We sat drinking tea in his bachelor apartment. It was more than 10 years ago that his parents had taken him to an independent Christian counselor who specialized in prayer ministry. He, a vulnerable teenager, was told that he had the demons of homosexuality, that darkness had pervaded his soul, but that the counselor could pray and tell the evil spirits to leave.
The young teen found the strength to refuse and walk out of the counselor’s office. Others have not had the presence of mind to refuse. Sipping our rooibos, I listened as he recounted years of numbness, excessive drinking, personas and facades to bury the trauma of that day. After years of running from the memories, it had all crashed in on him and the floodgates had opened.
He’d called me because he figured I might understand. I wish I could say that this was an unusual encounter. I wish I could say that such traumatic experiences were a thing of the past. But I can’t.
Built on half-truths and lies
In 2002, I was a recent seminary grad with three young children. A part-time executive director position working from home seemed perfect — New Direction for Life Ministries of Canada. I didn’t know much about the ministry other than that it supported people who experienced same-sex attraction. I thought the church-at-large had treated LGBTQ people poorly, so I was excited to serve a population of people on the margins and jumped in with both feet. It wasn’t long before I found myself questioning everything.
While no one promised you would go from gay to straight, that is what most clients fervently hoped for.
Launched in 1985, New Direction was a member ministry of Exodus International and known as an “ex-gay ministry” — what today might be called “pray away the gay.” In its heyday, it had a full team of counselors on staff ready to explore questions of causation — like over-bearing mothers and absent fathers, gender non-conforming behaviour, and implications of childhood bullying or sexual abuse — in the effort to move a client towards their heterosexual potential. While no one promised you would go from gay to straight, that is what most clients fervently hoped for.
In 2002, I wanted to hire a long-time volunteer. He warned me that he wasn’t “healed.” He explained that while he’d been to nine Exodus conferences on three different continents, had been in therapy for more than a decade, had attended support groups and led support groups, he was as gay as he’d ever been. His attractions had not changed.
I began to realize that many who claimed success were really just white-knuckling it, contrary to the testimonies of ex-gay men who claimed to have experienced “freedom from homosexuality through Jesus Christ.” The organization I was leading was built on half-truths and lies. As overwhelming as that realization was, it motivated me to reorient the organization from efforts to change someone’s sexual orientation to embrace LGBTQ people as they are.
In 2008, I spoke to Exodus leaders and implored them to abandon the largely U.S.-based network’s focus on re-orientation or conversion therapy. I published a public apology with the blog ExGay Watch. “I’m sorry for the pain that some of those who follow this site have experienced from leaders like me and ministries like the one I lead,” I wrote.
I then met Christine Bakke, co-founder of the site Beyond Ex-Gay, who helped deepen my understanding of the harm I had contributed to. I was broken-hearted to listen to the stories of ex-gay survivors for the first time. The spiritual, emotional, psychological and physical harm is inestimable. Relationships, families, careers, faith — nearly every aspect of life disrupted, delayed and damaged. Depression, suicidal ideation, self-harm, addiction and PTSD were rampant among survivors. And nearly everyone could recount a death by suicide story of someone they knew in the ex-gay community.
‘My apologies seemed so small’
The journey from ex-gay organization to fully affirming ministry has been messy, sometimes chaotic, and not nearly fast enough.
Changing the focus of the ministry I served wouldn’t cut it. I could never atone for the damage done. I could never eradicate the loss or the pain. My apologies seemed so small in the face of such profound, deep and lasting harm.
I could try to demonstrate true repentance by cultivating safe and affirming community across Canada for LGBTQ people from conservative Christian backgrounds. I could work in churches to share the stories of harm and implore leaders to eradicate messages and practices that would in any way diminish the dignity and worth of LGBTQ people.
In 2009, I started living into a posture that I called generous space. In this posture our team was free to love and affirm LGBTQ people fully as beloved of God. But I didn’t change the name of the organization to Generous Space Ministries until 2017. I thought it was important to not, in any way, try to sweep the history of the ministry under the rug. I have tried to own my part in the damage done by sexual orientation and gender identity change efforts (SOGICE). I take every chance I can to articulate public apologies and acknowledge the harm.
While our organization has made significant shifts to be fully affirming of LGBTQ people, that doesn’t mean that SOGICE isn’t a problem today. Queer people have internalized messages from their faith communities that the way they love is sinful, disordered, an abomination. The toxicity of shame has caused profound self-loathing and immobilization. While many programs have rebranded and explicitly state that they do not /cannot change someone’s orientation, when you believe that reorientation is the one way to attain God’s love and your faith community’s acceptance, people are still convinced that they have to try to change.
This determination is bolstered by the publication of books that trumpet the triumphant stories of people who claim that their orientation has changed. These books are also what guide and justify a pastor’s efforts to help someone try to change their orientation.
Unequivocally, trying to change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity or expression will cause harm. I’ve been around it long enough. I know the power of religious conviction. I know the longing for obedience and faithfulness. And what I know for sure is that God’s good plans for people do not drive them to suicide, self-harm or depression.
Faith communities need to acknowledge the harm that has been done, speak out and act justly towards LGBTQ people. Until the messaging changes, until the church honours the dignity and value of God’s beloved LGBTQ children, vulnerable people will still try to change intrinsic parts of their personhood. The truth is, you are already beloved and you already belong. Just as you are.
We’ve launched a new initiative asking leaders in the Christian community to sign on and speak out about the harm of SOGICE. Well-meaning, deeply believing ministry leaders need to understand that these efforts are profoundly harming God’s beloved children who are LGBTQ. Spiritual practices intended to try to change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity need to stop.
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