Two issues ago we looked at Camp Aurora, the annual camping experience designed to allow GLBT Q* youth to socialize, play and be their authentic selves in a non-judgmental setting amongst peers. In this article we look at the opposite—camps and programs usually run by groups from the religious right that claim homosexuality is a disorder and can be made to disappear, or at least be deactivated, through the healing power of Christ.
At settings like Camp Aurora, GLBTQ* youth are given the message that they are unique individuals and sexual orientation does not make them unacceptable, unlovable or unloved. For many it is an end to isolation, loneliness and sometimes self-loathing. They can relax, chill out and just be who they are without finger-wagging, judgmental and self-righteous bigotry or fear of being attacked just for existing.
But there are other kinds of camps and programs which have mostly sprouted from evangelical groups in the U.S. Their basic tenet is that you can “pray the gay away,” even though psychiatrists and the medical profession reject any idea that GLBTQ* people can be turned straight through prayer and therapy. Contrary evidence suggests that young people pressured into these religion-based camps can be seriously mentally damaged.
Earlier this year, the United Nations (UN) convened a group of mental health experts, human rights advocates, religious leaders and a former ex-gay patient to tackle the ex-gay phenomenon. This panel officially stated that churches cannot “cure” gay people through prayer and therapy. Although such practices have been around for decades, lately lawsuits and litigation have attempted to curb the use of “conversion therapy,” while the mainstream mental health profession denounces it.
The UN panel was organized by Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office’s director Bruce Knottsand and GLBTQ* advocacy co-ordinator Mordechai Levovitz, both of whom are openly gay. “What we’re really talking about here at the UN is creating a world and a society where sexual orientation change efforts are looked upon as as ridiculous for LGBT people as they are for a heterosexual person,” Toiko Kleppe, a representative of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, told the Huffington Post. “That is also a world that human rights law is in favour of.”
The Story of Exodus
Perhaps the best known gay conversion therapy organization is Exodus International, which used to be part of the Exodus Global Alliance, an ex-gay organization. Exodus Global Alliance stated its views on homosexuality clearly on its website: “Exodus upholds heterosexuality as God’s creative intent for humanity, and subsequently views homosexual expression as outside of God’s will. Exodus cites homosexual tendencies as one of many disorders that beset fallen humanity. Choosing to resolve these tendencies through homosexual behaviour… is considered destructive, as it distorts God’s intent for the individual and is thus sinful.” It suggests Christ as a healing alternative for “those with homosexual tendencies.”
Exodus International astonished many in June when president Alan Chambers announced it was shutting down and issued an apology. “I am sorry that some of you spent years working through the shame and guilt you felt when your attractions didn’t change,” he wrote on the organization’s website. “I am sorry we promoted sexual orientation change efforts and reparative theories about sexual orientation that stigmatized parents. I am sorry that there were times I didn’t stand up to people publicly ‘on my side’ who called you names like sodomite – or worse.”
Exodus International is closing after 37 years. Its board of directors plans to start a new ministry open to everyone, including gay members, and has set up a website called reducefear.org that has since changed to wespeaklove.org.
However, that is not the end of Exodus. Exodus Global Alliance has four regions across the world, including Canada, with local ministries, churches and individuals “who provide Christian help to people who are impacted by homosexuality,” according to their website. Exodus Global Alliance is not closing.
Rejecting One’s True Identity
Winnipegger Brad Tyler-West was once deeply involved with Exodus and New Direction for Life Ministries Winnipeg (New Direction). He was convinced he could abandon gay thoughts and desires if only he worked hard at it and prayed enough. He regarded same-sex attraction as a kind of addiction which could be “cured.” For a time he was involved with a church and he even married a woman and had a daughter.
“At 17 I became a born again Christian and a missionary,” he says. “I met a lot of closeted gay men, but no matter how hard I worked or prayed these same-sex desires just kept coming back. I was really rejecting my true identity.” The struggle proved impossible for Tyler-West, and it was tearing him apart. He even went to the extreme of having electric shock treatment to wean himself off his “sinful” same-sex lusts.
Tyler-West eventually accepted who he was and realized many of those in New Direction were not finding joy but despair, guilt and shame. His wife knew of his conflict and was aware that a large part of him was still withheld despite their loving relationship and a daughter. In the end they parted peacefully but only after he had gone through a spiritual crisis. “I had a dark night of the soul,” he says. “After five nights of prayer, spiritual agony and crying I cried out to God for help.” Suddenly a great burden was lifted. He accepted himself and says he could see the world clearly for the first time. He knew God loved him as he was. He removed himself from church leadership, gave the family home to his wife and moved on with his life, quickly discovering the Rainbow Resource Centre and plenty of support from the gay community.
Today he has a male partner and he says his own faith and spirituality is as strong or stronger than it once was. His relationships today are all healthier and happier and he deeply loves his daughter, now 21. “Her friends told her she has the best two dads in the world,” he laughs.
Taking Steps Against Conversion Therapy
Since March, New Jersey and California have passed laws that ban conversion therapy for minors. In 2005, the Tennessee Department of Mental Health ordered the closing of two ex-gay ministries operated by Love In Action International, a controversial Christian group that counsels gays to give up homosexuality. The state found that Love in Action was dispensing medication and alcohol to patients without the required licence, according to The Advocate. In 2011 the former director of the ministry admitted that he’s attracted to men and that it’s impossible to change one’s sexual orientation, reports Huffington Post.
The American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association say that homosexuality is not a mental disorder and cannot be treated through therapy. The American Psychiatric Association position statement from December 1998 says that “gay men and lesbians who have accepted their sexual orientation positively are better adjusted than those who have not done so,” and warn that people seeking conversion therapy may be doing so under pressure from religious groups.
Exodus Global Alliance remains in operation, alongside similar and often highly secretive groups who maintain Christ can alter sexual orientation. Living Waters Canada was established in 1991 under the leadership of Toni and Mardi Dolfo-Smith. It is a popular Christian program for those who battle with sexual and relational problems. In 2009 the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) revoked the charitable registration of Living Waters Ministry Trust, a London, Ontario-based charity, for issuing in excess of $41.6 million in receipts for cash received through a tax shelter arrangement. The charity also directed $40.7 million of the cash to another registered charity. CRA states that most of the cash sent to the other charity was then paid to the promoters of the tax shelter arrangement.
Tye Gamey, former regional director of Living Waters in Manitoba, refused any comment on the closure of Exodus International and referred OutWords to the website of Living Waters.
In 2010, undercover reporter Ted Cox managed to be accepted to a gay-conversion program and reported on it. Living Waters’ website now states that: “All participants are asked to sign and agree to a code of confidentiality, meaning that all conversations heard within a Living Waters program are not to be shared with others. Much like the oath that those who attend AA make, this confidentiality agreement seeks to provide security and safety for all participants, and to protect them from misuse of their story and life experiences.”
Living Waters provides courses for pastors and the public and has a special youth program called “The River 360 Degrees.” It’s a semester-long course (for young adults, ages 17 to 24) that explores relationships and sexuality from a biblically Christian perspective. The aim, it claims, is to increase self-understanding, inner healing and spiritual freedom. It promises “a safe, confidential, and accepting environment where you can share about your current struggles, and receive help and encouragement.” It also offers “a holistic understanding of yourself (biblical, theological and psychological) as a relational, sexual being – including the root causes of your struggles.” Included in this course is a segment, Gender & Identity: Discovering the Father’s Design.
When all’s said and done, conversion therapy promoters still believe homosexuality is abnormal and that people “suffering” from it need to be cured and restored to health and normality through Jesus and prayer. For the young and vulnerable seeking serenity, this can be a diabolical brew.
– Peter Carlyle-Gordge is a Winnipeg- based freelance writer, former producer for CBC radio and former Maclean’s writer.