The following guest commentary was submitted by Glen Retief, author of the Lambda Literary Award-winning The Jack Bank: A Memoir of a South African Childhood. He teaches creative nonfiction at Susquehanna University. His husband, Peterson Toscano, is co-founder of the ex-gay survivor forum, Beyond Ex-Gay.
The New Jersey and New York legislatures consider bills banning ex-gay therapy for minors. Federal courts review California’s law protecting youth against homophobic pseudo-medicine. And now a new exgay survivor survey details the harm sustained by LGBT people who entered so-called “reparative therapy.”
Thankfully, in North America so-called “reparative therapy” and the damage it causes seem increasingly to be making the news. But in the midst of this conversation, spare a thought for one freckled, skinny Afrikaner boy who can’t share his story this month with lawmakers and pundits—a story that in many ways sheds a lot of light on our current political and judicial debates.
A South African court is currently in the middle of a murder hearing involving a white-supremacist paramilitary leader named Alex de Koker and the April 2011 death of a 15-year-old boy, Raymond Buys. Buys had been signed up for a “game ranger training camp” at a farm called Echo Wild, about an hour’s drive from Johannesburg. In reality the camp was an expensive exgay program run by De Koker and designed to turn “moffies”—the Afrikaans word for “faggots”—into macho Afrikaners.
After two months in this program, Buys arrived at a local hospital malnourished, burned, dehydrated, and with wounds all over his body. He soon died. Allegedly, two other Afrikaans teenagers had been tortured to death at Echo Wild over the previous six years, although at the time police attributed these deaths to “natural causes.”
Alex de Koker, the self-styled camp “general” with ties to the neo-fascist Afrikaner Resistance Movement, now stands accused of beating, strangulation, humiliation, torture with boiling water, and dragging kids along the back of a pickup truck, all in the service of making them more masculine.
Two months ago, Buy’s story initially sparked some coverage in the international media. Since then, however, this exgay trial has fallen off the radar screen, although the Afrikaans press has continued to cover the trial’s sometimes bizarre twists and turns, which included a recent courthouse marriage for the accused murderer and a neo-Nazi rally in the spectator bench to support the defendant.
However, Buys’s story instantly struck a chord with me as a gay white South African—now a naturalized American—who grew up in the Kruger National Park under apartheid. As a child, I was taught to admire the local game rangers’ macho self-reliance: they could shoot a poacher, fix a windmill, and survive in the bush. So it didn’t surprise me that in South Africa, an exgay program would be disguised as a game ranger training camp.
Then, at age 12, I was sent away to a whites-only boarding school, where a militaristic 17-year-old prefect-disciplinarian took it upon himself to try to “cure” me of my girlishness. He used some of the same methods as De Koker—beatings, mock hangings, and electroshock.
The school didn’t officially tolerate this, any more than South African law officially tolerated De Koker’s beating adolescent boys to death. But in both cases, regulatory ambiguity facilitated the violations. It was legal for De Koker to “toughen up” sissies, while at my school instilling militaristic manliness was part of the curriculum. My parents had to threaten a lawsuit before the prefect was transferred.
Buys’s story, and mine, may strike American readers as outlandish. Yet the US situation may not be as different to the South African one as Americans might wish. In many ways, Buys’s story is just that of thousands of Americans, writ large and taken to its logical conclusion.
Currently, in the USA, perhaps a hundred or so exgay treatment programs admit women and men who wish to change both their sexuality and/or gender presentation. Many of them also provide “refuges” where parents can send their queer teenagers.
As recently as 2007, the Love in Action residential clinic in Memphis, TN—the “flagship” program of the exgay movement—taught forcibly-admitted minors that their gender and sexual instincts were evil and immoral. They were subjected to methods of psychological abuse ranging from the forbidding of hugs and friendly eye contact to humiliating public confessions of sexual fantasies and behavior.
Such cruelties may not be the same as burn marks or ruptured vital organs. Yet they can inflict fatal wounds on mental health, resulting in sharply heightened rates of substance abuse, suicide, and self-harm. They may also result in the reduction of a group or individual’s social vitality—one of scholars’ definitions of genocide. Mainstream medical bodies sharply critical of sexual orientation conversion therapy today include the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, and the American Psychological Association.
In addition, Box Turtle Bulletin has previously exposed how exgay programs, under pressure at home, have exported their toxic ideologies to my home continent, resulting in murderous laws, like Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill.
Arguably, adult citizens have a constitutional right to harm themselves. However, youth need to be protected against abuse, and dangerous hate groups need to be curtailed as far as free speech laws permit. Buys’s story should remind LGBT and other Americans what is at stake. Like DDT or raw asbestos, exgay ideology may, unchecked, claim our very lives.