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Location: Kansas City, Missouri, United States

Doing my part to irritate Republicans, fundamentalists, bigots and other lower life forms.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Zach: In the Jaws of an American Gulag

Sixteen-year-old Zach of Bartlett, Tenn., a suburb of Memphis, could easily pass for one of the squeaky-clean teens on those family-oriented television dramas like "Seventh Heaven" or "Everwood." He doesn't smoke. He'd rather read a book than watch television. After he graduates from White Station High School in 2007 he'd like to study aerospace research. He sings with a youth choral group in Memphis. Like most teenagers, Zach loves music. His favorite group, according to his profile on his blog is The Killers and he professes to love band member Brandon Flowers.

Therein lies the rub. For when Zach says he loves Brandon Flowers, it not like when a teenager claims to love pizza or his CD collection or hanging out with friends. Zach means he loves Brandon Flowers.

Zach is gay.

A while back Zach came out to his parents. They didn't love the fact that he was gay. In fact, they hated it so much that they couldn't see all the things Zach is - good student, smart, friendly, attractive, talented. Instead they focused on one thing that Zach is not: straight.

They decided that Zach should go to one of those "ex-gay" programs designed to show young gays and lesbians the error of their ways and teach them that letting Jesus in their hearts will have them dating the opposite sex and producing grandkids for the doting grandparents in no time.

Suddenly Zach's blog went from the typical teen entries featuring those cutesy surveys of how many MP3s are on your computer hard drive and what kinds of clothes are your favorites to deadly serious posts in which Zach's world falls in around him.

Here is what Zach's blog had to say on May 29:

Somewhat recently, as many of you know, I told my parents I was gay. This didn't go over very well, and it ended with my dad crying, my mom tearing, and me not knowing what I'd done - or what to do. It kind of.. went away for about a week or two I think. They claim it's beause they didn't want to interfere with my last week or two of school. ...

Well today, my mother, father, and I had a very long "talk" in my room where they let me know I am to apply for a fundamentalist christian program for gays. They tell me that there is something psychologically wrong with me, and they "raised me wrong." I'm a big screw up to them, who isn't on the path God wants me to be on. So I'm sitting here in tears, joining the rest of those kids who complain about their parents on blogs - and I can't help it.

I wish I had never told them. I wish I just fought the urge two more years... I had done it for three before then, right? If I could take it all back.. I would, to where I never told my parents things and they always were mad at me-- It's better than them crying and depressed cause they will have no granchildren from me. It's better than them telling me that there's something wrong with me. It's better than them explaining to me that they "raised me wrong."

Zach was wrong about one thing. He's not like "the rest of those kids who complain about their parents on blogs." Most of those kids complain about curfews and being grounded and the fact that "my parents just don't understand!" in their blogs. Few have had to deal with parents who want to eradicate a central part of who they are.

The program Zach's parents chose for him is called Refuge. What a nice, safe, innocuous name. The program is affiliated with Love In Action, International. Refuge is under the direction of the Rev. John Smid. According to the organization's website, Smid's "personal walk with Jesus Christ" drew him to "leave the homosexual lifestyle and its entanglements." Smid has also been quoted as saying, "I would rather you commit suicide than have you leave Love In Action wanting to return to the gay lifestyle."

Now there's some compassionate Christianity!

On June 3 - three days before he was to leave for Refuge - Zach made the following entry on his blog late at night after his parents were in bed:

I'm not sure if I'm even supposed to be on. I ran away for a short while. I came back and they took everything from me, they don't want me to have outside influences-- i dont know how long im going to be on, because if they wake up, i'm screwed. The program starts June 6 and is until either the 17th or the 20th. I'm sorry I don't have time to write back to all of the comments and messages. I'm just here to let everyone know I am still alive, I'm sure you've left messages on my cellphone, they took that.. and my keys... and the computer.. and I've been homebound. -=sigh=- I just need this to be over. Don't worry. I'll get through this.

There are no entries after June 3. Three days later Zach was to enter Refuge. If he didn't run away. If he didn't decide that suicide was the alternative.

When Zach returns - IF he returns - what will he make of the almost 800 messages of support his blog has received? That number is still growing as more people hear about Zach's plight through the internet. Will he know that his friends have staged protests that have been covered by WMC-TV Channel 5 in Memphis or that the Daily Kos blog has featured his story?

It's heartening to see supporters rally around Zach. But what about the hundreds of other young people who are in other such programs right now? What about the thousands who have already been through "ex-gay" programs? What about the ones who will be sent to programs such as Refuge next week or next month or next year?

For lesbian and gay youth, such programs are nothing short than an American gulag. The techniques used to shame them into struggling to try to change their sexual orientation are mental and spiritual abuse.

The bottom line is that "conversion therapy" in which all it takes to change from gay to straight is enough religious zeal and an unwaivering faith in Jesus is bogus. So, too, is conversion therapy's secular counterpart, reparative therapy.

The reality is that sexual orientation is not a choice and such programs have been denounced by the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association (among others) as harmful and dangerous. Yet ex-gay groups continue to claim gays can change their orientation. They claim astonishing success rates for their programs. But what they don't tell you is that their only follow-up with clients consist of phone calls after they complete the program. There is no long-term follow-up. There are no in-depth interviews. The truth is that they don't know how many clients "revert" a year after the program. Or a month. Or even a week.

At the beginning of the 20th century, missionaries and teachers forced young Native Americans to learn English and punished then for speaking their own language. They were forced to abandon their religion, their native dress and their identities to become an approximation of the white Christian folks who had vanquished them and drove them to scattered reservations.

We can look back on that era now and understand that it was genocide. We didn't kill the remaining Native Americans off ... at least not physically. But we killed their spirit and their identities.

A century from now will we look back and see the shame and humiliation heaped on Zach and other gay and lesbian youth as another form of genecide?

I have begun an online petition asking that Congress open investigations into ex-gay ministries and the abuse of young people. The petition makes four demands of Congress:

1. That Congress open investigations into the practices of the so-called "conversion" programs and their secular counterparts, "reparative therapy," that claim to change sexual orientation.

2. That minors, like Zach and countless others compelled to endure such abuse, be given the right not to be forced into these harmful and damaging programs against their will.

3. That stringent supervision of young people in such programs be required by outside agencies and that these agencies be required to conduct follow-up interviews and studies with the young people so that an accurate measurement of such programs' success - or lack thereof - be documented independently of the claims of success rates made by ex-gay groups.

4. That minors who are sent to such programs against their will have the right to sue their parents for emancipation.

I encourage all you who might read this to read the petition and, if you are moved by the plight of Zach and others, to sign it.

(Extensive information on "ex-gay" programs is available here.)