No Cure Needed – Translation
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This story contains strong descriptions and may not be suitable for children.
Welcome to Radio Ambulante from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Let’s start with something Andrés heard. It’s not his real name, but he asked us to change it. It was at an evangelical church he attended with his family in Guayaquil, Ecuador.
[Voice]: You shall not lie with a man as with a woman. It is an abomination.
[Daniel]: It’s a Bible verse the pastor read.
[Voice]: If a man lies with a man as he lies with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination. They shall surely be put to death. Their blood shall be upon them.
[Daniel]: It was 2006, and at that time Andrés was around ten years old. And when he heard that, he knew something was wrong, that his life had changed forever. Because ever since he could remember…
[Andrés]: I just liked other boys. I mean, I always had this… this attraction to people of the same sex.
[Daniel]: And up to that moment, he thought it was the same for everyone. But all of a sudden, with those words, he didn’t feel the way he did before.
[Andrés]: I didn’t feel like a criminal, but I… I felt like a… cockroach, like an abomination, like something disgusting. So I’m like: “Wow, how can I have this sickness?” That’s how I felt, like I had one of the most disgusting infections.
[Daniel]: Because according to the pastor and his religion, God abhors homosexuality.
Andrés left his church feeling confused that day. He had never talked to his family about his sexual orientation. And now, with what he heard from his pastor, he was much less ready to tell them.
[Andrés]: And that was when I got scared. And I was very anxious.
[Daniel]: Because he loved God, but, according to his pastor, God hated him because of his sin. The words he heard that day left a mark on him…
[Andrés]: And I was changed completely: I wasn’t the super extroverted, friendly and loud boy anymore. I was extremely depressed. So much so that I started having problems with my other friends, and it was all because I was very bitter and anti-social and very combative.
[Daniel]: His parents noticed the change but they didn’t know what exactly was going on. For two years, they took him to psychologists so they could help him, but it was impossible. Andrés was still upset, bitter, depressed, and they still didn’t understand why. In the end, they decided to take him to speak to a counselor at the church they went to.
[Andrés]: She was the one who told me: “I know there’s something you don’t want to tell me, but there’s something you want to say.”
[Daniel]: Lisette Arévalo and David Trujillo, producers for Radio Ambulante, investigated this story.
Lisette will share it with us.
[Lisette Arévalo]: It was 2008 and Andrés was 12 years old when he went to see that counselor at his church. Right away, he felt like she could read his mind, like she knew he had a secret. So, after much insistence, Andrés ended up confessing that he was gay.
[Andrés]: And I burst into tears. And instead of consoling me, she said: “You don’t want to burn in Hell forever, do you? You know about fire, right? Have you ever felt it on your skin?” And I started feeling very afraid.
[Lisette]: But she told him:
[Andrés]: “They only way you can escape homosexuality is by telling your parents so they can help you to overcome this demon of homosexuality.”
[Lisette]: That session had a big impact on Andrés. He spent a lot of time thinking about the best way to tell his parents. It wasn’t easy for him to tell them something he thought was horrible, but he felt so worried and desperate that he decided to do it. A few weeks later, he started with his mom, who was the parent he trusted more. We’ll call her Lucía to protect her identity as well. So, one night when they were at home…
[Lucía]: I remember we were… He said: “Mom, come to my room.” And… and he said: “Mom, I have to tell you something.”
[Andrés]: My nerves were killing me. And I started almost not being able to breathe, and I started to cry: “Mom, it’s serious, right? I mean… It’s something that you won’t look at me the same way if I tell you.” “No, tell me, I’m here for you.” So that was when I said, stuttering and everything: “Mom, I’m gay.”
[Lucía]: I was frozen, and all I could do was hold him, and I said: “You know what, mijito? It’s OK. You’re going to get through this.” And we dropped to the floor to cry; that is, we were both on the floor crying.
[Lisette]: Lucía was crying because her son was suffering, but also because of what that meant within their Evangelical religion.
[Lucía]: I never thought that something like that would come out of the woodwork in my nearly perfect home. And I thought I was super Christian and that I loved everyone and that I was almost, kind of perfect.
[Lisette]: Until he confessed the truth to her. But Lucía didn’t react aggressively, in fact, she decided to help him tell the rest of his family and find a solution among them. When he told his dad and his brother…
[Andrés]: They decided to just deny it: “I’m confused.” “That… that’s impossible.” “Don’t start with that again.” “That’s a lie.”
[Lisette]: They told him he just wanted attention. He decided to tell his sister, thinking that she would understand. She was 11 at the time. She was his best friend and one of the people he trusted the most…
[Andrés]: And she reacted very poorly. She practically told me that she wished I was dead. That’s how disappointed she was.
Was the straw that broke the camels back, because it was like: “The person who’s most important to me is telling me that she wants to see me dead because of what I just told her, which is so intimate.” I left the house because I didn’t… I didn’t want to face that reality. I felt so ashamed.
[Lisette]: Andrés left crying and started running through the streets of the small subdivision where he lived. Until he reached a wall that separated his subdivision from another and he climbed up to the top of it.
[Andrés]: What I wanted to do was throw myself off of it, you know? But right then a person who was on the other side of the house saw the situation —that I was there crying, upset— and brought me a ladder. So I could go to the other side.
[Lisette]: When Andrés stepped off the ladder, he went running again and locked himself in the subdivision’s bathroom. His parents went looking for him, speaking with the guards, and they found him.
[Andrés]: And I felt really ashamed when both my parents were there seeing what I had done. It was… it was terrible. After that, the next couple of days were filled with an immense silence. I wouldn’t talk to anyone.
[Lisette]: The family didn’t mention the subject again. They decided to ignore it and let Andrés get over it. But Lucía couldn’t stop thinking about it. She was very worried about her son.
[Lucía]: It was an… a really new experience for me because I didn’t even know what to do. I didn’t know how to handle the situation. And as for his dad was concerned, his son was crazy; that is, he was confused and crazy, right?
[Lisette]: Lucía went back to her evangelical church for help. She met with the counselors and the pastor. She told them what had happened and asked them to help her son to get out of this depression, but most of all stop being gay. So…
[Lucía]: They recommended that I go to… Camino de Salida [Way Out].
[Voice]: Hello, good evening, we’d like to wish everyone here tonight a warm welcome.
[Lisette]: Camino de Salida, an evangelical organization that had its own radio program and described itself like this…
[Voice]: We’re Camino de Salida, a Christian ministry dedicated to serving God by serving people who have problems with same-sex attraction.
[Lisette]: By “serve” they mean supposedly making homosexual people stop being gay. This is known as “homosexual conversion therapy.” It’s a practice that started in the late 19th century, and, even though it’s taken many forms, it remains in practice in many areas. But Camino de Salida specifically came about in Ecuador in 1995. It was founded by Betty van Engen and Timothy Broach, two evangelical missionaries from the US who lived in Ecuador. Broach had been through conversion therapy in the US, so he decided to bring it to Ecuador.
Camino de Salida’s second step was to formally partner with Exodus Latin America, a subsidiary of a larger group called Exodus International, and what we’re about to explain here is important. Exodus International is an evangelical organization that was created in the late ’70s in the US. Its mission was clear: convert homosexual people into heterosexuals. They believed that God could achieve that change. And, with that in mind, they started spreading all over the world. Exodus International came to have more than 250 ministries in different countries under different names, like Camino de Salida, the place they recommended to Lucía.
[Lucía]: So I searched on the internet until I found the place. I asked about their schedule…
[Andrés]: And she told me we were going to get through this. Don’t worry. And I really wanted to, so I agreed and went. And I went hoping to follow in God’s path and convert to a heterosexual.
[Lisette]: That next Saturday, Andrés —at 12 years old— went with his mom to the Camino de Salida Headquarters in Guayaquil.
[Andrés]: The place was in, uh, in a very, uh, old building. You had to go up to —I think it was the seventh floor.
[Lisette]: They went into an office where they were welcomed by some counselors from the organization.
[Lucía]: They told me… it’s ok. He was going to get through this here. I didn’t have to worry. God is a god of miracles and homosexuality can be overcome. And one of them said: “I’m an example of that. I overcame homosexuality. So, it’s ok, sister, because he’s going to get through this.” I felt like… I had come to the perfect place, the right place. I mean, I said: “Thank you, God, because I made it to the place where my son needs to be.”
[Lisette]: After explaining to Lucía what Camino de Salida was about and telling her that she could completely trust their work, they asked her to leave the office so they could talk to Andrés alone. Then they showed Andrés testimonial videos of people who had, allegedly, been cured. It was something like this, which he found on their website.
[Voice]: There are thousands of men and women like us all over the world who have conquered homosexuality, who have made new decisions, who have abandoned that lifestyle that only caused us harm…
[Lisette]: Then they asked him to make copies of a book by Exodus International with a name that Andrés doesn’t remember anymore. What he does remember is that it would be his guide to the process he was about to begin. There they explained the origin of homosexuality according to the Bible, and, in addition, it described 15 areas that supposedly are affected and make someone homosexual. For example, a person’s relationship with their family, their relationship with God, their relationships with people of the same sex. Each chapter of that book said how to repair these supposed affected areas and, in the end, there was another book with worksheets to review what you learned. It was like a textbook.
The plan was that Andrés would work alongside the Camino de Salida counselor, and they would meet every Saturday to talk about the process, his progress, the homework he would have to do the next week and how his parents were involved. They also told him that he had to read the Bible every day. Andrés was really excited.
[Andrés]: I said, “Of course. I know I’m going to get through this. Since I’m very serious about my homework and I always succeed at something if I put my mind to it. It’s going to be the same with this.” Then I started feeling very energized, honestly. I read the Bible a lot. I even ended up reading it twice. And I recited all the verses they gave me every morning.
[Lisette]: His mom took him to the sessions with his counselor every Saturday. When he would leave the session…
[Lucía]: We always did a kind of recap of what he did there and he would leave feeling happy.
[Lisette]: He told his mom about how he was supposed to behave in order to be heterosexual.
[Lucía]: For example, he told me one day: “Mom, they told me, look, that I have to stand like this. I have to wear really strong cologne.” I mean, they gave him instructions.
[Lisette]: On top of the meetings with the counselor, Andrés had to go to group therapy once or twice a month with other people who were receiving treatment. At that time, it was a group of about 25 people, mostly men under 20 years old, and Andrés was the youngest. They only knew each other’s first names because it was against the rules to interact and talk about other things. When they met in group therapy, a counselor led the session.
[Andrés]: And everyone talked about their failings and also about… about the things they accomplished each week: how they were able to overcome or not some temptation that week and what they’re going to do to be successful the next week.
[Lisette]: Sometimes they took them outside to look at heterosexual couples, and they told them…
[Andrés]: “Look at that couple with that child. That’s beautiful. Don’t you want to have something like that? “
[Lisette]: They also made them imitate the way the men in those couples walked and told them that heterosexual people were their model to follow. In addition to that, they gave talks about how evil masturbation was and insisted that it was one of the causes of homosexuality: since they touched themselves so much they ended up liking that part of the body in other people. But they had a solution for everything, so they gave them techniques to avoid it.
[Andrés]: Not just when you have the urge to masturbate, but also when you see someone of the same sex who you’re attracted to, for example, you had to pinch yourself… pinch yourself very hard on your arm or on your finger because the pain will reduce your arousal.
[Lisette]: Andrés did everything they said down to the letter, and for the most part, he was optimistic. That’s why, at first, he was surprised the other people in therapy didn’t see it as positively as he did.
[Andrés]: You saw these boys who were so depressed. I mean, they had a look… a look of agony, of bitterness.
[Lisette]: And with time, it started to be the same for Andrés.
[Andrés]: Little by little, I started getting frustrated because, obviously, I saw that nothing was happening. A year went by like that, then two, then three.
[Lisette]: And nothing changed. So, he started to look for other people to blame. His counselors told him that one of the reasons he was homosexual was his relationship with other men in his family. For example, he wasn’t very close to his father. In fact, neither he nor his mother told his father what was happening at Camino de Salida, since to Andrés’s father, what was happening was that he was confused, he didn’t need therapy. According to what they told him, that bad relationship he had with his father was one of the reasons he didn’t want to be a man and was trying to be a heterosexual woman.
But it wasn’t just his father who was supposedly guilty. It was all the men around him who weren’t providing him with a proper male role model.
[Andrés]: I started to hate my older brother, my male friends, my male teachers because I said: “All of this has made me gay.” Which seemed to make sense. And in my head, it made perfect sense.
[Lisette]: But he also blamed his mother because they told her that being so overly affectionate, so overprotective, so close, he wanted to be like her. And that wasn’t all. In therapy they also made him think about things that, according to them, had happened to him in his childhood.
[Andrés]: For example, they said that, uh, all homosexuals at some point in their childhood, as a rule, must have been sexually abused, and if you don’t remember, it’s because you’ve repressed it. So they hypnotize you and make you try to remember those events that most of the time didn’t even happen.
[Lisette]: Andrés didn’t remember any abuse. There weren’t even the slightest indications that it had happened. But if he was gay, that was one of the causes, and that was all there was to it. So again he blamed his parents for not having protected him from that supposed abuse. But on top of that hate for other people, he had a greater hatred for himself.
[Andrés]: How could I have been so foolish to have decided to reject the identity that God had put in place for me since the moment of my creation? The guilt was starting to eat me up inside.
[Lisette]: He tried to correct himself by pinching himself like they had told him at Camino de Salida. He started feeling desperate because it wasn’t working, so…
[Andrés]: I started taking, uh, scissors. For example, at school I whore a sweater even when it wasn’t cold, then sometimes I would go the bathroom and I would start to… eh, make little cuts on my arm, and that made me feel good because I would say: “This is what a piece of trash like me deserves.” I would say that to myself.
[Lisette]: By that time, Andrés was 15 years old and he had already been with Camino de Salida for three years. While other boys his age were taking art classes or practicing some sort of sport, he was going to conversion therapy every Saturday. But, of course, no one knew, just his family, the pastors, and counselors at his church. It was exhausting because he wasn’t seeing the results he was hoping for. But if he didn’t want to go one day, his mom, Lucía would convince him by promising to buy him CDs. He agreed out of obligation more than anything else, and Lucía…
[Lucía]: I felt horrible. I felt horrible and then I said: “My God! Am I doing the right thing or the wrong thing?” I saw him cry out of frustration, in frustration. And I said: “Something isn’t working right.”
[Lisette]: But Lucía would immediately change her mind because one of the things she was most afraid of was her son being rejected by society, people discriminating against him.
[Lucía]: That’s why I would say: “No, he has to get through this because he needs to fit into society.” I mean, you can’t get past stereotypes.
[Lisette]: So Lucía looked for another option: she spoke with one of the pastors at their church and he recommended putting him through what they called “liberations” to take him from the —in quotes— “demon of homosexuality. In other words: an exorcism. Lucía agreed. She told Andrés, and he agreed too. They went to their church, and there were more people there who were going to undergo liberations. They went one by one. When it was Andrés’s turn, they sat him in a chair, surrounded him and read verses from the Bible to expel the supposed demons. It lasted between two and five hours, and even though it seemed to be working for some people, it wasn’t for Andrés.
[Andrés]: Obviously, in my case, I said to myself: “Why didn’t I shout like the other people, or jump or go crazy? Maybe I can’t expel the demon? ”
[Lisette]: In total, they did the three times, and even though he never really felt like they had expelled a demon, there were moments when he thought he could be changing. But like always, it wasn’t long until he felt the same as before.
He kept going to therapy at his church, going to Camino de Salida every Saturday and nothing. He decided to go to a youth retreat organized by his church. He was going to be far away from home, from school, from the internet, and anything that may make him feel attraction toward men. It wasn’t very different from how things had always been, but what was different was that at the end of the retreat, the church leaders said:
[Andrés]: “God had told me that at the end of this week, uh, you’re going to like women.” By 12 at night at the latest, but not past this week. You’re going to feel a change.”
[Lisette]: He had been in therapy for three years, and finally God had spoken to him through this leader. It had taken longer than he had expected, but all of his effort had been worth it. Andrés left the retreat feeling good. He was expecting everything to change, and that Sunday, he stayed up until midnight to experience the change.
[Andrés]: I had never felt so much hope for something. Surprisingly, that’s how it went: I mean, in the sense that maybe that’s how much I… I… I wanted to like women. And I started thinking about guys and I felt really strong and I said: “No, I’m not attracted to them anymore. I’m thinking about girls and I’m happy about it and all of that.” But, the next day: (laughs) oh, surprise! I started feeling that attraction again, and that was a very big shock.
For me, that was the worst experience. And I was angry at God. I, yes… I even yelled at him. I said: “God, how is it possible? Am I some kind of joke to you? How can everything be working but in the end I still like boys? Is there no solution? How can other people do it and I’m stuck here.”
[Lisette]: Some time later, Andrés was in the kitchen at home with his mom and his sister. They talked about a lot of things and he was silent, withdrawn. Then, they started asking him if he was alright. Andrés hadn’t told them about his recent frustration, but it was clear he couldn’t take it anymore, and then he grabbed a knife that was next to him…
[Andrés]: And I started cutting myself, and I wanted to shove the knife in my… my throat. Then I said: “I gave this everything I had. I’ve fought so hard, but nothing is happening.” It was like a cathartic reaction. Obviously, I didn’t do it. I tried to it, but my mom came and took my hand. And it was horrible. My sister was crying.
[Lisette]: It was a terrible situation, but that was all that happened. They said the same thing as always: everything was going to change with the help of God, Andrés was going to overcome homosexuality and he was being tested to see if he was a good Christian. In the end, they calmed down and again buried the topic.
Lucía sought help at church again. And yes, they had a new solution to Andrés’s supposed problem: this time, they recommended taking him to a psychiatrist who was very close to the church. Then, on top of going to Camino de Salida, undergoing three exorcisms, going to church meetings, and the retreat, now Andrés had to go to a psychiatrist who charged him 40 dollars per visit three times a week. After evaluating him, the psychiatrist told him that the best way to treat Andrés was with medication that would reduce not only his anxiety but also his sexual desires. Lucía agreed to the treatment. He was the doctor, and he knew what he was doing. In the end, he prescribed him some pills that didn’t let him sleep at night and made him groggy all day.
[Lucía]: Then my son is like: “Mom,” he says, “I don’t feel anything. I can’t laugh. I can’t cry. I feel inert.” A doctor was drugging my son so he could try to forget about homosexuality in his sleep.
[Lisette]: What they were doing to Andrés was too much, and the rest of the family couldn’t stand on the sidelines anymore, keeping quiet as if nothing was happening. One day —when Andrés was 17— his older brother went up to him and told him that he understood what was happening. He could imagine his frustration and the anxiety that going to Camino de Salidas caused him. He also told him something that surprised him.
[Andrés]: “I know you’ve been thinking about leaving the groups. I know that mom is telling you to go and everything, but I don’t think you should keep going. Honestly, I started thinking about how I would feel if they forced me to like guys.”
[Lisette]: It was strange for Andrés that his brother would say something like that because at first, he hadn’t accepted his sexuality, but also because he had never talked about it again, much less Camino de Salida.
[Andrés]: He said: “Yeah, you know those testimonials they give aren’t real. A lot of people who have said they’ve gotten through it end up getting divorced because they say they never stopped being gay and that it’s even something that exists in nature. It’s something that exists in… in many, uh, mammals.”
[Lisette]: He showed him scientific studies on homosexuality that said that, in 1990, the World Health Organization stopped considering it an illness. But the most impressive thing was something that Camino de Salida never told him. That year, in 2013, this happened…
[Journalist]: A Christian group devoted to so-called gay conversion has closed its doors and apologized to the LGBT community.
[Lisette]: A Christian gay conversion group closed it’s doors and apologized to the LGBT community. The group they’re talking about is Exodus International, the organization that Camino de Salida belongs to. But that’s not all. Alan Chambers, the organization’s president, posted a letter on their website in which he admitted that changing a person’s sexual orientation really isn’t possible. This is Chambers in an interview he gave:
[Alan Chambers]: Well, we are sorry for the many people who took part in the ministries or the counselors or were impacted by the rhetoric.
[Lisette]: Chambers apologizes to the people who were impacted by what the leaders of Exodus International said. And he continues, saying:
[Alan Chambers]: So that’s something that we are very, very sorry for the hurt, and the shame, and the anxiety, and the trauma that people were caused.
[Lisette]: I’ll translate: “We’re sorry for the pain, the shame, the anxiety, and the trauma these people were caused.” He even confessed that even though he was married to a woman, he still felt attracted to men after years of having gone through the supposed conversion process.
Andrés couldn’t believe it. Why was Camino de Salida still open? Why were they hiding this information? It’s simple: the people who didn’t agree with the president of Exodus International continued working with a subsidiary called Exodus Global Alliance. And then, Camino de Salida partnered with this new organization and continued operating in Ecuador like nothing had happened.
Even though all this information Andrés’s brother gave him was clear, he was a little resistant at first: it wasn’t easy to clear his head of everything they’d stuffed in there in the past five years. He had several private conversations with his brother. Every night he went up to him and told him not to feel like a bad person, no one was to blame for his being gay, least of all him. It wasn’t horrible like they’d led him to believe. He just had to accept it and that was it.
Andrés felt a sense of relief because of what his brother said, but at the same time, he was afraid of disappointing his mom, so his brother promised he would take care of talking to her. And he did.
[Lucía]: My older son —who had been totally homophobic his whole life—, seeing his brother suffering, seeing me crying because I didn’t know what to do with him, he’d been in a… a period of scientific investigation on these cases of homosexuality, and he told me: “Mom, my brother is homosexual, and you have to accept that. You have to understand that he’s suffering, mom. I just came to understand my brother. Homosexuality even exists in nature mom. It’s out there”.
[Lisette]: This left Lucía thinking about what she was doing, and she decided to take Andrés to a different psychologist. One who was guided by science rather than religion.
[Lucía]: Finally I went to her and she told me: “Accept your son as he is.” She took away tons of pills and left him with just one for anxiety and another to help him sleep at night.
[Lisette]: She explained that homosexuality isn’t something that can change, period. With what the psychiatrist told her and what her older son had said, one day, Lucía went up to Andrés and told him:
[Lucía]: “I want you to know that I accept you as you are, and I want you to take the burden off you back. you don’t have to do anything to overcome who you are, son.” And he started crying. He was happy. I’m practically elated. He says, “Mom, I can’t believe what you’re saying. You don’t know how relieved I feel. Mom, I love you. I really love you. You’ve shown me love.”
[Lisette]: Finally after five years, they decided to stop going to Camino de Salida and to church and they changed psychiatrists. At that time, Andrés was 17, and finally, after years of psychological torture, he started to experience some peace. As we know, his mom and his brother supported him. His sister, even though at first she had been very cruel, also ended up accepting him. His dad, on the other hand, never accepted him. He always said that the Bible condemned homosexuality and that he was ruining his life.
It was early 2014, and without telling anyone, Andrés put this post on his Facebook.
[Andrés]: “Happy to set masks aside. Happy to finally be myself, and stop pretending to be someone I’m not. Happy to be gay. I know I’m here for a reason, and I know that I am the way I am for a reason. I’m not here to please others, instead, I’m here to live my life genuinely, doing what makes me happy and always giving my best. Thank you to the people who took the blindfold from my eyes, who helped me stop hating myself, thank you for looking beyond appearances. You know who you are and I want you to know I love you.”
[Lisette]: Andrés didn’t expect anything would come from that post. He just wanted to get it off his chest and tell people what he’d been bottling up for so long. And he was surprised how many messages of support he got from his classmates. However, that post had a direct effect on his family.
[Lucía]: I didn’t have a good relationship with his dad anymore. When he published that post his dad went crazy and… and he also started writing on Facebook saying that… God… he was going to move forward trusting in God. Well, it was a whole mess. Then everything got even uglier.
[Lisette]: After that, Lucía and her husband got divorced and since then Andrés hasn’t had contact with his father.
But it wasn’t all so negative. His friends and some of the members of his family started sending him supportive messages and congratulating him for being so brave. He said he even thought about reporting Camino de Salida, his church, and his psychiatrist to the authorities for all the trauma they caused him and organizing a march in Guayaquil against those treatments. But after thinking it over, he decided not to.
[Andrés]: I realized that, at least at that time, I wasn’t going to be able to deal with them looking at him in disappointment and saying… Like: “Wow, now you’ve completely changed, you weren’t able to persevere. You gave up, and now you’re gay. Now you’re on the devil’s side.” I mean, I never felt strong enough to… to confront these people who saw me on the path to overcoming homosexuality.
[Lisette]: He didn’t have to either. So, he decided to just block those people on social media and not have contact with them again. Andrés’s relationship with his mom grew stronger. They started going to LGBTI rights marches together, and they’d bring signs saying things like “Love doesn’t discriminate,” “No equality, no freedom”, “My son is gay and I love him the way he is.”
[Lucía]: He really taught me how to love. Through him, I learned what it really meant to love someone who’s different from you.
[Lisette]: We contacted Camino de Salida to hear their version of all this. We called several times and send emails but they never responded. We looked for the address of their headquarters in Ecuador but we couldn’t find them anywhere. Since we knew Betty van Engen is one of Camino de Salida’s founders, we decided to call her at her job: an evangelical radio station in Quito. She did answer, but before agreeing to do an interview, she asked to have a meeting.
At that meeting, she told me that she knew we had contacted other people from Camino de Salida and she wanted to know why. When I explained that we were going to tell Andrés’s story and that we wanted to know her organizations position on the subject, she told me that they don’t give interviews in which they’re made to debate their point of view with others, they didn’t need to prove anything to anyone. If someone when to their therapy and didn’t like it, that was their problem. But she also told me that they believe that people aren’t born homosexual, rather, they’re the result of perversion, abuse, and promiscuity. And they believe homosexuality is something that can change.
I asked her if I could record her explaining her reasons for not giving an interview, and she told me no and told me I couldn’t mention any of what was happening there in the episode. I told her I couldn’t do that because it would be a lie.
In the end, she told me she would only agree to an interview if we didn’t include her in the same story as Andrés and instead had her set apart, in a separate episode about Camino de Salida. We didn’t agree, obviously, and that’s why her voice isn’t in this story.
Exodus International closed in 2013. Then, the new organization that’s in place now, Exodus Global Alliance, changed the discourse around what they do a little. To them, homosexuality isn’t an illness anymore, but it is an emotional wound that can be cured. They still offer their services in different parts of the world.
[Daniel]: We don’t know how many people exactly have undergone these treatments. When Lisette and David called Exodus Latin America to ask them, she told them that they don’t give interviews and they don’t provide data. But since Exodus has been in operation for more than 40 years, surely the number is in the thousands.
But this is just one part of what LGBTI people in Ecuador have to go through. There are several secret locations in the country that use much more violent methods.
[Journalist]: In Ecuador, they are indeed discovering secret centers that assert they can cure homosexuality through torture.
[Journalist]: They’re being kidnapped by their own families and taken to the clinics by force.
[Journalist]: Homosexual groups are reporting torture and sexual abuse inside those clinics.
[Daniel]: These places are known as “dehomosexualization clinics,” but they don’t look like the clinics you may be imagining. After the break, David Trujillo will tell us what’s happens in some of these locations.
We’ll be right back.
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[Daniel]: We’re back with Radio Ambulante. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Let’s continue the story with a little context: Ecuador decriminalized homosexuality in 1997, just over 20 years ago. Before that, the law stated that homosexual men could be sentenced to between four and eight years in prison. And well, even though that stopped being the case, and it was a great step forward for the country, the new statutes still had discriminatory language. It said, for example, that medically-speaking homosexuality is viewed as a “dysfunction or excessive function of the endocrine system” and that this is what causes the “abnormal” behavior.
And this is important because remember since 1990 the WHO stopped considering homosexuality an illness, but the law in Ecuador appeared not to recognize that.
Our producer David Trujillo continues the story.
[David Trujillo]: In order to understand this legal change in Ecuador and the consequences that came with it, I spoke with this man…
[Jorge Medranda]: I’m Jorge Medranda. I’ve been an LGBTI activist for 25 years.
[David]: Jorge was 32 when homosexuality was decriminalized and he remembers that…
[Jorge]: Then, starting on November 27th, 1997 we were no longer criminals and we went to being sick people. Then, of course, since we were sick, you can’t punish poor little sick people, but instead, you have to cure them.
[David]: And this, for many places like Camino de Salida or other churches, was enough to keep them offering cures. What they suggested then was therapy, a lot of prayer and God’s aid. What Andrés went through. But it wasn’t enough, there were also…
[Jorge]: Dehomosexualization clinics or sexual orientation conversion treatments that were administered inside clinics that treated people who live with addiction to narcotics and psychotropic substances.
[David]: In other words, in certain addiction rehabilitation clinics —some belonging to Evangelical churches, others not— they also offered very outdated treatments that were being used to treat homosexuality.
The Causana foundation where Jorge works has received several reports about these centers and he had met several people who have gone to them. And what he told us was that he found a clear pattern: the first thing these clinics do with the people who come to them is keep them completely isolated for months…
[Jorge]: Because they assume that contact with their families and the media is what causes them to relapse.
[David]: According to Jorge, this isolation weakens these people and that way it’s easier to manipulate them with what comes next: physical abuse.
[Jorge]: Corrective rapes against women especially. “Oh, yeah, you’re a lesbian because you’ve never been with a man. So now you’re going to be with several, so you get used to men.”
[David]: Women are also forced to put on makeup or get dressed up all day with nothing but baby dolls supposedly so they can learn to be women. As for the men, what they do is…
[Jorge]: Dampening and administering electrical shocks to their testicles every time they suspected they were thinking about a man or made them look at an image that might arouse them.
[David]: And that allegedly diminishes their sexual desire toward other men. But besides that, the kinds of torture used against women and men include beatings, ice water baths, hours locked in poorly ventilated, dark rooms. Jorge says that in many cases the victims are minors, and they’re relatives are the ones that send them to these centers.
[Jorge]: One of the most common ways to bring a person to the dehomosexualization clinic is, eh, to give them a drug, some substance to make them fall asleep, kidnap them, and take them to the clinic. So, it’s the family that does it.
[David]: This story was repeated again and again in the 60 cases —most of them involving lesbian women— that Cuasana has recorded since the year 2000. Most of them weren’t reported to the authorities, and If they did report them, they ended up filing away the cases because of a lack of evidence or just because they didn’t give them the importance they needed.
And you have bear in mind that these 60 cases are only the ones that have been recorded by a few organizations that keep track of LGBTI rights in Ecuador. Unfortunately, there are no official studies, which is why it’s hard to know exactly how many people have been through this.
One of the cases we found is that of this person.
[Andrea Alejandro Freire]: My name is Andrea Alejandro Freire. I was born here in Guayaquil.
[David]: Andrea Alejandro is 31 years old, she identifies as queer, a person who doesn’t identify with a specific gender.
[Andrea Alejandro Freire]: I don’t have an issue with pronouns, and I like gender-neutral, feminine, and masculine pronouns all the same.
[David]: We’re going to refer to her using feminine pronouns. Since she was young, she’s been attracted to women. She never told anyone, especially because her mom was very Evangelical, and homosexuality was not part of what her God considered right. And she didn’t have a good relationship with her dad; they almost never spoke.
But one day in 2003, when she was 14, Andrea Alejandro was arguing with her mom because she was forcing her to go to church and only listen to Christian music.
[Andrea Alejandro Freire]: I just remember the feeling of being very angry and I told her that I liked women. And at first, she ignored the situation. She went like… like crazy, we’ll say, so shouldn’t have to respond to me.
[David]: And that was the end of the argument. But in the days that followed, Andrea Alejandro started noticing that her mom was carefully watching everything she did: who was calling her, what she said in her conversations, what she watched on TV. She also noticed that she was taking injections that she had been previously taking to treat her asthma more frequently, but she didn’t think much of it.
Until, progressively, Andrea Alejandro started growing a beard, her voice got deeper, and she was becoming more muscular. Her mom was terrified. She took her to a doctor, and there Andrea Alejandro found out what had happened…
[Andrea Alejandro Freire]: She’d been talking to a counselor at church and he had told her how what I needed was to take female hormones, and then she started injecting me with progesterone.
[David]: Progesterone. A hormone related to the menstrual cycle. This, according to the counselor, would make Andrea Alejandro like men and go back to being a real woman. But with time, the hormones produced the opposite effect to what her mother was looking for. Since her body had so much progesterone, in order to correct the imbalance, it started producing more testosterone.
The doctor scolded the mother and told her that she couldn’t administer hormones without a doctor’s supervision. This made Andrea Alejandro furious as if her own mother had made her sick. In any case, they gave her a new treatment to stabilize her body, and she thought that was the last thing her mom was going to do. But in 2004 —when Andrea Alejandro was 15 years old— she very early got up one Sunday and went to the kitchen. She got a cup of coffee and took a sip…
[Andrea Alejandro Freire]: That’s the last thing I remember. And, in the next frame, I’m trying to stand up in a dark room, and I’ve been beaten, sedated, my body is really heavy, and I don’t have pants.
[David]: And there were signs that she was raped. And she was on the floor, and there was nothing in the room, no windows or furniture. Along with her, there were two people who were about her age: a man and a woman who were drugged like her and could barely speak. Andrea Alejandro tried to figure out where she was, what was happening.
[Andrea Alejandro Freire]: I basically thought I had been kidnapped. I said, “Maybe after I had breakfast, I went shopping, I don’t know… And someone loaded me into a car and carried me off, and my mom and dad don’t know where I am.”
[David]: She didn’t know how much time had passed since she lost consciousness. It could have been hours or days. It was all very confusing. After some time, two men entered the room and took her and the others to a patio. There they sprayed them down with a hose. Then they went up to Andrea Alejandro and…
[Andrea Alejandro Freire]: They told me that my mom had sent me there so that I could learn to be a good woman, so I could be a proper little woman.
[David]: It was an addiction treatment clinic. Later she found out that it had been recommended by her mom’s pastor. In order to convert her into a “proper little woman,” they started with electrical shocks and corrective rapes. And when Andrea Alejandro resisted…
[Andrea Alejandro Freire]: They forced me to watch as they raped the other girl and the other guy too.
[David]: And when the other two started to resist…
[Andrea Alejandro Freire]: They wouldn’t let you go to the bathroom. Then, then you would end up peeing yourself. And they would pee on you, and you would wind up there for days.
[David]: And when they would let you go to the bathroom, sometimes they made you eat there. They also made you sleep on the patio, on a gravel floor without a mattress. They would beat them until their eyes were swollen shut. It was constant physical and psychological abuse.
[Andrea Alejandro Freire]: I mean, there were days when I couldn’t stand because the day before… I mean I had been shocked, I had been beaten, I had forced to see things I didn’t want to see.
[David]: In addition to all these forms of torture, they also made them read the Bible and pray and pray and pray. She remembers that sometimes she would go to an evangelical pastor.
[Andrea Alejandro Freire]: He was a tall man. He had a very, very long beard. And he had a very large Bible. He was always like that. Like very well dressed, I mean, all his clothes were clean. He was like covered in jewels and gems.
[David]: This man would speak to them for hours.
[Andrea Alejandro Freire]: He called us sodomites and would always read us the verses where they condemn homosexuality, and these practices were… were punishable by death. But we were living in a time of grace… because Jesus Christ had come to die for us and that’s why we had that chance to repent.
[David]: According to her, this man never harmed them physically. But when they didn’t want to read the Bible or pray, he told the men at the center and they are the ones who would administer the corrective punishments we already know about.
[Andrea Alejandro Freire]: He said that everything that was happening to us was for our own good, that it was our fault we were getting punished. That it was up to us, that it wasn’t something he enjoyed doing or wanted to do.
[David]: Andrea Alejandro spent several days there. She’s not sure how many because she didn’t have a very clear concept of time. She just remembers that one day she couldn’t take it anymore and she decided to escape with the others. They waited for one of the men to leave the room, and then the three of them went running into the patio and jumped over a wall that was about two meters tall.
[Andrea Alejandro Freire]: And there was like a big vacant lot, it was really hilly and grassy. And then these guys came after us. And then we left running, we ran through some bushes, and we got to a kind of highway.
[David]: Just then a police car drove by. Andrea and the others stopped them and tried to explain what had happened. But the police didn’t believe them.
[Andrea Alejandro Freire]: They said we were lying, that really we had… we had gone to a party and were drugged.
[David]: But they were so insistent that in the end they convinced them and they got in the squad car. Then they started driving and lost sight of the men who were following them. When the police asked where they could take them, none of them wanted to go home because that’s where they had been sent to that place from. But they were minors, so they didn’t have a lot of options. And that was it: each one was taken in a squad car and that was the last time Andrea Alejandro saw the others. When she got home, her mom was very surprised because her injuries were so apparent and when the police left…
[Andrea Alejandro Freire]: She started crying. I tell my mom that everything that had happened to me was her fault. But I didn’t tell her, I never told her what happened.
[David]: She doesn’t want to remember it. And even though they didn’t tell her what they were going to do at that place either, the harm they caused her was obvious. Her mom, full of regret and shame, decided to tell the rest of the family that Andrea Alejandro had gone on a trip for a while and she was beaten up because she had been mugged. She never told them the truth, and for Andrea Alejandro, that was for the best.
[Andrea Alejandro Freire]: I didn’t want to talk about what had happened. I didn’t want to tell anyone anything. I was just angry. My rage helped me sort of block it out.
[David]: To block out all those memories of what she had to go through. And she made various decisions to survive: she started going to church, she distanced herself from her friends, and if she listened to music that wasn’t Christian, she did it in secret.
[Andrea Alejandro Freire]: I did all those things because I was afraid she would send me to the clinic again.
[David]: And it’s not like she had stopped liking women, she just learned how to lead a double life: on one hand, she told her mom that she had changed, she wasn’t a lesbian anymore. But on the other, she was still going out with girls and doing what she liked outside of the church.
Andrea Alejandro decided not to report her case to the authorities, because it would also mean turning her mother in for kidnapping, and that was a problem for her.
[Andrea Alejandro Freire]: Because I felt like my mom was the final cog in that whole thing. The punishment or the sentence was going to land on the least… of the gears.
[David]: Because it’s all part of a larger system that involves churches, pastors, the directors of these centers, and public officials. And neither Andrea Alejandro nor her mother knew who the people who were really responsible were, the owners of the clinic, and an investigation by authorities wouldn’t ensure that they would be brought to justice either.
Not telling anyone what happened helped her bury a memory that done her a lot of harm. But this only worked for about eight years. One day in 2012, when she was 23, she was watching a religious television program with her mom when this man came on…
[Arturo Norero]: There are foundations that, using a process, a therapeutic service or rather a treatment, can help you. It doesn’t work overnight, or with a snap of the fingers. This is a… a treatment that can last up to two or three years to allow a man or woman who is a sexual deviant to find their identity.
[Andrea Alejandro Freire]: At first it was a physical reaction, like chills.
[David]: She didn’t understand why that man made her feel that way… but then…
[Andrea Alejandro Freire]: Then making an effort to think about it and think about it, I got it.
[David]: She didn’t tell her mom, but that large, white man with the long beard and the deep voice was the pastor at the clinic where she was at. The same man who called her a sodomite, who threatened her well hellfire, who blamed her for the torture they were performing on her. There she learned who he was: his name is Arturo Norero, and he really is an evangelical pastor who’s become a proponent of “dehomosexualization” therapies. So we decided to contact him.
[Arturo]: Hello, God bless you.
[David]: Hello, who am I speaking with?
[Arturo]: Arturo Norero.
[David]: Arturo, how are you. This is David Trujillo. I’m a journalist with Radio Ambulante, how are you?
[David]: We told him right away what we were calling about.
Great. Arturo what’s happening is that right now… I’m reporting on dehomosexualization therapy and I’ve spoken with some people who tell me that you offer this service.
Honestly, we thought he was going to hang up because this issue has caused a lot of controversy even outside of Ecuador, but to our surprise, he told us he would meet with us at his Evangelical church in Quito.
When we arrived, we found a three-story building. On the second floor, there’s a room where they hold religious ceremonies. There are a lot of white chairs for people to sit in, but at the time, no one was there. In the back, there’s a pulpit where the pastor preaches. The walls are covered in Stars of David —which have six points— and also Bible verses.
Norero invited us up to the next floor, to his office: a room full of books and religious images, with a big wooden desk in the middle. Then he gave an interview.
[Arturo]: My name is Arturo Norero, I’m from Guayaquil. I have many roles, one of them is as pastor of Casa de Oración Dile un Amigo Church here in Quito, Ecuador. I’m also a businessman and I love to serve and help people however I can.
[David]: We started asking him about what the Bible had to say about homosexuality.
[Arturo]: Well, the Bible does condemn the sin of homosexuality, of lesbianism, just like it condemns the thief, the gossip, the liar, the prideful, the arrogant. All in all, sin is sin.
[David]: But Norero told us that God condemns the sin, not the sinner…
[Arturo]: Consequently, the adulterer, the thief, the homosexual, the transvestite, the pervert, the rapist, of course in Jesus Christ, has hope, and a new lifestyle.
[David]: In other words, a homosexual person can stop being homosexual. I asked him how he, as a pastor, accomplished that. What do you say to a homosexual person?
[Arturo]: First he has to realize what happened. At what point did this confusion arise? It all starts with a moment of confusions, and then acceptance is found within a family or society.
[David]: And that acceptance, according to him, doesn’t mean that homosexuality is good. After the person recognizes the moment they were first confused, Norero tells them —just like Camino de Salida— to occupy their mind with something because, according to him, sin comes from an idle mind. One piece of advice he gives is to take the person’s computer out of their bedroom so they’re not tempted to masturbate to pornography.
He didn’t give much more information about what his dehomosexualization consisted of, but he did make it clear that minors come with their parents, and, I’m quoting here: “Those are the easiest. The problem is when they’re older because they’re very rooted in their practice.”
He also said it was a process that lasts your whole life. People don’t become heterosexuals with just a few sessions. What’s more, he said that many people are never able to feel attracted to the opposite sex. They decide not to marry and choose a life of celibacy. When we asked him why, he answered that everyone is free to choose what they want.
[Arturo]: Sometimes I want others to live the kind of life I want them to live and don’t accept and respect that everyone decides the life that they choose to live.
[David]: Then Lisette asked him…
[Lisette]: And what happens if the life they choose is to be homosexual?
[Arturo]: That’s their choice. Who am I to tell them no? I can tell them no when they want to pass laws, national laws, that oppose sacred scripture. I also have my position. I also have to speak and say what I believe.
[David]: When he says “pass national laws,” he’s referring to the activist movement to guarantee equal rights in Ecuador, like legalizing same-sex marriage, for example. But this, according to Norero, goes against God’s law, the only law that is right in his view. That’s why he says he’ll never stay quiet in the face of this issue.
Then we moved on to talk about Andrea Alejandro’s case, without telling him her name. We told him that this person told us that he went to this rehab center and that even though he never harmed them directly, he knew they were committing torture there. This was his reply.
[Arturo]: I always, by the grace of God… there are people who know me. I have been invited to centers in Guayaquil, here in Quito, en Manta, and I go to preach the word of good and give them a word of hope. Now I know that there was abuse with these people… I don’t know what center we’re talking about. And I want to say emphatically: I support the sinner but I’m not one to coddle sin. The sin must be confessed to the Lord and it must be renounced.
[David]: What are your thoughts on physical punishment and the torture these people are talking about.
[Arturo]: That’s savagery. It goes against… I mean, how am I going to help someone with blows. I mean, that’s unheard of. That’s a mistake. I must stress that I’ve never belonged to any rehab center. I’ve been invited to many rehab centers, yes. What happens there, I don’t know.
[Lisette]: If there are rumors about this kind of violence at these centers… Isn’t… isn’t it in a way your responsibility to check that it isn’t actually happening in order to go.
[Arturo]: Ah, yes you… well, no. You’re the journalist. Go investigate. I’m a pastor. I’m here at the church and they invite me to preach. I preach and I leave.
[David]: Andrea Alejandro isn’t the first victim in these cases that made the decision not to report it. If fact many choose not to and for various reasons. One reason is that sometimes prosecutors don’t believe them because they don’t see physical signs of a beating on their bodies. And if they do accept the report, it’s common for the case to be at a standstill for months and even years. So the victims are subjected to unnecessary stress and a lot of the time they’d rather go about their lives and leave the process behind.
Since 2017, the Ecuadorian State has closed 25 of these centers throughout the country, but that information can’t be confirmed. According to a study by the organization Taller de Comunicación Mujer [Women’s Communication Workshop], the owners charged between 700 and 3,000 dollars a month for the supposed treatment. On top of that, this organization revealed that there have only been nine court cases against individuals conducting “dehomosexualization therapies.” Of those, only one conviction has been recorded. That was in 2013 when the owner of one of those centers was sentenced to just 10 days in prison and paid a fine of six dollars.
And, well, the fact that these centers have closed doesn’t mean they cease to exist. What the owners of these places do is just reopen their centers in new locations when they see the opportunity arise, and they just change the name.
[Daniel]: Andrés — one of the protagonists of this story — lives outside of Ecuador. He still has a good relationship with his mom, Lucía, and his siblings. He’s an LGBTI rights activist.
Andrea Alejandro is an LGBTI artist and activist. When she was 25 years old — after trying to hide her case for a long time — she decided to start talking about it, even though she never reported it to the authorities. Currently, she has no contact with her parents.
This story was produced by Lisette Arévalo and David Trujillo. They live in Quito and Bogotá, respectively. Thank you to the organization Taller de Comunicación Mujer and to Santiago Vaca for their help in this episode.
This episode was edited by Camila Segura, and me. The music and sound design are by Andrés Azpiri. Andrea López Cruzado did the fact-checking.
The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Gabriela Brenes, Jorge Caraballo, Victoria Estrada, Rémy Lozano, Miranda Mazariegos, Patrick Moseley, Laura Rojas Aponte, Barbara Sawhill, Elsa Liliana Ulloa and Luis Fernando Vargas. Carolina Guerrero is the CEO.
Radio Ambulante is a podcast from Radio Ambulante Studios and is produced and mixed on Hindenburg PRO.
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Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin America. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.