I have written an essay for the next edition of The Porch. It is about storytelling and how it is sometimes difficult to figure out the best way to tell a story.
In talking about my own bizarre, emotional, and sometimes confusing 17 year experience in conversion therapy, I believe the most emotionally honest storytelling I did was through the comic play I performed. I played eight different characters, and I did not appear as myself on stage until the very end.
For the essay, watched part of the film version of the play. I had forgotten all about the penultimate monologue when Chad talks about his brother Tad and their childhood visits to the small, tired, old zoo near their home. They told stories about all of the animals in the cages creating tales of how they got there. At the last cage Tad would always say they should sneak back into the zoo that night tolet all the zoo animals out of the cages. “And wouldn’t the zookeeper be mad about that!”
I always cried onstage at that point; those were my real tears. Although it was fiction, that was my real story.
And now? We have a new president with vice president who promotes gay conversion therapy and a Republican party platform that endorsed it. So what is an ex-gay survivor to do?
Perhaps I anticipated this. Back in May when creating my newest show, Everything is Connected–An Evening of Stories, most weird, many true, I decided to have a section about the ex-gay movement. I wanted to look at the lure of white male power and privilege that fed into the desire to de-gay myself for Jesus. I wanted to highlight the sexism and anti-fem attitudes in the churches where I tried to fit in. There were lots of other factors, but this idea of being “normal” was potent at the time.
I wrote about it this week in the Huffington Post. I reflected on the early 80’s, a period in history that reminds me a lot of where we are at politically right now. There were strong forces pressuring me to conform and to resist anything that wasn’t masculine and straight.
Beyond the methods, what I find more curious though arethe motivations that held me to this futile and ultimately damaging ex-gay path.
Literally coming out of the closet in my new place on Watauga Street in Memphis, 1999
Fear had a lot to do with it. I felt so much fear about the consequences of coming out gay. I felt terrified I would lose things that were precious to me: my parents’ love and support, society’s approval, physical safety, job opportunities, the possibility of having children, respect, membership in the church I loved, the love of God, and eternal salvation. I also feared for my life. HIV/AIDS had a 100% fatality rate, and at first people were unsure how it was transmitted. I lived in terror that I would get AIDS, die a horrible death rejected by my family, then spend an eternity of punishment in hell. That was a lot for a teenager to bear. So I caved under the pressure of it all.
Along with all those fears was another. In a world where rich, white, Anglo-Saxon straight, heterosexual masculine Protestant males ran everything, I was a gay, Roman-Catholic, Italian-American sissy boy from a working class family. I felt the fear of being powerless in a world that was so unlike me. In reaction to these fears I attempted to assimilate. I became a born-again Christian, enrolled in a conservative Christian college, and determined to decimate my gayness. Having felt the cabin pressure of power and privilege drop, I scrambled to win back as much as I could.
I recently sat down with Jon Watts over at Quaker Speak. He creates wonderful videos about Quaker life and practice. They are all so thoughtful and insightful. A recent one featured George Lakey focused on non-violent responses to terrorism. I have watched it three times already.
I love the series and watch all of the videos, so you would think I’d be thrilled when Jon contacted me and asked if he could film me. I wasn’t. I feel like such an oddball Quaker, like in Sesame Street when they sang, “One of these Things is Not Like the Others.”
My form of queer performance art goes down well with Quakers, but I did not think that it was a good fit for this sober, reflective wonderful web series.
In fact, the first time we attempted to film an interview, I had a dreadful cold and could only talk in a deep wet voice that sounded like a cross between Harvey Fierstein and Bea Arthur put through an audio filter on the frog setting.
The Reluctant Performance Artist
We tried again. Jon really wanted me to perform some of my monologues from my shows, but I resisted. Maybe because I like to be in control of my theater and to perform it in front of a live audience. While the content of shows may not change from performance to performance, each one is tailor-made for an audience. There is something extra special about the live presentation that can’t be captured on video.
So in our interview I only answered his questions and kept my characters and monologues to myself. He then asked permission to view my autobiographical play about my ex-gay experiences. It is something I have long ago retired and only now perform one short scene from it. It made sense to me that he go back and view it and see if it can be part of the interview.
For the Quaker Speak video Jon asked me lots of questions about my years trying to de-gay myself through all sorts of conversion therapy programs and ex-gay Christian ministries.
He was especially interested in how I survived. Ah, the role of Quakers in my life along with theater helped bring me back to like. I mention Diane Weinholtz in Hartford, CT, an out and proud Quaker who first told me about the Quaker meeting and worship. Thank goodness she did because I was desperate for a spiritual home even as I was completely unsure of my faith.
Recovery from trauma takes time. Sharing our stories can be liberating. It can also traumatize us anew. I find I speak less and less about my conversion therapy experience, but I do recognize the importance of the story and especially the lessons I learned in unpacking it.
Zack spoke with both Levin and Unger about the experiences of coming out and speaking out against the damaging treatment they received. Like many ex-gay survivors, it was not a smooth and easy road. It takes work to undo the damage.
“It was really really hard for me to adjust to general life,” Unger explained, noting that he struggled with major depression and anxiety. “JONAH constantly put in our heads that everybody hates the gays, the gay lifestyle is terrible, you’re setting yourself up for a miserable life.” Growing up in a conservative Orthodox Jewish community, he’d been exposed to such messages much of his life before his year with JONAH reinforced it even more intensely. “It sticks with you.”
Unger vividly recalls struggling with simple everyday experiences in the immediate aftermath. “I remember being on the subway after JONAH and thinking — neurotically — how everyone was looking at me and talking about me and thinking about what kind of a faggot I am. That’s just the word that was in my head. It was hard.” Very expensive therapy was required to help him work through the anxiety, depression, and haunting voices he dealt with on a daily basis.
Levin’s experience was quite different:
When Levin did finally allow himself to identify as gay, it made a huge difference. “I drew so much power from coming out,” he recalled. “Once I came out I was able to stop focusing on who I’m attracted to and start paying more attention to being abused and things I experienced at school.” Unfortunately, dealing with the abuse of his past, including sexual abuse by his cousin, would create many new obstacles for him moving forward.
But coming out can open a can of worms. The article goes on to talk about these two men entering the world of gay dating and the complications of shedding an old identity and developing a new one. I can attest to the years it can take to shed the skin of shame and doubt and homophobia that gets woven around a person who submits to gay conversion therapy. It is difficult and scary work.
Zack writes about the trial, the power and challenge of speaking out, and how these two men learned to live new lives. It is well worth the read for any ex-gay survivor and those who want to better understand the complications of coming out after trying to go ex-gay. It is not simple. In fact, I would like ever LGBTQ-friendly therapist to read this piece before working with ex-gay survivors. Thank you Zack for such a thorough and thoughtful piece.
Here is a blast from the past. In the 90’s I was deeply entrenched in the ex-gay movement in a futile attempt to de-gay myself. Two of those years I endured the Love in Action residential ex-gay program in Memphis, TN. There were plenty of weird experiences in a home jammed with gay dudes trying to straighten out their gayness together. We affectionately called this gay-to-straight boot camp, the Homo No Mo Halfway House.
Here is a true story about my first Christmas in the Homo No Mo Halfway House. So many bizarre rules and wacky responses from the staff. See for yourself what happens behind the doors of the world’s most ridiculous gay rehab.
For many years I lived as an Evangelical Christian who read the Bible as a flawless text that I took literally. In a world that seemed scary and chaotic, I found comfort in Bible verses, stories, and passages that explained the world around me and provided clear guidelines of how to live in it.
As a person who also happened to be gay, I also felt an extreme chronic conflict between my faith in Jesus and my sexual orientation. I heard and believed that I could not be both gay and Christian at the same time. I had to chose one over the other. The choice was easy for me–I wanted Jesus. I wanted to be as close to God as possible with nothing separating us. I was willing to count the cost and make whatever sacrifices necessary to either rid myself of my gay desires or hold them at bay, submitting them to God’s Spirit to tame or remove.
I spent nearly 20 years praying, reading the Bible, worshipping God daily, sometimes up to four hours a day. I memorized much of the Bible and delighted in the stories from both the Old and New Testaments. It wasn’t simply that I wanted to be straight, I wanted to be pure in heart, believing the promise: Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God. That is what I wanted more than anything in life. That and to continuously nuture the fruit of the Holy Spirit in my life.
Sadly I reaped a completely different harvest. Through the years I grew more and more depressed. I found I had less and less self-control. It actually seemed the more I suppressed my desires to be intimate with a man, the more extreme my attractions grew. I became more and more angry, anxious, self-hating, and confused. I even considered ending it all my distress was so great.
I had to admit that I was on the wrong path. “You shall know them by their fruits.” And the fruit revealed I was misguided. I coveted the straight life and masculinity with all of the acceptance and privileges that came with them. I was afraid of the consequences of being authentic.
When I finally came out gay, already in my thirties, I needed to figure out what to do with my faith, which was the most precious part of my life. I could not imagine living without being part of a faith community and without daily communion with God. I also trusted no one anymore when it came to the Bible. It seemed everyone had their own agenda both the gays and the anti-gays. The theology I read about gay people seemed so sloppy and skewed by strategic political messages.
So I had to take matters in my own hands. I needed to look at the text with fresh eyes, dispassionately, not to suit my needs but to simply understand it better. The good news is that I found all sorts of sexual minorities in the text and people who were very different from the other men and women around them. I ovelooked these people for many years in large part because I would not affirm people like that in my modern world, and I could not accept myself as one.
These days I talk a lot about the Bible. I tell lots of Bible stories, laying out what I have seen. I trust people who listen to apply what I share however they see fit. I’m interested in critical thinking and open handed interpretations of th Bible, readings that lead us to understand, accept, and love our neighbor as we do the same towards ourselves. Though a complicated series of writings, I have found that the Bible provides helpful on-ramps to self-acceptance and equality. Good News.
Gail Dickert knows a thing or two about the world of gay reparative therapy. She not only survived it, she has taken a stand as a witness about how harmful it has been for most of us that got lured into it. She also provides wisdom and sensible guidance to fellow ex-gay survivors. Over at Beyond Ex-Gay and at her own site with the awesome name, For Gail So Loved the World, she shares her story, her insights, and at time her justified rage.
This week she composed an excellent post, 10 Things to Know about Ex-Gay Survivors. I won’t reproduce the whole list here; visit the post to see the whole thing. I will highlight two that really spoke directly to me and explain why they mean so much to me.
Self-awareness and self-deception are sometimes intertwined and require patience from anyone who would seek to unravel it with her.
2. The ex-gay survivor is a person who may not want to discuss the obstacles that he still faces when it comes to sexuality because the cult-like logic used to shame him still travels sensitive neuropathways in his brain. Be aware what you can trigger for him.
At a recent performance where I stripped down to my underwear, an audience member asked me why I didn’t go all the way. I told her that I had some practical considerations. If I got totally naked, then there would have to be a warning about that for children, etc. Also, the play would then mostly be known as the show where this guy gets naked on stage. That sort of shocking display actually distracts from the revelation that I am hoping to share with the audience.
I went on to explain that as an ex-gay survivor I have had to learn how much to share from my personal story and the challenges that come to me when I share too much. I experienced trauma, and even though I chose to be a public witness about that trauma, that does not mean I am required to share every intimate detail of my life. Some things are too painful; others are too precious. Some things I need to keep for myself. Also, I need to tell my story at my own pace and on my own terms. Being forced to divulge information never works well for me. As a trauma survivor, I need to be careful that I do not re-traumatize myself in the telling of my story.
7. The ex-gay survivor is a person who knows more about her own identity development that the average person because she has been placing it under a microscope since a very young age. Self-awareness and self-deception are sometimes intertwined and require patience from anyone who would seek to unravel it with her.
I love this one so much, because it validates the hard long work of self-discovery that’s been a necessary part of my recovery process, while it also acknowledges the risk of self-deception. Like anyone coming out of an abusive relationship, for that is what many of my relationships with church and ex-gay leaders turned out to be, my sense of reality got skewed. I’ve needed to detox and fight to obtain a liberated brain. But this work does require patience, as it does with anyone coming out of oppression or privilege or a cult.
As we used to say in church, I need to no longer be conformed to a faulty pattern but be transformed by the renewing of my mind. Reading Walt Whitman, Audre Lorde, Doris Lessing, Bayard Rustin and Constantine Cavafy has helped me to renew my mind and to replace lies with beauty.
According to the Love in Action Website the Memphis-based ex-gay group no longer operates it residential program:
Love In Action’s Residential program has been suspended indefinitely. Simply put, there is a significant need to bring all of LIA under one location for it to be more cost effective. We continue to counsel and grow through our 4-Day Intensives, Hourly Counseling, Conferences, Support Groups, and Church Assistance Program.
I am thrilled that the sun has finally set on this part of the program–one that housed and harassed many of us these past 30 years. While they will continue to offer some limited services, it appears that they have begun to dismantle operations.
What better way to celebrate than you see the new documentary by LIA protester and filmmaker Morgan Jon Fox. This is What Love in Action Looks Like chronicles what happened when a 16 year old boy was forced to attend Love in Action and how his friends responded and ultimately help shut down the youth program back in 2007. Or pop in your DVD of Doin’ Time in the Homo No Mo Halfway Housse, now a HISTORICAL satire of the Love in Action program. =D
What’s worse than crabs in your crotch? Demon possession in your pubic area. This week Zack and I go where few gay male podcasters have gone before. (You will have to listen to the podcast for it to all make sense. Let’s just say, this is the scene they left out of The Vagina Monologues.)
Okay now the proper show notes:
She graced the pages of Glamour magazine. She stunned the nation on Good Morning America. She helped launch a movement (Beyond Ex-Gay) and NOW she is our guest on Queer and Queerer! Zack and I welcome Christine Bakke to the program. Christine is an artist, an activist, and an outspoken ex-gay survivor. As a lesbian who once tried to suppress and change her orientation, she now speaks out passionately about the dangers of treatments that try to “de-gay” you. She joins us to talk about the Prop 8 ruling, its implications for the Ex-Gay Survivor movement, exorcism, demon nests, and activist art!
Remember, send us your questions for episode 20! You can ask us ANYTHING.
Exodus International, the ex-gay umbrella organization which is fast fading from any sort of prominence, has often proclaimed the bold and yet obscure mantra, “Change is Possible!” To the many of us who suffered under the weight of homophobia & the pressure from family, friends & society who valued heterosexals over others they treated as sub-classes of human, we wrongly assumed “change” meant transformation from gay to straight. Once on the inside, program leaders informed us that such a change was not actually possible. They have since come out in public with similar statements. We now understand that such a change is not neccesary or healthy to pursue.
The journeys many of us have travelled in churches and with our faith & sexuality took unexpected twists & turns. I look back at that 19 year old I once was in NYC engaged in saving the world beginning with myself, and I recognize myriad changes (extreme thinning of my hair being one of the many physical changes.) My faith, my worldview, my understanding of my sexuality have drastically altered, yet I still see shades of the same person, who in many ways carries the similar values, insecurities & hopes.
Which brings me to some questions for you!
-In looking back on your own odyssey, in what ways have you changed? How have you remained the same?
-If you could send a message back in time to your younger self, what would you say? What advice, insight or encouragement might you share?