Before last Friday, John Becker was just your average guy working for a nonprofit and leading a relatively quiet life in Burlington. Then a story broke in "The Nation" revealing how Becker, 26, infiltrated Bachmann & Associates, the Christian counseling service run by GOP presidential candidate Rep. Michele Bachmann's husband, Marcus, to expose its use of controversial gay conversion therapies. National media came calling and all the major outlets wanted to hear the story. By Wednesday, Becker's tale had been featured on ABC's "Nightline," "The Ed Schultz Show" on MSNBC, "Good Morning America," the "TODAY Show," "Anderson Cooper 360," "Hardball with Chris Matthews" and even the "Colbert Report." (See Colbert video below)
Yesterday, Becker spoke to Seven Days about the undercover operation.
Becker, who is openly gay, went undercover posing as a man struggling with his homosexuality. He sought counseling to overcome his struggle. And after five sessions with one of the therapists at Bachmann's practice, Becker came away with substantial evidence to support claims that they engaged in so-called "ex-gay" or reparative therapy, a method of converting lesbian, gay and bisexual people to heterosexuals. Reparative therapy has been rejected by every major professional mental health organization, including the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association. In a 2006 interview with Minneapolis City Pages, Marcus Bachmann denied allegations that his practice engaged in reparative therapy. So far, no one from Bachmann & Associates or Rep. Bachmann's campaign has responded to Becker's claims.
Becker's undercover operation was the brainchild of Truth Wins Out, a Burlington nonprofit dedicated to fighting anti-gay religious extremism and repudiating the ex-gay movement. Becker works for TWO as the organization's director of communications and development. When Becker came to TWO in March, he says, founder Wayne Besen had long been planning an undercover operation to expose Bachmann's practice. But Besen, a longtime activist, was too well-known to play the role of conflicted gay man, so he enlisted Becker. (To read a recent Seven Days interview with Besen, click here.)
Since Michele Bachmann, a leading voice in the Tea Party movement, arrived on the national political scene, there had been murmurings that the family's Lake Elmo, Minn., counseling service used reparative therapy to try to "cure" clients' homosexuality. These allegations were troubling to gay rights activists like Besen and Becker, particularly in light of the fact that the Bachmanns' clinic has received $161,000 in state and federal funding. But there had never been any definitive proof of the clinic's ex-gay practices. In late June, Becker, armed with a wristwatch camera, a pinhole camera and a digital voice recorder that looked like a thumb drive, arrived in Minnesota seeking evidence.
Prior to working for TWO, Becker had been living in Milwaukee with his husband of five years, Michael Knaapen. The pair had been active in Fair Wisconsin, an LGBT rights organization — they served as a "spokescouple" for the nonprofit — and Becker was no stranger to gay activism. He had just finished a masters degree in music when he heard Besen speak at a local college. So inspired was Becker that after the talk he invited Besen out to dinner. Shortly thereafter, Becker was offered a job at TWO and he and his husband moved to Vermont. He says he was thrilled at the prospect of moving to a state with marriage equality.
On June 23, Becker prepared for his first session with Timothy Wiertzema, a counselor at Bachmann & Associates. He removed his Human Rights Campaign credit card, as well as his ACLU membership card and a copy of his Canadian marriage license, from his wallet. He deleted his husband's photo from his cell phone background. He removed his wedding band and he made sure to wear pants to cover the pink triangle tattoo on his ankle. All evidence of his homosexuality had to be hidden. While he admits to being nervous, Becker says his background in music and theater made him confident that he could pull off the act. "But there were still butterflies," he says. "What if they catch on, what if they suspect, what if they find out? I had to have a story ready in my mind if that happened."
During the first session, Becker told the counselor that he had been "struggling with homosexuality for a long time" and that he tried many tactics, including suicide, to rid himself of it. The counselor asked Becker questions about his family history, significant life events and religious background, as well as his first sexual experience. When the 50-minute session ended, Becker was spent.
"It was an emotional drain to go in there," he says. "When I was a teenager, I struggled with my sexual orientation so it was easy to put myself in that mental place. But it was very draining because of the emotions it brought back."
Becker had four more sessions at the clinic. During the second session, the counselor, who admitted he didn't have much experience with sexuality issues, dug to find the "cause" of Becker's homosexuality. The counselor determined that after having found a stash of male porn as a teenager, Becker had conditioned himself to respond only to male stimuli when masturbating. "He was suggesting that masturbating to gay pornography makes someone gay," Becker says. "It's ludicrous on its face, but that's what I was told."
Becker took this photo of "ex-lesbian" Janet Boynes' book about how she overcame homosexuality, which was on sale in the lobby of Bachmann & Associates. Above the display is a note from Marcus Bachmann that reads: "Janet is a friend. I recommend this book as she speaks to the heart of the matter and give practical insights of truth to set people free. -Marcus Bachmann, PhD."
Becker was advised to read the Bible when thoughts of his sexuality came up. "We all have our struggles, so it's important to use other parts of the Bible, just have that quiet time with the Lord, spending time in prayer," the counselor said, according to Becker's footage.
The counselor told Becker that "God created you for heterosexuality," and that his homosexuality was something that could be overcome. He encouraged Becker that the next time he sees an attractive woman, he should tell himself that he was created by God to notice her. "God designed our eyes to be attracted to the woman's body, to be attracted to everything, to be attracted to her breasts," the counselor said. "In terms of how God created us, we're all heterosexuals."
Though Becker did not talk about being confused about his gender, the counselor encouraged him to "develop" his masculinity. To help him foster a heterosexual identity, the therapist also suggested that Becker find a "heterosexual accountability buddy" — an AA-like sponsor who would help keep him on the straight path. In a later session, the counselor referred Becker to Outpost Ministries, a Christian group associated with ex-gay Exodus International, that claims to help homosexuals "find healing and restoration through relationship with Jesus Christ."
Becker returned to Vermont after his last session on June 30. He says wasn't persuaded to become heterosexual. Indeed, the motivation for his activism, he says, is his husband Michael. As for why do this now, Becker explains that the timing seemed right because of the wellspring of interest in Rep. Bachmann, who has previously said that most if not all gay people have been abused and that Satan has some involvement in homosexuality. Her husband has also called gay people "barbarians."
"The fact that she has moved from being a fringe candidate and she actually has a fighting chance at the nomination means people are taking her seriously," Becker says. "We felt that it was the right time to investigate this."