nprlogo NPR Ombudsman’s Defense of Ex Gay Segment was Inadequate and Disappointing

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The LGBT community has every right to be upset over National Public Radio’s handling of a segment that interviewed “ex-gay” activist Rich Wyler and former “ex-gay” Peterson Toscano.  The response to the outrage by NPR Ombudsman, Edward Schumacher-Matos, was inadequate and failed to dispel concerns that NPR had aired a poorly investigated puff-piece that benefited the “ex-gay” industry. In Schumacher-Matos’ defense of his reporter Alex Spiegel and editor Anne Gudenkauf, he stated that they “clearly worked hard on this story.”

I beg to differ and agree with NPR listener Paul Frantz of San Francisco who wrote “It’s a whole lot easier for your reporter to just hand microphones to people on opposing sides of the issue and take the rest of the day off.”

First, NPR should have identified Rich Wyler as an “ex-gay” activist whose business is taking gay men into the woods on weekend trips for $650 to allegedly turn them from gay to straight. The ombudsman replied that such identification wasn’t too important because, “Wyler founded an organization that claims to help men with same-sex attraction change. But they [Spiegel and Gudenkauf] said that Toscano, too, profits from his experience, writing plays and giving speeches about it.”

This comparison highlights how NPR failed to do its homework. While Peterson Toscano may profit from speaking, no one doubts that there are countless LGBT people who exist and do not make their living from activism. The same, however, can’t be said for so-called “ex-gays” who almost always exist in the context of working for conversion ministries or anti-gay political organizations.

Indeed, “ex-gay” activists themselves can’t even find successfully converted gays. Dr. Robert Spitzer, for example, conducted a controversial study on such individuals in 2001. Even with the help of the entire “ex-gay” industry, it took Spitzer two years to find a mere 200 so-called “ex-gays” and a significant portion of his sample were directly provided by activist groups such as NARTH, Exodus and PFOX. Given this reality, NPR should have tried to find individuals that were not “ex-gay for pay.” Truth Wins Out always challenges journalists to find such people and they come up empty handed. This speaks to the fact that there is no genuine “ex-gay” movement, just a high-dollar, politically motivated marketing campaign to create the appearance that such people exist in large numbers.

Second, where was NPR’s research team? Wyler’s People Can Change (PCC) website is rife with errors and research distortions. For instance, in a section called “Evidence of Change,” PCC lists at least two debunked studies as proof of the efficacy of sexual conversion.

Its site included the infamous Masters & Johnson study that claimed LGBT people could be cured. But in 2009 Virginia Johnson acknowledged to Thomas Maier, author of Masters of Sex, that the alleged sexual orientation changes found in their study, Homosexuality in Perspective, were a fabrication. Why is this falsified study still on the PCC website?

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PCC also lists Dr. Irving Bieber’s long-discredited 1962 study, Homosexuality: A Psychoanalytic Study of Male Homosexuals. The research is dismissed for its fatally flawed sample: Out of 106 male homosexuals recruited from mental institutions, twenty-eight were schizophrenics, thirty-one neurotics, and forty-two had character disorders.

Yet, despite the dissemination of pseudo-science used to trick vulnerable and desperate LGBT people into coughing-up $650 for a weekend in the woods, NPR elected to use the dishonest Wyler as a credible source.

Third, Wyler was given a free pass because NPR never bothered to hold him accountable for his organization’s demonization of LGBT people. Schumacher-Matos comes across as naïve when he writes:

Wyler himself says in the piece that while he didn’t feel right living a gay life in Los Angeles, far from his family and church, he understood that it was right for others. I took that to mean that he didn’t denounce being gay, or think it was wrong.

Perhaps Schumacher-Matos and his staff that “clearly worked hard on this story” could have bothered to read the bigoted distortions on LGBT life that appear on PCC’s website:

The common experience among us was that we experienced the gay world as a place that was fraught with promiscuity, lust, obsession with youth and physical appearance, addiction to sex, alcohol and lust. We found judgment, pettiness, spiritual darkness and brokenness. Although we experienced small pieces of healing there at times, for the most part, it only deepened the emotional and spiritual emptiness inside.

Wyler innocently presents himself as a nice guy who simply wants to help those unhappy with their sexual orientation. The reality is that he and his organization demean, dehumanize, stigmatize, and beat down LGBT people to the point where they seek help. A sophisticated and well-researched NPR report would have challenged Wyler on his use of anti-gay rhetoric to recruit clients.

NPR should also have explored a couple of key questions: Why have so many former “ex-gay” activists renounced the “ex-gay” ministries?  What was going through their heads to make them publicly extol the virtues of such programs – only to later claim they do not work? This psychological dynamic is key to understanding and critical to telling this story.

Fourth, Wyler’s bogus etiology of homosexuality should not have aired or at least been vigorously challenged by NPR. His core ideology is that LGBT people do not exist and are simply misbehaving heterosexuals that become gay as a result of abuse, neglect or bad parenting. In particular, PCC promotes the scientifically deficient idea that distant fathers are responsible for homosexuality in men. The cure includes male bonding and teaching gay men to play sports. The group even promotes a “sports camp” by the Catholic “ex-gay” organization Courage. Why not allow people like myself — who played college basketball and are very close to their father – to rebut this junk science? Why not have psychological experts set the record straight on this matter, so Wyler does not get away with repeating unsubstantiated myths that damage LGBT people and their families?

Fifth, NPR failed to report on the controversy surrounding Wyler’s organization and its woodsy Journey into Manhood (JIM) weekend. Last year, Truth Wins Out uncovered that two young men counseled by Alan Downing,  JIM’s senior reorientation coach, were told to strip in front of a mirror and touch their genitals. While this did not happen at Wyler’s program, it does call into question PCC’s judgment in hiring counselors and its utilization of “touch therapy” to allegedly heal “homo-emotional wounds.”

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For example, journalist Ted Cox infiltrated JIM weekend last year and he discovered what he dubbed, the “cuddle room,” where grown men sit in the laps of other grown men and caress each other in an allegedly non-sexual way. One of the petting positions is called the motorcycle, were a man straddles another like he is riding a motorbike. An additional position is named after Richard Cohen, the discredited “ex-gay” therapist who was permanently expelled from the American Counseling Association for multiple ethics violations.

Another PCC life coach is Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality (JONAH) co-founder Arthur Abba Goldberg, a convicted felon who stole billions of dollars on Wall Street. It seems that PCC will take any reprobate and slap on the title of “life coach” or “counselor.” This demonstrates a lack professional standards and potentially places clients in harms way. To cover themselves, PCC’s website states: “The following list includes a mix both of licensed therapists and counselors and unlicensed counselors and professional life coaches.”

Could NPR not have explored the “ex-gay” industry’s penchant for embracing quacks, armatures, and scoundrels, considering that real people are having their lives affected by the ideas and actions of such individuals?

Sixth, it was remarkably shallow and biased the way that Schumacher-Matos handled the religious aspect of this controversy:

Gay rights advocates understandably demand that, rather than trying to change individuals, it is religion and society that must change, which indeed has been happening. But that doesn’t help conflicted individuals who are in this world we live in now. To dismissively say that these individuals should just find another religion is to be discriminatory and ignores the profound importance of a given religion in many people’s lives.

This arrogant statement blatantly ignores that a significant number of LGBT people found health and happiness, as well as ended their internal conflict, by adjusting their belief system to fit reality. And reality is admitting that it is highly unlikely for LGBT individuals to maintain optimal mental health remaining in a belief system that demands perpetual sexual frustration and loneliness.

The indisputable fact is, people can and do abandon destructive or unfulfilling belief systems every day. They change religions, alter their views, and switch churches – just as Michele and Marcus Bachmann have recently done.  Wyler belongs to the Mormon Church, which sends youth on missions around the world. One of their primary goals is to convince people to change their beliefs and join the LDS church. When organized religion does this it’s hunky-dory with Schumacher-Matos, while its somehow “discriminatory” when LGBT activists merely suggest that most people are more content when their spirituality and sexuality are not at war.

Finally, in a particularly galling passage, Schumacher-Matos says that the NPR story “was prompted by the recent news that the husband of Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann runs a mental health clinic that reportedly provides such therapy.” He then inexplicably writes, “I am curious…to know what really it is that Bachmann’s husband practices…”

As the organization that uncovered the Bachmann clinic scandal, we could have answered this question. It is appalling that NPR did not contact us or ask for a copy of our undercover video, as did other major news outlets, such as ABC News, NBC News, CNN, The Nation Magazine, and The New York Times.  Again, glad to know that NPR “clearly worked hard.”

This is a crucial issue that affects the lives of real people. The American Psychiatric Association says attempts to change sexual orientation can lead to “anxiety, depression, and self-destructive behavior.” The least that NPR and other media outlets can do is take some time to research this topic before they potentially cause harm by offering platforms to for-profit purveyors of scientifically and ethically bankrupt anti-gay theories and rhetoric.

It is reasonable and responsible for the LGBT community to expect professionalism from those in the media who hold the power to impact our lives.

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