David was distraught: the treatment wasn’t working. He had hoped this time would be different, that this time he would be cured, but even though the outward symptoms were under control he didn’t feel like anything had changed inside. Clearly, he wasn’t getting enough medication – he needed just a little bit more. So David went home after his treatment session, and stuck his fingers into an electrical outlet. As the current ran through his body, he knew – he knew – that soon, once he was no longer a homosexual, he would be loved by Jesus.
Luckily for David, the next thing he did was call Marc Adams. Adams runs a nonprofit called HeartStrong, which assists young gay people struggling through private religious educational institutions. For almost fifteen years, he has offered hope and support to students who receive neither from their schools and families, crisscrossing the country on a shoestring budget to speak in forums, visit schools, and perform outreach.
Some time after meeting Marc, David traveled with the HeartStrong outreach team back to his former university, and to the church where he had attended ex-gay therapy sessions. Only this time, David was leaving HeartStrong outreach materials in the hope that someone still trapped in what Adams calls “the idolatry of acceptance” would find the path to personal acceptance and peace that he himself had found.
I raise the story of David (told to me by Marc Adams at a recent event at Harvard – thanks to Adams for extra details of David’s story) because, while the interfaith goals of State of Formation are worthy, I wonder if there always is common ground between people of differing faith traditions. When faced with stories like David’s, I question if I live in the same moral universe as some religious fundamentalists.
You see, David’s story is not unique, although it is extreme. Participants in so-called “gay conversion therapy” sometimes undergo utterly grotesque “treatments” to “cure” their condition. Youth in the Crosshairs, a report from the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute published in 2005, quotes the following from a 2001 study by Shidlo and Schroeder:
[The therapist would] lead me through different scenarios. Put myself in a nice beach, these men would come down, beautiful homosexual men, with Speedos. I would be attracted to them. As they opened their mouths, feces would come of their mouth, urine dripping out of their eyes and nose. The therapists would then take me to a peaceful place where Jesus would minister to me.
Another respondent describes their own experience with electro-shock therapy:
It was horrible. I was trying to destroy a part of myself. [It was] a form of suicide, of psychic suicide, where I was trying to kill something vital in myself, something natural, powerful, normal, and I was trying to electrocute it. Like I was frying feelings.
Take a moment to read those two statements again. And now recall that the speakers are subjecting themselves to this treatment because they have been convinced, through their religion, that such torture (is there any other way to describe it?) is good for them.
These are, again, extreme examples, and not all therapists who offer “conversion therapy” use such perverse techniques. But the whole enterprise of gay conversion is twisted, inhumane and ethically bankrupt. Increasingly, too, groups like Exodus International (“freedom from homosexuality through the power of Jesus Christ”), Focus on the Family, and the National Association for the Research and Therapy of Homosexuals (NARTH) are targeting young people like David with their programs (see p.2 of the Youth in the Crosshairs report).
When I spoke recently at a rally against anti-gay bullying, in the wake of a batch of highly-publicized suicides of gay youth, I said the following:
We can all agree, if we have kids in our lives that we care about, that we don’t want them to suffer bullying because of their identity. Imagine, if you can stomach it, what it must be like to come back home to see a strange shape swinging from the tree in your back yard, twisting gently in the breeze, the creak of the branch as it bends with weight. And as you get closer, the feeling deep in your gut as you realize what it is, hanging there. Who it is. Who it was.
Because that was Seth Walsh, 13, who hung himself from a tree in his garden. It was Billy Lucas, 15, who hung himself at the home of his grandmother. It was Raymond Chase, who hung himself in his dorm room. And it could have you’re your brother, your sister, your son, your daughter or your friend. All these senseless deaths within the past few weeks, and these are just a few names in a very long list.
I thought I was drawing on a common source of values when I spoke those words. I thought we could all agree that condemning children to misery and self-hatred is wrong. But after hearing David’s story from Marc Adams, I am unsure. You see, David thought what he was doing to himself was the right thing to do. His parents, who presumably consented to the electro-shock “treatment”, thought so too, as did the helpful “therapist”. Midland, Arkansas school board official Clint McCance, who posted the following on Facebook, clearly felt he was doing the right thing, despite his later retraction: “The only way im wearin [purple] for [LGBT Youth who killed themselves] is if they all commit suicide… I like that fags cant procreate. I also enjoy the fact that they often give each other aids and die.”
It would be easy to say that these people did not love their children, did not care for their patients, and had no compassion for their fellow man and woman. But I think instead that they did “love”, they did “care” and they did have “compassion”. It’s just that their frightful fundamentalist religious beliefs twisted these concepts out of all recognition, making them think that doing harm to others, and wishing them dead, was the best way to secure for themselves and those in their care an eternal reward in the afterlife.
When David stuck his fingers in the electrical outlet, when his parents encouraged him to pursue “conversion therapy”, when the “therapist” applied the electrodes and when McCance said “I would disown my kids if they were gay”, they were displaying what counted for them as “love”, in a way entirely consistent with a theology which elevates heavenly reward above any amount of human misery in this life.
That is the danger of religions which promise life after death. When the basis of human empathy has been warped out of all recognition, when feelings of love and compassion have been fried by dogma, there is no common ground: only barren earth, scorched by buzzing electrodes.