Rev. Rick Warren promises to engage Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama in a dialogue dedicated to "civil discourse and the common good of all" at the Saddleback Civil Forum on Saturday. Will those who advocate for sexual and reproductive justice be included in that "all?"
Now, this Saturday, comes the "Saddleback Civil Forum" at
Saddleback Church, the Southern California megachurch led by the Rev.
Rick Warren. Rev. Warren, who will engage in separate, one-on-one
conversations with Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama, promises a
dialogue dedicated to "civil discourse and the common good of all."
My fear is that, on Saturday, we will once again witness the
politics of exclusion wrapped in the language of faith. Everyone from Newsweekto the New York Times
has played up the story of how religious leaders from different points
on the political spectrum have agreed to put aside the so-called "wedge
issues" — such as sexual health, reproductive rights and marriage
equality — in favor of other moral issues with broader appeal.
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The problem is, while bridges can help us address certain critical
problems, they create barriers for others. In marginalizing issues of
sexual and reproductive justice, they marginalize millions of
Americans, adults and children alike. There is no denying the numbers:
One third of American girls get pregnant before age 20. At least 35
million American women have had abortions. The number of same-sex
households in America is surely much higher than the 600,000 the Census
Bureau officially reports. More than one million children are being
raised in these households.
Sexual and reproductive issues also are directly related to economic
justice. When Saturday’s conversations turn to poverty, will Rev.
Warren, Senator McCain or Senator Obama acknowledge the particular
burden that marriage discrimination, inequitable access to reproductive
health services and the lack of comprehensive sexuality education place
on the poor?
I respectfully request that Rev. Warren consider asking the candidates these questions:
1. Recognizing that rates of unintended births are five times higher
among low-income women, that more than half of the unwanted children in
the U.S. are born into poverty, and that HIV/AIDS infections
disproportionately affect poor communities and people of color, how
will you ensure that all citizens, regardless of income or ethnicity,
have access to affordable sexual and reproductive health services?
2. As more states move toward marriage equality or civil unions for
same-sex couples, what will you do to ensure that the 1,138 federal
benefits that come with marriage (including tax benefits, Social
Security benefits and veterans’ benefits) be made available to all
legally joined couples and their families?
3. Now that a Congressional study
acknowledges that abstinence-only-until marriage programs have no
impact on reducing teen pregnancy, delaying sexual initiation, or
reducing sexually transmitted infections, will you commit to reversing
10 years of failed investment and issuing a commitment to comprehensive
I recognize that Rev. Warren and the Saddleback Church are a big voice in American religion. Yet I can’t help but wonder why CNN,
and the campaigns themselves, have chosen once again to feature a
specifically Evangelical Christian venue to discuss American moral
values. Evangelical Christians speak for little more than a quarter of the people of faith in this country.
America is the most religiously diverse nation in the world; no single
religious voice can possibly represent all traditions.
Millions of progressive religious voters will be paying attention to
the Saddleback Civil Forum on Saturday. Will our concerns get a fair
A mom in South Carolina was shocked to learn that what young people in her state hear about homosexuality in schools is biased, intolerant, and downright homophobic. But her state is not alone: At least eight states have laws that require teachers to present biased information about same-sex relationships.
This summer, the country made great strides in the fight for LGBTQ rights as the U.S. Supreme Court declared state same-sex marriage bans unconstitutional. Yet as the school year started, one mother in South Carolina was shocked to learn that what young people in her state hear about homosexuality in public schools is biased, intolerant, and downright prejudiced. She is now working with advocates to overturn the decades-old law that requires teachers to present this skewed information. But South Carolina is not alone: At least eight states have similar laws.
While we celebrate all the progress we’ve made in securing marriage equality for same-sex couples, we can’t let ourselves believe that the struggle for LGBTQ rights is over or that homophobia is a thing of the past, including in our school systems. Parents and advocates need to take a close look at what children in their states will be learning this year and work both to remove these outdated and unfair laws, and to help their children learn accurate and unbiased information in the meantime.
Such was the case with Marie-Louise Ramsdale, whose daughter attends Wando High School in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. According to the Post and Courier, like other high school students scheduled to receive sexuality education, she brought home a letter at the start of the academic yearfrom a health teacher designed to inform parents of what was going to be taught and let them know that they could “opt out” of the class if they objected to its content. The letter explained:
The program of instruction for this unit may not include discussion of alternate sexual lifestyles from heterosexual relationships including, but not limited to, homosexual relationships except in the context of instruction concerning sexually transmitted infections.
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Ramsdale, who is an attorney, told the Post and Courier: “I’m very concerned about the message it sends to children in the schools who may be gay, not by choice, but by birth. I’m concerned that it promotes homophobia, and I’m equally as concerned that they’re teaching a curriculum that violates the U.S. Constitution,” in the sense that the state is attempting to restrict individuals’ First Amendment rights.
The letter actually quotes the state law regarding sexuality education. South Carolina requires that between ninth and 12th grade, students receive at least 750 minutes of “reproductive health education” and pregnancy prevention education. The law defines this as instruction in human physiology, conception, prenatal care and development, childbirth, and postnatal care. According to the law, however, such education does not include “instruction concerning sexual practices outside marriage or practices unrelated to reproduction, except within the context of the risk of disease. Abstinence and the risks associated with sexual activity outside of marriage must be strongly emphasized.”
When the law was written in 1988, only heterosexual couples could get married—so all abstinence-until-marriage messages would have, by nature, excluded gay or lesbian students and suggested by extension that all same-sex behavior was wrong because those couples could never get married.But the message in South Carolina is worse than just exclusion. By leaving same-sex couples out of discussions of healthy sexual relationships but including them in the discussion on sexually transmitted infections (STIs), young people are essentially being told that gay people are nothing more than disease vectors: a false and dangerous stereotype that arose during the height of the HIV epidemic. This biased message could have a devastating impact on students who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or questioning their orientation, as well as students who are being raised by parents in a same-sex relationship.
Ramsdale has taken her concerns to the State Board of Education. In addition, she has also contacted Colleen Condon, a Mount Pleasant city council member who successfully challenged South Carolina’s same-sex marriage ban as a plaintiff in 2014. Condon agreed the law is troubling, asking the Post and Courier: “Are we trying to encourage young gay teens to believe there is something aberrant about their decisions?”
The two have since been working with the South Carolina Equality Litigation Post-DOMA Task Force, which was formed after the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act. The task force is now launching an investigation into what districts across the state are teaching in the hopes of overturning South Carolina’s law.
Unfortunately, students in South Carolina are not the only ones who will hear such information in school. In Arizona, schools are not required to teach about sexuality at all. If they choose to address it, however, the instruction must be medically accurate but cannot promote a “homosexual lifestyle,” portray “homosexuality as a positive alternative lifestyle,” or “suggest that some methods of sex are safe methods of homosexual sex.”
Of course, this is impossible: A medically accurate course would actually explain that when it comes to HIV transmission, certain behaviors carry more risks than others. Unprotected anal sex, for example, is very risky for the receptive partner; performing oral sex on a woman, by contrast, is less risky. The genders involved do not make a difference.
Alabama’s law is even more inflammatory. It requires sexuality education to “emphasize, in a factual manner and from a public health perspective, that homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public and that homosexual conduct is a criminal offense under the laws of the state.”
This statement is horrifyingly wrong from a number of angles. First, public health experts do not tend to use “acceptable” as a test as to whether something is likely to keep a population safe. Second, there is no difference from a public health perspective between same-sex and opposite-sex couples, as long as everyone takes precautions to prevent STIs and unintended pregnancy. Moreover, though it once might have been unfortunately true that homosexuality was not “accepted” by the general public—and, as these laws demonstrate, pockets of discrimination linger throughout the country—this is thankfully no longer the case. A Gallup poll conducted in May 2015 found that 60 percent of adults thought marriages between individuals of the same sex should be valid and have the same rights as those between opposite-sex couples. And, finally, laws criminalizing homosexual behavior were declared unconstitutional over a decade ago in the 2003 Supreme Court case Lawrence v. Texas.
Policies like these, which propagate fears and damaging stereotypes, are a vital reminder that the struggle for LGBTQ rights and equality did not end with this summer’s Supreme Court decision. Young people—whether they are gay or not—should not be told that homosexuality is unacceptable, dangerous, and illegal. And the effect of these laws extend beyond sex-ed curricula: In fact, the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network’s 2009 National School Climate Survey found that LGBTQ students in states with stigmatizing laws were more likely to hear homophobic remarks from school staff, less likely to report incidents of harassment and assault to school staff, and less likely to report having support from educators.
These classes also represent a tremendous missed opportunity. Ideally, sex-ed classrooms should be a place in which students can learn what sexual orientation is, how individuals come to understand their own sexual orientation, and what we can all do to respect each other’s choices and identities. This kind of critical thinking about sexual orientation is necessary, not just to help those students who are LGBTQ or questioning their sexuality, but to help us all move toward a future free of homophobia and discrimination.
To combat this continuing campaign of misinformation, parents should find out what is being taught in their child’s school and, like Ramsdale, should fight if the curriculum is biased. States and localities have made strides when challenged—the Anoka-Hennepin school district in Minnesota, for example, changed its Sexual Orientation Curriculum Policy after being sued by several students who claimed it fostered an unsafe environment.
In the meantime, while educators’ hands are still tied in certain states and they are forced to provide misinformation, parents should remain invested in the lessons their children are learning. If those lessons are propagating homophobia, it’s up to parents to correct that inaccuracy at home.
TLC defended its special, saying that the views it depicts are strictly those of the participants. What the network didn't say was that many of the show's participants are affiliated with organizations tied to the discredited "ex-gay" movement.
This weekend, TLC brought viewers its newest reality special, My Husband’s Not Gay, which examines the lives of three couples and a bachelor. The four men, all Mormons, have chosen to ignore their same-sex attractions in order to live within the rules of the church. Before the special even aired, critics protested, arguing that the show promoted “dangerous” “ex-gay” ideology that could prove harmful to LGBT viewers, particularly young ones. TLC, meanwhile, maintained that the hour-long show was just a glimpse into individual lifestyles and that the people featured spoke only for themselves. However, the participants’ connections to an organization with a mission to help Mormon men who are attracted to men live heterosexual, or at least asexual, existences calls that argument into question. Having watched the special in its entirety, it seems clear to me that the stars of the My Husband’s Not Gay were using the show as a platform to advance—at least implicitly—a message from a group with ties to the discredited “ex-gay” movement.
The show opens with one couple, Jeff and Tanya, making breakfast in their upscale suburban Salt Lake City kitchen. They have been married for nine years and have one son. In their first on-camera interview, Jeff explains, “One of the unique things about our relationship is that I experience SSA, or same-sex attraction.”
Tanya quickly adds, “Not gay; SSA.” The difference being, of course, that gay people act on those same-sex impulses.
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Jeff continues, “We’re Latter-day Saints, or Mormons, and the only acceptable expression of sexuality and romantic feelings is within a marriage between a man and a woman.”
The next couple to be introduced is Pret and Megan. They explain that they’ve known each other since they were 15. Megan instantly had a crush on him. Pret, meanwhile, explains that he was not attracted to her: “Growing up, I thought for a long time that I was gay. I thought these feelings defined me. I didn’t think I would ever get married. I wanted to.” After what the couple describes as an on-again-off-again romance, he and Megan married eight years ago.
In addition, we meet Curtis and Tera. They have been married for 20 years, but it wasn’t until four years ago that Curtis acknowledged his SSA. And then there’s Tom, a really friendly bachelor who makes a lot of jokes about being gay and thinks he’s ready to get involved in a relationship with a woman. All of the men talk openly about being attracted to men, about being more attracted to men than they are to women, and about their commitment to not acting on these feelings.
I’m sure many people will see this special as sad and say these men are not being true to their identity, or that they are lying to themselves and their wives. Having watched it, I’m not so sure. I do think it’s sad that anyone feels as if they have to choose between their faith and their innate sexual desires—and I can’t say I would have made the same decision as these devoutly religious men. Even so, I can’t fault them for making the choice.
However, I do fault them, and My Husband’s Not Gay’s producers, for the disingenuous nature of the program. Savvy—but certainly not all—viewers know that all reality television is, by its nature, insincere. Producers do not turn cameras on and let life roll. They set up situations that promise awkward exchanges, confrontation, and drama. And this show is no exception.
In this special, we see both a prayer group and a hike to which outsiders who had not heard of SSA were invited, the cameras filming the newcomers’ initial reactions. We watch a game of basketball between the guys and a group of attractive straight men who agreed to be “skins” so we could see the SSA in action. Then there was the brunch with the hot waiter, to whom the men rated their attraction on a “danger scale” from one to four; the shopping trip where the men just happened to run into an acquaintance who had decided to leave the church and be openly gay; and the tense conversation between Jeff and Tanya about whether he should go on an overnight camping trip with the guys.
Even as the structure of the show tried to claim that these men’s heterosexual lives were healthy and happy, these scenes made it evident—at least to me—that battling with their underlying sexual desires is apparently a constant struggle. And in the interview scenes, rather than acknowledge this battle, the men instead talked constantly about SSA, each having an identical explanation of how it was different from being gay. Overall, the participants came off as if they were sticking to pre-determined talking points, mostly about how identity is different from action.
Perhaps that is not surprising, though, considering their affiliations. Jeff never makes this clear in the special, but according to the Salt Lake Tribune, he is the spokesperson for North Star International, an organization that exists to help Mormon men who are attracted to men live within the confines of the church. Jeff also identified himself as North Star’s co-founder in a 2013 op-ed for the New York Post. Though North Star claims not to practice reparative therapy—which is designed to change someone’s orientation to heterosexuality—last year it absorbed the work of Evergreen International, an organization that did, in fact, promote this kind of treatment. Moreover, in his op-ed, Jeff noted having been through the therapy himself, which he refers to as Sexual Orientation Change Efforts (SOCE); he called it a revelation.
The Salt Lake Tribune also reports that Pret was the chairman of Evergreen before North Star absorbed it; he is now on North Star’s board. His wife Megan has worked with both Evergreen and North Star, in addition to a third organization called People Can Change, which, according to its website, exists to “support and guide men who seek to transition away from unwanted homosexuality, by courageously and compassionately sharing our own first-hand experience with change.” And although Curtis and Tera do not have positions at North Star, they have both given testimonials about its effectiveness that appear on the site.
Again, North Star argues that it does not practice reparative therapy outright. But given that the participants of My Husband’s Not Gay seem to be guided by its ideologies, it is vital to consider how its rhetoric is similar to that historically used by proponents of the now-discredited, sometimes dangerous “ex-gay” movement.
Similarities to the “Ex-Gay” Movement
The “ex-gay” movement, which used the aforementioned SOCE to help men “pray away the gay,” essentially began in the mid-1970s, when mainstream psychiatric organizations finally acknowledged that homosexuality was not a mental illness and changed the goal of working with homosexual clients from changing their sexual orientation to helping them live in a society that wasn’t always accepting of them.
A small group of psychiatrists, however, clung to the belief that sexual orientation could be changed and formed a new professional organization called NARTH (the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality) to support colleagues who wanted to continue using SOCE.
In truth, though, most people who have been through reparative therapy have not done so with a licensed therapist. As mainstream mental health professionals moved away from treating homosexuality as a disease that needed a cure, the baton was picked up by religious organization and ministries.
Some organizations offered guided Bible study and prayer sessions; some practiced aversion therapy, in which patients were subjected to electric shocks or other unpleasant sensations if or when they reacted to homoerotic material; and some guided clients toward heterosexual relationships and experiences. Most “ex-gay” ministries, such as the largest one, Exodus International, were created by and for evangelical Christians, but it seems clear that Evergreen International and People for Change played similar roles for Mormon men.
North Star seems to be selling itself as a kinder and gentler version of these reparative therapy practitioners. It does not try to change members’ underlying sexual attraction; instead, its officials say it helps them live in accordance with Mormon rules, which means either being celibate or entering into a heterosexual marriage. The organization’s mission is “to provide a place of community for Latter-day Saints who experience homosexual attraction or gender identity incongruence, as well as their family, friends, and ecclesiastical leaders.” In its values section, it claims that it “takes no official position on the origin or mutability of homosexual attractions or gender identity incongruence but supports all efforts consistent with the gospel that help individuals live in more full harmony with their covenants.”
This seems to leaves a lot of room for SOCE. Even if the organization has moved away from the harsher reparative therapy practices, there’s still an underlying tone of shame throughout its literature that is reminiscent of other “ex-gay” groups’. Though it allows for members to have same-sex attraction, it says that these urges should be resisted and redirected and continues to remind members that homosexual behavior is a serious sin. It suggests that same-sex relationships can provide only temporary comfort, but that sacrificing this for greater righteousness is the path of true happiness. Like People for Change, North Star suggests that being more masculine and spending quality time with other men can help men overcome their same-sex attraction but tells its members not to worry if they still don’t like sports, as many straight men don’t either. More importantly, it frequently mentions change—there is hope, it says, because you can change.
Overall, while North Star might not be supporting reparative therapy in the sense of offering direct services to change one’s sexuality, it is also definitely not saying, “Don’t worry, you’re just fine the way you are.”
Appealing But Dangerous
It is understandable that people who are committed to a faith that doesn’t accept homosexuality would turn to an outside organization for help or comfort. In a 2002 article, psychiatrist Jeff Ford, who both went through and provided reparative therapy as part of an “ex-gay” ministry, likened it to a strict cult: “The followers are sincere and devout; they believe what they are saying with their heart, mind, and soul.” He explains that in the beginning, finding the “ex-gay” ministry gave him hope and a forum for acknowledging what he had been going through all his life: “To move from feeling isolated and alone into a community where others have shared similar life experiences is overwhelming. It’s right up there with falling in love or tasting chocolate for the first time.
Ford’s experience, however, quickly soured as he was subjected to aversion therapy. “The process, in my opinion, was barbaric and abusive. I felt ashamed and embarrassed waiting in the outer office with patients of other therapists. I would try to hide my arm or wear long-sleeved shirts so others wouldn’t see the burn marks as I left,” he wrote. It also didn’t work. Ford fell in love with a man during his therapy.
This is not uncommon. Many leaders of the “ex-gay” movement have since come out—either voluntarily or involuntarily—as having relationships with men. Michael Bussee, who created the first “ex-gay” ministry, EXIT, before helping to found Exodus, acknowledged that he fell in love with a fellow male counselor. Eventually the two men left their wives and married each other. In 2006, Bussee apologized for his role in the movement, saying: “Not one of the hundreds of people we counseled became straight. Instead, many of our clients began to fall apart—sinking deeper into patterns of guilt, anxiety, and self-loathing.”
Similarly, John Smid, the former director of Exodus affiliate Love in Action, told MSNBC host Chris Matthews in 2011 that he is gay and that it actually impossible to change one’s sexual orientation.
In those decades, another blow to the “ex-gay” movement came in the form of a report by the American Psychological Association, released in 2009. A special committee found that therapy grounded in religious beliefs that see homosexuality as sinful “are not based on theories that can be scientifically evaluated.” The task force went on to note, “The results of scientifically valid research indicate that it is unlikely that individuals will be able to reduce same-sex sexual attractions or increase other-sex attractions through SOCE (Sexual Orientation Change Efforts).”
More importantly, the report concluded that SOCE was potentially harmful. The task force said it had concerns about the safety of SOCE and the unintended harms noted by some participants including “loss of sexual feeling, depression, suicidality, and anxiety.”
The Movement Largely Crumbled
After many leaders came out as still gay despite reparative therapy, and others got caught having same-sex affairs, many “ex-gay” organizations shut down. As Rewirereported, Alan Chambers, the president of Exodus International, announced in 2012 that the organization would no longer practice reparative therapy because, as he and other leaders were realizing, it didn’t work. Then, in 2013, the organization closed for good.
And after Evergreen International closed last year, it announced that North Star would take over its mailing lists and some of its other operations. Interestingly, Pret was the one who made the announcement. (The website MormonWiki.com calls the transaction a merger of the two organizations.)
Again, North Star doesn’t explicitly seek to outright reduce same-sex attraction the way SOCE organizations do. Still, as the men of My Husband’s Not Gay assured viewers that they’d accepted their same-sex attraction without actually being gay, the whole special took on an air of propaganda, as though it had been put together by North Star International to breath life into the dying “ex-gay” movement. In fact, six of the participants also have videos on the organization’s site as part of a series called Stories of Hope. The stories they tell there are similar to what we saw on TV but more focused on the role of religion, the immorality of homosexuality, and, again, the possibility of change.
While I respect these couples’ right to live their lives as they see fit, I think it’s unfortunate that TLC gave them this platform. TLC can say what it wants about the opinions being solely those of the participants, but it doesn’t change the fact that by putting a glossy and, in my opinion, insincere version of these men’s lives on display, the network is suggesting that it’s possible for men with same-sex attraction to simply choose not to be gay. The history of the “ex-gay” movement, and the very men who started it, says otherwise.