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’Ex-Gay’ Leader: Programs to Change Gays Don’t Work

by Kilian Melloy
Monday Oct 17, 2011

A leader of the "ex-gay" movement, which claims that gays can be "cured" or "converted" into heterosexuals with counseling and prayer, has admitted what many gays have known all along: Being gay is not a disease, and attempts to "cure" it are bound to fail.

The Daily Beast broke the story on Oct. 13 that John Smid, who once headed "ex-gay" group Love in Action, had owned up in his blog to the realization that gays are not turned into heterosexuals by programs like the one he previously directed. Moreover, Smid admitted that he is a gay man who remains gay despite being in a loving marriage with a female spouse--and, Smid wrote, he knew he was never going to change into a heterosexual man.

"One cannot repent of something that is unchangeable," Smid wrote in his blog, posted on the website for his new venture, a ministry called Grace Rivers.

"I also want to reiterate here that the transformation for the vast majority of homosexuals will not include a change of sexual orientation. Actually I've never met a man who experienced a change from homosexual to heterosexual," Smid added.

Part of Smid's own conversion came from his eventual admission that gays can be, and are, people of integrity and good will. That insight came to Smid after he met filmmaker Morgan Jon Fox, whose documentary, "This Is What Love in Action Looks Like," examined the forced admission of a young man, then 16, into one of the group's programs to turn him straight. The young man posted a message online about being forced into the program, and protesters showed up to lend him support and draw attention to the two months that he was held in the "ex-gay" facility.

"When Morgan and I met for the very first time right after the protest, what I saw in Morgan was a man of such character," Smid said to The Daily Beast. "I saw someone who was humble, who was open to being honest, someone that I really felt drawn to.

"It just opened me up to realize I had not been willing to admit that there were gay people like Morgan," Smid added.

Fox also spoke to the publication, saying that he had heard Smid's private musings about the ineffectual nature of "ex-gay" programs long before Smid publicly admitted that attempts to "cure" gays are useless.

"So the fact that he is now making those statements known on a public level is a huge leap," Fox told The Daily Beast.

That leap in comprehension was accompanied by some understanding of the harm such programs can cause. Mental health professionals have long warned that when "ex-gay" therapies fail to deliver, gays who have gone through the programs--and often have been told that they are destined to go to Hell for being gay--are liable to be cast into even deeper shame and despair. Smid offered a heartfelt invitation in his blog.

"If you have been wounded by me or harmed through the hands of my leadership," he wrote, "please come to me and allow an opportunity for me to personally apologize with the hope that we can both be released from the bondage of unforgiveness."

The Daily Beast talked to one participant in the program who not only was not "cured" but also created a theatrical work about his experiences.

"I don't think he yet understands quite the damage and the harm he has done," said Peterson Toscano, whom the Daily Beast said had put himself through two years of Love in Action. "It was a very destructive process mentally, emotionally, spiritually, sexually--all across the board."

Toscano, in an Oct. 13 comment at Box Turtle Bulletin, called the methods used by Love in Action "psychological torture," and added, "It is a complicated and delicate matter when a former abuser admits wrong and seeks to rebuild relationship."

Moreover, Toscano wrote, the program inflicted terrible suffering and left those who survived it to deal out continuing punishments on themselves.

"As a former client, I understand that John Smid provided me with weapons to go to war against my sexuality and personality," Toscano wrote. "His program was abusive, cruel, and damaging to me and others.

"People have suffered and still suffer and have needed to spend time and money seeking recovery from the treatment Love in Action inflicted upon us. Many of us went to John Smid and LIA seeking help. We ended up harmed. Some were even forced against their will to endure these treatments."

Among the techniques used to try to scare gays straight: When participants wanted to leave the program, they would be subjected to a "funeral" in which they had to lie still on a table and listen to others in the program describe how tragedy and death had been their outcome for not staying with the program.

Smid's newfound understanding that gays genuinely exist and are not simply heterosexual gone astray is still anchored in an evangelistic context, The Daily Beast reported.

"Commonly when a homosexual finds God's amazing love for them as they are, their perversion diminishes, their promiscuity decreases or goes away completely, and at times they accept being single or they may find a God-centered relationship that also seems to be healthy and faithful," Smid asserted in his blog.

Smid expanded on that thought a little in telling The Daily Beast that monogamous gay couples who embrace religion could benefit from their faith.

But while Smid might still speak of same-sex relationships in terms of "perversion" and "promiscuity"--two buzzwords that have long been part of the arsenal of the anti-gay religious right--he also had plans to participate in Memphis Pride as part of a contingent of evangelicals who planned to attend, not to decry gays and tell them that God didn't love them, but rather to offer an apology.

The Daily Beast reported that Smid and other Christians planned to sport T-shirts emblazoned with the message, "I'm Sorry. Love Is an Orientation."

But not everyone is ready to embrace Smid's purported change of heart as an authentic Road to Damascus moment, the article said.

"I don't think he's really addressing the business that he ran," one young man, Brandon Tidwell, told the publication. "He used people's fears in order to generate revenue for programs that had no validity, no licensure, no accountability and didn't work."

Tidwell, who went through five years of therapy in the wake of his experience with Love in Action, went on to say that he was not interested in any sort of renewed communication with Smid.

"It's not due to a lack of forgiveness," he told The Daily Beast. "I just don't really want to open that part of my life up again, and deal with his issues on my time."

The GLBT media lit up with the news. Daily Kos posted an Oct. 17 article hailing the fact that Smid had spoken "frankly about the fact that he has never seen a success in changing the sexual orientation of any of the people that went to his Love in Action boot camp," but added that Smid's admissions were a mixed bag.

"The good news is that someone who was at the core of the ex-gay movement has changed his mind and publically admitted what the non-Evangelical part of the nation knew from the start," the Daily Kos article said.

"The bad news is that he has done so far, far too late."

Daily Kos also lambasted Smid for having said that the program offered sympathetic ears to gays seeking to change, and even gave them "validation."

"This is a man that damaged hundreds of people yet he still thinks that there was something nurturing about his telling them over and over that their sexual orientation was wrong and evil," the article fumed. "If there is good that comes out this it is his on the record admission that he no longer believes that peoples [sic] sexual orientation can be changed."

GLBT news site Box Turtle Bulletin was more upbeat about Smid's public admission. The former leader of the "ex-gay" movement's about-face "certainly gives new meaning to Exodus International's slogan, 'Change Is Possible!' " quipped an Oct. 13 article at the site.

"I do not want to diminish the tremendous and welcome journey that Smid has undertaken since leaving Love In Action, and I do not think we should dismiss the importance of his change of heart," the article, authored by Jim Burroway, continued. "I do believe it is worthy of encouragement and praise.

"But we cannot offer absolution," Burroway added. "We are not the ones in a position to forgive him. That can only come from the thousands who crossed his path at Love In Action."

Burroway suggested that Smid, if sincere in his change of heart, would need to put in the time and effort to offer personal one-on-one apologies to everyone Love in Action harmed during his 22 years at the helm, before he stepped down in 2008.

Indeed, Burroway wrote, it would only be the Christian thing to do:

"Smid will now have to demonstrate his willingness to undergo the same humiliating experience himself," wrote Burroway. "When you consider the foundations of his Christian faith, it is not without precedent. Christian theology holds that Christ's 'humbling upon the cross' is the very cornerstone of forgiveness."

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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