In the summer of 2004, Andrew Ramirez, who was just about to enter his senior year of high school, worked up the nerve to tell his family he was gay. His mother took the news in stride, but his stepfather, a conservative Christian, was outraged. “He said it was wrong, an abomination, that it was something he would not tolerate in his house,” Ramirez recalls. A few weeks later, his parents marched him into the office of Bachmann & Associates, a Christian counseling center in Lake Elmo, Minnesota, which is owned by Michele Bachmann’s husband, Marcus. From the outset, Ramirez says, his therapist—one of roughly twenty employed at the Lake Elmo clinic—made it clear that renouncing his sexual orientation was the only moral choice. “He basically said being gay was not an acceptable lifestyle in God’s eyes,” Ramirez recalls. According to Ramirez, his therapist then set about trying to “cure” him. Among other things, he urged Ramirez to pray and read the Bible, particularly verses that cast homosexuality as an abomination, and referred him to a local church for people who had given up the “gay lifestyle.” He even offered to set Ramirez up with an ex-lesbian mentor.
Ramirez was not impressed. After his second appointment, he resolved not to go back, despite the turmoil it might cause in his family. “I didn’t feel it was something that I wanted to change, and I didn’t think it could be changed,” he says. “I was OK with who I was.”
As Republican presidential contender Michele Bachmann has surged in the polls, the spotlight has turned on her husband and main political adviser, Marcus Bachmann, who has a PhD in clinical psychology and owns two Christian counseling centers in Minnesota. There has been a great deal of speculation that his clinics, which have received $161,000 in state and federal funding, try to cure homosexuality—and the chatter has only grown louder since his comments likening gays to “barbarians” who “need to be educated” and “disciplined” surfaced in the blogosphere last week. Marcus Bachmann has denied these allegations. “That’s a false statement,” he replied when the Minneapolis City Pages asked if his clinic tried to cure gays. And until now there was no firm evidence to back these allegations up. But information obtained by The Nation suggests that Bachmann & Associates therapists do, in fact, try to change sexual orientation. It also sheds new light on the Bachmanns’ embrace of the controversial ex-gay movement and related psychological approaches, which portray homosexuality as a disease to be rooted out.
Some of the most potent material was provided by Truth Wins Out, a gay rights group that opposes the ex-gay movement. In late June, a Truth Wins Out activist named John Becker donned two hidden cameras—one embedded in a wristwatch—and attended five treatment sessions at Bachmann’s Lake Elmo clinic. Becker, who is openly gay, presented himself as a committed Christian who was struggling with homosexuality. The video he collected seems to confirm Ramirez’s allegations that staff members at Bachmann & Associates try to change sexual orientation. Becker’s therapist (another of Marcus Bachmann’s employees) repeatedly assured him that homosexuality could be overcome. “At the core value…in terms of how God created us, we’re all heterosexual,” he explained, according to the footage. “God has created you for heterosexuality.” The therapist also mined Becker’s personal history for traumatic experiences that might have turned him gay. To curb Becker’s gay impulses, the therapist urged him to pray and read Scripture and suggested Becker “develop” his masculinity. He also encouraged him to find a “heterosexual guy” to act as an AA-type sponsor. Later, he referred Becker to Outpost Ministries, a church that helps “the sexually and relationally broken”—in other words, homosexuals—“find healing and restoration through relationship with Jesus Christ.”
At moments in the videos, Becker seemed to try to bait the therapist into saying something controversial. For instance, Becker brought up a conversation in which his brother told him that gay people could just as easily go to heaven as anyone else and pressed the therapist to say this wasn’t so: “I mean, he was wrong, right, with what he said? He was wrong, wasn’t he?” The therapist tried to dodge the question. In later sessions, Becker spoke excitedly about ex-gay literature he’d found, which raises the question: to what degree was the therapist simply following his lead?
Both Bachmann & Associates and the Bachmann campaign declined to comment for this story, though in the past Marcus Bachmann has insisted his clinics don’t push people to change their sexual orientation. “If someone comes in a homosexual and they want to stay a homosexual, I don’t have a problem with that,” he told the Minneapolis City Pages. Nevertheless, the techniques the therapist at his Lake Elmo clinic used were typical of so-called reparative therapies, which cast homosexuality as a mental disorder and see conversion to heterosexuality as the only healthy outcome. “The explicit goal of the sessions was transforming Becker from homosexual to heterosexual,” says Wayne Besen, Truth Wins Out’s executive director.
Most professional psychologists view reparative therapy skeptically, to say the least. In 2007 the American Psychological Association assembled a task force to study the effectiveness of this approach. After spending two years sifting through the available research—it evaluated eighty-three studies dating back to 1960—the group concluded that there was scant evidence that sexual orientation could be changed. What’s more, it found that attempting to do so could cause depression and suicidal tendencies among patients. Based on these findings, in 2009 the APA voted to repudiate reparative therapy by a margin of 125 to 4.
Despite these facts, the approach continues to be embraced by conservative culture warriors and the ex-gay movement—and the Bachmanns fall squarely in this camp. Michele Bachmann has made no secret of her disdain for homosexuality. She has likened teaching about it in schools to “child abuse” and dubbed homosexuality itself a “sexual dysfunction.” She has also said gay marriage is “probably the biggest issue that will impact our state and our nation in the last, at least, thirty years.”
Less well known is the Bachmanns’ fondness for ex-gay ideology. One sign of this is the close bond they have cultivated with Janet Boynes, an African-American woman who claims that she was driven to drugs and lesbianism by the abuse she suffered as a child—among other things, she was raped by an altar boy. She says she broke free of the “lesbian lifestyle” after an encounter with a Christian woman in a grocery store parking lot set her on the path to salvation. Boynes has since come out strongly against gay rights. For instance, she was featured in a national ad campaign against hate crimes protection for gays and has argued that “it is a mockery to everything blacks suffered and the rights we won to claim that homosexuality is a civil rights issue.”
Both Boynes and the Bachmanns declined to comment on their relationship. (“They are friends. I love them dearly. But I will not talk about the Bachmanns,” Boynes said when contacted by phone for this article. “This interview is over.”) But the Bachmanns have leaned on Boynes to promote their antigay message. In 2005, Marcus Bachmann gave a presentation called “The Truth About the Homosexual Agenda” at the Minnesota Pastors’ Summit, a gathering of conservative religious leaders designed to build support for anti–gay marriage legislation. According to Curt Prins, a Minneapolis marketing consultant who was in attendance, Bachmann first offered his professional assessment that same-sex attraction was an affliction that could be rooted out. Then, as confirmation, he called Boynes to the stage to tell her story and show off before-and-after photos—a dour masculine-looking woman with cropped hair, followed by a smiling paragon of femininity. Prins, who is gay, says the crowd went wild. “They thought this was the word of God,” he recalls.
Boynes has also made a number of public appearances alongside Michele Bachmann. And the website for Boynes’s ministry, which aims to help people overcome homosexuality, features a glowing endorsement from the Minnesota Congresswoman. According to photos Becker took, Boynes’s book, Called Out: A Former Lesbian’s Discovery of Freedom, is displayed in the lobby of Bachmann & Associates’ Lake Elmo clinic, along with a note from Marcus Bachmann, saying, “Janet is a friend. I recommend this book as she speaks to the heart of the matter and gives practical insights of truth to set people free.”
What does it mean to be set free? In April, Boynes, who has become a prominent ex-gay spokeswoman, was featured on the Oprah Winfrey Network, along with a former drag-queen stripper named Christian, whom she supposedly helped draw out of the “gay lifestyle.” At one point, host Lisa Ling asked Christian if he still struggled with attraction to men. He said he did, painfully: “I describe it as bleeding out of my eyeballs.”
Ramirez, the former Bachmann & Associates patient, who is now working for a hardwood lumber company, says it was stories like these that prompted him to come forward. Since dropping out of therapy, he has come to terms with his sexuality and delved more deeply into his Christian faith. He wants other young gay people to know they can do the same. “I want to send a clear message,” he says. “There’s nothing wrong with you. One day you will find love and acceptance.”