Monthly Archives: January, 2014

White Knuckling

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When Apryl Prentiss first realized she was a lesbian, she decided to white knuckle it. She wanted to ignore the impulse, and if it couldn’t be ignored, she wanted to deny it, put it in a cage.

“I was freaked out when I realized…when I started to understand what was happening.”

This was in high school in Virginia Beach, Virginia. She was raised a fundamentalist Baptist and her church and the community it provided were deeply important to her. At the time, she described herself as kind of a “Christian All Star.”

“I was the chaplain of my class. I was going on missions trips. My whole class was even on the Christian Broadcast Network for a show. I was hitting all the expectations.”

That’s why coming to terms with her sexuality was so difficult. According to her Christian based belief system, she was ‘being rebellious,’ she had a ‘broken sexuality,’ she was trying to separate herself from God.

“Homosexuality was the sin to trump all sins” She explains. “It’s spoken of with great disdain—it seemed to be a visceral reaction. They think of gays as ‘those people’ …people who are horrible and perverted. People who are sick. People are always so scared of what they don’t understand.” Though she never heard these messages at school that was what was preached from the pulpit of her childhood church in Virginia Beach.

When she attended Campbell University in North Carolina, her church connected her with counseling and what is referred to as reparative or conversion therapy. Like many other far right Christian denominations across the country, the church encouraged her to go to therapy to ‘cure herself’ of being gay.

The counselor also offered to exorcise her should the therapy prove insufficient.

Apryl describes those years as some of the darkest of her life: “I absolutely detested myself.” Although she didn’t kill herself, she came close; close enough to want to save others from the same trauma. That’s why she’s working with the Alliance for Progressive Values to ban the practice of reparative therapy that tries to “cure” minors of being gay.

Delegate Hope who introduced HB 1135* which would ban the practice in Virginia said that evidence suggests such conversion therapy doesn’t work and in fact harms many people. Apryl’s story is a case in point.

According to Apryl, the therapy she underwent on and off for nearly three years was intense and mind bending; the kind of practice you would not wish on your worst enemy, much less a vulnerable teenager.

“I remember after months of talking and fasting I was still told that I was rebellious. It was their explanation for why I wasn’t cured. They thought they could see demons in my eyes. And I believed it! They suggested that I undergo an exorcism. The therapist brought in a prayer partner and they circled me and prayed over me. They asked to speak to the demon of brokenness in me. They asked to speak to the demons of same-sex attraction. …it was unbelievably painful. I cried the entire time and, after it was over, I felt completely stripped bare.”

After the failed exorcism, Apryl turned to alcohol and other self-destructive behavior to anesthetize. She recounts having alcohol poisoning at least seven times after the exorcism.  “Fighting my sexuality had become a daily battle and truthfully—I just wanted a break. My 21st birthday, which was at the height of the reparative therapy,  consisted of a fifth of Smirnoff and a straw. I drank it in about an hour and a half.”

Apryl admits she was trying to kill herself, in a less than methodic fashion. “I thought if I die and go to heaven, I won’t have to deal with this anymore.  That seemed like a good option. Death would have been a release from the constant inner turmoil.”

Shortly after, she met a woman and developed a relationship with her. “She was someone who had found peace with her sexuality.” This person told Apryl that she could be both “gay AND Christian and that God was okay with that. When I was with her, I felt more whole and authentic than I ever had before.”

The relationship lasted for a few months, but the guilt weighed on Apryl. She couldn’t handle it. “I freaked out and went back to the church. I confessed to my pastor what was happening and I went back to reparative therapy again.”

They came back with the same ideas, “gay people are all miserable, they’re all enveloped in darkness.”

But this time it was different, Apryl explains, “Their assertions no longer made sense. I had experienced the opposite.”

When they suggested a second exorcism, she just said no.

Apryl left North Carolina and went through a series of jobs in California, then back to North Carolina and even a short stint in Virginia at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. She tried different approaches to dealing with her sexuality, ‘white knuckling’, a short hand for celibacy, and when that didn’t work, another version of therapy, ‘Sought Out’ similar to reparative therapy, but incorporating some of the same principles developed for twelve step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous.

It was “twenty weeks of unbelievably hard introspection, confession, accountability and counseling. We started by examining possible causes of our homosexuality or sexual brokenness. A basic premise of the program was that no one is born gay so there must be a cause…a root of our same-sex attraction. Overbearing Mother? That’s why you’re gay. Sexual abuse? That’s absolutely why you’re gay. Only child and you grew up lonely? That’s why you’re gay. We did things like write down wrong ways we had been labeled on sheets of paper and burned them. Very cathartic and very meaningful. We wrote down things we believed about ourselves that contributed to our ‘sexual brokenness’ on mirrors then smashed them. We confessed our sins (mental and physical) both publicly to the entire group and privately to our small group leaders, wrote them down on special paper, immersed them in water (meant to be a picture of God’s forgiveness) and watched them dissolve.  These activities were all designed to make us confront the causes of our sexuality, bring them out into the open and then destroy them.”

“I literally nailed my areas of brokenness, their causes, and my own sexual behavior to a cross then bowed below them begging for forgiveness and for restoration. I lay on the floor of a church weeping, begging to be delivered. This was a nightly experience.”

According to Apryl, the program suggested that “all homosexual relationships are born out of brokenness and cause nothing but pain and unhappiness.”

“This was drilled into us and because my own experience in a same-sex relationship had been wonderful, but riddled with guilt and constant turmoil, I couldn’t totally counteract the concept. In fact, most of us who sat in that room every Monday night had never met a happy same-sex couple. We didn’t understand that in the Christian circles we lived in there would naturally not be ANY healthy same-sex couples.”

“I ended up working as a counselor for the Sought Out program, teaching the same repressive techniques. I stopped one day when I sat there with this vulnerable 17-year-old. You could see at 100 feet that she was a lesbian.  She had no attraction to men whatsoever, but she desperately did not want to be gay. I had to tell her that her only two choices were celibacy or learning to date men. This was the message I had been taught and what I believed about myself. It was the depressing reality that I was grappling with.  But, when I realized I was telling a 17-year-old who had only begun to live life that those were her only two options—it just didn’t add up. I couldn’t do it. I saw myself in her and I thought, ‘Oh, my God, I can’t do this. I’m done with this. I can’t do it anymore. That was the beginning of the end.”

But there’s nothing easy about transitions, about coming out or staying in denial. Apryl still loved the church and didn’t want to leave it. She was on a mission in Serbia and Slovakia teaching English through bible lessons before she realized how much about her life still needed to change.

“It was summer camp and I had spent it with the Serbians who have a real love of life. When some missionaries arrived from Canada they acted prudish and started scolding the Serbians for wearing short skirts or dancing and hugging. They were trying to impose westernized Christianity’s rulebook on these vibrant and passionate people. I realized the missionaries were missing the point. The Serbians were praising the Lord in their own way, just as David had danced. Why would God make them this way, just to condemn them? Why would he make me this way, just to condemn me? All of these ideas about correct behavior, correct sexuality were inventions. They were Westernized ways of trying to control people and put them in a box.  My eyes were opened and I began to evaluate what I knew of God on my own and not through the fabricated conventions of the conservative church. All of a sudden, it was like I experienced the true God, a force of love for the first time.”

“There was no guilt, there was no shame. I finally got it. As cliché as it sounds, I went to one of those fields of sunflowers as tall as your head in Serbia, I sat there for hours and I made my peace with God.”

Since that summer in 2005, Apryl has undergone therapy to ‘repair’ the reparative therapy. She has been married to her wife for 7 years and she says that people who had previously rejected her in the church are coming back.

“I miss the community of the church.  But, there’s a real sense of us vs. them. It’s fine when you’re the ‘us’, it’s cool and beautiful. But when you’re all of a sudden part of the ‘them’, it’s a cruel, cruel thing.”

Her family has been surprisingly supportive. In fact, one of Apryl’s main regrets is that for years she avoided visiting her Christian grandmother because she was afraid that her grandmother would be disappointed that she was gay rather than pursuing ministry. After her grandmother died, her aunt was unpacking a box of old photographs. Near the bottom, at least two years old, was a photograph of Apryl with her wife, Adrian.

“I should have visited.  I should have known …” Apryl tilts her head, a nod toward what might have been. “She knew about us all along and, like the amazing woman she was, she loved me anyway… That’s a true example of a Christian.”

*Full Text of HB1135 can be found at this link:

http://lis.virginia.gov/cgi-bin/legp604.exe?141+ful+HB1135

Note: Major medical groups like the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychological Association and others have moved to discourage reparative therapy.

According to the American Psychological Association, “The terms reparative therapy and sexual orientation conversion therapy refer to counseling and psychotherapy aimed at eliminating or suppressing homosexuality. The most important fact about these “therapies” is that they are based on a view of homosexuality that has been rejected by all the major mental health professions.”

~Jack Johnson

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Addicted To It

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There’s a standard opening for stories about money that has become a cliché, or bad joke. Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald are in a bar and Fitzgerald opines with naiveté that the ‘Rich are different from you and me’ to which Hemingway dryly responds, ‘Yes, they have more money.’ It’s a nice little anecdote, but mostly untrue. Money changes things. And if you have enough money to be called ‘rich’, it changes lots of things: who you are likely to marry, what school you are going to attend, if you’ll go to school at all. It determines how well you eat, if you eat, where you sleep, how you live. You can use money as a short hand to judge your odds of having a long life, or of receiving decent healthcare, of receiving an education or even being able to retire. Money, as a consequence, also changes other things. What you might want, with whom you associate, with whom you compete, what you think is important. A person who routinely orders from the best restaurants in a city is not likely to understand someone who must make do on less than 5 dollars a day. Will the clever Wall Street hedge fund manager be able to imagine, much less appreciate the ingenuity that it takes to survive on such a meager allotment ($4.25 a day is Virginia’s daily SNAP amount)…or the desperation it engenders? I have my doubts.

In the years before Ronald Reagan rekindled the embers of class warfare in this country, the concept of noblesse oblige was a given. Even though it’s a patriarchal concept that’s not especially attractive (hidden within the obligation is the sense of unspoken superiority– that noblesse part was a nod toward the nobility of the ancient regime), at least it informed the members of the upper class that there are certain foundational principles, rules of the road for our culture. Part of our social contract is to obey a moral economy of sorts wherein privilege must be balanced by duty towards those who lack such privilege. In short, with wealth and power comes responsibility. Modeling examples of good public behavior and civic-mindedness was not just expected, but demanded.

Now almost everyone gets this at one level, or another. If you watch conservatives playing with rationales for food stamp cuts, for example, you can see them moving through various positions that try to maintain the gloss of moral respectability. First, there was the argument that governmental efforts to aid the poor were socially devastating by breaking up families (the better for ‘single mothers’ to collect aid). This argument was shuttered when Bill Clinton effectively eliminated much of welfare as we had come to know it. Next, came the argument that we are perpetuating poverty by reducing incentives to work. I have yet to meet a single American who prefers living on $4.25 a day as opposed to finding a job. Conversely, there’s more than ample evidence that for every job available there are ten Americans looking for work. That means there will be chronically high unemployment stuck right around 9 to 10% in real terms (counting those who have simply given up looking). So helping the poor will help alleviate real-time misery and pump some money back into the economy. To reduce unemployment benefits at this point, or, as the Republicans are doing, to make an extension of unemployment benefits contingent on cuts elsewhere to the social safety net is simply to deny your obligations to help the poor, in addition to slowing down the economy, an action that is both cruel and economically stupid.

Those who advocate cutting unemployment benefits or cutting food stamps are now in search of a rationale that isn’t ridiculous on its face, a moral fig leaf, so to speak. In the vanguard of these moral apologists is the Republican’s bug eyed granny killer, Paul Ryan, who provides the deep thinking libertarian response that the workings of the market are inherently moral and not to be tampered with (as if an economy were not a wholly man-made construct). They argue that despite the free market’s inability to provide for education or retirement or health care or even safe drinking water we should all bow to its poker chip clatter. When this argument fails on a more or less daily basis, conservatives turn to blaming the victim: suggesting that the poor are lazy. Or drug addled. Or sexually promiscuous. None of which is statistically borne out, by the way. And, not surprisingly, the rich seem to have as many problems with drugs and idleness and sexual promiscuity as the poor…with much less reason, to boot. All of which is beside the point, anyhow. Would refraining from smoking pot or having sex magically make more jobs appear? That’s not the way an economy works, even if you’re suffering the intellectual acuity of Paul Ryan. It’s not a character problem that leads to 9 % real unemployment. It’s a lack of jobs.

This effort at finding moral rationales for shredding the social contract does not stop with denigrating the poor, of course. That’s only half the story. The other half is the tremendous propaganda work done on behalf of the rich and powerful. The fairy tale goes something like this: wealthy American’s are affluent because they made the right lifestyle choices. They got themselves good educations, they got and stayed married, and they worked really, really hard. No mention of how easy or difficult it was to get themselves a good education, or maintain a stable relationship, or that perhaps they had the opportunity to choose exactly what they wanted to work hard at in the first place. Again, money changes things. If you start with money, you get to make those choices. You have the opportunity to make a decision about what you’ll dedicate your life to—that’s not true for the poor, or even for most of the middle class in real terms, especially now, when a job outside of your chosen ‘career’ path is more likely than not. No, instead, many nominally middle class Americans are in dead-end jobs with little or no hope for real advancement. Statistically, we’re one of the most unequal countries on the planet. We’re also less like to see social advance from one generation to the next compared to other Western Nations.

In short, the unfettered free market model is failing the ‘American dream’ and every Republican in congress right now is looking for a rational to explain that inconvenient fact outside the obvious one: the rich have no sense of obligation to our country or our culture. Since the late 1970s real wages for the bottom half of the work force have stagnated or fallen, while the incomes of the top 1 percent have nearly quadrupled (and the incomes of the top 0.1 percent have risen even more). Yet, the wealthiest members of our society take no social responsibility for their exponentially increased levels of wealth and power. This is not an accident. The only entity capable of enforcing the social contract–our government– has been defanged through tax cuts and deregulation thanks to efforts of conservatives over the last forty years.

In Sunday’s New York Times there’s an interesting glimpse of the mentality that drives and excuses this kind of behavior. Sam Polk, a rabid Wall Street trader has come in from the cold. Like an addled alcoholic, he confesses in the Times that he’s addicted to money, not out of material need, but psychologically. The same thing that fuels his need for money, fuels the alcoholic’s need for drink: a sense of spiritual emptiness and desolation, a need for validation and self-worth. “IN my last year on Wall Street my bonus was $3.6 million — and I was angry because it wasn’t big enough. I was 30 years old, had no children to raise, no debts to pay, no philanthropic goal in mind. I wanted more money for exactly the same reason an alcoholic needs another drink: I was addicted.” Let’s be clear, no one ‘needs’ 3.6 million dollars as a bonus to satisfy material comfort. They need it because they have a problem. Currently, we might say approximately 1% of our population has a problem.  They are addicted to money, to the exponential advantages it brings and the power it provides. As Polk freely admits, “Wealth addicts are, more than anybody, specifically responsible for the ever widening rift that is tearing apart our once great country. Wealth addicts are responsible for the vast and toxic disparity between the rich and the poor and the annihilation of the middle class. Only a wealth addict would feel justified in receiving $14 million in compensation — including an $8.5 million bonus — as the McDonald’s C.E.O., Don Thompson, did in 2012, while his company then published a brochure for its work force on how to survive on their low wages. Only a wealth addict would earn hundreds of millions as a hedge-fund manager, and then lobby to maintain a tax loophole that gave him a lower tax rate than his secretary.”

Conservatives with their insistence on dismantling the social safety net, and hobbling whatever meager regulations our dysfunctional government can put in place are acting like enablers, essentially handing the keys to the Cadillac to a drunk son. Every alibi is allowed and every action is forgiven, but the drunk is still a drunk, and eventually, of course, the drunk hits bottom. Unfortunately, in this instance, our particular drunk can take society down with him. This need not happen, of course, but as every member of AA will attest, the first step to finding a cure is admitting you have a problem.

New Ethics for Virginia, Sort of

imagesIn a move that surprised exactly no one, Virginia state legislators have formed a tentative agreement to pass ethic regulations that go a little beyond ‘whatever, dude.’

To wit, they’ve decided that gifts over $250 to themselves or a family member must be announced, and limited if from a party with ‘business’ before the state. They’ve also agreed that there should be biannual rather than annual disclosure requirements for lawmakers and lobbyists. They’ve surmised that it might be a good idea to bone up on ethics training, especially for the new lawmakers, because, naturally, the veterans were never a problem … (just ask outgoing Governor Bob McDonnell). Actually, to be fair, they did offer a refresher course to ‘veterans’ in the event that they forgot whatever rules they weren’t following in the first place. They also decided to create an ethics commission that could exclaim: ‘tut, tut!’ at opportune moments.

Excellent work, gentlemen and sufficient perhaps to provide a cloak of respectability for the next few months. But, let’s face it, not much of substance. Not that I object, mind you. I’m happy to see Virginia move a notch or two up from its current position as the 44th most corrupt state in the Union. Progress! A new slogan comes to mind: “We’re the 41st most corrupt state in the Union, but we try harder!”

Alas, as many suspected the new ethical ‘rules’ that the General Assembly has on offer are hardly exhaustive.

For example, the limits on gifts are only for those individuals with ‘business’ before the state. Given the contours of the recent scandal this is easy to understand, but why not just set a limit and be done with it? Every other state in the Union with the exception of Virginia and three other states curtail the amount of money that can be funneled directly to a politician and/or his family. State Senator J. Chapman Peterson offered a bill that would set a hard limit of $2000. But that didn’t make the negotiation round for some reason.

While we’re at it, twenty-two states simply ban corporations from giving to political campaigns, period. Why can’t Virginia be one of them?

And, of course, we have to ask, will that ‘business before the state’ clause apply to corporate entities?

ProgressVA reported in January 2012 that the corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) wrote more than 50 bills introduced in the Virginia legislature in recent years. ALEC, which is funded by Exxon Mobil, Wal-Mart Stores, Koch Industries, and other wealthy corporations, writes model legislation of interest to its funders that sympathetic lawmakers have introduced in many states. In Virginia, dozens of lawmakers are members of the group or have attended its legislative conferences at a cost to the state of more than $200,000 since 2001. Its drafts provided the basis for Virginia’s legal challenge to the Obama administration’s health care reforms, a bill requiring voters to show identification at the polls, and a bill prohibiting the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gas emissions. House Speaker William Howell was ALEC’s national chairman in 2009 and remains on ALEC’s “national leadership team.”

Will these new ethic ‘rules’ apply to money spent at ALEC gatherings…or funds provided by corporations that support ALEC?

As long as we’re asking questions, why is Virginia only one of two states (South Carolina is the other) where the part-time legislators handpick the judges before whom many of them practice law? If not an ethical breach it certainly does allow one to indulge in speculation about possible improprieties.

Sins of omission aside, the Virginia General Assembly has actively sought to block transparency by exempting key institutions from Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Foremost among these is the State Corporation Commission (SCC) which has been exempted from Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act. The SCC regulates businesses, utilities, financial institutions, insurance and railroads. This would be the single state agency where a FOIA is essential for understanding how corporations are influencing Virginia law. There’s nothing in the new ‘ethics compromise’ on making the SCC or other relevant agencies more transparent. Oh, and, by the way, the state’s 31,000 prison inmates also are forbidden to make requests under the FOIA.

To give some sense of what this means vis-a-vis transparency, when the Associated Press tested the effectiveness of the exemption in 2006 by sending reporters to each county to ask for public records, only 43 percent had success. The rest were told, variously, that the records would not be released or would cost thousands of dollars in fees. Maybe that’s the reason the Richmond Times-Dispatch is posting news of the ethics ‘compromise’ like it’s, well, news. They just haven’t been able to report on all the other threads that a few decent FOIA requests might reveal.

Says University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato, “Here’s an easy prediction — we’ll all be tut-tutting about how little the [Virginia] General Assembly did to reform the gift laws come March.” Sabato was actually pessimistic about an ethics compromise getting even this far. Last week he suggested in the Daily Press that “The chances of any limits on campaign donations are absolutely zero. File that one away in old number 13.”

He said Virginia officials and many voters tend to rely on the old assumption that Virginia’s politicians are more honest than politicians in other states.

No, really. He did say that. But then he qualified it, “Well, maybe. But how would we know? Look at the McDonnell situation. It took a whistleblower who felt he was being railroaded to expose a shocking arrangement that looked to most people like a wealthy businessman was buying the governor and first lady. How many other questionable activities have never seen the light of day? I’d guess many.”

“Many”? …Unfortunately, that sounds about right. But given the current structure of this compromise, we’ll still never know for sure.