Can you ‘pray the gay away’? There are some schools of thought within Christianity that say you can. Gay cure therapy, or conversion therapy as it’s often known, is championed by certain parts of the church who offer gay, lesbian and bisexual people the opportunity to ‘maximise their heterosexuality’ and attempt to become straight.
Many British readers might assume this is just something happening on the fringes of extreme American culture. But just this week a conference came to London entitled “Transformation Potential: An interactive conference event exploring unwanted same-sex attractions”. Held in Westminster, the conference taught that same-sex orientations are a sign of sinfulness, brokenness and are ‘a developmental aberration’. A representative from The Independent attended the event and wrote a useful summary of the day.
A huge number of medical bodies in both the US and UK have raised their voices against gay conversion therapy, highlighting the damage it can cause and the lack of any credible scientific or medical proof to back it up. President Obama recently condemned the practice in the strongest tones. Previously something that happened behind closed doors and out of the public eye, the practice has been gaining increasing profile and facing a fresh wave of much-needed criticism
My own journey with these church teachings and therapies is a very personal one. I have been a Christian all my life and come from a conservative church background. The churches I attended from childhood made it very clear that being gay was not an option for Christians. So, as I entered my teens and realised I was attracted to women and not men, it created a horrendous level of shame, fear and despair within me.
I remained silent about this secret for years. I told a Catholic Priest at the age of 14, hoping that he could ‘pray away the gay’. He heard my formal confession and said a prayer of forgiveness over me. That didn’t work, and as a result, my sense of shame increased. My impressionable teenage mind concluded that perhaps I was just too broken for even God to fix.
At 16 I attended a church meeting where people stood at the front and shared how God had ‘set them free’ from various struggles, including one girl who said she’d been ‘set free from homosexuality’. Vulnerable to these teachings, I asked the Christians at the meeting to pray for me to stop having same-sex feelings. They began doing what felt like a form of exorcism, commanding ‘demons of homosexuality to come out’, shouting passionately and gathering others around me to join in with the prayers. It confused and scared me as previously I had not thought of my same-sex feelings as anything other than emotional or psychological. To be told they were actually ‘demonic’ was chilling and left me feeling shaken to the core. The prayer session didn’t work, and as a result I developed a frightening level of self-rejection towards my orientation seeing it as something separate to my true self – something sinister and even ‘evil’.
To escape the feelings I was having toward other women, I threw myself into my job and became a total workaholic by the time I reached my mid-twenties. My work was in Christian music and speaking, so the negative teachings about same-sex relationships were something I was constantly exposed to week in, week out. Believing I’d never be able to have a life partner, I buried the pain by taking on more and more work, until my body grew so stressed and exhausted that I developed an auto-immune condition. Laying in a hospital bed, undergoing chemotherapy to treat it, I realised I needed to reassess my life and to come to terms with being gay. I came out in an interview with The Independent last summer, at the age of thirty-five. I still bear the scars of being told I could change my orientation if I just prayed hard enough, and the shame and trauma that results from those teachings and those practices.
Conversion therapy is often justified by its practitioners because ‘everyone deserves the right to seek help if they want it’. They often use the language of freedom of speech and freedom of choice to defend their work. This is totally flawed logic. Yes, everyone who wants therapy related to their sexual orientation should be free to seek it. However, the therapy they receive should be totally unbiased. Otherwise there is no genuine element of 'freedom of choice'. Conversion therapy is, in its very essence, utterly weighted toward heterosexuality, as it is founded on the belief that being gay is a sign of brokenness and sin.
One of the organisers of the ‘Transformation Potential’ conference in London was Mike Davidson who runs the Core Issues Trust. He believes that being gay is a “developmental aberration”. Vulnerable people seeking help to understand and navigate their sexuality should not be placed in the care of anyone who is pushing them to a premeditated conclusion where being straight is 'holy' and being gay is 'sinful'. For this exact reason many medical bodies have deemed conversion therapy to be harmful.
Another line of argument conversion therapy practitioners use to justify their work is that human sexuality appears, from various studies, to be fluid rather than fixed. I agree that human sexuality is fluid. Many people find their orientation shifts and changes through the years. However, this does not in any way support attempts to create a forced change to anyone’s sexuality. Rather it stands as evidence against such attempts; demonstrating that sexual orientation cannot be controlled through forced means as it is something that shifts and flexes of its own accord.
A number of gay cure therapists have admitted over recent years that they have seen little or no change in many of their patients. One famous case was Exodus International, the biggest US organisation in this field, which closed down in 2013. Its President, Alan Chambers, made a public apology which acknowledged that some of their his patients had seen no change at all, saying “ I am sorry that some of you spent years working through the shame and guilt you felt when your attractions didn’t change”
My strongest, overarching concern is why anyone seeks therapy to change their orientation in the first place. Within a church context, the primary reason people feel they need such a ‘cure’ is rooted in incorrect Bible teaching that make them feel they cannot be both gay and Christian. If such ideas were not taught in the first place, the desire for conversion therapy would no doubt disappear along with it.
I long to see the day when the church teaches a positive, inclusive message - that you do not have to choose between your faith and your sexuality. I am currently working with the United Nations to help spread that message to people of faith around the globe. Christianity is gradually moving in an LGBT-inclusive direction and that is heartening to watch. In twenty years time I hope that both ‘gay cure therapy’ and the damaging teachings that render it necessary in the first place, will both have faded away.
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