Southern Poverty Law Center article on ex-gay movement: Were the facts straight?

The Intelligence Report, a publication of the Southern Poverty Law Center has two articles regarding sexual identity issues in the Winter, 2007 issue. The first one, Straight Like Me, by Casey Sanchez reads like an expose’ of the ex-gay movement as a political ploy of the Christian right designed to undermine gay rights. He covers much ground familiar to readers of this blog. For instance the picture leading the article is a screen capture of Richard Cohen holding his client, Rob, on CNN with Deborah Feyerick watching. Sanchez also interviews Peterson Toscano and highlights the increasingly vocal ex-ex-gay movement. 

On several points, I share Sanchez’s observations of some elements of the ex-gay world. He notes the “bewildering array of techniques and philosophies” used to change sexual orientation and writes critically of holding therapies and reparative theories. He included New Warriors knock-off, Journey into Manhood as an example of an emerging method of reorientation and noted JIM’s connection to Richard Cohen in method and tone. Mr. Sanchez, however, needed to do some fact checking to tighten up this piece. I should note that I have spoken with Mr. Sanchez about my analysis here and while receptive to listening, did not offer to retract or change anything. However, there are inaccuracies in this piece that compromise the integrity of the article. For instance, Mr. Sanchez wrote:

Focus on the Family, the largest and wealthiest Christian Right organization in the country, now hires Smid to appear several times a year on an ex-gay lecture circuit called Love Won Out, where he speaks on masturbation and “healing homosexuality.”

This is false. Mr. Smid attends some Love Won Out events as an exhibitor but does not speak on any topic as one of the line-up of speakers.

Regarding the recent study from Stanton Jones and Mark Yarhouse, Sanchez wrote,

To back up their claims that homosexuality is purely a deviant lifestyle choice, ex-gay leaders frequently cite the Thomas Project, a four-year study of ex-gay programs, paid for by Exodus, that recruited subjects exclusively from Exodus ministries. It was conducted by Mark Yarhouse, a psychology professor at Pat Robertson’s Regents University, and Stanton Jones, provost of Wheaton College, an evangelical institution in Illinois. Both are members of NARTH. The study was conducted entirely via 45-minute telephone interviews conducted annually over the course of four years. Results were published this September.

First, the study was about whether change was impossible and whether attempting to change was harmful. The study had nothing to do with proving homosexual was either deviant or a choice. Second, the initial interview was 2.5-3 hours in person at Time 1, and about 90 minutes on follow up. Third, neither man is a member of NARTH.

Then in a section that needed no embellishment, Mr. Sanchez again casts some of his stones in the wrong direction.

One of the most controversial ex-gay therapy techniques is “healing touch,” which involves men striving to become ex-gay cradling and rocking other men in their arms. Last January, Richard Cohen, a licensed psychotherapist who claims to be personally ex-gay, demonstrated healing touch on CNN’s “Paula Zahn Now” and Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show.” Cohen also demonstrated “bioenergetics,” which involves beating on chairs with tennis rackets and screaming, “Mom, Mom, why did you do this to me?” When Cohen appeared on ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” one month later seated next to George Foreman, he demonstrated healing touch therapy by putting his arms around the former heavyweight boxing champion and explaining, “You comfort him and love him like he’s your own boy.”

But enthusiasts and ideologues of the ex-gay movement haven’t given up hope that science will confirm their view.

After his disastrous TV appearances, both Exodus and NARTH scrubbed any mention of Cohen from their websites and released statements publicly disavowing healing touch therapy. Yet both organizations continue to promote healing touch through a program called Journey Into Manhood, whose leaders are featured at Exodus conferences and highlighted on NARTH’s website. Journey Into Manhood is a nominally secular program founded by Catholic, Jewish and Mormon counselors. The counselors operate weekend outdoors retreats throughout the country that require men to bond with one another through wilderness adventures and holding each other in “non-sexual healing touch.”

In fact, Exodus does not recommend JIM and does not allow them to exhibit at Exodus conferences. I have a comment below from JIM to that effect. When I spoke to Mr. Sanchez, he noted that JIM representatives were at the Exodus conference passing out cards with their information. However, this is a far cry from being “featured.” I attended an Exodus conference and presented the Sexual Identity Therapy Framework. However, I would not claim that Exodus endorses or promotes the SIT Framework. On point, Exodus has been quite clear in their opposition to “touch therapy.”

In addition, I thought some of the reporting was off concerning JIM so I asked the JIM office to react to the SPLC article. Here is the reply from Rich Wyler:

About the Southern Poverty Law Center article: Thank you for sending it. This is the first I’ve seen it. It is filled with misinformation and inaccuracies.

1. Journey Into Manhood does not incorporate nudity or partial nudity.

2. I don’t know what the “10 week Journey Into Manhood curriculum” is that the article is referring to. It sounds like they are probably confusing us with another organization’s program.

3. We don’t do memory recovery work.

4. I don’t know who this Alex Liberato is – perhaps it’s a pseudonym – but in the article he admits that he didn’t go through the Journey Into Manhood weekend, so he is not a source of information on us at all.

5. Journey Into Manhood is not featured at Exodus conferences. We applied for a booth but were turned down because we are not a “Christ-centered” organization.

6. Our teaching on “healing touch” is that any such holding must be completely voluntary on the part of all participants, should be done in groups of three or more, with healing “father-son” or “brother-to-brother” intent, fully clothed, in non-sexual positions, and never in pairs of “strugglers” alone.

There are more mistakes in these two paragraphs, but that’s enough to show you how riddled with errors they are.

Rich told me via phone that the no one from SPLC had contacted him about the JIM organization.

To me, the article could have pointed out the extremes without attempting to reach for connections that aren’t there. Despite the rare acknowledgement that not all ex-gay ministries are the same, I believe the intent was to create a sense that ex-gay ministries are primarily politically motivated devices. This is a debatable point. But it seems to me that whatever the truth is about any given ex-gay ministry, there is a clear tension between ministry and policy aims. To me, it seems difficult at best to promote political aims, along with a focus on ministry and do both well. Social conservatives believe in the validity of a socially conservative political stance on sexual ethics as well as the need to offer the love of God, but the question is how should these ends be sought? In Christian ministry, offering Jesus trumps other considerations; in politics, winning seems paramount; further, in therapy, following client well being and values seems the leading indicator. I am surely open to suggestions on how to pull off an integration of those three aims that does not degrade any of them.

Back to the subject matter of the errors in reporting; in my opinion, ex-gay ministries that promote the narrow view that all or nearly all homosexuality is solely a gender-problem open themselves up for reporting such as produced by the SPLC. Given that ministry rule-books, holding, hugging, regression techniques and sports programs appear to be in the service of enhancing some sense of masculinity, it seems understandable that observers and critics will assume a seamless relationship between the theories of homosexuality and more extreme techniques to address the theorized deficits. I believe that ministries who do not condone or use the more extreme or boundary-compromising techniques need to draw sharp and public lines of distinction between themselves and those approaches with which they disagree.

I also wrote Rich Wyler of JIM in order to compare and contrast JIM with New Warriors. More on that in a future post.