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Tennessee Moves to Investigate “Ex-Gay” Camp

In June, 16-year-old Zach Stark, a member of the “MySpace” online community, gained the support of thousands and commanded the attention of both the media and the state of Tennessee after he used his blog to detail his struggle of coming out to his parents and his subsequent enrollment in an “ex-gay” camp.

On May 29 th , Stark reported on the blog that his parents made him apply to Refuge, a fundamentalist Christian program which “exists to be a Christ-centered ministry for the prevention or remediation of unhealthy and destructive behaviors facing families, adults, and adolescents.”1 In Stark’s case the goal of the program was to change his sexual orientation from gay to straight. Starks expressed an obvious resistance and hopelessness over the prospect of attending Refuge. “Even if I do come out straight, I’ll be so mentally unstable and depressed it won’t matter,” he wrote in his blog on May 30th.

The program lasts two or six weeks and is held in a “park like” setting from 9AM-5PM, after which participants retreat to a hotel with a legal guardian. Refuge is a subsidiary of Love in Action International which offers a range of similar programs. A confidential email from Refuge to Stark’s parents that was copied and posted by Starks, outlines the strict rules of Refuge including lengthy sessions of solitary confinement, isolation, and extreme restrictions of attire, correspondence, and privacy sanctioned by biblical quotations.

Love in Action is an affiliate of Exodus International, the most prominent informational and referral organization in the “ex-gay” movement. Founded in 1976, the Exodus network includes over 150 secular and religious programs, counselors, and therapies in 17 member nations, predominantly the U.S. and Canada.2

Attempting to eliminate same-sex desires is referred to as “transformational ministries” by many religious groups while most secular groups refer to it as “reparative therapy.”3 The practice holds little weight among mental health professionals. Most professional mental health organizations believe that reparative therapies carry a significant risk of perpetuating symptoms of anxiety, depression, and self hatred rather then relieving them. The American Psychological Association (APA), in collaboration with ten major health professions has stated that “the most important fact about ‘reparative therapy’ is that it is based on an understanding of homosexuality that has been rejected by all the major health and mental health professions.”4 The APA declassified homosexuality as a mental disorder in 1973.

According to Reverend John Smid, Love in Action’s executive director, the goal of Refuge is not necessarily to turn gays into practicing heterosexuals, but rather to “assist them in living lives of self control.”5 Smid believes that same-sex attraction is a choice. An “ex-gay” himself, Smid has been married for sixteen years.

Wade Richards, a longtime spokesperson for the “ex-gay” movement who now lives openly as a gay person, expressed skepticism saying “the only people that I know … who are successfully quote-unquote ex-gay are the people who are still working for these organizations.”6 Richards graduated from a Love in Action program in 1996 after voluntarily residing there for a year and a half.

After receiving complaints from supporters of Stark and the Queer Action Coalition, a grassroots organization formed in response to Stark’s struggle, Tennessee ‘s Department of Children’s Services (DCS) launched an investigation into allegations of child abuse at the Love in Action campus. “Emotional abuse is difficult to prove in the state of Tennessee,” said Pamela Dickey of Childhelp USA in Knoxville, “you have to document that the child is undergoing depression or suicidal ideation, that he can’t sleep or can’t eat.”7 In fact, on June 27 th DCS determined that the child abuse allegations were unfounded.8


Two other state departments are trying to decide whether or not further investigation is in order. The Tennessee Department of Health and the Department of Mental Health and Human Developmental Disabilities are scrutinizing the case to determine if Love in Action is offering therapeutic services for which it is not licensed.9 Mr. Smid, however, insists that his program is a spiritual, not a counseling, center and he said he will remove references to therapy from its website.10 At press time, the references have yet to be removed.


  1. Our Mission , Love in Action International, Inc, accessed 14 July 2005, <> View Article.
  2. About Exodus, Exodus International (2005), accessed 26 June 2005, <> View Article.
  3. Just the Facts about Sexual Orientation & Youth: A Primer for Principals, Educators and School Personnel (Washington D.C.: Just the Facts Coalition, 1999), accessed 14 July 2005, <> View Article.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Anthony Glassman, “Memphis teen’s blog sparks Protests of ‘ex-gay’ program,” Gay People’s Chronicle , 24 June 2005, accessed 14 July 2005, <> View Article.
  6. Susan Ryan-Vollmar, “Ex-ex Gay Speaks Out,” Bay Windows, 30 June 2005, accessed 5 July 2005, <> View Article.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Associated Press, “Investigation Into Ex-Gay Camp Ends,” , 28 June 2005, accessed 13 July 2005, <> View Article.
  9. Eartha Melzer, “Tennessee continues to probe into ‘ex-gay’ facility,” Southern Voice , 1 July 2005, accessed 14 July 2005, <> View Article.
  10. Alex Williams, “Gay Teenager Stirs a Storm,” The New York Times , 17 July 2005, accessed 19 July 2005, <> View Article.