Exodus’ closure is a small victory for survivors of programs promoting ex-gay therapy

By : Steve Blanchard
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When Tampa resident Gabe Alves learned that Exodus International, the Orlando-based, Christian “conversion therapy” organization, closed its doors in June, he had a mixed reaction. He was happy to hear that the headline-making anti-gay organization that promised to “cure” gay men and women had finally shut down after nearly four decades in operation. But he’s concerned about the many other organizations continuing the practice Exodus abandoned.

“Exodus needed to close,” Alves says. “That’s a good thing. But reparative therapy isn’t gone. There are many other programs that still exist and they try to convince gay people that they can be cured, even though nothing is wrong with them.”

Since Exodus closed its doors, Focus on the Family, an anti-gay organization out of Colorado, has stepped up its efforts to “convert” gay people from homosexuality to heterosexuality. In late June, the organization interviewed Anne Paulk, the executive director of the Restored Hope Network, a group that splintered off of Exodus last year when Exodus said it would no longer try to “cure” homosexuality.

“It was like the unnecessary death of a dear friend,” she said about Exodus’ fall. “The person with same-sex attraction usually has some pretty specific wounds with their same-sex parent, their peers, their self-identity and their understanding of who the opposite gender is. What Christ calls sins, He also redeems from sin and provides for the overcoming of sin. He delights in a repentant sinner even someone dealing with same-sex attraction.”

Interestingly, Paulk’s soon-to-be exhusband, John, has recanted his ex-gay therapy beliefs and announced he no longer believes such therapies work or are warranted.

SurvivingTherapyCap1John Paulk joins former Exodus leaders Alan Chambers and Randy Thomas, as well as former “Love in Action” (LIA) executive director John Smid, in issuing public apologies to the LGBT community for the faulty therapy practices.

Those apologies are a good start, believes Merrell Dickey, a Tampa resident and former Roman Catholic priest who left the priesthood in 2003.

“I was very pleased,” Dickey says, referencing Chambers’ apology to the LGBT community. “I can’t say that someone isn’t sincere when they apologize. His apology is a big thing. If it’s not sincere, that’s big and he’ll have to deal with that. But this is a big step.”

Dickey says he knows there are other, smaller groups practicing “reparative therapy,” but Exodus shuttering its doors makes a huge statement.

Interestingly, Dickey was interviewed for this story the same day Pope Francis told reporters that he would not judge priests who are gay.

“Does the pope’s comment fix everything the Roman Catholic church has done to harm gays? No,” Dickey says. “But it’s a move in the right direction. [Chambers’] apology is similar. The main organization that has caused all this harm has
shut down and issued an apology. That’s great.”

Curing an identity crisis
Alves knows about conversion therapy, also called “ex-gay” or “reparative” therapy, first hand. And he has heard speeches like Anne Paulk’s many times. He put himself through several programs in a hope to”cure” his homosexual desires. He participated in LIA in Memphis, Tenn., to learn to suppress or eliminate his attraction toward other men all together.

“These programs don’t consider anyone gay,” Alves says. “They tell you that gay people have an identity crisis. Being gay isn’t an identity, it’s a behavior and a sin. That’s what they teach you when you come in.”

Alves observed that homosexuality is treated as an addiction, much like alcoholism or drug issues.

“Everything is in the same bucket,” he says. “Your treatment is a 12-step program, complete with a 12-step bible. I tried everything I knew to “fix” who I was. I felt I had to in order to save my family.”

Living the straight life
Despite knowing at a young age that he was attracted to other boys, Alves married his best friend, a woman. He even told her about his same-sex attraction before their wedding, and she agreed to move forward anyway. They now have two children, an 8-year-old girl and a 4-year-old boy.

“I didn’t have trouble having sex with a woman because it was about trying to fix myself,” says Alves, who grew up in Brazil. “I didn’t have any other option other than marrying a woman. I wanted a best friend and it wasn’t about her being sexy or beautiful. It was about living my life with a best friend.”

SurvivingTherapyCap2Soon after he married his wife in 2002, Alves put himself in a therapy program specifically geared toward battling same-sex attraction. In fact, his local therapist in Tampa came highly recommended through the Exodus International website. Soon after making a phone call, Alves found himself sharing details of his struggle with a new therapist.

After a while, Alves was surrounded by self-help books promising paths to change his sexual orientation and support groups to help him in his struggle with same-sex attraction. But nothing worked. Alves says he would purposely put himself in places where he could watch two men engaging in sex, mostly in parks. He never did, however, physically pursue sex in these public places.

“It was just the thought of seeing it happen that made it exciting,” Alves says. “But my biggest problem wasn’t the parks. It was the internet and gay porn.”

To absolve himself of his socalled sins, Alves would give computer passwords to his wife and tell her exactly what sites he would visit online.

“It was my way of guilting and shaming myself,” he says. “If you confess your sins you’ll be healed. If I kept those things inside of me I would just become a rotton person. If I was honest I thought I could move on and heal.”

After four years of therapy in Tampa, Alves finally decided to act upon his impulses and he went to Orlando, where he had a physical encounter with another man after meeting him at Mannequins night club. He soon left his wife and began living his gay life in Tampa.

“From February to May 2007, I did everything I wanted to,” Alves says. “I went out, met men, had sex. It was a mini-coming out time.”

But only after a few months, he received a phone call from his wife, telling him she was pregnant with their second child. That’s when Alves decided he needed to recommit to defeating his same-sex attractions and live a heterosexual life.

Seeking salvation
He traveled to Minneapolis, Minn., to take part in a four-day sex addiction workshop. When he returned to Florida, he registered for the 28-day LIA ex-gay therapy program in Tennessee.

“I was willing to do whatever I needed to do to save my family,” he says.

Counselors at LIA started by “helping” Alves figure out why he had desires for other men. By finding the “problem,” he could help God heal him, Alves was told.

“They bring in the regular bullshit,” he laughs. “But during that 20-plus days, I started believing what they said, that I come from a divorced family so the lack of a male role model in my life caused an identity crises that led me to look for inappropriate sex.”

Alves says that other than calling his wife, which was not allowed, he followed the program precisely.

“But deep in my heart I knew it wasn’t going to work.”

He was punished for calling his wife late one night and counselors put him in “Sanctuary,” which is essentially solitary confinement. There, he was ordered to detail, on paper, his sexual experiences with other men, but as if his daughter was in the room watching the trysts.

When he did as he was told, he says his counselor refused to give him any more instruction. So Alves packed up his things and left the program two days early. But he took with him a renewed resolve to let his faith heal him.

“I was so upset when I left,” he recalls. “I tattooed my wedding ring, a bible verse on my shoulder and the initials of my family on my chest. I even shaved my head.”

He traveled with Bible verses in his backpack and his suitcase held self-help books on “curing” his homosexuality.

“Those people were crazy,” he says. “But I really thought that their program could work if I kept using it. Obviously, it didn’t. It can’t.”

Finding acceptance
By 2009, Alves had finally accepted his sexual orientation. He divorced his wife and moved to Tampa. He has had boyfriends since then and says he sees his children regularly.

“My ex-wife is very conservative and thinks being gay is a sin,” he says. “But all I can do is be who I am and show my kids that there is nothing wrong with being a gay man.”

Alves ex-wife is remarried now and very active in the church the two used to attend together. He is also active in a church in Tampa, one that is LGBT affirming.

“I have my faith and I am comfortable with who I am,” he says. “I look at all of the literature I’ve collected over the years” and think about the money I spent, and just laugh. I just needed someone to tell me that being gay was okay. I just needed acceptance.”

For Dickey, the former Roman Catholic priest, finding acceptance came from within the very book that therapists had used to “combat” homosexuality in his therapy sessions.

“In the Roman Catholic church, if you’re gay you’re ‘inherently disordered,'” Dickey says. “That’s a strong statement. So how do you fix that?”

Therapy sessions taught Dickey that he needed to avoid temptations, avoid streets with gay bars on them, for example. Eventually, Dickey says that he realized he was who he was, and that nothing could, or should, change that.

“These groups pick and choose the parts of the Bible they want to use to make gay people feel guilty for being who they are,” Dickey says. “But the Bible says [in Luke 10:27] ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'”

Dickey says reparative therapy groups contradict that by convincing gay men and women that there is something wrong with them, and therefore they are unable to love themselves.

“In my journey, at one point I finally realized that,” Dickey says. “I wasn’t loving myself, and that’s not right.”

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