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Surviving ‘ex-gay’ therapy programs

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The long, red rope hung from the ceiling of his garage. He had moved his blue 2005 Mazda Miata convertible out into the driveway, despite the pouring rain, so he could hang the rope from the rafters. The oddest sensation of worry over the puddles forming on the leather seats and ruining his iPod formed a rock in his stomach. Hesitating, he pondered whether or not to raise the top. Deciding against it, realizing he would never again need it, he finished tying the noose by following the printed instructions he found on Google. It was his third try at the knot.

As he steadied the stool, he pulled the carefully folded note out of his pocket and smoothed it out on the tool table. As he stepped onto the stool, he wrapped the rope around his neck and took one last deep breath. As the air rushed past his teeth and into his lungs he wondered if the rope was strong enough to hold him. He kicked the stool. His neck snapped and he choked his last bit of air. As his vision blurred he saw his garage door opening and his mother’s car pulling up to the house.

The Story
The 29-year-old Salt Lake City native had only lived outside of Utah for two years while serving a mission for the Mormon Church in Mexico.

“My entire life was consumed with trying to turn straight. I knew I wouldn’t get to the highest level of heaven unless I could somehow become attracted to women and get married. I wanted it so badly. I would have done anything to turn straight,” Robert Bills (name has been changed) said.

He tried everything. From the Mormon-endorsed group Evergreen International to private counseling through LDS Family Services, Bills was meeting with different groups and counselors sometimes three or four times a week. His life was controlled by his desire to be straight.

“I followed all the rules. I read my scriptures daily, I prayed constantly and I was totally involved in the Church. I was an elder’s quorum president for four years, AP of my mission and I went to the temple at least twice a week,” Bills said. “Despite the counselors constantly accusing me of doing it, I never masturbated or looked at pornography. I didn’t even look at clothing ads because I knew the underwear section would be too tempting.”

In one of his sessions, Bills heard about the group called Journey into Manhood. He was told that the two-day retreat was worth the exorbitant fee for a two-day camp. The website promised real results and said there was a high success rate of change. When he realized that the organizer of the event, Rich Wyler, was a Mormon involved with Evergreen International and who claims to have turned himself straight, it sealed the deal.

Wyler claims on his website that men are gay because of a lack of masculine relationships with family members and friends. His theory is that people can change orientation by creating non-sexual connections with other men and he uses his own case as an example of how someone can change orientations. Although Bills has two brothers, a great relationship with his father, several very close male friends, and was always involved in sports in high school and briefly in college, he still signed up for the course.

“No one would tell me what they did at the camp. It was supposed to be a secret. I was not prepared for what happened,” Bills said. “The retreat was filled with camping, weird holding positions and other intimate interaction with guys. We would touch and hold one another in the strangest ways. I kept hoping that this would somehow help me. I felt like it was my last hope. I’d tried everything else. This was it for me.”

Through the entire weekend of singing and other rituals, Bills tried to keep a positive attitude. Wyler was promising real change and Bills knew it was his turn to finally be straight.

“We had to share our most embarrassing moments with the other men. I was supposed to tell them about sexual encounters or the last time I looked at gay porn and exactly how I pleasured myself. Looking back, it had this strange feel of S&M sadomasochism to it. It was strangely erotic for supposedly being an area where I was going to become straight.”

“I felt dirty just telling the story. But everyone else had a story. I didn’t want to feel left out, so I made one up,” Bills said. “My exercise partner hugged me and told me he loved me even though I had given a hand-job in public. It was ridiculous. And I knew it. I knew I wasn’t going to change.”

After more than 10 years of therapy, counseling groups and retreats, Bills had given up. The Journey into Manhood retreat was the last straw. One evening while writing in his journal, like he did every night, his entry turned into a suicide note.

“I started writing and realized I was writing a goodbye to my family. I told them I loved them and that I was better off dead. I couldn’t go on living like this,” Bills said. “It was only a few lines. I opened my laptop and Googled, ‘How to tie a noose.’ I grabbed a rope and went out to the garage. It was a chilly October evening.”

“I don’t remember anything after that,” Bills said. “My mom told me later that she frantically cut me down and called 911. She doesn’t remember much, like what she used to cut me down with or if I was responsive. All she can recall is her tears and terror.”

The suicide attempt was a wake-up call for him. He sought out a new therapist, one that would help him come out to friends and family; he also began volunteering at local non-profits and spent the time he had used for therapy helping others.

Bills met his boyfriend, of nearly a year, while helping out at the animal shelter and the pair now spends all the free time they can with their adopted dogs and pet iguana, Charles.

The JiM retreat was the breaking point for Bills, and although his life was not taken, the false hope that he could somehow change his orientation was too much to handle.

However, Wyler, the founder and facilitator of the retreat denies that his camp could possibly contribute to the depression or suicide of anyone.

“Experiencing same-sex attraction is what caused me to want to commit suicide, not the other way around,” Wyler said.

Wyler admits that his retreat won’t work for everyone, but said there’s no way of knowing whether or not people should attend the camp and whether it will work for them until they try it.

“Homosexuality is not authentic. It is not inborn. It comes from a lack of healthy, emotional masculine connections and we can help change that,” Wyler said. “I know that people can change and I can help facilitate that.”

However, the American Psychological Association disagrees with Wyler and says that reparative therapies like his do not work, and can cause significant harm.

“There has been no scientifically adequate research to show that therapy aimed at changing sexual orientation (sometimes called reparative or conversion therapy) is safe or effective,” the APA said in a press release.

Reparative therapies can cause a false hope and bring about extreme depression, said Jerry Buie, owner and director of Pride Counseling.

“I work a lot with gay and lesbians that have tried those therapies and my observation is that they are more severely and chronically depressed. They’re discouraged and often quite suicidal. The idea that their sexuality needs to change runs so deep, and these programs just reinforce that. Ultimately, it comes down to thinking if my sexual orientation doesn’t change, it’s because of my own lack of effort, which simply isn’t true,” Buie said.

Wyler challenges Buie and the APA and asserts that there is evidence to support his retreat, but the APA won’t accept it.

“They (the APA) have such a high standard for research, it’s almost impossible to meet,” Wyler said. “They require a control group and a reputable organization and continue to disregard research that doesn’t have these things.”

Wyler runs his programs as a non-profit and each participant is required to pay a $650 fee. According to the most recent tax records available that the organization filed in 2007, 2008 and 2009, the income totaled more than $615,000. There are only two paid directors of the program, Wyler and a co-facilitator, Dave Matheson.

“Running these camps and making money off of it is really scary,” Buie said. “There is no evidence showing that they are effective. Reparative therapies thrive because homophobia thrives, no other reason.”

Although the retreat was a more enjoyable experience for Alan Robbins (name has been changed), he said he would like JiM more if the group didn’t say that everyone could be changed.

“For me, it was a better opportunity to realize that I am not the only one that is gay, and although I am not sure where I want to go with my life now, I still value the friendships I made while I was at the conference,” Robbins said. “I didn’t turn straight and I don’t think many people do and I wish they wouldn’t be so unclear about what they mean when they say ‘change.’ For me, it was about changing my attitude.”

“I know people can change, and it is not possible that the Journey into Manhood could contribute to suicide like that. We don’t teach that here,” Wyler said.

Bills disagrees.

“The false hope of changing to straight at the Journey into Manhood conference, the way that Wyler talked and the promises made contributed directly to my decision to take my life,” Bills said. “Thank god it didn’t work. I am so glad they didn’t beat me.”

Religious Influence
Although Todd Hess did not participate in the JiM retreat, he tried other so-called reparative therapy treatments offered through LDS Family Services.

“I went through individual, group and sports therapy sessions off and on for about five or six years,” Hess said. “Yes, sports therapy. They honestly thought we could learn to be straight by playing basketball.”

While putting his education, career and life on hold, Hess fought an unbeatable battle to change his sexuality and be a full practicing member of the Mormon faith.

“For more than five years I did everything I could to turn straight,” Hess said. “Nothing worked for me. No matter how hard I tried or prayed, nothing worked.”

Hess was counseled that if he didn’t change his orientation and marry a woman, he would never reach the highest level of exaltation in the afterlife.

“All my faith was placed in the church so I thought that their counseling had to be inspired. I believed they could talk to god, how could god have lead them astray?” Hess asked.

While the Mormon Church no longer operates the same counseling services, leaders recommend that people that are gay or lesbian seek out private therapists and programs such as Evergreen International. Evergreen is not officially run by the Mormon Church, but the lessons are in line with Mormon doctrine; the conferences are attended by Mormon general authorities and often held in church-owned buildings. Evergreen teaches that sexuality can be altered, which is in stark contrast with the official Mormon statement that gay members should simply remain celibate their entire lives.

When contacted repeatedly about the Mormon Church’s relationship with Evergreen, the press department had no comment.

“I went to all the Evergreen conferences. I paid thousands of dollars to them so they would change me to straight. They say that it’s not condoned by the Mormon Church, but there’s always Mormon leadership at all the events and it’s preposterous to think that the two aren’t connected. My bishop referred me to Evergreen,” Bills said. “It’s their way of staying politically correct with the main church organization while still trying to change people.”

Both Evergreen and Journey into Manhood will be holding conferences in Utah next month.

“If I could tell people that are thinking about going one thing, it would be that they shouldn’t. Don’t give them your money so they can continue to give you false hope that you’ll magically turn straight,” Bills said. “It took me going to the brink and almost taking my life to realize that and I wish people didn’t have to be pushed that far to understand that.”

Seth Bracken

Seth Bracken is the editor of QSaltLake

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  1. 44 years of counseling with Mormon Bishops and Stake Presidents has not changed me either. I was also unsuccessful at changing and attempted suicide 23 times. I and my boyfriend are now happy, in fact more happy than I have ever been before in my 51 years of this life, and this is in spite of being excommunicated for the second time of my life just this year. Heavenly Father loves us just the way we are and I believe that the Lord led me to my present relationship in order to save my life. Be happy with yourself and love yourself too, you deserve it, Love you all Robin Lee Johnson.

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