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Thou Shalt Fear AIDS
by Trenton Straube
Leaders of the ex-gay movement have long used the threat of HIV/AIDS to recruit people struggling with their sexuality. Likewise, parents of children who might be gay have been scared into sending their kids to ex-gay camps or reparative therapy. But the tragic irony is that the pursuit of “better-health-through-nongayness” leads to far more physical and psychological harm—not to mention elevated risks for HIV.
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Daniel Gonzales can still recall the first two openly gay people he met. One was a guest lecturer in his freshman sex-ed class, in 1994, at a suburban school near Los Angeles. While there to talk about AIDS, the speaker disclosed he was HIV positive.
The second was a neighbor who struggled to reconcile his faith and sexuality. The man attempted suicide by lighting himself on fire.
Gonzales was struggling too. At the time, the devout Baptist teenager was coming to terms with his own sexuality. At church, he learned that AIDS was “God’s punishment for a fallen world,” and he believed that homosexuality was “completely incompatible” with his faith.
He prayed and expected that God would deliver him of his same-sex desires, but the miracle was denied. Finally, after researching “what conservative Christians should believe and do about a gay orientation,” he decided, during his first year in college, to come out. Sort of.
“I am but don’t want to be a homosexual,” he told his family.
Gonzales then chose, on his own accord, to embark on an 18-month ex-gay program.
Like many people, Gonzales had established an unholy trinity of connections: homosexuality, sin and AIDS. In a recent POZ survey, 95 percent of the 1,200 participants said they believe that Americans, in general, consider HIV to be a “gay disease.” In addition, 75 percent of those surveyed think homophobia helps spread AIDS, 92 percent think that American evangelicals contribute to increased homophobia, and 88 percent think ex-gay ministries do the same. By contrast, only 5 percent of those surveyed believe that LGBT people can become straight through religion or conversion therapy, and 9 percent believe that homosexuality is a sin.
Change You Can’t Believe In
Anyone seeking to “leave the homosexual lifestyle” has plenty of options. The ex-gay industry was born in 1976 with the founding of Exodus, an evangelical-based umbrella network of camps, support groups, conferences and the like. Countless other religious leaders and counselors subscribe to its tenets. Some believe that for gay people, every day is a struggle against same-sex attraction, whereas others think they can “pray the gay away” or expel the homosexuality through exorcisms.
Then there’s the more secular option of reparative therapy, such as that espoused by the National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH). Since prayer had failed Gonzales, he opted to begin one-on-one sessions with renowned therapist Joseph Nicolosi, PhD.
Reparative, or conversion, therapy posits that people are gay because they were sexually molested as children or had an abusive or absent parent of the same sex. In other words, a gay man’s masculinity is broken and he’s trying to fix it by attaining other men’s masculinity through sex. Once this underlying brokenness is resolved, the same-sex attraction will dissipate. Effeminate boys and masculine girls are especially targeted, and much of the “therapy” involves enforcing gender stereotypes—boys play sports while girls practice wearing lipstick.
To be sure, not all religious people espouse this belief—in fact, many churches embrace LGBT congregants—but ex-gay practitioners are found among different races, socioeconomic backgrounds and religions. The Mormon version of Exodus is called Evergreen International. The Catholics have Courage, the Jews have JONAH (Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality), and for those attuned to 12-step programs, there’s Homosexuals Anonymous.
Among them all, one common message resonates: That homosexuality is unhealthy, that it comes with certain risks—especially HIV/AIDS.
“They all use HIV as a scare tactic, the ‘destructive, dangerous homosexual lifestyle’ as a recruitment tool,” says Wayne Besen, author of Anything But Straight: Unmasking the Scandals and Lies Behind the Ex-Gay Myth. “If there were a cure tomorrow for HIV, then I think these ministries would have significant trouble surviving, [because] they’d lose their largest fear-based message.”
It’s ironic then, that the ex-gay movement puts everyone—regardless of sexual orientation—at a higher risk of HIV. On the surface, the movement teaches that homosexuality is a choice. But it really pathologizes gay people as threatening the family structure, harboring mental illness, spreading disease and molesting children. And it actively promotes discriminatory laws.
Society responds by denying gay people their civil rights (if it’s a choice, you don’t deserve protections or equality), and by ensuring that schools and federal programs don’t “promote” homosexuality—or basic information about sexual health, including HIV.
All of which fuel the epidemic. It places the LGBT community—and those in ex-gay treatment—in physical and psychological danger. The stigma of being gay can result in low self-esteem, depression, addiction, unsafe sex and other markers of high-risk behavior. Practicing tough love, religious parents reject their gay children and make them more vulnerable to HIV. Meanwhile, ensuing legal restrictions hamper proven HIV education and prevention efforts.
The “Dangers” of Being Gay
The ex-gay movement conflates homosexuality with HIV/AIDS and misleads the public. It presents lies as scientific fact. It twists legitimate research. And it fuels anxiety by emphasizing certain data, such as when NARTH broadcasts the CDC finding that MSM in the United States have AIDS at 50 times the rate of straight men.
This fear mongering is best exemplified in the story of ex-gay Michael Johnston and the “documentary” It’s Not Gay: Former Homosexuals Tell a Story Few Have Heard. It was created in 2000 by the American Family Association (AFA), a Christian right organization. In the film, Bill Curnow, PhD, declares: “Committed same-sex relationships are a myth.”
“There’s no falling in love with a wife. No growing old together. No grandchildren. There’s just a lonely old man,” adds Johnston. “What kind of future is that?” Johnston tested positive for HIV in 1986, and he later developed AIDS. “[Being gay] put me on a path to living with dying,” he says as he walks through a cemetery during the film’s final moments.
The film is littered with alarming statistics—some of which are false or outdated. For example, David Miller, MD, claims that “30 percent of 20-year-old homosexual men will either have HIV or be dead of AIDS by the time they’re 30.”
This misinformation is troubling because of the AFA’s influence. It owns nearly 200 radio stations, and its web sites average 5 million visitors monthly. It’s Not Gay has been shown at thousands of churches according to AFA’s website where it sells for $12, or you can view it for free on Google Video.
Hallelujah! God Healed My HIV
“Today, with God’s abundant grace and His miraculous power to heal, I walk free from the AIDS virus.”
Thus spoke ex-gay Michael Lumberger, a former Exodus board member—one of the rare African-American leaders of the group—and director of Dunamis Ministries in Pittsburgh. Lumberger died unexpectedly in 2004 allegedly of heart problems, but not before his “amazing” (and entirely scientifically unproven) testimony was broadcast to the world.
Though not a dominant message of today’s ex-gay ministry, the healing power of Christ remains a common thread.
A recent example includes ex-gay pastor Matthew Manning, founder of Lighthouse World Evangelism. Manning appeared with Exodus president Alan Chambers in a 2007 episode of Joni, a talk show on Daystar, one of the largest Christian television networks in the world (the network reaches 81 million U.S. homes and more than 200 countries via satellite). Here’s a snippet of the transcript:
Manning: I lived a homosexual life up until about age 19…. One day I had an encounter with Jesus. I began to walk in my Christian life—with HIV though, and then in 1994 had a dramatic healing. I’ve been married for nine years. I have two children…and am totally set free. Set free almost 18 years now. Healed of HIV for 13 years.
Joni: Wow, that’s awesome.
[Close-up on applauding audience members.]
Joni [cont.]: That is an amazing miracle, to hear that someone was healed of HIV.
Chambers: It is amazing.… But God can do anything, and we serve that God.
Amazing, indeed. The website Ex-Gay Watch reported last year that Manning had never proved his HIV status and that he had been arrested numerous times for lewd or sexual conduct. (Manning was acquitted for one charge; another was dismissed; and the third he pleaded no contest.) Manning has since closed his ministry and gone in hiding.
Perhaps Manning had a false positive on his first HIV test. Maybe he’s a longterm nonprogressor. Perhaps he’s like Lumberger, who later acknowledged in an e-mail to Besen that protease inhibitors played a role in his recovery. Could self-delusion and snake-oil salesmanship also play a part in these stories? We’ll probably never know for sure.
We do know that such claims can misinform a large number of people about the epidemic. And since many of the “cured” former homosexuals end up getting married and becoming parents, one can only hope the family members are tested for the virus—using good old-fashioned science.
Suffer the Little Children—and Adults Too
Five years ago, 16-year-old Tennessean Zach Stark blogged that his parents were forcing him to attend Refuge, a conversion therapy camp for teens run by Love in Action. The posts went viral, and the mainstream media discovered a new, youthful angle of the ex-gay story.
“Young people are now being used as ammunition in the evangelical Christian and political right wing’s war against equality for LGBT Americans,” concluded Jason Cianciotto and Sean Cahill, PhD, in a National Gay and Lesbian Task Force 2006 report titled Youth in the Crosshairs: The Third Wave of Ex-Gay Activism.
“Parents are being lied to by ex-gay and religious leaders they trust,” the report stated. “Parents are being told that homosexuality is a mental illness…which can be cured…and that if their sons and daughters are in the ‘homosexual lifestyle’ they are destined to lead short lives characterized by depression, anger, substance abuse and domestically violent relationships.”
Case in point: Joe Stark, Zach’s father, explained to the Christian Broadcasting Network why he forced his son into conversion therapy: “We felt good about Zach coming here [to Refuge]…to let him see for himself the destructive lifestyle, what he has to face in the future…. Statistics say by the age of 30 he could either have AIDS or be dead.”
The fact is that when parents, motivated out of genuine love and concern, reject their children’s sexuality, they place them at higher risk for HIV/AIDS.
This tragic irony was proved in a study published in Pediatrics in late 2008 titled “Family Rejection as a Predictor of Negative Health Outcomes in White and Latino Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Young Adults.” Researcher Caitlin Ryan, PhD, with the Family Acceptance Project at the San Francisco State University, and her colleagues found that youth whose families rejected them for their sexual orientation and gender expression were at higher risk for being unhealthy as young adults.
Specifically, LGB youth who reported high levels of rejection were 8.4 times more likely to report having attempted suicide, 5.9 times more likely to report high levels of depression, 3.4 times more likely to use illegal drugs and 3.4 times more likely to report having unsafe sex—all factors that increase one’s risk for HIV—compared with LGB peers who reported no or low levels of rejection.
As obvious as this may seem, it’s the first study to examine this link and show that rejection, not homosexuality, causes these health risks.
Even a little bit of acceptance can make a difference. For example, youths of moderately rejecting families were 2 times more likely to attempt suicide, while those in highly rejecting families were 8 times more likely.
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