The former leader of renowned ex-gay ministry, Love in Action, answers the question, “What were you thinking?”
John Smid married his partner, Larry McQueen, in Oklahoma last weekend. That wouldn’t normally make the news, since gay marriage is now legal in 33 states. But Smid is not your average gay guy who waited patiently for gay marriage to creep into his nearby home state of Texas. In fact, for over two decades Smid stood in opposition to gay marriage, not just as a bystander, but on the front lines of the Christian political right telling everyone that gay people could change.
It was September of 1990 that Smid became the executive director of Love in Action (LiA), the oldest and most renowned ex-gay ministry in the world at the time. People came from all over the globe to Love in Action’s unique residential program to put aside their gay tendencies and find “freedom from homosexuality through Jesus Christ,” as LiA’s slogan touted. Love in Action partnered with Christian celebrity heavy hitters like James Dobson of Focus on the Family and Pat Robertson’s 700 Club.
The organization initially started in 1973 when a small group of people gathered in the San Francisco Bay Area to reconcile their homosexual orientations with their newfound Christian faith. Incidentally, 1973 is also when the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Illness. LiA’s programs and popularity grew among conservative Christians over the next 35 years, reaching its peak by 2004.
“2004 was the banner year,” Smid said. “We had more clients and more programs and more stuff going on than we ever had.” Love in Action, by then, was unarguably the largest ministry under Exodus International’s umbrella, which by 2006, boasted 120 U.S. and Canadian ministries and an additional 150 ministries in 17 other countries. With an annual budget nearing $750,000, Smid said Love in Action had an average of 25 residential clients at any one time. Programs, at that time, lasted from two weeks to nine months, taking in anywhere from $1,500 for a two week period, up to $7,000 for a three month stint.
In spite of what it looked like on the outside, however, no one was getting rich. “I made $52,000 a year for many years,” Smid said. His licensed therapists made from $40,000 to $45,000 a year, low by industry standards. Group sessions ran six times a day, along with individual therapy. A part time chef kept the staff and clients fed so they could focus on their sessions and healing. “We had people on our staff who were licensed professionally, the same as [those who work at the] Betty Ford clinic, or other clinics that do that. We had licensed addiction therapists. We were as credentialed, in terms of our staff, and yet we were only charging $7,000 for three months. Other places charge $35,000 for one month.”
Unlike the initial program of the early ‘70s where people came to seek God and pray for deliverance of their unwanted same sex attractions, Love in Action stepped beyond the idea of “ex-gay,” a spiritual conversion, and headlong into the more trendy practice of reparative therapy. “We were not successful at changing people from gay to straight and we knew that,” Smid confessed. “We didn’t talk about it, but we knew it. Exodus’ network was like that. Nobody talked about it.”
On why he never checked the inefficacy of the research on Exodus organizations’ programs, Smid said he didn’t think there was any research at the time, other than what famed anti-gay psychotherapist Joseph Nicolosi was telling them. “He had a good way of selling and marketing his plan. We believed him,” Smid said. The ministry organizations were afraid to admit to each other that things weren’t working as advertised. It was, and still is in some cases, a community of faith that upholds the ideals that are taught, higher than the truth that is lived.
“We began to believe that a person would create a homosexual desire as a reaction to life’s wounds or injuries,” Smid said. “So the homosexual attraction was a cover. It was a false image, a distraction to somehow falsely repair the sexual or emotional abuse, or the abandonment of the things [that happened to them] in their childhood.”
The belief that homosexuality was a sin and, therefore repairable, kept LiA pursuing the next wave of treatment possibilities. “‘Dr. Nicolosi, he’s got the answer,’ we’d say. ‘It’s reparative therapy! That’s what we’ve been missing!’” Before that, Smid said, “it was Leann Payne. Oh, it’s spiritual…Oh, it’s the Vineyard! It’s Living Waters. They seem to be having success. Oh, no, it’s professional therapists…It’s an addiction, that’s what we’re missing.”
The ministry hired a well-respected Christian counselor for a program director. “He gave us legitimacy,” Smid said. “To be honest, I think a lot of that stuff was overcompensating for what we knew inside was not happening. We were accepted by the [Christian] professional community and we were kind of bound together because the American Psychological Association said we shouldn’t be doing this.” Smid explains that he, and other ministry leaders, dismissed the APA as, “Well, they’re just worldly.”
Smid began to have a change of heart, though a long way from rethinking what he believed, when the ministry gained unwanted national attention. A teenage boy was put into one of the programs by his parents and against his will. His social media postings found their way to documentary director Morgan Fox. Soon protestors picketed in front of Love in Action’s residential homes and ministry offices demanding the boy’s release. That story is told in Fox’s documentary, This is what Love in Action looks like. Over time, Smid and Fox developed an unlikely friendship. Smid documents his spiritual and social transformation in his 2012 memoir, Ex’d Out: How I Fired the Shame Committee. He resigned from the ministry in 2008.
When asked if he’s ever looked back and had any oh-my-God-what-have-I-done moments, Smid said it was over a period of time. “When I wrote my first apology, a very generic apology in 2010, that was in response to that [moment]. But I didn’t know how to describe it. I didn’t know how to formulate what I had done. I wanted to hear from people because I wanted to hear what I’d done to them. How did I hurt them? Once I started listening to people and opening my ears to the pain, I realized what I had done.” In addition to his public apologies and statements, Smid has tried to reach every client with whom he has had contact over the last 22 years and personally apologize.
In July, 2014, Smid and eight other former ex-gay leaders and founders, released a formal statement calling for the end of reparative therapy. In the letter they stated, “We grew up with the repetitive message that LGBT people were not enough — not straight enough, not Christian enough, not manly or womanly enough, not faithful enough, not praying enough. Never, ever enough. ‘Toxic’ probably sums it up best.” The former leaders joined forces with the National Center for Lesbian Rights #BornPerfect Campaign, which seeks to outlaw reparative therapy for minors. Currently, only two states, California and New Jersey, have ended the practice.
Smid continues to speak out against ministries like Love in Action and Exodus International. “I finally realized I had been taught wrong. I really believed it. Someone had lied to me and it’s an anti-gay bias people are believing and teaching,” he said. On the issues of homosexuality in society, and specifically in the conservative church, Smid said, “I think we have all been given a bill of goods here and people follow them without challenging them.” John Smid is certainly challenging them now.
Photo – Courtesy of John Smid