Exodus International leader Alan Chambers apologized recently for the harm done to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people by the so-called “ex-gay” movement. In that moment, the face that came to mind for me was the bruised, burned and emaciated face of 15-year-old Raymond Buys.
In 2011, Raymond was sent to a South African boot camp where boys — especially effeminate boys, or boys who were thought to be gay — were supposed to become men. The camp directors are now on trial for torturing Raymond to death. I am haunted by photos of his emaciated body in the hospital bed where he looks like a victim of a Nazi death camp.
Alan Chambers can apologize for suicides, deaths, lost years and damage to families, but his apology is only as good as real actions to counter the lies spread throughout the world by Exodus and other groups that underpin so much anti-LGBT persecution. Religious people who promoted ex-gay programs must bring the same fervor to saving our lives as they have brought to trying to separate our souls from our God-given sexual orientations and gender identities.
Around the world, effeminate boys and masculine girls continue to be tortured, raped and sometimes murdered with the tacit support of so-called “ex-gay” movements. For decades, they have promoted the lie that LGBT people could be heterosexual if we really wanted to and prayed hard enough.
Even in a country with constitutional protections like South Africa, Raymond’s mother was not immune to homophobia. Raymond’s mother thought her son could man up with a little help from a boot camp.
She was devastated by his death and learned through testimony that Raymond had been chained to his bed for extended periods and left in his own soil. Tortures included being forced to eat his own feces, and camp leaders put a pillowcase over his head and used an electric cattle prod on his fragile body. When he arrived at the hospital, he had multiple burns, his bones were broken, and he was starved and dehydrated. Medical attention came too late.
Too many mothers and fathers send their children to military boot camps or through so-called “ex-gay” or “reparative therapy” programs where debunked psychology is enmeshed with religious bigotry to produce persecution and unwarranted shame.
Alan Chambers’ apology is historic, but apologies from others who left these pseudoscientific programs have not been able to stop the purveyors of “ex-gay” lies. Exodus International is shutting its doors, but Exodus Global Alliance is still perpetrating spiritual violence against LGBT people around the world. Spokespeople like Alan Chambers must step up and condemn these programs as well.
What led up to this moment?
Chambers is not the first “ex-gay” program survivor to come out and apologize. Michael Bussee, founder of Exodus, recanted years ago and now spends his life working for equality.John Paulk, a one-time Focus on the Family star who was once featured on the cover ofNewsweek as “ex-gay,” said he is gay and expressed regret for the harm his work had done.
Some are outed. Paulk only apologized after being photographed in a gay bar. Matt Moorewas caught on a hookup site called Grindr. Moore is still saying that he was using Grindr to just see who was “in the neighborhood.” After being caught, Moore sold his computer, locked his phone, ended his blog and said more “seasoned believers” than he should be in the public eye.
When secrets, lies and obsessions combine with dogma and vulnerable people, it is always a disaster.
For example, Aubrey Levin (dubbed “Dr. Shock”) was arrested in Canada after a career of torturing gay men with electric shock aversion “therapies” in South Africa. He moved to Canada, where he continued to prey on vulnerable men. Finally, he was stopped when one of his court-mandated patients secretly recorded a session where Levin sexually abused him.
In another public debacle, a Florida newspaper photographed George Alan Rekers, a board member of NARTH (North American Reparative Therapy), vacationing with a “rent boy.” He tried to say the man was there to carry his luggage for him.
In New Jersey, Chaim Levin and three other men recently filed suit against leaders of JONAH, a Jewish “reparative therapy” network. Levin’s description of being told to strip naked as part of his therapy is shocking.
Tragically, much of the efforts to convert lesbian and gay people are deeply rooted in misguided religious beliefs. Originally, groups like Exodus and NARTH tried to position themselves as traditional counseling and psychotherapy, but no research has held up under scrutiny, and key players like Joseph Nicolosi and Richard A. Cohen lost all credibility as a result of ethics violations.
There is no viable scientific support for “ex-gay” programs. In 2007, the American Psychological Association assigned a Task Force on Appropriate Therapeutic Responses to Sexual Orientation. The task force reviewed more than 80 studies, which were overwhelmingly flawed, and none could prove that sexual orientation could be changed.
In 2012, the researcher highly cited by conservatives, Dr. Robert Spitzer, apologized for his own research in which he interviewed people in the so-called “ex-gay” movement and asked them if they had changed their sexual orientation. Of course, a few claimed to have changed, but there was never proof.
With the veil of scientific legitimacy in shreds, the only remaining smoke screen has been religion.
In a 2009 study on “ex-gay” programs, researchers from the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force concluded:
Young people are now being used as ammunition in the evangelical Christian and political right-wing’s war against equality for LGBT Americans. Ex-gay organizations, in particular, have taken what used to be an intensely personal process (coming out to one’s self, friends and family) and have created dedicated programs and conferences that link the personal lives of young people to battles over same-sex marriage and the election of conservative political leaders.
When Christians from almost 200 countries gathered in South Africa for the Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization, the “ex-gay” movement was there. This time, it was the Exodus Global Alliance. This 2010 conference was the largest evangelical gathering in recent history. Exodus presenters claimed there are no more than a few thousand gay people in each African country, and that these are all products of the West. They intone that being gay is not a greater sin but say no other sin has a movement for acceptance. A speaker parroted the completely discredited myths about rejection, sexual abuse and distant fathers as “causes” for being gay.
In a world that allows Raymond Buys to be tortured to death because he was a soft and delicate boy, the travesties continue.
Even though nine countries in Europe, several in Latin America, and South Africa have marriage equality, more than 70 countries throughout the world have laws making same-gender love illegal, and in seven countries, being gay is punishable by execution.
What is critical to understand is that conservatives who claim they are acting out of Christian love are exporting these same defamed and debunked conversion “treatments” all around the world as a “gentler and softer” alternative to prison and execution. These same people are perfectly willing to label gay people as evil and sinful and then are surprised when punitive laws are enforced and people in the street begin to take the law into their own hands and attack and kill people they believe are gay.
Just last week, USA Today reported that an evangelical pastor appointed to head Brazil’s Human Rights Commission led the committee to approve a bill to make it legal for psychologists to treat homosexuality as a disorder or pathology. Where is the voice of Alan Chambers on this scandal?
Whether it is in the United States, South Africa, China, Africa, Latin America or Eastern Europe, homophobia is still at work, and too many evangelicals are still trying to position “ex-gay” ministries as the compassionate approach.
They are not!
Whether it is the death penalty, prison, shock treatment, laws that silence, or conversion therapy, all of it kills. Whether it kills the spirit, promotes suicide or results in the death penalty, carnage lies in its wake.
Raymond Buys, rest in peace. I will not forget you. I will not forget your broken body. I will stand shoulder to shoulder with all those who defend our young people who are LGBT or gender-nonconforming. Your journey ended, but your story continues.
– Rev. Dr. Nancy Wilson.
(Rev. Dr. Nancy Wilson is the global leader of Metropolitan Community Churches, an ecumenical denomination committed to justice open to all. Dr. Wilson was appointed by President Obama to the White House Council on Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships in 2011. She has been a spiritual activist for 39 years as a pastor and a lesbian.)