Ex-Gay Watch asks a question that has been on my mind: Why haven’t we heard more in the mainstream and GLBT press about the latest sticky — and tragic — situation surrounding ex-gay ministries? AF&O recently commented on the story of HIV-positive ex-gay Michael Johnston of Kerusso Ministries, who closed his ministry after admitting that he had engaged in unprotected sex with a number of men — allegedly without informing them of his HIV status. In the state of Virginia, where Kerusso was based, such behavior is considered a crime. But, as of now, no charges have been filed against Johnston — as the result of what the fundie world calls his “moral fall,” he is now undergoing treatment at Pure Life Ministries, a live-in Christian program for “men suffering from sexual sin.”
As I’ve said before, I am praying for Michael Johnston and wish him nothing but the best — meaning happiness, health, wholeness, and an honest life (whatever that may entail). For that to happen, I believe he must be held accountable for his actions. And if he indeed did knowingly put others at risk for contracting the HIV virus without telling them beforehand, accountability means facing a jury of his peers and making restitution to his victims. I don’t believe that is an unreasonable, unjust, or slanderous thing to say; ex-gay ministries themselves expend much time on the necessity of accountability.
Problem is: For Johnston to be held accountable, the story must be told. Michael Hamar, an attorney for one of Johnston’s alleged victims, sent a letter to XGW which is shared on the site. In the missive, Hamar explains why it is absolutely necessary for this news to spread:
First, to warn the possibly very numerous number of individuals in the Hampton Roads[, VA,] area that may have been exposed to HIV by Johnston and not know they should get tested immediately in the hope of containing the spread of HIV. Second, to help expose the ex-gay programs for the frauds both he [Hamar’s client] and I believe them to be. Sadly, many of those exposed to HIV by Johnston still may have no knowledge of their need to be tested for HIV and warn their other sex partners.
Also, wider coverage of the Michael Johnston fraud might cause individuals to come forward who are willing to be publicly identified so that prosecutors can consider criminal prosecution against Mr. Johnston. For employment reasons, my client cannot be publicly identified. Therefore, individuals who can testify that Michael Johnston knowingly had unsafe sex with them are needed to allow law enforcement officials to take any action.
You’ll notice that Hamar calls ex-gay ministry a “fraud.” I believe that description is harsh, though I understand why he uses it.
But “fraud” connotes a perpetrator who willingly sets out to con people. Having studied the phenomenon for a number of years, I know there are well-intentioned people behind some of these usually fundamentalist Christian efforts, which strive to encourage gays and bisexuals to “step out of homosexuality” (sometimes promising the possibility of changing from gay to heterosexual) in order to build a relationship with God. This subset of the ex-gay movement does not seek to defraud anyone (though I do believe them to be horribly misguided, despite their intentions).
However, some ex-gay-world activities do deserve some choice words: Many people entrenched in the movement — such as Alan Chambers, executive director of ex-gay network Exodus – North America — are or have been involved in political efforts to squash gay rights and to keep GLBTs unequal under civil law. (Johnston’s ministry ended its affiliation with Exodus in the 1990s.)
And this is fact: The ministries (whether linked to Exodus or not), as well as anti-gay reparative-therapy clinics, are potentially dangerous to GLBT people. I have spoken and corresponded with hundreds of people who have been damaged and hurt because of their involvement with these sorts of organizations. I know many ex-ex-gays — people who stepped out of ex-gay ministries and now have happy, honest, fulfilled lives as gay or bisexual people.
Truth is, those for whom these ministries succeed are a vastly tiny group of people. And given that these people have not yet died, who knows how their stories might end. We’ve seen many ex-gay leaders ultimately turn their backs on their “change” efforts because they came to a realization that those sorts of organizations were useless, counterproductive, and harmful.
As for me, I have seen ex-gay ministry from the inside and out. I absolutely, resolutely do not and can not and will not support or endorse these organizations, whatever the intentions of their leaders (some of whom I consider cherished friends).
No decent person wants to cause Michael Johnston any pain. But when ex-gay ministers fall off the ex-gay-wagon so spectacularly and so dangerously, it is important news. For justice’s sake and for the sake of those Johnston hurt, the story must be told and heard — and action must be taken. While we offer good thoughts to Michael, we must consider helping those to whom he did immeasurable harm, be it through Kerusso’s dangerous work or through a potentially lethal one-night stand.
I implore the media — mainstream and gay — to do their jobs and fulfill their responsibility to their readers and viewers, some of whom may be facing a death sentence about which they know nothing. Report this story so that Johnston can be held accountable, if guilty, and so that people can receive the information they need. It is the right and moral thing to do.
Oh: And if you — yes, you — live in or near Hampton Roads, VA, spread the word. Call the local mainstream and queer papers and insist that they cover the story. Citizens’ health may be at risk.