Mar 13, 2017
I was never forced into gay conversion therapy, but had I known it existed I’m sure I would have signed up.
From when I first noticed my Year 7 maths teacher’s hips, to when I became a cliché at 16 and fell in love with my best friend and her colour-coded bookshelf and the way she held her fork, I prayed to a god I didn’t believe in and asked to be normal. It didn’t work. Standing on stage at my graduation, facing freedom from my conservative private school and the move to a new state, I felt both stuck with myself, and for the first time, wholly myself.
By my second year of university, I had started the violent and terrible task of trying to recover from my teens, and grow into my 20s. Lots of things were part of this. I collected therapists and piercings, drank in queer theory through my gender studies major, and marched in my first Mardi Gras — glittery, breathless, and only faintly ashamed.
But by far the most adventurous and radical part of my process to make peace with myself was an “undercover” Honi Soit feature I wrote on gay conversion therapy. In the process, I met people whose raw, hot hatred of themselves made my own shame seem small, and people whose hatred of me and people like me left me sleepless for weeks.
Three years on, I sometimes introduce myself in that icebreaker week of tutorials as a “raging lesbian”, Mardi Gras is my Christmas, and I live with my girlfriend and our dogs. I’ve shaken off my shame, but my fascination with that shame, other people’s hatred, and with gay conversion therapy remains.
Now, as the jacaranda blooms across campus, heralding exams and the end of my time in this place, I find myself drawn to the topic again. I was never forced into gay conversion therapy, but I stand on the shoulders of giants, and a lot of them were. This story is for those who came before me.
“We can’t abandon our brothers and sisters simply because they are same-sex attracted — we are all little Christs.”
I’m sitting in a modern, fairy light-lit church in Annandale, in Sydney’s leafy, latte-sipping inner-west. Beautiful people — the kinds I walk past every day in this suburb where I live — surround me. To my right, an older couple who dress the same; to my left, a woman with a phone background that stars three toothy blonde kids, a broad-chested man, and — I shit you not — a labrador; in front of me, a young man with tortoiseshell glasses and affable curls scribbles notes without breaking eye contact with the stage.
The speaker is Dr Mark Yarhouse. He’s TV dad-handsome: you look at him and know he kicks a ball with his kids in the park on the weekends. He’s also American: he heads up the Institute for the Study of Sexual Identity at Regent University, in Virginia. This church brought him to Australia to deliver a series of seminars on healing same-sex attracted Christians of their sexuality.
Yarhouse is a psychologist, and he is highly respected throughout the evangelical Christian community. Today, the church is packed, and although we’ve been listening to Yarhouse speak for many hours, audience interest hasn’t wavered. In the morning, we covered where same-sex attraction comes from (we’re not born with it, something “breaks” or “is broken” in us) and if it can be eradicated (sexualities can be forcibly shifted along a “continuum”). Now, we’ve moved on to the how: exactly how can same-sex attracted Christians be healed of their sexuality through the power of Christ?
The secret, says Yarhouse, is in changing the “scripts” that the LGBTIQ community offers its members.
“The gay script answers normal developmental questions about identity and community,” he says, frankly, unapologetically, and with upturned palms.
“They assert that gays are ‘born that way’ and as Christians, we can sometimes fail to understand how emotionally compelling that script can be.”
Leaning forwards on his chair, uncrossing his camel-slacked legs, he maps out the alternative.
“It’s our job to write a new script — one that explains that same-sex attraction is an example of a human experience that is not the way it’s meant to be. It might be part of your experience as a human but it does not have to be part of your identity.
“You can choose to centre an identity around other aspects of your experience — you can choose Christ. You don’t have a say over whether or not you experience attraction, but you do get to choose whether or not you act on it.”
The session ends, and the congregation stand to sing a hymn that I know from my private school days. Hands raise all around me; my neighbours sway and sing beautiful harmonies I’ve never heard. I like this hymn; it’s about forgiveness. I raise my voice but not my hands.
The first time I tried to be religious, I was eight. I had just finished watching Robin Williams’ Bicentennial Man with my mum — I was sick home from school and we’d gone to the video store and picked it out. In it, the eponymous character — a sort of robot — lives through generations of his family and friends living and dying, before falling in love with a woman and turning himself human so he can die and be with her “forever”.
After the movie ended, I lay in my mum’s bed, counting her heartbeats under my ear and wondering how many of them she had left. I felt like I was standing on the edge of something I couldn’t name, looking down into a pit of everything that had ever happened. I realised I wouldn’t always be me — that I would finish thinking. Something in me tipped over the edge and I ripped myself out of my confused mum’s arms, beat my fists against my sweaty sick little head. The panic was jagged and white. It shut me down.
Panicked herself, Mum cracked her palm hard across my face. The shock and pain of it — she had never hit me, and hasn’t hit me since — broke my fall into nothingness, and the panic receded.
That night, I prayed for the first time and pressed my forehead against the bathroom tiles, just to feel the cold.
Although I’ve prayed nearly every night since then, nothing has saved me. I’m still chained to my panic. It has kept me awake all night; it’s driven me to incandescent rage; to drinking until I can’t stand; to fucking someone I’m not supposed to in some fierce attempt to make myself real and brave and everlasting. I’ll never stop looking for God, or for meaning, but despite this, I’m sure I won’t find either.
Outside the church, over tea and biscuits as the sun sets and the cold sets in, I’m approached by a young man in cuffed chinos, with bright eyes. He’s not seen me before, he says, so he thought he’d come say hello. His name is Joel, and he’s a preacher at a sister church to this one in Surry Hills.
He asks me what I thought of the day. I tell him that, as a gay woman, I wasn’t sure about the premise underlying the conference — that sexuality can or should be changed — but that I was pleasantly surprised at the lack of vitriol. Yarhouse had always been very measured and careful: he had never preached hatred, only love. Joel smiles generously in agreement, and tells me that this is at the core of what this type of church does: “heal” through love.
“I’m also gay, you know,” he adds. I’m not surprised to hear this — he’s just so gorgeous — but I am surprised to hear him say it openly.
“Yeah, I’ve always known I was gay. I was very out and proud. But eventually, I had to make a choice between loving Jesus and loving men. And I chose Jesus. I realised Jesus was undeniable.”
My confusion must be written in bold across my face because Joel looks at me, and only pauses for a beat before clarifying.
“I’m celibate. I’ll be celibate for the rest of my life.”
Gay conversion therapy hasn’t always looked like this. Historically, the practice — born out of Pentecostal Charismatic churches and popularised by evangelical sects in America — has been far more fire and brimstone than happy-clappy. At its worst, and in its earliest iterations, it was electroshock therapy, castration, and lobotomy. It was children involuntarily committed to psychiatric institutions; it was adults medicated beyond recognition or cognition. Practices like these continued (although increasingly secretly) well into the late 80s and perhaps early 90s — long after the landmark decision of the American Psychiatric Association to remove “homosexuality” from the second edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
But from the mid 90s, as gay rights became fashionable and HIV/AIDS faded out of the public consciousness, conversion therapies became softer, framed more favourably. Churches distanced themselves from the old ways. In 2013, Exodus International, the largest umbrella organisation for gay conversion therapy in the world, closed down and issued an apology to all its patients.
In a statement, the then-president of Exodus, Alan Chambers, said that the organisation had been “imprisoned in a worldview that’s neither honouring towards our fellow human beings, nor biblical”, and apologised for causing “pain and hurt” and “shame and guilt”. With this, the last vestiges of the old conversion therapy left the Christian consciousness, and the practice began to look like something else altogether.
“One of the biggest problems in this space is that the media sensationalise what conversion therapies look like now.”
Nathan Despott runs the Brave Network, which offers support for same-sex attracted Christians, and Christian leaders who want to support LGBTIQ churchgoers. At first the organisation was underground and very secret. Over time, it has become more outward facing, with representatives increasingly available for interview and the group’s advocacy becoming more public. Meetings are still secret, membership is private, but Nathan and the other leaders of the network are slowly opening up, and letting outsiders in.
Still, speaking to Nathan on the phone, I get the feeling that he’s tired of talking about this. When I raise the spectre of gay conversion therapy’s past, he’s quick to dismiss it.
“It’s not the fire and brimstone stuff anymore — that’s not the story,” he says sharply.
“It’s the softly, softly. It’s this slow marinating in this feeling of being defective; it’s people around you telling you every day of your life that you’re broken, you’re broken, you’re broken.
“The people I know who have taken their own lives — and I know a lot — have done that because of this soft messaging.”
A large part of this “soft messaging” comes in the form of churches encouraging same-sex attracted members to enter into what are politely termed “mixed-orientation marriages”. These are exactly what they sound like: people with incompatible sexualities living as husband and wife in the hope that exposure to each other will ultimately cure them of their deviance.
Nathan says that he meets scores of people through Brave who have emerged from these marriages with severe psychological injuries, few social connections, and a fractured and scarified sense of self. They come to Brave meetings with the aim of rebuilding not only their lives, but themselves.
“A lot of our work is just building up survivors’ self esteem, equipping them with the necessary tools to survive outside their churches. I see so many people who are just living really crap, unproductive lives because of their self-esteem.
“I’ve met brilliant people — some of the most gifted, passionate, exceptional people I know — who can’t even do a job interview anymore. That’s what gay conversion therapy looks like today.”
Prominent LGBTIQ activist Anthony Venn-Brown suffered through some of the earlier, more extreme iterations of gay conversion therapy, and was also one of the first people in Australia to speak about them openly.
Born gay into a very religious family, he spent much of the first half of his life struggling with his sexuality, and underwent increasingly extreme forms of conversion therapy, interspersed with suicide attempts and other forms of self-harm.
After residential treatment programs in both New Zealand and Australia failed to cure him of his homosexuality through — among other things — a regimen of exorcisms, Anthony tried to convert himself through a mixed-orientation marriage, and two children — who he’s quick to note he loves completely.
But at 40, after falling in love with a man, he realised he was never going to change, and that his homosexuality was an ineradicable part of him. He let himself love.
Anthony’s a bit of a handful to interview. An incredibly knowledgeable and gregarious man with a flair for expression, he can have a tendency to throw too much at you and expect you to catch it.
But when I ask him about the modern face of gay conversion therapy, his opinion is neat, and lines up almost exactly with Nathan’s: he says it’s not like the old times, and we have to be careful to identify that.
“The media has been so slow on picking this up!” he cries. “I’ve been pushing this for years!”
Anthony traces the development of gay conversion therapy through three historical phases. There was the original philosophy — fire and brimstone, you’re an abomination in the eyes of God. Then there was a more therapeutic model — you’re broken, something’s gone wrong here, but we can fix you and you won’t feel this way anymore. Now, he says, we’re in the sacrifice stage — you’re broken, but we won’t ever be able to fix you. It’s just your cross to bear, as it were.
“One pastor described it to me — and I did laugh when he said this — ‘it’s like you’ll always walk with a limp.’
“Celibacy is the new gay conversion therapy.”
I ask Anthony where he sees things going from here — should we follow the United States’ lead and start attempting to criminalise gay conversion therapy for minors? At the time of our conversation, five states and four cities have made a legislative stand against performing gay conversion therapy on minors. He tells me although he didn’t used to believe in this course — he thought it toothless, and incomplete — he has come around to the idea.
“We have at least four decades of evidence that shows gay conversion therapy is deeply harmful. Criminalising it will send a message: we are living in the 21st century, this isn’t appropriate anymore.
“To do nothing will only perpetuate the damage we have been seeing for decades.”
Unfortunately, modern gay conversion therapy is very hard to legislate against. Timothy Jones, a senior lecturer at La Trobe University, is part of the team commissioned by Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews to run a pilot study into the prevalence of gay conversion therapy, and into the possibility of criminalising the practice for minors. He tells me that one of his team’s biggest findings so far is that gay conversion therapy seems to be worryingly widespread in Australia — far more so than any of them had predicted. The closure of Exodus hasn’t meant the eradication of their practices, rather, groups have reformed under different names and banners, and the discourse within them has shifted from a clinical focus to a pastoral one.
“Of course,” Timothy says, “this means that any avenues for legislative reform are less obvious — it makes it harder to address.” The change needed should come from within churches themselves. A culture shift, he says, is necessary.
Despite this, and although he’s quick to note that his study is far from complete, Timothy does seem to believe — at least in part — in the legislative path. At the very least, he says, criminalising gay conversion therapy will send a message.
“It would definitely send a signal to these churches that what they’re doing is inappropriate. The law can serve a very didactic function in that way.”
My friends and I must be the last people on the planet to discover Cards Against Humanity.
We send Lane out to buy the misanthropic card game before our weekly Sunday night “family dinner”. We’ve been eating together on Sundays for years, ever since we edited Honi Soit, locked in a windowless bunker for 40 hours a week. Lane’s always been the get shit done one — the one who’d secured a press gallery pass well before graduation day.
Sitting around the table at John’s place, a Stanmore loft he can only afford because he’s outrageously overpaid by a conservative think-tank, we eat the takeaway burgers that Michael insisted on — he can get obsessive — and play the game.
I’m bad at it. No card I play ever really gets a strong reaction. Georgia, who knits and drinks tea unironically, is also bad at it. She’s not dark enough. We’re all surprised that Justin, the self-identified social justice warrior and earnest law student, cops the grittier cards (“The Holocaust”; “dead babies”) in good humour. Lane and John hold court in the corner, winning tens of black cards between them. Andrew narrates the night via message to some absent members of the family — Christina, working for The Innocence Project in New Orleans, and Astha, a Columbia postgraduate now working for Reuters in New York.
My interruption to this wholesome scene comes a bit abruptly.
“So, Elon Musk thinks we’re living in a simulation. Is that true?”
Andrew looks up from his phone. John laughs. Georgia squirms.
It’s a genuine question from me. I’d read an article several days earlier about Elon Musk, the magnate and billionaire who’s devoted his life to funding future building projects — an expedition to settle Mars, securitising renewable power, high-speed transportation — and more recently, announced that he is trying to break us out of the simulation we supposedly live in. He argues that we’re probably the product of some future form of higher intelligence — the simulated ancestors of something bigger and stronger than us, and we’ve developed some artificial intelligence inside the simulation.
Andrew and John — both exceptionally clever and reasonable men who I trust above nearly anyone — tell me that although at first pass Musk’s theory sounds wild, they’re certain there’s a degree of truth in it.
“It answers all those fundamental questions we’ve always asked,” Andrew says.
“Fuck the big bang, fuck religion.” John kicks back on his chair. “This is where it’s at.”
Georgia’s still squirming. Next year, she’ll start studying medicine. She deals in the real; this isn’t safe ground for her. Lane says that if this is true, it doesn’t change anything. Everything she cares about and everyone she loves feels real to her. Justin adjusts his glasses. He’s very private. Michael’s mostly convinced by the theory, he says, but he is academically fascinated by the fact that we’re discussing the simulation while supposedly living inside it. “If that’s our artificial intelligence, then it’s a glitch the developers should have sorted,” he laughs.
I tell them I find Musk’s theory comforting, because it suggests our lives aren’t random or finite. My friends nod. I wonder if they’re kept awake at night by visions of their deaths. We go back to playing cards.
“Nothing mattered before Jesus.”
Jess and I meet up in a café on my street; she lives around the corner, and is studying youth ministry at the church where Yarhouse spoke. We met briefly that day. She interested me with throwaway references to a life before she found Jesus. So, some weeks later, I reach out to her via Facebook: “I’m writing about sexuality and Christianity, can you help me?”
Growing up in a non-religious family, Jess never thought about God. For most of her life, she was convinced that nothing mattered, that her life was meaningless, that there was nothing bigger than her. At first, she says, that knowledge filled her with horror. But as she grew up, horror dulled into a sort of dark freedom — if nothing mattered, then she could do whatever she wanted to with her life. She drank heavily, partied aggressively, and “had lots of sex with lots of different people — men and women”.
Jess is smart. The type of smart that peers out from behind rimmed glasses and asks you questions you’ve never even thought about before. She’s also acutely academic, and very musically gifted. So when she tells me that she became religious through logic, it makes a lot of sense.
“I studied every major religion, really looked at the evidence,” she says, almost sheepishly. “Have you read the Bible?”
I laugh. “God no.”
“Ok so basically it’s really historically sound — there’s a lot of really solid evidence there.”
Jess says that after reading the Bible cover to cover, she was convinced by a series of historical references that she says are backed up by independent sources and accounts. As inconvenient a truth as it was to admit, she found herself…religious.
“It was really annoying, actually!” she laughs, and I do too. “There were so many things about my life that needed to change — I was a bad person, still am in many ways. But I looked at it and thought ‘well if this is what has to be done, if this is what God wants from me, then I have to do it.’”
Because Jess is kind, and clever, and I think in part because she has a very genuine interest in me and my opinions — she tells me she’s worried that she exists in a Christian bubble, and so doesn’t get to interrogate her own thoughts enough — she asks what I thought about Yarhouse’s conference, and about my day with her church.
I tell her what I told beautiful pastor Joel — that although I respected Yarhouse’s beliefs, his candour, and his ostensible kindness, I don’t think sexuality can be changed. I tell her I think what Yarhouse and others preach is offensive, and destructive. I tell her it kills people.
For the first time, a bit of tension fires up between us. Suddenly self-conscious (we were getting along so well!) I play with the sultanas on my plate. Jess tells me — slowly, I can hear she is picking through her words — she has heard of people changing their sexualities, and that she might even count herself among them.
“I think — I’m sorry, I’m trying to think of a good way to explain this — I think that Christians are called all the time to do things they don’t want to do. And we do that because, because we believe there’s a better, higher reason for our behaviour.”
I clarify, a bit stumped: “So, same-sex attracted Christians have to give up their sexuality, and it’s just a hard, shit thing you know you have to do for God?”
She looks down at her banana bread. “It was hard for me. It was so hard. I had to be celibate for three years until I found a husband. Stopped getting drunk, stopped watching porn. But you have a whole new life in Jesus.
“Jesus made the ultimate sacrifice for you, so nothing is too hard for you to sacrifice for Jesus.”
I’m quiet. We were getting on so well, sure, but this widening gap between us isn’t something any fledging friendship could bridge.
As though she’s proverbially in for a penny, Jess ploughs on.
“Maybe this life is different to what I’d naturally want, but I’m genuinely joyful now I have Jesus. The quality of my life is…better now that I have that bigger meaning.”
Arguing with her, I realise, would be like arguing with a colourblind person over which shade of blue to paint a wall. She brightens suddenly, and leans over the table conspiratorially.
“But, to be honest, verse two of Ecclesiastes is still my favourite book in the Bible. If you ever read one bit, read that. It’s very dark — all about how life is meaningless!”
Walking to the final class of my degree on an unseasonably cool October day, I pass the Evangelical Union’s weekly barbeque. Members of the club — the biggest on campus — mill around in matching green “Jesus is Lord” t-shirts, talking and laughing over sausage sandwiches and cans of Coke. Watching them, I’m struck by a strange, sad shame. Frankly, I came to this story hoping to be able to paint Christians who practice and preach gay conversion therapy as bigots: idiots with an ideological axe to grind. I think I wanted retribution, even; small vengeance for all the lives lost. What I’ve walked away with isn’t even close to that. Christians have been saved from the horror of their mortality by this God that they share. But many of them have to pay a staggering price for their salvation. I can only hope that Jess and Joel will end up like Anthony — proud and strong, living their authentic selves. Unfortunately, I know that much darker futures are more likely.
I think about the comfort I find in Elon Musk’s simulation, and the parallels it holds to the faith in Jesus that pulled Jess out of her hopelessness. Musk explains why we are here, but not what happens when we die. And Jesus explains both, but commands sacrifice in this life — you’ll reap rewards in the next. I think about Joel, taking a vow of celibacy, while I wake up next to the woman who loves me every day. Following the teachings of Jesus presents a compelling way to die, but is it a compelling way to live?