A Controversial Practice Aimed at Changing a Person’s Sexual Orientation
by Joey Saunders
President Barack Obama recently condemned conversion therapy. The vast majority of psychiatrists and psychologists agree that a person has no control over his or her sexual orientation or gender identity and that any so-called conversion or reparative therapy that seeks to change a person’s orientation or identity can be emotionally and psychologically damaging. I spoke with three men: the subject of a documentary called “Kidnapped For Christ,” a man who is suing a therapist who promised to turn him straight, and a local man who runs a large ministry that seeks to heal the “sexually broken.” Their stories follow:
When we met in 2007, David Wernsman’s parents were a quiet, buttoned-up pair of WASPy Coloradans who didn’t seem like the kidnapping type. David’s father had a firm handshake, a bit of a gut and wore a polo tucked into a pair of khaki shorts. He also wore loafers. No socks. No unmarked white van with tinted windows. They weren’t overly emotional or affectionate, but what David told me about them was surprising. A couple years before this, while in high school, David came out as gay. He was a straight-A student, soccer and football player, theater geek, and had his sights set on med school. As he puts it, “I was the annoyingly good kid who was in every other picture in the yearbook.” Sounds like a parent’s dream, right? The gay thing was a little too much for Mr. and Mrs. Wernsman. I recently interviewed David to go over some of the details of his harrowing ordeal.
One evening, in 2006, David’s parents let two men into their home. The uniformed strangers wake David up and tell him he needs to say goodbye to his parents and come with them. His parents are crying. David resists and pleads for an explanation. Mrs. Wernsman, through tears, only says, “We love you.” The men fasten a belt around David’s waist. “This is the Belt of Trust,” they tell him. They drag him by the belt into a car. One man drives, the other holds David by the belt in the backseat to ensure he can’t escape. Neither will answer his questions. “You can’t do this, this is kidnapping,” David screams. “This is illegal!” They pull the car over and produce documents: The Wernsmans have signed their son over to these men from an organization called Helping Teens.
They arrive at the Denver airport and transport David, “like a convict,” he remembers, to Miami. He boards a connecting flight to the Dominican Republic. There, the men release David at Escuela Caribe, a camp run by American Evangelical Christians with armed men guarding the gates. He is strip-searched. A staff member forces him to call his father and tell him he has arrived. “I’m here,” David says, and hangs up the phone. No more calls. He would be allowed to write to his parents and give them updates but all letters in and out of Escuela Caribe would be monitored.
Meanwhile, Christian film student, Kate Logan, is doing mission work in the Dominican Republic when she discovers Escuela Caribe. The camp had branded itself as an alternative school for troubled teens. Kate initially finds herself inspired by their mission and asks if she can shoot a documentary. She finds that a lot of the teens don’t seem to have a particularly serious behavioral disorder of any kind. The young filmmaker grows to care for one of her subjects – David – who becomes the focus of her film. Kate can’t seem to figure out why an “annoyingly good kid” like David would be sent to Escuela Caribe.
David quietly reveals to Kate that he came out to his parents as gay. EC’s staff forbids any LGBT “students” to discuss their sexuality. Rather than perform any active reparative therapy, David is told to deny his sexuality. The staff member that performs his brief, occasional evaluations explains that homosexuality is a manifestation of distrust in women, possibly caused by a strained relationship with one’s mother, that can be corrected with prayer, good behavior (as defined by EC), and following Christ’s teachings.
David, ever the honor-student, was eager to graduate quickly and return to his Colorado high school so he could graduate from an actual school and apply to a good college without completely derailing his life goals. The school operates on a ranking system. You get points for following rules and demerits for insubordination. If you fall below a certain rank, others aren’t allowed to talk to you, and you, them. If you obtain the highest rank, you graduate and go home. David plays Escuela Caribe’s game. He makes his bed, does his chores, obeys, prays. He moves through the ranks faster than anyone ever had. But, when David is one rank away from graduating, his evaluator denies his advancement. They call him a “performer” who “seeks to please, but isn’t genuine.” Later, a dissenting former staff member would admit to David that the staff would often keep LGBT teens there longer with this sort of rhetoric. David says it was also in EC’s best financial interests to prolong his “sentence” since his parents were paying nearly $5,000 each month to keep him there.
None of this seems right to Kate, and her documentary becomes less about the school as an inspiration and more about its abusive practices. When a fellow teen comes out to David as gay, both of them are punished and demoted in rank. Teens aren’t just demoted here, there are other disciplinary actions. Sometimes, students receive “swats” (exactly what it sounds like), other times they would be sent to The Quiet Room, a form of solitary confinement. And the interned are constantly monitored by staff and guards, even when they’ve been behaving. David devises a plan and asks Kate to smuggle a letter to his friend in Colorado. Kate agrees.
David’s parents hadn’t told anyone where he was. Kate hand delivers the letter to David’s friend who, with the help of David’s concerned peers and neighbors, started researching Escuela Caribe and plotting a way to rescue him. Eventually, EC’s administration becomes suspicious of Kate and bars her from filming. When Kate and two of David’s neighbors arrive at Escuela Caribe, the staff turns them away, supported by power of attorney (signed over by the Wernsmans) and their armed guards.
Even though David had turned 18, they refused to release him, and David was never told about his attempted rescue. Kate’s footage was involved in a long legal battle. Once he was finally released, his parents worked with Escuela Caribe to manipulate him into thinking Kate was using the documentary to exploit him. David tells me that, in retrospect, he was in such brainwashed, psychologically fragile state at the time and was backed into a corner by his financial dependence on his parents. However, after talking with his friend who received his smuggled letter, David realized Kate was integral in eventually bringing him home. David’s ordeal has been immortalized in Kate’s 2014 documentary “Kidnapped for Christ.” After graduating college (paid for by his parents), David threw all of his support behind Kate and her film.
David’s advocacy has ruffled his parents’ feathers, but they’ve come to accept his sexuality. They’ve cut him off financially since he has recently begun supporting Kate’s film. And, while he has brought boyfriends home to Colorado to meet his parents, they never bring up his sexuality or ask him if he is dating anyone. The subject of Escuela Caribe is off limits to them, but David says they’re in denial about the extent of physical and emotional abuse he endured there.
David now considers himself a survivor of institutional abuse and is an advocate for organizations like Stop Institutional Abuse (SIA). You can sign a petition to call for more regulations on organizations like Escuela Caribe at PYIA.org. Escuela Caribe closed in 2011 and donated its property to an organization called Crosswinds. While Crosswinds maintains it is discrete from Escuela Caribe and does not perform gay conversion therapy, its website refers to the property as “a therapeutic Christian boarding school.”
Andrew Comiskey is the founder and executive director of Desert Stream Living Waters, a large ministry in Grandview that claims to heal, and trains lay persons or clergy to heal, people Andrew refers to as “sexually or relationally broken.” This term includes homosexuals.
Andrew says he was born in Long Beach, Calif., and, “was raised as a nominal Episcopalian.” He took acid and other drugs while young and considered himself a hard partier. He had his first physical same-sex experience with a friend when they were high school freshmen. When he came out to his parents, he says, his father, a psychology professor, “was OK with it. Mom was more concerned.” He clarifies that it was less about his soul or anything religious and more about his well-being, “compassionate concern.”
While a UCLA student, he discovered what he describes as a “turned-on” church in Santa Monica, “a forum to deal with integrating and understanding sexuality.” To Andrew, this meant recognizing his same-sex attraction, speaking openly about it, and rejecting it. The church’s pastor told Andrew he had a real knack for leading discussions on the integration of spirituality and sexuality, and encouraged him to lead his own groups.
Andrew met his wife, Annette at said church and together they built what would eventually become Desert Stream Ministries. About 20 years ago, Andrew and Annette relocated to Kansas City.
Andrew tells me that “the church is a consumer-driven entity.” He refers to the reaction many churches are having toward the growing movement away from anti-gay beliefs that are turning off potential parishioners. “I think there was an overreaction. There was a tendency to never talk about sexuality, which was bad because it creates religious baggage and doesn’t solve anything. Or you have the hate groups, the crazy people that every religion has (…) but then, a lot of churches overreacted and now everyone is saying, ‘Leave the poor homosexuals alone.’”
“But,” Andrew says, “you’re not doing them any favors by leaving them alone.” He says the goal of his ministry is to, “find a compassionate way forward for the sexually broken.” To leave religious baggage at the door and give people the “freedom to talk! To actually grow in relation to Jesus Christ.” He is adamant that what his ministry does is not therapy. “Living Waters’ curriculum is all about prayer, listening and sharing.”
But what is homosexuality to Andrew? Why are LGBT people sexually broken? “(They’re) frustrating God’s intention. There are many expressions of heterosexual frustration. But there is a non-negotiable gender duality. God made men and women in his own image (…) it’s an inclination. It’s not a choice. But how you deal with it is.”
Andrew clarifies, “I think two men or two women can have an intense emotional bond, but that’s a different type of love (…) a friendship (…) What someone may call ‘same-sex love’ (…) I am not denying their existential experience nor am I impugning their motivation. Their motivation is, and we can all identify with this, to seek union. But it’s a disordered union because it’s not what we were created for.”
Andrew says now that he’s married to his wife it’s hard to imagine what a long-term same-sex relationship would be like, but he hypothesizes that it’s something like, “I’m so glad I can be with my 40-year-old old roommate and have anal sex with him because it is just so hot.” He explains, “My wife has a gift that I don’t have.”
Andrew believes his ministry is a gift to those willing to receive it. He does not call it therapy and even asks loudly, “I mean, what the hell is conversion therapy?!” He also doesn’t minister to individuals under the age of 18. “Teens are precocious and you need to be really careful.” He doesn’t believe a child should be encouraged to be gay, but is against bullying. There are caveats, though. “Bullying and protecting kids is one thing. But I wouldn’t worry about anti-discrimination laws.” The topic shifts from students to teachers, “I think it should depend on the ethos of the school. Christian and Catholic schools are entitled to their own sexual ethics.” His advice to an LGBT person wanting to work for a private school? “I think they knew what they signed up for (…) Get a job in a public school.”
While David Wernsman is going across the country, advocating for the end of institutionalized abuse, Michael Ferguson is suing. Michael and his husband, Seth, have been vocal LGBT-rights supporters for years, but Michael was once a Mormon struggling with the intersection of his faith and his sexual identity. He tells me he “started participating in reparative, or conversion, therapy at the behest of a (Latter Day Saints) bishop who deemed it necessary for me to “turn up” the dimmer switch on my attractions to women and “turn down” the dimmer switch on my attraction to men. There weren’t explicit threats to coerce participation in reparative therapy. But when your entire eternal perspective hinges on you marrying a woman per LDS beliefs, it’s a lot of extrinsic pressure.”
Michael, along with three other men and two parents, are suing JONAH (Jews Offering New Alternatives to Healing, formerly the “H” stood for “Homosexuality”), the New Jersey-based non-profit organization that claimed it could dissuade Michael from same-sex attraction. The sort of “new alternatives to healing” they offered surrounded a lot of parent-blaming. In fact, one exercise involved beating an effigy of the patient’s mother with a tennis racket. “One of the (harmful) factors was the extreme disruption the therapy was causing within family relationships.”
Michael was also forced to “form a human barricade (with a group of men) and on the other side of that barricade were a pair of oranges meant to represent another man’s testicles. And there was a participant in the exercise who was supposed to break through the barricade and grab the oranges and was instructed to squeeze them and drink the juice from them and to shove them down his pants. And all this was to symbolize that, you know, his homosexuality was related to his lack of masculinity or his lack of these metaphorical testicles and that reclaiming them would (propel) him towards heterosexuality.”
Michael adds, “There’s definitely this insidious trauma that is inflicted on a person when the repeated message is that there is something inside of you that is broken and that if you try hard enough you can fix it. So, consequently, if you’re trying, if you’re engaging in these practices and you’re not experiencing change, then there is a tremendous amount of self-blame that befalls you.”