Updated July 27, 2009 Interviews by Mike Fitzpatrick
|Quest Magazine QNU: Quest News Update Reality Check: The Column Wisconsin Whispers Contact QNU|
Oshkosh Man Fights To Free Partner From "Ex-Gay" Camp
Quest's Conversations With Travis Swanson
Oshkosh - Over the last month, many in the gay community have learned of the sad story of 23 year-old Bryce Faulkner of Eldorado, Arkansas. Bryce was the victim of a June intervention coordinated by his parents with the “ex-gay” ministry Exodus International.
But Bryce was not the only victim. Left behind was a 24 year-old male partner Travis Swanson, repeatedly misidentified in Internet postings as “of Green Bay, Wisconsin.” Despite Travis’ efforts to make the story available to a wider public, Bryce’s descent into the world of “reparative therapy” remained an internet-only phenomenon until a July 23 piece appeared on - of all places - the “fair and balanced” Fox News Channel.
However Quest news editor Mike Fitzpatrick had been having a series of conversations with Travis about Bryce’s saga both for several weeks before the Fox News broadcast and since.
As you will soon learn, Bryce and Travis are a love story that is, on one hand almost classically Victorian in nature; and on the other hand, yet another in a long line of spiritually abusive tragedies against gay children concocted by misguided - however loving - parents or other family members who have themselves fallen under the sway of religious fundamentalism. The saddest part of the story is that is still ongoing and may last for more than a year. For now, no one knows if it will have a happy or a tragic ending.
Quest: We’re talking about Bryce Faulkner who is your partner, correct? It has been seven weeks since anyone has seen Bryce. Tell me what has happened.
Travis: We were texting on the phone June 13. He told me that his parents had found out about him and about me.
Quest: So his parents had no clue that he was gay until just before this then?
Travis: He told me he thinks his mom did have a clue. He said that once - like a year and a half ago or so - that he was in Little Rock at a gay bar. He had accidentally dropped his credit card in the parking. It was found and they called his house about it. He thinks that was the first that his parents would have known.
Quest: When was the last time you actually talked with him?
Travis: I actually talked (directly) to him on Sunday, June 14 at 4:30 in the morning.
Quest: What did he say at that time?
Travis: The last time we talked he was crying pretty bad, uncontrollably actually. He said ‘you should have heard the mean things they were saying about me and about you.’ He said they were being awful because his parents had decided to stage this intervention to try and help him. He said that they made him read quotes out of the Bible out loud. They were telling him he was going to Hell. They told that he had to choose between them or me. If he chooses me, he had o move out by tomorrow. He had less than one day to move out. He would be leaving without his phone, without any money, without his car and he would be fired from his job.
Quest: So they were literally kicking him out of the house to be left homeless in Eldorado, a town of 30,000 in southern Arkansas just about 15 minutes from the Louisiana border. This is obviously Bible Belt territory.
Travis: Right. He once told me that his parents are the closest thing to being a preacher and a preacher’s wife without being one. They’re Southern Baptists.
Quest: How old is Bryce?
Travis: He’ll be 24 in January.
Quest: And you say that his parents have coerced Bryce to going to this ex-gay camp? Why was he financially incapable of refusing to go? And why was that?
Travis: He graduated from Ouachita Baptist University (in Arkadelphia, Arkansas) last December. We was going to go to graduate school, med school actually. He was living with his parents. His car was in his mom’s name. He even worked for his mom. She owns a business. It was more economic blackmail. That’s how I refer to it.
Quest: So over and above the emotional ties to his family, there were significant financial ties that made it essentially impossible for him to escape this situation. But you also mentioned to me when we first talked that Bryce had made the decision he was going to move up to Wisconsin.
Travis: Right. He decided that he wanted to go to med school in Madison.
Quest: Was he able to get into med school there?
Travis: No. The last time I went down there to visit him he was enrolled in taking a class. He did good on his MCAT score, but he wanted to do better. He was taking a three-week long class to help him prep to re-take that test.
Quest: Because getting into med school in Madison is a challenge for most people.
Travis: That’s right but he’s a very intelligent person.
Quest: So if he moved you mentioned that you would remain in Oshkosh and he would be in Madison. You would commute in a semi-long distance relationship.
Travis: Correct. I’m enrolled at UW-Oshkosh.
Quest: So now he’s forced into going to this ex-gay camp. Do you know what the name of the camp is?
Travis: I think that it’s Exodus International in Pensacola, Florid but I don’t have anything confirming that. (Editor’s Note: Bryce’s whereabouts were later verified in the Fox News report).
Quest: Why Pensacola?
Travis: When we talked on the phone last, in part of that conversation he said ‘They want to send me to Pensacola. they’re taking me to Pensacola tomorrow.’ Then I talked to a friend of his. He didn’t have a support system down there. There’s not very many people he was out to at all. He said that it’s a small town, his parents are very well known, so he couldn’t be out. Word would have gotten back to them.
At that point I talked to a friend of his who was friends with his sister. His sister agreed with his parents that he’s mentally ill and he needs the help that he getting. His sister told this friend that I have emailed - I’ve never actually met this friend but she knows that Bryce is gay, she knows of me and she knows my name..
Quest: For the sake of helping readers understand, let’s give this person a name- not her real name lest she be fingered as an ally of a “mentally ill gay person.” Let’s call her Trisha.
Travis: Trisha said that (Bryce’s) sister told her that he’s going to be in Mississippi for three weeks and after that he’s going to be in Florida. That will be 14-month long program.
Quest: And this camp is something that he cannot walk away from, correct?
Travis: I would think so. From what I have heard they are not allowed contact with anybody, especially during the first few weeks.
Quest: Part of the problem is that there is little that anyone can do until they find out where he’s at so that a counter-intervention could happen. If he’s on private property it gets very difficult unless he would physically leave. The question is does he have the ability to leave at this point. Do we know any of that?
Travis: No, we don’t
Quest: But let’s go back to the beginning. How did a guy from Oshkosh meet a guy from Arkansas?
Travis: We met in Florida in March of this year. I was there for two weeks in March. He was there because on of his best friends got married. He was in the wedding party. We were both in Panama City.
Quest: How did you bump into each other? Were you at a gay bar?
Travis: Yes we were.
Quest: How long has Bryce been out, or exploring same sex relationships?
Travis: He told me it was since he was 20 or 21.
Quest: So this was a guy who was living a closeted, or semi-closeted life to begin with.
Travis: He was definitely not closeted to himself because he’s dated other men before. I was not his first relationship.
Quest: So you met this guy in Panama City and talked and talked to him for a night?
Travis: A couple of days. I met him towards the end of my visit.
Quest: But never did anything sexually at this point. You were just talking. Straight people sometimes just don’t get that many times gay people don’t just hop in bed the very first second they see each other.
Travis: No. We never even kissed when we were down there. There was strictly nothing sexually.
It was kind of an interesting story as to how we winded up getting together. We were both interested (in each other) in Florida, but we didn’t pursue anything romantically because we both knew he lives in Southern Arkansas and I live in northeast Wisconsin. It didn’t seem feasible or a very good idea. We didn’t even talk romantically. We were both too shy to say anything.
When we got back we both continued to converse through text messages and emails, that sorta thing. I finally talked to a friend of mine who I took a class with at the University of Oshkosh. I told her all about it because she was in a long distance relationship as well. I asked her for her advice and she said ‘go for it.’
Quest: So then you got to know him in these online conversations. I’m very sympathetic to this as I sit here with my partner sitting in the next room. It’s been five and a half years, and it was three years before we actually met.
We’ve been seeing each other physically whenever possible for the last two years. And you think you have a long distance relationship? Try beating the 6900 miles between our two front doors!
My partner deals with similar issues that Bryce was dealing with: disapproval issues in his home country, his family and his culture.
But I know I grew to know him in this long distance relationship through IMs, texts and emails in ways that you never do in a relationship with a person sitting next to you in a bar or restaurant.
In some ways it’s almost Victorian. People used to exchange letters back and forth before they ever met. So yours is a kind of 21st Century Victorian love story. You got to know each other through texting and talking to each other without ever touching.
Travis: Right. And Skype was really what we started focusing on. With the video we could see each other while we were talking. It got to the point that we were doing it every night. The very first night that we ever sat up on Skype and talked on the phone I remember turning around and looking outside. I said, “Omigosh, the sun’s coming up! What time is it?’ I looked at the clock. It was 7:30 and I had class at 8 o’clock. I lived near campus so I wasn’t going to be later, but I couldn’t believe that we had stayed up all night on the phone talking and never got bored.
Quest: In the interest of full disclosure, was there any “sexting” or sexual content going on while you were on cam?
Travis: Not at first. We did some of that as time went on. It was much more getting to know each other before we actually met. Right before I went down there to Little Rock we were actually so sure that we able to tell each other that we loved each other.
It was kind of weird. Even when we first met that we had those feelings. It was kind of a love at first sight. But I never really used to believe in that. I believed that love was something that developed over time.
We started doing things together. Stuff that you’d normally have to be together to do. We would find a way to it with the webcam. For example, I have a laptop with a camera built into it. I’d have it sitting on the bed next to me. We’d fall asleep with our cameras on. That way when we woke up we’d see each other as the very first person, just as if we had slept together.
Quest: How many times did you actually get to see each other in person before the abduction?
Travis: Just once in Little Rock. He was taking a three week long class there to help him boost his (medical school entrance exam) scores. I couldn’t stay very long because of my work schedule. I left Milwaukee at 6:30 in the morning on May 19 and I returned on May 21.
Quest: And so this short trip was a “deal sealer.” Then you continued to talk and Skype.
Travis: Yes. Bryce and I made this agreement that we would see each other at least once a month. I would fly down there in odd months and he would fly here in even months. He actually had a plane ticket to come here when the intervention happened. He was supposed to come to Milwaukee on the 18th of June and leave on the 22nd.
Quest: But the intervention happened instead. How did Bryce’s parents - primarily his mother - actually find out about you?
Travis: (It happened) right before I went down to visit him in Little Rock, which was the third week of May. I was flying out of Milwaukee and he asked me to call when I got there to Milwaukee. I went there the night before and stayed there because I had a really early morning flight. I called but he didn’t answer his phone. I left him a voice mail and I ended it with ‘I love you.’ His mom actually listened to his voice mail. Since the phone was in her name, she would call the phone company and say ‘I lost my voice mail password, could you please reset it?’
Shortly thereafter I sent him an email. She had worked his way into his email too, and it had been an email account that (we thought) she didn’t even know existed. I couldn’t figure out how she worked her way into it but she did. Then the last time we talked I found out that the way that she found out about the email. What confirmed everything is she put a ‘wire tap’ on his Internet and got all of his passwords and started reading all of our online conversations.
Quest: So you’re alleging that Bryce’s mother was actively pursuing this. If true, she’s done a lot to break the law: she’s been eavesdropping without his permission. He’s an adult. He may work for her, but he is an adult. He’s her child but he’s her adult child. When did she start and how do you know that she got all of this information? Did she tell Bryce?
Travis: She did tell him that. We used to converse a lot on Skype, which is an online video program. We would instant message on there as well. He said that she told him that she read all of those conversations.
Quest: If a person goes into a computer. If the owner has saved those messages as logs, all anyone needs is password to the computer to do that.
Travis: (Bryce) used the word ‘wire tap.’ I know that’s not correct in today’s terminology, but that’s the words that he did use.
Quest: So Bryce’s mother got onto his computer and found his message logs.
Travis: (Bryce said that) he also knew she had access to one of his email accounts through Yahoo email. He went to Gmail and created a brand new account for me to email him. He said, ‘You can email me at this account because my mom doesn’t even know that this exists.’
But she still was able to get into that one. There had to be some type of monitoring going on using spyware or something. But if she didn’t know this email existed, how could she have found it?
Quest: Well this is the computer geek in me talking. If you mark a little box saying ‘Remember me’ on the password page of most online email websites, you will be logged in on your next visit automatically. It’s a convenience for those who believe they’re the only ones using that computer. All his mom would have to do was look up his browsing history and click on the web mail page to possibly access it. It’s still invasion of privacy if it was his computer that she was working with. But if it was indeed her computer, she had the right to access anything on it. You aslo said Bryce’s phone was in her name. She technically had the had the right to access those voice mails.
Travis: It was his computer, I believe. I believe they purchased it for him at one point. But when you give an item as a gift it becomes the other person’s property.
Quest: Let’s get back to mom. You say she already had a clue that she was already on to him
Travis: She was the queen of invasion of privacy. He was there in little Rock a week before I got there, he actually was going to dinner with some friends. He knows quite a few people in Little Rock. Friends from college who moved there... It is the largest city in the state, kind of like Milwaukee and a lot of people end up there.
You know if you’re good enough friends, sometimes one will buy the dinner and the next time the other person will buy. He was doing that with his friends who lived there. His mom actually called there to ask him if he’s dating someone in Little Rock. After she had opened one of his credit card statements, she said like he was buying dinner for two. She said ‘From the amounts you’ve spent at these restaurants, you’re feeding more people than yourself.’ He told there were dinners with friends which they were!
Quest: Was the credit in his name or her name?
Travis: I thought that it was his debit card.
Quest: Well, because of the fact that she had access to his computer, she may have had access to his bank accounts as well. Debit card charges show up almost immediately on most accounts. Were there other things she asked about?
Travis: She also started to question him about why we were talking on the phone so much. And we did. I would to talk to him between classes, on my lunch break. We would talk back and forth. My incoming minutes were free and he added my to his circle for free calls on (his cell phone provider). So it was free minutes both ways,
Quest: Of course that was mom’s phone, so she could find out who was in his circle. Then she finds out he’s talking to this kid in Oshkosh, WI.
Travis: Yes, she had lots of clues. And it’s funny, I don’t like talking on the phone generally - at least not socially. I’m pretty politically active anyway (as the Vice-Chair of the UW-Oshkosh College Democrats) so I normally use the phone a lot for that. When I got my bill for the month of May, my phone bill said I used 9700 minutes. I was floored when I got it. I only get a thousand minutes a month and I did use my full thousand, with 15 minutes of overages. The vast majority of them were the free calls and texts between Bryce and myself. We’d be calling on the phone so much we’d fall asleep with our phones on and wake up in the morning to find we were still connected. That was six full 24 hour days.
Quest: So this is a pretty intense long distance relationship. If you’re spending six 24-hour days on the phone, that’s a lot of time.
Travis: Right. But some of them were sleeping rollover minutes! But actually I’m somewhat more sexually conservative. I’m not a very sexual person compared to most people. Even though I’m 24 years old this was my first gay relationship. I’ve had other dates, but this is my first real partner.
Quest: And you were about to meet a second time until mom and dad put a stop to it. He had his ticket, but if he charged it, mom probably knew about it.
Travis: Actually he was really worried bout that. So what we did was - I bank at a national bank. I gave him my bank account number. He deposited money into my bank account and we used my card to buy it. So that attached my name to the ticket. I was able to call and cancel the ticket. They can’t refund the money but he still has 12 months to use it. So if we can find where he is at, he has a free plane ticket.
Quest: But then here’s the most important question: do you think Bryce is going to go through this programming and be able to survive it? What do you think is going to happen at this point?
Travis: I think he is going to come out of this even stronger. I’m hoping he comes out strong and I’ve heard they do come out stronger, especially if it not something they really want to be doing.
Quest: I know Bryce grew up Souther Baptist. What is your religious affiliation?
Travis: Well I didn’t grow up really religious to be very honest. My mom is Presbyterian and my dad is Jewish. I grew up with a nice mixture of holiday religion maybe.
Quest: Well you know that religious diversity produces homosexuals every time, didn’t you know that (laughs)?
Travis: Well there’s more that could have produced that! My parents were married 17 years. When I was about 14 my parents divorced and she’s been living in a same-sex relationship ever since. I have a terrible role model (laughs).
Quest: Of course it does kind of reinforce that whole genetic theory that homosexuality seems to travel more down the mom’s side rather than the dad’s side.
Travis: Actually on my mom’s side there’s me and my mom and my mom has a first cousin that are gay. Then on my dad’s my there is a first cousin - he’s gay. My great-aunt who is in her 70’s is in a same-sex relationship as well. I’ve got it funneling in from both sides.
Quest: But let’s get back to Travis. I know you’ve connected with a gay minister and activist named Brett Harris who has posed a website called “Help Save Bryce” (www.savebryce.ergonomicalministries.org), you put up a Facebook page called Friends of Bryce, and then there’s the Fox News interview. How did that go?
Travis: Actually it went pretty well. The story they did wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be, though it was pretty “fair and balanced” toward Debra Faulkner and the Christian viewpoint.
Quest: Fox claims they spoke to Bryce through a representative and Bryce said he was fine - in a “written statement.”
Travis: I sincerely doubt Bryce has a clue as to what’s been happening since he entered the camp. The fastest way to let everyone know he’s really okay where he is is to put him on camera, preferably live.
Quest: You also emailed me that your Bryce’s mom offered you a three-way phone call but you didn’t take it. Why?
Travis: Why does she need to sit in on the call? When Bryce has the opportunity - whenever that may be - I know I’ll hear from him directly.
Quest: I went to check on updates on the Facebook page but I see it’s gone. Why have you taken it down?
Travis: I didn’t. Facebook took it down. Twice. Bryce’s mom has his computer and his Facebook password. She filed complaints with Facebook in Bryce’s name. We’re trying to find a way to put it back up but its pretty hard without using his name.
Quest: In the Fox News report, Mrs. Faulkner said all the internet stories were false and the family just wants privacy.
Travis: Have you looked at some of the comments being made at the Save Bryce site and elsewhere? People who claim to be from Eldorado have been making some pretty nasty statements about Bryce’s mom. She keeps saying she’s going to sue everyone, but I’m not backing down. I’m a pretty smart guy and I know my rights. I’m not going away any time soon.
Editor’s Note: During their conversations, Fitzpatrick referred Swanson to several other nationally-recognized “ex-gay” ministry experts including Wayne Besen and the “Truth Wins Out” organization. Dialogue with Travis has begun and Quest will update our readers as this story continues to develop.