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Orientation Express

Is Evergreen’s reparative therapy program a ticket to Straightville?




The metal chair was aggravating me. I squirmed in my hard seat but tried to look comfortable. I scanned this group of men seated beside me in a circle. I felt uneasy but tried to be engaging. I wasn’t sure if I belonged here.

This was a support group for people who wanted to change their sexual orientation from gay to straight, or at least, to somewhere in between. The group was called Evergreen, which I thought was odd. Evergreens never change.

Officially, the literature stated that this group was only for support. No guarantee on miracles. But these men wanted to believe in miracles.

I was a college student at BYU and was making the rounds on the reparative therapy circuit. Reparative therapy was one of the monikers for altering one’s sexual orientation from devilish deviancy to divine intercourse. Naturally, there was a religious angle to these groups.

As a card-carrying gay and a temple-recommend-carrying church member, I realized I was holding a bad hand. I came to Evergreen, searching for the promise that a new game was in town. I went to the group to reinforce my faltering faith, and on one level, I hoped to turn straight. But I had my doubts.

On another level, I felt isolated at BYU and wanted to meet other gay men. I didn’t know what to expect—maybe there were social reasons, maybe I was looking for men who were in the same dilemma I was in. Though my reasons seemed at odds with each other, it didn’t feel any more hypocritical than being gay and Mormon. Perhaps Evergreen could change my folding hand into a straight flush.

I had recently returned from my Mormon mission to Sweden. My mission president, a round, fire-and-brimstone Mormon from my hometown in Atlanta, took me aside one day for a coming-to-Jesus chat.

“Your mother is crying day and night since you told her about it,” he said, enunciating the word “it.” “Do you want to make her cry?”

Fortunately, my mission had prepared me for this tactic. I had listened to a series of tapes called “Power Negotiating,” which had circulated around the mission. My president was appealing to my guilt over disappointing my parents. That was Tactic 23 on the tapes.

When that didn’t work, he said, “You know Ben, you’re not like those other gays. You’re special. You’re too good to be one of those people,” he said, enunciating “those.” Tactic 17: Appeal to their pride.

If I was “special,” why had he sent me to the northern edges of Sweden, where I spent part of winter in total 24/7 darkness? I wanted to ask him that but just listened. When he saw that I was unyielding, he gave up.

Some conservative churches were still hoping God would either destroy gays, or convert them to something more acceptable. Since neither wish had materialized, they started forming theology-based support groups for gays. Simply making gays more masculine or feminine, in accordance with their sex—a kind of makeover—would be a start. This was part of Evergreen’s pitch.

Reparative therapy sprung from the notion that heterosexuality is like a flower blooming in the sunshine. Then a nasty rock, called homosexual tendency, is placed on this joyful tulip, crushing it. But plants are resilient, and the blossom grows around the rock to reach the sunshine again. Unfortunately, the flower is now crooked and not straight, literally and sexually.

Someone in the Evergreen support group shared that metaphor with me. He was an older gentleman with a perma-grin on his face. Every question I had was answered with a smile. It could have been creepy, but since I didn’t really know anyone else, I found it a little reassuring.

“I want to read you a Scripture and then tell you how it helped me this week,” the leader of the group said to everyone. It was a very Mormon meeting, in spite of the fact that we were a bunch of homos wondering how we got here.

I was drifting away from the leader’s testimonial and wondering about the back-stories of the people seated around me. Perma-grin was a big queen in a ’50s sort of way. He was dressed like Frank Sinatra. He wore an expensive sports coat, pressed white shirt, dark pants and a hat. Flashy but tasteful. Modern effeminates tended to be flashier. He spoke with much bravado, yet giggled a lot. He was the only one in the group that seemed to be having a good time.

I concluded he must be a 10th-generation Mormon, perhaps grew up in Price and just loved his heritage to some pioneer—maybe it was Brigham Young? I theorized that he dabbled in homosexuality here and there but was tightly connected to his community and family. He seemed like the type of guy who invited the missionaries over regularly, played the church organ, and had one gay porn magazine stuffed secretly under his mattress.

He whispered little explanations into my ear. This was only my second meeting, so I guess he assumed I wasn’t up on my Evergreenisms. When the leader said, “same-sex attraction,” he confided in me, “That means gay. We don’t use the term gay, because we are really straight inside, like in a seed.”

“Yeah, the flower,” I interjected proudly.

“The flower, yes,” he smiled and giggled while tapping my shoulder.

The leader, Scott, said something that caught my attention. He quoted some LDS official who said that we must put away childish things and become men. Instinctively, I interrupted him. “But don’t the Scriptures say we should be as little children?”

Across the circle, Timothy, a 20-something cute blond guy, laughed. His hilarity and gestures were sultry and alluring. He struck me as a waiter, which turned out to be true. When he spoke about his convictions of the gospel, he seemed sincere. But I wondered if he had batted at the plate one too many times, was now facing two strikes and had suddenly decided to switch batting arms. Just in case the Mormon Church was true after all, perhaps he wanted the umpire on his side. I learned later that he was HIV positive.

Scott gave me a “you know what I mean” look. He was a pragmatic 30-something paper pusher who had a wife and three little ones at home. He seemed like someone who would willingly work two jobs, carry any burden, if that’s what his family needed. No doubt, this group helped him focus on what he deemed important in his life—church, children and chastity. He believed in the simple truths about life, so my play on words kind of annoyed him. His personality was very direct and genuine.

Three older men sat kitty-corner together. They looked angry. Through bits of conversation, I gathered they had gotten married back when being gay meant being merry. In those days, church leaders taught that marriage would annul abnormal desires. Each of them raised several children, cheated on his wife, got divorced and was excommunicated from the Mormon Church. (Evergreen allows both the excommunicated and church members to attend support meetings.) Now, they were just trying to pick up the pieces on the tail end of their lives. They were definitely feeling bitter.

Two others seemed like Scott, just your average, unassuming males. They were married, too, and trying to keep it that way. I heard that some of their wives met together to discuss their own trials. I imagined what those meetings must be like. “So, Catherine, did you try the cookies I baked? Oh, by the way, how do you know when your husband’s faking it?”

Two other 20-something BYU students were also there. They were attractive, trying to be engaging, and squirming in their seats like me. I’m a little ashamed to admit it, but I made out with one of them after my fourth meeting. I think I did it for the irony.

I played a few basketball games with the group, a masculine activity designed to build appropriate male bonds. No ass-slapping allowed. I was one of the best players on the team. My athletic prowess was misleading though, because as a teenager I once shot at the wrong basket in an intramural game. Since then, my skills hadn’t improved. The bar was lower here, but still I felt like I was going through that teenage “I have to prove I’m a man” phase.

Evergreen took root in Utah in July 1989. It was grafted from a Christian-based group called Exodus and pruned to fit Mormon theology. Not officially sanctioned by the LDS Church, it nevertheless enjoys the church’s unspoken blessing. The group sometimes meets in LDS buildings, refers clients to LDS Social Services and therapists, and invites church leaders to conferences.

The organization exists solely on financial donations and provides its services for free. Potential members are screened and must agree to confidentiality policies. Evergreen acts primarily as a resource on same-sex attraction issues and gives direction for support groups worldwide.

Essentially Evergreen, like its counterparts in other denominations, teaches that parents have been poor role models for their gay children. Pre-gay boys haven’t bonded well with their fathers. Consequently, they have sexualized their dysfunctional parental relationships and currently act out with other men.

At Evergreen, one is taught that both men and women may develop same-sex attractions after being abused by men, but for opposite reasons. Men are drawn to sexual activities with men after being sexually abused by them, while women are repulsed by sexual activities with men after being abused by them. Gay men search in vain for the love that daddy never gave them. Some boys even become more feminine to attract other men, the story goes. Girls may have been sexually or physically abused by men and detached from their mothers. They too have sexualized those dysfunctions into liaisons with other women. The resulting dissatisfaction and shame are the same for both sexes.

Personally, I’ve never been abused. But my relationship with both parents has always been skittish. I guess that means I could become bisexual, or perhaps asexual.

The Evergreen remedy, naturally, is non-sexual relationships with same-sex friends, strict adherence to LDS principles, and role-playing as stereotypical males and females. In addition, some members of the group seek professional secular counseling.

On the surface, the group was very upbeat. Prophets and leaders were quoted as cheerleaders for the road to recovery from homosexual sin. Scott even played a song by the group Boston called “To Be a Man.”

Some lyrics were, “What does it take to be a man? What does it take to see it’s a heart and soul, a gentle hand? It’s not what you are, it’s what you can feel.” It was sentimental, not very macho. I bought the CD. What can I say? It struck a chord with my gay sensibilities.

Underneath the Scriptures and songs, however, I found the group rather depressing. The only person that claimed to have turned straight was Mr. Perma-grin, yet he was the biggest flamer in the group. So much for stereotypes, I guess.

Of course, the group never claimed anyone would change. Their mission was to reinforce LDS principles. In all fairness, several guys said they were changing in stages.

I admired anyone willing to control his behavior for a higher cause. Self-sacrifice was always a virtue I aspired to. Call it a martyrdom complex, but the sacrifices of Jesus, Joseph Smith and even gay icons like Oscar Wilde and Alan Turing (he who broke the Nazi Enigma code) embodied the idea of overcoming fear in favor of being true to oneself.

Maybe I was prideful, but I interpreted the Evergreen way as accepting oneself as damaged goods, rather than transcending base desires for some greater personal insight.

After attending the support group regularly for a few months, the rhetoric began to ring hollow, and my attendance dropped off. Was being gay caused by some unnatural, external force? Or was it simply part of my nature? I cast a vote in favor of my nature. I thought to myself, when someone can explain exactly why they’re straight, then I’ll give them a clear explanation as to why I’m gay. My parents were devastated, but I had to be my own man.

I believed that my greatest virtue, my ability to love another man, was not my greatest vice after all. As a young man looking hopefully down the long road of my future, I saw this group as a yoke, not as a guide. I came to the conclusion that I couldn’t be gay and Mormon at the same time, and decided to leave the church.

On The Road Again

Now, 12 years later, I returned to Evergreen for an interview with its executive director, David C. Pruden. His card said “Certified Family Life Educator.” As we chatted about the support group, I found the flower metaphor still in use. Homosexuality is still viewed as an aberration from holy heterosexuality.

But a few protocols had changed. The emphasis on upbringing is less pronounced, which is probably a relief for those parents who stayed up nights wondering where they went wrong.

The LDS Church, which ignored homosexuality until the 1950s, seemed to have downgraded its judgment of gays a little. At one time, gays were in open rebellion against God. Now, they were confused sheep in search of a Good Shepherd.

While the church stands firm against the practice of homosexuality, it now takes pains to distinguish between “tendencies” and “acts.” In a 1995 article for Ensign, the official organ of LDS Church doctrine, Apostle Dallin H. Oaks came out against gay bashing and asked for love and understanding toward people with “same-sex attractions.”

That’s at least a baby step from past statements by church leaders, who used to rail against gays as conclusively abominable. The title of Oaks’ article, “Same-gender Attraction,” sounds much more conciliatory than the chapter title “Crime against nature,” from the late Prophet Spencer W. Kimball’s 1969 book, Miracle of Forgiveness.

They still are queasy about using the g-word, though. Pruden explained that the word is too political and too definitive.

A little to my surprise, this balding man with a warm smile was much more laid back than other Evergreen leaders in my past. I asked him if he thought two gays could truly love each other. “Sure,” he said. “Who am I to say otherwise?” But he added that if they believed in LDS doctrine, there was really only one choice: chastity outside of heterosexual marriage.

He complained about pigheadedness in the church hierarchy but said that attitudes were changing from fear to understanding. General Authorities regularly spoke at Evergreen conferences and were, theoretically, teaching other leaders that Evergreen groups were not a colony of lepers. Recently, the church did not oppose hate-crimes legislation that included sexual orientation with other protected classes.

He said Evergreen members were sympathetic to gays in the wider world. “You won’t see us picketing outside gay bars or at gay pride. We don’t want to force them to do anything,” he said. “We are here for those that want what we can offer.”

“Do you think people with same-sex attraction can turn straight?” I asked. Pruden pressed his lips together hard, then offered a general answer. “If you look at clinical studies, one- to two-thirds of people can change their orientation to some degree, but that’s not what we promise,” he said.

I thought he might show me a study or two, but he instead referred me to a Website. I didn’t think he was being evasive. He was just not interested in Bible bashing over studies.

Most reparative therapy studies have been criticized for being one-sided. The American Psychological Association issued a statement recently stating that “there is no published evidence regarding the efficacy of ‘reparative therapy.’” It also said that homosexuality is not an illness, implying that there was no need for a cure, and cautioning against lofty expectations.

But those expectations are hard to suppress when the promise of Eternal Life is at stake. A local study of Evergreen-type groups revealed that a chief complaint of participants was unrealistic personal expectations about changing their sexual orientation. Lee Beckstead, a Ph.D. in psychology with Aspen Grove Counseling and author of the study, stated that for some people, Evergreen creates more anguish than sense of well-being.

Beckstead created his own support group for those who are disappointed with the Evergreen model. His group affirms homosexuality as a breed of flower all its own.

Essentially, Beckstead helps gays, who joined Evergreen to become ex-gays, to be gay again.

Pruden maintains that Evergreen’s approach is effective, but not therapy. If they desire, members can get referrals to professional therapists through the group.

He compared his organization’s methods to other like-minded churches. Jews and Mormons tend towards group support, spiritual guidance and professional counseling. Catholics encourage gays toward celibacy. Evangelicals are the most extreme, claims Pruden, offering dramatic spiritual conversions.

Contrary to Pruden’s live-and-let-live demeanor, there was a bit of rancor in one of the Evergreen brochures. “Society is being bombarded by information that supports the ‘gay rights’ position that individuals are born homosexual. This is Satan’s propaganda to discourage strugglers from seeking help to overcome these feelings and behaviors,” it said.

Undercover Sister

I learned that something else had changed with Evergreen since my last encounter: Security was tight. In my college years, if I wanted to visit the group, I just called the leader and showed up. Now, there is an extensive screening process. Maybe they heard about my kissing session back in the day.

What was still the same was a kind of Witness Protection Program. Almost no one wanted to talk to me for this story, and besides Pruden, the manager at the Evergreen office was the only one who would let me use her real name.

I called my old Evergreen chapter, a little curious if the same people were still there. I reached the leader on the phone, a man with a lavish voice. He was excited and even giggled. For a minute, I swore it was Mr. Perma-grin, but I wasn’t prepared for a reunion so I dismissed the thought. We talked for a minute, and he promised to call me back, but he never returned my calls.

I had better luck with the female group. Kay, not her real name, a 39-year-old Pentecostal-turned-LDS, told me she’s a textbook case. “I grew up in a divorced home. I didn’t have a relationship with my father and was emotionally detached from my mother,” she said. “I was a tomboy, riding motorcycles, playing ball and not comfortable in a feminine role.”

Kay began dating women in her early 20s and had several long-term companions. “My last relationship lasted for 12 years, but I wasn’t happy,” she began. “I felt extremely depressed, self-destructive, and then, out of desperation, one day I opened the Scriptures.”

Her partner, who was raised LDS but never fully embraced the religion, suggested that Kay should read The Book of Mormon. She and her partner met with the Mormon missionaries.

“Everything I was reading came together like a puzzle. I didn’t feel anything when I went to the Pentecostal church [as a child], but [in the Mormon Church] I began to understand that I was a child of God,” she said. A pre-existent life was one doctrine that convinced her the LDS faith was true.

She learned that by accepting Jesus Christ, she could overcome anything, including her homosexual desires. She began going to the Evergreen meetings.

“These attractions are caused by detachment issues with parents and by physical and sexual abuse,” she explained. “Once I understood that and accepted Christ, I could change.”

After Kay converted to the LDS Church, she continued living with her partner until the day she left for a LDS mission. “We were platonic [after I was baptized], and my partner supported my decision,” she said. “I used to think relationships with men were repulsive, but now I would love to find an eternal companion.”

I pressed her for some hint that her partner might be unhappy with Kay’s reversal on their relationship, but she insisted her former partner supported her decision. Their relationship sounded like a bizarre testament of true lesbian love. The cliché, “If you love someone, set her free,” came to mind.

“I love her, and I miss her a lot. But she understood and knew that this was the right thing for me to do,” Kay said.

Sharon, the Evergreen office manager, shared a similar story with me. Both she and Kay said they have no ill will toward people who accept being gay. Both likened homosexuality to sin and transgression. They swore that their affections and perspectives had changed dramatically for the better since joining this support group.

It’s All In The Packaging

Does Evergreen work? Who knows?

It’s the whole nature-versus-nurture debate. To answer this question you have to ask, “Who am I?” Unfortunately, this question may take a lifetime to answer.

In the meantime, most gays choose one position or the other and move forward with their lives. They take a leap of faith, build their lives from their perspective, and base their judgments on a system that either celebrates or reconciles homosexuality.

It is written that a house divided against itself cannot stand. For sanity’s sake, religious gays make a choice, and doing so may be more important than choosing the correct point of view—whether these decisions are divinely inspired or wishful thinking.