For at least the last 40 years, the complex religious web that makes up Minnesota’s conversion therapy and “ex-gay” movement has been working to change the sexual orientation and gender identity of the state’s LGBT community members. For just as long, survivors who have been subject to both conversion therapy and “ex-gay” ministries have shared stories of their experiences. Descriptions from the inside include efforts that were shame-filled and ineffective in most cases to physically and psychologically dangerous in the most extreme cases.
For that reason Can’t Convert Love MN and several lawmakers have introduced legislation to prohibit licensed therapists from attempting to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of people under the age of 18.
Sexual orientation change efforts have been criticized by most mainstream medical, mental health, social work, and LGBT organizations because of the potential harms associated with it. The American Psychological Association attempted to quantify the amount of harm these practices have on people. In 2009, it released a report that concluded:
We found that there was some evidence to indicate that individuals experienced harm from SOCE. Early studies documented iatrogenic effects of aversive forms of SOCE. These negative side effects included loss of sexual feeling, depression, suicidality, and anxiety. High drop rates characterized early aversive treatment studies and may be an indicator that research participants experienced these treatments as harmful. Recent research reports on religious and nonaversive efforts indicate that there are individuals who perceive they have been harmed.
Minnesota has its share of stories of those who underwent either conversion therapy or faith-based change efforts.
Jeff Ford is one person who had been through both. He was once the director of Minnesota’s largest ex-gay ministry, Outpost Ministries, but now speaks out against conversion therapy’s harms.
In the 1980s, he was subjected to “aversion therapy” in which he was jolted with an electric shock while viewing nude pictures of men. He told the Star Tribune in the late 1990s that he was subjected to an exorcism at North Heights Lutheran Church. That church is still heavily involved in the ex-gay movement.
On his website, now defunct, Ford noted that despite being married to a woman and undergoing both therapy and faith-based change efforts, he still had an attraction to men.
Even as a married man and director of an ex-gay ministry, I privately struggled with temptations. Unless you’ve been there, it is hard to explain how you can call yourself ex-gay and still have strong homosexual feelings. The denial is supported and encouraged by all those around you. You are taught that to be “tempted” has nothing to do with orientation. You take on Christ’s identity and can honestly say that, in Christ, I am whole and complete and heterosexual. There is a separating of the “flesh” from the “spirit”. You are almost encouraged to “split” seeing your “old nature” as an illusion. I know now how twisted this is but at the time, it made sense.
In testimony at the Minnesota Legislature during the marriage equality debate in 2011, Ford recounted his experiences.
“For years I proclaimed my own healing from homosexuality and counseled hundreds of gays and lesbians to deny their sexual orientation and to attempt change using reparative therapy,” he said.
He married at age twenty despite being attracted to men.
“I knew that I was strongly attracted to men but I believed that I was sick, that somehow I was broken. As a Christian I believed that God was going to heal me. I believed that if I got married, my attraction and my affection would grow and deepen. Getting married did not heal me. Getting married to Cathy caused incredible pain to a beautiful woman and to our two wonderful kids.”
He had attended Bethel College, a conservative Christian school in Arden Hills, where a psychology professor with a PhD thought he had a cure for homosexuality which included shock therapy:
He referred me to his private practice at the center for christian center for psychological services where he performed 40 sessions of electroshock therapy on me over a period of three months. I was required to have wires attached to my arms and my genitals. While looking at pictures from gay pornographic magazine that he provided, the psychologist administered varying degrees of electric shock. The intensity of these shock increased based on my level of arousal as indicated by the machine on his desk. The electrodes left burn marks on my arms that remained for several hours after the session had ended. I can still recall the pain and humiliation I felt every time I left his office. I was willing to endure this humiliation because I loved my wife and my commitment to my marriage. I wanted very much to be normal. I never chose to be gay. From the age of 12, I began hating myself and hating the deviant feelings I was having.
When the shock therapy failed, Ford went to North Heights Lutheran Church in Roseville where he says Pastor Morris Vaagenes performed an exorcism.
He told me homosexuality was demonic and cast out the demons of homosexuality. He warned me if I ever entertained homosexual thoughts again, seven demons would return where the one had left. I proclaimed, as Pastor Vaagenes instructed me, that I was delivered from homosexuality and set free by the power of Christ. I was loved and paraded around by the ex-gay community. People wanted to hear that I had changed from gay to straight. The belief that gays can change, therefore homosexuality is a choice, today I tell you that any attempt to try to change one’s own or another’s sexual orientation is futile at best and dangerous at worst… As one who is deeply involved in the leadership of ex-gay ministries for many years, I can attest to the unnecessary pain and suffering any form of reparative therapy brings not only to gay and lesbian and bisexual people but to their families. And their loved ones.
Ford ended up falling in love with a man he met at a Homosexuals Anonymous meeting through Outpost Ministries, and has lived as an out gay men for more than two decades.
While Ford’s story provides context about how conversion therapy and the “ex-gay” movement operated 30 years ago, Christian Schizzel’s story describes how conversion therapy is currently practiced.
He worked with Janet Boynes Ministries, was sent to Bachmann and Associates for clinical counseling, and even attended an “ex-gay” camp in Kentucky.
“I’ve been sent to places like Outpost in Minneapolis, Exodus conferences and gone through countless meetings, prayer conferences and demon castings in the attempt to make me straight,” Schizzel told The Column.
“During my 6-plus year stint with Janet Boynes Ministries, I attended Living Word Christian Center,” he said. “I was pressured to give up drinking so that I wouldn’t be tempted to flirt with or go home with a man at a bar so I attended the treatment facilities at Living Word where Janet’s teachings were yet again embedded into me.”
He was also referred to Michele and Marcus Bachmann’s counseling clinics.
“She also had me go to both the Lake Elmo and Burnsville Bachmann clinic locations where I received clinical treatment for my ‘problem.’ I was also pressed to go to a camp to deal with my orientation and ended up at Pure Life Ministries in Kentucky.”
“I was supposed to be there originally for three months but when I got there they said they were keeping me for one year. I only lasted one month in that camp though.”
His experience at Janet Boynes Ministries was one where his worth as a gay man was constantly under attack.
“While being under her [teaching], trying to gain the ex-gay status through her attempts and later on as a member of her board, I was conditioned to believe that any legal or scholastic authority outside her religious interpretations were a pathway to eternal destruction as well as a painful life with constant punishment from God,” he said. “She confirmed the vindictive teachings I was put under as a child which were that I had less worth than a heterosexual if I identified as homosexual. I was taught there was something wrong with my thoughts and I had to be retrained to think like a heterosexual person in order to have equal rights before the belief system as well as the law.”
Schizzel and Janet were part of a documentary by Lisa Ling for the Oprah Winfrey Network called “Pray the Gay Away” in 2011.
In a 2013 followup, Schizzel told Ling that the conversion therapy and prayer did not work, and that he is a gay man.
He came out further in late 2014 in an interview with Eliel Cruz where he recounted the last time he’d seen Boynes.
A: The last time I saw them was at a speaking engagement held at the largest mega church in Minnesota summer of 2013. I went to hear them speak again after I accepted my sexual orientation. I knew it would be hard, but I wanted to hear what they were telling the auditorium full of kids. Janet spotted and pointed me out of the crowd and had me thrown out of the church.
It’s ironic really. Her ministry is all about “love” and “acceptance”; training and preparing Christian parents on how to react and respond “appropriately” if a child questions their orientation. She introduced me to others as her son and even had me on her will. But when I told her I was gay and no longer going to continue in trying to change my sexuality, she told me to delete her contact information and never speak to her again.
Schizzel notes that many of the clinics and ministries he was sent to also had youth, some of whom were under 18. He is very concerned about the harms ex-gay ministries and conversion therapy can have on youth.
“Why do churches feel confident having youth pastors and priests who have no degree or wisdom in human sexuality, anatomy, chemistry or psychology? Why are we leaving these people who are strangers to this topic to dictate our kids on these subjects?” he said. “The psychological effects of being raised in an environment believing something is physically and mentally wrong with you is proven to be extremely damaging, when nothing is wrong with you. That’s totally child abuse.”
The ex gay movement is very awkward; the standard Christian belief is that God loves all equally regardless of social status, but if you’re gay, you have to work extra hard to receive God’s goodness. This doesn’t align with Christianity,” he said. “Here we are celebrating our heterosexual youths’ sexuality, asking if they have girlfriends or boyfriends, a date for the weekend, and so on, yet if a child is thought to be gay, everyone is hushed about them or whispers about what they may be capable of.”
He said much of the drive to change people’s sexual orientation is part of conservative Christianity’s misogyny:
I see a gender hierarchy enforced by “God” used by right wing or ignorant parents against their gay youth. Demands for the gay youth are to recognize their gender specific place within the confines of our society and to strictly adhere to them, usually under much more aggression than the straight youth. It solidifies misogynistic beliefs in young minds by placing males as needing to be dominant over woman in the way the act, communicate and experience their daily activities. Likewise it forces girls to believe they are only to be used in a submissive role, meaning their thoughts and choices aren’t as important as the males, their actions are to be soft, any inclination of them over stepping these boundaries and leading themselves or others can be challenged by their parental or religious authority. These beliefs, although derived from ancient Christianity, don’t align with the main standard which is that God loves all equally regardless of social structure. It also doesn’t go with American law for all humans to have equal rights. It’s a very old, ignorant way of thinking built on a premise that man is more important than woman and it needs to stop.
Dumont Darsey had a similar experience with Minnesota’s ex-gay ministries and conversion therapy. He worked as an intern for Outpost Ministries, and was counseled remotely by telephone by the California-based clinic of Dr. Joseph Nicolosi, one of the foremost proponents of conversion therapy.
Darsey’s role was as intern which meant fundraising and not much else. “It’s weird that they call you an intern because really you just go for the program. Maybe you get a little extra spiritual advisement.”
Darsey noted that though Outpost isn’t licensed, they practiced a form of faith-based counseling. They did, however, refer members to outside licensed therapists. “When I was there, they practiced it very poorly,” he said. “Even if you thought a person should change… they did a bad job of counseling.”
“They don’t like it when people characterize them as ‘pray away the gay,'” he said. “Their idea is that homosexuality is caused by sin and a messed up relationship with God.”
The success rate was marginal. “Occasionally people would leave and be done with it. Sometimes they would come back after a few years. Before I was there there was a situation where [participants] hooked up.”
Darsey said they had strict rules to ensure the “ex-gays” didn’t end up in relationships with each other. “They had implemented stronger rules about not being able to contact each other outside the groups unless you had permission.”
Inside Outpost, Darsey said, “was a very shaming environment, a very judgmental environment.” And it was a conservative political environment in just about every way.
“They would mock things that other people believed, other Christian groups, mock any kind of liberal politics. They hated Obama. They thought global warming was ridiculous saying things like ‘Oh, it’s really cold, what about global warming?'”
The major theme of Outpost Ministries was shame.
“One common theme throughout the prayer and counseling sessions was shame. They would tell you how you felt. They would sometimes say you had to ignore your feelings and trust God. In general, they downplayed the role of emotions.”
“It was extremely frustrating to hear the other guys in prayer sessions talking about their experiences and then the leader would shame them for some reason: ‘You have father issues.’ ‘You need to confess this or that.’ ‘That’s a lie,’ or ‘You need to confess the truth.'”
One group leader at Outpost “was very talented in shaming people.”
“They got a fix off of getting confessions or confessing themselves. One of their big mottos was: confess and renounce. If you are feeling bad about something: confess and renounce. If you are struggling with same-sex attraction: confess and renounce. If you were depressed: confess and renounce.”
Darsey said that much of the theology came from the Pentecostal branch of Christianity and involved some practices mainstream Minnesotans might find odd.
“There was the laying on hands [for healing], annointing people with oil while they prayed with them, that was fairy common. They didn’t really teach about speaking in tongues but a lot of them just did that.”
He said that the healing power of the “holy spirit” was an important part of the ministry.
“They would often pray for the holy spirit to come and heal one of their emotional issue or sin issues. The goal was set you free from spiritual darkness,” he said
The shame taught by Outpost weighed on its participants.
“I learned to recognize shame in people, in their facial expressions or in they way they slumped their shoulders…I battled against them the entire time I was there.”
And though Darsey was undergoing conversion therapy through Nicolosi’s clinic while at Outpost, there was often a contradictory relationship between Outpost and conversion therapy.
“They incorporate a lot of reparative therapy elements in what they do, but they are very contradictory. Their version of therapy or counseling was the right way. Reparative therapy or any other was considered inferior. The only way you could be straight was by letting God heal you by improving your relationship with God.”
The conversion therapy at Nicolosi’s clinic was less about shame, however. “Reparative therapy has the goal of eliminating shame that someone feels,” he said, as well as their same-sex attraction. “Outpost, however, happened to successfully dump lots of shame on the participants. So I would say they were opposite in that sense.”
And the end goal was to have the “formerly homosexual” men achieve holiness, which included marriage to women. “I think that they expected marriage to happen for a lot of people eventually. It may take a long time but most of the participants would eventually get there,” the Outpost leaders hoped.
While the “ex-gay” aspects of the religious counseling did not work for Darsey, he said it wasn’t without some benefit.
“There were some parts that helped me with emotional problems that I had. There was one woman there that, when I had counseling with her, she was nice.”
Darsey left the conversion therapy and Outpost Ministries and isn’t looking back. “Of course I see now that it was a waste of time. I could have done so many other things to address the issues that got addressed.”
Stories like those told by Ford, Schizzel, and Darsey are becoming increasingly common as lawmakers around the country consider sanctions against licensed professionals who practice conversion therapy, just one part of the complex religious web that encompasses the broader “ex-gay” movement.
New Jersey, California, and the District of Columbia have already passed sanctions against licensed professionals who practice conversion therapy on those under age 18, and states like Iowa, Oregon, and Colorado have advanced proposals to do the same.
Minnesota lawmakers have introduced legislative in the House and the Senate that would enact such sanctions, and Can’t Convert Love Minnesota has launched an aggressive campaign to educate the public and elected officials about the dangers about such therapy.
Meanwhile, a tiny but vocal and loose-knit group of “ex-gays” and conservative Christians are attempting to block any of those efforts.
This is part two of a multi-part series on conversion therapy in Minnesota. See part one: “Meet the clinics, churches, and groups behind Minnesota’s ‘ex-gay’ conversion therapy movement.”