"Reparative therapy" represses

The Denver Post/August 6, 2006
By Cindy Rodriquez

Even an exorcism couldn't scare the gay out of Peterson Toscano.

But that is the lengths he went to because his evangelical Christian church brainwashed him into thinking he was abnormal.

Toscano, 41, said he spent $30,000 over 17 years, traveling to three continents, chasing one treatment program after the next.

In the end, he came to a healthy conclusion: Gay people can't change any more than a heterosexual person can. Nor should they need to. They are God's children, perfect the way they are.

Toscano is one of dozens of gay Christian men who wrote or called me during the past two weeks, following a column I wrote about the so-called ex-gay movement, which encourages "reparative therapy."

Every one of the men who contacted me said that no amount of repression - which is what this therapy boils down to - could change them.

Yet Christian groups, acting in an un- Christian way, continue to offer Franken- therapy.

During one treatment, a group of praying women encircled Toscano and encouraged him to cough until he vomited.

"Once the first splatter of vomit hit the bucket, people shouted 'Praise Jesus!"' Toscano recalled. It was a surreal experience, he said. All he lost was his lunch.

Later, in his mid-20s, Toscano married a woman, thinking he could force himself to be heterosexual. It didn't work; he wound up cheating with a man.

Years later, he enrolled in Love in Action, a residential program in Memphis where he met Mike Haley, who now works as a "gender analyst" for Focus on the Family.

During the 18-part program, Toscano learned how to speak in a more affirmative manner, with the last syllable intoning down instead of up. He learned how to walk and shake hands in a "manly" way. And there was lots of praying.

He graduated from the program but after six months, the real him came out. It took years for him to realize he needed to stop hurting himself by trying to change: "It's extremely dangerous when we try to become something other than ourselves," he said.

It's a lesson that applies to all people who are marginalized in our society, but with all the pressures to conform it's understandable why some would rather remake themselves.

That is how I view the story of John Paulk, a former drag queen and paid escort who used to go by the name Candi.

Then he became a born-again Christian, got into therapy and turned into the straight man he says God wants him to be. He married an ex-lesbian and got a gig working for Focus on the Family.

He became the poster boy for the ex-gay movement, appearing on Oprah, the Jerry Springer Show, and landing on the cover of Newsweek.

His face was so familiar, though, someone recognized him at a gay bar in Washington, D.C., in 2000. Paulk lied about it (said he got lost; said he had to use the bathroom), then came clean (said he wanted to see if gay bars had changed) and later resigned from FOTF.

I found him in Portland, where he runs a personal chef service. He told me he's still a heterosexual and he and his wife, Anne, enjoy raising their three boys - away from the media spotlight.

He declined an interview, though he kept talking for nearly a half-hour (I had to end the conversation). He spoke gleefully of his friend Mike Haley, who replaced Paulk at Focus on the Family.

People like Paulk and Haley have every right to try to remake themselves into something else, but when they proselytize that being gay is a sin, stir fear in parents and suggest they can remake their gay sons by using reparative therapy they cross a line that could forever scar the person they love most.

Brent Coleman, a licensed psychotherapist in Denver who has helped gay people who have been scarred by reparative therapy, calls it "religious abuse."

Another psychotherapist, John Birkhead of Colorado Springs, agrees: "It's based on a faulty premise that (gayness) needs to be changed."

Toscano learned the hard way that he couldn't change the way he is wired. He now uses his experience to educate and entertain others through his one-man traveling show, "Doin' Time in the Homo No Mo Halfway House: How I survived the Ex-Gay Movement." ( homonomo.com)

He survived, but he will never get back the years he spent searching for a cure to something that, in actuality, is only a problem for narrow-minded people.

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