Australia’s anti-gay churches shift focus to Asia Pacific

April 19 – 25, 2014 Issue 8 By Luke Williams

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 19, 2014 as “Exporting anti-gay churches”

The little group met last Saturday at Ramsgate Community Church, on the southern flank of Sydney. Attendance at the service was by invitation only. Guests were asked to sign confidentiality agreements, assuring they would not discuss what was said inside. This was the final meeting of the country’s last remaining gay conversion ministry, Living Waters Australia.

In a letter to followers issued a few weeks earlier, long-time director Ron Brookman confided that he had been unable to find anyone willing to take up the running of his ministry, and that he sensed God telling him it was “time to wind up”. He blamed a change in Christian culture over the past decade, deficiencies in his own leadership, and changing views on how to “bring healing to the broken”.

“Wholesome heterosexuality alone reflects God’s image,” wrote Brookman, who believes the healing power of Jesus Christ eliminated his own homosexual desires. “Though society resists this and is abandoning Godly moral foundations, God’s truth will prevail.”

On the other side of Sydney, on the second floor of a Darlinghurst pub, a soft-voiced man named Anthony Venn-Brown stood and spoke. “The trauma, the grief … some of us have taken our own lives because of these ‘change is possible’ programs,” the former ex-gay ministry member said. “Many of us sit here today knowing we too have been to those dark places, where we thought about taking our own lives. And some of us here today know we have tried it.”

This event was supposed to be a celebration, marking the end of the Living Waters ministry and the so-called “ex-gay movement” in Australia, but the mood was positively sombre. “It’s not when we first go to these gay conversion programs that does the damage,” Venn-Brown continued. “It’s in the months that follow … Every time we wake up and think about another man we are tormented. You feel like a failure, you feel evil. It’s living out those moments every single day which eventually drives people to suicide.”

Living Waters Australia had its heyday in the 1990s when, along with Exodus International, it had popular weekly workshops and programs in all major cities. It also outsourced its material, which meant many local churches ran Living Waters programs for people who sought pastoral advice on same-sex attraction.

Conducted like Alcoholics Anonymous but for unwanted homosexual attraction – with support groups, counselling sessions, ex-gay testimonies and prayer meetings – the ministry built itself on messages of grace and salvation. It appealed to shy Christian men, mainly Baptists, Presbyterians and Pentecostals. In recent times, however, Living Waters had been reduced to a trickle. Just two or three social support groups were operating, in middle-ring suburbs in Melbourne and Sydney. They were often frequented by fewer than half a dozen men, many of whom didn’t stick around for long.

Brookman spoke to The Saturday Paper after his final thanksgiving service in Ramsgate. He said he wouldn’t talk about the service because “the press does not act with integrity when reporting on this issue”. The confidentiality agreements were in place, he said, to prevent unethical coverage. “The only thing I will say is that the majority of people who spoke were all people who went through the Living Waters program who are now extremely happy and are very glad they went through it.”

Collapse of ex-gay movement

The ex-gay movement is in decline everywhere. The world’s biggest ex-gay organisation, Exodus International, based in the United States, closed its doors in June last year. In the process, it apologised to the gay community for “years of undue judgment by the organisation and the Christian Church as a whole”. Major health organisations around the world issue stark warnings about the dangers of “sexual orientation” therapy. In Britain and the US, laws are being enacted or debated to ban ex-gay therapy on minors.

Closer to home, in the past five years a number of ex-gay ministries have closed. For the Mosaic and Roundabout ministries, their end came amid allegations they might have played a hand in the suicide of former member Damien Christie. The once dominant paradigm in Australian churches was to “pray the gay away”, but that is now dismissed even by conservative church leaders. Sydney’s Hillsong pastor, Brian Houston, specifically condemns pastoral or therapeutic attempts to change sexual orientation.

Yet as The Saturday Paper can reveal, Australia’s ex-gay ministries are finding ways to reinvent themselves in socially volatile developing nations, where legal rights for homosexuality are close to non-existent.

The former umbrella organisation of Living Waters Australia, Exodus Asia Pacific, stretches beyond Australia and New Zealand to parts of south-east Asia and the Pacific. In recent times, its message has been expanded to Singapore and Fiji, where it is trying to set up an ex-gay conference.

Sanctuary Ministries, on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, has previously sponsored a Malaysian ex-gay ministry leader to give talks in Australia. Adelaide ex-gay identity Nick Kuiper has started his own ministry in the Philippines.

The pioneer of ex-gay ministry in Australia, Peter Lane, closed his Liberty Inc Ministries, but has launched On Eagles Wings to Asia with his wife, Dot. The Eagle Wings website says the ministry is about helping people become “liberated from homosexuality”, equating it to sexual abuse and incest. The site is full of testimonials from people who discuss Lane’s help in rectifying “sexual brokenness” and who believe in the power of Jesus Christ to “heal” homosexuality.

Lane’s organisation works exclusively overseas, with a focus on India. For the past 12 years, he has delivered talks and workshops to churches, schools, youth groups, student hostels, Bible colleges and Christian organisations in India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Singapore – all nations where homosexuality is a jailable offence. The ex-gay message is not only alive and well in these nations, it is often used to justify strict anti-gay laws.

And the sessions go over well. After one workshop conducted in Singapore by the director of Exodus Asia Pacific, Shirley Baskett, Pastor Daniel Yap wrote: “We are energised as individuals and as a church to begin to minister well to homosexual strugglers, and would love for Shirley to come again to share her gifts to strengthen us.”

Psychoanalytical beginnings

Ex-gay ministries metastasised from the removal of homosexuality from the DSM – psychiatry’s standard classification of mental disorders – in the early 1970s. The ministries based themselves on the idea that homosexuality is disordered and can be mitigated or changed through various therapies. Much of the work relied on deeply theoretical psychoanalysis from the 1950s and ’60s, which suggested homosexuality was a sublimated behavioural response to an absent parent of the same sex. Once the conservative revolt became a fringe movement, it began developing its own methods based on neo-Freudian talking therapies, divine healing and, in some cases, Pentecostalism.

When a person joined the Living Waters group, they would normally be placed into a 26-week “program”. The program, conducted with weekly themes, was not always fixed, although it generally included special readings from obscure research with titles such as “The Root Causes of Inappropriate Sexual Development”, Bible readings, occasional prayer groups, and Pentecostal-style healing sessions.

Like virtually all other ex-gay ministries, non-sexual contact with other men is seen as key to a program member’s success in reducing their homosexuality, along with uncovering trauma, improving one’s friendships and learning not to fight sexual feelings and desires. Dates with members of the opposite sex were encouraged, but masturbation and lusty urges were discouraged. Almost all questions were answered with broad references to passages in the Bible with themes of transformation, salvation, purity and the battle between good and evil.

But as these programs have collapsed in Australia, their therapies are being exported overseas. Former ex-gay leader and now practising psychologist Paul Martin told The Saturday Paper that Exodus Asia Pacific was taking the easy way out by preaching in countries where there is limited protection for gay people. “The ex-gay movement is dying here because people are seeing the damage it does. People [in the developing world] obviously haven’t seen the damage yet, but they will. People start getting physically unwell – they have problems with their internal organs because of the stress these programs put them through.”

‘The woman who outran the devil’

At the vanguard of Australia’s ex-gay export is Shirley Baskett, a broadly built woman with a slight grandmotherly vibe. She identifies as “post-lesbian” and is the director of Exodus Asia-Pacific.

Baskett returned to Christianity in the early 1980s. Her book, The Woman Who Outran the Devil, details her relationship with a woman she met at an Auckland Bible college in the ’70s. She says she subsequently drifted from her faith, engaged in domestic violence, became an alcoholic, hung out with “bisexuals, heroin users and prostitutes”, and considered becoming a male. Since then, she gave up alcohol, married a man and dedicated herself to the ex-gay cause. Today, she is an ordained Assemblies of God minister.

After initially refusing to answer questions about her Asia-Pacific ministries, Baskett eventually accused me of being on a “vigilante crusade” against ex-gay ministries. She said her reluctance to discuss her ministries was because “it will stir ignorant hatred toward very loving people, and sometimes these articles are a potential threat to our members. This is truly harmful and will be the result of your actions. Yes, we do have evidence of this, as we keep the ‘hate mail’ and threats.”

For the past two years, Baskett has been working to set up an ex-gay conference in Fiji, with guest speakers, workshops and testimonies. Homosexuality was decriminalised in Fiji in 2010, although minimum anti-discrimination protections remain. Reports of violence against gays and lesbians are common. In 2012, Fijian police ordered a gay pride parade to be closed down, citing an excessive risk of violent attack on the marchers.

Baskett said she would only speak with The Saturday Paper if I agreed to read sections of the Bible, including the Book of John. When I asked why she chose it and what I should be looking for, she advised: “Look for Jesus … Behaving as a homosexual is the real, true, terrible sin. This is biblically a wrong premise.”

Baskett refuted the idea that her ministries were spreading messages that could lead to anti-gay attitudes and laws. She emphasised that people should be free to choose how to deal with their homosexuality. “Our ministries do not coerce or force decisions on people. Some people want to know how we have abstained from homosexual behaviour,” she said. “Some may decide this is not right for them. The idea that people must be offered one way to deal with faith and homosexuality is offensive.”

When pressed further on her dealings in Fiji and Singapore, and the suggestion she was playing with semantics to re-characterise events, Baskett eventually confirmed her involvement in Fiji. “Like you, I have a heart to defend people that I care about and those who are true underdog minorities,” she said.

Baskett said “homosexuality is more harmful than ex-gay programs” and that many of the churches in the Asia-Pacific she had spoken with had previously been completely ostracising gays and lesbians before she encouraged them to take a more “loving approach” to sexual issues.

“The prevailing opinion is that our ministries do harm,” she said. “And some people think that they have been victims of harmful connection. But there are far more people who would say they have been helped, and churches that have learned new ways to show grace and love through our ministries.”

The ex-gay interpretation of “grace and love” no longer has an audience in Australia. Brookman’s last request at his Living Waters thanksgiving service in Ramsgate was for donations to “assist in wind-up costs”. But these Australian ministries have turned their attention to Asia and the Pacific, where far from winding up, they are expanding their reach.

This piece was edited on April 19, 2014, to correct an error that misidentified Damien Christie.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 19, 2014 as “Exporting anti-gay churches”.