A Life of Unlearning – a preacher’s struggle with his homosexuality, church and faith (3rd ed.)
CHAPTER 7 – Rehab with a twist
By the morning the glow of allowing a man to touch my emotions and soul was diminishing and the all-too-familiar insidious guilt took over. I said goodbye to Ben knowing I could never face him again and rang the pastor to confess my failure. He told me to come immediately to the church. Within an hour I was in his office telling him the details of how much I’d struggled with homosexuality and my numerous attempts at breaking free. I’d never spoken so openly with Pastor Paul before but I guess this wasn’t any great new revelation to him.
He said, ‘You know you can’t keep going back into sin like this, don’t you? Eventually God will give up on you. The Bible teaches us that God turns his back on those who consistently sin because they grieve the Holy Spirit. This is probably your last and best chance to overcome this.’ I knew the scripture well and as Pastor Paul spoke the fear of God hit me. How could I keep on falling into sin and expect God to forgive me? ‘
The only way for you to really beat this, Tony, is to go into rehabilitation. Are you prepared to do that?’ he said, in a challenging, authoritarian voice. With my head in my hands and too ashamed to raise it to speak, I replied, ‘Yes, I’m sick of this defeat. Whatever it takes. ’There had been times I’d considered this drastic step but always felt that somehow God and I could overcome it together. But now since my conversion in 1969, the two and a half years of unsuccessful struggle and repeated cycles told me this was the only way.
Paradise was an independent Pentecostal church in the southern suburbs of Sydney that had sprung up in the late 1960s, that had gained some fame for its success in rehabilitation. It was pastored by two women, Joyce and Edna, which was highly unusual as most Pentecostal churches banned women preachers because of the teachings of St Paul who said in 1 Timothy 2:11-12: ‘A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man, she must be silent.’ The fact that Joyce was also divorced was another mark against her in most Bible-believing circles.
One of Joyce and Edna’s great trophies was Marion, Queen of the Underworld, who had been a hooker and also heavily involved in crime. She’d been rescued by Edna from the streets of King’s Cross and after rehabilitation Marion went around the churches telling the stories about what she’d done before becoming a Christian. Most people in the churches found this incredibly exciting because they were so far removed from that type of existence. Even though Jesus was often accused of being a friend of prostitutes and sinners, the average church person would never allow themselves to be in a red light area, let alone be like Jesus and befriend a prostitute.
Paradise had also been successful with a few drug addicts. (I think they were more drug users than addicts but the term drug addicts sounded more dramatic.) Apparently they had also been able to rehabilitate homosexuals—a couple of guys living at Paradise were almost ‘free’ and one had completed his rehabilitation and was now engaged to a girl in the church. When I met Nigel he still seemed to have feminine traits and rarely showed any affection towards his fiancée Lynn, but who was I to judge or doubt his miracle? It was arranged for me to go down the next day and discuss my rehabilitation program.
Now I had to go home and face Mum and Dad. What would I say? I really felt sorry for them and all the stress I’d been putting them through. I told Mum what was happening, and once again I was told it would be best to keep the full details from Dad. When Dad discovered where I was going, he became very concerned. He didn’t want me to go because the controversial tactics used by Paradise had been publicised in the Sydney press and it had been branded a cult. I reassured him I would be safe and if there were any difficulties, I promised I’d come home.
I’d met Joyce, the leading pastor, in New Zealand, when she came and spoke at bible college the year before, in 1971. I was still in a euphoric state just after my exorcism but she’d implied that the only way a person can really be delivered of homosexuality was through a rehabilitation program—I needed to change my way of thinking not just have the demons removed. According to Joyce, Paradise’s system was the only successful program available in Australia. I didn’t want to believe her at that time but now she had me just where she wanted me. I remember her saying more than once: ‘Not all Christians are like Paradise Christians’, insinuating that they were somehow superior. She was very open in her condemnation and considered most Christians shallow. This elitist, arrogant attitude made her fairly unpopular, as you can imagine.
Dad and I drove down the steep, narrow windy road towards the water and arrived at Paradise. The tyres crunched on the pebbles in the large parking lot that had been built to accommodate the cars for services held at the mansion. It was a stately two-storey sandstone building that had been converted for the dual purpose of live-in rehabilitation and weekly services. Dad drove off as Joyce greeted me at the door, and then led me into her large, tastefully appointed office. When she sat at her desk I could see the idyllic view she had through the windows behind her of the boats on Port Hacking Bay. The décor spelt class, with fine furnishings and antiques that matched the historic building. Joyce wore the uniform she had established as the dress code for the women in Paradise. Clones of Joyce and Edna were everywhere, modestly attired in twin-sets in the most insipid pastels, set off by a small string of pearls, and tartan skirts with the hem no less than three inches below the knee.
I heard the door open behind me and turned around to see a tall, ruggedly handsome man. ‘This is Patrick,’ Joyce said and I rose to feel the strong masculine grip of his handshake engulfing my much smaller hand. Patrick wore the Paradise male uniform, which consisted of brown riding boots, moleskins and a plain country-style shirt. His simple manliness made him very attractive. I wondered if Patrick was their successful example of a rehabilitated homosexual man, but Joyce assured me, ‘Patrick’s straight and married to Rachael but he understands what you will be going through.’ I wondered how, but becoming a man like Patrick was very appealing. Apparently he was to be my ‘minder’ and, more importantly, the strong male role model I’d lacked.
The rehab program was based on what later became known as reparative, ex-gay or conversion therapy; a type of therapy that has been unsuccessfully used by the ex-gay ministries in fundamentalist churches for the last thirty years, and championed by the Christian/Religious Right in America. (Ex-gays are Christians who believe God has cured them of homosexuality.) The theory of reparative therapy proposes that homosexuality is environmental and caused by the lack of a strong male figure, or a father who was distant, and possibly a dominant mother. This model was directly in conflict with the Bible’s ideal of the family where the male is the head of the home and the wife is submissive. The lack of a correct male model meant I was confused about gender and my development into a normal male had been warped. If that was the case then there must be an entire generation of latent homosexuals out there, as that was very much the culture of my day. Fathers fulfilled the role of provider and most didn’t show affection or love beyond a practical way. Just as authority figures such as headmasters and managers believed, distance not closeness was the way to rule.
I wondered for a moment how useful my relationship with Patrick would be considering we were being dominated by two very strong willed women. Maybe Paradise was a breeding ground for homosexuals. Joyce interrupted my thoughts, ‘To be rehabilitated permanently from homosexuality will take at least twelve months, possibly two years.’ My heart sank.
Joyce laid down the rules I was to live by for the next twelve weeks of full-time rehab. ‘We’ve found’, Joyce added, ‘that homosexual men like bikini underwear.’ No bikini underwear was to be worn as it was too sexual. Y-fronts only. (That wouldn’t go down well today with the popularity of Calvin Klein among gay men.) I was not to be alone at any time—if Patrick wasn’t with me, someone else would be assigned to look after me. I was to be up promptly at 6 o’clock in the morning, so I didn’t lie in bed and masturbate. Another downfall of the homosexual. While in the shower Patrick or one of the other counsellors would be standing by to make sure I didn’t masturbate. I would work hard all day so that when I went to bed at night, I’d fall asleep immediately. Guess why? So I wouldn’t masturbate. I was beginning to get the picture; Joyce’s bluntness was embarrassing.
Patrick took me to the bunkroom I was to share with four other guys and went through my luggage to remove every piece of offensive homosexual clothing including my new trendy pink shirt and matching socks. Real men don’t wear pink.
I quickly learnt that Paradise was incredibly creative with minced meat— it was unbelievable, they must have bought it by the truckload. One day it was meat loaf, the next savoury mince, and then bolognaise and then shepherd’s pie. The only deviation from mince was a stew made with the cheapest beef or old boiling fowls. Obviously Paradise was on a tight budget.
I spent the first week adapting to the structure of the daily program. After breakfast I began the day by listening to tapes of the Bible, which I listened to while I read the same verses from the Bible in front of me. This double reinforcement—the aural and the visual—was to reprogram and renew my mind. The rest of the day I was allocated chores including gardening and maintenance work around the properties—always male chores that would help me become a normal man. Never cooking—I was told that homosexuals loved to cook. The entire church consisted of about one hundred and fifty people. Approximately twenty ‘lived-in’ at Paradise; another thirty lived at the other property at Cronulla, which as a Bible training and rehabilitation centre would be the next step I would take in my rehabilitation program. The remainder of the congregation was made up of locals. All church meetings were compulsory: Sunday morning service was at Cronulla then back to Paradise for the evening service; Monday night was prayer meeting; Wednesday night was family dinner at Paradise; Thursday night was worship night down at Cronulla again; and the Saturday night youth group was also held at Paradise. Not much time left!
The basic philosophy was that by living in a totally protected environment, you were able to overcome your sin. Once you learnt not to sin then you would be given more freedom, eventually being strong enough to live victoriously in the outside world. I was angry that I’d allowed myself to get to a point where I had to give total control of my life over to other people.
The leaders had developed a warped theology that was based on the Greek word for love, agape, which is the highest form of love, the unconditional love of God. According to Paradise theology, loving someone with the love of God meant you could do anything as long as it was for their highest good. This was used to justify humiliation, deprivation, manipulation and sometimes even physical abuse. Seeing one of the girls with a black eye one day, I questioned what had happened. She had a rough counselling session apparently—of course it was for her highest good she didn’t leave the program. The leaders’ authoritative methods and motives were never questioned.
An example of the way they showed their agape love involved Sharon, who had come to Paradise just before me. She’d been sexually abused by her stepfather and other family members and was finally thrown out of home by her mother. Her mother saw Sharon as a threat to her marriage and accused her of leading them on. Sharon had come to Paradise seeking help and a way out of her life of drugs and prostitution. It had taken her at least a week to feel comfortable in the household, as this was the first time in her life she had been with people who seemed genuinely concerned for her welfare. Fifteen of us sat around the large kitchen table—Sharon and I for our first compulsory Wednesday family dinner. At the conclusion of the meal it was time to give a special greeting to the newcomers. ‘I’d like to introduce you to Sharon.’ Joyce commenced. ‘But you really wouldn’t like to know Sharon.’ What did she mean? I thought. Joyce continued, ‘You see, Sharon is selfish and not a very nice person. She’s proud, conceited and a slut. After some time here, if she lets God work in her life, she will change.’ Sitting opposite Sharon, I watched her face change from smiling, to shock, to tears and finally to hang her head, sobbing. She was devastated and so was I, and I wondered why I’d been spared a similar ordeal. That was to come later.
After a few weeks of compliant behaviour, I was allowed to venture out into the real world and get a job that would help pay for my rehabilitation and the next step, training college at Cronulla. Patrick took me to the Brownbuilt factory a couple of suburbs away, where I was given the stimulating job of putting handles onto steel lockers. But it was a relief to get away from the oppressive environment for eight hours. Another reward for my compliance was a trip to the south coast for a Saturday outing with three other people from the church, to see the sights and spend time being normal. We stopped for lunch at a little town where the main street was called Queen Street and, being the clown I usually was, I ran over to the street sign and assumed the position of a hooker. One of my companions took a photo, unaware that this bit of frivolity was going to be my downfall.
The next Sunday night a carload of my friends came down to see me. We hadn’t had any contact for six weeks and I knew they were concerned about me so it was great to see them again. We were standing together chatting in the lounge-room after the service, surrounded by about sixty other people, when Joyce suddenly stormed into the room. I knew I was in trouble as she marched towards me.
‘What do you think you’re doing?’ she screamed, having no regard for the friends around me. In fact, I think she had particularly chosen this time to ensure my humiliation. Then I saw the photo in her hand. ‘I suppose you think this is funny?’ she yelled, waving the photo in the air, continuing her barrage as she tore the photo to shreds in front of us all. ‘So you’re a queen, are you? Well, if you want to be a queen we can arrange that for you. If I ever catch you doing something like this again I’ll get that photo and put it on the noticeboard so the whole church can see. Understand?’
I tried to speak and defend myself but nothing came out, I was numb. My friends stood in shock, wondering what horribly evil deed I’d done to deserve such a tirade.
‘You’d better go,’ I said quickly, knowing I was about to break down. Quickly escaping to the kitchen I cried like a little child. I remember thinking how infantile my response was, but I couldn’t stop sobbing for the next three hours. I knew some people at Paradise felt sorry for me but no one dared console me or challenge Joyce’s tactics. The Bible said that, ‘rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft’ and to rebel against the God-given authority of the pastor was considered the same as rebelling against God. And anyway, Joyce was showing me agape love because she was dealing with my homosexuality.
I was still shaken from the weekend humiliation when Mum phoned to see how I was going and when I was coming home. I was very noncommittal, as I knew it might be years. The frustration at my lack of disclosure prompted her to exclaim, ‘Sometimes, Tony, I wish I never had you!’ I understood her frustration, but at this point this was not what I needed to hear and hung up. I’d never done anything like that to my mother before. As a rebellious teenager there were times when I hated my parents but since becoming a Christian I did really love them. I knew that we frequently didn’t understand one another but we were doing the best we could.
The next day was payday at the Brownbuilt factory and I was ready to break out—I’d had enough. A new privilege I’d been given was to catch public transport to and from work so as soon as I picked up my pay envelope, instead of taking it to Paradise and handing it over, I hopped on the train to the city. Arriving at Town Hall Station I had five-minute masturbation with a stranger and then just had to get a drink. I knew there was a homosexual underground somewhere in the city, probably King’s Cross I thought, but having never been involved in the scene I had no idea how to find it. I went to a hotel and drank until I could hardly stand, and then put myself back on the train to go home to Paradise, the only place I believed I could get help.
I was still very drunk when I arrived by taxi at 10.30pm with my reduced pay packet. Patrick greeted me at the door with a predictably displeased look and took me to the kitchen for a cup of coffee. We were both sitting in silence when Joyce appeared with Patrick’s wife Rachael. Patrick rose to his feet and the three stood over me.
‘What have you been doing?’ Joyce asked.
I started to cry again and apologised for what I’d done.
‘Did you have sex with anyone?’ Joyce continued. ‘
Yes,’ I replied. ‘Was it good?
‘No.’ I knew I was being painted into a corner.
‘Well, that was a waste of time and money, wasn’t it?’ she said gleefully.
‘Please let me stay, I’ve nowhere else to get help,’ I pleaded. ‘I’ve got to keep trying.’
‘Go to bed, we’ll talk in the morning,’ was all that was said.
I was expecting much more. The next day I had a shocking hangover and Patrick and Joyce thought it amusing that I couldn’t keep breakfast down. Summoned to the office, I was given my schedule for the day. First of all, no work. I was pleased about that. An appointment had been made for me with a doctor at Cronulla at 11am so that I could have a VD test. I was told this was necessary, as there were children at Paradise, though I wasn’t quite sure what that meant. Did it mean that they thought the same way many other people in society did—that homosexuals were pedophile predators and that I might try and molest the children? I didn’t question their reasoning, but as uneducated as I was about sexual things, I really didn’t think I could get an STD from masturbating with someone. Maybe it was just another way of humiliating and reminding me of how disgusting and dirty I was.
The doctor was more reassuring and after questioning me about what actually happened, obviously felt this was an unnecessary degradation. Of course, I was eventually pronounced clean.
After six months of ‘treatment’, I lost all desire to fight my homosexuality. I was tired and just wanted to get out. But how? I’d already run away once and my money was kept in trust. I asked to see Joyce and Edna and was granted an audience.
‘I’m finding it hard to fight my homosexuality,’ I began. ‘I’ve never really known what it is like to be a true homosexual. Maybe if I go out and find out what it’s like, I’ll learn to really hate my sin and then when I come back I’ll have more motivation.’ This was only half true. I had lost motivation but I still wanted to be free from homosexuality and was hoping there would be another way other than Paradise. If God was ever going to set me free it wasn’t going to be through bullying. Joyce and Edna knew it was impossible to work with someone who’d lost their motivation so agreed I should leave. They reminded me of my future as a homosexual, which included never having a lasting relationship and never finding happiness.
‘It’s a shallow world of bitchy, dysfunctional, nasty, lonely people,’ they said.
I was allowed to make a call and arrange for my sister and brother-in-law to pick me up the next Sunday (they weren’t allowed to come immediately, the hope was that I would change my mind) and as with every call I’d made previously, Patrick sat next to me to make sure I said the right things. From that point, people treated me as if I was unclean, except for a couple of friends I’d made. According to 1 Corinthians 5:5, because of my willingness to be a fornicator I was to be ‘handed over to Satan, so that the sinful nature might be destroyed and my spirit saved in the day of the Lord.’ As someone who had now consciously rejected the grace of God, I was to be treated as an outsider.
When Sunday arrived, I purposely sat at the back of the congregation so I could see when the family arrived in the car park. The service was almost over when I saw Sue, already showing signs of her first pregnancy, and Ian on the veranda and moved quickly to make a fast getaway. Joyce caught the movement out of the corner of her eye and was hot on my heels. Just before I’d reached my sister Joyce grabbed my arm and held me back; even though she was skinny she was very strong.
‘Do you know your brother is one of Sydney’s worst homosexuals?’ she began. ‘He is filthy and disgusting and does …’ She told them everything I’d done but exaggerated wildly. I remember thinking that she made it sound like I did drag and had sex with men on Saturday night then went to church the next morning, still wiping the make-up from my face. It was incomprehensible to think that she could lie so blatantly in front of me. She knew that I had never even been inside a gay club or bar.
Sue and Ian were having trouble hearing such things; so was I. It was important not to cry this time as I had to show Joyce she couldn’t break me anymore.
My sister Sue straightened herself up and with the strength and integrity that my older sister possesses, said, ‘Well, there’s a lot of love in our family, I’m sure we’ll work it out.’
I was so proud of her. Good on you, Sue, I thought. Joyce persisted in assassinating my character but Sue refused to be intimidated. ‘Well, there’s a lot of love in our family,’ she kept repeating.
Ian picked up my bags and we walked to the car in silence but when I sat in the back seat I breathed a sigh of relief and broke down. Even though it was so good to be free of the oppressive environment, I wondered how this might affect my salvation. What if I should die while I’m away from God? I knew I was taking a huge risk.
Travelling home, we didn’t talk about what had just happened, we focused on good things. In fact, we never really talked about it until twenty-eight years later! Families such as ours found it difficult to deal with awkward and painful moments, but there came a time when I realised I needed to acknowledge the power of those words ‘there’s a lot of love in our family’ and thank Sue and Ian for rescuing me.
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