On May 29, 2005, 16-year-old Tennessee youth Zach Stark announced on his MySpace blog that he had come out to his parents, and that they had reacted with shock and grief.

Shortly thereafter — apparently after consulting with their church and Exodus International — Stark’s parents told him that there was something “psychologically wrong” with him, and that they had raised him wrong. As a result, they said, Zach would be involuntarily detained at Exodus International’s flagship residential ex-gay youth program, Love In Action/Refuge, for a minimum of two weeks of shame-based ex-gay therapy.

Six years later, Stark, his friends, and other LIA and Refuge program participants are now speaking out about their experiences in Morgan Jon Fox’s newly released documentary, This Is What Love In Action Looks Like.

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Along with news of his impending detention, Stark in 2005 posted the Refuge program’s hypocritical, draconian, and stereotype-plagued rulebook for program participants.

Friends of Zach read his blog and were alarmed by the shame and fear to which he would be subjected. Utilizing then-nascent social media, they mobilized a viral campaign of parents, youths, doctors, and counselors who affirmed dignity, unconditional love, and faith in the youths who were being detained and shamed by Exodus International.

Stark’s detention was subsequently extended from two weeks to eight, and during that time Exodus’ alleged mistreatment of youths drew national attention through the New York Times, CNN, and Montel Williams’ daytime talk show. The state of Tennessee soon sought to intervene on behalf of the abused youths, only to be pushed back by politicians and by Exodus’ assertions that parents have a religious right to “minister” to youths in this fashion.

At the end of Stark’s initial ordeal, I wrote that it was time to give Stark privacy to recover, regroup, and choose how to move on.

In the years since, Stark has built an apparently healthy life as a young adult and college student, grateful that his friends and allies were so “awesome” in affirming and supporting him and other detained youths.

In fact, the title of the documentary is not so much an ironic reflection upon LIA’s name and abusive environment, as it is a reflection of the love which mobilized hundreds of people in 2005 to rally for the detained youths, remind them that they are loved, and reassure them that Exodus’ shame and fear were undeserved.

Besides Stark, the documentary catches up with Lance Carroll, who was age 17 when he was detained in LIA at the same time as Stark, and Brandon Tidwell, who in his early twenties had voluntarily attended LIA but later joined Stark’s friends in the 2005 protests.

The un-narrated documentary allows Stark, Carroll, and Tidwell to recount their experiences entirely in their own words. Their recollections stand in sharp contrast against the rosy public assurances of Exodus president Alan Chambers to a skeptical and increasingly annoyed Montel Williams. The documentary also tracks the evolution of former LIA executive director John J. Smid from hard-core ex-gay activist in 2005, into an apologetic man who, while still advocating ex-gay as well as gay-affirming counseling, today acknowledges love  and faith in LGBT communities.

Veteran ex-gay survivor Peterson Toscano provides context for documentary viewers who might be unfamiliar with ex-gay beliefs, tactics, and self-contradictions. Meanwhile, Stark’s Tennessee friends and allies — writer Chris Davis, Queer Action Coalition co-founders Morgan Jon Fox and Janessa Williams, community organizer Janelle Treibitz, blogger E.J. Friedman, and friends Eileen Townsend and Jake Casey  – all offer a rich tapestry of memories and lessons learned from their campaign to support Stark.

While the motivations of Stark’s personal friends to stand by him may be self-evident, Davis explains how — as a parent — he was drawn to the campaign by his revulsion at the sight of parents and amateur preachers practicing “shame therapy” against children. Mental-health experts chime in with recollections of past harm committed by therapists in the 1960s before the mental-health community understood orientation and sexual identity, and these experts note that today’s ex-gay movement reflects an ongoing refusal to learn from decades’ worth of new facts. True to form, and despite all facts to the contrary, LIA spokesman Gerard Wellman tells us (in archival media clips) that homosexuality is about shameful sex acts, not romantic emotion, orientation, or biology — and that Christianity is all about managing “sinful” desires, and not so much about charity, grace, justice, or unconditional love.

Exodus’ method of managing clients’ desires should raise alarm, even among conservatives:

Carroll and Tidwell share vivid memories of Exodus’ “moral inventory,” a process by which LIA clients are forced to share with an audience the graphic details of their worst sexual experience. Instead of forgiveness or grace, the audience responds by reinforcing the youths’ humiliation.  Carroll came away from LIA feeling “not safe”; instead, LIA was “very controlling and intrusive.” Carroll’s parents learned from Exodus to carry on the shame at home — resulting eventually in physical outbursts by his mother, and his departure.

Today, Carroll and Treibitz emphasize that they would have no strong objection to a conservative adult freely choosing to attend an ex-gay program — but they draw the line when parents seek to subject youths to a program of involuntary abuse in which shame and fear are presented as the only choice.

Changed by his exposure to the respectful and affirming tone of the protests, director Smid left LIA in 2008. Smid says he came to realize that his religious calling — outreach to the LGBT community — was not congruent with LIA and its churches’ implicit determination to ostracize and shame gay people.

LIA is still in operation today, although the Refuge youth program closed in 2007; LIA’s remnants have moved to smaller facilities. Exodus, meanwhile, appears to have learned nothing. The organization still blames parents for their children’s sexual orientation, even as it tricks the same parents into surrendering their kids to parent-bashing amateur counselors. The documentary notes that Exodus is actually expanding its efforts over the next couple years to shame and detain youths as young as 12 through its church network and renamed “student ministry.” Exodus officials declined to speak with the documentary producers.

Carroll credits the love-based protest for helping him survive his ordeal, and Davis voices confidence that, while Exodus continues to abuse, other Christians are moving past shame as a method of evangelism and social change.

Screenings of This Is What Love In Action Looks Like are scheduled in the eastern and southern United States:

  • August 27 at SHOUT, the Birmingham LGBT Film Fest
  • September 10 at the Austin Gay & Lesbian Film Festival
  • September 20 at ReRun Theatre, in New York City
  • September 29-October 6 at OUT ON FILM, the Atlanta LGBT Film Festival
  • November 4 at Indie Memphis Film Festival
  • November 3-12 at REELING, the Chicago LGBT Film Festival

Related links:

This Is What Love In Action Looks Like on Facebook

This Is What Love In Action Looks Like blog

The filmmaker’s website

Disclosure: Truth Wins Out volunteer writer/cartoonist Bruce Garrett is, independent of TWO, an associate producer for this film. Lance Carroll assists Truth Wins Out in educating the public about the survivors of ex-gay “therapy.”