Bias Watch

American Christians busted pushing conversion therapy in Costa Rica by undercover reporters

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Therapists linked to two U.S. organizations are telling LGBTQ people in Costa Rica that homosexuality is wrong and that only a “sadistic god” would create a gay person, according to a report from Open Democracy.

A second report also found that the same conservative Christian groups are also undermining U.S. laws, pushing conversion therapy in municipalities that have outlawed the practice. The undercover investigation found two conversion therapy counsellors operating in states where the practice is prohibited. One advised a reporter posing as a 17-year-old lesbian to “suppress” her orientation, including by starving herself.

Related: Conversion therapy practice forced to pay $3.5 million after losing appeal in historic lawsuit

Therapists connected to Focus on the Family and the Exodus Global Alliance made the comments while ‘treating’ or offering to ‘treat’ undercover reporters posing as gay or lesbian people.

Focus on the Family was founded in 1977 by conservative psychologist James Dobson. Dobson, who Mike Pence considers his role model, is known for his extreme views, including his push for corporal punishment that has now been found to have traumatizing effects for children. Dobson also once said that the shooting at Sandy Hook happened because of gay marriage, and in the same vein published a newsletter with a letter that said fathers should take their sons into bathrooms to show them that they have the same private parts.

Exodus Global Alliance is the global wing of the disbanded and controversial ex-gay group Exodus International. James Dobson also founded the Family Research Council, a group designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Conversion therapy is considered “ineffective” and “harmful” by the Pan-American Health Organization and has been condemned by Costa Rica’s official associations of psychologists and psychiatrists. The Netflix documentary, Pray Away, offers an in-depth analysis of the ex-gay movement, with testimonials from former members of Exodus International explaining the sinister machinations behind the anti-LGBTQ group.

One of the reporters for the exposé posed as a married woman who had become involved in an extra-marital lesbian relationship. She contacted Enfoque a la Familia – the Costa Rican arm of Focus on the Family – via its website, where she was able to book and pay in dollars for an online therapy session with a psychologist listed on the site.​​

Another reporter posed as a young gay man. He went to Exodus Latinoamérica, Exodus Global Alliance’s group.

Both therapists the reporters contacted were certified by the Costa Rica’s Psychology Association, CPPCR, despite the organization calling for a ban on conversion therapy.

The woman’s therapist said the word “guilt” ten times and told the reporter that homosexuality was wrong. The practitioner also went on to say that homosexuality is the imperfect “lifestyle” that is learned or developed.

“God created man and woman[…] our perfect match, and he’s perfect and marvelous. This [homosexuality] is learned, is something developed on the road,” she said.

The practitioner then asked if she would like to cast out her desire for women.

At Exodus, the male reporter’s psychologist said that homosexuality is a sin.

“I serve God first. I’m not treating homosexuality as common people do[…] God says this is a sin, so we treat it as a sin.” She also said that “nobody is born homosexual, because only a sadistic God would forbid this sin in the Bible and, at the same time, create you like that.”

Another reporter went undercover to an Evangelical church in the nation’s capital San José for counselling on how to handle his “unwanted homosexuality.” He experienced a 90-minute session full of misleading and derogatory claims from a pastor.

She claimed that most gay people are drug users, compared gay sex to defecation, and said that porn, sexual abuse, and parental sin are reasons for being gay. The pastor also claimed that the reporter was probably born after his parents watched porn, thereby making him “born tainted.”

The pastor defended her claims about the links between homosexuality and drug use, pornography, sexual abuse, parental sins, and masturbation, which, she said, are “conclusions” drawn from her “40 years of experience as a Christian spiritual counsellor” and from biblical verses that she quoted for each of the claims in her reply.

Costa Rica is looking to ban conversion therapy in 2022 with a bill, but LGBTQ rights advocates acknowledge that even if it passes, religious groups like Exodus and Focus on the Family will find a loophole around the ban. Most conversion therapy practitioners are not licensed medical professionals.

Shi Alarcón, a sociologist and sexual diversity activist for an LGBTQ youth support group in Costa Rica known as Casa Rara, says she has seen these conversion therapy camps expanding across Costa Rica. Teenagers are being subjected to the traumatic torture at alarming rates, she said.

“If I listen to ten teenagers per month, eight tell me they were taken to or were offered [conversion sessions at churches] or were told by their mothers: ‘We’re going to do this,’” Alacarón said.

Alacarón supports a conversion therapy ban, but she says that we need to advocate for broader scopes on banning conversion therapy in all places, including churches.

“We need to widen the scope of hate crimes to include ‘conversion therapy’ – and stop calling it ‘therapy,’” she said. “We need to stop relinquishing the words that we use to feel fine – ‘family,’ ‘therapy,’ ‘health’ – to conservative groups.”

Costa Rica’s bill is poised to face strong opposition from anti-LGBTQ organizations like Focus on the Family and Exodus International—through branches that are shown to be under the control of its U.S. affiliates. Both groups still operate in U.S. states where conversion therapy is currently banned.


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