Recently, I was privileged to interview with Daresha Kyi in a documentary she is doing on the harm done to people who undergo conversion therapy or reparative therapy. That film will be released sometime in 2019. I look forward to sharing it with you then.
In this writing, I want to share with you about my own experience as a ministry leader who at one time in my past supported this type of therapy – at least what I think of as my softer version of it – seeing it to be a – literally hoping for it to be a solution for not only others in the Christian church, but also for myself.
Why did we need a solution? Because in the conservative, evangelical, fundamental circles of religion, you cannot have a same-sex “Sexual Orientation”. Anc since one’s “Sexual Orientation” is something they cannot change, that poses a dilemma. At the time, for some, the conversion therapy or reparative therapy was seen as a way to remove the dilemma.
First, let’s talk about coming out. Coming-out is when a person decides to share with someone their inner experience of being LGBTQIA.
Did you know there are are stages people go through when coming out? Here they are: 1. Confusion, 2. Comparison, 3. Tolerance, 4. Acceptance, 5. Pride, and 6. Synthesis (see Case, 1979). In phase 3, one begins to accept that they might be gay and begin a process of moving away from isolation and loneliness while exploring LGBTQ culture. In phase 4, one moves fully into self-acceptance as an LGBTQ person. It is during this phase that people become acutely aware of the conflict between themselves as an LGBTQ individual and negative perceptions in society concerning the LGBTQ person and way of life.(I will speak about phases 5 and 6 at a later time.)
In my early career, I didn’t know there were stages. Today, I can clearly see that in the fundamental, conservative, evangelical community, phases 3 and 4 are about as far as someone can go in their coming-out process. In this more traditional Christian context, one can grow and mature to a place of self-acceptance, but it has to stop there. In this traditional Christian context, one cannot expect others to be accepting. It isn’t safe to even try. Many who try to come-out in the traditional Christian church context experience such harsh and negative responses to the presentation of their authentic self that they go back in the closet. They keep it all hidden from others. Why? Because the church’s message that “you are not acceptable”.
This message of being unacceptable reverberates in that closet. That closet is where a tortured Christian soul consistently and determidly begs God to change them while trying to repress their “Sexual Orientation” until they experience that change. And, it is in that closet that a person will discover that God never will change their “Sexual Orientation”. One’s “Sexual Orientation” is something that won’t change in this lifetime.
Some people will grow to the place of resisting staying in the closet and try to move from phase 4 to phase 5 in a traditional church context. Phase 5 is where a person just accepts that they are different than the heteronormative society in which we live and they decide to be openly okay with themselves in spite of that reality. These are usually the ones that get told that their behavior is unacceptable and that they need to leave.
In most protestant church cases, people have been taught that the church speaks for God, especially the pastor (in the congregational polities). So they internalize what they have been taught to be the voice of God. They listen to a pastor’s interpretation of what is known as the “7 clobber passages” and they internalize the message that they are unacceptable. And, in the closet, they experience God as not loving them and not caring about them. If He did, He would change them so that they could be acceptable in His church, because He knows that “Sexual Orientation” is something that He made (or allowed to happen) and that an individual cannot change.
I know that many will react to the idea that God made someone with a same-sex “Sexual Orientation”. Yet, I am a Christian man who loves Jesus, and I have a same-sex “Sexual Orientation”, and I have done everything possible to change it, and it hasn’t changed one bit since I was 10 years old. And I am now 61. That is 51 years. That is long enough for anyone to search and hope for something. I have moved on to realize that either God created me this way, or, God allowed me to develop this way. Either way, it’s a permanent thing that isn’t going to change. So, if I am going to be honest with both myself and others, if I am going to be authentic, then I must face the reality that somewhere along the way, the evangelical conservative fundamental protestant interpretation of the Holy Scriptures is wrong. The Bible is not wrong, but the ones that I have allowed to interpret it for me and indoctrinate me with their teachings are wrong.
And, I have to acknowledge that this wrongness has resulted in me having to experience suffering, confusion, and missed opportunity for intimacy in close relationships for most of my life. It is time for that to stop. For me. And, for others.
For the first half of my professional ministry career, I found solace in knowing that I was able to provide a safe place where a Christian person could talk about their inner self, where they could risk being vulnerable and transparent without experiencing negative and hurtful outcomes. I didn’t have this for myself, but I could at least provide it for others. It was sorely inadequate. However, at the time, I didn’t know that it was inadequate.
For those of you who are familiar with the terminology, I was a “closeted, Side-B” Christian at that time.
Think about it. “Sexual Orientation” is what one is drawn toward, what one has desires for, what one is attracted to and what one is sexually aroused by. It’s like food tastes, for example. You may like salty or savory foods versus sweet foods. What if someone made you to feel convicted that salty or savory foods are bad and therefore you must change yourself so that you liked only sweet foods instead. It’s impossible. You might choose to not eat salty or savory food items. But it’s not possible to change your food tastes to such that you would never like salty or savory foods ever again!
If you are heterosexual, did you choose to have romantic desires for the opposite sex and did you choose to be sexually attracted to the opposite sex? No. It is something that developed in you quite naturally, something that you just came to realize in your life experience. It was not something you chose. With that in mind, think about what it would be like for you to be told that it was wrong to be attracted to the opposite sex and that you needed to develop an attraction for the same-sex and spend the rest of your life emotionally, spiritually, physically, and romantically bonded with someone of the same-sex. Does that feel like something that is in your power to change within yourself? If you are honest with yourself, the answer is no. But that is the plight of the same-sex “Sexually Oriented” person.
So for years, I helped people accept themselves (i.e., get to phase 4 of their coming-out process). Once they achieved a place of self-acceptance, then I could offer them the options of choosing to either: 1. Try and develop interest in the female form; 2. Then get into or try to remain (if they were already married) in their mixed orientation marriage; or 3. Remain celibate in their Christian life journey. These were the only options that the Christian church offered us at that time. It is the only option the Christian church offered me. So, it was as far as I could lead someone to go in the coming-out process and still be affiliated with the traditional evangelical Christian church. It is as far as one can go in the coming-out process without risking rejection by others. And in most cases in the traditional evangelical Christian church, this is still the case. I am thankful that society is more accepting today. And, I am thankful that there are churches now that are accepting, affirming, and inclusive.
I once hoped that salvation in Christ would resolve this inner turmoil and that changing my same-sex attractions and desires to heterosexual attractions and desires was simply a discipleship journey in my Christian faith and life experience. I hoped, prayed, and believed that God would change me beyond what I was able to change in myself. Isn’t that what Christianity teaches? That only God can change us? So, I managed to control my sexual behaviors while my sexual attractions and desires, though repressed, remained unchanged. And through the process of Christian discipleship – prayer, Bible study, worship, Sunday School attendance, mission work involvement, and such – I waited on God to change me. It was a time of agonizing before the Lord, in the Christian closet, desperately hoping for change, believing that change would happen, and encouraging others to do the same. But, nothing ever changed concerning my “Sexual Orientation:. And it took many years for that realization to surface into my conscious awareness.
Why? Because it is risky and costly to acknowledge that it isn’t possible to change one’s “Sexual Orientation”. It can result in rejection. People can potentially lose their family. People can potentially lose their friends. People can potentially lose their employment. The reality is that coming-out can change one’s entire life. It’s like starting over in life. It is costly.
I have come to realize that maybe repressing my sexuality was easier for me than it might be for some. I did have the ability to perform sexually with my wife Nancy. And, I did have a strong emotional bond with her through our friendship. However, there are those who cannot perform romantically or sexually with a person of the opposite sex. Christian people will admonish these persons saying that they can’t be attracted to, date, or marry what they are attracted to because it’s seen as an abomination. “That’s what the Bible says”, they are told. Yet, same-sex oriented persons often do not have capacities for opposite-sex romantic attraction. So they wrestle with this for years. And, eventually they despair, concluding that God must not love them and they must be doomed to hell because they are unable to change their “Sexual Orientation” and God – who either created it in them (me) or allowed it to happen to them (me) – must be able to change it but doesn’t.
As a result, some commit suicide. For these people, going into the casket seems easier than coming out of the closet regarding their “Sexual Orientation”. Others will get married hoping that just acting the heterosexual part will fix things. That’s like the person who has a taste for salty foods thinking that their taste (desire) for salty foods will go away if they stop eating salty foods and instead, eat enough sweets. Some will try conversion or reparative therapy because they are told that doing so will fix their “Sexual Orientation” problem. In all cases, a person lives in misery and torture trying to become something they are not and can never be in this life.
I have come to see conversion or reparative therapy as nothing but an attempt to fix the self so that one is acceptable to the religious community. Conversion or reparative therapy is seen as a way to not have to face rejection by one’s family or one’s church community. It’s a way for them to try and please their family members and not have to experience rejection by their family. Maybe it was a way to try and avoid the coming out process.
In the first case, we have lost a life. In the second case, we often have a failed marriage and broken family when the same-sex oriented spouse gets older and can no longer muster the emotional energy to repress their same-sex orientation and play the part of a heterosexual spouse. In the third case, people become angry and cynical when they finally realize that what the church has been telling them – that it’s possible to change their sexual orientation – really isn’t possible. And this erodes their faith and causes them to question what else they’ve been told – about God and faith – that maybe isn’t true either. In the final case, it is years later when the coming out process remains to be a necessary path for them to walk in life.
So, how did my thoughts about conversion and reparative therapy evolve?
I must be authentic and honest with myself and with you concerning my attitude toward reparative therapy. In my late 30’s and early 40’s, it made sense to me. It helped me see – in my own life journey, not necessarily that of others – things that seemingly contributed to why I experienced myself as being so different from other males. At the time, I thought that gaining understanding would lead the way to discovering etiology. And, if I could discover etiology, I thought I would then be able to discover a course of change. I could then become acceptable. I could then be an authentic self among my religious community. Looking back on it now, I see that in reality, all of that knowledge and understanding was simply a vehicle by which I processed through my own coming-out to myself – a process that unfolded into my mid 40’s and then stalled.
I knew when I was 10 that I liked boys and men. I knew when I was 13 that I enjoyed physical and emotional affection from men. I started coming-out to myself in my late teens early 20’s. The hopes for personal change – in me, and in others – caused this coming-out process to continue into a place of acceptance, phase 4 of the coming-out process. But, that’s where it stopped.
During those years, my hope for the possibility of change was energized and maintained through my efforts in three areas. First, there was my affiliation with Exodus International North America as a member ministry. Second, there was my tenure as a member of the Exodus International North America Board of Directors. Both of these ended up allowing me to face the reality that change wasn’t really happening in people. This opened the door to me coming to see that change wasn’t happening in me either. Finally, there was my involvement in Focus on the Family and their Love Won Out conference program. At first, I thought that surely James Dobson knew how to make me – and others – become acceptable sexual selves. In the end though, the result was the same. I simply continued to see desperate people announce change only to soon discover that their sexual orientation – their attractions and desires – were the same as they’d always been.
There were 7 things that hindered my coming out process. There was no avenue for exploring a romantic relationship and emotional bond with other men. There was the fear of being rejected by my family and being thought of in the same way as I had heard them speak of my uncle who was gay. I could not find a way to make sense of it theologically. I knew that if my church community knew, they would not accept me. I was afraid that I would lose my vocational life in ministry. I did not want to break my covenantal relationship and commitment to Nancy. And, I did not want to hinder the work being done through HopeQuest.
I don’t know if my coming out process would have ever progressed if Nancy had lived. We were in a mixed orientation marriage and I was mostly at peace with that. But she died in March of 2017. By the time we reached the end of Nancy’s horrific death experience, I was so depleted emotionally, physically, and spiritually that I was not able to repress and contain the same-sex orientation any longer. Once Nancy was gone, in my utter aloneness, it erupted. The repressed same-sex orientation came forth with a vengeance. And, at 59 years of age, I came to fully accept that my same-sex orientation isn’t going to change. Neither is anyone else’s.
So, by December of 2017, I came to a plaice of despair in trying to come to terms with what this meant for my own personal life. I came to the realization that I am same-sex oriented without the gift of singleness (i.e., I cannot be celibate). And, I had come to realize that another mixed orientation marriage was not something that either I wanted to do or even could do.
Right on the precipice of deciding to end my seemingly hopeless life, Jesus sent me Michael. During the past year (2018) with Michael, I have learned what it feels like to be loved. I have learned what it feels like to have someone who is interested in me as a person – just because I am me, not because of what I do. During the past year with Michael, I have learned that the relationship and emotional bond I have with him does not even remotely compare to what I had with Nancy in our mixed orientation marriage. During the past year with Michael, I have been able to fully come to terms with the reality that God is okay with me, with Michael, and with us in a romantic and emotionally bonded relationship.
I don’t know how I could have discovered any of this sooner in life. I wish I could have, but I didn’t. So I will simply live the life that I have left in the truth and reality that I now know, hoping and praying that my past work – even in my ignorance – was helpful to people rather than hurtful. And given opportunity, for those that I harmed in any way, I will do my very best to make amends.
Case, V. (1979). Homosexual identity formation: A theoretical model. Journal of Homosexuality, 4(3), 219-235.