Courses to ‘cure’ homosexuality are seen as following God’s will by some Christians, and a danger by others, writes ERIN O’DWYER.

JON McNAMARA* came out of the closet when he was 21. For 15 years he lived a homosexual life and for five of those years was in a steady relationship with another man. Then in 2003 he began a job as a lawyer in a coastal NSW town. His work was close to a cafe run by a Christian couple and every day he would stop in for a coffee.

‘‘They shared Jesus with every customer that came in the door,’’ he says. ‘‘They got to know me and started sharing with me. I was raised as a Catholic but never knew homosexuality was wrong. I just did it because I thought, ‘I’m gay and this is me’.’’

Eight years on McNamara, 39, is happily married and trying for a baby with his wife. The pair met two years ago at church, where McNamara was undergoing intensive one-on-one prayer counselling. Before he proposed to his future wife, he told her of his past life.

‘‘She was surprised. She had no idea,’’ says the born-again Christian. ‘‘Beneath every homosexual is a heterosexual. God sufficiently healed me and presented me the gift of my wife. For me it’s been an amazing journey and I’m so thankful.’’

McNamara sought help from two Sydney churches to overcome his homosexuality. He says he has addressed the childhood trauma that caused him to be attracted to other men and believes he has been healed by the Holy Spirit.

‘‘I call it coming out of the homosexual closet,’’ he says. ‘‘I personally knew hundreds of homosexuals and not one could I say was genuinely content. There was an inner restlessness that surpasses understanding. And there wasn’t one that was in a long-term monogamous relationship.’’

It’s a story that will confront many. Not least those in the so-called ex-ex gay movement that is gaining momentum in Australia.

In August last year five former Australian leaders of the global ex-gay movement –which uses Christian counselling to ‘‘straighten’’ gay men and lesbian women–made a public apology for the damage they now believe they did.

The five – Paul Martin, Vonnie Pitts, John Metyard, Wendy Lawson and Kim Brett – all held senior roles with Exodus International, or the church based gay conversion program Living Waters. Their apologies followed that of several US-based Exodus leaders and the formation of websites for ex gay survivors such as beyond

‘‘I began my own research into the causes of homosexuality and found there was mounting evidence that sexual orientation is determined in the womb,’ ’wrote Pitts, a former Living Waters leader and pastor with the Christian City Church in Melbourne, in her statement. ‘‘Now I have absolutely no doubt that homosexuals are born gay and don’t need to change. I acted out of ignorance.’’

The man who encouraged the five former leaders to speak out was Anthony Venn-Brown. A Christian who spent many years trying to overcome his attraction to men, Venn-Brown has become something of a spokesman for closeted Christians since the publication of his book A Life Of Unlearning in 2004. Now he believes his message is starting to have an impact.

He points to a statement released by influential Hillsong Pastor Brian Houston in March, recognising the struggle of gay Christians.

‘‘God has created each of us as sexual beings and I do not believe it is His will for it to be complicated,’’ Pastor Houston wrote. ‘‘However, I recognise that people face very real issues in regards to sexuality. I have seen this both in my wider family, our church and society more generally. This is a global challenge that most of the world’s churches are grappling with and we, like them, are trying to balance theology with compassion.’’

Happily married for 16 years, Venn-Brown went through Australia’s first ex-gay program in 1972. For 22 years he tried change. He underwent counselling, exorcisms and 40-day fasts – all methods suggested by ex-gay groups.

At 40 he fell in love with a man and had to admit he was, and always would be, a gay man. He now describes himself as an ex-ex-gay.

‘‘It was terrible living with the belief that you are dysfunctional because of your sexual orientation,’’ he says. ‘‘That undermines your sense of self-worth and leads you to a life of secrecy, trying to hide from other people.’’

According to Venn-Brown, thousands of closeted gay men have committed suicide in Australia. Statistics are not available for obvious reasons but Venn-Brown runs through a list of recent cases. Three suicides in one church in Melbourne in two years. In Sydney, a 16-year-old who put his head on a railway track. And only weeks ago, in a rural town, a married man who killed himself.

‘‘I don’t even know if his family knows why,’ ’Venn-Brown says. ‘‘A gay man from the town emailed me to let me know.’’

Venn-Brown says he uses internet sites and forums to ensure people closeted in churches and considering re-orientation hear a positive alternative message.

Church leaders are beginning to ask questions of their own faith. In February 100 priests, pastors, ministers, brothers and nuns put their names to a list, apologising to the gay community for their appalling treatment by the church. It became known as 100 Revs and, five months later, is still causing ripples across the conservative church.

Yet other churches such as Living Waters Ministries and Liberty Christian Ministries, both headquartered in Sydney, still advertise courses to help gays and lesbians overcome ‘‘their struggle’’. Both organisations are led by married men who have left their homosexual life for a life of faith. ‘‘Through the grace of God and personal perseverance, broken gender orientation can indeed be re-oriented and transformed,’’ Living Waters’ director Ron Brookman says in a personal testimony on the church website.

For Michael Watson*, being gay and having a Christian faith are not mutually exclusive. Watson became involved in the church as a teenager but always battled with his attraction to men. At 17 he began attending prayer sessions with an elder.

‘‘I thought it was strongly against God’s will,’’ he says. ‘‘He prayed with me to help cure me and tried to allow God to get rid of those feelings. But it was very confusing because I was combining it with issues of past abuse and I still thought the abuse was my fault.’’

It wasn’t until Watson moved interstate in his 20s that he began to question the church’s teaching. He came out in his mid-30s and believes that God created homosexuals and heterosexuals equally.

‘‘The gospel is not about rules and regulation, it’s about compassion, grace and love,’’ he says. ‘‘We come from a background of being scared about our sexuality. Fifteen years ago I was out there fighting against it. But it’s much more relaxing and peaceful when you come to accept who you are.’’

For his part, Venn-Brown is urging dialogue between church leaders and gay Christians. And he hopes that discrimination is not perpetuated.

‘‘I believe it will happen eventually,’’ he says. ‘‘At a grass-roots level in congregations Christians have already done a shift. They know gays and lesbians, they work with them and they know they are not demonic. They are incredibly normal and live the same lives as they do.’’

* Not his real name