50.50: Investigation

Therapists backed by US groups tell LGBTQ Costa Ricans that homosexuality is ‘wrong’

Foreign affiliates of Focus on the Family and Exodus Global Alliance promote anti-gay ‘therapy’, openDemocracy investigation reveals

Diana Cariboni David Chavarría Hernández Stephania Corpi
24 November 2021, 9.00am
Illustration: Inge Snip

Therapists linked to US Christian conservative groups are telling LGBTQ people in Costa Rica that homosexuality is “wrong” and that only a “sadistic God” would create a gay person, an openDemocracy investigation reveals today.

Therapists connected to Focus on the Family, founded in 1977 by the ultra-conservative psychologist James Dobson, and Exodus Global Alliance, the global wing of the disbanded and controversial ‘ex-gay’ movement Exodus International, made the comments while ‘treating’ or offering to ‘treat’ undercover reporters posing as gay or lesbian people.

Conversion therapy’ is an umbrella term to describe “interventions of a wide-ranging nature, all of which are premised on the belief that a person's sexual orientation and gender identity, including gender expression, can and should be changed or suppressed”, according to a UN report. The report continues: “Such practices are […] aimed at effecting a change from non-heterosexual to heterosexual and from trans or gender diverse to cisgender.”

It 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.

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One of our reporters 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 the US conservative group 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.​​

This psychologist mentioned the issue of “guilt” ten times during the session and told our reporter that homosexuality was “wrong”. “Today is the day to put on the table what is wrong. You said [...] that you have principles and values [...] and your little heart is beating in panic.”

The practitioner also claimed that only heterosexual couples are acceptable. “God created man and woman [...] our perfect match, and he’s perfect and marvellous. This [homosexuality] is learnt, is something developed on the road,” she said.

“I’m sure now that […] you want to cast out of your mind this new taste for women,” she added.

The psychologist said she had treated “many patients with these issues, men and women, and thank God […] they have got ahead.”

Only a sadistic God […] would create you like this

Exodus Latinoamérica – the Mexico-based outpost of Exodus Global Alliance – is also involved in similar activities in Costa Rica.

Posing as a young gay man asking for help, another openDemocracy undercover reporter contacted Exodus Latinaomérica via its website. He was referred to a local religious group, Metanoia Ministry, and a psychologist who offered him ‘therapy’ sessions that he could pay for in cash.

In a phone call, the psychologist said: “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.”

She gave our reporter details about the links between Metanoia and Exodus. She said her group pays a fee to Exodus Latinoamérica, to be listed on their website and for printed and online materials. Exodus-affiliated groups exist in several countries, notably Mexico, while Metanoia ministries can be found in “Costa Rica, Argentina and Europe”, she added.

Both the therapists our reporters contacted are licensed by Costa Rica’s psychologists’ association, the CPPCR. The body, which has condemned so-called ‘conversion therapy’, told openDemocracy it would examine our findings and decide whether to open formal investigations.

The association’s code of ethics says mental healthcare should be based on “respect for human rights and human dignity”, spokesperson and psychologist Paola Vargas told openDemocracy.

Proposed ban on ‘conversion therapy’

A bill to ban these practices by licensed professionals was introduced to Congress in 2018 by politician José María Villalta, who says that “evangelical parties are blocking” its progress through parliament.

Another lawmaker, Enrique Sánchez – the first openly gay politician in Costa Rica – says he has asked the president for “his help in giving priority to the bill”. He hopes it will be voted on before the general elections scheduled for February 2022.

The ban is an essential first step, he said, because “this is a violation of the right of every person to be treated with dignity.”

Lawyer and LGBTQ rights defender Larissa Arroyo warns that “many of these activities are not performed by health professionals”, and this legislation would not affect them. For example, it would not impact anti-gay activities carried out by pastors and churches in Costa Rica – the only country in the Americas with a state religion (Catholicism).

We need to stop relinquishing the words that we use to feel fine – ‘family’, ‘therapy’, ‘health’ – to conservative groups

These practices are widespread in evangelical churches, “particularly in rural areas,” says Shi Alarcón, a sociologist and sexual diversity activist from Casa Rara, a support group for young LGBTQ people.

According to Alarcón, these activities have been growing recently. “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’,” she said. Alarcón supports the proposed ban, but thinks more has to be done to stop such activities in 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.”

‘Unwanted homosexuality’

One of our undercover reporters went to an evangelical church in the capital, San José, for counselling on how to handle his “unwanted homosexuality”. He experienced a 90-minute session full of misleading and derogatory claims by the female pastor.

“Most of the people who practise homosexuality are drug users,” the pastor said. She compared gay sex with defecation, and claimed that sexual abuse, parental sins, masturbation and pornography were the reasons for being gay.

The pastor told our reporter he had probably been conceived after his parents “watched pornography” and therefore he was “born tainted”.

She said that the journalist should show his "total submission to Jesus" by following a programme of weekly church sessions, praying, listening to Christian music, studying the Bible, and avoiding other gay people, pornography and masturbation.

In response to our investigation, 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.

She objected to the use of the term ‘gay’ in our account of her session, as the word is not part of her “vocabulary”. She also said that our reporter took the session voluntarily and, when asked, said he was Christian. “If he had answered no, he would not have received counselling,” she said.

The pastor also objected to our undercover reporting, labelling it “unprofessional”. She said her services are free, and not just for “people with ‘loss of sexual identity’ issues, but also for people with panic attacks and depression. I have testimonies from people in these situations who, by the power of Jesus Christ, were set free.”

US anti-gay groups working together

Exodus International, the ‘ex-gay’ group founded in the US in 1976 and portrayed in the recent Netflix documentary ‘Pray Away’, has been a main actor in the global dissemination of ‘conversion therapy’. It formally disbanded in 2013, when many of its leaders acknowledged that homosexuality could not be ‘cured’.

However, Exodus Global Alliance is still active as a separate organisation and continues to promote ‘conversion therapy’ internationally. It has an office in the US and regional hubs in Brazil (Exodus Brasil) and Mexico (Exodus Latinoamérica). Last June, it closed its operations in Canada in anticipation of a bill to criminalise ‘conversion therapy’.

Exodus International was a long-running partner of Focus on the Family, which in 1998 launched Love Won Out, a US touring conference preaching that “change is possible for those who experience same-sex attractions”. It later sold the franchise to Exodus.

Focus on the Family and Exodus Global Alliance have also worked together – in Latin America, as several online materials show.

Focus on the Family runs a network of counsellors in the US who provide ‘treatment’ for being gay or trans, even in states where these activities are banned, openDemocracy has revealed.

The group has been present in Costa Rica and Ecuador through its Enfoque a la Familia offices since 1985. Sixto Porras, formerly its regional director for Ibero-America, is a public figure in Costa Rica, runs online shows and podcasts and is frequently invited by the media to speak as an expert on family issues.

Porras is connected to the evangelical presidential candidate Fabricio Alvarado, while his son Daniel (who works for Enfoque a la Familia) is under investigation by electoral authorities for his alleged role in non-disclosed fundraising events for Alvarado's former party, Restauración Nacional, during the 2018 presidential campaign.

On 22 July 2020, the US group officially registered its branch as a “for-profit corporation under the laws of Costa Rica”, under the name ‘Focus on the Family Latin America, Sociedad Anonima’. Registry documents seen by openDemocracy show it is directly governed by the group’s US board and management.

Sixto Porras is not listed as having any involvement with this new company. But this year he was named vice-president for a new Focus on the Family Hispanic Ministry Development, with a dedicated office in Miami to reach out to Spanish-speaking communities in the US.

In response to our questions, Focus on the Family sent us its ‘Counseling for Sexual Identity Concerns’ statement, which says: “Regulatory bans against helping youths in any manner that does not comply with LGBT values and identity are advancing. At stake are religious freedoms sacred to families and American life, client autonomy, individual well-being, and parental rights.”

“We believe in and support the availability of professional counselling in matters of sexuality that is respectful, safe, ethical, and responsive to the client’s values and desires,” the statement adds.

Exodus Global Alliance did not reply to our request for comment, nor did the therapists whose activities are described in this investigation.

Additional reporting by Dánae Vílchez

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