JAD ABUMRAD: OK, are you there? Bobert?
JAD: OK, there you are. I’m Jad Abumrad
ROBERT: I’m Robert Krulwich. This is Radiolab.
JAD: Yes sir. And OK, so we’re going to continue with one more episode from the series UnErased
ROBERT: Which you did for somebody else
JAD: Well, kinda sorta
ROBERT: But we’re including it here
JAD: It was kind of of somebody else but for us at the same time. It all was kind of squishy, to be honest. So I’ve produced a four part series along with Focus Features, Stitcher, Elmina House, which is about the history of conversion therapy in America
ROBERT: That’s people who are gay who are being pushed to or asked to or want to be straight
JAD: Yes. And sometimes it’s a therapy type situation, sciency, sometimes it’s a church type situation. Here’s a funny thing, Robert
JA: You would think it’s kind of--you would think it doesn’t happen a lot, right
ROBERT: These days? I would think certainly less, certainly less than before
JA: Well there was a survey done recently
JA: By a group at UCLA at the Williams Institute. In conjunction with Gallup, Gallup Polling. They did a survey that looked at, of the people in America who identify as LGBTQ, which is about 4.5 percent roughly, 13 million people. How many of those people have gone through something like conversion therapy. And the number was completely shocking to me.
ROBERT: Shockingly small, shocking--what kind of shocking?
JA: Almost 700,000 people
ROBERT: In the 1970s and 80s and so on, or--
JA: Yeah. I mean but also recently. Like recently. This was a survey that was done in 2012. And I just want to give you a sense of scale.
JA 700,000 people. That is the equivalent of the city of Boston. That’s the number of people we’re talking about. That’s a lot of freaking people
ROBERT: That’s a lot of people
JA: Now, to your question. You would think it would be mostly older folks
ROBERT: Yes. From the days when it was an abomination and now longer, really, for many families
JA: No. It was actually equally prevalent in all age groups. I mean the survey found tha just as many young people, you know teens, were being put through these kinds of programs as people of older generations
ROBERT: Wow. That is surprising.
JA: The prevalence wasn’t going down. You know, if anything, just as LGBTQ poeple are being embraced in the wider culture, there has been a kind of silent re-entrenchment in certain communities in America. And so that was part of the whole reason to do this project is that there’s this thing happening that we’re not really looking at and it’s got a whole history to it that’s troubling but also kind of fascinating. So, I wanna play the final episode in the four part series. It deals with, um--well, it deals with one of the central guys in that history
ROBERT: This main character that you found. This is a really [PAUSE] complex fellow
JA: [LAUGHS] Yes
ROBERT: You turn this thing on and you think, no. Well. Well he--oh. Hmm. And then I don’t know. I don’t know what your face will look like at the end of this.
JA: Yeah, so I just want to say a few things before we start. This whole project was done in conjunction with the Focus Features film Boy Erased, which is out now. And that film was based on a wonderful memoir by a guy named Garrard Conley. And this story was the story everybody told us we had to tell if we were gonna do a series about conversion therapy in America. And it’s about a guy named Smid.
JOHN SMID: News Cameras started showing.
CLIP, ARCHIVAL TAPE: You did not choose this program!
JOHN SMID: Bullhorns came out and all of a sudden I heard, John Smid. We know
you're in there. John Smid. We know you're here. It was as though a torpedo had
just hit the side of our ship.
JA: The ship that John Smid captained before it was torpedoed was the largest ex gay ministry in America.
ARCHIVAL TAPE, CNN: It’s called, “Love In Action”
ARCHIVAL TAPE: Love in Action
JA: For almost 25 years. From 1994 to 2008 if you were an evangelical Christian who had a gay son or daughter and you wanted to convert them to straight, you might have sent them to John. And for maybe seven thousand dollars he would run them through his program.
FILM TAPE: Now to I want you to tell him --
JA: He is the guy in boy erased that torments Garrard Conley
FILM TAPE: Tell him how you hate him for the things and he's the way he-- YOU SIT
DOWN. SIT DOWN. But I'm not angry. And yeah I know things that upset you and you
just let me down here. Why do I have to be angry.
JOHN SMID: I don't like my life to be painted as a villain. And that's kind of the way I feel
about this movie it's like I don't like it. It's uncomfortable. I don't like the movie. I don't like
the book. I don't like what people are saying. I don't like hearing Garrard talk about it. I
don't like it. It's uncomfortable at the same time, there is truth in that I was a forerunner
and a spokesperson and a national and international leader that said you must eradicate
homosexuality from your life. That's just the price.
JAD: These days, John Smid is living a very different life.
JOHN SMID: My life has been reinvented several times, majorly reinvented.
JAD: He now lives in Paris Texas with his husband Larry. And he makes furniture.
JAD: Is it this way? OK.
JAD: Producer Shima Oliaee and I paid him a visit.
JOHN SMID: Well we're going to my workshop which is off the corner of our house.
JAD: John and Larry live in a tiny one story house bordering an enormous horse farm. So what you see as we walk through the garage, out of his house and to the garage is rolling hills in one direction, epic Texas flatlands and another and a sky that is so big it kind of hurts your head.
JOHN SMID: The shop itself is
JAD: Is it in here with the cars?
JOHN SMID: It's -- it's a divided shop
JOHN SMID: The cars are in the next space.
JAD: John also collects and restores old cars.
JAD: Oh wow look at this.
JOHN SMID: I'm I'm a person that uses every scrap that I can. I have a lot of used wood
old wood like over there.
JAD: These days. What he does instead of trying to eradicate homosexuality.
JOHN SMID: I’m going to get a book.
JAD: John will spend his days taking old copies of Reader's Digest Books and carving them into letters of the alphabet.
JOHN SMID: This large bandsaw really cuts a nice refined edge there's no frayed edges.
JAD: Or he'll also.
JOHN SMID: And I'm going to router these out.
JAD: He'll also do carpentry work for local designers. I mean, he’ll make a call in, paint it white.
JA: When you’re making something what are you thinking about?
JOHN SMID: Most of the time I'm, I'm thinking about relationships. I'm thinking about life,
people, history, future. A lot of times it's processing painful things you know difficult
JAD: How to think about John Smid is a difficult question. He is undeniably warm and funny and honest and engaging. At the same time, many people told us before we came, don't forget this is a guy who ran a program where people in the program tried to commit suicide. And in some cases succeeded. And now that he's out himself and married to a man and vehemently opposed to the whole idea of conversion therapy, it does beg the question what do we do with that past? How should we think about it? Is he allowed to just move on?
JAD: Where'd you grow up?
JOHN SMID: was raised in Omaha Nebraska. It was 1959. Life was the 50s. Life was
good. All the moms walked up and down the street in their shirtwaist dresses and had
coffee with each other. I mean it was a stereotypical 1950s suburban American
neighborhood experience. And I remember feeling-- At 5 I remember sitting back in our
backyard on a summer morning. School was out, sitting in the play sandbox and feeling
the warm sun. And I remember just feeling life's good. I was so at peace.
JAD: It was this one moment of calm, he says, where he didn’t have to worry about who he was. Now the story as it goes from here of John becoming and then unbecoming the Elvis of the ex-gay movement is complicated to say the least. You could start the story in the fourth grade
JOHN SMID: I remember in fourth grade having an emotional affair with Steve. I wanted
to carry his books. He had a broken arm. I wanted to hold his hand. Of course I was a
gay boy, but I didn't know how to work that through or--
JAD: What does a little boy in that situation say to himself?
JOHN SMID: I didn't have words.
JAD: And then there was fifth grade. For the first time school gets a male teacher.
JOHN SMID: All my teachers were females and all of a sudden we this male teacher. I
remember just just fantasizing. Just looking at him being drawn to him being attracted to
his maleness, not knowing what to do with that.
JAD: Jumping forward a bit.
JOHN SMID: Dated several girls in high school
JAD: Ends up marrying a girl named Kris.
JAD: How old are you at this point?
JOHN SMID: I was 17, 16.
JAD: Like him she had a tough family life.
JOHN SMID: Alcoholic father. Parents were divorced.
JAD: Felt like they just kind of got each other.
JOHN SMID: And we created two children.
JAD: And then you get to the first in a series of violent shifts in John Smid’s life. Many years later when he was like firmly embedded in the ex-gay movement and preaching against homosexuality, he would give a sermon that sort of talked about this moment.
CLIP, JS SERMON: I just want to share a little bit about my personal story so you know
who I am and where I'm coming from.
JAD: He describes being 23, newly married with kids. And then falling into this funk like suddenly being uncertain about marriage, about the future. At the time he was working in a department store and he meets a guy named Leonard.
CLIP, JS SERMON: He called me one night. We wonder you know it's funny how how
the enemy works in our lives. And he works in those those intimate times of darkness, of
secrecy. It's not in the light, it's not above board. It’s always somewhere sinister that he
sneaks in. And one Friday night, nine thirty at night. My wife was bowling. I was taking
care of the kids. Leonard called me. Hey John I'm at the bar. Why don't you come over
and we can talk. Well now he had strategically placed himself at a bar right across the
street from where I lived. And I found out later that he was already surmising what I was
looking for, what I was curious about, where I was headed in his mind. I went across the
street that evening ended up in a very mutually seductive homosexual encounter. I came
home from that, four o’clock in the morning which is again something I never did. I never
ever went out and stayed out. Of course my wife wasn't stupid. She knew that-- Why
was he out so late. What was going on. So she began to ask me questions what went
- And I immediately went to her and I said Kris, I'm -- I'm gay. Do you see how quick
that identity got stuck. I had one sexual encounter. One. Outside of marital sex which
was the only other experience I had ever had sexually. One sexual encounter and I am
signed sealed delivered. I'm gay and I want a divorce.
JAD: Well what do you think when you hear that now.
JOHN SMID: My first thought was when my verbiage. And the way I describe that story
and the way I would describe it today would be so violently different. Those terms were
inflammatory I mean I filtered that story through my theology at that time.
CLIP, JS SERMON: I walked away from that marriage, abandoned my children in
homosexual adultery and headlong, full force, to homosexual subculture. I lived in a gay
apartment building, frequented gay businesses. Anyone who wasn't familiar with or didn't
like my homosexuality, I just crossed them off the list.
JAD: In a later TV interview John would say that during this period he even became the guy that young gay men who were new in town would call to sort of get initiated.
ARCHIVAL TAPE, JOHN SMID, SERMON: I had taken people to the gay bars for the
first time I was instrumental in helping people involve themselves in that lifestyle.
CLIP, JOHN SMID, SERMON: Four years I lived in that lifestyle, four years of active
pursuit. And all along, thinking in my head, I'm looking for monogamy. I'm looking for a
life partner. I'm looking for that one person that can satisfy all my needs and never let me
JAD: What makes John’s backstory so interesting and also difficult to wrap your head around are these wildly different poles that he travels between in one life. I mean he starts off living this sort of 50s American suburban dream, wife, two kids. Swings into the gay subculture as he calls it. And then, as he puts it, what happened was he started to get his heartbroken a lot.
JOHN SMID: The first guy that I lived with, I mean I just I just really loved him as a 20
something year old can. He came home one day and he says I can't be with you I'm a
size queen and you don't measure up.
JAD: Guy basically told him, You're not enough of a man down there for me
JOHN SMID: That was a shocking deeply, deeply wounding moment.
JAD: He says he struggled with his confidence. Got into a series of very bad dysfunctional relationships and he began to feel like something was wrong with him
JOHN SMID: And it was at that point, with this four year experience in the gay culture, where a girl I worked with
JAD: At the time he was working for the railroad as a clerk
JOHN SMID: She was an evangelical Christian, started talking with me about Jesus and
the Bible. And she was very open about her own struggles.Very vulnerable with me and
she invited me to church. And kept inviting me to church. And eventually I went.
CLIP: [CHURCH CHOIR]
JAD: It was a Christian revivalist church service. This is the kind where people speak in tongues, talk about the devil a lot
JOHN SERMON TAPE: So I went and sure enough, I was sitting in the pew and this guy
was speaking and I don't know what the heck he's talking about because God was too
busy speaking to me personally. And I was sitting back in this pew and I'll never forget
God said, John. You don't have to live this way any longer.
JAD: What was it that--I mean. Is--this is always the hard--
JAD: I asked John, what--how does he explain that moment now? Because everything that follows really flows from that moment
JOHN SMID: As honest as I can be about it, because I don’t really understand it myself
either, but as much as I can process it, it was built on the hope of, not the experience of.
JAD: He told me later that the conversion moment, God’s voice in his head, that he can’t explain. But all the moments after, suddenly having this whole new belief system reframed everything. First of all, he was reborn. So literally everything before that point was no longer important. It was only about what comes after. And also, he now had this book which seemed to say that the way he just was was a sin. Which you would think you wouldn’t want to hear. But he said it was actually a relief to hear that. Because he could now take all of those really hard questions about himself and who he was as a man and he could now put it into a box called sin. And say to himself, oh. That’s why I was feeling so bad. Because I was committing a sin. It was what I was doing. It’s not necessarily who I am. It was my behavior and that can change.
JOHN SMID: I believed that all this pain Jesus could heal. And he could bring meaning
and sense and comfort and peace into my life.
JAD: So in another violent shift, John Smid becomes one of really only two people I've ever heard of to come out of the closet and then go back in.
JOHN SMID: So this.
JAD: He starts going to church regularly
JOHN SMID: I felt free. I felt liberated. Yeah I was a clown. I became a clown.
JAD: You were a clown?
JOHN SMID: Yes I was Rainbow the clown. We--
JAD: I love how you say that so matter of factly
JOHN SMID: Yeah well we were we were trained clowns. And we went through clown
JAD: It was--was it, you were a Christian clown?
JOHN SMID: Yes. And my clown schtick was a walk in with an umbrella because I was
underneath the clouds of life and the rain. And I had a trick umbrella that when I would
shake it it would fall. And I’d put it down and the rainbow would come out, the promises
of God's future. It was my testimony kind of story of how I came out from under the rain
clouds and found the sun.
JOHN SMID: I made all the wigs for the clowns and I made the props and it was really a
significant two and a half years of my life when I didn't have any outside pressures.
JAD: He says it was a little bit like that moment when he was four when he was totally at peace, super happy. But then he starts getting lonely
JOHN SMID: I needed a companion. So I dated a couple girls and those things didn’t
succeed and finally I met Vileen. And we started kind of dating and--
JAD: He said initially things were going well and he felt like, oh maybe I can change. Maybe I have. But then as he describes it, that funk returned
JAD: Like those old feelings, but even more unspoken in that. It’s just a kind of panic would come up.
JOHN SMID: And I started feeling really really scared. While I was in that place.
ARCHIVAL TAPE: Today on Family Talk
JOHN SMID: I heard a radio program
ARCHIVAL TAPE: Welcome everyone to this edition of Family Talk.
JOHN SMID: Focus on the Family, James Dobson.
JAD: James Dobson is by the way, maybe one of the most influential evangelical voices of the last 50 years. He has a hugely popular radio show
ARCHIVAL TAPE, DOBSON: Today we're addressing the tough subject of same sex
attraction which affects millions of people and their families.
JOHN SMID: And the guest on the guest on the radio program is Barbara Johnson.
ARCHIVAL TAPE: So when I learned that he was homosexual I thought this
couldn't happen to Christian families.
JOHN SMID: Barbara Johnson was a mom of a gay son. And at the end of that program
ARCHIVAL TAPE, DOBSON: Homosexual feelings can and do dissipate.
JOHN SMID: They offered information sheets on ex gay ministry.
JAD: John says they basically said, for all you who are struggling with same sex feelings, there is a program out there that can help you
JOHN SMID: First time I'd ever heard gay anything in the context of Christian anything.
So I sent Focus on the Family a letter
JAD: And to make a long story short, he ends up getting connected with the guy who many people sort of believe to be the father, the spiritual godfather of the ex-gay movement
ARCHIVAL TAPE, FRANK WORTHEN: I had just given up on the church
JAD: We talked about him a little bit in episode one. Like John, Frank Worthen was a guy who had been in the closet, come out of the closet, but then at a low point heard a voice from God
ARCHIVAL TAPE, FRANK WORTHEN: Then I heard God say, I want you back
JAD: And he went back in the closet.
ARCHIVAL TAPE, FRANK WORTHEN: This was 1973. Right in the middle of the Jesus
JAD: Frank starts going to church and after service one day
ARCHIVAL TAPE, FRANK WORTHEN: After church three young men came to visit me
and they were all gay and they said I heard you made a re-commitment to Christ that
you're leaving the gay lifestyle and we would like to leave it too. And so that kind of you
know within three days we have a little group going. [LAUGHS]
JAD: As Frank Worthen tells it, that's how the ex-gay movement began. Casually, one day after church.
ARCHIVAL TAPE, FRANK WORTHEN: One of the members named it Love In Action.
We did feel that was God's answer to the APA saying homosexuality is normal. And God
is saying not really. [LAUGHS]
JAD: What he's referring to there is the sort of beginning of the scientific community washing their hands of the whole idea of the gay cure, which we talked about in the last episode.
JOHN SMID: They’re not Christian they don't know what they're saying.
JAD: John says at the time that that really spooked a lot of Evangelicals.
JOHN SMID: The scientific communities were accepting homosexuality, and they were
saying that it's not a disorder anymore. They were removing it from the DSN 3 which is
why we need to do what we're doing.
JAD: So it was very explicit in your mindset.
JOHN SMID: Oh yeah.
JAD: In any case John and Frank Worthen and Frank’s wife Anita Worthen, they started corresponding
JOHN SMID: And I said I was capable. I was trustworthy. They could count on me. Can
you help me what do you have? And so Anita called me she says We are hiring a house
leader for one of our houses. We want to know if you want to apply for it.
JAD: So John goes out to San Rafael, California.
JOHN SMID: And I volunteered for Love In Action.
JAD: And so begins a very bizarre, very dramatic, 25 year odyssey to try and stamp out homosexuality in Christian men anywhere, and especially in himself. That’s after the break. UnErased with continue on Radiolab in just a moment.
JAD: Hey, I’m Jad Abumrad
ROBERT: I’m Robert Krulwich
JAD: Yes. And we’re listening to episode four of UnErased on Radiolab, and let’s get back to the story of John Smid. At this point in the story, John is searching for a way to rid himself of gay attractions and to make himself attracted to his wife, his second wife, because he does end marrying a second time. He goes to San Rafael, California to volunteer for a new ministry, run by Frank and Anita Worthen that promised a solution
JOHN SMID: They loved me. I was, became an office manager. I managed all kinds of
stuff. I became senior House manager.
JAD: Fast forward a couple years, Frank Worthen decides to go to the Philippines on sort of a missionary trip. And John takes over the ministry.
JOHN SMID: And so when he left we completely redecorated, moved everything around,
changed everything. I mean like I mean the moment Frank flew out which was a symbol
of this is now mine.
JAD: And here's where John's story morphs into something quite different something much bigger and maybe darker than just one man's journey towards accepting who he is. As John tells it, the moment he showed up, Love in Action caught a wind.
ARCHIVAL TAPE, LARRY KING: From Los Angeles, welcome to LARRY KING LIVE.
JOHN SMID: I went on the LARRY KING LIVE program six months after I got there.
Which is insane.
JAD: He started appearing on various talk.
ARCHIVAL TAPE, JOHN SMID: Homosexuality, from my experience, stemmed out of a
need to know I was OK as a man.
JAD: And he very quickly realized that his story was like rocket fuel.
ARCHIVAL TAPE, JOHN SMID: I had a phenomenal, miraculous testimony.
JAD: This is him in a phone interview
ARCHIVAL TAPE, JOHN SMID: I mean, I was one of those people who had a dramatic
transformation from where I was. One day I am sleeping with my gay partner, and the
next day I’m a hundred percent sold out to God, committed, faithful. So people saw my
life as the dark versus the light. It was almost like St. Paul and the road to Damascus
JAD: He says people would come up to him at Christian conferences and say that they were actually jealous of him. And once he saw the power in his own story
ARCHIVAL TAPE, JOHN SMID: We became much more extroverted as a ministry
JAD: And perhaps as a result, Love in Action started to gain converts by the week, to the point where they could no longer fit in the small church in San Rafael. And so around 1994 they go off in search of a bigger church
JOHN SMID: We go to Memphis.
JAD: Memphis Tennessee.
JOHN SMID: So we go to Memphis. Big church, large community.
JAD: They hire staff. At this point, John is flying high and Love In Action was advertising these staggering success rates. This is something we heard from Garrard Connelly.
GARRARD CONLEY: My mom says they said there was an 87 percent success rate of
conversion from gay to straight.
JOHN SMID: I internally underneath it all while I couldn't verbalize it, I had to admit
somewhere in me that we were not seeing success. We were not winning. They were
successful while they were in the program. As soon as they’d leave boom they had
fallen. I knew it wasn't working but I couldn't admit that. So the only way I could
acknowledge that would be to adopt something new that might work better.
JAD: So when he got to Memphis, he decided to go a totally different route. He figured that if people were, quote, relapsing, which they were, let me draw inspiration from other modalities that also have to deal with the problem of people relapsing. And so he ended up visiting a local drug and rehab center.
JOHN SMID: It’s called Second Chance. It’s a drug and alcohol rehab from teenagers.
Wonderful success rates. So we all talked about it as a staff and we sat down and we
said we really think they have something valuable. We adopted their philosophy
JAD: They decided they would define homosexuality
JOHN SMID: Homosexuality is an addiction
JAD: And maybe they could just treat it with something like 12 Step
JOHN SMID: The 12 Steps seemingly were the best way to rid people of drug and
alcohol abuse and had a track record. And I'm thinking well maybe if homosexuality is an
addiction, we need to remove the homosexual drug long enough for these people to
detox from it.
JAD: And so starting in 1994 and going through his whole 14 year stint at the Memphis clinic, John basically implemented a system where young men and women would come in. Anything that they had that could be remotely construed as homosexual.
JOHN SMID: Which we called FIs, false images. Their homosexual look, their
homosexual books, their homosexual concepts, friends, people, associations. Drug and
alcohol recovery centers have seen these things as contraband and it has to be
removed. They can't come here with that. They have to be separated from it so they can
think without it because it's their coping mechanisms. It's their addiction.
JAD: After they were separated from their homosexual paraphernalia or what have you, clients would then go through you know relentless rounds of pseudo scientific talk therapy
PETERSON TOSCANO: And so it became this elaborate 12 Step program where we
had to write down every week, three different sexual experiences that we had in our
lifetime and do a moral inventory about each one
JAD: This is Peter TOSCANO. We heard a bit from him in episode one. He did two stints at Love In Action
PETERSON TOSCANO: A sexual experience would be well beyond just physically
having sex with someone, but a fantasy. An obsession over someone, a romantic crush
that you had, an encounter you may have had with an inanimate object. They used this
very -- [LAUGHING] This very like strange language to talk about this stuff and some of it
was like, what are you talking about? And they were like, you know--you know, did you
ever use shaving cream when you masturbated? I was like, no. But now I’m thinking of
that. Thank you for that
PETERSON TOSCANO: So you’re writing about these really intense sexual encounters
and it becomes like a butterfly with pins in it that are splayed out and you’re analyzing it
and dissecting it and tearing it apart.
JAD: Peter also told us that there were times when these kind of techniques tipped into just abject cruelty. Sometimes they would be asked to confess some of these stories directly to parents on friends and family night. He told us about a mock funeral that was staged for a young man named Aaron Operly
AARON OPERLY: Peterson remembers candles. I’m not sure if I remember them or not,
but maybe there were. It’s one of these pretty traumatic things that I didn’t ever really
want to bring back to the light.
JAD: This is Aaron. We called him up. He says that he is OK talking about it now, especially since it’s a scene in the Boy, Erased film. But essentially what happens is Aaron had, I guess relapsed
AARON OPERLY: Or fallen, or whatever someone outside of the program I guess is how
they stated it
JAD: So they asked him to lie on a table, close his eyes
AARON OPERLY: They brought in--they had some pretty gaudy flowers in their office.
[LAUGHS] I mean, John Smid is probably gonna laugh at me for saying that. But I did
not like the flower arrangements. [LAUGHING] But anyway. But I do know that I was on
a table, that my eyes were shut. And then they wanted all the people in the program to
say their goodbyes to me.
AARON OPERLY: Yeah
JAD: When we asked John Smid about this, like, come on. Really? This is what he said
JOHN SMID: It was a directive by the professional counselor that was our consulting
SHIMA OLIAEE: They made this up, and they said you should do this?
JOHN SMID: The reason we’re doing this is because this man has had a pattern of
JAD: He said it was just something that was suggested then by an actual counselor
JOHN SMID: We--he said this is called gestalt therapy
JAD: He says the guy suggested it, they did it. And it also just seemed like another one of those things they could borrow from drug and rehab clinics that apparently do this sometimes if somebody is using drugs and maybe might die and needs to be scared straight. I don’t know
JOHN SMID: When we were chastised for our rules, which we were. And I was. And I
have been [LAUGHS] I know--I understand that now. But we were chastised for it and we
would internally say, we are not doing anything different than the local successful drug
JAD: John says he knew that some of these techniques were confrontational, maybe even traumatic
JOHN SMID: But at the time, I believed at the time that a temporary pain to rid your life
of the horror of homosexuality is worth it.
CLIP, PETERSON TOSCANO: It gets me upset thinking about it too. Just… How crazy
some of us got there
JAD: This is Peter Toscano again. This is actually him in a film made by director Morgan Fox, who was nice enough to let us use the footage.
CLIP, PETERSON TOSCANO: One of my closest friends there. Attempted suicide and I
found his truck at the end of the driveway with all these photographs of his children. And
he had this note. He had-- He had this note that just about what a horrible person he
was. And he gave up you know that he's such a bad person. And he took all these pills
and went off to the fields to die.
JAD: Peterson told me he knows of at least five students from Love in Action who at one point either in the program or afterwards attempted suicide. Smid himself offered a story of going with a colleague to a Christian conference in California looking on the wall and seeing a plaque with the name of a former student.
JOHN SMID: This room dedicated in the memory of David Bilbrey, Bilbrey King. I said
Alan what happened? He says, he committed suicide five years ago.
JAD: I asked John about a letter that he wrote in 2010 where he--I know this is jumping forward just a bit but where he ultimately apologizes from everything he’s done. And below that written apology a commenter said, I don't accept your apology. And then they listed a series of names. Aiden Shave, 17, committed suicide. Dominic Crouch, 15, jumped to his death from a six story building. Billy Lucas, 15, hung himself in his family's farm. Asher Brown, 13, shot himself with his father's gun. Seth Walsh, hanged himself from a tree in his backyard, didn't die immediately. He was taken to a hospital where he was placed on life support. Died nine days later. Janine Blanchette, 21, pills. Terrell Williams, 17, hung himself in his bedroom closet on and on.
JOHN SMID: About 20 suicides. No not all of them happened at Love in Action.
JAD: What do you-- How do you hold that? How do you--
JOHN SMID: The only thing I could say to that is in all honesty, in some levels of this process, I have to use some denial. I have to. And I don't mean denial it didn't happen. Denial of my feelings. There have been many times through life experience where I have perceived if I truly felt everything that there is in there, I would die. [PAUSE] And I also-- I also have to release people to their own process. And I cannot take responsibility for their process. I can't. All I can do is acknowledge and release the rest.
JAD: John then told me something that could sound defensive but actually I think is a truth that needs to be acknowledged. The idea that he was selling at Love In Action or perhaps that he bought into ultimately goes way beyond him. The sources of all that shame are as much the families of those kids, the peer groups,the schools where they went to this certainly, the churches, the society at large that creates the conditions for Love in Action to exist. He says he cannot take responsibility for all that. And I think that's right.
JOHN SMID: This is an album that the guys in the program actually made for me. And it
has pictures with statements from each one of those clients.
JAD: While we were there, John showed us kind of yearbook from the Love in Action class of 93.
JAD: These are these are students or?
JOHN SMID: Mhm. Yeah.
JAD: Oh wow.
JAD: First picture was a kid who was maybe 18, husky, thick black hair.
JOHN SMID: This guy here you know you've been an inspiration to me from the first
year I met you. I've learned from you that you have to face life and death and then go
through it. You’re a good leader and a shepherd and I'm so grateful to the Lord for you. I
love you. And this is a guy that today is married to his husband. And and we are in
contact regularly. And it's a very affirming and positive relationship. This man I was in
JAD: Tall, thin, blond hair.
JOHN SMID: But this is one of the one of the circumstances where this man-- he died of
a drug overdose about two years ago. They didn't believe it was a suicide. But he, he's
no longer with us. Let's see. Here's one. This guy who says Smiddy-- They called me
Smiddy back then. So much of my heart has gone into preparing this keepsake for you.
Each time you look upon it may you know my love for you.
JAD: He looks like early 20s tall thin adam's apple. Kind of bushy black hair big smile.
JOHN SMID: And I've had conversations with him. He-- he doesn't completely accept
necessarily where I am today. But he's very warm and friendly.
JAD: He doesn't accept where you are, how?
JOHN SMID: He doesn't completely embrace someone being gay and being married.
JAD: So he's not openly gay--or is openly gay?
JOHN SMID: He talks about being gay but he's married to a woman and he has a family.
I’ve not had communication with him. I have had communication with him.
JAD: All-American guy, freckles.
JOHN SMID: But he actually continued working for a very anti-gay organization. And it
got to the point where I just was--I was just in turmoil when I would see things he would
post on Facebook or things he would say. And so I really chose to kind of not be affected
by that. This is a guy.
JAD: Sandy hair, radiant smile.
JOHN SMID: He was a guy that was HIV positive when he came in the program. And
three years later he died. In California, there were people that were in our program or in
our support group ministry in California, the years I was there 22 of those people died
JAD: Are you in touch with all these people?
JOHN SMID: I have had communication with him, yes. Him, yes. Yes. Actually--
JAD: In the last five years, since he's been high and dry of Love in Action, John says he has made it his mission to reach out to everyone he can to try and engage with them, support them if they want to be supported, make amends if that's what they want. For him, his sort of clean break really began in 2005.
JOHN SMID: June 6th 2005 we moved in and that was our first day.
JAD: They just upgraded their headquarters a second time, hired more staff.
JOHN SMID: We had just started a new group of teenagers. Everybody was there, we
were excited. Eight thirty in the morning, our office manager came running in my office
and said John there are protesters outside.
CLIP, ARCHIVAL TAPE: It's ok to be gay! It's ok to be gay!
JOHN SMID: I was horrified
CLIP, ARCHIVAL TAPE: We support you
JOHN SMID: Horrified
CLIP, ARCHIVAL TAPE: [YELLING]
JOHN SMID: Oh my gosh. What has happened? How did they know?
JAD: This is when the torpedo struck. A young kid in the program named Zack had posted a message to MySpace, saying his parents had put him in this straight camp. It was like a boot camp. He wasn't sure who's going to make it.
JOHN SMID: News cameras started showing up.
CLIP, NEWS TAPE: The demonstrators say they are basically here today to show their
JOHN SMID: Three of them.
CLIP, NEWS TAPE: For those who are enrolled in the Love In Action program. We're
CLIP, ARCHIVAL TAPE: We support you
JOHN SMID: Bullhorns came out and all of a sudden I heard
CLIP, ARCHIVAL TAPE: Why, John Smid
JOHN SMID: John Smid. We know you're in there. John Smid. We know you're here.
CLIP, NEWS TAPE: Gay rights activists are raising their voices in front of Love in
Action’s new recovery treatment center in Raleigh.
JOHN SMID: I mean they were there in the morning and the night. From the protests, I
started entering into an absolute daze. Just just a cloud. I don't even know.
JAD: The protests lasted for eight solid weeks. International media started coming in. There was so much attention that the state of Tennessee actually started cracking down, performing inspections. John Smid ends up counter suing the state.
JOHN SMID: I was so desperate to make this work.
JAD: And he said now looking back, what's amazing is how long it took him to wake up. How all throughout his mind would contort itself to push away doubt.
JOHN SMID: I would drive through the protesters.
CLIP, ARCHIVAL TAPE: We love you just the way you are!
JOHN SMID: And I remember them saying We love you. We love you, to me.
JAD : He says amazingly he interpreted that in that moment as God speaking to him.
JOHN SMID: I know you're here and I knew you were here and I didn't want you to hide.
I wanted to celebrate you being here, and I did it through these protesters. That's the
way I interpreted it.
JAD: Wow. That's some mental gymnastics.
JOHN SMID: Yes it is. [LAUGHS]
JAD: The honest truth is what brought John into the light, or what needed to happen before he can be able to see the light, is that his organization collapsed. Protesters created division in his staff. One of his managers tried to force him out. He didn't know what to do. Eventually he resigns.
JOHN SMID: And so when I resigned, I sat in my newly designed home office. And I said
God, I have no idea what you have in store for me for the future. Surprise me.
JAD: From that point forward, he says it was slowly sobering up after you’ve been drunk for 25 years. This time it wasn't a violent shift, it was a series of tiny micro steps. Like one day he's sitting in his computer and decides to click on gay porn for the first time in his life. Immediately feel horrible wracked with shame, decides he's got to go tell his wife, who he was still married to at the time, by the way. But then he thinks no. I’m not going to tell her. A short while after that, he's at a Christian conference and he announces to the audience that he John Smid, the Elvis of the ex-gay movement was in fact not cured.
JOHN SMID: I vocally said I'm a gay man. I'm a gay man, and I'm in a mixed orientation
JAD: Mixed orientation means a marriage between a homosexual and a heterosexual. It's a term you sometimes hear in this world. But that process, that slow, gradual awakening, John says it is still happening
JOHN SMID: Yes. The whole creative component--
JAD: In the car, he told us even about the shoes he was wearing and how that brought it up
JOHN SMID: I have bright blue tennis shoes on today. I bought those a month ago
JOHN SMID: I love bright colors. I’ve always loved bright colors. I stood in the store for
20 minutes looking a gray or turquoise blue shoes that were identical. And I made the
decision, the conscious decision, and I feel very emotional about this. It’s crazy. About
blue tennis shoes. But I’m--I had to make the decision to buy the blue tennis shoes.
Because I love turquoise blue. And it’s that--It’s still--I’m still coming out. I’m still having
to open myself up to the reality of who I am, of who I was wired to be the moment I was
born. It just--there’s this constant battle within me to deny, to push away, to surgically cut
off a major component of who I am. And so even though I was-- I was an ex-gay leader,
and one of the instruments of abuse I’m also a person that was subjected to ex-gay
ministry for 25 years. And so I have the same kinds of anger and the same kinds of
wounds, the same kind of pain
JAD: And that complicatedness about John Smid, that he is both the instrument of abuse and also a subject himself of that same abuse, it might color how you see the final chapter in his journey from straight to gay to ex-gay to ex-ex-gay. I has to do with this guy.
LARRY MCQUEEN: I grew up about eight miles west of this place, a community called
JAD: This is Larry McQueen, John’s husband. He works in the engineering department of a company that manufactures pipes for oil rigs.
LARRY MCQUEEN: Third generation Pentecostal
JAD: Comes from a very religious family, and so before he and John connected about five years ago, he had never been with a man. He tried dating women, it didn’t work. Knew he was attracted to men, pushed those thoughts away
LARRY MCQUEEN: Up to that point I had lived my life alone. And in fact I had come to the point where I was crying myself to sleep because I was so lonely. And that’s what actually led me to say, look Larry. You know, you’re 40 something years old, you’re lonely. I don’t think God really wants me to be this way any longer.
JAD: The first night they were together, which initially wasn’t romantic. It was--they had gotten together as friends to do some home improvement projects.
LARRY MCQUEEN: [INAUDIBLE] I don’t know if I want to talk about this on the radio.
SHIMA: Do it, do it
JOHN SMID: Well no, it’s like--well OK so I walked-- We went out to dinner and came
back and we just we just really had a comfortable time. And Larry came to an amazing
awareness at that point. He said you know, what I'm feeling with you really confirms to
me that I'm gay. And he said, and by the way we’re sleeping in separate beds.
JAD: Next morning, Larry walks into John’s room, lays down beside him on the bed, puts his around him.
JOHN SMID: He just put his arms around me
LARRY MCQUEEN: And you were reading emails
JOHN SMID: I was reading an email. He had his arms around me, and I just started to
sob uncontrollably. You know, I had never in my life cried with another human being.
LARRY MCQUEEN: And for me, it was like almost a physical sensation inside me that--
as if there were cogs that never were quite aligned properly. But that weekend, I felt
within my body these cogs coming into place and clicking. And I felt whole for the first
JOHN SMID: I was Larry’s first kiss
LARRY MCQUEEN: Yes
JOHN SMID: At 52 years old
JAD: A few months after that weekend, John got a divorce from his second wife, Vileen. John and Larry got married in 2014. And these days they sing in their church choir. They’re the only openly gay couple in their church. And they continue to nudge the church, very gently, to take a stand in support of gay marriage. At the end of the day it’s still difficult to know how to reconcile John Smid’s past with his present. Whether he’s taken enough responsibility for his actions or not--we spoke to people who were all over the map on that question. John would say, however you feel, the lesson from his life is that very simply, people can change. Humans are teachable. The human mind is infinite.
JAD: Robert, I want to offer just one side note to this story. In the time that we were working on this series, like, something like four states--I may have that number wrong--outlawed conversion therapy for minors. And if you look sort of just more broadly, in the last few years, there’s been this wave of legislation just trying to stamp this out.
ROBERT: On what theory?
JAD: That it’s cruel, that--especially when you’re talking about offering it to minors. So I think something like 37 municipalities in the last few years have outlawed conversion therapy for minors. And at the same time, you have a lot of debate about the sort of expanding idea of religious freedom.
JAD: That protection that’s written into the first amendment. And a lot of these groups are arguing, successfully at times, that they have the Constitutional right to offer these programs. So it’s a really interesting and confusing moment right now.
JAD: This episode of Radiolab was drawn from UnErased: The Untold History of Conversion Therapy in America, a series that I worked on with Focus Features, Stitcher and Elmina House in conjunction with the feature film Boy, Erased.
JAD: OK, well I guess we should go
ROBERT: Yes let’s go. We can leave now