Thursday, March 29, 2007

Inside a "reparative therapy" program

This is another installment of my write-up of the talk by Tanya Erzen (author of Straight to Jesus: Sexual and Christian Conversions in the Ex-Gay Movement) I attended Sunday evening. Click here for the earlier post, which centered around the way the religious right uses the ex-gay movement to advance their political agenda. Here I will share more of what she told us about Exodus International in general, as well as New Hope Ministry, which is the residential program where she did her research.

According to their web site, "Exodus is a worldwide interdenominational Christian organization called to encourage, strengthen, unify and equip Christians to minister the transforming power of the Lord Jesus Christ to those affected by homosexuality.

And it is an international movement--they are all over the world at this point--of local ministries who attempt to convert gay men and lesbians into what they call non-homosexual Christian lives. They use psychological, counseling, self-help, twelve-step type approaches, biblical approaches, and therapeutic approaches.

Dr. Erzen noted that, while the ex-gay movement started as a Christian movement, it has branched out and there is a Jewish group called Jonah, a Mormon group called Evergreen, a Catholic group called Courage, and there's a counseling and therapy center based in California called NARTH: the National Association for the Research and Treatment of Homosexuality.

The movement understands homosexuality as a developmental disorder, a choice, and an addiction, and they believe that it can be healed through a religious process. They really make a distinction in their literature and speeches between being gay and being homosexual, defining being gay as a "false lifestyle" or a misguided choice. They use the term homosexual to emphasize that it isn't part of your identity, but is something that can be changed.

They believe that it is the result of some kind of emotional deficit in early childhood. It is in some ways Freudian because the assumption is that there was a problem with the relationship with the same-sex parent.

The program where Dr. Erzen did her research was a live-in program, so it had men from all over the U.S. and Europe who had left their jobs, houses, and families to move to California to spend a year at that ministry. And the idea behind these ministries is that by all of these men living together and having a healthy nonsexual relationship with someone of the same sex, that that will cure their homosexuality. Because according to this model, the men didn't bond properly with their fathers. So you have all of these men who are dealing with the same issue, wanting to change their sexuality, are living in really close quarters. In some cases, 3 or 4 to a room.

Because this set-up is likely to involve temptation, there are elaborate rules set up. They can't go anywhere by themselves for too long, can't smoke cigarettes (somehow that is seen as a potentially sexual act). Tanya described a dinner she attended there early on where someone had made spaghetti and meatballs with canned peaches. Somebody made some joke, and the person who cooked said, "Well, I'm sorry--Betty Crocker was busy tonight!" That person was then reminded that he'd broken one of the rules, because using "camp" or any kind of sarcastic humor is forbidden, because they believe that links them somehow to their previous life.

In addition to failing to identify with the parent of the same sex, the people running the program also believe that gays and lesbians have a deficit in their masculinity or femininity. So a lot of the workshops they run are about trying to acquire proper masculine or feminine characteristics. So there's an assumption that all men are masculine in a very particular way, and all women are feminine in a very particular way. Some of the workshops Dr. Erzen attended were Developing a Secure Gender Identity, Finding Femininity etc. Some workshops for women addressed how to apply makeup and match your accessories to your outfit, because becoming more feminine was supposed to help lead to the conversion in your sexuality.

Along those lines, Tanya described something called "Straight Man Night". New Hope Ministry is affiliated with a local nondenominational church, and men will come in and talk about what it's like to be a straight man. (Here, I imagined how odd it would be to try to "talk about what it's like to be a straight woman". Really, how does one *do* that?) She said that she initially thought this sounded absurd, but it was actually powerful for many of the men, who told her that they had never had any sort of relationship with a heterosexual man, and many of them thought of heterosexual men as almost a "different species".

The men in the program had to fill out a questionnaire about the people who visited--what they thought of them, and whether they would invite them back. She related that in these feedback comments, one participant wrote several things that he'd learned, but then added, "but there's a lot of things could teach these straight men--like how to dress!"

Uh-oh...that sounded like some of that "camp" humor/sarcasm, didn't it? Really, that was a new one to me. Sarcasm is somehow a gay thing?

Throughout her talk, those in attendance would laugh from time to time--for example at the point where she explained that smoking a cigaratte was seen as a "sexual act". Dr. Erzen was careful to say that the people she encountered in this program were very sincere in their beliefs, and that she didn't want to make fun of them. But she also added that even they would laugh at some of these things.

And it's hard not to laugh, but, at the same time, there's something really sad about all of this idea that there is one narrowly defined "right" way to be masculine or feminine. It's hard for me to imagine that the God who created the universe in all its spectacular diversity wants us to squeeze ourselves into such rigidly defined categories.