BY: ELLIOTT KENNEDY
PHOTOS: TESS FREEMAN
For some “ex-gay survivors” of conversion therapy, acceptance comes at a high price
The glow of the headlights provided barely enough visibility in the early morning darkness. For a moment, it shone through windows and reflected against the rearview mirror, radiating yellow beams throughout the moving car before disappearing once again. In the back seat, Jason Ingram positioned a Bible above his head, waiting for the next set of headlights to illuminate the scripture.
Soon, the car would exit the freeway and Ingram would be forced to surrender his book until tomorrow’s morning drive to work. Ingram would then labor, lift, load, and haul at a factory until sunset. This arduous work would speckle his hands with masculine calluses, while the sweat would wash away traces of what his counselors called femininity. With each day of physical and emotional exertion, Ingram believed he was moving closer to building a new, heterosexual identity through the practice of conversion therapy.
“It was part of the process,” Ingram recalls. “It was a way for them to break you.”
Also known as reparative therapy, reorientation therapy, and change efforts, conversion therapy employs various methods aimed at changing an individual’s sexual orientation by eliminating homosexual feelings and supplanting them with heterosexual desires, therefore making the individual an “ex-gay.”
According to the official publication of the American Medical Association, American Medical News (AMN), some participants of conversion therapy have even been instructed to strip naked in front of their counselors and fellow program participants to subject themselves to a simulated “locker room bullying scene.” The AMN has also documented cases of conversion therapy counselors who direct their clients to beat effigies of their parents because they believe that attachment to a mother figure suppresses the development of masculine features and personality traits.
In light of these reported practices, all major medical associations have issued official statements denouncing the efficacy and ethicality of conversion therapy. Yet people like Ingram continue to pay thousands of dollars in the hope of becoming ex-gay, leading to speculation about the value of heterosexuality in American culture and questions about why conversion therapy persists.
In California, the survival of this controversial practice hinges on the courts. In 2012, state legislators proposed a bill that would prohibit the use of conversion therapy on minors. But proponents of the treatment fought back, claiming the law would infringe on First Amendment rights. Currently, the ban is on hold as the California appeals court hears arguments.
Regina Griggs is the executive director of Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays, an organization that promotes the belief that sexuality is a choice. She opposes the ban. The group supports conversion therapy as an avenue through which to make choices about sexual orientation.
“What the law is saying is, ‘We’re not only going to take away your rights, but we’re going to own you and we’re going to tell you how to live your life,” says Griggs. “No one has proven that conversion therapy is harmful, which is why it’s never been banned.”
Naomi Knoble disagrees that conversion therapy is not harmful. According to Knoble, a licensed marriage and family therapist who has worked closely with clients struggling with sexual identity, “There is no scientific evidence indicating that reparative therapy benefits people more than it harms them.” Knoble, a doctoral candidate in counseling and psychology at the University of Oregon, considers conversion therapy a fringe treatment. And, says Knoble, because the practice is not taught at accredited institutions, there are few reliable experts or bodies of research on the topic. “This is reason enough to discredit it as a therapeutic treatment,” she says.
But Ingram, like many ex-gay survivors, was desperate to change.
“I was so sure that being gay was wrong, and if it was wrong then obviously God would make some sort of way out,” says Ingram. “I was determined to find that way out, no matter what.”
Ingram found his answer in 2005 at Pure Life Ministries (PLM), a residential conversion therapy program in rural Dry Ridge, Kentucky. After paying the $1,500 induction fee and weekly $150 living fee, Ingram joined a diverse group of straight, gay, and sexually questioning men.
“What you’ll find in the ex-gay movement is that they don’t like to admit that it is an ex-gay program,” says Ingram. “They use the term ‘sexual addiction’ as an all-encompassing title and put anyone in there.”
Still, Ingram unquestioningly followed the program rules: no facial hair, no movies rated above PG, and no music other than Christian gospel. Failure to attend counseling sessions and church sermons were met with penalties.
“They called them ‘special assignments,’” recalls Ingram. “They would use it as a form of punishment. If they thought I was late to chapel, I would have to haul wood in the rain and mud, or do a construction project at one of the ministers’ houses.”
Despite his growing trepidation about their methods, Ingram nonetheless remained at PLM until his graduation from the program.
“Graduating is a sort of irony,” recalls Ingram. “You have to write down this testimony about how you’ve changed because of the program. Then they send you out into the world and you find that you haven’t changed at all. In fact, you’re a nervous wreck.”
Now living in Milwaukie, Oregon, he sustains a solitary life on Social Security Disability checks for clinical depression.
“I felt like, what was my crime?” says Ingram of his homosexuality. “And all I wanted to do was love a man. What had I gotten myself into?”
Like Ingram, other “ex-gay survivors”—people who have experienced the practice and ultimately accepted their non-heterosexual identities—are often left questioning their decision to choose conversion therapy.
According to Pure Life Ministries, its services will “make things new as you are unchained from a life of sexual sin.” Restoration Path (formerly known as Love In Action) says that “God is in the restoration business and He can truly restore the years the locusts of sexual and relational sin may have taken from you.” The ex-gay ministry, Portland Fellowship, asserts that conversion therapy will help individuals “proclaim their freedom from the captivity” of homosexuality.
But Peterson Toscano believes that the methods of restoration are, in fact, destructive. “There are a lot of better ways to learn good lessons other than getting into a car wreck,” he says.
Toscano is a theatrical performance activist who has translated his time at the residential conversion therapy program, Love In Action, into stage productions such as Doing Time In the Homo No Mo Halfway House. He has spoken publicly of his encounter with conversion therapy to media outlets ranging from The Tyra Banks Show to BBC News, but no longer feels comfortable sharing the details of his experience.
“I think I’m going through what a lot of abuse survivors go through, which is first denial, and then a realization about how devastating it truly was,” says Toscano. “I needed to process, to understand why people were so shocked by my experience. And now I can see it as incredibly abusive as it really was.”
Yet, the ideas fueling conversion therapy seem to run counter to a growing acceptance of homosexuality in mainstream culture. In the years following popular gay-friendly television shows and movies such as Will and Grace, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, and Milk, it appeared that homosexuality was abandoning the shadows of the closet in order to embrace the media spotlight. But despite Americans’ welcome acceptance of fictionally flamboyant characters into their living rooms, the country has remained at odds about the acceptability of homosexuality in the real public sphere. For example, the United States did not elect an openly gay person to a governorship until 2012. In 2009, Boston University published a study that found “school officials have often justified their discrimination against LGBT teachers by arguing that [they] do not serve as proper role models for students.” And a 2012 Gallup Poll shows that almost half of the country considers homosexuality to be morally wrong.
Paul Cameron is among those who strongly disagree with homosexuality. As a former conversion therapist, Cameron says his work was extremely important to saving society’s declining values. “I believe that we need to change the gays because homosexuality is a liability,” he says.
Cameron, founder of the Family Research Institute, was a psychologist until his expulsion from the American Psychological Association (APA) in 1983 for failure to comply with an ethics investigation. The details of the investigation were undisclosed in APA documents.
With the Supreme Court mediating a national dispute of ethics over Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act—laws addressing issues surrounding same-sex marriage—Toscano believes that the time has come to re-evaluate the origins of attitudes toward homosexuality. Says Toscano, “People think of you as far more valuable if you are a heterosexual.”
“The lure of heterosexuality is still quite powerful,” Toscano says. “There’s an idyllic dream that’s shoved down our throats since we watched that first Disney movie about finding your perfect person—of the opposite sex, mind you—and having your happy ending. So ex-gay ministries use language like ‘broken’ to connect with people struggling with their sexuality.”
But he believes that the value of heterosexuality is dwarfed in comparison to the financial and emotional costs of conversion.
Toscano sought support in multiple conversion therapy groups, and paid more than $30,000 over the course of more than fifteen years.
“Love In Action was considered the Cadillac of ex-gay ministries—and cost about as much,” says Toscano of the most expensive of his various conversion therapy treatments.
Ingram, too, paid thousands of dollars for his treatment at Pure Life Ministries. But he feels that his health and happiness paid the biggest price.
“I have regrets,” says Ingram. “And I have psychological damage.”
A 2008 study published in the Journal of Pediatrics, found that members of the LGBTQ community who were rejected by others because of their sexuality had higher rates of drug abuse, depression, and suicide. The study also found that, of the individuals interviewed, two-thirds had tried to kill themselves following familial rejection. The American Psychological Association says that conversion therapy is a detriment to these individuals because it “frames the inability to change one’s sexual orientation as a personal and moral failure.”
Yet Ingram believes that the testimonies of ex-gay survivors show the strength of individuals who face a future as uncertain as the stock market, but have managed to move on despite a major crash.
“There will always be people who are anti-gay and there will always be people who want to change folks,” says Ingram. “But I believe we can all be healed.”
What is Conversion Therapy?
Between 1952 and 1973, the American Psychiatric Association classified homosexuality as a mental disorder. American culture at the time compelled gay men and women to keep their sexual identity hidden. With the stigma of homosexuality forcing sexual secrecy, conversion therapy organizations were also concealed from the public. But when HIV/AIDS was discovered in high concentrations in the gay communities of Los Angeles and New York in the 1980s, the practice of reparative therapy burst onto the public scene.
Two of the largest groups to emerge from this trend were Exodus International and the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), both of which remain active supporters of conversion therapy today. In the late 1990s, ex-gay ministries—organizations that purport to “cure” individuals of their homosexual feelings using religious-based counseling—were established under the purview of Exodus International. After 16-year-old Zack Stark documented his experiences with reparative therapy on his MySpace page in 2005, the methods employed in conversion therapy were examined with intense media scrutiny, leading many medical associations to condemn the practice and many more ex-gay survivors to publicly share their experiences.