No. 15 – Conversion Therapy
“Nathan enters a room much like a debutant with verve and flourish, looking for someone to devour.”
I sat across from the staff psychologist at Love In Action, the most well known conversion therapy camp in the country, while he read a psychiatric evaluation he wrote from the forms I filled out. He followed up with telling me that I did not register on the Meyers-Briggs assessment, and that I was scary to him. He spoke with eyebrows lifted, and his voice pitched like an announcer of burglaries on the evening news.
I sat in the puddle of shame his words passed on to me. I was 20 years old, and had just followed all of their instructions to get prepared to make Love In Action my home for their fall group. Their rules were black and white. The camp had been presented to me, to be the best option to get my same sex attraction fixed. My mother was intricately involved in the process of me getting there, after hearing of the organization from her sister, my aunt.
The year prior, at 19, I had purchased a business. If there was one thing I was always aware of growing up, it was that I could (and would) work hard until I felt work was done. I bought this small consignment shop in Montgomery, Alabama from some friends from church. In the year that I owned the business, I grew hope and a sense of pride that I would be able to do things with my life, where I felt clarity and pleasure. Just a year into ownership, I had tripled the value by creating a small filing box, with cards of every customers request. The moment I would receive what they were looking for, I would call them, and by the end of the day, had won over a new customer, who would add a few more things for me to find for them. I thrived at this business ownership gig, and learned early that people respond well when they trust you to sell quality and hear what they need.
Letting the business go was the hardest part of leaving what was familiar to me in Alabama, to move in to this conversion therapy camp. I was hopeful I could change and proceeded with all of their beginning steps to shed the worldly influence in me, and present my best self, hoping to heal.
The program leaders gave direct instructions of what I needed to do to get in the program:
All of my secular music was passed off to friends.
All of my clothes with logos on them were sold, and replaced with shirts, pants (underwear too) with specific brands and looks allowed.
I had recently purchased my dream car on my own. It was a black 2 door Honda Accord coupe, and it too had to be sold to make my entry to Love In Action work.
The last step was selling the business. The most interested buyer was wealthy, always dressed in linen, and used words that were meant for the country club across the street, not the consignment shop. She was adding a high end jewelry line of silver mixed with gold, and offered monograms of the initials. I felt small in her presence. Her purchase of my empire was to dabble with a hobby. I turned the keys over to her on a hot summer Friday afternoon in July of 1999. While I loved having what was considered a years salary in my pocket, I felt lost of what was to come, and great loss over having to let go of something that brought me tremendous pride.
I had applied to the conversion camp two months before their next opening, and in order to hit the deadline, I had to be prepared for my entry date. The office manager would call and check in with her messages: “I sense God bringing you here. I am so glad this is happening for you.” She had lost her son to AIDS years before, and this was her redemption work. I trusted her prompting.
After filling out the paperwork, they invited us for further review. Us, is me and my mother. We arrived at the camp with anticipation that we had found what was going to be the key to my mental illness, and my sin.
My first day there was crippling. Hope, joy, and pride were replaced with shame, embarrassment, and guilt. We walked the campus and heard of the daily routines, and like all ministries, they spoke often of dues, fees, tithes and donations, all of which I was responsible for. The program was costly, even after selling a business and a car. I would be starting back at square one after a year in the program, but agreed that this was necessary, due to my same sex attraction.
Once we had spent a few hours getting to know the camp, and the staff, the director asked my mom to stay behind so he and the staff could speak with me one on one. “Of course,” she obliged. I followed along, with my heart thumping louder than my footsteps.
I sat at the end of the conference table, among the board and staff. The conversation began with the director having each person introduce themselves, and explain why this was their calling. Several of the board members had gay kids. One staff person had an intense anger. His dad left his family when he was a kid to pursue “the gay lifestyle.” This lead him to work at a conversion therapy camp, I am sure in hopes, of connecting to what he thought was a more noble story than his fathers. He was aggressive in his tone, and began asking me about “submitting to authority.” This was big for them. They needed to hear me say that I was humbled by their insight and willing to do what they said. The director, who apparently is married for the second time after not being fulfilled in the gay lifestyle, has lifted my photos from my entry packet, and makes fun of them. His face is bright from his rattled throat spitting on the room, about how I presented FI’s, which is what they call false images. He said the pictures did not present someone who wanted change.
When I walked out of the meeting, I was not certain on what to tell my mom. Up to this point, I believed I deserved disrespect. I believed something was unethical about my sexual desires, and I was willing to expose myself to this spiritual authority, if that’s what it takes to fix me. We drove in silence to the hotel, and shortly after, I hopped in the pool. My mom sat nearby, and I slowly drifted to the side of the pool. I was heavy. I was afraid. Nothing in me felt right. “Mom. I feel like I am fighting to get into prison.”
“You’ll be fine once you’re here and settled,” she replied.
The next day was set aside for my psychiatric evaluation. The director mentioned this last minute, and said “Of course there is a fee.” “Yes, of course.” I paid the fee. I had the impression that my time with the psychologist would be calmer and bring clarity to what seemed like a mirky scenario. This was my last stop before I head back to Alabama and wrap up the final details before my move. I was hanging on to this idea that he would have new truth that I had never seen, so I could look forward to coming back.
I had previously filled out a Meyers-Briggs evaluation, and sent that back with my application. After his review of my application and assessment, he sat with me to share his findings.
“Nathan enters a room much like a debutant with verve and flourish, looking for someone to devour.”
Today, I am aware of someone who is speaking in a way that is projecting or causing unnecessary harm. I would never tolerate manipulation or an unsafe environment around mental health or care. That’s the hardest part about writing this, is that then, I agreed with him. I sat, and listened and became smaller and smaller as he had names for all the stuff wrong with me. All this, from a Meyers Briggs test.
When I returned to Alabama, I wrapped up the final details of my move. I was told they would be sending me my confirmation letter with the date for me to arrive. After a week went by, the letter never arrived, so I followed up. I spoke to the director again. “Oh, it should already be there. It will be there soon,” he said.
I had received other mail from them, including a letter asking me to become a monthly donor.
I became restless with the waiting and in between, so after another week I called and heard the words “Oh, you didn’t get the letter? We decided not to accept you.”
After hearing of the rejection, my world began spinning, and in an instant I felt I had been sentenced to a dead end life of traps. I found the words to ask why, and he responded “You are not ready for the program.”
My business. It’s gone. My clothes. They’re gone. My music. It’s gone. My car. It’s gone. My hopes for healing. Gone. I had no plan b, and what had been presented to me as the key to my healing was blowing up in front of me with a message the said I was not quite worthy of their program.
I was starting over. It was time to find new help.
When I shared with my pastor much of the inner-dialogue that was going on with my sexuality, he suggested I call him next time I am struggling with “acting out.” I was embarrassed to admit to my pastor “I can’t stop thinking of having sex with another male right now,” but assumed that this would be part of his offering to help me. He told me to meet him at the church office. When I pulled up, he had one of the elders from our church there. The elder had always made me uncomfortable, due to his lack of social skills. He often interrupted conversations to correct people, and interjected about how people should encounter God, Jesus, and religion. In this case he insisted on inviting an “anointed guy, who is gifted in rebuking” to come pray over me.
The three of us stood in the parking lot waiting for the final party. I assumed this elder now knows these parts of my story. I was as secretive as possible about my struggles with sexuality, and knowing he knew this about me, and that broadened my shame.
Finally, the 4th person arrives. My heart stops when I realize who he is. He is connected to my small town 30 minutes away, and our siblings are dating. I am horrified, numb, embarrassed, but feel this must be part of God’s plan. Once we are inside, I follow through with sharing the desires, while the elder and prayer warrior begin explaining bible verses about demon possession. The pastor knelt in the back.
Over the next hour, these men put their hands on me and shouted to Satan to leave me alone, and insisted the demon inside me leave. They both confirmed they felt and saw him, and when the demon did not come out, they said “He is hanging on. He does not want to let go.”
When the demon was never released, they ended our evening, with dry heaving, sweating, slurred speech and said “You are going to have to want this.” I left believing I was demon possessed and that I was still gay because I would not release the demon inside of me.
I went to Exodus conferences. Exodus was the mothership of all other ministries. Love In Action was born from Exodus. In 1999, several hundred of us gathered at Point Loma Nazarene University and listened to Dennis Jernigan sing about a celebratory God who loves us, but obviously needs to heal our sin. Sexuality. Sinful sexuality.
We went to classes each day learning about how to become more masculine and what it meant to identify with your gender, and why it was important not to be enmeshed with someone of the same sex, but only see them as a brother in christ.
They taught us to be responsible to repair the relationships with our parents. They taught us, that because of our sinful desires, our parents were put in unfair positions, and that they also hold a piece of our healing. So, even though my dad beat the shit out of me since I was a young kid, I was now going back to him, and trying to revive something that never existed to begin with. He was my new Love In Action.
In one of our classes, I was taught to place a rubber band on my wrist with instructions to pop my wrist each time I had a lustful thought about a man. I was consistent in both the pops of my wrist, and the lustful thoughts.
Through the next several years, I read many books over what it meant for young men and women who had same sex attraction, to surrender to God in waiting for God to reveal a greater calling. I remained hopeful that at some point the work I had put in would repay me 10 fold. I had a sensitive nature and deep love for God from the time I was a young kid. Thinking He was disappointed in me was something I had learned to live with, but knowing heterosexuality was attainable, left me in constant tension of trying harder to capture a deeper layer and level of God, so I can celebrate that I was finally like everyone else…straight.
Most people never knew I was involved in any type of conversion therapy. I became distant in my mid- twenties, where while I had removed myself from the Exodus movement, I still saw a therapist who had similar theories of why I was same sex attracted. He targeted my abuse as the culprit for my attraction to men (reenacting trauma) and painted fairytales of how I would feel romantically drawn to women once I surrendered all of myself to God.
So, I surrendered.
I gave up my twenties.
I worked really hard at my job.
I worked even harder at overcoming same sex attraction. So, I read the books.
I went to more therapy. I gave up intimacy.
I gave up affection.
I gave up companionship, knowing, hoping, waiting and then hoped someday, I was going to have surrendered the right dosage of my wounded masculinity, and God will feel like it’s time. It’s time for him to finally feel whole, and be attracted to a woman.
So, I kept going, and I saw conversion therapy as part of my faith. The two were not separated and God was overseeing my sexuality the same way the director of that conversion camp sees his campers. No logos. No secular music. No individuality. No freedom.
I committed everything.
Many people often ask why I stayed in this world for as long as I did, and I find it impossible to answer in a relatable way unless you grew up as a gay child in a southern baptist church, and in a family where you are treated like a piece of a broken puzzle.
It was what I knew. My earliest memories of hearing about gay people was that they were “mentally retarded and they sexually abuse kids.” So, you combine that, with my being molested at 13 by a gay man (who separately from his sexuality is a pedophile), and these things start compounding and while my real battle was wanting to escape my story altogether, I escaped the good stuff, and abandoned other alternatives to grow.
If you grew up in the evangelical culture, I think, you too have had some form of conversion therapy. Its role is meant to shape you to be pleasing in a way that keeps the system functioning as it is, and never question why. Your duty is to humbly serve, knowing that the most sacrificial way to identify with Christ is through the fellowship of His sufferings. So, our suffering, is a gift. An honor. A privilege, to suffer in His honor,
The following is an update on many historical figures in conversion therapy:
Two of the original founders of Exodus International left their wives in 1979, and became a couple while denouncing conversion therapy.
Exodus closed their doors in 2013, and the current president issued and apology for the harm they had done, and acknowledged that they are now aware conversion therapy does not work.
The founder of the Focus on the Family group, “Love Won Out” was caught in a gay bar in the thick of growing his ministry. Several years ago, he left his wife and is now living as an openly gay man.
The lead therapist in conversion therapy in the Mormon church, came out as gay last year.
The Family Research Council, also an affiliate of Focus on the Family, is an anti-gay organization who promotes conversion therapy and lobbies against LGBT rights. One of their founding board members has been quoted as referring to homosexual acts as “destructive.” He was found with a male prostitute in Miami, FL who accompanied him on a two week trip to Europe.
In 2006, the president of the National Association of Evangelicals, who preached that homosexuality was an abomination, was exposed for purchasing sex and crystal meth from a male prostitute.
Last fall, a conversion therapist who compares homosexuality to OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) and says it can be treated, was caught with a profile on a gay dating app that he frequented often.
Love In Action received unwanted attention when they were investigated for housing a 15 year old who was brought to the program in handcuffs by his father. The organization was eventually shut down for unlicensed staff distributing prescription drugs to the people attending the camp.
The director of Love in Action, shortly after its closing, came out as gay. When asked if he is sorry for the harm he caused, he says “I can not be held responsible for what these kids parents chose.” He recently confessed that he chooses to live in denial.
The psychologist who wrote my evaluation lost his license a few years after our meeting. He embezzled $81,000 of his clients’ money in a marketing scheme. He is no longer allowed to practice psychology. His arrest was enough for me to affirm what another therapists said regarding the cruelty of him writing a false evaluation on me being to tear me down, and have control over my well being.
This leaves me with a greater awareness that there will always be people who escape their own pain, while inflicting pain on others.
The worst update of all: Many, many chose to end their lives, because they felt conversion therapy was not working for them, and they had no other hope.
I am currently working through much of my grief and anger from these years. I have to accept that these years are what they are and they are gone, and I have learned that the sooner I grieve over this, the quicker I become that much more engaged and appreciative of today.
But for now, I have to relive this, and say the things out loud that torment me in silence.
“I wanted help. I would have done anything. Anything to heal! They tore me apart, and convinced me that I was unlovable as I was, and the moment I was emptied out, and hopeless, they sent me down a dead end path with no further options.”
My pain is written on calendars. I see weeks and months and years of what I missed. I know that my attempt was due to a fear of being rejected by God when my life here was over. I bought into this idea, that maybe I will be lonely here, but at least I would have enough of my treasures stored up in heaven to get in there.
A couple of weeks ago, in an intensive session with my therapist, I explained that I often go completely numb when I begin thinking of these details. I believe it is my bodies survival mechanism, but I am still aware that this all must come out of me. I can not have this unresolved and expect to proceed with the freedom, joy and resolve that is available to me if I heal.
My therapist lead me to speak to the twenty something Nate, and let him know how I feel. I was angry and aching over why he stayed in conversion therapy for so long. Why he didn’t listen to his sister Natalie who was saying “There is nothing wrong with being gay,” and instead of embracing love, mercy, compassion, or grace, I chose tension and performance. So, my therapist places an empty chair in front of me, and says “Tell him.” “Tell the Nate in his twenties what you want him to know.”
My voice escalated as I thought of that guy in conversion therapy not paying attention! I became angry and shaky, and just kept thinking “I am still undoing this now because you stayed there.” I begin to feel seen, heard, and justified. I am experiencing a relief from the tension, until Rafael, my therapist says “Now, swap seats.”
“Damn, I did not see that coming,” I say. I stood up, and before I am fully adjusted, sitting in the chair, my chest and back are shaking with grief and sorrow from all the words and angst that are being placed in that part of my life. I am remembering those days of always smiling and speaking of women in a way that was unnatural, while I brushed away invitations to be set up. I walked miles a day in a story, that I did not get to live. I daydreamed about what it would look like to surrender just enough to get Gods attention, and for Him to finally flip that switch, so I could reveal to the world, that I was a real man. A real, godly man.
In the meantime, I slept alone every night. I allowed my hope to be a time and place where I was married with kids, and in that space, it would be so full, that it overflows back in the spaces I felt so alone.
So, I wept. I wept, and moaned over the tension that I lived in every damn day, waiting, and hoping for change. But, in the meantime, needing to present to the world on a daily basis, what I thought “ok” looked like. All of the sudden I am feeling that tension, and remembering the loneliness of watching my friends ease in to their next phase with their marriages, and their kids, and their new homes, and their togetherness. I am still without symbols of growth that would say I was headed in the right direction. I tried. Then I tried harder, and after the days and weeks and months, I still went home alone.
Today, I am grateful for a new peace that comes from facing this grief and anger. I am finding that many of us have endured tremendous loss, and that while so many people want to apply band-aids to gunshot wounds, many of us are willing (and very able) to pursue the absolute freedom offered to us. Grieving over what I believed is the avenue for me to continue to enjoy today in ways I never thought possible. That has nothing to do with my sexuality, just simply a broken man who has been put back together.
My options had never increased more, then when I began to see the cruelty and lack of education with all of those involved in conversion therapy.
Conversion therapy has little to do with sexuality.
Conversion therapy is about the person who has been taught self-hate in intricate ways, to stay with that self- hate, and live in the realm with the people who taught them how to hate so well.
Conversion therapy is about keeping the cycle going that makes people feel safe, secure, entitled and unaware.
Conversion therapy continues to be about the hidden rules of those who are the sickest finding comfort in their own false security, and not taking responsibility for how they wound others.
It’s as if they enter a room much like a debutant with verve and flourish, looking for someone to devour.
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