A series of personal testimonies from LGBT Christians
Conversion therapy is horrifying.
Although I speak as a survivor, even then I am one of the lucky ones. I wasn’t given electric shocks, wasn’t forced to fast or strip, haven’t experienced aversion therapy or corrective rape.
Because I haven’t been subjected to any of the above, I find myself in a strange position when people talk about conversion therapy. Have I had it or not? I ask myself. What counts?
One of the buzz words around conversion therapy is consent. How can something be bad or banned if people willingly undergo it? However, one problem is that this so-called ‘consent’ is often – as in my case – gained by brainwashing and emotional blackmail. Another problem concerns basic human rights. The International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims classes “conversion therapy” as a form of torture (April 2020). Torturous practices should be banned, whether people ‘consent’ to them or not.
For me, I consented because of desperation. Growing up, if I encountered ‘a homosexual’ I’d be very happy to slate them as an abomination (and very often did), but could hardly look in the mirror for fear that I myself might be the same. I could not in my wildest dreams have imagined the possibility that there could be ‘gay Christians,’ and had certainly never met one.
At university I subsequently met an openly gay pastor, and even though he preached celibacy and the renouncement of all ‘same-sex attraction’, it took me several weeks to overcome my prejudices, to believe he too was not an abomination.
Desperate and eager for answers and understanding, I met with the pastor, frequently, for long theological discussions. To my utmost disbelief, it turned out he was not the only one – there were some my own age, apparently several of them, in his church! I was speechless. I was desperate for community, to see and believe with my own eyes that there were others who were experiencing exactly what I was.
That was when the manipulation started. To be able to meet these individuals, I would need to agree to certain ‘conditions.’ There was a secret ‘same-sex attraction support group’ that met monthly, but to be introduced to them, I’d need to do two things. First, promise to agree to their principles and renounce all thoughts and actions of a homosexual nature; second, agree to their ‘mentoring scheme,’ to ensure my renouncement was practised as well as professed.
There was also a carrot as well as a stick: apparently, many people who had gone to this group were now in happy, heterosexual relationships. I couldn’t believe my ears, couldn’t believe how lucky I was to have this opportunity. But truthfully, I didn’t even need that extra encouragement; I was so lonely and so desperate for community that I would have pledged anything just to believe I was not alone.
Obviously, I quickly became disillusioned. The meetings only ever featured ‘success stories’ from ex-gay-but-now-straight visitors (back then, I never questioned whether their stories were genuine). As for the peers I was so excited to meet, we were all so full of self-condemnation and so closely monitored that conversations seemed competitive rounds of who was best at self-renunciation. We were all so defensive and frightened that even then it struck me we were victims of something. Tragically, we were made to believe that the perpetrators were ourselves and our own desires, not anything – or more accurately, anyone – else.
The so-called ‘mentoring’ was even worse. It was conducted by different people, some straight and married, and others who were gay and fiercely celibate. But it was always punitive and always humiliating. We were supposed to meet weekly and report not just our actions but also our thought processes. We were encouraged to keep a diary of every time we had a gay thought or ‘carnal desire’. Each one would then be examined, dwelt on and shamed. I had a lot of ‘thoughts,’ so each time, my humiliation was overwhelming. I would be vilified, rebuked, and prayed over. I felt hated, disgusting, and abominable. At the beginning, I even thought I deserved to feel those things. I was made to believe that my desire to feel loved was sickening, an aberration of divine proportions.
I would often be unable to sleep the night before these sessions in dread, and often cried on the way home. I’d always had bad dreams, but now they became truly horrifying, and always featured being pursued or tortured.
Was it conversion therapy? The perpetrators would say no, of course. Not only did I consent, but they weren’t explicitly trying to change my orientation. But their practice evidenced a different story. To them, if you were gay and wanted to love, you had a choice. You could continue being gay and settle with ‘close friendships,’ or you could try heterosexual relationships. The (supposed) success stories of the latter, and the brainwashing that suggested it was possible, were both insidious and omnipresent.
Of course, many did try these heterosexual relationships, including me. Some of these relationships, not including mine, even lasted more than a few months.
Regardless whether you term what I experienced as ‘conversion therapy’, what’s more important are the consequences. Should what I experienced be allowed? Is it harmful? Does it have any long-term effects?
Like I say, I’m one of the lucky ones. After two years of therapy, my mental health has fluctuated but at the present day is relatively stable.
But there’s even more to this than mental health. There’s also self-belief and personality. Spending such lengthy periods of time in self-loathing means my self-confidence remains non-existent.
There’s also the hurt. Even now as a married gay man, several nights a week I still have nightmares, and I wake up most days with the residual feeling that I have been wronged, abused. Ever since my ‘mentoring,’ I’ve felt very easily targeted, and am injured by the smallest things. I find trust hard and forgiveness even harder. People often do, who have been caused to have such prolonged feelings of self-hatred and humiliation. Some things remain difficult to recover from.
So – should conversion therapy be banned? Yes.
Should it include private prayer for those ‘willingly seeking support from faith leaders in their struggles’? Yes.
Is this problematic for the basic human right for freedom of belief? No. The whole point of human rights is that you’re free to do whatever you want, as long as it doesn’t harm others.
I desperately needed the protection of this ban. It’s too late for me – but it’s not too late for others.