe without the traumatic experience of LiA I wouldn't have known that true peace and fulfillment in God's will for my life meant living authentically in my own skin."
Brent's faith is intact despite his experience; the faith of my childhood is gone. In both cases, the conversion program did not work at all. Perhaps if more of us speak out we can silence those who claim that conversion therapy is effective.
Kim Flowers is a freelance writer from Fishers, Ind. To watch Brent speak about his experience at Love in Action and his transition, go to http://lifejourneychurch.cc/video/2010/2010-07-25/SupportingFiles/ViewerWM64Lite.html.
People can also visit Brent's and his wife Julie Walsh's web site at transformationministry.org or find them on Facebook and Twitter.