KILLING US, DRIVING US CRAZY
The experience of LGBTI people from faith backgrounds
11-13 April 2018, Sydney, Australia
Over the last 18 years, Anthony Venn-Brown has been collating the stories of LGBTI people from Christian backgrounds. The sources have been 400 gay conversion therapy survivors, 350 personal stories of Freedom2b members as well as 1,000’s of emails from readers of his autobiography, A Life of Unlearning. The vast majority of these stories, but not exclusively, have come from evangelical, pentecostal, charismatic (EPC) backgrounds, as opposed to the more traditional streams of Christianity such as Roman Catholicism. From this extensive collection, Anthony has summarised the twelve key impacts that faith/sexuality conflict creates. With the rise of the evangelical and pentecostal churches in Australia and overseas it is even more important that the LGBTI community and those who work with them are aware of the issues involved. Understanding the religious external culture as well as the specific internal conflicts is vital for anyone working in LGBTI health.
Collection of data:
Since 2000, I have been in the privileged position of being the first port of call for many lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex (LGBTI) people from Christian backgrounds. The contact and collected stories have happened in three separate contexts.
- Exex-gay Yahoo Group. This was a group I set up in 2000, called ‘exex-gay’, and was created specifically for people who had been through some form of religiously based, gay conversion therapy. The group grew to 400 people and ran till around 2010. The most active years were 2005 and 2006.
- A Life of Unlearning. When my autobiography was released it was the first time the story of an LGB person from an EPC background had been told in Australia (well, one that was a coming out story and that said it was okay to be gay). This produced a literal avalanche of emails into my inbox, which often began with the words ‘your story is my story’. I have ceased keeping a track of the numbers, but it would be in the thousands since 2004, as A Life of Unlearning is now in its third edition.
- Freedom2b. In founding Freedom2b in 2005 as a support group for the people who’d been consistently reaching out to me, I knew one of the keys would be get as many stories as possible out in the public arena. This was achieved by encouraging new contacts to share their stories online where they could hide behind a username. This anonymity gave individuals freedom and safety to open up. Most of these individuals had not told their stories before either privately or publicly. The Telling Our Stories section of the forum contains 350 individual stories posted from 2005 through to 2016.
Hearing so many stories, it wasn’t long before themes began to stand out; it seemed that I could almost write people’s stories for them. It was not only a pattern, a blueprint and predictable but deeply disturbing to be consistently confronted with the unnecessary pain and suffering so many had experienced.
Common themes included:
- Mental health issues caused by several factors
- Serious attempts to change through personal secret struggles, spiritual counselling, formal conversion therapy organisations. Often over an extended period of time
- Heterosexually married either because of conformity or see this as the perceived answer to their ‘problem’
- Self destructive behaviours e.g. substance abuse, unsafe sex
- Obsessive behaviours
- Struggle to find their place in the LGBTI community
- Some have an additional cultural layer to deal with
- Experience intense cognitive dissonance
- Even after coming out some still believe they are going to hell
- Long term impact of internalised homophobia
- Serious thoughts of suicide
It should also be noted that two external factors stood out as well. Firstly, that rejection by family, friends or the church as a whole, was common. Secondly, that the ignorance about sexuality by family, friends and church leadership was appalling.
I can’t recall when I came across this statement, but I do clearly remember its impact; it would have been around 2010.
‘A systematic review of 850 studies on the relationship between religion and mental health done by Moreira-Almeida, Neto, and Koenig (2006) found that individuals who were more religiously involved tended to have positive associations with psychological wellbeing indicators such as overall satisfaction with life, happiness, and confidence. Additionally, those individuals experienced less depression, suicidal thoughts and behaviour, and drug use/abuse.’
Having spent years listening to the tragic stories of LGBT people from religious backgrounds, the above statement was a shock. Religion, far from giving them more positive outcomes and wellbeing, had created the exact opposite. The internal faith/sexuality conflict and the external unsupportive, and at times, hostile individuals and environment, had caused great harm and even driven some to commit suicide. Religion wasn’t creating less depression, suicidal thoughts and behaviour; it was driving us crazy and killing us.
Getting quotes from stories I have received that demonstrate what I’m saying was extremely challenging. Not because they were hard to find but because of the great pool I had to draw on. Here is a collection of some of those.
Mental health issues caused by a number of factors
‘It wasn’t till the start of last year I was diagnosed with depression. Everything fell apart, and I began to go less and less to church. And then February this year I was diagnosed with Bipolar. There are so many of us trapped, sure my case is different but my Bipolar I believe came from years of being told how bad I was by Christians.’ (Shane 33)
‘I never entertained the thought that I might be gay, I was so convinced that was a sin (demonic even) so I struggled through life suffering from depression from about age 14 without really knowing why’ (Female 39 – Salvation Army)
‘During this time I had deliverance on masse, prayer. You name it I have had it. They told me I am attracted to women because of the sexual abuse. As it isn’t working they told me I was sexually perverted. They gave me the left foot of fellowship. I read somewhere on this site that suppressing your sexual orientation can make you depressed and suicidal. This has been me up until the meds. (Lesbian 51)
Serious attempts to change through personal secret struggles, spiritual counselling, formal conversion therapy organisations. Often over an extended period of time
‘It’s taken me the last 10 years to accept myself and find a relationship with God again. My family was very strict Pentecostal family and we went to church weekly. My father was a preacher there who has very strict views on gay people. I clearly remember being about 10 or 11 and him saying that “God hates gay people. What they do is wrong” Imagine my shock when I finally worked out what was “wrong” with me. I was 19 and diagnosed with depression. Everything was going down hill and nothing I did seemed to make it better. I fasted, I prayed like crazy and even had people casting demons out of me…..but nothing seemed to work.’ (Lesbian 29)
‘but…over 30 years of deliverance, inner healing prayer, speaking out “I’m healed” in faith, counselling, conferences, seminars, ongoing prayer, etc. My orientation did not change ….through those years I was terribly suicidal. I tried to commit suicide once and cut myself up quite badly a 2nd time. I’ve nearly overdosed on pills another time. I started out with hope that I would change one day, and as the years went by lost it all and so tried to kill myself. Not like that now tho! I…love Jesus, love spending time with God, and I’m gay! (My tagline: I don’t do straight very well!)’ (Stephen)
Heterosexually married either because of conformity or see this as the perceived answer to their ‘problem’
‘This was my sure fire way out of this whole homosexuality trap. All I needed was to get married and that would finally take away all of these attractions and desires I had battled for so long. Almost a year to the date we first met, we were married. She was 18, I was 20. At last my battle was over, this wall would never fail. Looking back I can see how foolish I was. The crazy part is, at the time, I thought I was doing the right thing. That I actually was straight, that I could never be gay. It just wasn’t possible! I was a Christian!’ (Former Assemblies of God worship leader)
‘I became a Christian 34 years ago and although in a gay relationship at the time was made to understand that it was not compatible with being a Christian…in fact it was something God loathed and so I married and had children. I don’t regret my beautiful children for one moment but I do regret the pain I have brought on them and their father over the past few months. The fact is despite the fact that all things were supposed to become new on being born again, I knew that nothing ever changed in one area of my life. So the years passed and I switched off and felt like I was on a monorail to death. I remained faithful to my marriage vows but hopelessly unhappy and resigned to live that way.’ (on Freedom2b site)
Self-destructive behaviours e.g. substance abuse, unsafe sex
‘I had already left the church and since God hated me and I was going to hell anyway, I decided to do everything that was wrong and enjoy what time I had. I had nothing to lose. Became alcoholic, drug addict, multiple car accidents and was many times in mental hospitals for depression.’ (Gay male)
‘I was exorcised, prayed for and attended to ex-gay programs but I only felt more worthless as my sexuality didn’t change. I then came crashing into the gay scene in the mid 90’s being extremely promiscuous and reckless…..leading to an HIV+ diagnosis in 1996.’ (Ian – UK)
‘I started to drink and do drugs heavily and got to the point where I couldn’t go on with life any more cause the pain of my childhood and the rejection of my church was too much I started to self harm, cutting myself on a regular basis. My drug use went from bad to worse and I lost everything I had ever worked for. I tried to commit suicide but a friend stopped me in time. I ran and moved around for 12 months partying 7 nights a week. It got to a point when I was 20 years old that I hit rock bottom’ (David 22)
Obsessive behaviours – sexual
‘I’ve had years of severe depression, 3 suicide attempts and becoming totally addicted to internet porn and acting on my sexual desires in deviant and compulsive ways….’. (Bruno)
‘One month before we were to be married I started to feel like I needed to act on the urge to be with guys again. I tried stopping it and I couldn’t control it. I began using Gay Beats a lot.’ (Gay male)
‘All this time I continued to have anonymous sexual encounters, spent hours looking at gay porn on the internet. Occasionally my wife caught me, and we would pray about it, I would “repent”, and a few months later I’d be back at it.’ (Gay male 40)
Struggle to find their place in the LGBTI scene/community
‘After 40 odd years in the church I finally came out of the closet the weird part was I wasn’t even planning on coming out. Once I did it was horrible as all my friends and the only people I knew were in the church and I had no one to talk to I contemplated suicide every day and played a Pete Murray song over and over again howling every time I played it and even now it still brings a tear to my eyes….I have only been out for 3 years now and trying to make new friends at my age has been so hard also trying to fill the massive void in my life now the church and all my friends were gone.’ (Male 60s)
Also now that im out of the closest I feel more alone now more than ever, I don’t have any gay friends, never had a boyfriend, never been kissed, never been loved, and when I was in the closest I didn’t have to worry about those things, I had my Christian friends and that’s where it ended. Now that I’m out of the closet there is this BIG gap missing in my life… and I’m filling this gap in a very bad way, but I can’t talk about it because.. well I can’t… it’s complicated. (Gay male 22)
Additional cultural layer to deal with
‘Then one day, my mum called me, she told me she found out I was gay by checking my email account, through the gay emails. I received an air-ticket, telling me to go back to Hong Kong the next day, I had no choice, I had to go back, without a chance of saying goodbye to my friends. in Hong Kong, I was isolated from everyone in Australia, I was arranged to see a psychiatrist, who begin to talk me into being straight again. Dad and mum drilled me daily how I should not do anything that is against human nature, how I brought shame to the family etc. My parents decide to send me to Beijing in February 2007, to an exchange program to further isolate me, with my dad threatening to jail me if I meet any gay person there.’ (Joey early 20’s)
Experienced intense cognitive dissonance
‘I became very scarred as I had always heard both in Church and in society that Homosexuality was not normal . I listened to comments of how sick Homosexuality was and even the minister at my Church said that he would not allow a homosexual to worship in our congregation. I felt really afraid. I prayed and asked and believed that God would change my thoughts and desires but nothing happened. As the years went by all erotic thoughts that came into my mind were that of a gay nature. I was constantly living under fear and guilt. I was convinced that God had abandoned me and I was going to be sent to hell. I almost had several nervous breakdowns, finding it difficult even to work at times.’
‘I have been getting 3 hours sleep a night. I am feeling absolutely sick for the last week and have hardly eaten and can’t keep down what I have. I am so confused at the moment and just want to all to end.’ (Shan 19)
Even after coming out some still believe they are going to hell
‘I thought my life was complete. I had a nice home, gorgeous partner I was madly in love with, kids, pool, dog, car, good job – the lot. I felt like I was in heaven, but in my heart I believed I would pay for it by going to hell eventually.’ (Lesbian 49)
I’m so scared sometimes that even thinking of telling my family I just get very anxious because I know I will lose all family and friends and be outcasted. I don’t know if I’m strong enough to fight them. What I’m scared about is that I’m even starting to think of suicide as an option, although I have no intentions of doing it. Just the thought of thinking it as an option scares me because I feel how depressed I get when I think about it. I’m still so afraid that I’m wrong and that god is going to kill me in some freak accident and send me to hell. (Nick)
Long term impact of internalised homophobia
‘I’m 29 and it’s taken me the last 10 years to accept myself and find a relationship with God again. I still am not “out” at work and to the main church community where I worship. I’ve bought a whole lot of gay-themed movies and book titles and am sort of living-out a semblance of gay life in third person – not ideal but have learnt a lot. How do I now picture my life? It’s like someone has washed away the watercolours and all I’m left with are the dots. I can see outlines and they are not clear. I’m going to have to join up all the dots again before I can see what my life will look like for immediate future.’ (Freedom2b site)
‘It is a decade long story from the age of 18 to 29, I am now 46. The real damage surfaced after I left the church; the break happened because my parents had me committed to a psychiatric hospital for fear that I was going to kill myself. I have battled alcoholism and severe post-traumatic stress disorder. In 2011 I was deemed totally and permanently disabled as a result of ongoing psychological trauma and have had to give up my career in the Public Service. I am now on a disability pension paid by my superannuation fund. When I slept I had the worst nightmares and when I was awake I suffered flashbacks that were debilitating. Overcoming the self-hatred, fear and anger has proven to be very difficult. I have started to experience periods of peace but it has taken 17 years and a truckload of counselling and medication.’ (Steve)
Serious thoughts of suicide
‘I too have battled suicide although I never attempted it. I struggled with constant suicidal thoughts from year 7 to year 11. Even though I had accepted myself as gay by year 9 and 10. I still wanted to kill myself in order to get other people to know how badly I was hurting.’ (Gay male – getting there)
‘I began self harming, binge eat then stick my fingers down my throat only to bring it up again. As 2005 came to an end I was slipping further into a deep depression. I became suicidal and those thoughts ruled much of what I did.’ (Scott 18)
‘I just wanted you to know that you are an inspiration to me. Reading A Life of Unlearning assisted my mental health and acceptance for myself in a tangible way. I used to be on six antipsychotic drugs and now I’m only on one mild antidepressant. Thank you. It truly did help. I’ve always been taught that God hates me. I made a lot of friends in conversion therapy. Out of forty, only six are still alive (one died naturally, the rest suicide.) Your book gave me hope and let me see a truer Christ.’ (Matt USA via Facebook message)
Further information about Gay Religious Suicide – why we’ll never be able to count the cost.
How do we respond?
1. Make LGBTI people from faith backgrounds a priority
I have been saying since 2007 that LGBTI people from faith backgrounds are one of the highest risk groups in our community in several key areas. The question still remains. What are we doing about that?
2. Understand the resource available.
Many LGBTI people have never known the level of opposition and vilification experienced during the recent postal survey before. For those of us from faith backgrounds, I guess we can say ‘welcome to our world’. Many of us have lived with that level or opposition for decades and not just weeks or months. And just because a law can be changed with a stroke of a pen, it’s not the same with beliefs and attitudes – they take longer and for us the battle is far from over. Resilience and the ability to survive through times of opposition and hostility is something that we’ve had to learn ourselves and particularly dealing with people with a variety of religious beliefs. I’m not sure our community has yet recognised what we have to offer.
I have the stories and they are horrifying. There has been a great deal of research done about LGBTI people, their physical, emotional and mental health and what impacts that positively and negatively. There has also been research into LGBTI people of faith or from faith backgrounds. It is very very rare though to find a researcher who sees the need to separate LGBTI people of faith and non-faith backgrounds so differences that exist can be identified. This data is important. In carrying out research with people of faith, consideration must be given to vocabulary and attached meanings. A simple question like ‘Are you religious?’ will not necessarily solicit the correct data. An evangelical believer may not see themselves as ‘religious’ however they may say they were ‘Christian’ or had a faith. Even a simple question such as ‘Are you a Christian?’ can be problematic. Some consider themselves ‘Christian’ as cultural identity thing that has nothing to do with their beliefs or behaviour. For those not from a faith background or who have only existed in one breed of Christianity (e.g. Catholic, Pentecostal, Evangelical), it is difficult to understand these nuances. You can find some research in this area on our site. Ambassadors & Bridge Builders International is happy to help you make sure you get the wording of the questions right, so you get the correct information.
Anyone working with LGBTI people should receive awareness and sensitivity training in this specific area. The needs of LGBTI people from faith backgrounds are specific and unique. Walking Between Worlds – working with LGBTI people from faith backgrounds is one way to help community workers and service providers understand the LGBT faith person’s background, worldview, beliefs systems as well as the unique personal and mental health issues they face.
5. Encourage faith spaces.
Traditionally, within our community, there has been an anti-religious culture. This is totally understandable as every time LGBTI people have sort to end discrimination and gain equality, who is it who has opposed that? Yes…..religious people. We know them so well we can name them (Lyle, Margaret, Fred to name a few). Some within our community preach the same message conservative churches do. ‘Take your pick’ they say. ‘It’s one or the other. You can’t be both gay and a Christian.’ This is not helpful, especially to young gay people growing up in a faith community. We should encourage LGBTI people of faith and make them feel safe and affirmed within our community.
Need further help?
Ambassadors & Bridge Builders International has:
- Articles (if you are looking for a particular topic just ask)
- Audio resources
- Training – seminars and workshops
- Consultancy services for organisations and corporates