Gay Men in Homophobic Countries Turn to Controversial U.S. Groups for Help

When being gay is a crime or a sin, men with same-sex attraction seek out reparative therapy.

(Photo: Peter Cade/Getty Images)

Oct 7, 2014· 11 MIN READ
Nicole Pasulka is a writer and reporter who lives in New York City. She has written for Mother Jones, BuzzFeed, The Believer, and the New York Observer.

By the time Albert was a teenager, he knew he liked the boys at his boarding school much more than the girls. Growing up a devout Catholic in Nigeria, he hadn’t even learned about sex between men and women, and he’d never heard the word “homosexual.”

At 14 he fell hard for another boy in his class. The boy was “the ideal male,” Albert thought—strong and fearless. Albert, who asked that his real name not be used, would try to spend as much time with him as he could. Then, one night after lights out, Albert, his crush, and four or five other boys were talking together in their room. As Albert lay across the other boy’s muscular thighs, his hand crept to his back while the others drifted off to sleep.

Albert liked being physically close to the other boy, but when the thrill subsided, humiliation and shame crept in. Somehow, he knew that this wasn’t like kissing a girl; it “wasn’t the kind of sin you could boast about.”

The next day, Albert couldn’t bear to think about what he had done. He became cold and mean to the other boy.

A cycle of attraction and shame has plagued Albert since that night. As he continued to advance in school, he made promises to himself: Next year, I won’t do this. When I leave secondary school, this will stop. Now 31, Albert is thoughtful and courteous, with a warm, wide smile. He works as a primary care physician in Nigeria and prays that his feelings for other men will go away. He has wanted to die, and he has even asked God to take his life. During secondary school he would “cuddle and smooch and kiss” other boys when the desires overwhelmed him. He was even in love with one of them—a man whom he liked more than physically, whom he could sit with and talk to. But Albert was always in distress.

“I love God, I love the church, so I wanted to be in line with what the church was teaching,” he told me over Skype.

(Photo: Courtesy Amazon.it)

When Albert was 24 and in medical school, he found a flier claiming that God helped U.S. evangelist and gospel singer Donnie McClurkin overcome homosexual feelings. Albert bought a copy of McClurkin’s book, Eternal Victim, Eternal Victor, in which McClurkin talks about how religion cured his homosexual desire (he also said it cured him of leukemia). Finally, Albert had found someone with these feelings. In the back of the book was a list of “resources for homosexuals who want out” that included Web addresses for organizations such as Exodus International—which offered “freedom from homosexuality.” On the Exodus website there were names of therapists who treated men suffering from unwanted same-sex attraction.

Albert wrote to all of the gay reparative therapists listed on the site; he described his situation and asked for help. One in Florida agreed to give him free counseling over Skype.

So began a seven-year odyssey in which an educated, conflicted man has sought to rid himself of a desire for other men. During this time, Albert has become deeply enmeshed in a network of U.S.-based gay reparative therapy organizations, many offering him the chance to share his experiences with similar men around the world.

As gay marriage bans are overruled across the country and LGBT people gain more rights and visibility, support for gay reparative therapy in the United States appears to be waning. In recent years California has banned reparative therapy for minors and Exodus International folded after its leader, Alan Chambers, admitted he still had same-sex attraction and said the organization caused “trauma” to “ex-gay survivors.”

While the remaining groups struggle to stay afloat on the swell of the U.S. gay rights movement, they have become havens for those in countries where local cultures are more restrictive and dangerous. Though facing censorship and growing unpopularity in the United States, the mere existence of gay reparative therapy fuels antigay culture and legislation in the countries clients hail from, critics say.

***

A number of U.S. organizations and groups, some of which are explicitly evangelical Christian, Catholic, or Orthodox Jewish and others that are more subtly religious, support and encourage gay reparative therapy. McClurkin’s book lists NARTH, the National Association for Research and Therapy on Homosexuality, one of the first gay conversion therapy organizations; Journey Into Manhood, a 48-hour-long “emotional healing” retreat that swears participants to secrecy but claims four out of five report a reduction in same-sex attraction; and Parents & Friends of Ex-Gays.

Through Facebook, Albert also found an online community called Joel 2:25, a ministry run out of the Dallas living room of a dry-humored 36-year-old named Jeremy Schwab. Schwab said that from the time he was 16 until he was 31 he believed he was “100 percent homosexual.” But he “never felt completely at peace with it.” After a relationship with another man dissolved five years ago, he entered gay reparative therapy, went to a Journey Into Manhood retreat, and now reports “50 percent less same-sex attraction” than he had 10 years ago. Men from around the world join Joel 2:25’s bimonthly meetings via Skype to openly share their emotions and describe recent struggles with masculinity, family, and desire.

They start each meeting by reciting Joel 2:25: “And I will restore to you the years that the locust hath eaten, the cankerworm, and the caterpillar, and the palmerworm, my great army which I sent among you.”

Albert Skypes into Joel 2:25 meetings but describes himself as a “relational person.” He said he wants to feel, to be out with people—to touch, to hug, to experience. Facebook and Skype weren’t providing enough contact. He applied for a visa to visit the United States and was rejected several times before being allowed to visit last year. Albert said the trip was “the happiest two weeks of my life.” He attended Journey Into Manhood, where he formed a “healing relationship” with an older man at the retreat and spent a week on Schwab’s couch in Dallas. Schwab said that there’s almost always someone sleeping on his couch, and about half the time it’s a guest from overseas.

While the men that Schwab connects with have different backgrounds, they share a dedication to reparative therapy and a basic explanation of their own same-sex attraction: Sexual desire for men is wrong, so if one has these desires, then there must be something wrong. The problem is not something they’ve done, not sin—that’s too reductive. Instead the root causes are less polarizing and more in line with contemporary Western values: trauma and harm.

The men I spoke with, who were born in Ukraine, Croatia, Egypt, Nigeria, and United States, have different backgrounds and stories, but they all believe that their attraction to other men stems from psychological wounds received during childhood; physical, emotional, or sexual abuse; or failure to bond with an emotionally distant same-sex parent. One 26-year-old from Croatia told me that part of the reason he is attracted to men is that when he was a child his father was always yelling at him. On top of that, he is bad at sports and now has “sexualized envy” of athletic men. Albert, on the other hand, attributes his homosexual feelings to the fact that his emotionally unavailable father “didn’t fight for his role in my life. My mom is the de facto head of the family.”

“My mother, unfortunately, is a leader,” said a man who calls himself Pavel and was born in Ukraine but now lives in Poland. Pavel wore a wool hat and aviator sunglasses to disguise his appearance during our Skype chat and told me he attributes his “feminine” tendencies to his father, who “is a really good man, but he always says what Mother says, you know?”

A 26-year-old Muslim named Mohamed, who grew up in Egypt and moved to Dallas last year to study electrical engineering, said that his father was either traveling for work or emotionally absent most of the time. When Mohamed was a teenager his father found out about his same-sex attraction and was so enraged he left the house for several days. At 18, Mohamed dated a German guy in his 30s—they met online—for about a year. Mohamed fights his desires because Islam opposes homosexuality, and he said he sometimes feels ashamed of his feelings, but knows they’re not his fault. A move to the United States had him worried he’d “slip into the gay life.” This is why Mohamed takes part in Joel 2:25 meetings, even though they start with a Christian prayer.

A 22-year-old student at a small Christian college in Missouri told me that while he’s never had sex with or even kissed a man, he watches gay porn because of childhood sexual abuse, and his same-sex attraction is fueled by a desire to form a more positive bond with a strong, masculine figure.

The hope is that by recognizing past traumas and undergoing therapy it will be possible to dampen these desires. Having a way to explain the feelings helps keep them under control.

***

As the gay rights movement in the United States continues to gain recognition and influence, mainstream mental health authorities and researchers largely disagree that being gay is a mental disorder that can or should be cured. In 2009, an American Psychiatric Association task force that published a resolution on sexual orientation change efforts found “insufficient evidence to support the use of psychological interventions to change sexual orientation.”

Opponents of gay reparative therapy say it is based on false assumptions about the origins of homosexual desire and it can be damaging to the patient. There have also been reports of sexual abuse and violence during reparative therapy. In August, the National Center for Lesbian Rights filed a complaint on behalf of a Mississippi man who said a teacher raped him repeatedly while trying to “cure” him of his homosexuality. Even when explicit abuse isn’t present, the APA recommends therapies that affirm same-sex attraction. According to the APA, these attractions are “normal” and represent “positive variations of human sexuality.”

(Photo: William Murphy/Flickr)

The notion that therapy can alter sexual orientation undermines one of the most fundamental tenets of the 21st-century gay rights movement: LGBT people are born this way. Gay people didn’t choose to be gay, so they deserve the same rights as straight people. (There are many who argue gay or lesbian desire is valid regardless of its origin.) But in the developing world some Western organizations are actively spreading the message that therapy can make same-sex attraction go away.

Virulently antigay leaders are listening. Egypt, Iran, Russia, Zambia, Malawi, Nigeria, and Gambia are among the 81 countries with antigay laws. In Nigeria, where Albert lives, anyone who supports an LGBT organization or makes a “public show” of homosexuality can be sentenced to 10 years in prison. The logic behind these laws echoes that of gay reparative therapy advocates: Being gay is against God or religion, it is a choice, and gay attraction is something that can be changed.

Rather than condemning homosexuality outright, many of the men in reparative therapy I spoke with told me that they believe people should have the right to identify as gay. One Croatian man even told a lesbian friend, “If you want my help or advice, ask for it. Whatever you decide, I’m for you.” But the premise of their treatment could have political consequences for the gay rights movement both in the United States and globally.

Though antigay legislation draws on widespread religious and cultural beliefs, some Western evangelicals and advocates for gay reparative therapy have well-documented ties to the leaders responsible for this legislation. These organizations publicly oppose the laws, but they also fuel them—though not always explicitly. “If they claim they cure, a person has to make that choice—to be cured or not,” said Rev. Dr. Kapya Kaoma, a human rights activist and an Anglican priest from Zambia.

Kaoma said it doesn’t matter if gay reparative therapists publicly disagree with the persecution of gay people. Regardless of their stances on the laws, he said, conversion therapy tells African leaders and pastors who already view homosexuality with hostility that sexual attraction can change. Uganda’s 2009 Anti-Homosexuality Act, also known as the “kill the gays" bill, “recognizes the fact that same sex attraction is not an innate and immutable characteristic.” When the law was passed in February of this year, President Museveni said homosexual people “should rehabilitate themselves and society should assist them to do so." The law was overturned in August because it passed in Parliament without the necessary quorum, but Museveni has said he wants to reinstate the bill.

If being gay is seen as a choice, then gay people lose their claim to human rights protections, said Kaoma. “The more prejudice, the more discrimination, the more people are going to seek [reparative therapy] services,” said Wayne Besen, a gay activist and an outspoken critic of reparative therapy. Besen regularly rails against reparative therapy programs, calling them “snake oil” businesses that are “a product of guilt and shame.”

Albert vehemently opposes both bans on reparative therapy and antigay laws. He wants the freedom to have these attractions without fear of persecution in Nigeria and to pursue therapies in the United States that help him get rid of the feelings. “I don’t think that anybody has the right to govern how I think and how I express myself as long as I do not infringe on anybody else’s right,” he said.

***

Christopher Doyle is one of the most outspoken representatives of the ex-gay movement. Doyle is a licensed psychotherapist and the director of the International Healing Foundation, an organization whose previous director had ties to Ugandan leaders advocating for antigay laws. He said he opposes antigay laws but believes that the mainstream gay rights movement should tolerate his identity as a former homosexual rather than fight to ban reparative therapy for minors. In addition to his counseling practice, he is the director of an advocacy organization called Voice for the Voiceless. In this role, he travels around the country testifying against reparative therapy bans, calling them “political propaganda from gay activists.” Doyle has referred to gay rights organizations' criticism of homophobia as “homofascism.”

Doyle was careful to explain that the goal of reparative therapy is not to “change” someone who doesn’t want to. He wouldn't go into detail about what happens during his family therapy sessions because his methods are “intellectual property.” But he insisted that he tells clients who are experiencing unwanted same-sex attraction that “it’s your choice what you're going to do with those feelings.” Though Doyle thinks that many religious leaders misunderstand the therapy and use it in “wounding” ways, he told me that “as a Christian I believe that homosexual behavior and same-sex marriage is not God’s ideal.”

When Doyle and I spoke in the summer of this year, he had just gotten back from working with a family in Mexico whose son had come out as gay. Sometimes Doyle and his clients don’t even speak the same language. He counseled an Asian family and said that while he didn’t understand much of what the family members were saying to one another, he was still able to help them. “All I have to worry about is reading emotion and helping them express their emotions,” Doyle told me, “and they can really go very deep and speak from their heart with each other about what has happened in the past and experience healing.”

Doyle has been married to a woman for more than eight years, and they have three children. Schwab told me he’s been dating women and can imagine getting married someday. The other men I spoke with said they’re not ready for heterosexual relationships—though a few described occasionally feeling attracted to women. Unlike Albert and Mohamed, some said they have never had sexual or romantic contact with another man. They know they’re attracted to men because muscular, athletic, or extremely masculine guys appear in their fantasies.

***

Later in October, Albert will travel to the United States to see Jeremy Schwab and the other men of Joel 2:25 again. He longs to be in the United States permanently. “I’m going back to my country,” he jokes to his friends in Nigeria about the upcoming trip. He feels he’s healing from his same-sex attraction, but when I asked him if he dates women, he said he’s not there yet. “My priority now is to move to the U.S.,” he said.

Though Mohamed can report having had three crushes on women, if he’s struggling, feeling depressed, or stressed, the attraction to men creeps back. “If it wasn’t wrong religious-wise, even though it was frowned upon or was as illegal as it was back home, I wouldn’t care. I would accept the attraction,” Mohamed said over Skype.

As Mohamed sees it, his choices aren’t great: either live the gay life and deal with discrimination and the lack of rights or walk the “long road of reparative therapy.” He took a deep breath and rubbed his face with his hands. He still doesn’t know which direction he’s moving in. “Sometimes I feel like I’m gonna at least decrease my attractions. Other times I think, I will go ahead and get a boyfriend or something like that.” Living in the United States, Mohamed is torn between the ex-gays lobbying for the right to seek out and provide these therapies and the proud gays who battle with governments that want them jailed, cured, or killed. Mohamed paused and looked away. “I’ll figure it out someday.”

Other men I talked to believe that lots of people want to change, but are afraid to admit it because the U.S. media and the mainstream gay rights movement has made coming out look cool.

“There are many people who are born and raised in the U.S. [who],” Albert said, “if given the opportunity, would choose not to act on their same-sex attraction.”

This past weekend, those who Albert thinks “genuinely need the freewill to choose another option” convened in Washington, D.C., for the second annual Parents & Friends of Gays and Ex-Gays conference to “celebrate the lives of individuals who have left the homosexual lifestyle.” About 80 people registered for the conference. Doyle was the master of ceremonies, and onetime presidential candidate Alan Keyes, who has likened homosexuality to bestiality even though his daughter is a lesbian, gave the keynote address.