The growth of the ex-gay movement in the last two decades gave rise to hundreds of therapy programs aiming to change people’s sexual orientation. Many were explicitly religious, and claimed to be able to “pray away the gay”. But there’s a growing movement, led by survivors of ex-gay therapy, to disprove and ban these harmful practices for good. On this edition, stories of recovery from conversion therapy, and becoming ex- ex-gay.
Special Thanks to Robert Frazier of Monitor Studios and Terry Gildea of KUER.
Russ Gorringe, Kim Mack, Ben Jarvis, Evergreen therapy survivors; Gabriel Arana, writer and American Prospect Web Editor
See Script Below
For More Information:
Gabriel Arana’s Article in The American Prospect
Is the Ex-Gay Industry Going Under?
Dr. Robert Spitzer Repudiation from New York Times
Dr. Robert Spitzer’s Repudiation on NPR
Truth Wins Out
Box Turtle Bulletin
Caspian, “Our Breaths in Winter”
Ludovico Einaudi, “Oltremare”
The Polar Dream, “Endless Tales”
Frank Briggs,”Spirit Rider”
Gram Parsons and the Flying Burrito Brothers, “I Shall Be Released”
SCRIPT“ I told the hotline director that I was a Christian homosexual. He told me there was absolutely no such thing.”“Pray away the gay”. That’s what the so-called ex-gay movement claimed it could do for gay and lesbian church members. The last 2 decades saw a sharp increase in these kinds of conversion therapies, both religious and secular. But there’s a rising movement, led by survivors of ex-gay therapy, to disprove and ban these harmful practices for good.
Russ: I began to reconsider, what if God is a lover of diversity? What if there’s nothing wrong with me? What if there’s actually something good and divine about being gay?
On this edition, stories of recovery from conversion therapy, and becoming EX- ex-gay.
I’m JEN Chien, and this is “Making Contact”, a program connecting people, vital ideas, and important information.
Chien: In 2012, California passed the first law in the nation banning the practice of ex-gay therapy for minors. State Senator Ted Lieu brought the bill to the floor:
LIEU: This bill seeks to ban a form of junk science known as reparative therapy, also known as gay conversion therapy…
The law’s passage confirmed what the mainstream medical and psychiatric community had long agreed on: “CONVERSION THERAPY” not only fails at WHAT IT AIMS TO DO, but in fact CAUSES PSYCHOLOGICAL HARM TO THOSE IT CLAIMS TO “CURE”. Still, ex-gay therapy persists, especially in religious communities.
Among its most fervent advocates is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or the Mormon church. Mormon leaders have disavowed previous practices like electroshock, vomit and other aversion therapies– but in the 1990s a so-called “reparative therapy” program was developed, that promised good Mormons their same-sex attractions could be eliminated. This program was called Evergreen. Reporter Melonie Magruder spoke with several Mormons and ex-Mormons who went through Evergreen. She brings us their stories.
Russ: I was three years old. I remember I knew I was different.
Melonie Magruder: Russ Gorringe lives in Salt Lake City, and was raised in the Mormon church.
RUSS: About the age of puberty, I started noticing the guys about the same time my friends were noticing the girls.
Magruder: Russ told his mother he needed to see a psychiatrist. His stress was so bad that he was diagnosed with a stomach disorder and he had to take medication.
Russ: I was horrified of the idea of that–y dad was very army macho and I was afraid I would be rejected.
Magruder: Ben Jarvis is also a gay man from a Mormon background.
Ben: I was born and raised in the LDS faith. My family goes back to the founding of the religion. Both my mother and father go back seven generations. I always knew that I was different. That’s really the best way to describe it. But I didn’t have a word for it till I was in a sex education class in 7th grade. On that day I realized that what it was I was feeling, and what I was as a person, I knew it wasn’t a good thing.
Kim: In retrospect I can see hints that I was lesbian early on.
Magruder: Kim Mack also grew up in the Mormon church.
KIM: I remember I would be jealous when my brother got guns for Christmas and I got dolls. I never really thought to name it anything. And even when I had my first experience at 19 with another girl, I thought it was just a phase. I didn’t know that I could call it something like lesbian or that kind of a person. I’d heard the terms of course. My Mom had always used them in a negative way. So I never wanted to be labeled something my Mom hated so badly.
Magruder: Were you devout?
Kim: Oh, yeah. From the time we were baptized till when I was ex-communicated last year.
Magruder: Kim had realized she had feelings for girls and asked a school counselor if it was normal. Instead of talking through it with her, the counselor told someone else, and word eventually got back to Kim’s parents.
Kim: It was revealed to all our parents that I had feelings for girls and then I was forbidden to hang out with them anymore. My Mom sent me to therapy.
Magruder: Kim’s parents got her therapy at the Mormon Church’s Family Services.
Kim: They gave me pamphlets and handbooks on homosexuality. Told me to read, “The Miracle of Forgiveness,” which was one of the worst books I’ve ever read. The chapter on homosexuality was so offensive and hurtful I threw it across the room.
Magruder: That chapter was called “The Crime Against Nature.” Ben Jarvis read the same book when he turned to the church for help.
Ben : …one in particular which was published in 1969, called “The Miracle of Forgiveness,” written by a man named Spencer W. Kimball who later on became the prophet, described people like me as deviant perverts and had all sorts of ugly language in it. That was the best that I had—that was the only resource I had. Yeah, it wasn’t a good day for the self-esteem .
Magruder: Russ Gorringe read it too.
RUSS: Other people would read it and find hope in overcoming issues or repentance, but to somebody who had lived that experience, it actually had the reverse effect. It actually left you feeling hopeless and despair and suicidal.
Magruder: Russ really wanted to feel that change in himself.
Russ: My belief at the time was that it was wrong and something had been mis-wired in me and, therefore, was correctable. I married, had four children, a lovely wife – we’re very fortunate in that we’re still best friends – but I went to four different priesthood leaders and asked them if I should say anything to Carolyn and all four priesthood leaders asked me if I had ever experienced or done anything homosexual. And I said, well, no. Then I was told well, I feel very impressed to tell you that you don’t need to tell her anything. You just get married and I can promise you this will go away.
Magruder: Russ got involved in Evergreen, the Mormon church’s reparative therapy program, right from its beginning, around 1989.
RUSS: I jumped on board and became—threw my whole heart and soul into it—I read all the books. I was so successful, they thought I would be a great member of the board, I was on the board, I um, promoted it, I helped write the mission statement…
Magruder: Russ was sure he had found the solution.
RUSS: I just looked at it as the answer, the cure. Everything I had been told up to that point, everything I had read that had been put out, pray more, fast more, say yes to all Church service, it was obvious those things did not work. Because they didn’t diminish– my feelings were intensifying.
Magruder: It became a terrifying cycle. The more their true feelings arose, the more they tried to squelch them, leading to frustration and self-hate.
Kim: Which of course then turned around and actually made me feel incredibly responsible and like a failure when, really, nothing worked.
BEN: I had to change. There was no option not to.
Magruder: Ben, Russ and Kim all tried their best at reparative therapy .They read the books and pamphlets they were given. They prayed. They attended group therapy sessions and felt guilty that ‘change’ wasn’t coming. They wanted to stay in the church. But despite their best efforts, none of them really found lasting change.
RUSS: You get to that point where you feel like the cure is right around the corner. If I just do this a little bit more, if I just try this just a little bit harder, if I just do this, I’m almost there. And, but you never get there.
KIM: I had various kinds of therapy for 15 years… the last 10 of it, at least, were directly related to trying to be more compatible with being married to a man….I didn’t tell him until my daughter was born, 2 years after we were married. By then I was having continuing problems with intimacy with him.
Magruder: Kim thought she could feel closer to her husband by being more honest with him.
Kim: So, I told him about my feelings for women and my previous 2 experiences, hoping that that would somehow break the bad thing that was there between us that was keeping me from enjoying his physical touch. But of course that didn’t help at all. Later on, it was 2 years later, I started having affairs with women, and that of course became very troubling for him, and for our marriage.
Magruder: Despite her affairs, Kim and her husband stayed together for 5 more years before Kim finally decided she needed to separate from him. Thousands of Mormons reportedly went through conversion therapy over the years, from electroshock and aversion treatments to intense, repetitive meditation on spiritual “re-orientation.” Ben says that the Church eventually softened its proscription against homosexuality – but at a price.
Ben: The mantra that they were saying even back in the late 90s when I was still active was… there was a big push that you could be gay, you just can’t act on it. So be gay, but be quiet, don’t tell anyone…
Magruder: Ben’s therapist shaped a narrative for him.
Ben: It was all about hey – tell me about your mother and what was your relationship with her like, and setting up this story about how my mother was overbearing and depended on me, and how my father was distant.
Magruder: In fact, nothing was further from the truth. Ben had an excellent relationship with his parents who accept him completely. Shortly thereafter, Ben left therapy, largely because of one tragic event.
Ben: There are certain events that occur sometimes in life that you wish you could see coming. And one event was the suicide of a dear friend of mine in Provo. We all knew that he was gay.
Magruder: Ben was shocked at his friend’s death and wanted to discuss it with his therapist.
Ben: I never got the chance! The therapist launched into whatever his sermon was that week, whatever his agenda was that week, which was no different from any other session we’d been in. But with John’s death on my mind, that’s when I realized this had to end. I didn’t know why I was gay, but I knew that it didn’t really matter at that point. I knew that I was, and I knew that it wasn’t something that could change.
Magruder: Ben said that no one was a better Mormon than he was, but that he just couldn’t reconcile what he felt with what he was being told.
Ben: As long as I considered myself broken and as long as I thought I was someone who was sick and was in need of help from church sources, I was OK. I was a work in progress. But the moment that I left LDS social services and said, for whatever reason, this is who I am, I’m gay, my relationship with my church leadership changed.
Magruder: Ben discussed his situation with his stake – or local congregation’s – president .
Ben: One of the things that he said was that there were no such thing as gay people, and that if I wanted to continue to be an active member of my ward and stake, that I could not be gay even if it meant that I had to pretend to be straight. That’s a quote – even if I had to pretend to be straight.
Magruder: His stake president said that if Ben ever told anyone he was gay, it would lead to his excommunication.
Ben: I thanked him very much and I left the building and I held it together until I got out onto the public street and that’s when I completely broke down. Because in that one evening, in that span of 45 minutes, my Mormon life was over.
Magruder: After 10 years of involvement with Evergreen, Russ was similarly shaken by this confrontation with his deepest faith.
Russ: The reality came to a point where I knew this wasn’t going away. You don’t change this.
Magruder: Such an epiphany caused Russ nothing but anguish.
Russ: I had an experience where my despair increased so much, and I had tried everything, that I knew the only thing left was to take my life.
Magruder: Russ felt calm about his decision – only concerned about the stigma his suicide would bring his children. He decided to stage his death to look like an accident during a hiking trip with his family. He planned an outing to Glacier National Park.
Russ: And as we walked across this bridge, I looked down into the ravine and the river beneath us and I thought, this is perfect. All I have to do is slip and fall off this bridge. If the fall doesn’t kill me, all I have to do is breathe in some water and it will all be over.
Magruder: Russ waited for his family to cross the bridge.
Russ: I started to go over the bridge. Just before leaping to my death, I looked one last time to say goodbye to my family. But as I did this farewell glance, my daughter Emily, then 14, turned around and our eyes met. And she knew exactly what I was doing.
Magruder: Emily tore down to the bridge and threw her arms around her father. The near-death moment caused Russ to re-evaluate.
Russ: I thought maybe I have to let go of everything I believe about homosexuality. I began to reconsider, what if God is a lover of diversity? What if there’s nothing wrong with me? What if there’s actually something good and divine about being gay?
Magruder: Over the years, Kim and Russ and Ben all said they had met hundreds of people struggling with the same self-loathing. I asked if they ever met anyone for whom conversion therapy actually worked.
Ben: I’ve never known anyone who has successfully gone through any kind of therapy and changed.
Kim: I never did. I did meet people who claimed it worked but I had a hard time believing it. One woman told me she’s married and has children, so she’s better now. And I asked if she was physically attracted to her husband and she said no, she’s spiritually attracted to him. And then I asked her, if there was a room full of 100 people and she picked the 10 most attractive, would they be men or women. She said they would all be women. To me, that’s not cured.
Russ: I literally met thousands go through those revolving doors of reparative therapy during those ten years. Thousands. Not one do I believe ever changed.
Magruder: I asked them what they would say to a struggling teenager, or the parent of that youngster, about such therapy.
Kim: For a parent, the only thing I would want them to do and show and have in their home and their family is love. The Lord doesn’t expect anything but love and acceptance for his children.
BEN: First of all, I would let them know that they are not nearly as imperfect as other people tell them they are. Second, I would encourage them to read. Read the reparative therapy books. Truly read them. But also, read the other side. Read the books from people who’ve been through it. Listen to a conversation like the one we’re having now. Talk to people. Get out there and judge for yourself. For me, one of the things that helped was when I met happy, well adjusted gay people. Because I didn’t know that there was such a thing.
Russ: When I finally quit fighting God and embraced my gayness as his gift to me, the destructive behavior stopped. No 12-step program could do it, no church counseling could not it, no reparative therapy could do it, but accepting who they were as a divine nature could.
That piece was produced by Melonie Magruder. I’m Jen Chien. We’ll be right back.
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ARANA: As opposed to most forms of therapy – psychological therapy – where you go in and unravel you know, your psyche and try to discover the source of problems that are bothering you, with ex-gay therapy, you go in and there is a diagnosis waiting for you.
TRACK: Writer Gabriel Arana went through 3 and a half years of conversion therapy as a teenager growing up in the late 90’s. He’s since come out, and is happily married to a man.But the experience stayed with him– In 2012, he wrote an article in the American Prospect called “My So-Called Ex-Gay Life” where he wove his own personal experience into a history and analysis of the ex-gay movement. We reached him recently in Washington, DC to talk about the article, and its IMPACT.
Chien: So, the movement to declassify homosexuality as a mental illness was championed by Dr. Robert Spitzer, who is a psychologist from Columbia University. And in 1973 homosexuality was removed from the DSM – or diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders – but Dr. Spitzer later released a study in 2001 that was very controversial and that you talk about in your article. Can you explain?
Arana: Dr. Spitzer was instrumental in removing homosexuality from the list of mental disorders in thet American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual. And he was seen as a gay-rights champion for that reason. Until in the early 2000’s he came out with a study saying that at least for some highly motivated individuals, change in one’s sexual orientation was possible.
Chien: And that study was published in a respectable journal right?
Arana:Yes it was published in The Archives of Sexual Behavior, which is a respectable journal. A lot of, a lot of studies claiming to prove the efficacy of sexual orientation change efforts – which is the technical term – appearr in vanity publications that ex-gay groups come up with.
Chien: So Dr. Spitzer’s study lent legitimacy to the ex-gay movement in a way that it hadn’t since homosexuality was taken out of the DSM. Can you talk a little bit more about that movement, what it’s made up of?
Arana: So I think that the rise of ex-gay therapy in the mid to late 90s, was the product of several forces coming together. On one hand you have the Christian right movement, which had become politicized and started to have an influence on the national stage, on politics. You had Dr. Spitzer, coming out with this research claiming that change in sexual orientation was possible. And finally, you had ex-gay organizations coming to the fore, and speaking to the media and saying that this sort of change is possible. In researching the ex-gay movement, what I found remarkable was that there really wasn’t much about it in the late 80s or early 90s. But in the mid-90s there was sort of an explosion of news stories about people changing their sexual orientation. And at the same time you had the Christian right championing this sort of therapy. So, there was a series of advertisements in major publications like the New York Times, the Washington Post, USA Today, claiming that change in sexual orientation was possible
Chien: Can you tell us a little about the two main groups in the ex-gay movement?
Arana: So the two main groups that spearhead the ex-gay movement are NARTH, National Association for the Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, and Exodus International. Exodus is a group of mostly religious people– pastors and the like – who claim to be able to set people free from homosexuality. And so if that is sort of the animus behind the ex-gay movement, NARTH would be the brain. It bills itself as a scientific organization, it holds conferences, and its members publish scholarly articles.
Chien: So, in the course of your research you spoke personally with Dr. Spitzer, and you found out that he actually wanted to retract or repudiate his study that stated ex-gay therapy could sometimes work. Were you surprised by that? Tell us what happened after your article was published, as far as Dr.Spitzer and his study.
Arana: I was surprised. I went to visit him at his house in Princeton – and, I didn’t go with the intention of confronting him. But I had one question that was really bothering me. What I wanted to know was: what made him deem the people who told him they had changed, what made him deem them credible? Why did he believe them? And that is when he said that he had been thinking about it recently, and that upon examination, there’s really no way to tell whether somebody’s sexual orientation had changed. People can change their behavior. If I wanted you know, not to have sex with men that is something I have control over. But I don’t have control in the same way over my sexual attractions. And certainly a third party, somebody who’s not in my head, can’t judge whether I have truly changed my sexual orientation or not. So that’s when he expressed doubts, and said that he had recently been thinking about writing a retraction.
Chien: And so, what happened after your article was published? Dr. Spitzer did write a retraction, did he not?
Arana: So, a technical point. It’s technically a repudiation because in order for in order for it to be a retraction the journal that published the study has to take it back. Which usually happens when there’s some flaw or ethical breach – somebody lied about data – and that didn’t happen. But Dr. Spitzer, after the article came out, wrote both a letter to the public and the gay community, apologizing for this study and the damage that it might’ve caused. And then also sent a letter to The Archives of Sexual Behavior, explaining his change of position.
Chien: Do you think that Dr. Spitzer’s repudiation is having an effect on the ex-gay movement and how it’s seen?
Arana:Yes. Yes, and almost I want I almost don’t want to answer the question because it makes it sound like you know, my story had more of a hand in that than it probably did. But, after Dr. Spitzer repudiated his study, the head of Exodus – which for years and years and years had supported ex-gay therapy – also denounced it. Also said that he saw no proof that it was effective, which was monumental for the gay-rights movement. He continues to maintain that homosexuality is not in line with God’s design, if you want to put it that way. But that changing one’s sexual orientation not only probably doesn’t work, but can be harmful. And so that was a major change, and it’s hard to think that that wasn’t informed by Dr. Spitzer’s repudiation.
Jen: That seemed to be one of the pillars of their evidence.
Arana: Yes. So let me explain. So, Dr. Spitzer’s study had been so influential because as opposed to a lot of other therapists, who were part of the ex-gay movement, and whose work could be denounced as quackery, Dr. Spitzer was a respected psychiatrist, an atheist, a Jew. He had spearheaded the effort to declassify homosexuality as a mental illness. He had a legitimacy that nobody else who had come out in favor of ex-gay therapy had. So, removing that legitimacy was a major boon to the gay-rights movement.
And another reason I think that it’s helped the gay-rights movement is because of the media attention it got. So when Spitzer came out with his study, publications ranging from the New York Times to USA Today wrote about it. And, you know, sort of got into the public conversation the idea that sexual orientation could be changed. And that’s very powerful. And when he took it back, there was a similar flood of media coverage that I think I’m, that you know went far in – – when he took it back there was a similar flood of media coverage that made up for you know, the earlier pieces claiming that this sort of therapy is effective.
Chien: And it seems that there’s a tide changing in terms of the general public’s opinion on that. In September of 2012, California passed a ban on these types of ex-gay therapy for minors, scandals with the leaders of the ex-gay movement leading hidden lifestyles unbeknownst to their members… Do you feel optimistic about the waning of this ex-gay movement?
Arana: The trend is going in the right direction. I am optimistic that 20 years down the line we won’t be talking about whether or not you can change your sexual orientation. …And hopefully life will be easier for gay kids to live.
Chien: Thank you again for sharing your story.
Arana:Thanks for having me.
And that’s it for this edition of Making Contact.
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