“Ex-Gay” NPR Report Closets Mormon Side of the Story

What in the world was NPR doing presenting a story about gay conversion programs as a “health“-related feature?

And why in the world did NPR cut the fact that the protagonist of the story—ex-gay life coach Rich Wyler—is Mormon, calling him a “conservative Christian” instead?

Here at RD, Candace Chellew-Hodge has pointed out the failure of the NPR story to present an accurate picture of the religious and business motives of gay conversion programs, and Warren Throckmorton and Ted Cox have described the marginal, controversial practices of Wyler’s Journey into Manhood program.

But to get the full story—the story NPR missed—it’s important to understand Wyler, Journey into Manhood, and gay conversion programs not as a health story but as part of a decades-long religious experiment based in Mormon theology and culture.

Mainstream Mormonism teaches that homosexuality is incompatible with the will of God. Both Rich Wyler and his Journey into Manhood co-founder David Matheson are Mormon. Both have ties to Evergreen, a high-profile LDS nonprofit organization that encourages gay Mormons to “diminish same-sex attractions and overcome homosexual behavior.” Evergreen is not an arm of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but the fact that high-ranking Church officials speak at Evergreen annual conferences is understood within the Mormon community as something like an official seal of approval.

Matheson wrote the official workbook for Evergreen and has received grants from Evergreen to develop his own research on root causes of homosexuality. Wyler has keynoted Evergreen conferences. According to sources in the gay Mormon community, both Matheson and Wyler are all-stars in the world of Evergreen. And both Journey into Manhood and Evergreen have shared a basic (and widely discredited) storyline that connects homosexuality to some combination of adolescent hormonal cross-wiring and disrupted family bonding: for gay men, that usually means an uncaring or distant father.

Given his place within the world of Mormon homosexuality, Wyler and his programs should be understood as belonging to a Mormon history of experimental efforts to “change” gay people. This history includes experimental electroshock aversion therapies administered to homosexuals at Brigham Young University in the 1970s.

There are many, many Mormon gay men who having been taught that homosexuality is incompatible with God’s plan for their lives turn to programs such as Journey Into Manhood in an effort to diminish their attraction to other men, if not abolish it altogether. Some are married; some want to be married. Many are desperate to change. They are doing what they believe they need to do. And they are willing to pay $600 a weekend to do it. (The commercial aspect of gay conversion programs is especially striking in a Mormon culture where we have an entirely unpaid lay clergy.)

It is striking to me that vulnerable and desperate gay Mormons are still being sold unproven (if not disproven) experimental conversion “therapies” by other Mormons (some, like Wyler, without clinical training) who appear to have the blessing of the LDS Church.

And now free advertising too, thanks to NPR’s “health” reporting.

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Joanna Brooks is the author of The Book of Mormon Girl: A Memoir of an American Faith (Free Press / Simon & Schuster, 2012) and a senior correspondent for Religion Dispatches.