BY Dawn Wolfe Gutterman
MEMPHIS – For two to six weeks, the only family member with whom you’re allowed contact is the one you are staying with in an approved hotel nearby – and for the first few days, you aren’t even allowed to speak, or communicate in any way, with him or her. You aren’t allowed the privacy of closed doors, except for fifteen minutes each day to shower. You are forbidden to have contact with your friends, outside news sources, or any music that isn’t specifically Christian. You are also forbidden from using a computer, or doing any journaling at all except for the “Moral Inventories” that are required by the people who are “counseling” you.
Welcome to Refuge, a program in Memphis, Tennessee that claims to help young people “find true freedom from addictions [including homosexuality] through the power of Jesus Christ,” according to the organization’s web site. In addition to homosexuality, Refuge, a “daughter program” of ex-gay ministry Love In Action, claims to help clients “find true freedom” from pornography, drugs and alcohol, and sexual promiscuity.
Refuge operates an “outpatient” program for youths aged 13-18. Refuge doesn’t provide housing, but rather has “patients” stay with an adult family member at nearby hotels for the duration of their stay with the program, for which the organization charges families between $1,500 and $4,000.
Officials from Tennessee’s Department of Child Services weren’t impressed. According to the DCS, the agency received a complaint about abuse at the facility. The complaint was screened and enough substance was found to open an investigation, state officials said. However, the Washington Blade reported on June 27 that the DCS had closed the investigation.
The Blade report quoted agency spokesman Rob Johnson as saying that, after a full investigation, DCS had “determined that the child abuse allegations were unfounded.”
Regardless of the state of Tennessee’s view about whether or not Refuge is abusive, at least one would-be patient, a gay teen named Zack, doesn’t want to be there.
After coming out to his parents, Zack, who says he is sixteen, said he was told by them that he would be applying and going to the camp. On May 30 Zack posted the camp’s rules, which he claimed he found in his parents’ email. Both revelations appeared on Zack’s weblog.
Zack’s original post about being forced to go to Refuge, along with the rules he posted, lit up the blogosphere. Now, in addition to the online whirlwind, a new group has formed to protest the existence of Refuge and other organizations that seek to indoctrinate youths against their sexual orientation. Zack’s blog entries also possibly sparked the state investigation into Refuge.
The Queer Action Coalition is a roughly two-week-old group that formed because “we were outraged that this sort of camp existed, and that youth were being held against their will,” said Queer Action Coalition Steering Committee member Alex Polotsky. The coalition began protesting outside of Refuge on June 6 and continued daily protests through June 17.
During a June 14 interview, Polotsky said that the protest had been drawing from 20 to 45 people per day.
“What’s beautiful about the group that comes out to protest is that they’re mostly youth of the same age as the people inside the camp,” said Polotsky, a 22 year-old man who identifi es as queer. “Not all of them are gay – the majority are straight. They’re people who are outraged that this happened,” he added.
“This isn’t just a gay issue, because none of us are straight enough for these people,” Polotsky said. “My little sister isn’t straight enough because she plays sports. Their definitions of what an acceptable straight person is are so narrow that nobody could possibly live in them.” Among the camp rules that Zack posted on May 30 are a dress code that prohibits “mannish/boyish attire” for women and “excessive jewelry” for men.
There is no doubt that Refuge is adamantly anti-gay. A 1994 article in We The People, an LGBT paper out of Sonoma County, California, interviewed Tom Ottosen, then 24, an ex-Love in Action group member. Ottosen quoted John Smid, who is now the executive director of the Refuge program in Memphis, as saying, “I would rather you commit suicide than have you leave Love In Action wanting to return to the gay lifestyle.”
Cass Varner, youth coordinator for Affirmations Lesbian and Gay Community Center in Ferndale, was appalled when told about Refuge.
“I think this is completely filthy,” she said. “I think that it’s preposterous to think you can force someone into a lifestyle or an orientation that they aren’t.”
“It’s really a disgrace that people are doing this, and they’re really harming young people by doing it,” said Grace McClelland, executive director of the Ruth Ellis Center in Detroit.
“They’re (the Refuge staff) going to do this young person (Zack) more harm than good,” she said. “They cannot change him. He’s born who he is, and nothing anyone is going to do is going to change that. His choice is either to abstain from sexual relationships with anyone or to live his life as he knows it should be.”
“If that kind of a camp were operating here, in Michigan, we would call on the prosecutor and the county that it was operating in to investigate it for child abuse charges,” said Triangle Foundation Executive Director Jeff Montgomery.
The Queer Action Coalition agrees. Among the organization’s future plans is a speaker’s bureau and working with state legislators “to make these sorts of camps illegal,” Polotsky said.
“The goal of Queer Action Coalition is to make sure that nobody needs to feel ashamed – gay or straight,” he added.
No major professional organization of psychologists or psychiatrists endorses attempts to “cure” people of homosexuality. According to the American Psychological Association ‘s website, “The American Psychological Association is concerned about such therapies and their potential harm to patients….Any person who enters into therapy to deal with issues of sexual orientation has a right to expect that such therapy would take place in a professionally neutral environment absent of any social bias.”
On its website, the American Psychiatric Association says that reparative or conversion therapies “are at odds with the scientific position of the American Psychiatric Association which has maintained, since 1973, that homosexuality per se, is not a mental disorder.”
According to the American Psychiatric Association’s web site, reparative or conversion therapies have been opposed or criticized by organizations including the “American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, The American Counseling Association, and the National Association of Social Workers.”
Additional reporting by The Associated Press
Resources for ex-‘ex-gays’
For those who are tired of fighting who they are and are ready to embrace their gay, lesbian, or bisexual orientation, as well as those who have been harmed by the ex-gay movement, the following resources may be of service to you:
In 2003, Besen published “Anything but Straight: Unmasking the Scandals and Lies Behind the Ex-Gay Myth.” He is a former spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign and is currently a speaker and pro-LGBT activist. For more information, including links to pro-gay Web sites, visit http://www.waynebesen.com.
And, of course, here in Michigan there is a host of agencies, support and social groups that will welcome you just the way you are. For more information, search the calendar listings and Community Connections sections of this website.