Being gay in Scientology: How Michelle LeClair got out

High-level official LeClair suppressed her sexuality for decades. Now that she's out, she's speaking up.

  • Michelle LeClair survived rape, violence, and surveillance, and is now speaking out against the Church of Scientology.
  • In her new memoir, Perfectly Clear, she details her harrowing story.
  • The church promotes a culture of submission and fear, she says, and is seeking new avenues to retain members.

When did it all start to fall apart? Humans are terrible prophets, though we're exceptionally skilled in constructing narratives in hindsight. Traumatic instances are burned into memory, essential reference points in the construction of self. We all have an origin story; in that tale darkness must reign before a flicker appears.

Some origins are fabricated, others quite real. New to Los Angeles, Michelle LeClair knew few people when her mother and most recent stepfather moved from her native Oklahoma. She had no reference point for the kiss she would share with her best friend — her female best friend — in high school, so she remained silent. It was the late '80s and, progressive a state as California is, homosexuality was not broadly discussed. Best to push it down.

Baptized in the Episcopal church, LeClair was not exactly religious; her mother was more seeker than fundamentalist. That would change. Michelle was unaccustomed to the Angeleno cliques; this was the era of "Beverly Hills 90210," after all. She was just trying to fit in, as was her mother.

Today we wonder how anyone can fall for Scientology. Wasn't so easy, back then. LeClair's mother landed a job at Sterling Management, which just so happened to be a pipeline into the church. As LeClair told me,

They were using L. Ron Hubbard's secularized courses in management work and promoting it as consultancy for doctors. My mother didn't know who L. Ron Hubbard was. She didn't know what Scientology was.

But her mother was going through her fourth divorce — her latest ex-husband called Scientology a cult — and the community was there for her. And it was there for Michelle when the existential threat of a car accident left her incapacitated. LeClair's dreams of studying in Paris were thwarted as she became paralyzed with fear of cars. The part-time job at Sterling her mother landed her makes for a convenient origin story.

Or maybe it was the minister who attended to her in the hospital, or perhaps later when she was audited in his dingy apartment. LeClair's mother told her to overlook his disheveled dress and dirty environment. They were being indoctrinated by the idea that the body is to be fought against, not honored; picking up on social cues was considered judgmental. Turn away that critical eye. Dress and home are not the true nature of the Thetan. Besides, he was a warm and caring man. Focus on that.

I remember sitting down with him, really nervous that I was picking up these weird looking cans with electrodes on them. I think he could tell how nervous I was in this tiny little dirty office and he just looked at me with these kind eyes and said, 'Tell me about a problem that you're having.' I was so desperate to talk. I said to him, 'I'm scared, I don't know what I'm going to do with my life. I'm scared of everything right now. And I don't know why I got into an accident that I should have died from and I don't know why I'm sitting here with you right now.' His answers were that we believe in Scientology, that everything, all accidents and illnesses, happen when you have somebody in your life that is suppressing you, stopping you from doing what you want to do in life.

And then there was light.

Michelle LeClair with her partner, Tena Clark.

Only, not really. LeClair was nearly ostracized a few years later when admitting to her lesbianism. The "very slow brainwashing and indoctrination" had taken hold. Her mother had paid for her first few sessions, including her 19th birthday present, but now she was all-in — the total she'd donate to the church in the coming decades was $5 million. Their response to her sexuality seems more voyeuristic than theological:

They wanted every detail, every detail of my thoughts, every detail of my fantasies and had I ever acted on them. So I said I had exchanged kind of a sweet little kiss with one of my best friends in high school and they wanted to know the details of that.

The Scientology Ethics Department had Hubbard's writings on homosexuality at the ready. Lesbianism, he writes in Dianetics, is responsible for the downfall of society — in the same category as sexual perversion and bestiality. In Hubbard's imagined emotional scale — the "charter of human evaluation" — homosexuality places you among the sickly and criminals.

How long to focus on this biography? How long does anyone remain controlled by fear and persuasion, falsities and threats?

A lifetime, for some. But not LeClair. She was in upper management at her price point, a business partner with Kirstie Alley, a spokesperson for Tom and Katie. To hide her sexuality she married a man who turned out to be abusive. A son was born. Then LeClair adopted an African-American daughter, Savannah, which sent him into a rage. Her twin boys were the result of him raping her, for which she was told the rape was her fault.

The backdrop for our interview: a president mocking a woman for not coming forward after her own story of abuse, her own origin mythology. A millionaire by 8, this president has never confronted such a story; he's accused of creating his own. He'll never be told everything is his fault, or believe it if he is. LeClair was built of more compassionate material.

This spiral of everything that's happening to me is my fault. It's my fault and it takes you right back to that moment of looking at those charts and reading quotes and thinking, 'I'm a bad person. Okay, I'm going to be a better wife. I'm going to try this time.' You get to a point where you close off and think — and any victim can tell you this — there is a side of you that in order to survive, you have to close that off.

We draw meaning from words, yet before language sound indicated mental states. You can learn a lot about a person from their breathing. When I mention the Kavanaugh trial LeClair's exhale writes a novel. I mention the women defending the judge, the "white male victim." She offers caring instead of disdain.

I feel sorry for them. I think that there is brainwashing from the way they have been brought up. I don't know who taught them that boys will be boys — probably their parents. And it is very sad to me because I have three boys and I love them with all my heart, but I remind them on a constant basis how gentle and kind that they need to be to women, not only to women but to every human being, that no amount of violence is ever okay.

As Steinbeck brilliantly displayed in East of Eden, origins beget origins. There is never closure, only continuation. And change. During her loveless marriage, LeClair was seated across from a lesbian couple at a party that just happened to be their neighbors. In her gated existence she didn't even know her surroundings. She spent the evening discussing the challenges of being a Southerner in California with one of these women. A veil was lifted — this was no sexual deviant. Another origin story commenced. Even though LeClair lost contact with her for years, today they're madly in love.

We could continue discussing the origins and twists and turns of LeClair's life, though you can also read it in her new memoir, Perfectly Clear: Escaping Scientology and Fighting for the Woman I Love. Though my origin story is a world removed from LeClair's, I was struck by how kindhearted this woman is during the hour that we spoke. Physical abuse, emotional abuse, violence, rape, the church bankrupting and stalking her, and never once was her voice raised, nor did she talk negatively. She's turned disaster after disaster into victory. She accomplished the hardest task a victim of trauma is faced with: she rewrote her narrative.

Which is why I had to ask: Do Scientologists really believe in Thetans? When she replies "yes," it's my gasping breath revealing my mental state. LeClair, however, it is quite clear, is no longer one of them.

It sounds fucking insane and it totally is. But when you're sitting there and you've had years of making up all of these paths, life stories and situations, it doesn't sound so crazy when he gives you that reason, and now you've got to fork over another $50 grand to get rid of all of those beings that have been attached to you. So yes, many Scientologists believe that — yes, yes, yes. And I believe not one stitch of it today. I can assure you.

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Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.