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Checking in With the Ex-Gay Movement

GOP delegates in Cleveland say “conversion therapy” is still a valid option; most everyone else says otherwise

On Monday, GOP delegates met in Cleveland to formulate the Republican party’s platform for 2016. Besides doubling down on their opposition to same-sex marriage and labeling pornography a “public health crisis,” the Republican delegates voted to endorse the option of “pray the gay away” pseudo-science known as “conversion therapy.”

“We support the right of parents to determine the proper treatment or therapy, for their minor children,” reads the amendment, originally submitted by the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins.

Several states have banned conversion therapy for minors, and President Obama recently called the practice “potentially devastating.” Exodus International, formerly the largest ex-gay organization, shut down in 2013, later issuing an apology to the LGBTQ community for “years of undue judgment by the organization and the Christian Church as a whole.”

While it’s no surprise that Tony Perkins, a notorious anti-gay bigot, still believes conversion therapy should be a cornerstone of the GOP’s platform, that he was able to gain the requisite approval from fellow party officials is somewhat shocking.

“I imagine that [the GOP’s approval] is an effort to make some kind of connection with the religious right, which is being alienated by Trump,” says Lynne Gerber, a visiting scholar at Harvard’s Divinity School who researches the evangelical ex-gay movement. Her comments highlight the fact that even as changing public opinion has pushed it somewhat more underground, gay conversion therapy is still endorsed by some religious conservatives.

But how, one might wonder, has this therapy managed to stay relevant in a pop culture landscape full of out celebs, amidst the widespread acceptance of gay people among the younger generation?

According to the Restored Hope Network, among the most extensive websites for the ex-gay movement, there are 39 ex-gay “member ministries” across the country, including four in California, but Gerber says the institutional infrastructure of the ex-gay movement has changed so much that it’s hard to figure out what they’re doing anymore. “I imagine most of the ex-gay work is happening much more privately and in a more overtly religious way than it had before,” she said.

Today’s ex-gay movement has become wary of hawking medical “cures,” perhaps out of fear of being sued. In 2014, jurors unanimously found JONAH—a Jewish conversion group in New Jersey that claimed to offer scientifically sound “therapy”—guilty of consumer fraud and required it to pay more than $25,000 in damages to clients and their families.

Joseph Nicolosi, a licensed California psychologist and author of books like A Parent’s Guide to Preventing Homosexuality, was one of the scientific “experts” put on trial in the JONAH case (the Southern Poverty Law Center described him and others as “quacks” in its official report). During cross-examination, Nicolosi trotted out the old canard that homosexuality is the result of issues like “a crazy-making mother, sexual abuse and severe bullying,” and said that fathers could affirm the masculinity of their sons by “taking showers with them.” He also spoke approvingly of the Sambia tribe in New Guinea, which encouraged blowjobs and anal sex between older men and boys because, as he put it, “…when they survive it, it’s like a rite of passage.”

Nicolosi still counsels patients in an office building next to a Tony Roma’s in Encino. His website reads, “If being gay doesn’t define you, you don’t have to be gay,” alongside inspiring pictures of SoCal landscapes. He’s even got a blog post that lists all the celebrities who have left the “gay lifestyle” — including, bafflingly, Bryan Singer.

“Oh, Nicolosi,” Gerber chuckles when I mention him. “It’s astonishing that he gets any clients, because he has such a charlatan reputation.” She notes that he markets his services to people who want to prioritize their religious identity over their homosexuality. “But of course the idea that there’s an underlying heterosexuality he can ‘get you to,’ is the most disingenuous and harmful part of ex-gay therapy.”

If you were to write a “Where Are They Now?” feature on marquee names in the ex-gay movement, you’d also have to include Andrew Comiskey, founder of Desert Stream. With groups in 25 states, it’s currently one of the largest ex-gay coalitions in the country.

“What’s really disturbing about Desert Streams is that they market their program to congregations as a way to heal from all sorts of traumas. Priests sometimes aren’t even aware that they’re an ex-gay group,” says Peterson Toscano, an ex-ex-gay activist. “They’ve also been able to operate largely under the radar.”

Toscano spent nearly two decades in conversion therapy before accepting his sexuality and coming out. We talked about another group, called “Journey Into Manhood,” which is a sort of outdoor adventure camp whose aim is to desexualize male touch. Ted Cox of The Daily Dot discovered that the therapy consisted of sitting in a darkened room with other men and receiving “healing touch therapy,” as well as straddling other dudes (with bulging crotches) in what’s called the “motorcycle position.”

Toscano sees a few big evolutions in the way the ex-gay movement markets its services today.

“Now, there’s a big push towards the Side B Movement, which is being marketed by the Gay Christian Network as a way to stay celibate instead of having gay sex. In a sense, it’s what people have done for years — acknowledging they’re gay and then not doing anything about it.”

Toscano says he wouldn’t be surprised if many church counselors today were schooled in the Exodus dogma of yesteryear, but he doesn’t think they’re having much of an impact on congregants anymore. Scrolling through the counselors in the Restored Hope Network, it’s hard not to imagine most of these men and women fruitlessly waiting in their counseling rooms for gays who want to be saved. “Some of these Christian counselors still live in cultural bubbles and they earnestly don’t know that what they were told [about sexuality] was false,” he adds.

But the most troubling thing about the ex-gay movement is that America has exported it, according to Toscano “It’s like the failed tobacco industry: Once they started losing market share, they just shipped their product overseas” — in the case of conversion therapy, to Eastern Europe, Southern and Eastern Africa and parts of Asia and Latin America, in particular, where ministries invest millions of dollars annually in conferences, workshops, publications and more.

In 2008, anthropologist Melissa Hackman embedded herself in a South African church founded by an American, exposing how its congregants were taught to become heterosexual by embodying some of the most stereotypical trappings of masculinity. “They trained themselves to take up more physical space, often sitting with their legs wide open, and they deliberately lowered the pitch of their voices,” she wrote in a recent issue of the journal Ethnos.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the ex-gay movement’s bizarre methods, Toscano is able to look back at some of his experiences with no small measure of grace and humor. When I asked him if he knew whatever happened to the director of Life Ministries in New York — Lynn Gerber told me the church performed exorcisms on people’s anuses — he laughed. “That was me,” he said. “Johanne Highley [the director of Life Ministries in New York] believed that demons could enter whatever orifice you used for sex and she thought the AIDS crisis was deserving of spiritual warfare, so she performed an exorcism on my butt. I was the butt demon guy.”