Saturday, July 19, 2014

The first Australian Anglican parish to apologise to the LGBTI community

This address was given at St Marks, Fitzroy, Victoria 
at the LGBTI apology

Saturday 19 July 2014
Sorry: tiny word - HUGE implications
Sorry is such a simple word. Sadly it can never automatically right the wrongs of the past but, said with deep sincerity and authenticity, creates the potential for healing and reconciliation.

"Sorry" derives from a prehistoric Germanic root word meaning "sore or pained". So for a person to be genuinely sorry there must be some pain or sorrow.

The church has never really been good at saying "sorry". It often moves on and changes without stopping to honestly acknowledge their involvement in the wrongs from the past. Or ever saying "we were wrong" either through our opposition and rejection or by complicity and remaining silent about injustices.

And when the sorry comes it can take a long time coming. Look at how long it took the Catholic church to say sorry for imprisoning Galileo as heretic; three centuries actually.

When I say "the church" I know it is a very general term. In the Nicene creed we say " We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church."  But in truth the church is a fractured entity that has everything from extreme right wing conservatives who are involved in politics to contemplatives locked away in monasteries that do nothing more than pray every day. These two extremes are as different as black and white. Between the black and white  there is every shade of grey. With so many expressions of Christianity not only in the entire church but also denominations, if there is anyone who should understand the dynamics and value of diversity it should be the Christian church.

Even within the Anglican church there are deep divides on theology, worship and practices. Somehow or other we, and I mean LGBT people (people of sexual orientation and gender diversity) that got thrown into the middle of these divides and we became THE "issue". 

It was the ordaining of Bishop Gene Robinson in 2003, the first "openly" gay bishop that brought these divides into the public arena and further polarised the denomination. When I say openly gay bishop we have to emphasise the word "openly" because obviously there have been may gay bishops and priests who served God and their churches. These men were either forced to remain in the closet or choose to because the price of honesty was too high. I think this is a sad indictment on the church.

A truce has been called to hold the Anglican Church together.

I have often wondered if LGBT people are really that  powerful that they could potentially divide a denomination. I think not. It's just that we became the oxygen that ignited the smouldering fire of the divides over power, culture and the authority and interpretation of scripture.

A great deal of harm has been done to LGBT people because of the Christian church. A lot of people have been hurt and damaged. Lives have been lost when the internal perceived conflict of faith and sexual orientation, or rejection by Christian family and friends or years of internalised homophobia (self-hatred) became too much and they ended their lives.

When my autobiography "A Life of Unlearning" was released I received a daily avalanche of emails from those who been  hurt and damaged. Many stories made me weep. I helped found an organisation called Freedom2b which became a support network for many of these people. Actually 1,000's. One day a post appeared on the online forum from a young 19 year old man. Stories like his were common but this one was miraculous.
"I have been a Christian all my life from when I was about 5... I believe that God is my saviour but have severe trouble coming to grips with why He would love me.

I’m not "out" to anyone... or sure how to go about it... or even if I should come out.

I have known I was "different" to those around me for many years and not attracted to girls My struggle really started 5-6 years ago when i was in grade 9. I came to the conclusion I must be gay... I have been raised by a Christian mother in the Salvation Army whose stance was basically that being gay is wrong. My Grandmother didn't help either. I remember watching a dancing competition on TV and being told "They are wonderful, Too bad they are gay. They'll go to hell!"

I have always believed that Christians aren't gay and if they were there are programs that can fix them.

In year 9 I couldn't come to grips with myself and attempted suicide. I was caught by a teacher and rushed to hospital. And diagnosed with depression.  I figured that if I put these feelings in a box and left it alone I would get over it.... but I attempted suicide again in Year 10 and once again in Year 11. I could never tell anyone the reasons why I wanted to take me life. I felt so much shame.

Which brings me back to this week. I am currently in Sydney for work and was fed up with myself again. And was planning on killing myself for good last night.

My work involves searching popular social media websites i.e. Blogger, Twitter etc for mentions of the company I work for. I was finishing my work, sending it to server and about to write a goodbye email before drowning myself.  Before I could finish my email a stray result came into my inbox. This had nothing to do with my work and didn't match any of my criteria. There is no reason it should have been there.

It was the story of another young guy just like myself who had been helped through the freedom2b site. I opened it and howled my eyes out. Reading about another person in my circumstances and finding out I am not the only one... Then I found a link to this page and howled even harder Finding a group of people who believe you can be a gay and a Christian. Even better seeing the evidence against "Ex-Gay" therapies and classes made me feel so much better.

I’m so grateful for this site... Without you guys I wouldn't be alive... Literally."
How tragic that this young man's years of unnecessary suffering was caused by nothing more than Christian ignorance and misinformation. And I wonder how many more are there out there like this young 19 year who have never heard that God loves them. And that God is no more concerned about a person's sexual orientation than his is about how tall or short you are, left-handed, right-handed, the colour of your skin, eyes or hair. These things are inconsequential to God. Why has the Church been so fixated about it?

As we have moved to new levels of understanding about sexual orientation and gender identity people have become conscious of the wrongs of the past.

I've been involved in a number of apologies over the last few years.

The first was getting five of Australia's former ex-gay leaders to apologise in 2007. These were people had been involved in ministries and organisations that believed firstly that to be homosexual (same sex oriented) meant you were flawed or broken and secondly that through faith and the power of God you could be "healed" and "cured". I now have seven apologies from Australian former ex-gay leaders. One is from a straight man but the rest are gay or lesbian. Most are now in long term committed relationships. They were apologising for the part they played  They acknowledged their ignorance and said sorry for any harm they may have caused because of that.

The second apology was the 100REVS which was a group of 100 ministers who signed a written apology in 2008. These were ministers from a spectrum of expressions of Christianity including mainline, evangelical and Pentecostal.

They simply said.
"As ministers of various churches and denominations we recognise that the churches we belong to, and the church in general, have not been places of welcome for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) people. Indeed the church has often been profoundly unloving toward the GLBT community. For these things we apologise, whatever the distinctive of our Christian position on human sexuality – to which we remain committed. We are deeply sorry and ask for the forgiveness of the GLBT community. We long that the church would be a place of welcome for all people and commit ourselves to pursuing this goal".
Unlike Bishop John MacIntyre's statement "yes we got it wrong" The 100REVS apology was purposely worded to not include any doctrinal statements. After the apology they clarified.
"We ARE a group of Christian ministers who voluntarily and individually bring this apology.
We ARE NOT official representatives of our churches or denominations.
We ARE NOT making a statement on the biblical position on gay and lesbian relationships".
It was highly controversial though. One day you'd see the name of a minster added. The next day it disappeared. They'd been threatened by denominational hierarchies that if they didn’t remove their names they would lose their jobs or parishes. Eventually they got 100 names but only 35 marched in the Mardi Gras parade. Many once again, fearing denominational reprisals for identifying with the LGBT community in that way, pulled out.

One step ahead your are leader. Two an innovator. Three a martyr. Many have paid a high price to be so far out in front.

The most recent apology I have been involved in was Alan Chambers, the former president of Exodus international. Exodus international was the largest, most influential, longest running (37 years) ex-gay/reparative/conversion therapy organisation in the world. In June last year (2013) Exodus and Alan Chambers said "sorry we were wrong" and overnight closed its doors. I was privileged to be at the conference and witness it.

Alan Chambers listened to peoples stories, moved away from "Christian" legalism and judgmentalism to a place of Christian love and grace. In his written apology to the LGBT community he said.
"Please know that I am deeply sorry. I am sorry for the pain and hurt many of you have experienced. I am sorry that some of you spent years working through the shame and guilt you felt when your attractions didn’t change. I am sorry we promoted sexual orientation change efforts and reparative theories about sexual orientation that stigmatized parents. I am sorry that there were times I didn’t stand up to people publicly “on my side” who called you names like sodomite—or worse. I am sorry that I, knowing some of you so well, failed to share publicly that the gay and lesbian people I know were every bit as capable of being amazing parents as the straight people that I know. I am sorry that when I celebrated a person coming to Christ and surrendering their sexuality to Him that I callously celebrated the end of relationships that broke your heart. I am sorry that I have communicated that you and your families are less than me and mine.

More than anything, I am sorry that so many have interpreted this religious rejection by Christians as God’s rejection. I am profoundly sorry that many have walked away from their faith and that some have chosen to end their lives. For the rest of my life I will proclaim nothing but the whole truth of the Gospel, one of grace, mercy and open invitation to all to enter into an inseverable relationship with almighty God.

Moving forward, we will serve in our pluralistic culture by hosting thoughtful and safe conversations about gender and sexuality, while partnering with others to reduce fear, inspire hope, and cultivate human flourishing."
Some people say sorry all the time. They always seem to be apologising. It loses its meaning.

When a sorry is genuine there has to be action to give it credibility. St Marks, I know, is doing things and will do things that demonstrate this is a genuine apology. May you be a shining example to other parishes and churches. The apologies at this stage have been from individuals and tonight from the first Anglican parish in Australia, but as understanding and acceptance grows it will gain momentum and eventually entire denominations which will take this significant step and begin the healing process.

For an apology to have its full impact though something must happen in those it is offered to. We are half the equation. Just as no one can be forced to apologise no one can be forced to forgive. Just as there are some in the Christian church who refuse to apologise for the harm ignorance has caused to gay and lesbian people so there are LGBT people who refuse to forgive. They are hurt, angry and bitter at God and the church.

There are those though who know the power of forgiveness. Or at least that it can simply be an act of self preservation for the only person you really hurt by being unforgiving is yourself. Unforgiveness is taking the poison you intended for another. Forgiveness is setting the prisoner free only to realise you were the prisoner.

So as you willingly and sincerely say sorry tonight to the LGBT community there are those of us who say thank you and we forgive. This makes the apology complete. As I mentioned at the beginning, sorry will never automatically right the wrongs of the past but, said with deep sincerity and authenticity, creates the potential for healing and reconciliation.

We can walk arm in arm in together in peace demonstrating, reconciliation, love and grace to a world which so desperately needs it.

Images courtesy of Hadden Media Group
© Anthony Venn-Brown is the co-founder and former leader of Freedom2b, Australia’s largest network of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) people from Christian backgrounds. He is also an educator and consultant on LGBT/faith issues and leader in deconstructing the ‘ex-gay’ myth. Anthony’s autobiography 'A Life of Unlearning', details his journey from married, high profile preacher in Australia’s mega-churches to living as an openly gay man. Anthony has been twice voted ‘One of the 25 Most Influential Gay and Lesbian Australians’ (2007 & 2009) and  was one of four finalists for the 2011 ACON Community Hero Award. He is also the founder and CEO of Ambassadors & Bridge Builders International.

St Marks Fitzroy says sorry to the LGBTI community

Australia's first Anglican Church to apologize to the LGBTI community.  
St Marks, Fitzroy, Victoria. Address by Father Stuart Soley on Saturday 19 July 2014

There is a heavy burden the Christian church carries.  It is the burden of homophobia, the side-lining of the hurt of GLBTI people as an urgent issue but above all the denial of the reality GLBTI people exist within the church and who need to heard.

This depletes its resources and discredits its reputation and is a major break on its ability to be an effective carrier of the good news of Jesus Christ.

Instead, many who profess to be of genuine Christian commitment have uttered words of censure, condemnation or a heavily conditional acceptance.

We have received these messages as a denial of our basic God given human dignity, that we are not worthy of being in the church, that we are really unwelcome, that we are an abomination.

These words have caused deep and lasting hurt and wounds. Their repetition reopens and deepens those wounds.

Many of us have struggled with depression and anxiety.

Many have kept this crucial aspect of our lives secret – from loved ones, work colleagues, close friends

Many, too many, have chosen death as the only way out of the anguish caused by these sentiments.

And, when some get sick, such as with being diagnosed with HIV, a new round of blame and accusation starts. Censure and stigma piled on censure and stigma.

The trouble is the noise drowns out the consistent and gentle voice of God who says ‘I love you’ in the only way God knows in the birth, life, death and resurrection of the one we call Jesus the Christ.

The reliance on a few texts has nothing to do with Jesus the Christ, who promised to lift our burdens and not impose more, who promised life – and in its abundance, who said that he chooses us and imposed no caveats on that choice.  

As I am associated with the church and therefore those who have uttered these things I want to dissociate myself from their content and affirm that we are all loved by God – no ifs or buts – no conditions.

So for the noise when your voices have been drowned out and for the silences when something should have been said I’m sorry.

I commit myself to living and being the difference and the new way of being.

Fr Stuart Soley
Parish Priest
Saturday 19 July 2014

Read Anthony Venn-Brown's address and response here  
Images courtesy of Hadden Media Group

Sunday, July 13, 2014

What are the stages of coming out of the closet?

The idea of coming out is actually older than many realize but it has taken nearly one and half centuries for concept to become widely spread and experienced. 


In 1869 the German homosexual rights advocate Karl Heinrich Ulrichs talked about coming out as a means of emancipation. Ulrichs claimed that invisibility was a major obstacle toward changing public opinion, he urged homosexuals themselves to come out. How true this was. It has been the visibility (coming out) of out, proud gay and lesbian people which has influenced acceptance and equality more than anything else. Ulrichs concept was groun-breaking and way before it's time. But it has to begin somewhere.

In his 1906 work Kultur (The Sexual Life of Our Time in its Relation to Modern Civilization, Iwan Bloch, a German-Jewish physician, encouraged elderly homosexuals to come out to their heterosexual family members and acquaintances.

In 1914, Magnus Hirschfeld revisited the topic in his major work The Homosexuality of Men and Women (1914), discussing the social and legal potentials of several thousand men and women of rank coming out to the police (as it was illegal) in order to influence legislators and public opinion. 

1944 .The first important American to come out was the poet Robert Duncan by using his own name in the anarchist magazine Politics, claiming that homosexuals were an oppressed minority.

In 1951, Edward Sagarin published his landmark The Homosexual in America, exclaiming, "Society has handed me a mask to wear...Everywhere I go, at all times and before all sections of society, I pretend." Donald Webster Cory was the name he published under, but his frank and openly subjective descriptions served as a stimulus to the emerging homosexual self-consciousness. 
1969 Stonewall Riots. Gay liberation was birthed.

Today, more gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people are out than ever before. Research has demonstrated that being in the closet is unhealthy for the individual. Many of the challenges currently faced in the LGBT community could be attributed to the long term impacts of internalized homophobia (living in the closet). Coming out is often seen within gay and lesbian communities as politically healthy, even a duty or necessity, arguing that the more out gay people there are, the harder it will be for opponents to misrepresent, marginalize, and oppress. This is of course very challenging in countries like Africa, the Middle East, other Islamic nations as well as parts of Eastern Europe such as Russia where penalties of imprisonment or death still exist. 

The act of revealing a closeted person's orientation against his or her wishes is known as "outing" them. Sometimes it is used to prove a political point, or demonstrate a contradiction between private lifestyle and public stance. Outing someone is like ripping a butterfly from its cocoon. You can damage them for life and rob them of THEIR  life changing experience of liberation. For a successful emergence THEY have to struggle through the cocoon of fear and shame. THEN they can fly.

The process of resolution (coming out)

Let me take you through the process that I went through. Its not the same for everyone but like Elizabeth Kubler Ross’ process of grieving, most people pass through each stage at some time no matter how briefly. Problems develop when people become stuck in one place and can’t move on.
  1. Unconscious – (I don’t know I'm gay, straight or anything. I'm just a kid)
  2. Awareness awakens (I'm different to the guys or girls around me. I'm thinking about and finding myself attracted to the same sex. Could I be gay?) Research shows that the average age when people have this awareness is around 13-14 during puberty. That makes sense because it is of course a sexual orientation we are talking about. For some there is a period when they become aware but they don’t have a word for it. Some have this awareness even younger – particularly in hindsight they see how it was always the same gender that attracted them or got their attention in movies or that they we fascinated with same gender bodies instead of opposite etc.
  3. Denial (I’m not gay, I was drunk, I’m bisexual, I was just horny, it’s just a stage, I was just experimenting). Sadly some people get stuck here for years or even their life.
  4. Rejection (I can change it, I can overcome it). In this stage people fight, pray and do whatever they can to get rid of it so they can be "normal".
  5. Suppression (I can control it, monitor it, it’s my secret, no one need know). Trying to push this fundamental part of you are down is like trying to hold a beach ball underwater. Over time it becomes tiring and eventally it can pop to the surface or even scarier you may get outed.
  6. Hatred (this thing is too strong for me, I hate my gayness, therefore I hate myself). During this stage the most damage is done to the individual. It's called internalised homophobia (self-hatred). Living with the internal conflict or hatred of the gay self (dissonance) will eventually impact us either psychologically (e.g. depression), emotionally (distancing and unable to have intimacy or strong friendships) or physically (stress related illnesses e.g. high blood pressure, insomnia, ulcers etc)
  7. Acceptance (Healthy & unhealthy, I accept it, I'm fine with it now, or I reluctantly accept it). It’s wonderful that so many young people today are coming out and accepting their homosexuality. There is also a group, like I was for years, who have accepted their sexuality but only reluctantly. There is no great sense of pride. They would prefer to be heterosexual and as long as that remains in their thinking, they can never fully embrace their true selves and enjoy the sense of freedom that brings. They exist with a subconscious belief that life is unfair, they still live with a sense of shame. I have met people who have accepted their homosexuality but still believe they will inevitably go to hell because they "gave in" to their homosexuality. Imagine what that thinking is doing to their mental health.
  8. Celebration (I love being gay).
    This is the beginning of living a life of authenticity and congruence. The person who celebrates and embraces their sexuality lives a powerful life that transforms those around them because no one can deny what you have………a wholesome and profound love of self. This is where the term "gay pride" would be particularly relevant. Some straight people don't get the concept of gay pride which is understandable because they have never had to endure years of gay shame.
These days there are lots of community and online support groups to help people through this process.

The vast majority of those I have worked with, one on one, through this process have had good outcomes whilst many experienced way better than they ever expected.
© Anthony Venn-Brown 
Twitter: @gayambassador 

Anthony Venn-Brown is the co-founder and former leader of Freedom2b, Australia’s largest network of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) people from Christian backgrounds. He is also an educator and consultant on LGBT/faith issues and leader in deconstructing the ‘ex-gay’ myth. Anthony’s autobiography 'A Life of Unlearning', details his journey from married, high profile preacher in Australia’s mega-churches to living as an openly gay man. Anthony has been twice voted ‘One of the 25 Most Influential Gay and Lesbian Australians’ (2007 & 2009) and  was one of four finalists for the 2011 ACON Community Hero Award. He is also the founder and CEO of Ambassadors & Bridge Builders International.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Homophobia and/or Heterosexism - knowing the difference

Homophobia encompasses a range of negative attitudes and feelings toward homosexuality or people who are identified or perceived as being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT). It can be expressed as antipathy, contempt, prejudice, aversion, or hatred, may be based on irrational fear, and is sometimes related to religious beliefs.

Homophobia is observable in critical and hostile behavior such as discrimination and violence on the basis of sexual orientations that are non-heterosexual.

Recognized types of homophobia include institutionalized homophobia, e.g. religious homophobia and state-sponsored homophobia, and internalized homophobia, experienced by people who have same-sex attractions, regardless of how they identify. 

Heterosexism is a system of attitudes, bias, and discrimination in favor of opposite-sex sexuality and relationships. It can include the presumption that other people are heterosexual or that opposite-sex attractions and relationships are the only norm and therefore superior. Although heterosexism is defined in the online editions of the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language and the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary as anti-gay discrimination and/or prejudice "by heterosexual people" and "by heterosexuals", respectively, people of any sexual orientation can hold such attitudes and bias. Nonetheless, heterosexism as discrimination ranks gays, lesbians, bisexuals and other sexual minorities as second-class citizens with regard to various legal and civil rights, economic opportunities, and social equality in many of the world’s jurisdictions and societies. Heterosexism is often related to homophobia. The LGBT rights movement works towards ending heterosexist discrimination.


Monday, June 09, 2014

What do you REALLY think about ex-gay/reparative/conversion therapy leaders and organisations

I have been monitoring ex-gay/reparative/conversion therapy leaders, organisations and activities for nearly two decades. I've seen, heard and experienced a lot in that time.

  1. Do people get help from ex-gay/reparative/conversion ministries?
  2. Has anyone suicided because of an ex-gay/reparative/conversion program?
  3. What is your attitude towards 'former' homosexuals who get married?
  4. Why are you so committed to seeing all ex-gay/reparative/conversion organisations close in Australia?
  5. Aren't you working against freedom of choice and speech?
  6. Do you hate ex-gay leaders? It appears you attack them.
  7. Are you glad to see "ex-gay" leaders "fall"?
Previously these people and organisations went pretty much unchallenged regarding their claims, concepts and practices.  Indeed, when these organisations were founded (Exodus commenced in 1976), they were essentially aligned with much of what society thought about homosexuality. At that time, in most western countries, it was illegal for two people of the same gender to have an emotional/physical relationship. Even though homosexuality had been de-classified as a mental illness in 1973, societal attitudes had not shifted significantly. Christian ministries took on what mental health professionals decided to leave alone (page 4).

Having struggled myself for over 22 years to come to terms with my sexual orientation, promised on many occasions that God could change me to straight and lived with the false hope, I determined that I would do all I could to ensure that others had a different experience.
"I don’t want one person to live one day in the unnecessary internal torment I lived in for 22 years".  Anthony Venn-Brown
Challenging ex-gay/reparative/conversion therapy concepts and holding leaders and organisations accountable has not come without a degree misunderstanding, criticism and even hostility.

Case in point below.
In the comments section of The Saturday Paper article Australia's anti-gay churches shift focus to Asia Pacific,     PeterSalt12 wrote  (click here to read comment online) "A V-B, before denouncing those who try to help people who want out. Just because you failed to resist the temptations and gave to them does not mean it is impossible. That impossible message you and others promote is what causes many to suicide. It is not the message of hope and the help Ron Brookman and Shirley Baskett and others have given so many over the years. You claim you were born that way - for which there is NO scientific, genetic, or medical evidence whatsoever, - and you know it. Which is why you protest so much against those who tell the truth and who try to help others.

"You should apologize to everyone you have campaigned against, or assisted to campaign against, who help people deal with unwanted same-sex attraction, Anthony, not just Ron Brookman. You won't accept that anyone can overcome their homosexual feelings - you suggest they are just hiding from them as I understand you did to Ron. You have done it again on this page by stating  "And those that choose straight marriage as the final solution are left with not only their own trauma to deal with but the devastation their  hope created in the lives of others." That is so unkind to the many who have successfully beaten something you could not. Failure by one person to give up smoking does not mean that everyone who does is really hiding behind something, any more than someone who marries after sorting out the sexual part of their brain. You just can't accept that people like Ron can really turn their lives around because it reminds you that you have failed do so.
This would be a good time to make sure that people REALLY understand my beliefs and intentions and to answer the common questions I am asked.

  1. Do people get help from ex-gay/reparative/conversion ministries?

Of course they do, there is no denying that. Some even say they saved them from suicide.

Imagine this for a moment.  You are a young person in a church, you have a Christian family, your life revolves around church, and all your friends are Christians. You may even go to a Christian school.

What have you heard about homosexuality and gay people?

  • "It's an abomination" 
  • "God hates their 'sin', but loves the sinner"
  • "God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve"
  • "Homosexuals have an agenda to destroy God's blueprint for society by destroying the traditional family model"
  • "All homosexuals live a debauched 'lifestyle' of endless sexual encounters, drugs etc".

Then you begin to become aware of your attraction to the same gender. That means you 'might' be gay. You may have dabbled. You might have gone online and found gay porn. You are tormented and there is so much shame attached to this that you daren't tell anyone. It's your dark secret. But not with God. You pray. You pray with every bit of faith you can muster over and over again for God to change you but it doesn't go away. You ask for forgiveness over and over again and promise God it will never happen again. You plead and bargain with God saying things like "If you deliver me from this then I will dedicate my whole life to your service". But nothing changes.

Because you haven't been able to overcome this yourself, you look elsewhere for answers. You discover that there are Christian organisations that help people like yourself with 'unwanted same sex attractions'. You pluck up the courage to make contact via email or a phone call. Or even more dangerous, you find an online course that promises "Freedom from the bondage of homosexuality" They tell you they can help. In fact, they tell you that they also used to be gay but now they are married and have children. And not only them but 1,000's have. They remind you "heterosexuality is not the goal". .....but it's your goal and the reason why you took the courageous step to reach out for help. So you ignore the advice and focus on the fact that they are married with children just like YOU want. After all, who would want to be a "homosexual", it's not "natural"? At last, possibly in years,  hope returns. Finally, you have someone to talk to about this. Someone who will support you in your 'struggle'. The relief is enormous. I remember vividly what that feeling was like. But it's only temporary.
"Initially I felt better. I wasn’t alone. I even quit gymnastics for a few months to fully dedicate myself to changing my sexual orientation."

  1. Has anyone suicided because of an ex-gay/reparative/conversion program?

Simple answer NO. Before a person gets involved in these ministries, either through one on one counselling, group meetings or conferences they have already been on quite a journey. No Christian person wakes up one day and says, "I have same sex attractions I'll head of the nearest ex-gay organisation immediately". As mentioned above this has been their dark secret and struggle for some time. The pattern of self-hatred and self-loathing is already established. The gay self is the dark self that must be destroyed. The problem that arises now is that this becomes an even stronger focus and the cognitive dissonance increases. The conflict between their faith and sexuality in now paramount and MUST be overcome. So to answer the question. These organisations don’t cause suicide but contribute and at times magnify its potential. This can happen not only during the program but more likely afterwards.  On top of years of negative conditioning about yourself, then focusing totally on your homosexuality for a few months, or years, you leave the program/counselling unchanged. You now have more to deal with; a reinforced sense of shame and failure because you've been constantly reminded that others like Sy Rogers have "changed".  You believe that you are a really bad and weak individual because you haven't overcome your "same sex attractions".

All these experiences above do not contribute to a healthy sense of well being. In fact, totally the opposite. Depression and other mental issues develop. We will actually never be able to count the cost this has had on individuals or how many have actually been lost through suicide.

  1. What is your attitude towards 'former' homosexuals who get married?

I wish them well. It's their life and their choice and I have to respect that choice, as I would expect them to respect mine to live as an out and proud gay man. I have seen a few of these marriages work. But only with complete honesty. On the outside, they appear to work. I have no idea what goes on in the home or bedroom. Nor do I want to know. It's none of my business. If ever I was asked by someone if I'd encourage or recommend it, the answer of course would be no. History tells us very few mixed orientation marriages are sustainable lifelong. Is the other partner aware of what challenges lie ahead for them marrying a partner with "same sex attractions"?.

  1. Why are you so committed to seeing all ex-gay/reparative/conversion organisations close in Australia?

Even if I didn't have this goal then it would happen anyway. I am just one of the people who have spoken up about the harm these organisations have caused. In addition, number and impact wise, these organisations are diminishing. Considering societies acceptance of gay relationships, the number of people who have gay family members and friends they love, the exponential growth of the gay Christian movement and the increasing number of affirming churches, the ex-gay/reparative/conversion organisations message "you are broken and God can heal you" is becoming increasingly irrelevant.

I blame my autobiography for creating this mission. Since 2004, when "A Life of Unlearning" was released, I have been the first contact point for 1,000's of LGBT people from Christian  backgrounds. Many of those had been impacted by the ex-gay philosophy "homosexuality is a sin, you are broken, God can heal/change you". It’s a like my inbox became a microscope into a hidden world as many isolated and alienated people found someone they relate to; often for the first time. This was also one reason why we founded Freedom2b and I dedicate 6 years of service to developing it. I would challenge anyone to sit down and read the 100's of emails I have received and not be deeply moved by the pain, harm and regrets many of these people have.  Having discovered the harm and suffering of so many individuals, it would have been inhumane and irresponsible for me to sit back and do nothing. Whilst there are stories out there of 'change', very few ex-gay leaders have been exposed to the vast numbers of stories like this. Alan Chambers, former president of Exodus listened and then apologised to the LGBT community.

  1. Aren't you working against freedom of choice and speech?

Actually, I am working for freedom of speech and choice.  Now people have more information to make informed/rational choices. What many in the ex-gay world have failed to realise is that the western world has had a massive shift in their understanding on many things over the last forty years. One of those has been the basic human rights of each individual. When I was growing up in the 50's and 60's, racism was a pretty much a part of culture and people rarely responded negatively to racial slurs or jokes. Try that today in your workplace or sport and see where that gets you. Thankfully, we are a better, more tolerant society today where people are treated equally no matter. It is now illegal to discriminate. The same could be said about sexual orientation. Once ignorance on these issues was accepted but today we are more informed. That is why there is such a backlash when people make anti-gay jokes, demeanour LGBT people or the community.  Or when religious leaders or organisations suggest there is something wrong with us and that we can change. Churches need to catch up. Ex-gay ministries are peddling an extremely outdated message and modality. It's sad they need to be reminded of that in 2014.

  1. Do you hate ex-gay leaders? It appears you attack them.

No. It would be hypocritical of me to hate people because they currently believe something I believed myself for decades. It's a journey. As for attacking, I can see that some people might perceive that. When an ex-gay leader has made false or misleading statements then I have challenged or corrected them. Particularly when those misleading statements have been made before parliamentary committees speaking against marriage equality being passed in Australia. I stand by what I have said and written as the truth. That is open to challenge at any time.

If I hated ex-gay leaders then I would not have flown to the USA this time last year to attend a conference full of them. When I was invited by Alan Chambers to attend the Exodus conference I had no idea that this would be the final and I would get to witness the historic moment it was announced that America's leading ex-gay organisation was closing down. I am enormously grateful for Alan Chambers trust by allowing me into that space.

  1. Are you glad to see "ex-gay" leaders "fail"?

Some are I know, but not me. I have compassion for them. I personally have lived through a very public scandal and I know how traumatic that is and the dark places it can take you to as well as the potential for tragic results (Read Gay Mormon, excommunicated from his church, commits suicide). 

I know of ex-gay leaders here in Australia who, let's say, have not always lived up to what they have publicly portrayed. If I was the nasty and vindictive person, out to destroy people as some have suggested, I would have passed that information on to my media contacts or publicly exposed them myself. I wouldn't wish a public scandal on my worst enemy, let alone be the initiator of it. I still live by the rule "treat others as you would like to be treated yourself". 

I have always endeavoured to reach out in dialogue with ex-gay leaders. Sometimes that has been completely rejected. Others have been willing to sit down at the table and talk. Maybe it's the potential outcome that worries some.

The door is still open.

My strategy remains the same.

© Anthony Venn-Brown 
Twitter: @gayambassador 

Anthony Venn-Brown is the co-founder and former leader of Freedom2b, Australia’s largest network of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) people from Christian backgrounds. He is also an educator and consultant on LGBT/faith issues and leader in deconstructing the ‘ex-gay’ myth. Anthony’s autobiography 'A Life of Unlearning', details his journey from married, high profile preacher in Australia’s mega-churches to living as an openly gay man. Anthony has been twice voted ‘One of the 25 Most Influential Gay and Lesbian Australians’ (2007 & 2009) and  was one of four finalists for the 2011 ACON Community Hero Award. He is also the founder and director of Ambassadors & Bridge Builders International.

Sunday, May 04, 2014

Ex-gay/reparative./conversion therapy - it didn't work....sorry

Ex-Ex-Gay Pride

From the August 17, 1998 issue of Newsweek. Photo at left by Chris Buck.

On a Tuesday evening nearly 14 years ago, John Paulk walked into a gay bar in Washington, D.C. At another time in his life, Paulk would have fit right in. But in 2000, Paulk’s life as an openly gay man was far behind him. He was then one of the most prominent so-called ex-gays in the country, only two years removed from appearing on the cover of Newsweek, posing with his smiling wife for an article about gay conversion therapy.

At 37, Paulk had spent the prior 13 years involved with Exodus International, one of the largest and most influential ex-gay organizations in the world. He married another ex-gay, Anne, and together they rose through the ranks, becoming leaders and eventually the faces of a movement that attracted thousands with its message that, if they tried hard enough, gay and lesbian people could become happy heterosexuals. “Change is possible” was their rallying cry. You just needed to surrender yourself to God. Look at us, they said to rooms of thousands. Look how happy we are.

“We were all over the world. We had been on every show, People magazine, GQ, Time, Newsweek, every newspaper. We wrote three books, toured Europe speaking,” Paulk tells Newsweek. Today, Paulk is openly gay again, divorced and running a catering business in Portland, Oregon. But in the late 1990s and early 2000s, he was trying hard to keep the closet door closed, while preaching a message of ex-gay deliverance from within it. Exodus International was bigger than ever. It served as the umbrella organization for hundreds of ex-gay ministries spread across several countries, some of which performed “reparative” therapy, and all of which preached a message of “healing” the “developmental condition” of gayness through prayer.

Far-right groups including the Family Research Council and the American Family Association pooled $600,000 to place ads promising the effectiveness of reparative therapy in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, and the Chicago Tribune. Anne and John Paulk smiled from full-page newspaper spreads.

In front of the crowds and cameras, Paulk was the image of certainty. But backstage, he was faltering. More than that, he knew he was lying. 

“It’s funny, for those of us that worked in it, behind closed doors, we knew we hadn't really changed,” he says. “Our situations had changed—we had gotten married, and some of us had children, so our roles had changed. I was a husband and father; that was my identity. And the homosexuality had been tamped down. But you can only push it down for so long, and it would eke its way out every so often.” 

When Paulk walked into that gay bar in 2000, someone recognized him and phoned Wayne Besen, a gay rights activist who now runs the nonprofit Truth Wins Out. Besen rushed over and snapped a picture. In the ensuing scandal, Paulk initially claimed he just went in to use the bathroom, and didn’t know it was a gay bar. But really, he was aching just to be in a welcoming environment.

“I went to a gay bar—not looking for sex, which is what people thought—but because I was missing my community. I was looking to sit in a place with people I felt comfortable with, and that was other gay people,” Paulk says. Though he continued to take speaking engagements, by 2003, he was burned out.

“I would be in hotel rooms, and I would be on my face sobbing and crying on the bed,” he says. “I felt like a liar and a hypocrite. Having to go out and give hope to these people. I was in despair knowing that what I was telling them was not entirely honest. I couldn’t do it anymore.”

Even in its earliest days, Exodus’s philosophy—that same-sex attraction meant a person was “broken” and could be “fixed”—was undermined by the reality of its members’ actions. Michael Bussee and Gary Cooper, two of the co-founders, left the movement in 1979 to be in a committed relationship with one another. (Bussee has spent the decades since actively fighting Exodus’s message.) John Evans, one of the founders of Love in Action (LIA), an early ex-gay ministry that helped establish Exodus in 1974, left LIA after a friend committed suicide over his distress at being unable to change his sexual orientation. "They're destroying people's lives,” Evans told The Wall Street Journal in 1993. “They're living in a fantasy world.” (LIA has since changed its name to Restoration Path.)

But there was a time, from the early 1980s all the way through the mid-2000s, when the ex-gay movement appeared to be flourishing. There were the aforementioned newspaper ads, and the big crowds at conferences and speaking events. The Exodus Global Alliance (the organization’s international outreach arm) established ministries in 18 countries, and in 2006, President George W. Bush invited Alan Chambers, Exodus's president, and Randy Thomas, Exodus’s director of membership, to the White House to lobby for Bush’s constitutional ban on gay marriage. The rightward shift of American conservatism and debate over gay marriage brought fringe organizations like Focus on the Family, which was closely connected to Exodus, into the news spotlight again and again.

But all the far-right funding and rapid expansion did little more than prop up a withering institution. A series of scandals chipped away at the ex-gay movement’s veneer of success.

First came the photo of Paulk in the gay bar. Then in 2003, Michael Johnston, founder of “National Coming Out of Homosexuality Day,” was found to have infected men he’d met online with HIV through unprotected sex. John Smid, who joined LIA in 1986 and eventually became its executive director, left the organization in 2008. Three years later, Smid wrote on his blog that he "never met a man who experienced a change from homosexual to heterosexual," and that reorientation is impossible, because being gay is intrinsic.

Then it crumbled further. In 2012, psychologist Robert Spitzer—one of the leaders of the successful push in the 1970s for the American Psychiatric Association to declassify homosexuality as a disease—retracted a controversial study, published in 2003, often cited by the ex-gay community that had concluded some “highly motivated” individuals could change their sexual orientation. Spitzer wrote an apology to LGBT people who “wasted time and energy” on reparative therapy.

By that time, policy within Exodus began to genuinely shift. “We renounced and forbid reparative therapy,” in 2012, Chambers tells Newsweek. “And there was an enormous split inside Exodus. Many who were more fundamentalist in approach had already broken off and formed Restored Hope Network.” Anne Paulk, John’s ex-wife, was one of those who left. She currently serves as executive director of Restored Hope, whose website harkens back to the early days of Exodus, claiming that those with same-sex attraction are “broken” and can “become who they are” under the guidance of Jesus Christ. Despite the fact that Restored Hope’s board is composed almost entirely of ex-Exodus members, the website makes no mention of the older organization.

Anne Paulk did not respond to Newsweek’s questions on the subject, although she did email Newsweek a statement in which she declared “We, at Restored Hope, are happy to continue to care for those who are seeking help in aligning their life with classical Christian sexual ethics. Although some choose to return to homosexuality, others who have chosen to leave that same life and thrive. My life would be one example of the latter.”

The members of Exodus International who were on board with Chambers’s decision to renounce conversion therapy remained until June 2013, when he shut down operations for good. According to Chambers, once he realized there would be no way to separate Exodus from its “sordid history,” the only option was to shut the doors. On disbanding, Chambers issued a deeply apologetic press release, stating, “I am sorry for the pain and hurt many of you have experienced. I am sorry that some of you spent years working through the shame and guilt you felt when your attractions didn’t change. I am sorry we promoted sexual orientation change efforts and reparative theories about sexual orientation that stigmatized parents.”

Today, Chambers says that Exodus’s focus on conversion therapy was unplanned and spun out of control. “I never liked the term ex-gay,” he says. “I never wanted to be an ex-gay. I just simply wanted Exodus to be an organization that helped people live in congruence with their own lives and goals.”

Other organizations, however, have filled the void left in Exodus’s wake. The Restored Hope Network has taken up the mantle of conservative Christian conversion. And in October 2013, a newly formed group, Voice of the Voiceless, hosted its “First Annual Ex-Gay Awareness Dinner and Reception” that attracted about 60 Christian leaders and ex-gay individuals.

Then there is Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing (JONAH), formerly Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality, a nonprofit created in 1999 by two New Jersey parents who each had a gay son. In November 2012, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) sued JONAH and one of its counselors on behalf of four men who underwent conversion therapy in the late 2000s. The lawsuit alleged that JONAH violated New Jersey’s Consumer Fraud Act and used invalid practices to try to “fix something that isn’t broken.”

JONAH told Newsweek in an email that it “doesn't ‘fix’ anything.” According to co-directors Elaine Berk and Arthur Goldberg, JONAH “refers individuals to independent counselors who employ frequently used techniques to help a person deal with painful issues in their life. These techniques are designed to help people feel better about themselves and to live a life consistent with their religious and personal values. The result is often a diminution of their unwanted same-sex attraction.”

The Superior Court of New Jersey rejected JONAH’s motion to dismiss in the summer of 2013; Sam Wolfe, SPLC senior staff attorney, expects the case to go to trial in early 2014. Wolfe also notes that since the lawsuit got under way, a number of other individuals have approached SPLC with potential cases of their own. 

In the meanwhile, criticism directed towards JONAH has come from within the religious community, as well; when the lawsuit was filed, the Rabbinical Council of America (one of the most influential Orthodox Jewish organizations in the country) immediately distanced itself from JONAH, reaffirming that, based on the current scientific evidence, they did not endorse gay conversion therapy. (On the other hand, the Torah Declaration, a statement of support, has been signed by many prominent members of the Jewish religious right.)

Lastly, there’s the National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), founded in 1992 by psychologist Joseph Nicolosi. NARTH considers itself the foremost secular proponent of conversion therapy; it counts hundreds of well-credentialed mental health professionals among its ranks and has issued a number of white papers on the subject. It too, however, has suffered in the public eye in recent years: In 2007, NARTH therapist Chris Austin was convicted of sexually assaulting a client, and sentenced to 10 years in prison; in 2010, NARTH board member George Rekers was found to have employed a male prostitute as a companion for a two-week European vacation; and in 2012 the Internal Revenue Service revoked NARTH’s nonprofit status for not properly filing its paperwork.

Paulk left Exodus in 2003. He cautions against “speaking for everybody,” but says in his more than two decades of watching people undergo ex-gay therapy, the “large majority” of people he met “did not change one iota.” Paulk remained silent for a decade, until he issued a formal apology last year. "I know that countless people were harmed by things I said and did in the past, " Paulk wrote in a statement. "I am truly, truly sorry for the pain I have caused.”
John Paulk in 2013.

Today, Paulk strongly believes that no child or teen should be put through any type of “treatment” for their sexual orientation. On the other hand, he says adults should have the right to pursue any therapy they choose. “If I go see a therapist because I am uncomfortable with homosexual feelings or attractions and I do not feel that those are compatible with who I see myself to be, [I] should have the right to determine the course of [my] therapy,” Paulk says. “However, I completely draw the line when it comes to minors.”

The tragedy that Paulk lives with to this day is that organizations like JONAH often specifically target minors, with summer camps and teen programs. “For 25 years I felt guilty and filled with self-loathing, trying to reject this part about myself. I’m culpable—I spread the message that my sexuality had changed, and I used my marriage as proof of that,” Paulk says.

That marriage ended recently. Anne and John now share joint custody of their three teenage sons. At 51, Paulk is living as an openly gay man for the first time since he entered the ex-gay ministry at the age of 24. Paulk said despite the fact that his decision to live a life true to himself was difficult and was accompanied by significant risk (not the least of which was breaking up his family), it was well worth it. During his 10-year silence, Paulk went to culinary school and opened a catering company in Portland. He says he is now “thriving.”

Paulk’s story echoes those of many others whose lives were damaged by the shame, guilt, and self-loathing that marked their involvement with ex-gay therapy, and who overcame their past to eventually live life as their LGBT selves. In 2007, the website Beyond Ex-Gay was founded by Peterson Toscano and Christine Bakke, who both were part of Exodus. The site collects first-person narratives from “ex-ex-gays.” Among them is Darlene Bogle, who was a leader in Exodus until 1990, when she fell in love with a woman who attended one of her ex-gay meetings.

“There were a lot of people in leadership positions [in Exodus] who still felt that they were gay but could not admit it,” Bogle tells Newsweek. “We learned to lie.”

Like many, Bogle wanted so badly to change her orientation that she convinced herself that if she just kept saying she was ex-gay, and didn’t actually have any sexual relationships with women, then she actually was ex-gay.  “But the things you do do not change who you are,” she says. “Even if I was not sexual at all, I would still be a lesbian. I just wish more people had a grasp of that truth.”

Bogle, too, regrets the role she played with Exodus.

“In just trying to help, I did immeasurable harm,” she says. “It’s like when children are molested, and they live with that for their entire lives. They’re still being harmed, even though it happened years ago. I think it’s a lot like what happens when people are involved in ex-gay ministry.”

Bogle and Paulk’s beliefs are held widely by both public health officials and lawmakers. Today, state-level legislators across the country are beginning to push forward rules meant to protect minors from this potential damage. Both California and New Jersey have officially banned gay conversion therapy for minors. In Washington, a bill has already passed in the House by a 94–4 vote and awaits approval by the state Senate. A similar bill was introduced earlier this year in both houses of the New York state legislature, where it still awaits a vote. And lawmakers have announced they will be pushing anti-conversion-therapy laws in Florida, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

On an individual level, many ex-ex-gays are trying to repair the damage they believe they caused while complicit in ex-gay messaging. Bogle, for her part, has written two books about how being gay and being a Christian are not mutually exclusive.  

“I’m trying to go back, to try to bring healing to those who believed my lie,” she says. “It’ll take the rest of my life. I’ll be 70 this year. I just hope God lets me live long enough to let me do it.”

Paulk, meanwhile, hopes his story encourages others to overcome their own fears and uncertainties. “It’s difficult, but worth it at the end of the day because of the peace that comes with it. It’s happy on the other side.”