John Smid, the former director of ex-gay Christian ministry Love in Action, is a changed man.
Sitting in an office above the detached garage of his Germantown home, he has nothing but praise for the work of local gay filmmaker Morgan Jon Fox. Fox's long-awaited documentary, This Is What Love in Action Looks Like, makes its local premiere at the Indie Memphis Film Festival on November 4th, and it was through the multi-year making of that film that Smid's ideas about homosexuality began to shift dramatically.
"I'm realizing that people have the freedom in Christ to choose to live in a gay relationship. That's not for me to judge on their behalf," said Smid, who resigned as executive director of Love in Action in 2008. "I realize I was what the gay community often said I was: I was judgmental. I was critical. I was somewhat homophobic."
These words are a far cry from Smid's former beliefs.
"We taught very heavily [at Love in Action] that any homosexual choices were against God's will, and they were sinful and wrong. We were very straightforward about that," Smid said.
Smid issued an apology to former Love in Action clients last year, and he gives Fox credit for guiding him on his evolution from a leader in the ex-gay world to the more open-minded man he is today.
"My relationship with Morgan was very instrumental in where I am today because he was the first openly gay person who would meet and talk with me as a person," Smid said. "Morgan is such a humble person and an honest person that it helped to break down my walls as we related."
But their unlikely friendship didn't start off so smoothly. Smid first encountered Fox during a two-week protest outside Love in Action's Raleigh facility in 2005. Fox and a group of local gay rights advocates gathered outside the church at 4780 Yale Road where Love in Action ran "Refuge," its now-defunct teen ex-gay ministry, to rally for their friend Zach Stark, a 16-year-old gay kid whose parents forced him into "straight camp," as protesters often dubbed the two-week program.
Fox, who at that time had already released his award-winning film Blue Citrus Hearts, brought along his camera for what was intended to be a one-day demonstration.
"Being a filmmaker, I decided to bring a camera. I wasn't planning on making a film. I just thought I was documenting one day, and that's all we thought it was going to be," Fox said.
But when the protests went on for more than two weeks and the national media picked up the story of the gay kid forced into straight camp, Fox realized he had a documentary on his hands. But getting an interview with Smid, a necessary part of his film, wasn't so easy. And though Fox didn't know it at the time, his efforts to capture Smid on camera would lead to major changes within the ex-gay leader and the ministry itself.
It's Okay to Be Gay
Today, Smid runs Grace Rivers, a monthly Christian fellowship group for gay people. In his words, it's a meeting for "those who call themselves gay and want to seek a relationship with God in a place where they're free to do that."
He says he simply encourages gay men in their faith, with no expectations for a desired outcome. He's even written a soon-to-be-published book on how he came to accept gay people through his relationship with Fox.
"Every homosexual deserves to know that Jesus loves them," said Smid, who admits that he no longer shuns gay-affirming churches as he once did.
The self-professed formerly gay man isn't running to embrace homosexuality himself, however. Smid's been married to a woman for 22 years.
"'Ex-gay' is such a hot-button term. I wouldn't say that. I would say that I previously experienced homosexuality. I had many homosexual relationships, and I was very promiscuous in homosexuality," Smid said.
He hasn't had a same-sex relationship since 1984, at which time he decided that he didn't want to be gay anymore because he felt his homosexuality led him into a life of "promiscuity and unhealthfulness." He began working as a house manager for Love in Action's residential program in Centerfield, California. Two years later, he married his wife.
"We developed a friendship, and I felt strongly led that marriage with a woman was something I wanted to pursue again. I had been previously married," Smid said.
Some might think that means Smid is bisexual, but Smid shuns that label: "I think bisexuality is where someone is erotically and sexually attracted to both genders, and I would say my primary erotic attraction would be homosexual."
Smid was promoted to the role of executive director of Love in Action in September 1990, and in 1994, the organization moved its ministry to Memphis. Love in Action operated here quietly until 2005, when protests over Refuge sparked a national media firestorm.
In early June 2005, Stark, a White Station High School student, posted these words on his MySpace page: "Today, my mother, father, and I had a very long 'talk' in my room, where they let me know I am to apply for a fundamentalist Christian program for gays."
That fundamentalist program, described by Stark in a later post as a "boot camp," was Refuge, a two-week day camp where gay kids were taught how to become straight kids.
Stark, who is featured in Fox's film but no longer does interviews about his experience at Love in Action, had this to say about the program: "If I do come out straight, I'll be so mentally unstable and depressed it won't matter."
When his friends and other equality advocates got word of his parents' plan to enroll him in Refuge, they went into action. On June 6, 2005, the first day Stark attended Refuge, 30 or so protesters gathered outside Love in Action's facility with signs reading "It's Okay to Be Gay" and "We Support You."
"I remember sitting around a computer with other people who went to high school with us after we'd heard through the grapevine that Zach was going into this program. We started a collective calling circle [to organize the protest]," said Eileen Townsend, who was in choir with Stark at White Station.
Janelle Treibitz was volunteering with the Mid-South Peace & Justice Center at the time, and she sent out press releases to the local media.
"I remember at the first protest, somebody said, 'Hey, the program lasts for two weeks. Let's be here every day.' And we were, like, 'Okay. Let's do it,'" Treibitz said.
On the first day, Love in Action staffer Danny Crosby came outside and offered bottled water to protesters, but a few days into the protests, staff members stopped being so friendly and called police in an attempt to remove the protesters. But the protesters were allowed by law to rally outside so long as they didn't venture onto Love in Action's property.
After the third day, the group began getting interview requests from the national media, and The New York Times eventually sent reporter Alex Williams to Memphis to cover the story. The protesters formed the Queer Action Coalition to handle media requests.
"[Love in Action] realized we weren't going away and towards the end of the first week, they called a press conference. They were getting a huge response from media around the country," Fox said. "We weren't allowed in, but we snuck someone in with a fake press pass."
Footage from that conference made its way into Fox's documentary, as well as interviews with Stark, other former Love in Action clients, and interviews with Smid. But those interviews with the ex-gay leader didn't come easily. Smid agreed to meet Fox in his office shortly after the protests, but he originally declined an on-camera interview.
"I walked into his office that day ... and it was weird because there was 10 seconds of silence. And I don't know why it happened, but I just started telling him my personal story, where I came from, who I am, and what my place was in the world," Fox said.
Fox said Smid seemed shocked that he wasn't some angry protester launching into a diatribe about what was wrong with Love in Action.
"That was the beginning of him starting to look at things differently. I didn't intend it that way. But because I let my guard down and showed him I didn't want to attack, it also allowed him to let his guard down," Fox said.
"As we got together, we were willing to lay aside our agenda and get to know one another as people," Smid said. "That was very instrumental in my processing where I am today."
That meeting was the beginning of an unlikely friendship that would eventually result in Smid's resignation from Love in Action in 2008 and his apology to former clients. But not all of Smid's former clients are ready to accept that apology.
What Love in Action Looked Like
Brandon Tidwell, now an openly gay man living in Orlando, Florida, attended Love in Action's adult live-in residential program in 2002.
"I have sent [Smid] an email asking him not to reach out to me. He has his own journey, and I believe he needs to go through that process," Tidwell said. "But people also need to separate who John is and the struggle he's going through about his own identity. People need to hold John accountable to what John did."
As Tidwell tells it, Smid is responsible for more than 20 years of "spiritual abuse through running programs ... that created damage in people's lives."
Raised as a conservative Southern Baptist in Texas, Tidwell sought out Love in Action when he realized he was gay. He moved into one of the program's homes for adult clients, which held anywhere from six to 10 men at a time. Two or three men shared bedrooms with no doors, and they were subjected to Love in Action's strict rules.
Clients were expected to do stereotypically macho activities, such as playing sports. They weren't allowed to wear brands of clothing that were associated with gay culture, such as Calvin Klein. And they were forbidden from visiting certain areas of Memphis, such as Midtown, known for embracing gay people.
"They would say, 'You like classical music or Broadway showtunes. That's gay. You can't like it anymore. You have to like sports. You need to be able to throw a baseball or fix a car," Tidwell said.
An undated copy of Love in Action's study manual blames homosexuality on a child's failure to form relationships with a same-sex parent.
"If a father figure is absent, a little boy will look to other boys for validation. If these boys are full of rejection and ridicule, this closes another door to entering the world of men. Out of fear and insecurity, the little boy stays in the kitchen with mom," reads one passage.
Tidwell completed the three-month program — which involved support groups, 12-step programs, and Bible study — in August 2002, believing he was "cured." But by June 2003, he realized he was still gay, and that's when he began trying to find a way to reconcile being gay and having faith.
"It took five to seven years of therapy on the other side to unwind all the damage that had been done," Tidwell said.
Another former adult residential client, also featured in Fox's film, is Peterson Toscano. He moved into a Love in Action house in 1996 and spent several years in and out of the program. Toscano also remembers Love in Action's rules to be especially constrictive.
"At one point, you could not exceed more than 15 minutes per day behind a closed bathroom door, and there were timers in the bathrooms," Toscano said. "If you went over your time, you had to confess that. Every minute part of our lives was under scrutiny, from what we wore to what we did with our face and shaving and how much time we spent in the bathroom."
He went to therapy for 10 years to undo the damage of Love in Action.
"Love in Action was oppression in this concentrated form, so I was very depressed afterwards and suicidal for a time," said Toscano, who wrote the play Doin' Time in the Homo No Mo Halfway House as a way to cope with the damage. "I was really confused, and there was lots of self-hatred and shame. There was lots of bad training about sexuality. Nobody was trained to teach anything."
Toscano said one of Love in Action's core teachings was especially damaging.
"They insisted that, as queer people, we were not able to have healthy relationships. So even friendships would become twisted and perverted because we became too emotionally needy," Toscano said. "I found myself putting up walls five to six years later as I was getting to know people. I had it in my head that I couldn't get close to people."
Toscano didn't want to speak on the record about Smid's apology. But Evan Hurst, the Memphis-based social media director for anti-ex-gay group Truth Wins Out, echoes the sentiment many former clients have publicly expressed.
"If [Smid] is on a path of personal growth and starting to grasp that he played a key part of inflicting harm onto people, that's great. [Truth Wins Out] only wishes him the best in continuing on that road," Hurst said. "But part of our mission is to expose this industry for what it is. We're not shy about our goal, and that's to let every single person know how harmful these ministries are."
This Is What Love in Action Looks Like Like was six years in the making, mainly because Fox felt the film needed a good ending. After the protests, the state of Tennessee briefly shut down Love in Action for operating as a mental health facility without a license to do so. But the program was soon up and running again.
Finally, in 2007, Love in Action ended the Refuge teen program as then-director Smid began to realize he was doing more harm than good.
"I realized it was completely inappropriate to bring young people in here and help them be honest with each other and themselves without working with their parents," Smid said. "They had to go back and live with parents who had not become healthier themselves. That's my greatest regret."
The program shifted focus onto working with parents of gay teens rather than only working with kids.
Throughout all this time, Fox continued meeting with Smid off-camera. And eventually, Smid agreed to allow Fox to interview him for the documentary. Fox recorded several interviews with Smid over the past few years, and each one shows him opening up a little more.
"Since John has attempted to change his worldview, he's also attempted to reconnect. In the documentary, he says if I've harmed you and hurt you, please try to connect with me so I can reconcile. He is in a different place," said Fox, who used the closure of Refuge and Smid's resignation and apology as the resolution to his film.
But many in the ex-gay movement would argue that Smid still has a ways to go. In his Flyer interview, he wouldn't go so far as to say he still believed homosexuality to be a sin, but he didn't say it wasn't one either. He did say that it wasn't his place to judge, and that's a far cry from the Smid of 2005.
As Smid works on his personal development, Love in Action continues to counsel people. The residential program closed abruptly in September due to budget constraints, but executive director Tommy Corman said they still hold four-day intensive workshops and hourly counseling.
However, Corman claims the focus is now on sexual addiction of any kind, rather than just curing homosexuality.
"It's about addressing the heart of intimacy or a false intimacy that people are engaging in with others. That can affect you whether you're a homosexual or into bestiality or a pedophile," Corman said.
Critics of the program claim their attempt to "pray away the gay" is now simply masked with a new focus.
"You still have people passionate about this issue continuing to offer Bible studies and support groups teaching these erroneous beliefs," Tidwell said. "Even though I'm grateful [the residential program] is over and people don't have that option any longer, it doesn't mean the problem has gone away."
Smid, who now believes Love in Action's program was better suited for sexual addiction than homosexuality, said he'd rather the residential program changed focus than closed.
"Even the people who were some of the greatest critics of Love in Action have said positive things about the sense of community they had. I feel sad there isn't that kind of community for gay people who just want to live a better life because they've gotten into unhealthy patterns," Smid said. "It's sad that something like that closed rather than developing an awareness of something that would be much more productive. But tides are turning."
The closing of Love in Action's residential program occurred after Fox wrapped up work on his film. But despite not having that ending documented, the film has been widely successful since it's June 18th premiere at San Francisco's Frameline Film Festival.
Since then, festivals across the country have added This Is What Love in Action Looks Like to their line-ups. The film has already garnered the Best Documentary Award and an Audience Choice Award at the Birmingham Shout Festival.
"I think the film's strength is showing ordinary people standing up for an injustice," Fox said. "It's often very discouraging when people see things and think they can't do anything about it. But this shows that you can. And if you act out of love, not out of anger, such a positive outcome can come out of that."
Smid's metamorphosis is one of those positive outcomes, and the former ex-gay leader agrees that kindness, not anger, was the driving force.
"After meeting Morgan, I realized I had so much judgment in my heart. I looked at the scriptures and found one that stood out to me in Romans, Chapter 2. It said God's kindness leads to repentance," Smid said. "When I looked back into my own life, I realized that it wasn't somebody pushing me into something or hating me into something or judging me into something that changed me. Rather, it was through kindness.
"Very simply, that's what Jesus' commands are: Love God and love people. And I had not been very loving."
This Is What Love in Action Looks Like makes its Memphis premiere at the Indie Memphis Film Festival at Playhouse on the Square on November 4th at 6:30 p.m. John Smid and Peterson Toscano, who have never appeared at a public forum together, will be on-hand for the post-screening question-and-answer session.