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Facing the Truth About Reparative Therapy and America's War on Gay Teens

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When the San Francisco Bay Guardian published "Hiding Out" in the late '90s, I never imagined that an article about gay teens who escaped from reparative-therapy "schools" would eventually evolve into my first novel or a documentary produced by George Michael that was shown at JFK Stadium during the Equality Rocks concert. Even more incredible was that the process of writing that novel in the years immediately following 9/11 would become its own journey, one that took me deep inside both my own and our national psyche and revealed how reparative therapy would become a metaphor for torture performed in service of two wars -- one in Iraq, the other on gay-teens -- and that both wars were launched on the basis of "evidence" that has now been revealed as fictions: Colin Powell's disavowal of "intelligence" claiming that Hussein sought to obtain uranium, and psychiatrist Dr. Robert Spitzer's May 19 "apology" to the gay community for endorsing unproven claims about the efficacy of reparative therapy.

Being a news addict, I had read everything about and related to Iraq: the fruitless search for WMDs, Judith Miller's incarceration, the Niger yellow cake, Valerie Plames' outing, Scooter Libby's fall from power, and the capture and hanging of Saddam Hussein. But for me, two stories defined the narrative of the Iraq war from 2005 to 2008: Jane Mayer's New Yorker investigation of "extraordinary renditions," and U.S. Army Specialist Lynndie England's Abu Ghraib images. I can still recall logging onto my computer, and seeing the "snapshots" of naked prisoners stacked pyramid-style in a fluorescent-lit hallway. Contrary to Susan Sontag's notion of "chronic voyeuristic relation," the idea that we're collectively numb to photographs, I was sickened by the images.

I remember looking away from the images and toward Los Angeles. Outside, the bright, blue sky lined with palm trees was a surreal contrast to the staged prison tableaux. I brought particular (and peculiar) associations to the images of those faceless, anonymous prisoners. The reparative therapy described in "Hiding Out" and my later related reportage chronicled torture practices that were coercive and, in many ways, the same as what was happening in the Iraqi torture sites. Reparative therapy or torture? Humiliation, isolation, extreme physical positions, and forced confessions were as common at Teen Help (a now-defunct umbrella organization that referred parents to reparative-therapy facilities that has been exposed on WWASPS Survivors Network) as at Abu Ghraib.

By late 2005 I was fully immersed in writing the story that would become hidden, my novel about Ahmed, a 15-year-old boy who has escaped from 11 months of reparative therapy at Serenity Ridge, a fictional residential treatment center. During the years I was writing hidden I found myself habitually cross-referencing "nonfiction" (what I was reading about Iraq) with "fiction" (what I was writing). I was plagued by an uneasy sense of news-induced disorientation: the "fictional" reparative-therapy techniques that propelled Ahmed's escape paralleled the slow reveal of torture taking place at Abu Ghraib (and, as WikiLeaks revealed, Guantanamo Bay).

In a broader sense I was interested in the narrative possibilities of the what-happens-next moment, that moment following the adrenaline-fueled act of escaping torture. Generally, people who escape and go "underground" resist telling their ever-after story, which would be counterintuitive to their interests, anonymity being central to survival. hidden emboldened me to synthesize hard facts about kids who'd lived in safe houses with imaginative yet detailed mappings of their traumatized emotional states. hidden gave me license to explore reparative-therapy survivors' states of consciousness: how Ahmed struggled in the hours, days, and months following his escape.

Did reparative therapy induce Ahmed's post-traumatic stress disorder or a total nervous breakdown? Is Ahmed's physical distance from the for-profit "school," its pseudo staff, and reparative-therapy "treatment" bringing him closer to healing, or has Ahmed (and, by proxy, all adolescents or prisoners who are subjected to reparative therapy's modality of confinement, torture, and punishment) slipped beyond the outer limits of healing and been doomed by experience? hidden's fictional nature let me "go there" and enter those prohibited emotional, psychic, and physical spaces.

With hindsight's 20/20 clarity, I see how hidden's central character, Ahmed, voiced my response to the Iraq "war" (itself an act based entirely on the fiction of WMDs). In the face of those atrocities, I often felt bereft, questioning whether I should continue writing hidden. Often I was dogged by a sense that hidden's fictional narrative would only be overshadowed by the outrageous stories about the torture of detainees. What made me persist was the nagging sense that the Iraq reportage was, for all its human shock value, weirdly bereft of voice. Those Iraq-sourced pictures and stories stripped those prisoners of their dignity and, even more so, their voice and personality. Abu Ghraib detainees were rendered mute, denied the opportunity to speak about the emotional, psychic, and physical fallout of torture.

Abu Ghraib prisoners and gay teens shared a pervasive sense of absence, as objects who were spoken about while being denied speech. With hidden, fiction gave me a way to sidestep the unspoken (yet ever-present) pedophile charge that the religious right has wielded to silence adult gay people, "forbidden" from writing about the realities of being a queer teenager, reparative therapy being the most outrageous example of the religious right's ongoing war on gay youth. If there is a dialogue between generations, gay adults now speak to gay teens via YouTube videos or bumper-sticker slogans. Because hidden was fiction, I circumvented this nonsense and gave myself license to slip inside an underaged boy's head. hidden's protagonist, Ahmed, was both voluble and irrefutably relevant, a panethnically Arab, male, gay teenager who had escaped reparative therapy and lived to tell about it. There was one advantage to having survived being a gay teenager: I was totally qualified to write from Ahmed's point of view.

Recently I watched Hiding Out, the video based on the original safe-house article of the same name, for the first time in many years. It caught me off guard. There, on the TV screen, were kids who'd escaped from reparative therapy, gone underground, and found the safe houses. While "Hiding Out" (the news article) was illustrated with stark black-and-white pictures, there was something eerie about seeing and hearing those kids speak. They were youthful yet preternaturally world-weary. Watching Hiding Out I was reminded how the safe house had always both resisted and insisted upon the telling of its story and inhabitants. Whether it's Jane Mayer's nonfiction-fiction, John Updike's The Terrorist, or hidden, all I knew for certain was that in the 21st century, war fiction had invaded all our lives, gay and straight.