Wayne Besen was 18 years old when he first experienced an attempt to rid him of his homosexuality. It was 1988 and his parents bought him a self-help tape called “Gay and Unhappy,” which claims to use “self hypnosis” and “subliminal persuasion” to turn someone straight.
Decades later, he would use this experience to help fight all forms of conversion therapy.
“Instead of my parents dealing with the issue, that was the first thing they turned to when they saw that in the store, this tape,” he said. “So I understood intuitively how this works, how that dynamic works within families, because it happened to me.”
Besen is the founder and executive director of Truth Wins Out (TWO), celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. It was when former President George W. Bush invited the leaders of Exodus International, a religious conversion therapy group, to the White House that Besen saw that work needed to be done. He had published the book “Anything but Straight: Unmasking the Scandals and Lies Behind the Ex-Gay Myth” in 2003 and was already in advocacy work.
“That was a very dangerous message to send young people,” Besen said of Bush’s guests. “This whole ex-gay message has found its way into the highest office of the land, and that has to be countered because it’s a very insidious lie, being one of the worst around.”
“It denies people their very existence and it’s very effective, too. It allows people to believe that their own child can pray away the gay, therefore they don’t have to accept them. It’s something of a temporary phase, so why go for acceptance if you can start that process?”
So he founded TWO in 2006, pouring his savings into the cause and receiving generous donations from other LGBT activists. The group identified its “foes” as Focus on the Family’s Love Won Out program, Exodus International, Love in Action, Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality, now for Healing (JONAH), and other conversion therapy groups.
Conversion therapy and the ex-gay movement are practices, typically rooted in religious belief, that one’s homosexuality can be removed through prayer, fasting, reading scripture, and even going as far as torture and exorcism. The therapies are performed at houses of worship, therapist's offices, and camps.
TWO’s mission was to conduct research into groups, which helped scholars, lawyers, and other LGBT groups with their own work. Much of this is done through TWOCARE, the organization’s Center Against religious Extremism. In 2007, TWO made waves when it exposed reparative therapy going on in the clinic of Marcus Bachmann, the husband of Congresswoman Michele Bachmann. TWO sent in an undercover “patient” armed with a hidden camera and recorded multiple sessions where he was told that no one is born gay and that he could be cured.
Love in Action ended its camp, Refuge, in 2007 and started the Family Freedom Intensive, another camp for adults and their children, a month later. Love Won Out was sold from Focus on the Family to Exodus International, which disbanded in June 2013.
In the summer of 2015, JONAH was at the center of the nation’s first trial on conversion therapy. The Southern Poverty Law Center claimed that not only was their work unethical, but it was also consumer fraud.
“I call it malpractice because every respected medical and mental health organization says it doesn't work and gay people aren't mentally ill,” Besen explained. “[These groups] start talking about what they do and how they do it and even conservatives aren't buying it. I mean that’s how you beat them: the question of how. That’s when people see it for the fraud it is, for the danger it truly is, and for the deceptive practice that should be banned. It’s really a con artist’s game.”
The jury found that JONAH was guilty of misrepresentation and the courts required that it pay $72,400 in damages and $3.5 million in legal fees, according to Slate. In December 2015, it was ordered that the group disband and could no longer practice conversion therapy in the state of New Jersey.
“I think we’ve been enormously successful even beyond what I had hoped and expected given the results of how that movement is now in tatters,” Besen said. “They're all gone now and we’re still standing, and that’s exactly what I promised… we pound(ed) them relentlessly for a decade into oblivion.”
While legislation to illegalize the practice for minors is underway in multiple states, religious freedom has made it hard to ban it for adults. Besen believes it should be illegalized completely because of consumer fraud, but admits that TWO’s energy is best spent on helping youngsters forced into conversion therapy.
“Make no mistake, it’s extraordinarily damaging when people are put under this practice at any age,” he said. “I think we should just focus right now on youth. You can’t stop everybody from being harmed, but we certainly though can protect our kids.”
Also, with the internet, TWO putting out its research and Besen’s books -- he wrote “Bashing Back” in 2007 – the priority is helping those considering therapy to not enter, or for those who are already in it, to leave.
“If someone stays in it for two years instead of 10, that’s a victory and we've helped them enormously,” he said.
Today, Besen is also taking his message to the airwaves as the host of “The Wayne Besen Show” on Chicago’s Progressive Talk. TWO continues working with other groups working to ban conversion therapy, sharing its expertise and research on the topic. In fact, because of the success of TWO, every year they have evaluated whether it is needed any longer.
“At this point, we’ve put most of these groups out,” he said. “We always assess, is there more we can do? Are we needed? And then go from there.”