An Evangelical Christian charity has been accused of "cult-like fundamentalism" after it released a viral video which claimed that gay people can change their sexual orientation if they pray hard enough.
Anchored North circulated the video through Facebook and YouTube, disguising it as a pro-LGBT+ coming out story.
The video, titled Love is Love – a term of empowerment for the LGBT+ community – follows a young woman named Emily Thomes, who the group claims spent seven years living as a lesbian before leaving her partner and attending weekly Bible study.
The US-based group claims that the "weekly examination of the holiness of God" changed Ms Thomes' sexuality.
Conversion therapy – a term used to describe any form of treatment or psychotherapy which aims to reduce or stop same-sex attraction or suppress a person's gender identity – has been discredited by many medical and mental health organisations.
Anchored North has been criticised by LGBT+ organisations and Christian groups alike for the video that has been viewed nearly 2 million times since it was first posted on 27 December.
Christopher Butler is a former Evangelical Christian who went through a number of gay cure therapies throughout his teens and twenties, including a demonic exorcism, which included three church ministers pinning him to a floor and press a Bible down on to his head.
He told The Independent that the video filled him "with sadness" and that he was still dealing with the repercussions of conversion therapy now in his early fifties.
"Most of the people who put me through these abuses were well meaning, but deeply misguided," he said. "That doesn't diminish the damage caused to my day-to-day life or my long-term psychological wellbeing.
"Battles with anxiety and depression have seen me crash out of several jobs. I've also struggled to make relationships last for any length of time. Residual guilty, anxiety and fear have once again played their part.
"The myth you can change someone's sexual orientation is deeply deluded, nor does the Bible demand it. Most people accept their English translations of the Bible as infallible, precisely because it's the Bible. They are not.
"Dare I also say that many Christians select out the bits they want to hear and blank out the rest? I certainly did in the past."
The video starts with teenagers laughing, dancing and having fun, while Ms Thomes tells the story of meeting her first girlfriend, coming out to her parents and getting engaged.
But she then reveals that exposure to a Bible group led her to question her life and identity, and reanalyse Christian scripture.
"I Googled verses on homosexuality and those who practice homosexuality, which was me, and also drunkards and a bunch of other things that I would have been," she said. "I realised I was in the 'will not enter the kingdom of God' line-up and it scared me. Really, really bad."
She goes on to suggest that she needed to be "saved" and "changed".
She continues: "People say to me all the time: 'I was born this way.' I say: 'OK, yeah, me too.' You're not born with right affections, that's why Jesus had to come. You feeling a desire for sin just proves you need grace like me."
Ms Thomes is then shown at the end of the video in an intimate relationship with a man. She says: "God calls us not to heterosexuality but to holiness".
Jeremy Marks, a gay Evangelical Christian, started a group known as "Courage" in 1988 in a bid to "cure" homosexuality. But after decades of failing to change his sexual orientation, which included a marriage to a woman, he went against his church.
"Courage" is one of the first ever Evangelical groups to accept LGBT+ people.
He told The Independent that groups like Anchored North were founded on "cult-like fundamentalism" and that videos like this one were "an easy road for young people to begin feeling oppressed and condemned for being who they are".
He said: "It's real insidious brainwashing and most unfortunate when people get caught up in this culture – which so often puts you in a position where it seems that unconditional love and belonging to a caring Christian community is an offer, provided that you make your life conform to the heterosexual norm.
"And of course, your eternal destination is seen to be at stake: obey God and you go to heaven, disobey and you go to hell – to be tortured forever. It is a black and white choice, or so it seems.
"Whole communities belong to these big churches so often there is nowhere for the LGBT+ person to go without being surrounding by folk disapproving of your 'lifestyle choice' – as many American Christian fundamentalists like to think of it. This means to make a choice to be yourself not only means alienation from your church but from your family and friends as well – which is too great a burden for many people to bear."
Mr Marks closed down Courage in 2012 and the Two:23 Network was formed in its place. The group is for gay, bisexual and trans Christians.
"Certainly in my experience any kind of so-called conversion therapy doesn't work at all, but rather does more harm than good," he said. "But [Anchored North] assumes that obedience to Christ and the Bible is all that is needed to 'fix' your life and deal with or 'overcome' temptations from 'ungodly' LGBT+ living.
"My argument is if you don't face the truth about yourself, you are actually buying a lie that comes not from God who created us as we are, but from an interpretation of the scriptures that is in fact very superficial, culturally biased and quite false."
The Royal College of Psychiatrists said in 2007 that "there is no evidence that [changing sexuality] is possible", and last year the Church of England called on the government to ban conversion therapy.
The motion was proposed by Jayne Ozanne, who underwent conversion therapy which resulted in two breakdowns and two spells in hospital.
She went on to found the Ozanne Foundation, an LGBT+ faith charity.
She told The Independent that conversion therapy only lead to self-hate and depression among LGBT+ people and called for Facebook to ban videos like Anchored North's.
"I'm truly shocked by this manipulative and dangerous video," she said. "I myself experienced conversion therapy and know that I too believed it to work for months, even years sometimes. I am now convinced though that this was more to do with the psychological trauma that was being inflicted rather than the work of God.
"Long term, it does not work – it purely causes significant mental anguish and distress to the individual concerned."
Paul Twocock, director of campaigns, policy and research for LGBT+ charity Stonewall, told The Independent that videos like that of Anchored North's could cause huge damage to young LGBT+ people who came across it.
"As can often be the case, this video is covert in its presentation of conversion therapy, disguising itself as a positive message for young LGBT+ people," he said.
"Any form of 'therapy' that attempts to change someone's sexual orientation or gender identity is unethical and wrong. Young LGBT+ people who are looking for advice need to be able to easily access high quality and inclusive support, not risk being exposed to prejudice and harmful practice.
“Stonewall has been working with the professional bodies that oversee psychotherapy and counselling practitioners, NHS institutions and other counselling providers to develop and implement a code of conduct. This ensures professionals linked with them do not provide any sort of conversion therapy in their practice, and that they understand how to appropriately support LGBT+ people.
“But that positive piece of joint work has no impact on unprofessional or unregulated providers, or on content from other countries that reaches young LGBT+ people through social media. We need to find an effective way to prevent all organisations from offering these dangerous and damaging so-called therapies.”
The Independent reached out to Anchored North for comment but no response has arrived at the time of publication.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies