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Zach's story makes the NYT

There’s a long piece in the NYT on Tennessee gay teen Zach and the fraud that is the Refuge ‘ex-gay reparative therapy’ camp. We’ve discussed this case quite a bit on the Blend over the last several weeks, including the recent post, “Zach’s parents ‘come out’ about the attempt to ‘de-gay’ their son.”

The Times article by Alex Williams uncovers a bit more information, but it mostly covers the ground that’s been pieced together in other reports. It’s a good read. It is mind-blowing to think of what passes as “therapy” places like Refuge. [It should be noted that Refuge’s “warden,” John Smid, is now removing references to therapy from its Web site and insists that the program is a spiritual, not counseling, center.]

The level of control over the inmates (and that’s really how they are treated) is disturbing, and revolves around isolating them from the outside world, and ridiculously monitoring “pansy mannerisms” in men and making sure the only thing “butch” in the joint are the therapized guys tossing the pigskin.

Excessive jewelry or stylish clothing from labels like Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger are forbidden, and so is watching television, listening to secular music (even Bach) and reading unapproved books or magazines. “It’s like checking into prison,” said Brandon Tidwell, 29, who completed the adult program in 2002 but eventually rejected its teachings, reconciling his Christian beliefs with being gay.

“Refuge-ee” Brandon Tidwell. (Photo: Rollin Riggs/NYT).

Physical contact among clients other than a handshake is forbidden, and so is “campy” talk or behavior, according to program rules that Zach posted on his blog before he began at Refuge. Occasionally, recalled Jeff Harwood, 41, a Love in Action graduate who still considers himself gay, some participants would mock the mandatory football games.

You could get away with maybe one limp-wristed pass before another client would catch you,” he said, seated on a tattered sofa in a funky cafe called Java Cabana in the trendy midtown district of Memphis.

As we all know, ex-gay ministries Like Love in Action/Refuge and Exodus refuse to produce statistics of “heterosexual conversion” success rates of their programs. Jeff Harwood came out of the adult program in 1999, and he says in the article that of 11 fellow former clients he has kept track of, eight once again consider themselves gay. In fact, the tepid, sad endorsement of Refuge from one young interviewee in this article is completely unconvincing. It leaves you wondering just how long it will be before he steps into a gay bar to “test” himself, and “fail” by acting on his natural attraction to men — then experience endless guilt and suffering because of his past indoctrination.

Although critics say such programs threaten the adolescent psyche, at least one teenager who considers himself a successful graduate does not agree. “In my experience people who struggle with their sexuality are more mature in general,” Ben Marshall, 18, said. He recounted being in turmoil, growing up gay in a conservative Christian household in Mobile, Ala.

In 2004 his parents sent him to Refuge. “I went to Memphis kicking and screaming,” he said. “I had grown to hate the church for the militant message it gave off toward homosexuality.”

While enrolled he spent days listening to stories of the pain that homosexuality had caused clients and their families. Slowly, he said, his attitude changed. He ended up choosing to continue in Love in Action’s adult program for nine months. While the program has a “high rate of failure,” he said “there are enough successes to know I’m not alone.”

But even success comes only through continuing struggle.Although he plans to date women in the future, Mr. Marshall said, he is avoiding any romantic relationships for the time being. “ In all honesty, I’m just trying to figure out how to deal normally with men before I start to deal with women,” he said.

The goal of becoming a “happy, healthy, heterosexual” is not even seriously promoted by most of these “ex-gay” ministries at this point, since they are well aware of the fact that so many graduates ‘go back.” Even John Smid’s own words cannot muster up a lot of confidence about the “ex-gay” movement. Can you believe this —

The goal of the program, said Mr. Smid, who said he was once gay but now renounces homosexual behavior, is not necessarily to turn gays into practicing heterosexuals, but to “put guardrails” on their sexual impulses.

“In my life I’ve been out of homosexuality for over 20 years, and for me it’s really a nonissue,” Mr. Smid said. “I may see a man and say, he’s handsome, he’s attractive, and it might touch a part of me that is different from someone else,” he said. “But it’s really not an issue. Gosh, I’ve been married for 16 years and faithful in my marriage in every respect. I mean I don’t think I could white-knuckle this ride for that long.”

I wonder what else is touching a part of him.

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Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding