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On the Impossibility of Turning into a Giraffe

You will notice above this post a link to a new page. This page will lead you to the .pdf of a multigenre essay I wrote this past summer, entitled “On the Impossibility of Turning into a Giraffe”. (Alternately, you can click here.)

The essay details the history of Exodus International, from the perspective of former leaders and clients, as well as from my own experience. I have chosen to publish this story for free and online so that anyone may have access to the information therein, and learn about the inherent dangers of attempting to change one’s sexual orientation. I hope that this work might help anyone who wants to know more about this history, or who might be considering such treatments.

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Retreat

When I was in eighth grade, I went on my first winter retreat. I had been attending my church for less than a year, and this was only my second out-of-town trip with my church’s youth group, the first being a canoe trip the previous summer. I didn’t even know exactly what a retreat was, but it sounded like a lot of fun.

My youth group, as well as the youth groups of three or four other churches, traveled 45 minutes east to a church camp in Brown County, Indiana. The area, popularized by early-2oth-century painters who established an artists’ colony, is most famous for the “Little Smokies”, its rolling hills that turn brilliant red come autumn, attracting a million visitors a year, mostly in October. Tucked in these wooded hills was the church camp. Here, young people could get away, have fun, and learn about God.

The featured speakers of this trip were a foursome from Wichita, ranging in age from 18 to 23. They performed music (which I remember best because they insisted that we not applaud their performances, as “the praise should only go to God”), acted out goofy sketches, and most importantly, informed us of their most important mission: to assist youth in establishing Bible-study clubs in our public schools.

We learnt all the ins and outs of the Equal Access Act of 1984, under which we were permitted to start the Bible studies. There were stipulations, of course. A club had to have a faculty sponsor but could not actually participate in the meeting. We had to approach the school administration about starting the club, and the Kansans equipped us with all the documents necessary to do so. We could not publicize the Bible study with fliers, relying solely on word of mouth.

The most important matter they impressed upon us was that, if a public school allowed one club, by law, they had to allow for all clubs. If the school had a chess club, it had to allow a Bible study as well, as long as it abided by the law. Conversely, if a school allowed a Bible study, it had to allow any other club, even, as they told us, a Satanist club. (Why folks back then thought there were Satanists around every corner I have no idea, since I could see no evidence of it in my school. But t-shirts featuring heavy-metal bands like Metallica were supposedly a sign.)

My, how times have changed. The movement in recent years, in light of prominent cases of bullying and suicides, has been to start GSA’s–Gay-Straight Alliances–in public schools. These spaces are intended simply to provide moral support to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and other sexual- and gender-minority students, a respite from the taunts and violence they face. But it seems good evangelicals will not allow for this because, apparently, gays are worse than Satanists, and have been putting a stop to GSA’s at every turn.

The law looks a little different now, too. In her book The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children, Katherine Stewart details the impact of the 2001 Supreme Court decision Good News Club v. Milford Central School, which now gives broader permissions to religious groups in public schools, including (as Stewart details in the book) faculty-sponsored evangelism and the ability for churches to meet in public schools rent-free (and thus paid for by tax dollars, as the churches will use electricity, water, etc. paid with tax dollars). As to that last point, I bear in mind to point out that this is not the same as, say, when church caught fire when I was a senior and we rented from my high school until we could build and move into a new building a couple of years later. These are churches meeting in schools with no plans to vacate or pay rent.

But back to my earlier point, about “the gays” supposedly being worse than Satanists. This whole toxic mentality is so far removed from the Jesus I was taught about from the Bible. Matthew 5:44: “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (New International Version). I see little love from many evangelicals towards lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. Instead, I see vitriol, bitterness, and explicit moves to undercut any attempt to be treated equally under the law. (For instance, this article describes well the state of affairs with regard to same-sex civil marriage.) And I don’t see prayers for “enemies” being the most common response to the day. The ballot box and the lobbyist have replaced prayer.

I’m not a Christian anymore, but I’d be a fool  to claim that some of the ideals I learnt as a Christian haven’t stuck with me. Unfortunately, the values I most cherish and live by–love, equality, compassion–are becoming harder and harder to find in those who bear the name of the one who taught those values. I’m fortunate to know Christians who break this mold, and to them I say, live boldly, defy your leaders when they replace the pulpit with the political party, and may you continue to live graciously and compassionately.

Advance in love. Do not retreat.

Nuance

Well, yesterday’s post proved to be interesting. I had written the essay–dashing off 2,700 words in 90 minutes, and I never write that fast–to be posted to Facebook. It was only after I was finished that I thought it might be nice to post to my blog. The result is the most-viewed 24 hours I’ve ever had, which is particularly surprising since I publicized that entry less than usual.

And now I deal with the aftermath. Oh, that sounds more dramatic than I intend, but I figured there would be consequences to what I wrote–in fact, I believe that is true of every word we utter. Perhaps the biggest challenge is addressing misunderstandings regarding what I wrote. And I dashed it off quickly–I’ve already had to do some copy-editing since posting it, and ordinarily, something of this magnitude I would have written several drafts of beforehand. My argument is not as tight as it could be. So today I attempt to fill in the gaps and clear up the confusions.

I believe the simplest way to do this is to explain what I am not saying:

I am not saying that I expect people’s religious convictions to disappear, or for religion to disappear. Never mind the fact that I have operated within the religious worldview and understanding the thought processes, reasoning, and motivations intimately. From a far more pragmatic perspective, religion isn’t going anywhere. It’s been with us for thousands of years, and doesn’t show any sign of disappearing anytime soon. I know some atheists who won’t be happy until every vestige of religion has been wiped off the planet. Aside from the lack of respect involved in such a stance, I wouldn’t doom myself to a life of unhappiness in that way.

I am not saying that I don’t want people to abide by their convictions. After all, am I not asking for the same? What I am saying is that those convictions don’t have the standing to create laws by which some human beings are treated as inferior to other human beings. Yesterday I laid out why having a secular government is necessary for the protection of religious liberty, and why creating a theocracy not only punishes those whose views vary, but is no guarantee that your own religious views are going to be respected. But I am not trained in the law, and I don’t know how better to explain why this works than I did yesterday. I can tell you that, if you believe God gave you a brain, then God gave you a brain for a reason, and that God would want you to look deeply and contemplate whether what I have to say is true. Not just feelings and conviction, but reason and logic–wouldn’t you say that God gave you those as well?

I am not saying that you’re not free to believe that marriage should be between a man and a woman, or that business should close on Sunday, or whatever. I am saying that this belief is insufficient to justify laws that make me and millions of other people inferior in the eyes of the law. As one old friend, a conservative evangelical pastor, put it, “I need not approve of something to allow it.” That is using reason and logic. That is using nuance. Understand, though, that the belief is going to make it a good deal more difficult for us to be absolute-besties-forever. Some kinship of mind is most helpful in one’s closest relationships. On the flipside, one cannot negate the impact of shared history. It’s nuanced, see?

I am not saying that you are not allowed to express those convictions. You are free to believe and say whatever you want. But I am free to decide who to have in my life. It took me a long time to figure that one out, to gain the self-respect necessary to decide that people who are adamant in making my life worse do not have to remain in my life if I so choose.

I am not saying I only want to surround myself with people who agree with me. Heaven knows* that’s not the case in my life. I am saying that if someone maintains that the law should be written so that I am treated as less than a full citizen, it’s absurd to assume that that person can truly believe that I am their friend, since the word “friend” implies equal footing, not a relationship between superior and inferior. And if you think the law should see me as inferior, you are implying that you see me as inferior, whether you intend to or not.

I am not saying that I just don’t want to be offended. Some people who rail against politically correct speech get all in a lather about how it’s absurd for us to constantly worry about offending people. This line of reasoning misses the point. It’s not about offense, but respect. You have no control over whether you’re offending someone. That is in the other person’s court. You have complete control over whether you’re respecting someone. And not just saying you respect someone, as the owners of the NFL team in Washington say about their name. When the only people whose opinion on the team’s name really matters say it’s not respectful, the owners are betraying their intents when they say, well, we’re respecting you anyway and we just don’t understand why you don’t feel respected. Respect entails listening and honoring someone’s reasonable wishes. When you say you believe I should be treated as inferior to yourself in the eyes of the law, that is not respect.

I hope I have clarified the matters that sprung up from yesterday’s post. I hope people understand that I’m not trying to cut people out of my life willy-nilly. I am trying to develop a reasonable and healthy habit of establishing boundaries within my relationships so that all of us can lead the healthiest lives possible. Sadly, sometimes the exercise of those boundaries entails having to say good-bye.

*Understand I’m using the phrase idiomatically, and not betraying an actual deep-seated belief in heaven.

Analytics

Two posts in one day. If I’m going to procrastinate on something (*cough* homework), then I’m at least going to be a productive procrastinator.

One of the more interesting things about WordPress is that you can access very detailed analytics about who is reading your blog and how they are finding out about it. Amongst many tools is a feature that tells you what Google terms people are using to come across your blog.

The first fascinating bit of information is that, despite my very liberal leanings, people are finding my blog for a conservative perspective. This is, of course, because I once lived a conservative life, or at least failed to navigate a conservative world. And a lot of people have stumbled up on my blog via Google in the quest to become a heterosexual. I can tell this is the reason because of the exact words they use: “homosexual” rather than “gay,” “conversion therapy” or “reparative therapy” rather than “ex-gay therapy.” When I plugged users’ exact phrases into Google, I discovered that I was the very first post in some searches.*

I believe wholeheartedly in the power of the written word. People are coming across my blog because they are desperate to be “cured of homosexuality.” If my story of how attempting to do so nearly destroyed me can save even one person, then this will have all been worthwhile.

 

*By the way, if you write about very rare medical conditions you have, people will easily find your blog via Google, as well.

Dyssynchrony

Another one of the debates that I forgot to post yesterday regards age:

“The top programs are only interested in students who are younger, in their twenties, because they’re seen as more malleable.”

“But I started my MFA at a top school when I was well into my forties.”

So it’s another thing that I have to go with my gut on.

Some think I’m on a fool’s errand going into writing degrees at my age. They think I should go into STEM fields, since that is what is needed and therefore have better chances at earning a good living. But I think that it would be a fool’s errand going into fields in which I have proved that I have zero aptitude no matter how hard I work in them. I think it’s a fool’s errand to assume I am going to be able to amass considerable wealth in what years I have left–that is best left to those who have a twenty-year head start. Plus, I think that the recession proved how reliable conventional wisdom is–look at all the people who bought houses because they were an “investment.”

I lost nearly two decades of my life. I spent the first decade in ex-gay “therapy.” When you are given an impossible goal, and are told that that goal is the most important thing in life, everything else–education, career, relationships–ends up on the back burner, and because you’re investing all your effort into doing the impossible, you get nowhere. You are frozen. Everyone else around you is moving forward with their lives–finishing school, getting married, starting families–whilst you remain a teenager.

The past decade has been spent undoing the damage of the first decade. It meant working with real, actual, licensed, trained therapists, rather than just going to anyone with an ichthus on their shingle. It meant years thinking hard on who I am, what the world is, what is necessary, and what I want. It meant playing catchup with my peers, some of whom are at the leading edge of grandparenthood, whilst I am still seeking a BA and am still extremely single.

They call this phenomenon of being out of synch with your peers “developmental dyssynchrony,” and it’s where I live my life. I think I’ve made great strides in the past years to approach where my peers are, but I’m not there yet.

At the conference this weekend, I ended up spending more time talking with the authors and presenters than with the students who dominated the audiences, because we discovered that we are all almost exactly the same age. Spending time with them gave me a glimpse into my life five or ten years from now. Hopefully five. I want to keep closing that gap.

Unbalanced

I originally posted this story to I’m From Driftwood in May 2010.  It seemed an appropriate follow-up to yesterday’s stories.

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This is hard for me to write.  I risk incriminating people with whom I am making peace.  I now recognize that they, as well as I, were operating out of ignorance.  Yet I must tell my story on behalf of those with similar stories.  Many of them are unable to speak for themselves, either because they live in fear, or because they have already lost their lives.

I realized I “had homosexual temptations” during my senior year of high school.  I had no one to turn to with it.  I felt uncomfortable discussing it with church leaders, and the other youth group members spoke gleefully of “flamers” going to hell.  My last week of church camp before heading off to Bible college, I opened up to one of counselors.  He recommended I let the authorities at my college know about my “issue” so they could help me through it, so I could grow closer to God and be a witness to others, so that they might not go to hell.

I did so almost immediately after arrival.  They said I’d best not let other students know about my temptation, as I might upset them, and they strongly recommended counseling to help me overcome my attractions.  However, I convinced myself I could conquer my temptations on my own.  I’d read that I was probably just going through a phase.  God had the power to conquer any sin, and I was a Christian, a child of God.  This would ultimately be as simple as staying close to God.

However, it burdened me to hear other students speak of their own issues with sex, alcohol, and so on, whilst I was to remain silent.  I decided to confide in a few students I deeply trusted, for advice and spiritual support.  I fell in love with one of them.  Try as I might to guard that information, it leaked to the authorities.  They informed me that if I was to remain in school, I must attend regular counseling to overcome my “issue”.

The first two counselors claimed their technique could conquer any “sin issue” in six to eight weeks.  This proved to be wildly optimistic.  Making simple behavioral changes did not alter what went on in my mind and my heart.  It didn’t change my thoughts, desires, and hopes.  It didn’t change the dread I awoke with whenever I dreamt of holding hands with a man.

I then met for about two years with a counselor who had previously held a position of authority over me and with whom I still had some connections outside counseling.  In secular practice, this is forbidden.  The counselor is to approach the client with a clean slate, and influence outside the office taints the delicate nature of the counseling relationship.  However, in the church, authority figures routinely counsel those under them.

Those sessions proved difficult for me.  Despite my following my counselor’s advice to the letter, I still thought about men.  I wanted to hold hands with them, to kiss them.  I would fantasize about sharing my home with a man for the rest of my life.  Interestingly, thoughts of sex with men were rare.  I tried to shut down my sexual drive in order to avoid the inevitable guilt and shame.

All the while, my mental health spiraled out of control.  My lifelong depressive state began alternating with rapid, uncontrollable thoughts—paranoia, terror, self-destruction.  I felt that my evil homosexual desires were destined to be known regardless of what I did, that my Christian witness would collapse and I would cause people to go to hell.

One night, a random comment from an acquaintance tipped the scales.  I realized that I was a Christian, but I was also gay.  I had always been told that Christians go to heaven and gays go to hell.  I was thus a contradiction, and in my whirlwind mind, contradictions couldn’t exist.  I had to do something.  I had to end the contradiction.

I almost did it.  I almost flattened myself from a leap off an overpass.  But at the last minute, I called a suicide prevention line.

I spent ten days in the hospital.  They determined what others had suspected, that I had bipolar disorder.  I struggled to put my life together after my stay, but ultimately, it was best for me to move back to my hometown to recuperate.

Once home, I thumbed through the Yellow Pages and discovered an ad for a counselor who promised to deliver clients from homosexuality.  I leapt at the opportunity.  Here was a specialist, someone who would understand exactly what I was going through, someone who had helped others overcome their temptations.  Perhaps now I could conquer my shame.  Perhaps I could one day walk down the streets without strangers yelling, “Hey, faggot!” at me.  Perhaps now I would not cause someone to go to hell.

For two years, I got the same message.  “You have homosexual temptations because your father was distant and your mother was smothering.”  But my mother was pretty lenient.  Also, why didn’t my brothers have this issue?  “Well, it wasn’t that your father was distant and your mother was smothering, you just perceived it that way, and your brothers perceived it differently.”  We argued a lot.  If I was doing what he told me to do—stay devoted to the Bible and pray—and it didn’t have the desired result, he would tell me I just wasn’t doing it right or doing it enough.  If I fell away from the practice, he berated me for not staying close to God, that I clearly wasn’t serious about being healed of homosexual temptation.  He began demanding that I attend the same church as he, since his was the only local congregation who had ascribed to his therapeutic practices.  In the end, he closed his practice owing to finances.

Looking back over my journals from that time, I see I was already expressing doubts about these treatments.  I had had no results in nearly eight years.  But the message of the counselors and churches remained—I simply needed to work harder.  Until the point that I had no doubts that I was in fact a heterosexual, I would not have a close relationship to God, I could hold no position that even looked like a leadership role in the church, and I would be a “stumbling block” to others—I risked causing others to go to hell.

Two more years I continued with counseling from different leaders at church.  They told me nothing I hadn’t already heard.  Any doubts I had were quashed by the proclamation that I was not right with God.  Yet one reality grew clearer to me: the more I tried to draw close to God in the way these counselors had told me, the further from God I grew.  It is said that the definition of insanity is to do the same thing repeatedly expecting different results.  By this definition, I was insane.

I approached one of the counselors.  I told him it was clear to me that what he was telling me to do was actually pulling me further from God, not drawing me closer.  What if I were to remain in the congregation admitting that I was a homosexual—that I was gay—and that that was okay?  I didn’t even bring up whether I thought it would be okay to date or have sex or anything—I hadn’t reached those conclusions yet.  He told me that I would always be welcome in the congregation, but because they loved me, they would constantly warn me of the error of my ways.  I decided I could not live in that kind of unbalanced relationship.  That was the last day I attended that church.

It has been quite a journey since then.  I moved to Minneapolis, “The San Francisco of the Midwest.”  I have affiliated with religious groups who audaciously claim that God loves me—and everyone else—just as I am.  I am not beholden to mere human opinion.  My relationship with God is much closer than it was in my younger days, though its shape is much different from what I expected a close relationship with God would look like.  God is replacing bitterness with grace, resentment with reconciliation, and despair with hope.   Perhaps one day I will build a home with another man—or perhaps I will be single the rest of my life.  Regardless, I know that the love and acceptance I sought in God’s representatives, I have found in God.

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Interestingly, in the 1 1/2 years since I wrote this, I’ve grown increasingly agnostic.