In July 2011, Michele Bachmann was riding high in her bid for the Republican nomination for president when news broke that a counseling clinic owned by her and her husband Marcus conducted “ex-gay therapy.” Undercover activist John Becker who was with Truth Wins Out, an advocacy group that exposes such therapy as harmful and dangerous, had sat through several sessions at the clinic.
Despite Becker mentioning a history of suicide attempts related to his sexuality, the licensed counselor at the clinic told him he “…think[s] it’s possible to be totally free of [same-sex attraction]. For sure,” and that “It’s happened! It really has happened to people.”
Because, he said, “God designed our eyes to be attracted to the woman’s body, to be attracted to everything, to be attracted to her breasts,” adding that “We’re all heterosexuals, but we have different challenges.” Attraction to the same sex “is there, and it’s real, but at the core value, in terms of how God created us, we’re all heterosexual.”
The Bachmanns tried to dismiss the story. They were, after all, taking federal and state money in their practice, as many “Christian” counseling clinics do. Then, a year later, filmmaker Kristina Lapinski also went undercover and encountered a similar experience:
“She asked if I believed in God, and I answered, ‘yes.’ She pulled out a bible, handed it to me and asked me to read a passage out loud. It was about love, and then she asked me to analyze it with her. We talked about love and commitment, and even though I have never been attracted to my fiancé, the commitment, she noted, was a form of love.
She told me to follow God’s road. ‘The Bible says one man one woman…two great halves come together….’ and then spoke to some extent about a woman’s duty to keep the man company…I found that oddly sexist.
“She talked a lot about submitting to God, giving my life path over to him and letting him direct the way. She told me if I wanted to be happy I could “give my problems to the Lord and he could take them away.”
We ended the session with a prayer and Sheila J. Marker asked the Lord to take away my ‘desire’ and allow me to pursue a relationship with my fiancé.”
The Bachmanns’ clinic is not an outlier. Dozens of Minnesota clinics offer such therapy and they may be conducting such therapy on minors at the request of their parents. That practice, subjecting children under the age of 18 to therapy designed to eliminate attractions to the same-sex or to reinforce gender conformity for transgender children, is the target of legislation at the Minnesota Legislature. Legislators are considering the revocation of licensure for therapists, counselors, psychologists and other professionals who engage in such practices. The Protection from Conversion Therapy Act would also bar clinics from receiving Medicaid payments for practicing conversion therapy.
The environment surrounding sexual orientation and gender identity change efforts is complex. It is mainly conducted by Christian counseling clinics, but that name can be deceiving. Some Christian counseling clinics have licensed staff. But others are “Christian counselors.” They operate as faith-based counselors and because they are faith-based, they exist outside the purview of the state’s licensure process and oversight. They can’t offer mental health diagnoses, but they can offer sexual orientation and gender identity change therapy through the lens of faith counseling. They operate largely on referrals from Minnesota “ex-gay ministries” and other conservative churches.
All four entities, the licensed clinics, unlicensed faith-based counselors, churches and “ex-gay” ministries work together and referral among them is common. People undergoing conversion therapy are often also part of a church program or enrolled in an “ex-gay” ministry.
The unlicensed counselors would not be affected by the proposed legislation, nor would the Christian ministries that claim to cure homosexuality through the power of prayer, according to Can’t Convert Love Minnesota, the main group lobbying for the ban. “The Protection from Conversion Therapy Act will only affect licensed therapists and counselors,” Jacob Thomas, the communications director for CCLMN, told The Column.
The ban is needed, CCLMN says, because such therapy can be harmful to children and adolescents. “Multiple Medical Agencies show that conversion therapy can have very adverse effects on a child’s development and mental health and well-being,” Thomas said. “And they can come into contact with conversion therapy in a variety of ways. The important point is that they are coming into contact with an ineffective, unethical, and potentially harmful practice.”
The American Psychiatric Association’s position on such therapy is that it carries significant risks:
The potential risks of reparative therapy are great, including depression, anxiety and self-destructive behavior, since therapist alignment with societal prejudices against homosexuality may reinforce self-hatred already experienced by the patient.Many patients who have undergone reparative therapy relate that they were inaccurately told that homosexuals are lonely, unhappy individuals who never achieve acceptance or satisfaction. The possibility that the person might achieve happiness and satisfying interpersonal relationships as a gay man or lesbian is not presented, nor are alternative approaches to dealing with the effects of societal stigmatization discussed.
A long list of professional organization have been critical of conversion therapy including: American Academy of Pediatrics, American Counseling Association, American Federation of Teachers, American Medical Association, American Psychiatric Association, American Psychological Association, National Association of School Psychologists, National Association of Social Workers, National Association of Secondary School Principals, and National Education Association.
And though the Minnesota Protection from Conversion Therapy Act would only cover licensed practitioners, professional organizations have long recognized the harm that non-licensed faith-based counseling can do. The American Psychological Association’s resolution against sexual orientation change efforts notes:
The APA uses the term sexual orientation change efforts to describe all means to change sexual orientation (e.g., behavioral techniques, psychoanalytic techniques, medical approaches, religious and spiritual approaches). This includes those efforts by mental health professionals, lay individuals, including religious professionals, religious leaders, social groups, and other lay networks such as self-help groups.
Bans on church-based or ministry-based conversion efforts are unlikely given they are based in religion as opposed to licensed professional services. The United States Constitution guarantees free exercise of religion, no matter how psychologically harmful such practices might be.
In Minnesota, many of the clinics that might provide conversion therapy or change therapy use coded words such as “unwanted same-sex attraction,” “sexual wholeness,” “sexual identity and attraction issues,” “sexual identity confusion,” “unwanted sexual urges,” or “sexuality or gender issues.”
The Column contacted more than two-dozen clinics that listed these words as part of their therapy offerings or were a part of anti-LGBT professional groups such as affiliations with Focus on the Family. None responded to repeated requests for information (This is unfortunate, but not surprising given the heated nature of the issue and the fact that The Column is an LGBT media outlet).
For example, The Spirit of Hope Counseling Center in Minnetonka, a Christian counseling clinic with state-licensed counselors, lists “unwanted same-sex attraction” as a specialty area in its counseling services.
Faithful and True Ministries in Eden Prairie is a Christian counseling service that specializes in sexual addiction. Staff are licensed by the state. The clinic also offers services to “men who are struggling with homosexual attraction.”
“We will work with men who are struggling with homosexual attraction, but, our focus is on the addictive sexual behaviors and not with issues of orientation,” the website says. “As we say, the symptoms or manifestations of sexual struggle may vary, but the underlying spiritual and emotional issues and recovery processes are universal.”
And in the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) section, the clinic says:
5. I’m scared to admit this (and very ashamed), but my situation is different. I don’t act out with women. My sex partners are other men. The pornography I use involves men, not women. Will the participants at the workshop be comfortable with me there?
You are not alone. We find that about 10% of the men who come to our workshops are struggling with same-sex issues. There usually will be other men there who can relate to your story. We have never found that the men react negatively to these kinds of stories. Usually quite the opposite effect happens. We heal faster when we discover that we all need healthy fellowship with other men. We all have more things in common regardless of our sexual histories. We have also found that the Holy Spirit always brings people to our workshops who have stories that can be helpful to each other. We could tell you many stories of homosexual and heterosexual men who have become best friends, in totally healthy ways, at our workshops. – Greg Miller, M.Div., D.Min.
Some are part of Focus on the Family’s National Referral Network of Christian Counselors for help with “homosexual issues” such as Willow Branch Counseling Services, Inc. in Inver Grove Heights, and William Rush at Christian Heart Counseling. Both are licensed by the state of Minnesota.
Others run groups at churches.
“a confidential group for men who are dealing with issues of purity. Struggles may include impure thoughts, pornography, or unwanted sexual behaviors. Join other men in a setting of support and accountability. We use the Pure Desire materials by Dr. Ted Roberts available in the Wooddale Bookstore.”
Pure Desire and “For Men Only” is a curriculum developed by Ted Roberts. In his book, Pure Desire, he notes that homosexuality is an “addictive lifestyle.”
Outpost Ministries, an ex-gay group in Robbinsdale, is currently starting a similar group.
Unlicensed “Christian counseling” clinics such as Agape Christian Counselors in St. Louis Park provide Christian counseling for “Sexual Identity and Attraction issues.” Clinics like Agape present a loophole in the proposed ban on sexual orientation change therapy for minors.
As Agape notes on its website: “There are a lot of ethical hurdles for licensed counselors to provide you with Christian help. Licensed counselors will very rarely, if ever, point you to the truth of God’s Word, because, ethically, they are challenged not to be objective about truth in matters that do not constitute certain crimes.”
In addition to licensed clinics and unlicensed “Christian counseling” clinics, the “ex-gay” ecosystem in Minnesota includes a robust ex-gay activist and church culture. These groups are exclusively ministries that employ group counseling (not in the therapeutic sense) and rely on the (unsubstantiated) healing spirit of Jesus Christ to convert LGBT people into faithful heterosexual and cisgender Christians.
In Minnesota, Outpost Ministries is the largest remaining “ex-gay” group out of half a dozen that have popped up since the 1970s.
Outpost Ministries was founded in 1976. In 2006, Outpost absorbed the smaller Eagles Wings ministry which was founded in 1987 and was based at North Heights Lutheran Church, a nondenominational church with campuses in Roseville and Arden Hills.
(Another ex-gay group, Keys Ministry got its start in the early 1990s and was heavily affiliated with the conservative Lutheran Church Missouri Synod. It started in Rochester, but appears to have moved to Nebraska. It still maintains an Angelfire-style website that hasn’t changed much in the last decade).
Outpost used to be an in-your-face kind of ministry. In the late 1990s, ti bought ads in local newspapers on National Coming Out Day that told readers “there’s freedom from homosexuality”
Spirits, demons, and evil figure into the causes of homosexuality, according to the group. A newsletter in the mid-2000s shed some light on the theological thinking of the ministry:
Modern Day Baalism
We are in the midst of our own cultural discussion about marriage.
Should we allow so-called “gay marriage? is the question of the day. Boil it down to this: when we do what the Baal worshipers did, we are worshiping the same god they worshiped. In other words, our practice of their religion makes us “Baalists.” So, call it what you will, but the practice of Baal worship under any other name is still Baal worship….
Therefore, I call all who claim to be Christians to repent. Stop your sinful sexual practice, confess it as sin and as Baal worship (a personal affront to God), receive forgiveness, become faithful (in every sense of that word) and worship God with your body!
Baal is a demon in some versions of Christian theology especially charismatic pentecostalism, and specifically International House of Prayer (IHOP) movement. Not coincidentally, Outpost Ministries recently launched its own IHOP chapter called the Justice House of Prayer.
The group described itself in a recent newsletter as victims of the culture and of the “Enemy”:
Outpost is one of the very few Christian organizations—a voice crying out in the wilderness, as it were—which is in the business of saying “No!” to these designs of the Enemy. And yes, we’ve paid a price. We’ve been misquoted, maligned and vilified in the press, vandalized, etc., but in the process, we’ve seen many men and women walk a path of humility and healing which results in new hope, restored gender identity, and families where their own kids are learning how to love.
According to past newsletters from the group, Outpost does outreach to those under age 18 through youth groups and high schools. In fact, the ministry has a staff position devoted solely to youth: a Youth and College Age Director.
Outpost may cater mainly to gay and bisexual men, but there’s another such ministry in the Twin Cities catering to lesbian and bisexual women. Heavily affiliated with Brooklyn Park-based Living Word Christian Center (LWCC), Janet Boynes Ministries offers “services and counseling to gays and lesbesians [sic] who want to leave the lifestyle,” according to the group’s most recent tax filing.
The ministry is led by Janet Boynes who says she is an “ex-lesbian” though her story, which is shared through several books she has written, describes the life of a probable bisexual (she had numerous straight and lesbian relationships before finding Jesus). Her history, like many other “former homosexuals,” involves a lot of drugs, violence, and turmoil which is blamed on homosexuality.
Boynes has a staff of three, Alciona Rivera “moved to MN two years ago to work for Janet Boynes Ministries because she believes in what the Ministry stands for.” She also works for LWCC.
Melanie Englund “met Janet at a Pro Family Picnic in 2007. Since that time, her daughter told her she was gay and in a relationship. During some rough periods, Melanie read Janet’s book Called Out, and felt it offered the information she needed to effectively deal with her daughter in love, while maintaining God’s standards as a Christian.”
Tim and Janet Distel run most of the ministry details. Tim was one of the testifiers before the Anoka-Hennepin School Board urging that ex-gay therapy and ministry be included in school services.
The board also lists Barb Anderson, a ubiquitous figure in Minnesota’s LGBT debates. She’s been urging Anoka-Hennepin to include ex-gay therapy for years, helped found the SPLC-certified hate group Parents Action League, is a founding member of the anti-transgender Minnesota Child Protection League, and for decade did education research for the Minnesota Family Council.
Janet Boynes Ministries’ connection to Living Word Christian Center should come as little surprise. LWCC comes from the same branch of Christian theology as Outpost Ministries: charismatic pentecostalism.
The ex-gay movement in Minnesota appears to be exclusively a Christian endeavor, and in particular, one strain of Christianity. Pentecostal and Charismatic Churches make up the bulk of the churches performing or referring to ex-gay activities. The charismatic movement believes in modern-day miracles and that prayer and the laying on of hands can result in healing — including changing one’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
North Heights Lutheran Church has long been an epicenter of the ex-gay movement. The church is part of the Alliance for Renewal Churches, a charismatic branch of Lutheranism.
The Minnesota Family Council, which has long advocated for ex-gay and conversion therapy, was founded as the Berean League at NHLC. The church has hosted two national conferences on ex-gay therapy. In 2000 and 2004, the church hosted the Love Won Out conference by Focus on the Family. Both events drew large protests from the LGBT community.
According to a 2012 newsletter, the church is still involved in trying to change people’s sexual orientation: “As one of the RTF prayer ministers, I think the two most powerful healings I have seen thus far involved two separate homosexual men who received freedom.”
Another member of the Alliance of Renewal Churches is Bridgewood Community Church in Blaine. Bridgewood lists Outpost as one of its “supported missionaries.”
Another Charismatic church, Living Word Christian Center, is heavily affiliated with Janet Boynes Ministries.
Warroad Community Church in Warroad, Minn., is a member of the True Bridge Family of Churches, an movement related to pentecostalism. Warroad donates to Outpost.
The head of Outpost Ministries, Nate Oyloe, is also the worship pastor of the Well Church, a church loosely affiliated with the charismatic International House of Prayer movement.
Northbrook Alliance Church in Brooklyn Center, Minn., is a member of the Christian & Missionary Alliance, a pentecostalist network of churches. Northbrook is also an epicenter for the ex-gay movement. It has been a common site for ex-gay conferences and hosts many of Outpost’s events, including its new House of Prayer.
Sojourn Campus Church has also hosted Outpost events and is part of the Restored Hope Network of ex-gay ministries. Sojourn is an Assemblies of God church which part of the Pentecostal movement.
Bethlehem Baptist Church in downtown Minneapolis has also hosted Outpost events including a “homosexuality seminar.” Churches in the Evangelical Free Church in America, including Bemidji Evangelical Free Church and First Free Church Minneapolis have hosted Outpost events. New Hope Church in New Hope used to run its own ex-gay group called H.O.P.E, and a few years later called Release. It now refers people to Outpost Ministries.
This network of mostly Pentecostal and Charismatic churches (as well as a few Baptist and Evangelical Free churches) came together with Outpost Ministries and a group called Trinity Works last summer to infiltrate Twin Cities Pride. Their mission was to convince members of the LGBT community to leave the “lifestyle” and convert to their brand of conservative Christianity. First Baptist Church in Minneapolis hosted a corn feed along the Pride parade route, and three Pentecostal churches hosted Trinity Works’ trainings: Redeeming Love Church in Maplewood, Way of the Lord Church in Blaine, and Bethel Christian Fellowship in St. Paul.
In part two, The Column will take a look at the experiences of Minnesotans who have undergone conversion therapy or been involved in ex-gay ministry.