Civil Liberties

Setting Him Straight?

Zach is a gay teen whose parents forced him to attend "religious camp" to "make him straight." But these camps are better at psychologically hurting teens than at changing their sexuality.
For at least two weeks in June, Zach, a 16-year-old gay teen from Bartlett, Tennessee, was a hostage held against his will.

He wasn't kidnapped by a child molester or abducted by international terrorists, though what he has been through, in his own words, has been "torture." Indeed, Zach's captivity has been completely legal, if horrific. He's been interred by the authority of his parents. And his captors have been a group with the ironic name, "Love In Action."

"Love In Action" is one of the so-called "ex-gay" ministries. It runs what it calls a "youth program," named Refuge, which is essentially a "camp" to allegedly "de-gay" homosexual teens.

According to Zach's blog, his parents decided to send him to Refuge against his will after he came out to them as being gay. On May 29, Zach wrote on his blog that his parents sat him down and informed him he was going to a "fundamentalist Christian program for gays."

"They tell me there is something wrong with me, and they 'raised me wrong,'" Zach wrote. "I'm a big screw up to them, who isn't on the path God wants me to be on. So I am sitting here in tears."

According to other blog entries, Zach's parents took away his cell phone and car keys, apparently in an effort to keep what they perceived as bad "outside influences" away from him. His parents also isolated him from his friends - he wrote on June 3, his last blog entry, that he hadn't seen any of his friends for more than a week. He was housebound, he said. And he was only able to access the computer to write his blog, he wrote, after his parents were asleep. Zach's state of mind, even before he was forced to go to Refuge, was clearly fragile, as reflected in his sad and poignant blog entries. "My mother has said the worst things to me for three days straight," he wrote at 11:33 on June 3, the last time a blog entry was made. "I went numb. That's the only way I can get through this... I can't take this... no one can. This kind of thing tears you apart emotionally." And then Zach writes what many of us fear most, the worst possible results of this kind of pressure: "I'm not a suicidal person," he begins, and your heart sinks as he broaches the subject. "But I can't help it... all I can think about is killing my mother and myself. It's so horrible. This is what it's doing to me... I have this horrible feeling all of the time... I wish this on no person."

But studies have shown that gay teens are up to three times more likely than their heterosexual peers to attempt suicide, because of the anti-gay pressures they face from home, school and society. It's estimated that one-third of completed suicides are done by gay or lesbian teens.

Though he has not posted any blog entries since June 3, friends and supporters have written on his blog site, saying that after the initial two-week period at Refuge, Zach's parents have decided to keep him there an additional six weeks. Zach was able to post an exhaustive list of rules and regulations from Refuge that he had found e-mailed to his parents. The rules include a strict prohibition on "hugging or physical touch between clients. Brief handshakes or a brief affirmative hand on a shoulder is allowed." Males at the camp are not allowed to have facial hair of any kind, and must maintain "clean, business-like haircuts." Females are instructed to "shave legs and underarms at least twice weekly," and may not have hair that is "colored, highlighted or streaked." T-shirts without sleeves are forbidden for men, even as undergarments. So are thongs for women. The only jewelry a man may have is a wedding ring and a watch. Women are allowed that, plus a simple pair of earrings (one per ear.) Absolutely no one may wear Abercrombie and Fitch or Calvin Klein clothes or accessories. No cologne or perfume, either.

Reading through the exhaustive list of do's and don'ts for Refuge, you learn that every member there is put into what can only be likened to emotional solitary confinement for the first two or three days, where they may not communicate, verbally or otherwise, with anyone, even parents, except with special permission.

They can't have a cell phone or watch TV or see movies, other than the one shown weekly at the camp. They are not even allowed to read, unless it is the Bible or pre-approved material from the camp. No secular music. Bach and Beethoven are expressly mentioned as not being religious music, and thus forbidden. They are not allowed to keep in touch or have contact with previous friends. They are expressly prohibited from displaying "campy" behavior or "gay/lesbian behavior or talk." They and their belongings are subject to search. They may not keep a journal, other than that required for their "therapy." They are photographed for "sobering re-evaluation." And they are encouraged to tattle on each other if they break the rules. It seems clear that Refuge engages in behavior modification as part of its "therapy" to "cure" gays and allegedly make them straight. There is absolutely no scientific evidence that this kind of abusive behavior makes any kind of permanent, healthy change in its victims. All of the major, credible mental health organizations, such as the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association have long ago distanced themselves from this kind of "therapy." Furthermore, these mental health organizations also know that being gay or lesbian is not a mental disorder, and readily say so. The notion that you can alter a kid's sexual orientation by dressing him in certain clothes and forcing him to read the Bible and act in particular ways is not only ludicrous, but psychologically destructive.

Even 16-year-old Zach understands that. In one blog entry, he writes: "How could you support a program like this?" he asks of the Refuge camp. "Even if I do come out straight, I'll be so mentally unstable and depressed it wont matter. I'll be back in therapy again. This is not good."