When I moved to the National Park, south of Sydney, in March last year, I hadn’t considered that the familiar surroundings would trigger memories of my gay conversion “therapy” experience nearly fifty years earlier. If it wasn’t for Covid, I wouldn’t be down here. I’m an inner city boy at heart. But when Sydney’s lock down happened, a friend offered me a little one-bedroom cottage in Maianbar, overlooking beautiful Port Hacking. It’s idyllic and I get lots of likes of my Facebook and Instagram photos.
In 1972, just after my 21st birthday, I’d admitted myself into a rehabilitation style residential program, intending on coming out the other end, a couple of years later….straight. Over the previous three years, everything I’d tried as a new “born-again” believer, had only given me temporary relief from the homosexual thoughts and feelings that plagued me. Prayer, memorising scripture, fasting, exorcisms had all been the “solutions” suggested to me one by one, once the previous formula failed. Now, giving over 24-hour control of my life to the ministry leaders demonstrated how desperate I was. Why the failure? Wasn’t God all powerful? Why wasn’t He changing me? It was confusing.
“You obviously love your sin, more than you love God” I was told.
Today, across the water, I can see Moombara House at Lilli Pilli, where I initially spent several weeks trying to get my life back on track after my nervous breakdown. Then I transitioned into another program at Bundeena. When I walk out of the IGA at Bundeena after buying groceries, I look directly at the veranda where the lead pastor, Shirley*, humiliated me in front of my sister and brother-in-law who’d come to rescue me.
“Your brother is one of Sydney’s worst homosexuals” Shirley’s tirade to my shocked sister and brother-in-law began.
I can’t recall her exact words after that, but I remember clearly how disgusting and shameful she’d made the things I’d told her in confidence sound. Shirley closed reminding us I was a failure to quit the program and consequently destined, like all homosexuals, to live a tragic and lonely life. Shocked by the revelations of the pastor’s confrontational statements, my sister simply responded, “there is a lot of love in our family”, at least three times. But deep down inside, I believed Shirley was right.
Seeing familiar sights, having these memories triggered, affects me physically and emotionally nearly fifty years after the events. Not as dramatically as it had previously.
In 2009, at the Mardi Gras Film Festival, I went to see the movie called “Save Me”. It was about a young gay man who’d hit rock bottom and was in a Christian residential “ex-gay” program. It was challenging to sit for an hour and half watching my most traumatic experiences portrayed so realistically on the screen in front of me. At the end of the movie, my friend turned to me and said, “How was that?”. I took a deep breath and burst into tears and ran out of the theatre, bumping into people as I went. Outside I collapsed against the building and sobbed uncontrollably for next ten minutes while my friends tried to make sense of what had impacted me so severely. It was at that moment, 37 years after the event, I was beginning to realise how deeply I’d been traumatised.
From that time, I’ve developed a better understanding of PTSD. As a psychologist once said to me, “the trauma never leaves you. You just learn to manage it”. I choose movies carefully these days.
Over the last 20 years, I have worked with over 4,000 people who have been impacted by religiously based conversion practices (survivors). It began with a yahoo support group in 2000, which grew to 400 people. When the first edition of my autobiography was released in 2004, I was inundated with emails from readers; many beginning with the words “your story is my story”. This still continues today.
I doubt that there is anyone else in Australia who has worked with more survivors than me, so I speak with some authority about the harm. The harm that has been caused by the outdated belief that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people are disordered, need fixing, or should reject or suppress their real identity.
There are many churches and denominations that now embrace and affirm LGBT people completely. There are, however, others that wilfully reject the science and continue to preach that being LGBT is unnatural, sinful and that their relationships are unacceptable to God. They are told they must overcome their “unwanted same-sex attraction” and live celibate lives. In other words, you are destined to never fall in love or know what it is like to have a loving, lifelong relationship.
No matter what the context, a program, one-on-one prayer or counselling, support group, spiritual healing, or exorcisms, the impacts on the LGBTQ person are always the same. For many LGBT people in strongly religious cultures, the stakes are high. Loss of friends, social network, family, life-purpose and even eternal life, are the perceived results of rejecting the “you’re broken” message and coming to a place of self-acceptance. Only a survivor can tell you how real and deeply intense these experiences can be.
Over the last 20 years, working with so many survivors who felt pressured to deny, change or suppress their orientation or gender identity, the impacts were obvious. Anxiety, self-loathing, self-hatred, depression and other mental health issues, thoughts of suicide, self-harm and suicide attempts, and PTSD all appeared regularly in individuals’ stories.
The current wave of legislation being introduced to protect LGBT people from conversion practices throughout Australia and the world is a wake-up call for conservative religious folk. Your outdated beliefs about “brokenness” and “dysfunction” were a part of the 50s and 60s. Mental health professionals rejected those beliefs fifty years ago. Those beliefs have not only harmed thousands, but defiantly holding on to them, harms your already shaky reputation as representatives of a loving God and a force for good in the world. It’s time to get with the program.
Anthony Venn-Brown (OAM) is founder and CEO of Ambassadors & Bridge Builders International and author of the bestseller, A Life of Unlearning – a preacher’s struggle with his homosexuality, church and faith. Twitter @gayambassador
* Now deceased
Cartoon by the Naked Pastor. Follow him on Twitter & Instagram @nakedpastor. Read and see more of his work HERE
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