Friday, August 15, 2008

The Shame & Blame Game in Ex-Gay Programs

The program leaders at Love in Action (LIA) and in all the other ex-gay programs I attended (along with the counselors I saw and authors of the ex-gay books I read) believed in a development model leading to homosexual desire and activity. Although each ex-gay therapist or minister used different and methods often contrary to each other, they universally agreed that boys became gay because of an "overbearing mother and an emotionally or physically absent dad." In addition, they taught that sexual abuse contributed to same-sex attractions.

In LIA and elsewhere, the leadership made us create a mythology about ourselves based on the developmental template they placed before us. By mixing psycho-babble, scripture, and language from the AA 12-Step program, they constantly reinforced their authority over us. When any of us questioned the template they provided by stating our lives did not fit it, they insisted that we needed to look more deeply. They warned us, that as "addicts," it was in our nature to deceive ourselves and minimize not only the consequences of our actions but also the causes.

Adhering to the belief that our parents failed us, the LIA program leaders then served as surrogate parents who attempted to undo the damage inflicted by our actual parents. During The Family and Friends Weekend, they not only confronted each participant with their development theories, they also pushed parents to admit that their child's faulty development stemmed from a dysfunctional family structure.

The program buttressed the their teaching with the belief that everyone lives in a flawed sinful state. By being flawed and sinful parents, the program leaders reasoned that our folks ended up harming their own offspring. "Sin begets sin." The staff then endeavored to lead the families in a corporate confession which included fathers of program participants confessing the ways they had ceded leadership to their wives. The Family and Friends Weekend thus operated under the notion that only by returning to the God-sanctioned patriarchy could the flawed son or daughter begin to experience success in divorcing themselves from homosexuality.

The Family and Friends Weekend created a climate of fear and shame, a toxic mix that made it difficult to think clearly. The environment placed us in a vulnerable state where we looked to the program leaders as authorities to lead us out of the mess stemming from our sinful nature and poor choices. When any parent or loved one questioned the teachings, program leaders responded with program jargon, scripture or pseudo-psychological language. The leaders stood as the final authority, almost as Gnostics who had come to the place of hidden knowledge. They then attempted to share that knowledge with those of us still darkened by ignorance and inner rebellion.

I only learned years later that my parents experienced deep personal distress as a result of their first Family and Friends Weekend. My sister told me that for the first two weeks after they returned home, "there was something wrong with Mom and Dad." They seemed depressed and spoke little. It even affected their appetite. She said it was like a light had gone out in them. She felt so concerned that she called the LIA office and demanded, "What did you do to my parents?" LIA never followed up.

Years later when I told one of the LIA leaders who had been part of that weekend about my parents' distress and how it resulted in years of self-doubts and emotional upheaval, he responded with program jargon and put the blame back on my parents by stating, "Healthy people ask for what they need." He suggested that since my parents were not healthy to begin with, they didn't know how to seek the help they needed.

By constantly turning the blame around and pointing to the flawed nature in each one of us, the program leaders chronically avoid responsibility for the unethical and harmful practices and theories they promote and provide. I do not know if the current staff of Love in Action still forces parents and participants through the shameful and harmful steps of The Family and Friends Weekend. If they genuinely care for people and about pastoral care, I invite them to listen to some of our stories to reconsider their methods before they do more harm.

See a video about The Family & Friends Weekend.
Read an article at Beyond Ex-Gay.

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At 2:09 PM , Blogger paul said...

I admit that reading this made me shudder. Brings back memories. One of the key elements in my being able to extricate myself from this dense web, was when I started studying cults. At the time, I was studying to fortify my understanding of those other guys, but instead ended up identifying cult like elements in the ex-gay movement, and frankly, in my own then fundamentalist beliefs.

My own experiences incorporated 12 step program methods as well. Alexander and Rollin's did a study several years back identifying AA as a cult. It is an interesting read, and very startling when you see the common methods being used by the ex-gay movement.

At 3:28 PM , Blogger paul said...

I see my link didn't take, and it is a lengthy article, but check out some of these quotes from the article and see if they don't sound familiar:

Milieu control

This category refers to group dominance over the individual’s environment. Wherever possible, the proselyte is put in a position where his or her reality will be defined and interpreted solely by other cult members. As examples of milieu control, Alexander and Rollins cited statements heard at AA meetings such as: “Don’t have any emotional entanglements (outside of AA) your first year.” ....

Mystical manipulation

This technique also involves personal and social orchestrations, ofttimes through the use of ritual. AA’s rituals are not elaborate, but they do exist. Every meeting is opened and closed with a group prayer. Certain pages from AA’s basic text, its “Big Book,” are read at every meeting....
“Above all else,” Alexander and Rollins explained, “the neophyte is asked to trust the group.” As an example of mystical manipulation, Alexander and Rollins quoted a converted AA member: “I was in the same room with 3,100 sober alcoholics, all holding hands and saying the Lord’s Prayer. It was an extremely spiritual experience.” Had Alexander and Rollins been able to expand their study, reference to AA’s recommended literature would have revealed that far from being asked simply to trust the group, newcomers to AA are solemnly invited to regard the group as God. “You can if you wish, make AA itself your ‘higher power,’” an official AA publication counsels. (The phrase “higher power” being AA’s generic term for God.) You can hardly ask anyone to be more trusting than that.

Demand for purity

According to Alexander and Rollins, demand for purity has to do with always viewing one’s behavior through the lens of the group’s supposedly perfect doctrine....

Cult of confession

The ritual of confession, or the public admission of shortcomings, has been an important part of AA’s liturgy from the very beginning. It is a technique that AA inherited from its religious progenitor, the Oxford Group, later renamed Moral Re-armament. In fact, Robert J. Lifton himself, in his original study of thought reform methods in China, noted that a “Protestant missionary was struck by [thought reform’s] similarity with the Moral Re-armament movement in which he had been active.”

To demonstrate the occurrence of this technique, Alexander and Rollins quoted such indiscreet disclosures as: “I modeled for porno photos to get money for booze.” And: “I tried to stab people, shoot at people, hit them with a pan . . . ” In AA meetings, speakers are expected to “qualify,” or give enough of their stories to show that they, too, are “alcoholics.” In AA’s Step Program, the cult of confession is embodied in the Fifth Step: “Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.” Some groups have made it a standard practice for the novice to take this step with an AA sponsor, a senior member of the group. Of course, this is a dramatic gesture of the surrender of self to AA.

Sacred science

The sacred science stratagem evokes an aura of irrefutable, unquestionable, correctness about the group’s central dogma....
Loading the language

This refers to the technique of replacing common words with slang and clichés that are slanted to express the group’s prejudices and beliefs....
Doctrine over person

For practical purposes, this thought control mechanism refers to the retrospective reinterpretation of the neophyte’s past so that it conforms to the doctrines of the group....

Dispensing existence

This is Lifton’s term for the phenomenon whereby group insiders are plainly distinguished, made to feel different, and set apart from nonmembers or outsiders....

At 5:50 PM , Blogger KJ said...

When the time for me to come arrived, I did so in person with my parents. At that time, I provided them with a coming out letter, part of which was dedicated to making it clear that my loving parents were not the cause of my same-gendered sexual orientation. I didn't want my parents to have to respond to such nonsense.

Peterson, are there cases in which clients and families participating in "ex-gay" programs have sued licensed practitioners for providing services that have no support in research? If I practiced in my field the way these providers do (i.e., lack of evidenced-based methodologies) in the field of psychology , I'd lose my license, and rightly so. The purpose of licensure is to protect the consumer from harm.

At 2:50 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

This sounds so much like the "refrigerator mother" theory of autism... I don't know what it is that motivates us to heap blame on others for things that are nobody's "fault," but it certainly is a persistent fallacy.

- e.

At 5:23 PM , Blogger Bruce Garrett said...

Healthy people ask for what they need.

Healthy people don't assume they have all the answers. Healthy people don't obsess about other people's sex lives. Healthy people don't fear their neighbor's independence.

At 12:14 PM , Blogger Peterson Toscano said...

paul, thanks for all that! good stuff.

KJ, litigation is a dicey thing. These are unregulated businesses operating under the protection of ministry. They offer a form of therapy without the oversight and responsibility of proper therapists. Some places like LIA even make clients sign liability waivers.

At 12:15 PM , Blogger Peterson Toscano said...

bruce, great to see you!


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