While the Christian-led ex-gay movement is dying down in the United States, some “reparative therapy” or “conversion therapy” programs are still alive and well in other parts of the world. In Canada, for example, a government-registered charity called Living Waters (not affiliated with Ray Comfort‘s ministry of the same name) has chapters across the country to help gay people overcome their same-sex attractions.
Hearing of the program, an undercover reporter named Graham Slaughter from the Toronto Star joined a Living Waters chapter from January to May and recently published his account of the experience. In reality Slaughter is openly gay — contentedly so, it seems — making his description of the Christian program all the more interesting (and terrifying).
The concept of so-called conversion or ex-gay therapy has been widely discredited by nearly every psychological organization out there, as Slaughter points out. Exodus International, the major U.S. organization pushing ex-gay therapy, shut down in June shortly after its president issued an apology to anyone who had been hurt by the practice — namely, almost everyone who’s undergone it.
The American Psychological Association deleted homosexuality from its list of treatable mental disorders 40 years ago. The APA says it’s still unclear what makes a person gay — a gay gene has yet to be discovered — but no research has proved that someone can be made gay by his or her upbringing.
A 2009 APA report found that efforts to change someone’s sexual orientation are ineffective and dangerous; former participants have experienced depression, loss of sexual feeling and even suicidal thoughts.
Nonetheless, programs like Living Waters continue on the premise that a same-sex sexual orientation is not actually something we’re born with, but something forced upon us in childhood. Like most rhetoric around same-sex attraction, the program tends to blame abuse or poor relationships with parents for any given person’s gayness.
During a lesson titled “The Father Wound,” a participant said his father was absent when his mother was pregnant. After considering the teachings, he realized his dad’s absence may be the root of his gay desires — he longed for male affection even inside the womb. Our leaders encouraged this as truth and thanked God for giving him this insight.
That no one is born gay and that the seeds of gay attraction are planted in childhood was a consistent message.
“Any honest scientist will tell you that the idea that you’re born gay is not true. It’s not based on science,” said one of the leaders during a lesson on the “true” masculine.
The idea that homosexuality is a lie is a pervasive one here. Slaughter says that Dave Lawson, one of the leaders of Living Waters, inspired a session with this profoundly incorrect statement:
“There is no such thing as a homosexual, and I’ll say why. Under the way God has created us, we are only attracted to the opposite sex,” Lawson says.
Homosexuality is frequently referred to as an addiction in this particular program, and Slaughter says he used this comparison to come to a faux revelation while attending group sessions.
“There is compulsion to engage in the behaviour, loss of control, experiencing the behaviour and then the negative emotional state when behaviour is over,” he said. “Yup, sounds like an addiction to me.”
I hadn’t ever considered myself an addict to homosexuality, but after today I realized it, I told the group.
“Congratulations. It takes some addicts 20 years finally to get that insight,” the leader said, placing a hand on my shoulder. “Let’s pray on this.”
In response, their wish for him is almost comical:
As three leaders placed their hands on me for prayer, one had a vision: he pictured me standing between two naked statues, one of Michelangelo’s David and another of the Venus de Milo.
“Instead of getting that rush from David, you can get that rush from Venus. I’m seeing that as your goal,” he told me.
As if this entire program weren’t upsetting enough, let’s not forget that it’s actually a charity registered to receive donations for its “work.” In order to keep its status as a charity, it must prove it provides a “public benefit,” which by definition excludes any action that can be deemed harmful to the public.
As a government-registered charity under the Canada Revenue Agency, Living Waters collects the bulk of its revenue in tax-receipted donations. In the last three years, these donations have accounted for 62 per cent of the charity’s total revenue.
This money has helped Living Waters establish programs in churches across Canada, from Charlottetown to Winnipeg to Edmonton to Vancouver, where a chic brownstone serves as national headquarters. Six of its top employees make between $40,000 and $79,999 a year.
Slaughter’s story is a fascinating read and includes more excerpts from his fellow session-goers’ stories, including what brought some of them to the program in the first place and what they got out of it. It’s unclear how Living Waters is doing since news of the undercover investigation has gotten out, but I can’t imagine they’re taking it well. Slaughter included the following from an official Living Waters statement in his piece:
Living Waters has posted several statements on its website since the Star investigation began. On June 20, it wrote that only five per cent of participants had “self-identified unwanted same sex attraction.”
It continued: “We are saddened to recently learn that a journalist from a mainstream media outlet assumed a false identity … and betrayed the trust of fellow small group members who wanted healing within a loving community.”
In the most recent statement, on Sept. 30, it wrote: “With ongoing research we have grown in our awareness that it is highly unusual for an individual to shift from being same sex attracted to being exclusively heterosexually attracted and we discuss with our leaders and volunteers the importance of not promising this unusual kind of ‘change.’”
Sounds a lot like what Exodus leaders wrote before they shut down, doesn’t it? Even if ex-gay leaders don’t “promise change,” they do everything within their means to encourage it, no matter how many legitimate health organizations tell them they’re wrong. And yet, at least in the United States, society is recoiling from ex-gay therapy from every angle: several states have banned or are working to ban this practice, the foremost national group advocating it is no more, and a record number of Americans believe gay people are born that way.
Slaughter did us a service with this piece. When — not if, but when — Living Waters and similar organizations finally join Exodus and close their doors for good, we’ll know without a doubt it’s for the best.