by The Rev. Dr. Nancy Wilson
A trial began this month for the death of a boy who, in 2011, was sent to a South African boot camp where boys were supposed to become men—especially effeminate boys or boys who were thought to be gay. Photos of his emaciated body in the hospital bed look like the body of a Nazi death camp victim.
Fifteen-year-old Raymond Buys was not the first boy to die at this camp. Two others in earlier episodes died at the hands of the camp leaders who are affiliated with white supremacist groups. Camp leaders attributed the previous deaths to heart attacks but autopsies revealed choking in one victim and dehydration, broken bones, and brain hemorrhaging in the other.
Raymond’s roommate from his camp days said that Raymond had been chained to his bed for extended periods and left in his own soil. Tortures included being forced to eat his own feces and camp leaders put a pillowcase over his head and used an electric cattle prod on his fragile body. When he arrived at the hospital he had multiple burns, his bones were broken, and he was starved and dehydrated. He died.
It is for such travesties that The International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHO) was created to be observed each year on May 17.
We would like to think that Raymond’s death was perpetrated by criminals but it was Raymond’s mother who wanted him to man-up. How many mothers and fathers force or “encourage” their children to change their gender expression through such military boot camps or through so-called “ex-gay” or “reparative therapy” programs where debunked psychology is enmeshed with religious bigotry. How many boys are sent off to be “toughened up” without consideration of the persecution they might endure at the hands of enforcers of hyper-masculinity?
Whether pseudo-military, pseudo-psychology, or pseudo-religious, these programs demean, torture and even kill boys and girls—as well as men and women—if they don’t fit gender or heterosexual expectations.
“Poster children” in these pseudo-programs in the United States who claim to have been changed, over time, have come out and admitted they did not change their identity or sexual orientation. Michael Bussee, founder of Exodus, recanted years ago and now spends his life working for equality. Alan Chambers took over the leadership of Exodus and announced that Exodus should let go of their slogan, “Change is Possible!” He realizes that sexual orientation cannot be changed; the best you can do is to decide not to be sexual or to force yourself into a heterosexual marriage. Recently, John Paulk, a one-time Focus on the Family star, and who was once featured on the cover of Newsweek as “ex-gay,” said he was gay and expressed regret for the harm his work had done.
Paulk was photographed in a gay bar. Another “ex-gay” activist, Matt Moore, was caught on the pick-up site, Grindr. Paulk seems to just want to get on with his life but Moore is still saying that he was using Grindr to see who was in the neighborhood. After being caught, Moore sold his computer, locked his phone, ended his blog and said more “seasoned believers” should be in the public eye rather than himself.
Worse scandals reveal the tragic result of these lies. A few years ago, “Dr. Shock,” Aubrey Levin, was arrested in Canada after a career of torturing gay men with electric shock aversion “therapies” in South Africa and then moving to Canada where he continued to torture and exploit vulnerable men. Finally, he was stopped after one of his court-mandated patients secretly recorded a session where Levin sexually abused him. In another public debacle, a Florida newspaper photographed George Alan Rekers a board member of NARTH (North American Reparative Therapy), returning from a vacation with a “rent boy” in tow. He tried to say he was there to carry his luggage.
When secrets, lies and obsessions combine with dogma and vulnerable people, it is a disaster.
Tragically, much of the efforts to convert lesbian and gay people are deeply rooted in misguided religious beliefs. Originally, groups like Exodus and NARTH tried to position themselves as traditional counseling and psychotherapy, but key players like Joseph Nicolosi and Richard A. Cohen were discredited and barred from the highly respected American Counseling Association for ethics violations.
In 2007, the American Psychological Association assigned a Task Force on Appropriate Therapeutic Responses to Sexual Orientation. The Taskforce reviewed more than 80 studies, which were overwhelmingly flawed, and none could prove that sexual orientation could be changed.
In 2012, the researcher highly cited by conservatives, Dr. Robert Spitzer, apologized for his own research in which he interviewed people in the so-called “ex-gay” movement and asked them if they had changed their sexual orientation. Of course, a few claimed to have changed, but there was no proof.
With the veil of psychology in shreds, the only remaining smoke screen is religion. Yet, even the biblical texts used to disparage LGBT people are fading as families headed by same-gender couples are front and center in support of the moral and civic institution of marriage. Across the United States, faith leaders are standing shoulder to shoulder in support of equality. Racial divides have been diminished as President Obama and the NAACP continue to speak out for equality.
In a better world, this would also be a requiem for misguided conversion therapies. However, in a world that allows Raymond Buys to be tortured to death because he was a soft and delicate boy, the travesties continue. Our young people are in the crosshairs of narrow-minded Evangelical Christians who will treat them as collateral damage if they cannot conform to compulsory heterosexuality and gender roles.
Even though nine countries in Europe, several in Latin America, and South Africa have marriage equality, more than 70 countries throughout the world have laws making same-gender love illegal, and in seven countries, being gay is punishable by execution.
What is critical to understand is that conservatives who claim they are acting out of Christian love are exporting these same defamed and debunked conversion “treatments” all around the world as an alternative to prison and execution. These same people are perfectly willing to label gay people as evil and sinful and then are surprised when punitive laws are enforced and people in the street begin to take the law into their own hands and attack and kill people they believe are gay. So-called “ex-gay” programs originating in the United States are the backdrop for much of the expanding international homophobia .
Evangelicals from almost 200 countries gathered in South Africa for the Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization. Leaders of this 2010 conference, the largest evangelical gathering in recent history, included leaders from the Exodus Global Alliance. Exodus presenters claimed there are no more than a few thousand gay people in each African country and these are all products of the West. They intone that being gay is not a greater sin but say no other sin has a movement for acceptance. Another speaker parroted the completely discredited myths about rejection, sexual abuse and distant fathers as “causes” for being gay. She closed with the rejected slogan, “Change Is Possible.”
Whether it is in the United States, South Africa, China, Africa, Latin America, or Eastern Europe, homophobia is still at work, and Evangelicals are still trying to position “ex-gay” ministries as the compassionate choice. It is not! Whether it is the death penalty, prison, shock treatment, laws that silence all discussion of LGBT concerns, or conversion therapy, all of it kills. Whether it kills the spirit, promotes suicide or results in the death penalty, carnage lies in its wake.
Raymond Buys, rest in peace. I will not forget you. I will not forget your broken body. I will stand with all those who mark the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. I will stand shoulder to shoulder with all those who defend our young people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and gender non-conforming. Your journey ended, but your story continues.