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January 13th, 2007

Who Will Save The Kids From Their Saviors?

There is a new movie out that I absolutely cannot fathom ever watching; Alpha Dog.  As I understand it, the film dramatizes the true life kidnapping and murder of a 15 year old boy.  I glanced at a review of it, which gave a few details.  The victim was the brother of an older teen who owed a drug debt.  Murder was not the original intent, only to make the brother pay up.  The kid was taken to a house where he eventually began to enjoy the drugs and the scene and party it up a bit himself, not taking too seriously the situation he was in because his kidnappers were other kids not much older then he was.  He thinks he is making friends with them.

But then the kidnapper talks with his lawyer and realizes the magnitude of the crime he’s committed, and step-by-step, feels backed into a corner where actually killing the kid looks like the only thing he can do.  The review I read remarked on how uneasy you feel watching the whole situation unfold, watching that kid in the company of his kidnappers, enjoying their company, not taking too seriously the situation he’s in, hoping that what what you just know is going to happen won’t   And then it does.  I can’t watch that.  Just thinking about it now as I type this, is stressing me out.  I feel an urgent need to get that kid the hell out of there, by any means necessary.  And I can’t.  It’s too late.  It’s many years too late.  I think about how I was blissfully enjoying my own life, while this fifteen year old was in the company of kids who would eventually murder him and it just stresses me out.  No way am I going to watch that movie.

I raise this because of something Peterson Toscano said on his blog recently.  Peterson was recently made aware of situations inside some of these ex-gay camps for kids, that many of us have been very much afraid of :

On June 26, 2006 I initially left voice messages for Alan Chambers of Exodus International and another national ex-gay leader about inappropriate incidents that affected youth at an Exodus member ministry. I will not go into the details at this time, but I shared three specific situations that happened within the previous year. The shocking details of the third situation compelled me to contact Alan and this other national leader. In my initial messages I said that I would rather discuss this privately, but if they did not wish to talk, then I would initiate a public discussion.

Peterson Toscano, after all he’s been through in his life, is one of the most inwardly calm and decent people I’ve ever met.  His style is not to be confrontational, but to speak to a person’s conscience, to their better nature, and try to work together with them to resolve problems.  He would not be making this matter public if there was any other way.  But Exodus doesn’t seem to want to address the issue.  For half a year, he has been trying to get Exodus to agree to some basic guidelines for protecting the kids in their "programs".  Now it looks like he’s just getting the brush-off.

Peterson worries that some of us may be hoping for a scandal that will finally bring down the ex-gay ministries.

The non-violent work that I do involves attempting to connect with people to create a "win-win" situation if at all possible. Building relationships, shedding assumptions, believing the best in people are all part of my Christian testimony. Joe Brummer outlines some of these non-violent steps in his most recent post. I don’t hate Alan or Exodus. I have used much restraint in hopes of seeing real change.

Some of us who feel we have been wounded by the ex-gay ministries and the anti-gay church may have sometimes wish to do them harm and to think the worse, to malign them the way that we feel they malign the LGBT community. For me Jesus’ teachings is that I should seek to do good and speak out against injustice but not exact revenge.

Perhaps some people would love there to be a major Exodus scandal. I want to see one avoided.

Do I wish them harm?  Here’s what I wish.  In a just society anyone who participated in forcing a gay kid into one of these places would be in jail, along with the other child molesters.  That’s my wish.  But the possibility of a scandal of this nature disturbs me so deeply that I have to step back from this fight periodically, for the sake of my own sanity.  I think that’s why a lot of people hold this fight at arm’s length.  It’s just too emotionally stressfull.  You want to get those kids the hell out of there and you can’t.  The law is against you.  There’s nothing you can do but watch in a kind of growing gut wrenching horror.  Ever since the Memphis protests, ever since I read that Refuge Rule Book Zach Stark posted, I’ve felt like I was watching a situation unfold, watching gay kids being put into camps run by men with no training other then religious dogma, no understanding of human sexuality, and no respect for the sexual nature of these kids, hoping that what what you just know is going to happen won’t   And when it does, I am not going to be happy, I am going to be sick.

Peterson Toscano is one of the most decent people I have ever met.  I hope his way of conflict resolution has the desired effect.  I trust, since he actually knows more about this environment from first-hand experience then I’ll ever know in a lifetime, that he knows what he’s dealing with.  I hope I am wrong: He believes there is a better nature within these people that can be reached.  I think they’re rotten to the core.  I think they’ve taken their conscience around behind the barn and killed it.  I hope I am wrong.  I hope I won’t see happen, what I just know is going to happen.  But I don’t think even a sex abuse scandal will cause these people to reconsider what they are doing to kids.  They’re on a mission from God, and God is never wrong. 

People already know there is a potential for abuse here.  This isn’t rocket science.  And yet nothing is done, and kids are still being shoveled into it.  Perhaps the reason for that is because the people involved in running these places Don’t Care.   Exodus is not about helping people out of homosexuality…it is about fighting against gay civil rights.  It’s about enforcing the pariah status of homosexual people.  That is what Exodus is about.  You may disagree, but that’s the only scenario where this behavior, this practical if not rhetorical indifference to the welfare of the kids in it, Makes.  Any.  Sense. 

You think that any sane parent, even one that was vehemently opposed to homosexuality (I know…I know…  It’s like being vehemently opposed to left-handedness…), would be disturbed to learn that their kids where being tossed into a mix of adults that included men who admitted to being sexual addicts and compulsives.  You’d think that even these parents would be appalled to learn that some of these "former" sexual compulsives were staff members themselves, who could at any time get their kid alone somewhere on campus for a little private counseling.  You’d think.

But then you watch these parents come and go in and out of Exodus "Love Won Out" conferences, you see them taking part in the larger anti-gay political agenda, and you listen to them mouth the same filthy lies about gay people we’ve all heard over and over thousands of times like a mantra of hate, and you realize that…yes…they probably wouldn’t care anyway.  For a lot of these parents, I am convinced, these ex-gay camps aren’t a last resort to changing their kid’s sexual orientation at all.  They’re punishment, pure and simple.  What the religious right likes to call "tough love" and what otherwise decent people call child abuse.  They want the kid to suffer, so they’ll never forget how much their own parents hate them for turning out to be faggots.  Not necessarily suffer actual physical sexual abuse…no.  Of course not.  But the environment they’re being tossed into is primed for just that kind of thing to happen.  It cannot be defused without gutting them of their mission, which is not to cure, but to enable the social and political abuse of these kids, and the adults they will grow into.  You cannot enable the one, without some degree of indifference for the other.  And it is of a piece with the indifference of the religious right to anti-gay violence in general.  Here is Randy Thomas of Exodus, in an ad campaign against hate crime laws:

Of course, yes, many parents, not vehement about homosexuality, are simply terrified into sending their kids into these camps.  They’re afraid for their kids, afraid because of the lies they’ve been taught by the religious right about homosexuals and homosexuality, afraid for their immortal souls.  The last thing in the world these parents want is for their kid to be sexually abused while in one of these things.  They trust in the people who run these camps, being righteous men and women of God.  But the horrible nature of these places is that sexual abuse is in fact, what these places do.  It is what they are meant to do. 

We know instinctively that sexual abuse isn’t simply a matter of the physical act alone.  It is a dagger plunged into their heart of the one who suffers it.  We know this.  And yet, we loose sight of it when it comes to what the ex-gay ministries do.  We think of the child abuser as a monster, acting in pure selfish contempt and greed.  We picture them as evil, vicious, brutal thugs.  But greed has many faces.  Consider for a moment instead, the victim.  What do we often see in the victims of sexual abuse, and in particular, in the kids who have suffered it.  Withdrawal.  Guilt.  Shame.  Alienation.  Self destructiveness.  Guilt.  Shame.  A fear of sex and sexual intimacy that can work against any intimate human relationship they might attempt throughout their lives.  Shame.  Guilt.  Shame.  Shame.  And shame.  And what do we see in gay kids who have been taught to fear and loath their sexuality?  Exactly the same things. 

To methodically teach a gay kid to fear and loath their sexual nature is to do to them essentially what a rapist does to their victims, but without the physical act.  And worse: because the child molester is universally condemned in our society and in human societies all over the world, but the people running these camps are held in high esteem as doing the work of God.  For gay kids who internalize the message these camps do their damnest to put into them, there is no refuge from shame, not even the slightest comfort that what was done to them was a profound and unforgivable crime.  To the contrary, the sense that they were to blame for what happened to them, is brutally re-enforced by the culture around them, particularly if they come from fundamentalist families.

What kind of people do this?  Monsters?  Perhaps.  But not necessarily.  There is hate, and there is greed.  Sometimes they dance together.  Sometimes they dance alone.   Sometimes greed wears a face that seems compassionate and loving, until you realize that it’s the face of a vampire.  There is love that is selfless and giving, and rejoices in the happiness of the beloved.  And there is that greed that is selfish and needy and possessive and wears love like a mask, to hide a bottomless indifference to the damage it does.

Peterson has been trying hard to raise awareness of the potential for something worse then what he’s already discovered happening in these camps, and he’s made little headway judging from his post.  He would greatly disagree with me on this I’m sure, but the problem as I see it is they’d have to care first, and you can’t care about what happens to kids physically without caring about what happens to them spiritually too.  And the problem with that is it raises too many uncomfortable questions.  Questions that call into doubt the very existance of these camps.  Better not to ask them.

This is all of a piece.  Note that none of these places keep any follow-up statistics on their "clients".  As Wayne Besen found out while investigating them for his book, Anything But Straight, they can’t tell you their success rate because they don’t know it themselves.  They don’t know how many of their "clients" stay heterosexual.  They don’t know how the bond between parent and child does after a kid is run through their "program".  They don’t know anything at all about the sexual, let alone the emotional health of their "clients" one, two, three years or more after they’ve been in the "program".  They don’t want to know.  The anecdotal evidence after all, is bad enough.  I’ve heard the stories first-hand, from kids who have lived it.  And the recurring theme through all of it is that none of these places seemed to give a good goddamn what happened to them after they’d gone through their "program".

This isn’t rocket science.  Following up should not only be easy, but for people who are acting out of love for the kids it should be imperative.  They should be critically intent on knowing how well they are doing their job.  Are the kids better for having been though the program, or not?  Are we doing anything wrong?  Could we do better?  Yet, they don’t want to know.   

This blindness to the sexual safety of the kids in their custody is telling, in precisely the same vein.  You need to pay attention to this.  The great crimes against humanity don’t happen because of people who shake their fists at God and hoist the Jolly Roger.  They happen, because of indifference to the humanity of their victims.  Elie Wiesel, who survived the extermination camps of the thousand year Reich, captures it perfectly here:

The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.  The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.

The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.  The claim of the ex-gay camps is that they do what they do to kids out of love.  To that, Peterson Toscano says taking steps to protect young people from abuse while in these camps is not only good business, but shows a genuine love for them.  But there’s the problem.

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