The camp that 'cures' homosexuality

At a Christian 'boot camp' in the US, those struggling to reconcile faith and sexuality are taught to overcome gayness

Times Online, UK/October 7, 2008

"How many of you are in need of some hope here tonight?" A murmur passes through the dark auditorium, pleasing the man with the microphone. Heads nod. "How many of you are at the end of your rope?" he continues. "How many are ready for an encounter with the Lord?" The man on stage, dressed in chinos and a crisp white shirt, is Alan Chambers. The clean-cut, married father of two is the leader of Exodus International, an organisation that believes it can help people to "find freedom from homosexuality through the love of Jesus Christ".

Exodus is one of the ministries of the so-called "ex-gay" movement, a controversial fundamentalist Christian campaign that encourages gay people to renounce their sexuality. This, its annual conference, promises "an amazing week of breakthroughs, transformations and healings". A Christian rock band begins to play and the 800 men and women who moments earlier seemed to have only awkwardness in common begin singing and clapping in unison. Eyes closed, they raise their hands above their heads, uplifted by the hope of being reborn.

Chambers later returns to the stage and stands before them, triumphantly heterosexual. He tells the crowd that he won't judge homosexuals, even if their own churches have, because he used to be one himself. In the hushed auditorium, he describes his first experience of a gay bar. "It was almost as if I'd grown up handicapped and everyone else was handicapped, too. But it was a counterfeit. I was fooled."

"Am I in denial?" he asks. "Absolutely. I live a life of denial and I love it. I didn't choose my same-sex feelings but I do choose how I'm going to steward them. Freedom is possible." At Exodus people are not gay; they "struggle with same-sex attraction" (SSA).

"The opposite of homosexuality is not heterosexuality," says Chambers, sagely. "It's holiness." Speech over, he asks people to come forward to be prayed for. A boy of no more than 16 steps up, hanging his head. When he returns from the stage to the sound of applause, his stony-faced father nods in approval. His mother weeps.

Welcome to ex-gay boot camp

The belief that homosexuality can be overcome has been fuelling controversy in the US for decades. Although research supporting SSA therapy has been discredited, "ex-gay" ministries are expanding worldwide, even in the UK, where a discreet network practises SSA therapy under the umbrella of "Christian counselling".

Consider the crisis within the Anglican community over homosexuality, and Exodus begins to offer a strangely seductive solution to reconciling faith and sex. Yet it has been claimed by critics, many of whom have undergone treatment themselves, that some same-sex attraction therapy can exacerbate anxiety and depression, in extreme cases leading to suicidal feelings.

Ridgecrest Retreat is a white, antiseptic blot in the blue-green Smoky Mountains in North Carolina. Masquerading as one of the hundreds of "homosexual strugglers" who visit the Exodus campus, I arrived here after registering online for six days of evangelism psychotherapy.

New arrivals are greeted by a row of friendly staff. Eric, a perfectly coiffured team member from Florida, puts his hand on my shoulder and promises me a "very impactful" experience. Name tags (to be worn at all times) are distributed, as is a schedule of workshops and worship sessions, and room keys. It strikes me as slightly cruel that an event for people battling with their homosexuality should offer shared rooms with strangers of the same sex.

My roommate is Michelle, a 28-year-old who has recently broken up with her girlfriend. A nurse from Ohio who likes Metallica and Christian rock, she has a natural shyness offset by a hearty laugh.

"I used to be out and proud so I can't believe I'm here and not protesting," she says, "but I wanted to see what it was all about." This is her first conference and she is accompanied by a support group of impossibly cheerful women, all of whom are ardent believers in the Exodus philosophy.

The first full day requires us to pick our classes. I sign up for "Journey Through Lesbianism", a workshop addressing possible factors contributing to the development of lesbianism. These include, apparently, "unhealthy relationships with family members and peers, abuse, shame and self-hatred". Loneliness, the media, and being deprived of affection as a baby in a hospital incubator will later be added to the list.

The lesson starts ominously. "What a bunch of fine-looking ladies we have here today," the wiry, bespectacled lecturer says to the sullen women squeezed into tight rows of chairs.

"We're dealing with attraction here, and you're bunching us all up together?" snorts one redhead, before being calmed down by the woman sitting next to her. "I'm sorry," she apologises, "but it has been an intense day." It is 10.45am.

Next up is "Overcoming Guilt and Shame", led by a sad, wearied and overweight woman named Bonnie who used to be a probation officer. "I still have same-sex attraction," she sighs at one point, "but it's like elevator music to me now. I just don't pay attention to it." A strange practical exercise follows, involving picking derogatory name tags out of a hat. A handsome youth with an American smile sticks "defiled" to his polo shirt. How this helps his internet porn addiction is anyone's guess, although he generously cedes that "we're all sexually broken".

The timetable is packed. A class on "True Femininity", which concludes cryptically that true femininity "is the ability to receive", would probably have reduced Germaine Greer to tears. Another features an Angela Lansbury lookalike who manages to link her gay ex-husband's death from an Aids-related illness to his father's links with the "Serbian mafia".

Some of my classmates are veteran Exodus followers attending the annual conference for a "willpower top-up", like recovering alcoholics going to AA meetings; others are boot camp virgins. Everyone has paid $600 (£340) for the privilege. Chatting before his "Breaking the Myth of Masculinity" class, Riccardo, a doctor from Illinois, explains that he has come here for "encouragement and moral support" after tiring of anonymous encounters with other men.

Each evening, a roll-call of "former homosexuals" hold up their husbands and wives like kitemarks of their newfound heterosexuality. We are told repeatedly that marriage is evidence of healing. Stereotypes are the ex-gay currency, and the heterosexual ideal is practically ringed by a white picket fence. Christine Sneeringer, the compere, jokes that her recovery is going so well that she has given up car mechanics ("it trashes my nails"). Exodus vice-president Randy Thomas, on the other hand, delights the crowd with his campness: "Just because I stopped being gay 16 years ago doesn't mean I can't be fabulous," he says. Clearly, gaydar has yet to be invented on planet Exodus.

It could be comical were it not for the teenager shaking in the corner, and the man sobbing as he prayed. Excusing herself from a session, Michelle goes to her room and cries. "I don't think I want to willpower right through it," she confides before going to sleep. "Where's the change in that?" Later I find her surfing the website of the protesters who have been picketing the campus. They are led by Wayne Besen, an ex-gay-camp-attendee-turned-campaigner (an ex-ex-gay, so to speak).

In a furtive conversation by the car park, one protester, Sara, tells me: "We just want them to know that you can be gay and happy - and that there is a supportive community out there."

"I've been through all the arguments, like 'If it's love, how can it be wrong?'" says Michelle the next day. "And if I'm being honest, I'd love to be openly gay and have a completely satisfying relationship with God. But I don't know how that can be done. All I know is that it makes more sense to listen to the God who created the Universe than to my puny human emotions."

By day four, my appetite for psychotherapy is waning. I drag myself to a seminar entitled "Walking Away from the Lesbian Mentality". On finding that the class leader is an aggressively happy woman with a guitar who sings about hating her mother, I want to do just that. Yet, putting aside the draining therapy sessions, it's almost easy to believe that this is simply a happy Christian summer camp. You can even play wargames in the woods - perhaps it's a way of completing that holy trinity of US obsessions: God, guns and gays.

Back in her room, Michelle has had an epiphany. "I've realised that I've been looking for satisfaction in all the wrong places - food, drugs, sex," she says, firmly. "My homosexuality is just one of many things to come from this place of pain, and all it gave me was a heart full of ache.

"If God desired man and woman to be together, how can you be a good Christian and have a gay relationship?

If the Exodus experience seems far-fetched - the sort of thing that could happen only in America - then think again. A number of organisations are believed to offer same-sex attraction therapy, albeit more discreetly, in the UK. These including God's Healing of Broken Emotions, in Inverness; Living Waters, in Central London, and Exodus's official UK partner, Re-alignment (slogan: "reinventing people"), another counselling service based in London. If the directors of these organisations are prepared to comment, then it is only to dismiss the term "ex-gay". But they neither confirm nor deny use of same-sex attraction therapy.

There appear to have been no complaints about the activities of any of these organisations and websites report many success stories, but there are those who claim that their involvement with other therapists has been a far-from-positive experience. Peterson Toscano spent 17 years and £20,000 in the US and UK trying to suppress his identity as a gay man. "It is a far more subtle seduction over here," he says. Toscano claims that therapists in Britain - who he says tried to exorcise his gay demons in Kidderminster, in the West Midlands - nearly drove him to suicide. "There is no question about that. I became severely depressed and contemplated suicide on several occasions," he says.

Toscano, who now runs the Beyond Ex-Gay support group, believes that, far from being living proof of being a changed man, Alan Chambers is simply promoting celibacy by stealth.

"You walk out on this cloud of ex-gay glory," says Toscano, "but you end up intimate with no one, becoming more and more isolated until it's just you alone on this little ex-gay island ... so many people are hurting and living this half-life."

On my return from America, I asked Alan Chambers about his organisation. Referring to himself as "a walking example of God's redemption", he said: "Exodus exists so that individuals can live in congruence with their own faith-based beliefs. There are many who do not share our beliefs, nor are they in conflict living as homosexuals. We respect this human right to self-determination. In the spirit of tolerance and diversity, we ask only for the same as well."

He said he could not comment on allegations that SSA therapy could cause psychological damage without knowing specific details about an individual's personal experience. But he said: "Plenty of people start with a process or a programme and then decide it isn't for them. I do understand this to be a very impassioned and difficult subject. I am truly heartbroken for individuals who continue to experience confusion and sadness in their lives."

He pointed out that a 2007 US study indicated that sexual orientation change was possible for some individuals going through religiously mediated programmes such as Exodus, and did not cause psychological harm. He said that "these conclusions directly contradict the claims of critics ... that change in sexual orientation is impossible and attempting to pursue this alternative is likely to cause depression, anxiety or self-destructive behaviour".

This month, Save Me, a small-budget fictional film about an ex-gay ministry, opens at cinemas in America. "I tried not to portray its leaders as two-dimensional monsters," explains the director, Robert Cary. "Many genuinely believe that they are helping people to live good lives. But they believe that you're born with your religion and choose your sexuality, when that is the opposite of the truth."

One ex-gay leader who has come to the same conclusion is Jeremy Marks. A mild-mannered 56-year-old from Surrey, he pioneered one of the first ex-gay networks in the UK. But after ten years, the attempted suicide of a former resident led him to question the value of SSA therapy. He found that, rather than helping people, it led to depression and dysfunctional behaviour. "They stopped going to church, stopped going to work," he recalls. "The only ones who appeared to be doing well were those who accepted that they were gay and got on with their lives." Marks is now openly gay and runs Courage, a support group for gay Christians.

"Really, what the ex-gay movement is all about is salving the conscience of the Christian leaders who don't like to be accused of homophobia," he says. "That way they can say 'we don't hate gays - look how we are welcoming them'."

Back in North Carolina, the mood is an uneasy mix of celebration and trepidation. One man has decided that he will be celibate for one month for each of the seven years he has spent "in the lifestyle". Riccardo, the doctor, is more resigned: "I used to think marriage was the ultimate goal but I've come to accept that I'll struggle with SSA for the rest of my life."

At one last seminar, "Smooth Transitions: Life after the Conference", Joe, a Latino man from Miami, speaks proudly of leaving his boyfriend and changing his friends, his address, his job and his gym after leaving his first conference.

"It's about doing what's uncomfortable," he tells the class, describing how he forced himself to watch baseball with macho sportsmen at parties, and to wear looser shorts when walking his chihuahua.

A squeaky-voiced youth of no more than 17, who has been trembling violently, shoots up his hand. He wants to know whether he should dump his boyfriend.

"It's a no-brainer," he is told. "You should end the relationship. If you don't do it now, it will only become harder later."

On the stage where Alan Chambers welcomed us, a final prayer is held. And then the broken, the fixed, and everyone in between sings: "The enemy has been defeated. Freedom. Freedom. Freedom."

Packing her suitcase, Michelle feels that she has found an answer. "To focus on sex is missing the point," she says. "It's not about gay or straight. It's about holiness and my relationship with Christ." She wants to marry but admits that she may never be attracted to men. "Then it means I've been called to singleness." And lifelong celibacy? "I'm surrendering to God's way." And she leaves, ready to face a new life in which love and sex are reduced to the sound of elevator music.

Homosexuality and the Church: views from the pulpit

The ex-gay movement has come out of the US evangelical revival, but it has not caught the imagination in British religious circles to the same extent. In the UK it has operated on the fringes of the religious establishment, chiefly on the independent, charismatic wing of the evangelical movement.

Some congregations in the Church of England do have a reputation as places where gay young men and women can go for encouragement into wedlock with members of the opposite sex. But with the increasing acceptance in wider society of homosexuality, and the passing of the Civil Partnership Act, more and more young people are baffled by the churches' continuing difficulties in this area, as witnessed by the strife in the Anglican Communion.

The ex-gay movement has never been officially sanctioned by the Roman Catholic or the Anglican Church. While both seem reluctant to accept that gay people might be born as they are - and thus be made in God's image and therefore entitled to sexual fulfilment - they seem strangely unprepared, at an official level at least, to call for gays to "convert" to heterosexuality.

The Roman Catholic and Anglican Church hedge their positions on homosexuality with reiterations of the wrongs of homophobia. But, for both Churches, there can be no getting away from the biblical teachings condemning gay behaviour. This means that they differentiate between the "sinner" and the "sin", offering the hand of "forgiveness" to the first, and condemnation of the second.

So the official catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that "homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered" and that "homosexual persons are called to chastity". And, in a document produced in 1991, the Church of England bishops argued that sexual intercourse, as an expression of faithful intimacy, "properly belongs within marriage exclusively".

However, Anglicans were prepared to move farther in accepting gay behaviour. The bishops also said, rather ambiguously: "The Church should not reject those who conscientiously enter into intentionally permanent same-sex relationships which they sincerely believe is God's call to them ... Because of the distinctive nature of their calling, clergy do not have the liberty to enter into sexual relationships outside marriage ... Sexual orientation is not a bar to ordination in the Church of England."

The Catholic Church condemns contraception as intrinsically bad but few Catholics take any notice. If the churches are not careful, later generations will take the same view of its teachings on homosexuality.

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