'Ex-Gay' Camps, Therapy Programs Attract Controversy

Melissa Fryrear says she struggled with her homosexuality and lived a decade as a lesbian before the "arduous and extremely difficult journey out" of it.

"I started to come to the end of my proverbial rope," she said. "Believe me, I am the most surprised about the transformation of my life."

Now, she says, jokingly, she is just looking for a tall, good-looking man who looks good in a kilt. She's taking marriage requests, in fact.

" 'Braveheart' changed my life," she said jokingly. Fryrear currently is the Gender Issues Analyst at Focus on the Family, a Christian-based ministry, in Colorado Springs, Colo.

The topic of "reparative therapy," or so-called ex-gay camps, has come back to the national spotlight after a teen blogger named Zach wrote in his online diary about being sent by his parents to Refuge, a youth program of Love in Action International. The group, based in Memphis, Tenn., runs a religiously based program intended to change the sexual orientation of gay men and women.

Founded in California in 1973, Love in Action moved to Memphis 11 years ago. It is one of 120 programs nationwide listed by Exodus International, which bills itself as the largest information and referral network for the ''ex-gay'' movement.

Zach is due to leave the camp on Friday. In an interview on the Christian Broadcasting Network, Zach's father, Joe Stark said he "felt good about Zach coming here."

"Until he turns 18 and he's an adult in the state of Tennessee, I'm responsible for him, and I'm going to see to it that he has all options available to him," Stark said on the program.

There are mixed opinions about the therapies and whether they are effective.

Fryrear says the years in therapy have made her life "fuller and happier," though she describes it as the "most difficult thing" she believes she will ever have to go through.

"For me it seemed as if this has been a journey of radical transformation," Fryrear said. "I used to believe that I was born gay. Now I know that you are not born gay. I used to have contempt that I was a woman. I used to hate and despise men and now I respect and admire and am attracted to men."

Critics of these programs say they open a person to lifelong problems of guilt, shame and even suicide.

Peterson Toscano, who was at the Love in Action adult program between 1996 and 1998, said he felt suicidal during his attempt at transformation from a gay man to a heterosexual man.

"At one point, I was standing at the subway platform and I thought 'I need to leap because I am a horrible person,'" said Toscano who lives now as an openly gay man, but spent 17 years in different reparative therapy programs. He performs a one-man play based on his experiences called "Doin' Time in the Homonono Halfway House."

On its Web site, Love in Action says its growth has "exceeded 10 percent each year for the past four consecutive years."

On Zach's blog, he wrote: "My mother, father, and I had a very long 'talk' … where they let me know I am to apply for a fundamentalist Christian program for gays … I'm a big screwup to them, who isn't on the path God wants me to be on. So I'm sitting here in tears."

The Rev. John Smid, executive director of Love in Action, believes people have a choice when it comes to their sexuality. He says he is "ex-gay."

The American Psychological Association says there are a number of theories about the origins of a person's sexual orientation, but that most scientists agree that sexual orientation is most likely the result of a complex interaction of environmental, cognitive and biological factors. The APA says homosexuality is not a choice and that in most people, sexual orientation is shaped at an early age.

"A lot of harm is done by these programs," Dr. Jack Drescher of the American Psychiatry Association told Good Morning America. "It creates shame and guilt feelings that can lead to suicidal behavior."

Love in Action was the center of an investigation by the Tennessee Department of Mental Health for touting its program as therapy but not servicing the facility with licensed mental health professionals. Since then Love in Action has changed the wording on their Web site. Prior to this, the program was cleared of abuse allegations by the Tennessee Department of Children Services.

Whether the programs help or harm, one thing is for sure: The blogosphere will be waiting to see if Zach returns to cyberspace to discuss his experience at the camp.