The new documentary This Is What Love in Action Looks Like is the definitive account of one of the most shameful episodes in the 40-year history of the ex-gay movement. It’s the story of what happened to gay teenager Zach Stark at Love In Action, a Memphis, TN-based ex-gay ministry, in the summer of 2005.

Zach, then 16, told his parents he was gay. They reacted badly. “They tell me that there is something psychologically wrong with me, and they have raised me wrong,” he wrote on his MySpace blog. “I’m a big screw up to them, who isn’t on the path God wants me to be on.”

They enrolled him, against his will, in Refuge, LIA’s teen program. Zach described it as “a fundamentalist Christian program for gays.” For eight weeks he was forced to endure counseling and therapy, both individual- and group-based, in a strictly controlled environment. The object was to turn this gay teen straight.

But Zach’s story, which he tells here for the first time, is just the main thread in a narrative that interweaves several related stories. There is the story of the protesters, including many of Zach’s shocked school friends, who gathered daily outside the LIA facility to show their support for the teenager. There is the story of Lance Carroll, whose parents forced him into Refuge at the same time; in the film, he describes how hearing the protesters outside helped him survive the program. There are also former LIA clients Brandon Tidwell and Peterson Toscano.

And there’s the story of then-LIA Executive Director John Smid. Before I saw this film, I assumed the title was mostly ironic; it’s an account of what Love in Action is and does, but it’s also indictment of the hypocrisy: This is what love in action looks like? Sure.

But what comes through strongly in the documentary is the love of those who rallied around Zach. Local activist Janelle Treibitz says:

We also … came out with, like, a consensus about how we would conduct ourselves in these protests, how we would conduct ourselves to people, to staff members, and … our approach was one of love.

Smid recalls his daily encounters with the protesters:

… I remember driving through, and I heard something different. I heard these people in the streets saying to us as we left, ‘God loves you. God loves you.’ And I just felt a complete shift in the way I perceived the entire process. So for the next week and a half, every time I would come to work or leave, instead of feeling frustrated or angry or embarrassed, I felt loved and cared for by a God that loves me, using whatever vehicle he chose to use to tell me that.

Smid later resigned from LIA and, in 2008, began a new ministry with a different emphasis. In 2010, he issued a formal apology.

Director Morgan Jon Fox doesn’t appear to probe in his interview with Smid; as with other interviewees, he simply allows the subject to tell his story. So there is room for skepticism in evaluating where Smid has come from and where he’s going, and doubtless many gays and lesbians, especially ex-gay survivors, will be totally cynical. My policy is to welcome such steps tentatively, remembering that actions, and not words, will be the ultimate test.

While Fox concentrates on Love in Action, in doing so he provides a wider sketch of the ex-gay movement and its abuses. What we see of Love in Action in the documentary is not an isolated case; the denial, false hope and misguided love pervades the message and ministry of ex-gay groups across the world. That the story is told largely through interviews with those most intimately involved with the LIA controversy only makes the film more compelling here.

Other key players in the story declined to be interviewed. They include Zach’s father, Joe Stark, who stands by his actions, and Alan Chambers, Executive Director of Exodus International, the umbrella organization of which Love in Action is its oldest member ministry.

This Is What Love in Action Looks Like had its premiere in June, 2011.

Other upcoming screenings:

    • August 27th at SHOUT, the Birmingham LGBT Film Fest
    • September 10th at the Austin Gay & Lesbian Film Festival
    • September 20th at ReRun Theatre, in New York City
    • September 29-Oct 6 at OUT ON FILM, the Atlanta LGBT Film Fest
    • November 4th at Indie Memphis Film Fest
    • November 3-12 at REELING, the Chicago LGBT Film Fest

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