The ex-gay movement, which professes to ‘cure’ homosexuality, is in the news yet again following the disappearance of American student Bryce Faulkner, who is thought to have been sent to one of the controversial centres by his parents after they discovered he was gay.
Ex-gay ministries were founded in the mid-1970s in a reactionary move against the advance of the gay rights movement in America. Rather than focusing on any biblical exegenesis or psycho-biological studies, the movement focused on popularised stereotypes of gays and lesbians, concentrating their actions on such things as ‘gender-specific’ role playing and ways of thinking.
The ideals of what the movement preaches, a move from homosexuality through to heterosexuality, are said to be ineffective and “potentially harmful” by American psychologist groups such as the American Psychological Association, which claims that such direct intolerance and lack of acceptance can cause mental health problems.
PinkNews.co.uk spoke to Dr Adrian Coyle, a senior lecturer in the Department of Psychology at the University of Surrey and co-author of ‘The Social Psychology of Sexuality’, about how these negative connotations affect the person involved.
With regards to reparative therapy, Dr Coyle said that there is “no evidence it works” and that the “research evidence just isn’t there”.
“As a psychologist and a scientist, I want to know about the evidence they have,” he said.
“I don’t think its wise to engage with the desire to change, the reinforcement of pre-existing negative ideas of one’s sexuality presents a huge risk.
When asked further about ex-gay treatments he said that the only positive outcome would be that “conceivably, once, say, a religious Christian who is forced to go or chooses to go [to a centre], engages with it and tries their best only to find it doesn’t work . . . it could be a catalyst for some critical thinking and a realisation that maybe they are not ‘wrong’”.
He went on to stress: “The risk is so huge for feelings of complete isolation of social context and the implications for a person’s life and wellbeing.”
He added that this could potentially lead to suicide.
Ex-gay groups tend to say that members who come to them want to change, and lose their “unwanted same-sex attraction”, but when reading accounts from these people, many of whom come from small towns or cities throughout America where there is harsh intolerance towards gays, one can see reasons why they think that this is their only option.
The groups themselves often cite personal trauma as reasons for undertaking the therapy, with the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH) claiming: “Early [during childhood or adolescence] sexual experiences with an older, same-sex person are commonly reported by our homosexual clients.”
Peterson Toscano is the co-founder of beyondexgay.com, an online community for people who have gone through the ex-gay process and found it unsuccessful.
He submitted himself to reparative therapy, and spent 17 years of his life attempting to address his same-sex attraction, before finally coming out as openly gay in 1999. He told PinkNews.co.uk about his experience at ex-gay residential programme ‘Love in Action’ (LIA), as well as the three exorcisms he went through.
Describing a reparative therapy session, he said: “In LIA a typical day meant group sessions where we talked about our issues and get teachings about why we are gay based on the template they provide. Often parents get blamed and participants need to match their personal histories with the template the programme leaders provide thus creating a new mythology about themselves.
“We had to spend a great deal of time writing about our former sexual experiences,” he continued, “and then filtering them through a lens that deemed such activity as sinful, dysfunctional and addictive.
“We also had to stand up in front of family and friends and share one of the most shameful sexual experiences we had, much like people do at AA when they talk about hitting rock bottom. This is a devastating and shaming event for both the participants and the parents”.
Toscano talked about how they were given training in “proper” gender roles and personal presentation, and “how to dress, walk, act like proper men and women”. Examples included men going to football “clinics” and women receiving baking lessons.
However, it seems that LIA itself does not even believe gays can be changed.
Toscano described how John Smid, the director of LIA, announced in a welcoming speech to them that the goal of heterosexuality was “unrealistic” and added that many would struggle with their desires for the rest of their lives.
Even Exodus International, the ex-gay group that is one of the largest of its kind and also the place where Bryce Faulkner is said to be being ‘treated’, now teaches this very message: “Change in orientation is not possible.”
Alan Chambers, the president of Exodus International, spoke at the Love Won Out conference in 2007 and said: “Heterosexuality shouldn’t be your number one goal . . . the opposite of homosexuality isn’t heterosexuality. It’s holiness.”
Mr Chambers continued: “I think we in the church often get that wrong. We think, ‘okay, the best thing for this person who’s involved with homosexuality or involved with lesbianism is that they come out of that lifestyle and go into heterosexuality’”.
He added that this was “setting people up for a terrible fall”.
So the president of the group itself is saying that the heterosexuality that he is attempting to push on gay and lesbian people is unattainable.
Bryce Faulkner has been criticised from a number of quarters for not choosing to leave therapy.
However, Toscano warned of the difficulties of trying to leave ex-gay ministries.
“Cut off from the world – friends, TV, news, etc -the teachings of the programme fills the head. You get trapped in a world within a world,” he continued, “an alternate universe that warns of all sorts of dangers outside, that to leave, one is also leaving God’s will for your life.”
“Looking at it from the outside this may seem silly,” he went on, “but inside that world that is filled with shame and fear, it becomes harder and harder to think clearly for one’s self.”
“Also, to know that once you leave you may be destitute . . . without the support from your parents . . . it makes it all the harder to get out,” he said.
“Some kids do resist their parents and make it, but there are also far too many homeless LGBT people out there.”
With the case of Bryce Faulkner still ongoing, and people such as his boyfriend Travis Swanson saying that he was “allegedly brow beaten, manipulated and economically bullied into ‘agreeing’ to an intervention to ‘cure’ his homosexuality”, one can see that the movement continues.
Despite the assertion from its leaders that it doesn’t work, ex-gay therapy continues and more and more people like Bryce Faulkner are sent there every day.
The movement in the US, and indeed, the UK, is going stronger, something which undeniably calls for more research into such false ‘cures’, which even the centres’ leaders say does not work.
NARTH and Exodus did not return calls for comment.