’Ex-Gay’ Movement on the Rise in Latin America

by Peter Cassels

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday February 21, 2012

A government investigation of so-called "reparative therapy" clinics in Ecuador after allegations of kidnap and torture is placing a spotlight on the ex-gay movement in Latin America.

In early February, gay rights groups filed a complaint with the government's health ministry after a lesbian reported that she was held against her will in a center near Quito, the country's capital, for 18 months. During that time, Paola Concha claims she was handcuffed, not fed for several days at a time, forced to dress as a man and repeatedly raped.

Concha is just one of what activists say are many lesbians who were forcibly captured, detained and tortured at such facilities. There are more than 225 such private clinics in Ecuador offering what they call "corrective therapy," allegedly for alcohol and drug rehabilitation. At least some (it's unclear how many) also claim that they can "cure" homosexuality.

The story made headlines after Change.org posted a petition asking Ecuador to shut down the clinics. More than 100,000 have signed. The health ministry, which must license the facilities, has said it is investigating the allegations and, if appropriate, will close clinics. Last year it closed more than 20 clinics for minor infractions, but they reopened within days.

Homosexuality was illegal in Ecuador until 1998. But the nation has made significant strides in gay rights under President Rafael Correa. A new constitution enacted in 2008 recognized civil unions. In December 2011 a lesbian for the first time was granted her deceased partner's state pension. (Both of these actions, by the way, put the Pacific Coast nation ahead of the United States.)

Once-Conservative Latin American Progress on Gay Rights

There's been a sea change in other Latin American countries too, as more centrist governments have replaced right-wing repressive ones. Argentina became the first country in the region to pass full marriage quality in 2010.

Neighboring Uruguay became the first country in South America to allow civil unions for both opposite-sex and same-sex couples in January 2008. In 2009, adoption rights were extended to same-sex couples in the southern South American nation.

Campaigning in part on a promise to sponsor civil-union legislation, Sebastian Pinera was elected president of Chile in 2010. A center-right politician, Pinera is not very popular, however, and his promise remains unfulfilled.

In Colombia, the Supreme Court recently ordered the Legislature to grant full equal rights, including marriage -- although it did not use the word -- within two years. Mexico City has legalized marriage equality, although it's still not elsewhere in that country.

In 2011, the Supreme Court in Brazil ruled that civil unions are legal and later that year a lower court ruled that two women can marry. In Cuba, the government is on the verge of discussing the legalization of civil unions; last year, it granted rights for free sex reassignment surgery.

'Ex-Gay' Movement, Waning in U.S. Growing to the South

The spread of gay rights achievements is spurring anti-gay organizations, such as those believing gays can be made straight, to action.

The ex-gay movement began in 1976 with the establishment of Exodus International, a group that purports to "cure" homosexuality through therapy. While allegations such as those in Ecuador have not surfaced (and the clinics there are not associated with the organization), Exodus in recent years has been discredited as being ineffective in turning gays and lesbians straight.

Several of its members, most notably its chair, John Paulk, have been exposed as remaining gay after undergoing "conversion therapy" that obviously didn't manage to convert anyone. Exodus's board of directors removed Paulk in 2000 after he was caught flirting with men in a Washington, D.C., gay bar.

As its credibility has waned in the United States, the organization has established a presence in other countries, Latin America, where its philosophy and techniques have maintained a degree of popularity. Exodus International Latin America has more than a dozen ministries in countries that include Brazil, Mexico, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Panama, Peru and Costa Rica.

Evangelicals & Catholic Church Agree on This, Anyway

The movement appeals to both evangelical Christians and Catholics, who together wield enormous clout in the region. "The market in Western Europe and the U.S. is drying up," Wayne Besen told EDGE. "As Pentecostals gain market share in Latin America, you're going to see more and more ex-gay outfits." (It was Besen, executive director of Truth Wins Out, a strong critic of ex-gays, who, acting on a tip, tracked Paulk and photographed him at the Washington gay bar.)

As it is elsewhere, the Internet is pervasive in Latin America. It can function not only as a major tool to communicate but also to fuel misinformation, Besen pointed out. "You don't have to have an official ex-gay ministry to use the paradigm they have created. The right-wing religious communities' use of misinformation is much greater there and has a lot of breadth." Rights groups in the region don't have the resources to strongly respond to reparative therapy advocates, he added.

Andres Duque now lives in New York City. A native of Columbia, he is a well known blogger on gay issues in Latin America. Duque told EDGE that the Catholic Church, particularly in Argentina and Colombia, is a powerful component of the "ex-gay movement."

A large and politically powerful evangelical movement in Brazil and throughout Central America "speak out against advances in gay rights, but it's not their sole issue," Duque added. "Some of the evangelical and Pentecostal churches make it their sole issue."

While most Latin American countries have active gay rights organizations, "the political muscle they have varies from country to country," Duque noted. There are visible gay populations in larger urban centers in Ecuador, but, according to Duque, "in rural areas, it's hard to lead an openly gay life."

Through his website Talk to Action, Bruce Wilson reports on research he and others do on the religious right.

He is currently tracking a movement called the New Apostolic Reformation that is spreading internationally and played a significant role in Uganda's stridently anti-gay policies. Efforts in that African nation to pass a death penalty for being gay apparently have risen and fallen according to pressure from human rights groups and diplomats, led by U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and the British government.

Wilson maintains that the rapidly rising neo-Pentecostal movements are supplanting their long-reigning precursor, the Roman Catholic Church. As they become more prevalent, they are playing more and more significant roles in any pushback against gay rights in Latin America. "Homophobia and aggressive campaigns against LGBT rights, plus ex-gay ministry approaches, are one of the signatures of the movement," Wilson said.

Within the apostolic movement "homosexuality is an abomination to God, life begins at conception and sex outside marriage is a sin," he added. He cited Brazil as "definitely the one country in Latin America to watch" because of the influence of charismatic evangelicals.

The New Apostolic Reformation conducts "transformational conferences" there attended by thousands of delegates. Adept at organizing and building influence, the movement promotes family values and issues a series of videos it calls "transformations."

The movement is currently focused on evangelizing the military, police and, through politicians, the entire government.

Hope & Disappointment in Ecuador

As for Ecuador, Correa replaced leftist Michelle Jeria, the country's first woman president. Gay activists had hoped she would promote gay rights, in vain as it turned out. Now they complain that Correa is not doing enough.

Carina Vance is a lesbian activist who has been leading the fight against the "reparative therapy" clinics. As the minister of public health since in January, she says that her government is committed to a long-term strategy to change the clinics' operations and is considering suing them for human rights violations.

Fundacion Causana, a human rights group, has been working on behalf of countless women allegedly being held against their will. Many hope that Vance and this group will put an end once and for all to the coercive, cultish, brutal and downright weird methodology and philosophy of the "ex-gay" movement in Ecuador.

Peter Cassels is a recipient of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association's Excellence in Journalism award. His e-mail address is [email protected].