"Curing" Homosexuals

A handful of conservative Christians tries to turn
gays into straights through counseling.

by Phil Campbell
John Smid is sitting in his office in Southeast Memphis trying to make a point about how difficult it has been for him to adapt his homosexual desires to heterosexual behavior. The slim 41-year-old man has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and both San Francisco daily newspapers. He also appeared on the television talk-show Jerry Springer.
Smid points to the gold-colored wall across from where he is sitting.
"If I'm looking at that wall and suddenly I say, `It's blue,' and someone else comes along and says, `No, no. It's gold.'"
"But I want to believe that that wall is blue," he says. He pauses briefly, focusing his attention on the wall.
"It's blue, it's blue, it's blue," he insists.
"But then God comes along, And He says, `You're right, John, it is blue," Smid says. "That's the help I need. God can help me make that wall blue."
Smid has turned to God because he says he is a Christian who believes that homosexuality is a sin, an abomination that has been clearly defined in the Bible. More than a decade ago, Smid was a sexually active homosexual who divorced his first wife when he came out of the closet. One same-sex relationship he had lasted three years.
Now, he's married again and is the executive director of a group called Love in Action, an organization run by "ex-gays" whose mission is to help other homosexual men "convert" themselves into heterosexuals. For $12,000, a gay man can live in Smid's therapy house in Memphis for 10 months. Group spiritual sessions every weeknight help Smid's clients, 10 other gay men, realize "God's true calling" for men.
Love in Action is just one of four similar programs to be found in the Memphis area. In Bartlett, psychologist and fundamentalist Christian Duff Wright devotes part of his practice to helping gays change their sexual orientation. At Central Church in Hickory Hill, gays and lesbians gather every Sunday evening with "other sex addicts" to discuss their personal failings and support each other. The American Family Association, a national organization based in Tupelo, Mississippi, occasionally holds sex-addiction workshops just south of Memphis that address homosexuality. Their last workshop took place earlier this month.
Christians helping Christians, they say. But the issue has more than a few people in the medical and psychological fields riled up, not to mention many of those in the gay, lesbian, and bisexual community. A growing consensus of psychiatrists, psychologists, and medical doctors are concluding that the issue of homosexuality and bisexuality is not a personal decision that one can make. Changing sexual orientation - heterosexual, bisexual, or homosexual - is simply impossible. It is a waste of time, like believing that a wall is blue when it is actually bright yellow. Worse, it is a potentially harmful practice, many argue, defying Christian fundamentalists to offer proof to the contrary.
As for the gay and lesbian community, the issue is one of discrimination. By trying to convert homosexuals into heterosexuals, even if the conversion is voluntarily sought, conservative Christians are perpetuating long-held beliefs that anything other than an opposite-sex relationship is immoral. Gay and lesbian rights activists say that the practice is one of the many roadblocks that prevent homosexuals and bisexuals from being treated equally, and they want it stopped.

THIRTY-FIVE PEOPLE ATTEND THE November meeting of the local Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), held in the basement of St. John's Episcopal Church on Greer Street near the University of Memphis. Of those attending, only Arnold and Myrna Drake, the chapter's founders, are willing to have their names released to the public; the rest, both homosexuals and their relatives, are firmly in the closet. They are afraid of the consequences of coming out in the conservative Mid-South.
One of the homosexuals attending, a tall, stocky man in his early 30s, had an experience with conversion therapists that lasted a year and a half. He says he joined an aversion therapy program because he was convinced he wanted to be heterosexual. As part of the therapy, he had to present himself before a board of counselors every week and give updates on his sexual activity. If he abstained for that week, they let him go. If he had had intercourse, he had to describe it in intimate detail and then listen to a lecture on his personal failings. The man says that none of the people who attended the therapy sessions with him were converted. "It was a shameful, horrible experience," he recalls.
Gulit-based aversion therapy is one of the more lenient ways psychologists and doctors have thought that homosexuals could be successfully converted into heterosexuals. One of the more extreme practices includes showing homosexuals erotic photos to arouse sexual stimulation, then administering electric shocks or inducing vomiting until they find same-sex intercours abhorrent. This practice was used most widely in the 1950s and '60s, but isolated cases of it continue to be reported today.
Medical and psychological opposition to using conversion methods began building in 1973, when the American Psychiatric Association concluded that homosexuality is not an illness but a normal sexual variant. Two years later, the American Psychological Association supported the decision, declaring that mental-health-care providers should "take the lead in removing the stigma of mental illness that has long been associated with homosexual orientation."
The American Medical Association, however, has only recently changed its policies. From 1981 to December of last year, when it publicly revised its opinion, the AMA supported efforts to convert gays and lesbians into heterosexuals. In last December's declaration, however, the AMA concluded that aversion therapy "is no longer recommended for gay men and lesbians."
Increasingly, a large consensus of psychiatrists, psychologists, and physicians say that any type of conversion therapy is not only ineffective but also potentially harmful. In an updated summary of findings in 1990, the American Psychological Association said that scientific evidence has yet to show that the method works. "It can often do more harm than good," the statement reads. One of the largest side effects to conversion therapy is a lower self-esteem and a sense of inferiority to "normal" heterosexuals.
Many psychiatrists and psychologists now believe that, while one can change sexual behavior from homosexual to heterosexual, one cannot change sexual orientation. In other words, a gay man might be able to perform in bed with a women, but his sexual fantasies, thoughts, and reactions remain fixated on other men. And the "success stories" of conversion proponents, doctors criticize, are usually bisexuals whose interest in the opposite sex is reinforced, but not to the total exclusion of same-sex attraction.
Michael Bailey is a psychologist and professor at Northwestern University who has done extensive studies on the origin of homosexuality. His research has lent further proof to the theory that there is genetic predisposition about one's sexual orientation.
Bailey says he's not surprised that some psychologists and Christian fundamentalists are still in the business of conversion therapy: "There has been conversion therapy for a long time. A lot of gay men would like to be converted. Their families sometimes reject them. Their life can be very difficult. There's no surprise that there's a market for this."
Pausing, he adds, "Nobody's taking a gun and forcing them to go there. On the other hand, in 1950 in the South, if you had made available treatments so that black people could become white and a lot of people took advantage of it, and if that had been voluntary, that's the same thing."

CONVERSION THERAPY FOR HOMOSEXUALS has become almost exclusively the domain of fundamentalist and evangelical Christians. While calling homosexuality a sin, most conversion proponents focus specifically on homosexuality among men because they believe that gay men engage in an excessive amount of sexual intercourse. Conversion therapists - both lay and professional - believe that homosexuality among men is a sexual addiction, lumping it together with an obsession with pornography, masturbation, nymphomania, and pedophilia.
"It all falls under the sexual-addiction umbrella," says Neal Clement, director of the outreach division of the American Family Association. "All of these subgroups all think alike, they just act out in a different way." The association hosted a sexual-addiction workshop from October 31st to November 5th at an undisclosed location in Mississippi just south of Memphis. Clement estimates that four or five of the 17 people who attended the latest workshop were homosexuals who are uncomfortable with their sexual orientation. Almost all of the participants were Christians.
Clement takes a stronger stance on this subject than local conversion proponents. As with any other kind of addiction, Clement says, most homosexuals go through a period of denial. One must first confront the homosexual, challenging their behavior on moral grounds. Minors don't have any rights in the issue; parents should immediately seek conversion therapy for their homosexual children. Christian friends of adult gays and lesbians should not waver in their belief that homosexuality and bisexuality is a sin.
"There have been many, many adolescents and adults who have come into recovery when people make decisions for them," Clement says. "When they learned about their addiction and released some of their anger and were broken and surrendered their addiction, then they were able to accept (the counseling) that is to come."
Clement and other conversion proponents attack the medical communities' statements on the issue of homosexuality. They claim that they have met with success. And few are held up more often as the Christian conversion success story that John Smid, the executive director of the Memphis-based Love in Action.

SMID'S COMFORTABLE OFFICE IS LOCATED in an innocuous three-story building in Parkway Village that houses a number of lawyers, realtors, and the Memphis Area Teachers Credit Union. Before launching deeply into an explanation of his personal struggle with homosexuality, Smid says that he won't use too much "Christian-ese" so that non-Christian readers can understand him better.
Early in his life, Smid says, he had an affection for males that other boys did not have, and as he entered puberty he began to have fantasies of men rather than women. Nevertheless, he denied these emotions and thoughts and married a women. Having two daughters, however, did not quell these desires as he had hoped they might. His sexual and emotional need for men only grew.
He finally came out of the closet in 1979 after he met another gay man and was introduced to the homosexual lifestyle. After his divorce, he continued to see his children every week, but his submersion in the gay subculture was complete, he says. Relationships with other men were temporary most of the time, though near the end of the openly gay part of his life he had a relationship with a man that lasted three years. "It was driving. Was I addicted (to homosexual sex)? No question."
Smid turns his discussion of his homosexuality quickly to the moral conflict that it created for him. "It was gratifying to an extent, but the more I was involved in that culture the more I realized I still had a need," he says. Gay support groups were helpful, but something was missing, he says. Smid believes that the Bible clearly states that homosexuality is a sin. Regardless of what scientists may conclude about how a person becomes a homosexual - a genetic vs. environment debate, or some kind of combination of the two factors - Smid believes that the Bible declares it wrong in several places.
"I discovered that there was a real place, a real need, for God in my life," Smid says. "I began to see some peace come into my life when I realized this...Personally, by being gay I felt like I was compromising my own moral values."
He started to attend "ex-gay" ministries and started to abstain from homosexual intercourse by 1984. Three years later he joined the staff of Love in Action, which at the time was located in San Rafael, California. Two years after that he took over as the organization's executive director.
Smid had remarried in 1988, this time to a women named Vileen. "(My marriage) is diferent because I'm much more conscious of what I'm thinking and feeling today than 20 years ago. I'm much more aware of what to relate to." Though he describes his sex life with his second wife as "very normal."
"The same as any other marriage," he says.
Smid compares his suppressed homosexual desires to the sex fantasies of any man who's married and has thoughts of other women. "Do I still have homosexual thoughts?" he says. "Sure. But they're not major, they're not predominant." Smid will not call himself anything but a heterosexual now. "Some people may call that bisexuality, but during that period of my life I led a very singularly homosexual lifestyle."
The high cost of living in the San Francisco Bay area led Smid to move from San Rafael last December. Memphis is better, says Smid, because real estate values are lower and there is more Christian support for his program. Still, getting started hasn't been easy. In California, Love in Action owned three houses with 36 live-in gay men who had made a pledge of celibacy. Smid won't reveal the location of the Memphis Love in Action house, but he says that 10 gay men live there. Only one of the residents is a Memphian; the rest are Christians of all denominations from all over the United States, he says.
Besides the 10-month treatment program, the organization has begun to distribute literature about reaching youths who are confused about their homosexuality. In its September newsletter, Love in Action stresses the importance of reaching homosexual minors by not patronizing or labeling them. Smid also maintains an extensive phone and letter-writing campaign for struggling homosexuals across the country.

CENTRAL CHURCH AND DUFF WRIGHT attract far less attention than Smid and the American Family Association. Sharis Blackburn helps run Restoration in Him, a weekly support group at Central for lesbians and gays. The church also runs a support group for the parents and friends of lesbians and gays, though it runs a far different program from the more well-known national support group, Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG).
"PFLAG's worldview says that homosexuality is a viable alternative, and that is not our stance. We believe homosexuality is a destructive lifestyle," Blackburn says. "Our ministry is not to condemn anyone. Our ministry is to deal with those men and women who are unhappy with it and who choose to deal with their root issues." She denies, however, that the organization espouses anything other than a love-the-sinner philosophy.
Duff Wright is a psychologist who is affiliated with Charter Lakeside Hospital in Bartlett. He has a private practice through an organization called Rapha, which is Hebrew for "healing." Rapha, he says, is a Christian-centered psychological institution which has dozens of branches throughout the United States.
The only time Wright has been mentioned in the press occurred when he unsuccessfully ran for an alderman position in Bartlett last year. He says he specializes in addictions in general, but he occasionally works with patients who are struggling with their sexual identity, people often referred to him by local churches. Wright says that anybody who is homosexual and seeking reassurance in their sexual orientation is not likely to be referred to him.
Wright describes himself as a fundamentalist and evangelical Christian. He will not condemn the 1973 decision by the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality from the list of mental illnesses, but he suggests that the APA acted under an atmosphere of intense political intimidation by homosexual activists. Gays have increasing political power, he says, making it more difficult for psychologists and psychiatrists to treat patients on a case-by-case basis. "God gives each of us a mind and expects us to use it," he says.
He describes how he talks to homosexuals in his office: "If someone came to me and said, I'm gay but I struggle with that and with what God says in the Bible, and I want to do something about it, I would not just say, Well, you're just gay and you have to get used to it."
All of these Memphis-based therapists claim that they only counsel adults who want to change their sexual orientation. Sharis Blackburn says therapy doesn't work for a homosexual who doesn't want to be converted. "We feel very strongly that the person himself must want help."
Gay and lesbian rights advocates don't believe the conversion counselors. They don't believe that anyone really wants that kind of help. If gays and lesbians aren't being pressured by society to change, then they wouldn't want to change, argues Kate Kendell, the legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, which is based in San Francisco.
"There is no doubt in my mind that if society's prejudice and harassment, and in some cases outright violence against lesbians and gays, ceased to exist, so would these conversion centers," Kendell says.
"There is no independent desire to change one's sexual orientation. Instead, there's a bent, a feeling of tremendous condemnation and hate from others in society."
Local advocates wonder how voluntary the Memphis conversion programs have been, too. Susan Mackenzie is an attorney who frequently represents gays and lesbians in civil-rights cases. She has recently dealt with Duff Wright in court, once when Wright acted as an expert witness in a child custody case involving two homosexual men, the other involving a gay teenager who wanted to be set legally free from the custody of his parents. In the second case, Mackenzie says that the parents of the gay teenager were sending him to Wright for therapy that he did not want.
Even though the teenager made it clear that he was not going to cooperate, Wright continued to counsel him about his sexual orientation, Mackenzie says. All the while, the parents were threatening to send their son to live in the Love in Action house for forced conversion. Mackenzie says the issue was eventually settled out of court, with the parents retaining custody of the teenager and agreeing not to send him either to Wright or Smid. Mackenzie says she does not know how many times the gay teenager visited Wright, but estimates the number of treatments from two to at least a dozen.
"What he (the gay teenager) felt was that the urgency of the situation required him to file a lawsuit to have his disability as a minor removed so that his parents could not force him to go to Dr. Wright," Mackenzie says.
The Memphis chapter of PFLAG also got into the act. Dr. Arnold Drake, the organization's president and a private physician, represented the teenager to give him legal standing in court. Drake calls Wright's approach to homosexuality "abusive psychotherapy."
Wright denied that he has treated anybody unwillingly.
"I would only see a youngster long enough to determine his willingness to treatment," he says. Once he realizes someone does not want to be converted, Wright says, "I would tell him that there would be a place to come if he ever changed his mind. In that particular situation, that's exactly the way that it operated. I would see them just to make sure that's the way that they want to be. I'll tell the parents, look, the time for counseling is over with. That's always the way I have proceeded. As far as I know, there have been no exceptions to that rule."

WHEN IT COMES TO HOMOSEXUALITY, many people already have hard-and-fast viewpoints concerning its morality. Even they must wonder, however, which of several competing viewpoints will ultimately prevail. Despite numberous gains by the gay and lesbian community in the past two decades, the religious right has been on the resurgence, claiming victories in a number of legislative and societal battles across the country. Thus far, there is little evidence to show conversion therapy can work, but organizations such as Love in Action persist because they continue to receive support.
Most people would rather not take a side, preferring to watch from the sidelines to see whose viewpoint comes out ahead. Although PFLAG founder Arnold Drake is rigidly opposed to conversion therapy, both conservatives and liberals and all factions in between still have to come to terms with his overall philosophy.
"I'm a believer in freedom and plurality," he says. "Everybody has the right to make choices, even the right to make the wrong choices."

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