The Toughest Call: Conversion Therapy

Jennifer Lee thought she'd found the man of her dreams when she met Steve Lee. He was handsome, sensitive and most of all funny.

They quickly fell in love and after Jennifer converted to Mormonism, they married. After a few years, they welcomed a son. Despite their seemingly happy, secure relationship, Steve was hiding a secret, one he'd had since he was 19 years old.

Jennifer was devastated when her husband told her he is gay.

She was suddenly faced with the toughest call she could imagine: should she stay with her husband who has just come out to her or should she leave him? Although the news shocked and upset her, Jennifer decided something could be done.

"I started to convince myself it didn't have to be," Jennifer said, "and I started to convince him it didn't have to be and he agreed."

Steve, a devout Mormon, feared God would not accept him if he were gay. The couple met with their bishop who urged Steve to rid himself of his homosexuality by going through conversion therapy, a controversial program intended to eliminate homosexual feelings. Steve felt he had no choice.

"I wanted to be accepted by God," he said. "I wanted to be loved. That was everything to me. And so I saw no other route."

So every week Steve joined other Mormon men for group therapy. Most conversion therapy involves different forms of behavior modification, attempting to make people straight by having them act straight. Some programs even teach men about stereotypically "male" activities, such as talking about football and changing motor oil. Steve did not find that his experience with conversion therapy was at all therapeutic.

"I would definitely call it brainwashing," he said. "It was an exercise in humiliation."

There is much skepticism surrounding conversion therapy and whether it's even possible to reverse someone's sexual orientation. Most professional health organizations reject the theories behind conversion therapy, and many have even deemed it a potentially harmful "treatment."

Jack Drescher is a psychiatrist in New York and warns that not only is conversion therapy unlikely to work, it can be very dangerous.

"Patients feel more depressed and anxious when the treatment doesn't work," Drescher said. "They blame themselves. Some people became suicidal."

Are Conversions Successful?

The largest faith-based conversion therapy program in the country is Love in Action, which is located in Memphis, Tenn. Eight years ago "20/20" was invited to meet nine participants in the program who were attempting to purge themselves of what they called "homosexual behaviors."

James Serra, one of those men, says he is one of the program's success stories. Serra stayed in the program for three years, and today he's a counselor at Love in Action.

When asked whether he was a gay man or a straight man, Serra answered, "I'm a man, period. And the way I see it, it's a behavior. Homosexual, heterosexual is a behavior."

While Serra admits he is still attracted to men, he emphasizes that he has not acted on those feelings in eight years. Even though he has yet to have a relationship with a woman, he hopes that one day he will get married and have children.

Wade Richards was Serra's roommate when "20/20" visited Love in Action. As a devout Christian, Richards says he was faced with the difficult call of whether to accept his attraction to men or try to change. Despite the time he spent in conversion therapy, he now lives his life as a gay man.

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