When Marshall Applewhite--the Heaven's Gate cult leader who persuaded 38 fellow members to join him in committing group suicide in March--turned out to have been a troubled homosexual, it was inevitable that notorious antigay crusaders such as Pat Robertson would make hay out of the connection. "Applewhite's sexual views apparently played a role in his unusual beliefs," said reporter Gailon Totheroh on Robertson's television show, The 700 Club, March 31. "Cult experts ... say that offbeat sexuality is nearly always a part of the slanted spirituality of cults."
But in the aftermath of the Heaven's Gate tragedy, it's not just the gay-bashers who are drawing a direct connection between the cult and the anguish its leader felt over his homosexuality. CRISIS OF SEXUALITY LAUNCHED STRANGE JOURNEY screamed a headline in the March 29 Washington Post--only one example in a sea of media coverage that has put a cause-and-effect spin on the story.
Even some gay and lesbian groups have seized on the headline-grabbing details of Applewhite's struggle with his sexual drives, as if to warn society what its oppression of homosexuality can do. "I call upon the news media to expose the true factors which led to the tragedy: one man's denial and repression of his God-given sexuality and, on a greater level, society's rejection of and hostility toward gay men and lesbians," said the Rev. Troy Perry, founder of the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, in a statement released April 2.
But experts on the cult phenomenon say gay men and lesbians are no more likely to start or join cults than the general population, even if they are struggling with their sexual orientation. "[Applewhite's] religious background and personal experiences, like being fired from a university for having sex with a male student, may have aggravated his own internal battles about his sexuality," says Phillip Shaver, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, who has studied satanic cults. "But a lot of people had those conflicts, especially 20 or more years ago. You don't see them going out and starting cults."
Nor is joining a cult a likely avenue for most gays and lesbians in flight from themselves, argues Lorna Goldberg, a clinical social worker and psychoanalyst who has specialized in cults for 20 years. "I would bet more people looking to escape their sexual orientation have turned to being priests than to being in cults," she says.
Media accounts of the Heaven's Gate cult made much out of Applewhite's personal history. The parallels are easily exploited: The man who sought a cure for his homosexuality later decided to have himself castrated, a decision in which some of his male followers apparently joined him. Adopting an androgynous appearance and practicing the strictest celibacy, Applewhite's followers seemed like clones of his own desexualized self-image.
But some observers believe the sensationalizing of Applewhite's homosexuality is obscuring the more obvious factor in his profile: mental instability. "The connection in this situation is one of pathology, not sexual orientation," says Armand Cerbone, a gay psychologist in Chicago and a member of the Committee on Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Concerns of the American Psychological Association. "And there's no more pathology in the gay community than in the straight community. That has been well-documented."
People tend to get involved in cults when they are at a point of vulnerability in their lives, says Arthur Dole, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and a board member of the American Family Foundation in New York, which studies cultic groups. "So if someone is unhappy being gay, that might be a point of vulnerability, and a cult may present the solution," he says. He also notes, however, that many ex-cultists say they went into a cult soon after going through divorce, yet "no one is saying divorce causes people to go into cults."
And some experts feel gays and lesbians may be even less vulnerable to cults than the general population. "Most cult groups are very stringent about sexuality," says Marcia Rudin, director of the International Cult Education Program in New York City. "People who join them are looking for rigidity, not the freedom you would imagine most gay people would really want." Furthermore, she says, most cults have historically been very hostile to gays and lesbians: "It's not like cults are looking for diversity."
Despite the personal circumstances surrounding Applewhite and Heaven's Gate, says Rudin, "the picture that's being painted here is unfair. The gay issue is deflecting from other problems this man had. Being gay, even troubled about it, simply is not what turned this man into a cult leader."
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|Title Annotation:||homosexuality and cult behavior|
|Publication:||The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)|
|Date:||May 13, 1997|
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