Wednesday, July 20, 2005
by Wayne Besen
In May, 16-year old Zach told his fundamentalist Christian parents that he is gay. Horrified by the news, they vowed to fix him by sending him to an "ex-gay" boot camp in Memphis to be reprogrammed. Like a modern day message in a bottle, Zach used his Internet blog to send an SOS. Miraculously, his desperate plea for help washed up on the shores of sanity and circulated in cyberspace at warp speed.
"I told my parents I was gay," he wrote. "This didn't go over very well," and "They tell me that there is something psychologically wrong with me, and they 'raised me wrong.' Today, my mother, father and I had a very long talk in my room, where they let me know I am to apply for a fundamentalist Christian program for gays."
The next day, Zach threw another bottle into the Cyber-sea.
"It's like boot camp. If I do come out straight, I'll be so mentally unstable and depressed it won't matter."
By now, Zach's plight has received worldwide attention and the spotlight has shone brightly on the debatably abusive and coercive tactics used by Love in Action, the cult that runs the ex-gay boot camp for youth called "Refuge".
With all the focus on this young man, another pair of victims in this tragedy has largely gone unnoticed: Zach's parents. They have alternately been portrayed as abusive or religious zealots. Indeed, Zach's father, Joe Stark, unwisely appeared on Pat Robertson's 700 Club to defend his decision to enroll his son in Refuge.
"We felt very good about Zach coming here because"...to let him see for himself the destructive lifestyle, what he has to face in the future, and to give him some options that society doesn't give him today," Stark told the toothy televangelist. "Knowing that your son...statistics say that by the age of 30 he could either have AIDS or be dead."
These are the words of a father who clearly loves his child. He is doing what any sane father would do, and that is using all available means to protect his son. Stark believes he is doing what is necessary to keep Zach from a premature death and an unhappy life.
The problem is, all his assumptions are based on deliberate misinformation spread by quacks or charlatans who have a political or profit motive in deceiving the public. Stark is a parental pawn in the culture wars and I believe he will one day come to greatly resent this unethical manipulation by the extreme right.
First, his statement that gay people die at 30 comes directly from the work of Paul Cameron, a disgraced researcher who was kicked out of the American Psychological Association for distorting the facts on homosexuality. Second, it is clear from Zach's blog that Stark bought the right wing lie that Zach is gay because he wasn't raised properly.
This canard is a staple of conversion therapy and a mammoth burden weighted on the shoulders of guilt-ridden parents who did nothing wrong, but are assigned blame. Parenting has no more to do with a child's sexual orientation than it does with determining height or handedness. Mounting evidence points to sexual orientation resulting from biological factors. Unfortunately, Zach's parents are being victimized by the right wing offering them outdated and disproved research from the 1950's and 60's. I suspect, in time, they will also be outraged by the right's dubious use of "blame the parents" pseudo science.
Look, there is no way in the short run that this is going to end well for the Stark family. They enrolled their son in a failed program where the co-founder, John Evans, dropped out after his friend Jack McIntyre, also in the program, committed suicide because he couldn't change. I photographed Love in Action's poster boy, John Paulk, in a seedy gay bar. The group's youngest graduate and spokesperson, Wade Richards, is now a gay activist. Needless to say, the group has credibility problems, especially when one explores their bizarre techniques.
"I'm looking at that wall and suddenly I say its blue," Love In Action's director, John Smid told the alternative newspaper The Memphis Flyer, while pointing to a yellow wall. "Someone else comes along and says, 'No, it's gold.' But I want to believe that wall is blue. Then God comes along and He says, You're right, John, [that yellow wall] is blue.' That's the help I need. God can help me make that [yellow] wall blue."
Don't get angry at or lose faith in the Stark family. Like most parents, they will need time to sort through the pernicious myths and misinformation. When the high priced miracles and magic fail, they will see that yellow walls don't become blue and gay people don't turn straight. At that point, the Starks will have to choose between valuing their family or Pat Robertson's family values. My bet is they will embrace Zach over Pat.
Wrong Wayne---one must GET MAD at the family who throws their child into the midst of a destructive force. They alone, made the decision to do this. It is ultimately the parents responsibility to release their child. They, the parents, should have educated themselves prior to their decision. We, the gay community, have long since fought against and have provided PLENTY of information for these parents. Case in point---http://www.familyacceptance.com and other important websites based in the deep south, educate famlies on the danagers of ignorance and lack of education when determining the reaction to a gay child.
I have no sympathy for the riech-wing in any form, absolutly none. The gay community is in danger of a modern "1940's" sensability with a lack of compassion from Republicans---hence, the OVENS await us. No sympathy for ignorance. If a son can't persuade his hateful parents that he is "human" and in need of love & support, then what chance do we have as a community to appeal to the mass majority of these parents for their vote and compassion on gay issues? Sadly, our education and programs for these folks isn't enough.
posted by , at
Re your last sentance...
>>My bet is they will embrace Zach over Pat.
While I hope for Zach's sake that they DO choose him over the hate message of Pat's ilk that gay persons are LESS than deserving of respect, ...
They ARE the ones who sent their son away as they saw him as 'needing saving.'
I fear that you will lose your bet.
posted by , at
Yes, I agree that Zach's parents are victims, probably driven by their fear into Christian fascism. Yet, I draw the "blame line" at appearing on national TV with a bigot leader like Pat Robertson.
I urge these parents and others like them to accept responsibilitiy for the faith choices they have made. And for the consequences of those choices for themselves and their children, kids like Zach.
I joined those, including elderly German women from Joseph Ratzinger's home town, who criticized his adolescent choice for the Hitler Youth. Not everyone made that choice, and we applaud them today as heroes.
posted by Bob Schwartz, at
While I admire your compassion for those who "know not what they do" while, all along, continue to pound the nails, there is moral and ethical mandate to keep children (yes, Zach is one) from abuse at the hands of his parents.
Whether a parent is actively and willfully abusive, or is loving but is simply inept at parenting, or is willingly engaged in abuse in the name of religion, their physically or psychologically abusive behaviors are subject to child welfare and endangerment laws.
In abuse cases we have to first consider the physical and psychological endangerment of the child. The good intentions of a parent, their religious affiliations, and even the degree to which they love their child must be considered secondary to the well-being of the child.
Bottom line. For God's sake, will someone PLEASE call Child Services!
posted by , at
What Zach's parents need is not condemnation, but exposure to PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.) With more than 400 chapters nationwide and overseas, we are able to give parents who have been brainwashed by religious extremists a different and more healthy view of a situation that is deeply disturbing to them.
Our mission statement covers it all:
"Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays promotes the health and well-being of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered persons, their families and friends through: support, to cope with an adverse society; education, to enlighten an ill-informed public; and advocacy, to end discrimination and to secure equal civil rights. Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays provides opportunity for dialogue about sexual orientation and gender identity and acts to create a society that is healthy and respectful of human diversity."
Contacts to local chapters may be found on www.pflag.org.
posted by , at
Okay, by Smid's own account, he'd insist something is a duck, even if it's obviously and everyone has evidence that it's a ladder.
He could convince himself that it's a duck and live with the ladder and call it a duck.
I don't know about all y'all, but if someone talked to me like that, I'd be looking for a straight jacket (no pun intended) to strap him in.
posted by Regan, at
I think the gay community is often responsible for allowing such comments as gay men die at 30. How often do you see the community represented by people over 30 or 40? Many years ago a PFLAG chapter asked me to put together a panel of old g/l folks so they could get an idea or what was ahead for their children. It was productive experience. We need more publicity about our older folks.
The many older folks who were "married" in San Francisco City Hall certainly gave us good publicity about aging and lassting relationships.
posted by , at
Last comment has validity - how about more representation of older folks? Get out there and show yourselves!! (God bless Ian McKellen)
I just hope that, given time, the fact that this story is unfolding before our eyes thanks to internet technology will make it the most compelling and salient evidence against these destructive cults. It takes about two seconds of research on these idiots to discover unimaginable abuses and lies. A little public exposure should go a long way.
posted by Ryan Grant Long, at
You are so right Wayne. Its something we often forget about the other players in the game and lump them all into the same basket. They are not all bad people. Misguided, ignorant and ill informed......but not bad people.
The exgay ministries play on those who are vulnerable and need help accepting their same sex attraction not trying to cure it. They believe they are doing the right thing. After all they are Christians. They are victims of an ill informed and prejudiced belief system.
The poster boys genuinely believe that have changed. They haven’t realised that they have wrapped themselves in cotton wool so that they rarely experience any temptations. They are victims of the group mentality and the fear of being exposed. Being honest with yourself comes at a high price. I know. Being true to myself cost me everything…..but the freedom I have today was worth it. Today I have integrity. I wouldn’t swap that for anything.
The family members who encourage others to go into these programs are also victims of the group mentality that is uneducated about sexual orientation and have adopted a belief system that is not open to challenge. They have also been fed a lot of lies about our community.
I think the only ones who are not victims are the ones who use the exgay ministries and work against the gay community are the political activists who stir hate to gain political points. These people are the lowest of the low and we should do everything to expose them. I have no sympathy for them at all.
The way forward is to educate and inform.....our approach is vital. No one will listen to a person who is yelling hate back to them.
I’ve seen many change their attitude and beliefs by respectful, intelligent dialogue.
Author of 'A Life of Unlearning - Coming Out of the Church, One Man's Struggle'
Winner of the Inaugural Literary Award 2004 Sydney Gay & Lesbian Business Association
Download Chapter 1 'The Confession' FREE on the book page of anthonyvennbrown.com
Doing all I can to inform, inspire and dispel the myths.
posted by Anthony Venn-Brown, at
I am an ex Christian and I no longer subscribe to the teachings of a church.
I believe that love wins hearts and sensible reason wins minds.
The parents of this child have simply been brainwashed by a church, along with millions and millions of otherwise rational human beings.
As such I feel terribly sad for them and their child. What they all need at this point is support and positivity, not rejection and negativity.
It is not too late for them to understand and I truly hope that through their son, his story and the people he comes into contact with, they will learn that his sexuality is as unimportant as the size of shoes he wears.
Churches of many shapes and sizes breed fear and hate, in my opinion they have a lot to answer for! Their approach never ceases to amaze me, given the teachings of Jesus focus very simply on forgiveness and love.
posted by , at
My concern now is for Zach when he leaves this place. I just hope for his sake that he isn't grabbed by the arms as he departs and used by both sides as a pawn in their campaigns.
Zach will show by example the futility of the LIA program. We should stand back and let him and his family get on with their lives. We should let them move toward a happy resolution where his family realises their mistake and learns to provide the love and support that Zach will need.
posted by Tim Daly, at
I feel angry at the parents, but I know that you are right. There is always a reason people make choices like that one the Starks have made. Yes, it may end badly, but in a life, there are many chapters, and a bad chapter now may be followed later by a better outcome. I do hope tha teventually, the Starks come around, or that they at least learn to do that thing I've never understood: "Hate the sin, not the sinner." (Isn't one's sexuality too much a part of one's identity to separate that out? Anyway, it's a start.) I appreciate your thoughtful comments.
Abby (in Memphis)
posted by abbyladybug, at
My deepest hope is that the Starks choose their son for who he is.
posted by Will "Buddy", at
I think that many gay people will tell you about the pain and lasting damage that being told by family and others that being who they were (and couldn't help but being) caused.
Being accepted early on will make such a difference in an adolescent's life. Preventing irreperable harm to self-esteem, which often leads to substance abuse and other forms of self-destructiveness.
posted by , at
Thank you for your vigilance in holding the ex-gay movement accountable and for keeping us all informed about the dangers of this movement.
There is plenty of blame to go around - especially the religious right (especially James Dobson and Jerry Falwell), and yes, including parents who don't consult with APA certified mental health professsionals or educate themselves before sending their children to these facilities; including the psychiatric and social work professions (which does not take a stronger stand than they do); including our legislators; including some of us in the LGBT population who are satisfied with second class citizenship and who think being politically involved is a bad thing.
Exodus International just held their 30th annual convention this year - Falwell was one of their speakers, as was Anne Heche's mother. This is not a movement that is declining in strength.
I hope more of us will become involved to confront this movement. Thank you again, Wayne, for your vigilance.
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