TV & Radio
Gay Teenager Stirs a Storm
By ALEX WILLIAMS
Published: July 17, 2005 - New York Times
The headquarters of Love in Action in Memphis was under siege by protesters over the case of a teenager named Zach.
IT was the sort of confession that a decade ago might have been scribbled in a teenager's diary, then quietly tucked away in a drawer: "Somewhat recently," wrote a boy who identified himself only as Zach, 16, from Tennessee, on his personal Web page, "I told my parents I was gay." He noted, "This didn't go over very well," and "They tell me that there is something psychologically wrong with me, and they 'raised me wrong.' "
Rollin Riggs for The New York Times
Brandon Tidwell is a former client of the program intended to change his sexual orientation.
But what grabbed the attention of Zach's friends and subsequently of both gay activists and fundamentalist Christians around the world who came across the entry, made on May 29, was not the intimacy of the confession. Teenagers have been outing themselves online for years, and many of Zach's friends already knew he was gay. It was another sentence in the Web log: "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."
"It's like boot camp," Zach added in a dispatch the next day. "If I do come out straight, I'll be so mentally unstable and depressed it won't matter."
The camp in question, Refuge, is a youth program of Love in Action International, a group in Memphis that runs a religion-based program intended to change the sexual orientation of gay men and women. Often called reparative or conversion therapy, such programs took hold in fundamentalist Christian circles in the 1970's, when mainstream psychiatric organizations overturned previous designations of homosexuality as a mental disorder, and gained ground rapidly from the late 90's. Programs like Love in Action have always been controversial, but Zach's blog entries have brought wide attention to a less-known aspect of them, their application to teenagers.
Although Zach wrote only a handful of entries about the Refuge program, all posted before he arrived there in the Memphis suburbs on June 6, his words have been forwarded on the Internet over and over, inspiring online debates, news articles, sidewalk protests and an investigation into Love in Action by the Tennessee Department of Children's Services in response to a child abuse allegation. The investigation was dropped when the allegation proved unfounded, a spokeswoman for the agency said.
To some, Zach, whose family name is not disclosed on his blog and has not appeared in news accounts, is the embodiment of gay adolescent vulnerability, pulled away from friends who accepted him by adults who do not. To others he is a boy whose confused and formative sexual identity is being exploited by gay political activists.
In his last blog entry before beginning the program, at 2:33 a.m. on June 4, Zach wrote, "I pray this blows over," adding that if his parents caught him online he'd be in trouble. He described arguments he had been having with his parents, his mother in particular. "I can't take this," his post reads. "No one can. I'm not a suicidal person. I think it's stupid, really. But I can't help it - no I'm not going to commit suicide - all I can think about is killing my mother and myself. It's so horrible."
The Rev. John J. Smid, the executive director of Love in Action, declined to discuss the details of Zach's experience, citing the program's confidentiality rules. In an interview early this month at his headquarters, a weathered 1960's A-frame building, which was until recently a vacant Episcopal Church, Mr. Smid explained that teenage participants in Refuge are forbidden to speak with anyone the program does not approve of. Requests made through Mr. Smid to interview Zach's parents were declined.
Founded in California in 1973, Love in Action moved to Memphis 11 years ago. It is one of 120 programs nationwide listed by Exodus International, which bills itself as the largest information and referral network for what is known among fundamentalist Christians as the "ex-gay" movement. In 2003 Love in Action introduced the first structured program specifically for teenagers, 24 of whom have participated, Mr. Smid said. The initial two weeks costs $2,000, and many participants stay six weeks more, as Zach has.
The goal of the program, said Mr. Smid, who said he was once gay but now renounces homosexual behavior, is not necessarily to turn gays into practicing heterosexuals, but to "put guardrails" on their sexual impulses.
"In my life I've been out of homosexuality for over 20 years, and for me it's really a nonissue," Mr. Smid said.
"I may see a man and say, he's handsome, he's attractive, and it might touch a part of me that is different from someone else," he said. "But it's really not an issue. Gosh, I've been married for 16 years and faithful in my marriage in every respect. I mean I don't think I could white-knuckle this ride for that long."
Mr. Smid first learned that one of his teenage participants was a cause célèbre when protesters appeared outside his headquarters for several days in early June, carrying signs saying, "This is child abuse" and "Jesus is no excuse for hate."
He was bombarded by phone calls from reporters, he said, as well as by 100 e-mail messages a day from as far as Norway. Zach's writings, which appeared on his page on www.MySpace.com, were publicized by one of his online acquaintances, E. J. Friedman, a Memphis musician and writer, who read Zach's May 29 blog entry, "The World Coming to an Abrupt - Stop."
Mr. Friedman, 35, was disturbed by what he read and fired off an instant message. "I said: 'You should run away from home. There are people who will help you,' " Mr. Friedman recalled. "He said: 'I can't do that. I want to have my childhood. If this is what I have to go through to have it, then I will.' "
Mr. Friedman posted an angry message about Zach's impending stay at Refuge on his own blog. Mr. Friedman's friends picked up on the story and started spreading it on blogs of their own. Soon a local filmmaker, Morgan Jon Fox, who had met Zach through mutual acquaintances, joined with others to start a group called Queer Action Coalition, which organized the protests at Love in Action.
"We wanted to show support," said Mr. Fox, 26, who directed a fictional film about gay teenagers in 2003, shot at White Station High School in Memphis, where Zach is a student. "Then it kind of blew up."
Links to Zach's site bounced around the country. Mr. Friedman's Web page had so much traffic, "it blew my bandwidth," he said. Mr. Smid, too, was inundated with Internet traffic, much of it outraged at the attempts to change Zach's sexual orientation.
"All of a sudden, 80,000 Internet hits later on our Web site, the world has decided that he should be freed," Mr. Smid said. "Maybe he didn't ask for this. Maybe he doesn't really have the personality that really is going to be able to deal with this. And they talk about our 'abuse' of him."
The program at Love in Action has parallels to 12-step recovery programs. Participants, referred to as clients, study the Bible, meet with counselors and keep a "moral inventory," a journal in which they detail their struggle with same-sex temptation over the years, which they read at emotionally raw group meetings, former clients say.
Excessive jewelry or stylish clothing from labels like Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger are forbidden, and so is watching television, listening to secular music (even Bach) and reading unapproved books or magazines.
"It's like checking into prison," said Brandon Tidwell, 29, who completed the adult program in 2002 but eventually rejected its teachings, reconciling his Christian beliefs with being gay.
Physical contact among clients other than a handshake is forbidden, and so is "campy" talk or behavior, according to program rules that Zach posted on his blog before he began at Refuge. Occasionally, recalled Jeff Harwood, 41, a Love in Action graduate who still considers himself gay, some participants would mock the mandatory football games.
"You could get away with maybe one limp-wristed pass before another client would catch you," he said, seated on a tattered sofa in a funky cafe called Java Cabana in the trendy midtown district of Memphis.
Because teenagers, unlike adult clients, return home at night, parents are asked to help keep them away from television and, more important, a computer. Zach has not updated his blog since entering the program.
For Mr. Smid and his supporters, offering Love in Action to teenagers is vital to combat what they see as a growing tolerance of homosexuality among young people. "We just really believe that the resounding message for teenagers in our culture is, practice whatever you want, have sex however, whenever and with whoever you want," he said. "I very deeply believe that is harmful. I think exploring sexuality can lay a teenager up for numerous lifelong issues."
Critics of programs that seek to change sexual orientation say the programs themselves can open a person to lifelong problems, including guilt, shame and even suicidal impulses. The stakes are higher for adolescents, who are already wrestling with deep questions of identity and sexuality, mental-health experts say.
"Their identities are still in flux," said Dr. Jack Drescher, the chairman of the committee on gay, lesbian and bisexual issues of the American Psychiatric Association, which in 2000 formally rejected regimens like reparative or conversion therapy as scientifically unproven. "One serious risk for the parent to consider is that most of the people who undergo these treatments don't change. That means that most people who go through these experiences often come out feeling worse than when they went in."
Two weeks ago the Tennessee Department of Health sent a letter to Love in Action, saying it was suspected of offering therapeutic services for which it was not licensed, a department spokeswoman said. Mr. Smid insisted in the interview that his program is a spiritual, not a counseling, center, and he is removing references to therapy from its Web site.
He said he does not track his success rate. Mr. Harwood, who graduated from the adult program in 1999, said that of 11 fellow former clients he has kept track of, eight once again consider themselves gay.
Although critics say such programs threaten the adolescent psyche, at least one teenager who considers himself a successful graduate does not agree. "In my experience people who struggle with their sexuality are more mature in general," Ben Marshall, 18, said. He recounted being in turmoil, growing up gay in a conservative Christian household in Mobile, Ala.
In 2004 his parents sent him to Refuge. "I went to Memphis kicking and screaming," he said. "I had grown to hate the church for the militant message it gave off toward homosexuality."
While enrolled he spent days listening to stories of the pain that homosexuality had caused clients and their families. Slowly, he said, his attitude changed. He ended up choosing to continue in Love in Action's adult program for nine months. While the program has a "high rate of failure," he said "there are enough successes to know I'm not alone."
But even success comes only through continuing struggle. Although he plans to date women in the future, Mr. Marshall said, he is avoiding any romantic relationships for the time being. "In all honesty, I'm just trying to figure out how to deal normally with men before I start to deal with women," he said.
Zach's parents did not reply to a request for comment for this article left on their answering machine. Last week his father, speaking to the Christian Broadcasting Network, said: "We felt good about Zach coming here. To let him see for himself the destructive lifestyle, what he has to face in the future."
In Zach's case there is no indication he was particularly upset about his sexual identity. Although his high school is in a Bible belt city, the student body is fairly tolerant of homosexual classmates, some students said, particularly those who, like Zach, are not conspicuous about their orientation.
"Stereotype me, if you dare," was the motto Zach chose for his blog, where he listed "Edward Scissorhands" and "Girl, Interrupted" as his favorite movies and Brandon Flowers, the lead singer of the alternative rock band the Killers, as the person he would most like to meet.
While Zach, as his blog recounted, only recently came out to his parents, many of his friends had known he was gay for more than a year, one classmate said. Zach openly identified himself as gay on his blog, which links to 213 friends' blogs listed in a Friend Space box on the site.
Zach is due to leave the program next week. His June 4 message expressed thanks for the more than 1,700 messages on his page, many voicing support. "Don't worry," he wrote. "I'll get through this. They've promised me things will get better, whether this program does anything or not. Let's hope they're not lying."