Australia’s Ex-gay World – the clock is ticking
Presentation at the “Building Community to End the Harm Caused By Heterosexism & Reparative Therapy”
Palm Beach Florida 20-22 November 2009
Sponsored by Soulforce, Truth Wins Out, the National Black Justice Coalition, Beyond Ex-Gay, Box Turtle Bulletin, and Equality Florida
Believing that God would never accept my homosexual orientation, I tried desperately to change through daily prayer, believing for a miracle, quoting scripture as well as a 40 day fast and exorcisms. When none of these worked, I entered Australia’s first ex-gay program in 1972, (four years before Exodus was created in LA). I’d been told that the only way I’d really become heterosexual was to enter this rehabilitation style program and not try to overcome this on my own. Apparently, it that would take at least 12 months to make me heterosexual, possibly two years. It was a live-in program and I spent 6 months desperately trying to overcome my homosexuality and become straight. Some of you might remember 16 year old Zack who was force by his parents into the Love in Action ex-gay program in 2005. When that controversy broke and the rules of Love in Action became public. I was amazed that the rules were basically the same as the ones I’d submitted to nearly 4 decades ago. They didn’t work then and they don’t work now.
In a word, my experience in this program was, abusive. Shame and guilt were the motivating forces and reinforced by the leaders. It was one of the most traumatic experiences of my life. After 6 months of manipulation and humiliation, I couldn’t take it anymore and left. The leaders spread rumours about me and ‘handed me over to Satan’….believing this treatment would drive me back to God. I’m pleased to say that group closed down years ago.
A couple of years later I felt that I had gained enough control and, encouraged that marriage would be how God could make my ‘true’ heterosexuality a reality, I married a wonderful young Christian women in my church. Two children and 16 years later, like the majority of these situations, it ended in disaster. During that time, with a wife on my arm and children by my side, I had all the outward evidences of heterosexuality, but this was very far from the truth. I followed my calling to become a pastor and full-time evangelist. Eventually I became a leader in the Assemblies of God and was a high-profile preacher in Australia’s mega-churches. This level of notoriety came to an abrupt end in 1991 when I fell in love with a man. The denial I’d built around me came tumbling down and I was forced to face the reality that the last 22 years had actually changed nothing. I was still gay. I resigned from the ministry.
I’m sure you can imagine how devastating this was for me personally but also for my wife, children and those who dear to me.
It took me years to heal from the trauma of the public confession, the loss of the things I really cared about. It was several years later that I felt God told me to tell my story and that it would help many people. In 2004 the first edition of my autobiography ‘A Life of Unlearning’ was released.
From the very first day I began receiving emails. Most commenced with the statements “thank you for your honesty” and “your story is my story”. My inbox became a microscope into a hidden world of people who’d been isolated and alienated. Most had never spoken to anyone about their experience, but now they had someone to connect with. I had no idea just how much tragedy and unnecessary suffering existed out there…..or how many suicides had occurred. I knew I could not sit back and do nothing…..hence my new direction in life as an ambassador for the GLBT community.
What’s happening in the ‘ex-gay’ world down under – 7 positive signs
Australia’s ex-gay world is different in many ways to the US counterpart. The organisations are small and having little impact. They have no real success stories or poster children, shy away from media attention, are not well funded financially and usually not political. Most Aussie ex-gay groups don’t really relate to or understand some of the excesses of their US cousins but are too polite to say anything as it would seem unsupportive. It’s easier to sit on the other side of the globe and pass these off as American extremisms.
This is not to say that people are not hurt through ‘ex-gay’ programs in Australia; they are. I work with survivors since 2000, who no longer have any connection with ‘ex-gay’ ministries. I’m sure these ministries don’t realise the long-lasting damage their ministries cause or otherwise they would close down tomorrow. I would. The people I have contact with are those who just stopped going to the meetings. Or like me, married believing that this was their next step, only to find in midlife or sooner that they had nothing more than suppression and denial; not a change in orientation. It’s then they come to me. These people are hurt, damaged and angry. As one man, who’d been involved with ‘ex-gay’ ministries in Australia for over 20 years, said to me recently, ‘I was sold a very cruel lie’
My belief is that ex-gay ministries are often not the cause but are more like the symptom of a much bigger problem. The real enemy is ignorance. That is, the ignorance that exists in Christian circles about sexual orientation. When the director of Exodus, Alan Chambers, claims that Exodus gets over 400,000 calls and emails annually from people saying they hate being homosexual, we have to ask the questions ‘Is Exodus the cause or only responding to something far deeper?’. Did these peoples’ journey begin because of Exodus, or just where these tortured people end up? Exodus offers hope for the ‘problem’ in subtly disguised messages of ‘change’. Ninety-nine percent of these inquiries come from evangelicals and Pentecostals. We know the source of this self-loathing is based. It’s based on an outdated view of homosexuality as pathology, fuelled by a terrible ignorance of the historical and cultural contexts of scripture.
Australia’s ‘ex-gay’ ministries work in the areas of same sex attraction, sexual abuse and sexual addiction. The attraction for many is that ‘ex-gay’ ministries provide a space for them to deal with sexual addiction and abuse issues. Of course these two issues play out in the context of same-sex behaviour so there is great confusion caused by the ministries’ inability to separate these three areas. Show me a person of faith who is same-sex-oriented and has experienced abuse and/or has a sexual addiction and I’ll show you a prime candidate for ‘ex-gay’ ministries. It’s so obvious when you know the stories.
Our wins in Australia
We regularly hear the stories of tragedy and harm, as we have tonight, and I don’t want in any way to take away from the severity of those but I’d like to focus tonight on some of our wins and the progress occurring in Australia.
- Terminology has changed. Ex-gay ministries no longer boldly declare that all homosexuals will burn in hell. They now work with people with ‘unwanted’ same sex attraction. The question of course is why is it ‘unwanted’? That has an obvious answer. Conditioning, conformity and ignorance. They certainly don’t know people of faith who have resolved the perceived conflict of faith and sexuality. They can’t comprehend that such a thing as a gay Christian actually exists.
- Heterosexuality is no longer the goal. This has been stated on the major group’s website; Liberty Christian Ministries. Another leader of the next largest group often counsels inquirers by saying that they will always walk with a limp. This is possibly an unfortunate term of phrase……but at least acknowledges the gay will never go away. It can only be suppressed, denied, or controlled. He should know, as even though he has been married for some years, he stated openly that he got sexually aroused reading my book. So much for the limp.
- The Assemblies of God rewrote their position statement on homosexuality. Whilst it is still a long way from affirming GLBT people it has acknowledged a difference between orientation and behaviour. Basically acknowledging that a person can be gay, celibate and a Christian. They can never go back now to the old position.
- Five former ‘ex-gay’ leaders in Australia wrote statements for me that were either apologies for the harm they had caused or stating a change in perspective. One was the immediate former Exodus Australia and Asia leader. When I posted these statements on my blog, it gained international attention and the current Exodus leader Peter Lane was quoted in the gay press saying ‘the criticism had hurt his organization’. I’m hoping that doesn’t just mean hurt emotionally, but that their credibility has been undermined.
- In 2008 over 100 ministers signed and apology to the GLBT community saying sorry for the way we had been treated and 35 of them marched in the Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras (Pride March). These were not ministers so much from liberal backgrounds but mostly Evangelicals and Pentecostals.
- Brian Houston, the senior pastor of Hillsong, issued a statement on sexuality and said.
God has created each of us as sexual beings, and I do not believe it is His will for it to be complicated. 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. We do not profess to have all the answers, nor has the church worldwide always got it right, but we will continue to try and connect people to Jesus because we know that hope and answers for every situation and circumstance can be found in Him.
This is an encouraging shift in attitude and a very different position from previous statements by bible believing Christians; that said we do have the answers; homosexuals are evil and don’t go to heaven.
- The Bayside Breakthrough. Only weeks ago, in a mega Pentecostal church in Melbourne, the pastor preached a message which was titled the Real Christianity – the accepting church. The theme basically was that the church has erred in their attitude towards GLBT people and noted the incorrect interpretation of the Sodom and Gomorrah story. The churches statement now declares
“Bayside Church is a place where everyone is welcome. We believe that God loves everyone and that He sent His Son Jesus to bring salvation (through His death and resurrection) to all of humanity. A study of the life of Jesus clearly reveals His love and care towards those who are often marginalized by the rest of society. Bayside Church welcomes GLBT people to find God’s love and grace and to worship Him freely within our community.”
At the end of the message, the church gave the pastor a standing ovation. Possibly the standing ovation is just as much, if not more, of a miracle than the pastor preaching the message. I believe this is a ‘world first’, and the pastor and congregation should be congratulated for their honesty and courage.
We are living in a time when there is a change in climate; an environment of questioning. Questioning if the church’s attitude towards GLBT people reflects the character of Jesus Christ and if possibly the church’s view of homosexuality has been incorrect, as it has about so many things. I think we should devote all our energies towards those who are in that space of questioning; these are the people I love to give my time to. And we should ignore the diehard bible-quoting Pharisees, with their tired, old, clichéd statements of ‘homosexuality is an abomination’, ‘God created Adam and Even not Adam and Steve’ and ‘Love the sinner, hate the sin’. They are annoying, boring and wrong.
There is more encouraging news I could give but my time is limited to share all these with you. Basically it’s good to know we are on the winning side and that eventually sanity will prevail and GLBT people will be treated with respect and equality. Every poll tells us we are moving closer to that day.
My goal is to see every ex-gay ministry in Australia close down. Not because I have attacked them or even because I have deconstructed the myths and falsehoods they perpetuate; but that they no longer exist because they have no more inquiries or referrals. The source of the ignorance has dried up in churches and everyone realised being gay or lesbian doesn’t mean you are broken and need fixing or sick and need healing.
Young gay men and lesbians in Australian churches are already coming to a place where they know their morality is a choice but their sexual orientation isn’t. And when they ‘come out’ in their churches and families some are finding they are loved and embraced instead of rejected. Every day in Australia we move closer to making this commonplace instead of the exception.