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 Rewire reported, 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.