Closed-Door Conference in Poland Shows How US Conservative Christian Networks Export ‘Conversion Therapy’

IFTCC conference attendees pray in October, 2023. Image: YouTube/IFTCC

On an October night in 2023, Focus on the Family’s Glenn T. Stanton stood on a small stage in a windowless conference room in Warsaw, Poland, and gave a fierce lecture titled “How ‘Trans’ Reality is Dramatically Shifting.” For almost an hour he denied the existence of trans people (whom he referred to as “groomers”) while he misgendered and mocked famous queer people like Caitlyn Jenner or TikTok influencer Dylan Mulvaney. Of course, as the Director of Global Family Formation Studies at Focus on the Family, Stanton’s positions on LGBTIQ rights come as no surprise; what is remarkable on this night is the open aggression with which he speaks—and the audience he speaks to.

Around 200 people from more than 30 countries gathered in a hotel at the outskirts of Warsaw, applauded at the conclusion of Stanton’s lecture. Among them were Polish psychologists, Slovakian politicians, German doctors, British pastors, and Norwegian anti-pornography activists; Christians from the UK, from the Faroe Islands, and from Barbados. Yet, while the bulk of the attendees hailed from Eastern Europe, notably nearly half of the 23 announced speakers were US-based.

Every speaker was predictably affiliated with an anti-LGBTIQ Christian organization, the majority of which are evangelical (though some are Catholic). Some claimed to be scientists, while others were counselors, therapists, or pastors. Some identified as “ex-gay.” What they brought to the stage in Warsaw, varied from typical conference talks to more sermon-like lectures. They were united, though, in the essence of their message: that sexual orientation or gender identity can be changed, and that there are some sexualities that are better—or more natural, or healthier—than others. To put it simply: they were there to spread the ideology of so-called “conversion therapies,” practices discredited by practically every serious health organization worldwide. Some human rights NGOs even classify conversion practices as torture

In the US, conversion therapy has been banned in a number of jurisdictions. Since 2013 more than 100 municipalities and 26 states have banned such practices—for minors at least. In the EU, more and more countries are making efforts to protect LGBTIQ people from conversion therapies. Malta banned conversion practices in 2016, with France following in 2021. Greece and Germany have banned it for minors. Other countries prohibit it in certain regions, while a number of other countries continue to discuss bans or restrictions. This past January an EU-wide initiative called on the European Commission to work on a binding legal ban for all member states.

All 11 US speakers were invited to Warsaw by a British Christian Lobby organization called the International Foundation for Therapeutic and Counseling Choice (IFTCC), which presents itself as an aid organization whose stated goal is to support people who want to leave the “LGBT lifestyle.” This three-day event, the group’s 9th annual conference, was somewhat euphemistically titled: “Turning the Tide: Cross-Disciplinary Approaches to Issues of Sexuality and Gender.” Past events, most of which took place in Hungary and Slovakia, had a similar focus.

Eastern European countries provide an accommodating atmosphere for the networking events of the Christian Right. Eastern European societies are traditionally religious, and many have, particularly in recent years, been shaped by right-leaning and regressive, nationalist politics like the PiS party in Poland, or Viktor Orbán and the Fidesz party in Hungary. Here, it’s relatively easy for the conservative Christian IFTCC to find spaces into which they can channel these mostly US-rooted ideas and ideologies without strong headwinds. While the organization is active at their base in London and elsewhere in the UK (where they hold protests and launch online campaigns), the conferences in Eastern Europe are their mainstay.

Rebranding a pseudoscience

We attended the Warsaw event somewhat undercover (we registered as ordinary attendees, though under our real names). Even in relatively conservative Poland, the fear of critical reporting or protests remains. We attended not only to drag these harmful ideas into the light, but also to reveal how interconnected this small but powerful (and largely US Christian Right-based) network really is. Of the more than 30 scheduled talks, every single one focused in one way or another on how queer people—whether they identify as gay, non-binary, trans, or otherwise—can be “cured” or changed. 

Focus on the Family, which sent Stanton to the conference, is linked to numerous Christian Right institutions, like the infamous National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), for example, founded in the 1990s by the late Dr. Joseph Nicolosi (though it has since changed its name to The Alliance for Therapeutic Choice and Scientific Integrity). Some survivors of Nicolosi’s so-called “reparative therapy” treatment report that they were referred to him by Focus on the Family.

As with so many Christian Right ideas that begin in the US, Nicolosi’s work made its way to Europe. In fact, one might even see the work of Nicolosi, a main speaker at the 2016 conference, as the ideological foundation of the ideas presented at all IFTCC conferences. More recently, however, the IFTCC’s ideas have been a reflection of the work of his son, Joseph Nicolosi Jr, who, in 2018, founded the “Reintegrative Therapy Association” in California (a term he trademarked). 

Nicolosi Jr claims to have developed his father’s “treatment” such that it’s now able to heal childhood trauma by discussing “key” sexual fantasies, and that the resulting “shift” to heterosexuality is simply a “spontaneous byproduct.” But medical organizations and human rights projects list it as just another form of conversion therapy, defined as methods that “attempt to change sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression change or suppression efforts.” 

Tim Long, a former student of Nicolosi Jr, even revealed this similarity when he told an IFTCC audience in 2019 that the “new” method is nothing but a rebranding, aiming to avoid political discrediting: 

Doctor Nicolosi Sr coined the term ‘reparative therapy’ for his treatment. Unfortunately, this term has been widely misunderstood. As Doctor Nicolosi Jr has worked to standardize his treatment to become an approach people can be formally trained and certified in, he has renamed it ‘reintegrative therapy.’

For $225 per 45-minute session Nicolosi Jr offers treatment at his private practice, “The Breakthrough Clinic,” in Westlake Village, California. His methods, he claims, are based on science, such as the study on the spectrum of sexualities by psychology professor Ritch Savin-Williams (et al.) from Cornell University in New York. 

When asked what he thinks of Nicolosi Jr’s use of his research, however, Dr. Savin-Williams told us that he finds it “incredible” that “the Right” interprets his research as evidence for conversion treatments, before adding: “Indeed, I believe conversion therapy to be not only misguided but also a demonstration of evil intent, usually based on religion.”

On the second day of the 2023 conference in Warsaw, a counselor from Pennsylvania named Andrew Rodriguez, another licensed “Reintegrative Therapist,” discussed what he calls “the Self-State Model” whose goal is to “Regulate Sexuality.” Rodriguez, a campus counselor at the Assemblies of God-affiliated University of Valley Forge, is described in the conference program as a specialist “in working with people struggling with unwanted same-sex attraction.” In his talk, he called homosexuality a “threat reaction,” and a “consummatory posture,” comparing what he called “homosexual behavior” to the consumption of porn, food, or social media. In other words: disordered behavior.

A who’s who of the European anti-LGBTQ movement

As with so many of his Warsaw colleagues, Rodriguez has deeper connections to the broader anti-LGBTIQ conversion therapy industry. This March he was a featured guest on the podcast of the Ruth Institute (RI), a conservative Catholic organization and dedicated anti-LGBTIQ project whose  “Make the Family Great Again” petition to the State Department in 2020 was, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, an “example of how the Trump administration has continued to embolden and support anti-LGBTQ hate groups.” 

At the Warsaw conference, the RI was represented by Paul Sullins, described in the conference program as the Institute’s “Senior Research Associate” and “leader in the field of research on same-sex parenting and its implications for child development.” Sullins’ main talk enlisted countless slides with numbers, tables, and colored graphs in an effort to question the well established fact that, in addition to scant data supporting even a modest success rate, treatments aiming to suppress sexual orientation or gender expression can cause serious damage, or even be deadly

His own research, however, has essentially been deemed junk science by those who aren’t committed to an anti-LGBTQ agenda. A pair of Danish scholars, for example, called his publication on suicide rates among those who submit to “change efforts” (aka conversion therapy) “egregiously problematic.” In addition to methodological issues, the scientists noted that they had “obvious and very serious ethical and human rights concerns.” 

But a high regard for science did not appear to be the top priority for conference guests. They seemed comfortable in the setting, which included a packed program with few breaks and prayers every morning. Talks included almost no Q&A or discussion, and attendees largely listened and nodded, offering the occasional “Amen.” Sitting among them were representatives from major European Christian Right groups, like Christian Concern, led by chief executive and lawyer Andrea Williams, which has close ties to the IFTCC and is also based in London. One arm of Christian Concern is the Christian Legal Centre, which regularly defends Christians accused of LGBTIQ discrimination, or of spreading misinformation about conversion practices. Williams herself gave two speeches at the Warsaw conference. Elsewhere, she claims to have successfully advocated face-to-face with UK parliamentarians against the national conversion therapy ban, which was dropped by premier Rishi Sunak last autumn.

Also present was retired doctor Christl R. Vonholdt, a prominent figure in the conversion therapy bubble, who traveled from Germany. A member of the IFTCC Board of Directors from 2017 to 2020, Vonholdt directed the German Institute for Youth and Society (DIJG) until 2021—an evangelical think tank that has worked with right-wing organizations in the US, like the Institute for Religion and Democracy and the aforementioned NARTH. Vonholdt’s DIJG is connected to the Reichenberg Fellowship (known in Germany as the OJC) which offers a voluntary service for young people.

Slovak Politicians and academics also attended, including Marián Čaučík, Member of Parliament for the Christian Democratic Movement, a conservative Catholic Party, and associate professor Eva Naništová, who currently serves as Dean of the Faculty of Psychology at the Pan-European University in Bratislava. Local attendees included Dr. Szymon Grzelak, a Polish psychologist who founded the “European Institute of Integrated Prevention,” which hosts a 2-day program that “serves” forty-thousand young people each year. In his speech Dr. Grzelak lamented that, since homosexuality is no longer regarded as a disease, his institute is prohibited from openly teaching youth how to “prevent” it.

Enter the Americans

The audience at this Warsaw conference eagerly awaited the arrival of anti-LGBTIQ activists from the US, like Dr. Quentin Van Meter, a Pediatric Endocrinologist from Atlanta, Georgia whose talks focused on transgender issues. Trans identities, he argued, are merely a political construct that, according to his lecture, date back to the origins of Critical Theory, the Frankfurt School, and Marxism. In the US, Dr. Van Meter had been tapped as a medical expert in court, “almost universally in opposition to transgender rights and healthcare”—that is, until a Texas judge ruled in 2020 that van Meter was “discredited as an expert” on hormone treatment, because his opinion “tended to be more agenda driven than scientific driven.” Still, despite the ruling, he was subsequently chosen to submit an “expert report” on gender-affirming care by Florida AHCA/Medicaid which, trans writer Zinnia Jones notes, “was then incorporated into… [a] medicaid report.”

Van Meter is also the Past President of the American College of Pediatricians, a conservative group of anti-LGBTIQ, anti-abortion doctors, accused by health organizations and the scientific community of spreading misleading information, and even misusing other institutions’ work to serve their own agenda. The ACPeds has reportedly been working closely with the Christian nationalist advocacy group “Alliance Defending Freedom” (ADF), which has requested anti-trans research from the ACPeds for years. A 2023 Mother Jones report detailed how a network of anti-LGBTIQ activists, in which ACPeds is a central player, collaborated to push bills to ban gender-affirming healthcare. Like so many others, this isn’t Dr. Van Meter’s first IFTCC rodeo. In 2018, he spoke at the conference in Hungary.

Other US-based speakers familiar to regular IFTCC followers included Ken Williams and Elizabeth Woning, who describe themselves as a “former gay” and a “former lesbian.” Both carry the title “pastor,” and both are IFTCC board members as well as co-founders of the “Changed Movement,” whose activities range from publishing “testimonies” of people who’ve supposedly changed their sexual orientation to lobbying for anti-LGBTIQ policies in the US. In 2023, a representative of the “Changed Movement” spoke at a hearing in opposition to gender-affirming healthcare before the Montana Senate Judiciary Committee, alongside representatives from a number of anti-trans organizations, including familiar faces like the Family Research Council and the Heritage Foundation. 

The “Changed Movement” began, according to its website, when Williams and Woning testified along with 30 others and delivered a book with stories of “ex-gays” to California Senators who were, at the time, considering a ban on conversion therapy. Subsequently, the story goes, “heartened by [his] conversations” with “a wide variety of faith leaders,” Assemblymember Evan Low withdrew the bill that he himself had initiated.

Involved in that same case was yet another IFTCC-affiliated figure named Laura Haynes, who founded the National Task Force for Therapy Equality and who’s described in the IFTCC’s 2023 conference program as a “retired Psychologist.” In addition to being a board member of the British IFTCC, Haynes also holds the position as “USA Country Representative” and has spoken on IFTCC stages a number of times.

In many ways Haynes embodies the US conversion network presence at the Warsaw conference. In addition to her affiliations noted above, she wrote a letter to the UN that was published by Family Watch International; she was interviewed by Family Research Council president Tony Perkins; and, on behalf of the IFTCC, she drafted a declaration against conversion therapy bans worldwide. A resulting petition contains fewer than 2,000 signatures, 400 of which are from the US, according to the website.

And the list of US-based evangelical leaders and activists of the Christian Right involved in the conference in Warsaw, its preceding events, and the campaigning of the IFTCC in Eastern Europe, doesn’t end there.

There’s Floyd Godfrey, a former Sex Addiction Therapist (he lost his license after a number of sexual harassment suits were filed) who likes to compare Homosexuality to Alcoholism (or, as he did some years ago, to Cannibalism); Carolyn Pela, a marriage therapist from Arizona, who lectured the audience in Warsaw on “break[ing] down the walls” of “same-sex attraction”; and Christopher Rosik, who claimed that the peer-reviewed, acknowledged science that rejects conversion therapy is “guarded by ideological monoculture” and funded by “LGBT-allied institutions.” While prospective patients can find Rosik’s name in the American Psychological Association (APA) database, some of his former patients have been left with a bitter taste, as one patient review makes clear:

My parents took me to this fraud when i was a teen. This is not a therapist. He is a bible thumper. He kept religious junk all over his office, to intimidate young patients, and he was anything but a neutral practitioner. He was also the top opposition to California’s life-saving law, banning conversion therapy, and he wrote letters to the supreme court of CA to fight for the right to allow LGBT kids to continue being subject to dangerous and abusive conversion practices. If you truly love your child, or family member, do not bring them to this monster.

‘Please DO NOT post this information on any website’

In Warsaw, Rosik and the others filled the air of the windowless conference room with their “faith-based” pseudoscience unquestioned. Here, they were offered space to spread disinformation about conversion practices disguised as therapeutic methods, and here, they were praised for it and listened to by a rapt audience prepared to spread these ideas in universities, clinics, practices, youth centers, and the psychological training they offer to the next generation. 

Before publication, we reached out to all speakers mentioned here. Only two responded, both essentially making the same points they’d made in their conference lectures. “People who experience their same-sex attractions as incompatible with their life goals have the right to the same autonomy and opportunities as those who do not,” writes Carolyn Pela, who adds that “Limiting autonomy and self-determination of people experiencing same-sex attraction is unethical.” Setting aside the carefully crafted ‘freedom’ and ‘rights’ rhetoric so prevalent in today’s discourse on the Right, Pela’s statement ignores the ethical problem presented by conversion therapy itself, which, as noted earlier, is both ineffective and potentially very dangerous. 

In his reply, Paul Sullins merely reiterates that he’d attended the conference “to speak about two research studies I had done in the past year,” but he offered nothing new in regard to the studies discussed earlier. As for the IFTCC, a spokesperson declined to engage in further “discussion,” explaining that “we don’t believe that our respective missions have any synergy.”

To this point at least it seems to have gone well for the IFTCC—particularly since few outside their community know too much about what they’re doing. The organization recently announced its next—and 10th—annual conference. Same place, same time, in Poland, in October 2024, but the importance of secrecy seems to be paramount for the IFTCC. Indeed, a recent newsletter to registered members warns: 

We would like to remind you, in order to ensure a safe and secure environment for everybody, the conference will be non-public and by invitation only. Please DO NOT post this information on any website, nor on social media. 

The new registration form reads: “If this is your first time at the conference, please provide a person known to the IFTCC that will verify your application.” First time attendees will now have to provide an ID, and they separately mention that if a person is “an undercover journalist/LGBT-activist” they will not be permitted to attend. Had participants faced violent protests or death threats in previous years such security measures would be understandable; but there is no indication that’s been the case. Sure, nobody likes to be critiqued, but that’s precisely how science works. How “scientific” is a conference whose ideas must be kept hidden from public scrutiny?

This investigation was developed with the support of Journalismfund Europe.