‘Healing’ the gay worshipper

Sydney groups with Christian roots claim they can turn gay people straight, Michael Lallo and Jonathan Swan report.

On the advice of his Anglican minister, and at the urging of his family, Shaun* enrolled on a course to ”cure” himself of being gay.

Every week for three months, he met about 40 homosexual men and women at inner-Sydney churches. They sat on pews, sang worship songs and watched videos that explained the ”causes” of their homosexuality, which were usually linked to abuse or rejection in their childhoods. The group’s leader, Christopher Keane, told of his personal journey from ”active homosexual” to married heterosexual. To close each session they confessed their weekly sins. Admissions of gay thoughts, gay pornography and gay sex were followed by prayer.

The organisation that treated Shaun, Liberty Christian Ministries Incorporated, based in East Balmain, is one of the three main groups in Sydney that claim to ”heal” homosexuals – the others are Living Waters at Ramsgate and Beyond Egypt at Carlingford. There are at least 15 such outfits across Australia. Modelled on America’s ”ex-gay” groups, all have fundamentalist Christian roots. Most view homosexuality as an illness that can be cured – an approach some describe as ”pray away the gay”. At the very least, they demand abstinence from gay sex.

Despite their controversial claims, they attract little attention, operating within insular religious communities.

Shaun grew up in an Anglican household, and after suppressing homosexual feelings through high school, at 21, he was willing to try anything to be the heterosexual his family, church and Christian youth group wanted him to be. When he confided in a minister that he was attracted to men, the minister did some research to see what help was available. He came across Liberty Christian Ministries Incorporated.

The three-month program cost $140, Shaun recalls, and was run by Keane, who had lived as an ”active homosexual” for 15 years but was now happily, heterosexually married. After his successful conversion, Keane teamed up with his wife to run support groups for other Christians ”struggling with unwanted same-sex attraction”. Keane has since retired from Liberty Christian Ministries and written a book – Choices: One Person’s Journey out of Homosexuality.

Shaun remembers being unconvinced by Keane, who, while presenting himself as a ”former homosexual”, admitted to the group that he still had sexual thoughts about men.

”To be honest I didn’t think it was possible,” Shaun says of the theory that a person could change his sexual orientation. ”But I wanted to live up to the expectations.”

At one stage during the course, Shaun was encouraged to ask a girl out on a date. He did so, not because he wanted to or thought it would work, but so he could report back in confession. On his first date, Shaun took the girl out for dinner and dropped her home. On their second date, Shaun arrived to pick her up and she invited him into her house. They sat on the couch and talked a while. As much as he tried, Shaun felt nothing. Then her brother walked in. ”I was more attracted to him than her,” Shaun says. ”I felt a little bit guilty about that.”

Shaun completed two of Keane’s courses – each lasted three months – and says that rather than curing him of his homosexuality, the sessions helped confirm it.

Shaun is now 35 and in a relationship with a man. It has been 14 years since he quit the ”reparative” programs and embraced his sexuality. He was helped by a support group for gay Christians called Freedom2b. The group was founded by Anthony Venn-Brown, a former leader in the Assemblies of God who for 22 years tried to change his homosexuality through psychiatric treatment, exorcisms, ”ex-gay” programs and 40-day fasts. Married for 16 years with two daughters, Venn-Browneventually conceded he could not change his sexuality. He has spent the past decade helping Christians who have gone through ”ex-gay” programs and been told they were sick, dysfunctional and abnormal.

Venn-Brown stresses that the Australian ”ex-gay” movement has shrunk and become more marginalised than it was when he went through homosexual ”healing” in the 1970s. The sessions today are more in the style of confessional support groups, not dissimilar to Alcoholics Anonymous, but Venn-Brown’s experience was more intense. He was assigned a ”minder” to monitor his behaviour. The minder combed through his wardrobe to remove all ”gay-looking” clothes such as pink socks and colourful underwear, stood outside while he showered to stop him from masturbating, and made him do more manly activities such as gardening and maintenance.

Venn-Brown believes ”ex-gay” programs inflict deep psychological damage, and says he will not rest until every last one has been shut down.

”Where are their success stories?” he says. ”You ask them.”

Of the three groups contacted by The Sun-Herald, only Haydn Sennitt, the pastoral worker at Liberty Christian Ministries, agreed to be interviewed. Sennitt says: ”We do not offer ‘fixes’ or ‘cures’ for homosexuality, but we do believe that it can be healed over time.”

”I have seen in myself and others an ability for people to overcome same-sex attraction by persistence, prayer, and patience,” says Sennitt, who after years of living as a homosexual is now married with a child.

As evidence, Sennitt referred The Sun-Herald to a ”quasi-experimental” study run by researchers at Wheaton College, Illinois: Ex-Gays? A Longitudinal Study of Religiously Mediated Change in Sexual Orientation. The researchers, Sennitt said, had ”studied a number of people who had overcome homosexuality over a long-term period [and] noted that about six in 10 were able to do so and that suicidal tendencies and depression were not necessarily connected to these efforts.”

Sennitt admits psychological damage can occur when people subject themselves to unrealistic deadlines – for example, ”I will stop being gay in a year” – but says that is not the way he treats ”unwanted homosexuality”.

Helen Kelly, producer of a new documentary about ”ex-gay” therapy called The Cure, says her research uncovered many participants of so-called ”reparative” programs struggling with depression, anxiety and self-harm. ”These groups never take responsibility for the fact that some people who’ve been through them commit suicide,” she says. ”They’re not registered and they have no duty of care.”

As a young gay man, Paul Martin spent two years in the 1990s with Exodus and Living Waters in Melbourne. After quitting, he became a psychologist and has treated many former reparative therapy participants.

”I’ve worked with maximum- security prisoners in Pentridge, yet the people who’ve been through ex-gay programs are some of the most psychologically damaged people I’ve seen in my life,” Martin says. ”I have a client who went through 35 years of these programs … One of the most crushing moments was when he said, in tears, ‘I’ve just realised that I’ve never known what it’s like to love or be loved.”’

Martin is especially critical of groups that point to the disproportionate rates of depression and anxiety among gay people.

”The irony is that they’re actually creating the terrible emotional damage that leads to these statistics,” he says.

It is difficult to establish how widespread such programs are in Sydney, or how many churches refer congregants to groups that ”heal” homosexuality.

Sennitt declined to name his church partners, but it is understood he has connections within Sydney’s Anglican community.

Asked whether he supported Liberty Christian Ministries’ position on the issue and the notion that homosexuality was a treatable condition, the Archbishop of Sydney, Peter Jensen, said in a statement that it was not a major issue in Anglican churches.

He added, however, that ”where people identify that they are struggling with unwanted sexual attractions, same-sex or otherwise, it would be unreasonable not to encourage appropriate support”.

Jensen said that in his experience, the best support was not ”therapy” but ”friendship, love and prayer, guided by God’s word. Whether or not the struggle with such unwanted feelings continues, we see all people as precious in God’s sight.”

In a July 2011 newsletter, Sennitt said he was ”establishing connections” with Hillsong, but the church did not respond to The Sun-Herald’s request for comment.

While local ”reparative” programs generally avoid attention, their American counterparts have been hampered by the public renouncement of dozens of former leaders and participants.

In a statement, the Australian Psychological Society said that ”reparative therapists have not produced any rigorous scientific research to substantiate their claims of cure … APS recommends that ethical practitioners refrain from attempts to change individuals’ sexual orientation.”

When recalling the attempts of Exodus and Living Waters to turn him straight, Paul Martin laughs. Men, he says, were taught how to speak in a monotone and walk ”without swishing” while women were encouraged to ”wear the Laura Ashley look”.

Gay fantasies were to be suppressed by envisioning a stop sign. Both programs involved workbooks and prayer sessions.

Martin helped lead an Exodus group but after a life-changing trip to Thailand in the mid-1990s, he decided to leave.

Nervously, he told his co-leader, Wendy Lawson – who stunned him by revealing she was quitting, too.

Lawson, who married her long-term girlfriend in Britain in 2007, said she was suicidal during her Exodus years, living in ”constant fear” and feeling like an ”abomination”. Since accepting her sexuality, she says, ”life is one of fulfilment and satisfaction”.

Shaun says while he saw others psychologically damaged by ”ex-gay” programs, he never experienced that himself. In a way, Shaun found the sessions at Liberty Christian Ministries therapeutic. ”For loneliness,” he says.

Shaun had never met a gay Christian before. Suddenly, he was surrounded by them.

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