Next week, Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center is coming to town on a mission. It wants to bring down conversion therapy.
If you thought that the much-discredited reparative-therapy movement—dedicated to supposedly turning gay people straight—had already had a stake driven through its heart by highly critical media exposure, then SPLC's civil-rights staff attorney, Sam Wolfe, says you're wrong. While conversion therapy may be on the defensive, it is spreading to other countries, he says, and to some degree continues to prosper.
Conversion therapy, Wolfe explains, is "based on the idea that being gay
is a mental
illness and that somehow you need to repair or change people from gay to
straight." Such therapists use a variety of different exercises or
theories that have
all been discredited by major mental-health organizations, he continues,
ranging from the disturbing to the ridiculous, such as playing
basketball to enforce masculinity, "the theory being that types of activities make us more manly," Wolfe says.
Wolfe is part of SPLC's LGBT rights project and will be in Provo on Wednesday, April 11, and Salt Lake County on Thursday, April 12, to host discussions and presentations on conversion therapy, while also searching for folks who are willing to share their stories of recent attempts by conversion therapists to render them straight.
For more details on the two meetings, go here.
Wolfe talks from personal experience, although in his case his brush with gay-conversion therapy ultimately proved more of a wake-up call than destructive. He attended BYU and, struggling to follow what he calls "the established path" of finding a female partner for marriage, out of desperation called a number he'd found in advertisement that said, "If you suffer from same sex attraction ..." He felt like "I needed to cure myself," but the group he reached out to, Evergreen, ultimately proved an "eye-opening experience."
You can see a video by Wolfe talking about conversion therapy here.
Wolfe had always assumed that once you married a woman, life would turn out well. Instead, he met Mormon men who had been married, fathered children, only for their marriages to have fallen apart in tragic ways, their former spouses and children hating them. The men "felt very attentive to me," at Evergreen, giving him lingering hugs and nestling up to him during prayer.
"I had this vision of a future [...]. I definitely wanted to avoid the tragedy I saw around me. I had a wake-up call." What came out of his Evergreen experience, however, was "for the time I started to have gay friends, I was associating with gay people at BYU."
But others in his Evergreen group, he says, weren't able to make that jump. "They seemed to have internalized negative attitudes about being gay; some couldn't come to terms with being gay." Wolfe is still haunted by the agony he saw in the eyes of teenagers brought by their parents to therapy groups. "Programs where they were beating a bag with a bat were not going to make them straight," he says.
On a personal note, Wolfe is involved with the LGBT Mormon group Affirmation. Mormonism, he notes, "tends to be a major constituency of reparative therapy, along with other conservative religious faiths that traditionally take a hard stance against being gay.