Where is Bryce?
Travis Swanson hasn’t heard from his boyfriend Bryce Faulkner for more than a month. In a July 23 interview with Fox News, Swanson said the 23-year-old Arkansas native sent him a text message in late June saying that his parents wanted to take him to "a place in Pensacola" to cure him of his homosexuality. Swanson, who lives in Wisconsin, alleges the news came after Faulkner’s mother discovered e-mails between the men.
Since then, Swanson hasn’t heard from Faulkner. None of his friends have. They suspect that his parents enrolled the pre-med student in an offshoot of the Exodus International program, the world’s largest ex-gay ministry.
"I don’t believe Bryce was forced to attend the program against his will," Swanson told Bay Windows. "I believe he was economically blackmailed since he was a financial dependent of his parents. They controlled everything and he was given two choices: A) agree to attend treatment; or, B) move out by tomorrow with no phone, car, money, or job."
Gay activist Rev. Brett Harris, who leads Magnolia, Ohio’s Ergonomical Ministries and the Coalition for the Abolition of Homosexual Reformation Tactics, responded to Bryce’s disappearance by creating a Save Bryce Web site. The minister learned of Faulkner’s situation after receiving an e-mail message from Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) that included Swanson’s e-mail address.
Swanson reportedly had contacted the organization for help after unsuccessfully trying to enlist the El Dorado Sheriff’s Department, which, according to Fox News, has no record of the well-being check that Swanson says he requested and that he says was carried out.
Harris, who is not connected to the Faulkners in any way, says he has "known people who have gone through programs like what Bryce is going through."
Bryce’ mother, Debra Faulkner, told Fox News that her son broke up with Swanson and enrolled in Christian counseling of his own accord. "He just wants to take some time and figure out what he wants to do with his life," she said. According to a statement from a family representative who spoke with Fox News, Faulkner has "not been manipulated or coerced by anyone to do anything."
Debra Faulkner denied comment to Bay Windows, referring the reporter to her family’s attorney, Brian Raum, of the Arizona-based Christian legal organization Alliance Defense Fund (ADF). The ADF, Senior Legal Counsel Raum in particular, has a history of staunchly defending anti-equality measures such as California’s Proposition 8 and referendums or amendments in Washington, D.C., New York, Connecticut, Oregon, and Wisconsin that seek to limit marriage to one man and one woman. Raum did not return calls for comment.
Although Faulkner’s mother told Fox News last week that her son is safe and sound, the lack of direct communication from Faulkner to Swanson has made the Rev. Harris suspicious. He insists, via the "Save Bryce" Web site, that "the ONLY way to bring resolution to this situation is for Bryce to use the plane ticket (that is already paid for and in his name) and go to Travis to tell him personally how he feels [sic]."
Faulkner purchased the plane ticket to visit Swanson in Wisconsin prior to his disappearance. Without face-to-face communication, Harris said, it will be impossible to guarantee Faulkner’s safety or whereabouts.
"Save Bryce" has recorded over 30,000 hits in the past month. Based on his own experiences with ex-gay programs, Harris agreed with Swanson’s theory that Faulkner might have been "browbeaten and economically bullied" by his parents into enrolling in the program.
The Reverend made waves earlier this month by posting the address and phone number of Faulkner’s parents on his already controversial Web site, a move that generated hundreds of harassing phone calls and letters. He removed the information after being threatened with a lawsuit, though according to the "Save Bryce" Web site, the act of removing the information was an olive branch extended from Harris to the Faulkners.
This isn’t the first time the disappearance of a young gay man, presumably into an ex-gay program, has made headlines. In 2005, Zach Stark, 16, was forced by his parents to attend Memphis, Tenn.’s Love in Action Refuge Camp for eight weeks. During this time, Stark continued to update his MySpace blog, detailing his experiences and posting camp rules. His entries spurred an investigation by the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services, which ultimately found no evidence of child abuse. Also in 2005, DJ Butler’s father drove his 17-year-old son to the camp in handcuffs. The Refuge program was discontinued in 2007.
Peterson Toscano, co-founder of Beyond Ex-Gay, an online community providing support for people who have dealt with ex-gay experiences, is currently assisting three young men who are in situations similar to the one Swanson fears Faulkner might be facing. "It’s just stunning, these kinds of stories, they just come up all the time," Toscano said. Himself a former attendee of a Love in Action program, Toscano has had an intimate experience with ex-gay ministries.
While Faulkner’s and Stark’s stories may seem similar, Toscano points out the obvious: "Bryce is technically an adult, so he can’t really say honestly he was forced to attend [an ex-gay program]. I think it’s more honest to say he was coerced," Toscano said. "The cost is awfully high for him to say ’no,’ but he does have some agency to say ’no.’"
16-year-old Stark, however, was left with very few options when his parents informed the minor that he was going to the Refuge Camp. "Legally his parents had the right to put him in that program, and he had to obey them," Toscano said, "And if he didn’t, he had to go through some kind of legal channel to get himself detached from them legally, which is hard work."
More often than not, Toscano said, families suffer when one member is sent to an ex-gay ministry. "The kinds of things that go on at these places, you’re shut off from the world, and it’s tragic because once their kid gets involved in the therapy, the parents then get blamed often for making the kid gay, so they all suffer from it," he said.
On the "Save Bryce" website, Harris repeatedly accused Faulkner’s parents of releasing statements in their son’s name. The blogosphere has lit up with similar allegations, including one that Faulkner’s mother has signed on to his Facebook account and posted messages on his friends’ profiles insisting that Faulkner is fine.
Swanson’s main concern is "Bryce’s safe return ... Bryce needs to know that he is loved and that is why we are searching so hard to find him." He does realize the value of bringing stories like Bryce’s to the attention of the public. "[Ex-gay ministries] are everywhere, and people need to be aware that they are still around and operating in their backyards," he said. Exodus International operates more than 230 locations in North America, including four in Massachusetts.
Since the launch of his "Save Bryce" Web site, Harris has received numerous death threats, but said, "It isn’t going to stop me ... It doesn’t matter to me whether Bryce wants to continue the program, we just want to make sure that he’s safe."