(This article first appeared in the Huffington Post)
(This article first appeared in the Huffington Post)
While it feels like ancient history to me, my long and winding odyssey in what was called the Ex-Gay Movement, still informs a lot of my work. I spent nearly 20 years trying to transform myself into a masculine presenting heterosexual. These days I regularly receive questions from people about conversion therapy. Recently a friend of mine asked about a man he suspects has been through conversion therapy. Though married with children, the man has offered hints to my friend.
My friend is openly gay and wonderfully flamboyant. One would imagine an ex-gay would run the opposite direction. But the man keeps coming back. They don’t talk about “gay stuff,” but there an important exchange happening. My friend wrote wondering if this person is asking for help. He also wanted to know what advice I could give in connecting with someone who has been through conversion therapy.
Based on my own experience and the many people I have met who survived or who are still in conversion therapy, I shared some thought. In this blog I am sharing an edited version of my response:
People who pursue conversion therapy and ex-gay experiences have a unique experience; they are simultaneously drawn to and repulsed by LGBTQ stuff. They often live with internalized homophobia that radiates outward. While no longer receiving conversion therapy, the person may also live with all sorts of myths and prejudice towards LGBTQ people and LGBTQ communities. As a result they shun overtly LGBTQ spaces and events like Pride.
The folks at the Southern Poverty Law Center once asked me if ex-gay ministries should be considered hate groups. I responded: these programs are more like “self-hate” groups. Yes, they have done harm to the LGBTQ community, but that harm first comes to them and then spills into the world.
I find that even after people come out LGBTQ after a time in conversion therapy, they go through a period of uncertain allegiance. They no longer actively partake in the ex-gay/conversion therapy groups, but may maintain relationships with leaders who run them. It has been called dry gay relationship. There is still an affinity and draw to that anit-LGBTQ world. Like someone coming out of an abusive relationship, they can quickly come to the defense of their abuser when someone judges the abuser in a way that sounds too harsh to them.
I wrote a piece some years ago about the various types of harm that come to those to partake in ex-gay treatments. It affects us in emotional, psychological, sexual, spiritual, and physical ways. It can also negatively affect our career path and relationships years after coming out.
Recovering from the conversion therapy process is complicated. Therapists need to take care to help someone understand what they went through. One of the most helpful things someone who has received conversion therapy can do is to determine WHY they have pursued this course. While this may sound like a simple question, often there are hidden motivations under the religious crust. I did a video about this that helps point out some of these less immediately obvious reasons, particularly to the person pursuing “change.”
If you can help the person to articulate why they are pursuing this, that can help. Sometimes I ask, “If you miraculously won’t up 100% straight and masculine, how would you life be different? How would this affect your relationships with family, friends, work, church? What differences would you experience?” This is a way to begin to get them to think what they are really after, and at the end of the day, it often has precious little to do with pursuing Jesus.
Finally, fear and shame often choke the life out of ex-gays and people involved with conversion therapy. This is true of conversion therapy survivors as well. This toxic mix makes it hard for folks to think clearly. In my experience it was like my brain had been removed and handed over to the church and sat pickling on the shelf of some pastor. The fear and shame kept me from accessing my critical thinking.
This fear also made me skittish. If someone came along to challenge my determination to “de-gay” myself, I ran away in fear. Fight or flight kicked in as I thought, “If I keep talking to this person, they are going to say something that will destroy my faith and my limited success fighting my gay side. Ultimately I will hell!” So when speaking with someone still in this work know that if you push too hard, the person may push you away.
I ended my email to my friend this way:
You have experience with people who suffer sexual, emotional, and physical abuse. In many ways think of the person who endured conversion therapy as someone in an abusive relationship. That complicated world of abuse is wrapped up in many layers and have multiple negative consequences.
The best thing you can do is to be there for him and remain a gentle, safe, gay presence in his life. He will keep coming back. Hopefully one day soon he will open up.
It was 1994. I was deeply homophobic, particularly towards myself. I was trying to go straight for Jesus and everyone else–not an easy thing in NYC even on a normal boring day. I lived in NYC with constant temptation to break my resolve to avoid anything gay. Then they descended for the Gay Games. Thousands of gay athletes in skimpy clothing.
Hearing Sarah Fishko speak about this moment in NY history during her recent broadcast on WNYC Radio, I was transported back to that weird time and space. For Fishko Files she did a short piece about the groundbreaking play, Angels in America. She recaptured that time period–the HIV/AIDS struggle 10 years on and the art that tried to make sense of it all.
Hearing that report got me remembering.
I remember how the city filled with gay men for the Gay Games. I trembled–not with excitement but with fear. I had been living in NYC for 10 years and the whole time I felt desperate about being gay and sought a “cure” through conversion therapy.
As the HIV/AIDS Crisis began and grew, there was an underground scene of gay men trying to go straight for Jesus. LIFE Ministries, an ex-gay, gay conversion therapy group a began in NYC in the early 1980s. It soon became part of a larger network of Exodus “ex-gay ministries.”I was 19 when I first attended in 1984, a Christian studying at nearby Nyack College. I plunged headlong into a world of support groups that tried to pray and counsel the gay away.
While gay men partied, organized, and suffered, another group of us hopped onto a Noah’s Ark of sorts. From prayer therapy to exorcisms, I was desperate for a way out of being gay. Why? My Christian faith played a role, as did the fear of AIDS. The rise of Conservatism and Ronald Reagan made me feel small as a queer working class Italian Roman Catholic in a very white Protestant butch heterosexual rich world.
Then the gay athletes came to town and I hopped off the subway at midtown to hang out at the hotel where many of them stayed around 34th street. I walked and gawked and longed for connection, community, anything, knowing that once I had it, I would slink back to church to repent of it.
That was a long time ago. Shortly afterwards I stood on the subway platform feeling hopeless and ready to give up. I went through even more intensive conversion therapy at a residential facility in Memphis. Then in 1999 I came to my senses and came out gay. Since then I have been using art and therapy and community to make sense of my experiences.
Those were desperate times. And the times we are in today feel similar in parts of the world. For some queer folks in the USA, it is dangerous. These are times when people may harm others and harm themselves in the midst of political madness. I have hope though this time that most gay (and bi, trans, lesbian, genderqueer) kids will not fall for the bait like I did, and instead stand up, act up, and live life fully.
Intersectionality is at last a term that is being talked about in more places. There is a growing understanding about how our lives intersect, overlap, influence, and too often interfere with each other. This interference happens with some groups far more than others.
“Intersectionality (or intersectionalism) is the study of intersections between forms or systems of oppression, domination or discrimination. An example is black feminism, which argues that the experience of being a black woman cannot be understood in terms of being black, and of being a woman, considered independently, but must include the interactions, which frequently reinforce each other.”
This may sound too academic for some. In my own work I use comedy, memoir, and storytelling to explore the interplay of power and privilege in my own weird life. I spent nearly 20 years desperately trying (and failing) to become a masculine heterosexual.
There were many reasons I pursued this ridiculous and ultimately dangerous course. My Conservative anti-gay faith at the time played a big role. The HIV/AIDS Crisis added pressure. Fear and shame soaked my brain and caused me to consistently make poor choices.
I also have to admit that as a fem, gay, working class, Roman Catholic, Italian American in Ronald Reagan’s America and then in white Evangelical churches, I felt a distinct loss of power and privilege compared to what other white men experienced. In part, my quest to become straight was so that I could become a recognized member of the group that was most protected from oppression, domination, and discrimination—white, anglo saxon, heterosexual, masculine, Protestant, upper middle class, married, healthy men.
As a result, I submitted to oppression, domination, and discrimination in Jesus’ name in hopes I would come out a winner. I am not proud of this fact, but I understand why I felt so desperate to change myself so deeply.
Since coming to my senses and coming out gay, I keep finding oppression, domination, and discrimination in the worlds I inhabit. At times I experience oppression in the world in part because of my gayness, but I also move in and out of privileged spaces.
When I came out gay among white gay men in Memphis, I witnessed racism, sexism, classism, and transphobia among my peers. I saw similar oppressions in progressive liberal LGBTQ communities in New England. In fact, I see this happen in many areas of life and society.
As I have begun to do work around climate change, I see over and over how climate change affects women more than men, people of color more than white people, and lower income earners more than middle class and upper class people.
In short, when it comes to religious communities, queer organizations and community, and also on a rapidly warming planet:
The good news is that as we can become aware of a variety of experiences in the world, and we can work in solidarity with diverse people. While it often feels painful to have power and privilege revealed in ourselves, our work, lives, and our relationships are richer all around, more sustainable, and more justice minded when we see things in the light.
For me climate change is the most pressing issue of our time. Still I must recognize that people different from me are in immediate conflicts, crises, and concerns that are most pressing for them.
Who has the energy to take it all in and care for it all? While I understand my current leading is to break the collective silence about climate change and stir up Americans and their ability to engage in collective political action, I feel it is my responsibility to understand and to grow in understanding about many current issues that need vital, sustained attention: incarceration and the systemic racial injustice in the criminal justice, immigration policy and the policing of migrants, immigrants and their families, threats to the rights and freedoms of women, indigenous rights to land and clean water, and the array of issues that queer, transgender, gender non-binary, bisexual, lesbian, same gender loving, and gays face, (and how these queer lives and bodies intersect with immigration, criminal justice, indigenous rights, women’s rights, health care, etc.)
Finally, in these days of political turmoil, one can feel overwhelmed and unfocused. Many people are discerning their roles on this rapidly changing planet. With so many important issues tugging at us, many of us must discover our leading and calling so that we can remain focused.
As we do, we need to develop the willingness and ability to encompass other issues, some that overlap our own passions.
I’d love to hear your thoughts and feelings about these important issues. What are some of your answers to the questions above?
Mary Newman, a Londoner, has created a podcast with a delicious premise.
The Escape Podcast is an audio series showcasing first-hand accounts of extraordinary exits: literal leave-takings and figurative flights, and those in between. We want to explore “escape” as an experiential category of transition and transformation in the face of constraint.
Episode One: William Drummond opens about his life in and out of the Church of Scientology, from which escape is always an ongoing process.
Episode Two: Countess Amanda Feilding discusses the art and history of (self-) trepanation, and other, less literal, means of consciousness-expansion (i.e. psychoactive substances), her journey discovering them, and how they can help us.
And in Episode Three: ME!
Peterson Toscano reflects on his seventeen-year campaign to become “straight,” his salvation from Salvation, and queer wisdom brought back from the culture wars.
Some people do not know that some of my sordid ex-gay experiences, exorcisms, and conversion therapies took place in England. I talk about these and much, much more.
As someone who survived ex-gay ministries and conversion therapies in the name of religion, I am always cautious when reading narratives about similar experiences. There is always a risk I can re-trumatize myself. After my partner, Glen Retief, attended a reading by Nigerian-American author, Chinelo Okparanta, he insisted I would find her novel, Under the Udala Trees, both beautiful and moving.
Glen was so right in large part because Okparanta is such a skilled writer. She expertly recreates the Bianfran/Nigerian Civil War as we see it from a child’s eye. The horrors of this conflict and the extreme hunger people experienced are illuminated along with loving acts of survival and caring. This little girl, Ijeoma, is sent away by her deeply religious Christian mother for her own safety and survival. While away, Ijeoma enters puberty and begins a a romantic and sexual relationship with another young woman, a Muslim around her age who is also displaced by the war. Eventually they are discovered. Ijeoma is sent home where her mother attempts to “cure” her of her lesbian orientation.
From the Amazon site:
As Edwidge Danticat has made personal the legacy of Haiti’s political coming of age, Okparanta’s Under the Udala Trees uses one woman’s lifetime to examine the ways in which Nigerians continue to struggle toward selfhood. Even as their nation contends with and recovers from the effects of war and division, Nigerian lives are also wrecked and lost from taboo and prejudice. This story offers a glimmer of hope — a future where a woman might just be able to shape her life around truth and love.
For folks like me who were bullied about my sexuality by Bible passages, Okparanta brilliantly goes through these clobber passages and deftly addresses the inaccuracies of interpretations by anti-LGBTQ religious leaders. Her young character, Ijeoma, uses simple logic to help herself stay grounded in the midst of the biblical barrage leveled against her by her mother.
Under the Udala Trees works on so many levels–as good literature, as a way for American LGBTQ to experience a Western African story of a young woman who loves another woman, and a means for folks like me who have been traumatized by cruel and inaccurate biblical interpretations in order undo some of the damage.
The book reads well, but if you enjoy audio books, you may want to check out the Audible version narrated by Robin Miles. She interprets the story well and flows seamlessly in and out of English.
Seems these days no mater what topic is important to you, there is genuine uncertainty to what the future holds in the USA and beyond. Endless speculating is going into the cabinet selections made by President-elect Donald Trump and how these men (well mostly men) will shape policy regarding criminal justice, pollution, women’s rights, foreign affairs, and LGBTQ issues.
Virtually every news report I read highlights how a particular proposed cabinet member has historically stood opposed to the very agency he will likely head. Then perhaps looking for a silver lining in the forming storm clouds, the writer speculates on how that cabinet member might actually do something useful in his position. I’ve seen headlines about Rex Tillerson being a potential campion of LGBTQ rights globally.
This EXXON oil executive also dropped the news that he sees climate change as “just an engineering problem.” Climate advocates, who have grown more and more alarmed at a cabinet of men dismissive of climate change and its human causes, might possibly draw some hope from this statement. I mean Tillerson is suggesting that he sees climate change as a problem. That’s something. A tiny morsel. And in looking at it as one that requires engineering (geo-engineering?) will this lead to an open discussion about the cost analysis of jerry rigging the atmosphere compared to what it will cost and what we might gain when we reduce the pollution we have been pumping into it?
Possibly. But the only thing we can say is that we simply do not know.
As we look ahead to 2017, my gaze has been cast back to the past, nearly 20 years ago when I was still trapped in dream to become a masculine-presenting, fully-functioning heterosexual. It was a dream that rose out of the politically conservative and anti-gay world of the early 1980’s. I got trapped into a time capsule for nearly 20 years. When I finally emerged in 1999, like Kimmy Schmidt out of her bunker, the world had begun to shift towards a wider inclusion of LGBTQ people and a path to legal rights and protections.
People now worry if some of the gains will be lost. Will we have to fight the same battles over again? Will the world of conversion therapy raise its ugly head again? Possible, but the only thing we can say is that we simply do not know.
What we do know is that LGBTQ rights have already been challenged in the USA, particularly for transgender people. 2016 was the year of the bathroom bills. Even Elizabeth Jeremiah, that funky church lady with wild notions, chimed in.
And while gay conversion therapy in the USA has been greatly challenged and reduced, it has expanded globally with American exports of it in Eastern Europe, Southern Africa, throughout Latin America, and parts of Asia. In the USA one can still find ex-gay groups and praying away the gay still happens at lots of churches, gays and lesbians are far less the target of these treatments that they once were. There are even laws banning the practice for minors.
As I wrote this week in the Huffington Post though, these bans do not affect the type of conversion treatments people receive through churches and Christian counseling. And while there may be a decrease in this practice targeting gay and lesbians youth and adults, from what I have been hearing from transgender activists, it is a dangerous practice perpetuated against transgender and gender non-binary youth and adults.
My friend, Diana, a trans equality activist in New England, informed me of the 2015 US Transgender Survey. Professionals counseling a person away from being transgender is so common that the researchers included it in the survey. The respondents reveal the devastating effects.
Participants who had a professional try to stop them from being transgender were:
- Far more likely to currently be experiencing serious psychological distress (47%) than those who did not have the experience (34%).
- More likely to have attempted suicide (58%) than those who did not have the experience (39%).
- Nearly three times as likely to have run away from home (22%) than those who did not have the experience (8%).
- More likely to have ever experienced homelessness (46%) than those who did not have the experience (29%).
More likely to have ever done sex work (18%) than those who did not have the experience (11%).
I conclude the piece with some reflections about our work ahead, and need to embrace multiple issues at the same time while figuring out which ones we can regularly take on while supporting people and groups doing the work we cannot.
While I am concerned the conversion therapists might feel they have been given another chance to do their business on LGBTQ youth and adults, I am far more alarmed about the potential rolling back of legal rights and protections for LGBTQ people. State and local as well as federal efforts to undermine LGBTQ access to housing, employment, health care, marriage rights, adoption, and immigration need to be closely monitored and assertively rebuffed by lawmakers and citizens regardless of party affiliation.
Sadly these fights may well distract many of us from other areas where our attention in needed: prison reform, energy policy, eradicating homelessness and poverty, supporting for LGBTQ seniors, improving policing practices, and a host of other issues. These are days we need to be focused and disciplined, supportive of each other, willing to take on what we are able to do, asserting our rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
One response from many LGBTQ orgs is to request more financial donations. No doubt justice work costs money as well as effort. As I did in 2016, I commit to monthly donations to the Transgender Justice Funding Project, “a community-led funding initiative founded in 2012 to support grassroots, trans justice groups run by and for trans people.” While lots of people are on limited budgets, many Americans can make the necessary sacrifices to donate regularly to a cause that is essential in the days ahead.
Happy 2017. May it be filled with greater freedoms, more opportunities, and closer knit communities.
Back in 2008 I retired my play, Doin’ Time in the Homo No Mo Halfway House and handed off my responsibilities for Beyond Ex-Gay to other survivors like Dr. Jallen Rix, and Gail Dickert, who were telling their stories as witnesses. I moved onto LGBTQ Bible scholarship and most recently creative responses to climate change.
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.
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.
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.
Jon expertly edited in scenes from my play Doin’ Time in the Homo No Mo Halfway House, which was filmed in Memphis, TN back in 2008 and edited by the wonderful filmmaker, Morgan Jon Fox. Morgan also created the documentary, This is What Love in Action Looks Like. Jon Watts then wove in the play with the interview.
Trauma, Recovery, Survival
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.
Here is the video Jon Watts created: How I Survived the Ex-Gay Movement with Theater. Visit the Quaker Speak Site for full transcript.
We cover lots of ground in the first part of my interview with the Student Christian Movement in the UK. In particular we talk about comedy and how it can be used to explore trauma and oppression. I guess you can say that comedy is a subversive art. In using it, we do change the way our audiences feel and think. Perhaps this is why some folks are so resistant to humor.
Still some people get so caught up in the words that they miss the point. That or they get confused that the topics I pick are so deadly serious, they fail to see the humor in it. In a way that is understandable–what is so funny about cancer or homophobia or global warming?
The role of the artist is not simply to entertain, but at times to use comedy to focus us in on an issue deserving of our attention. But comedy comes with risks that people will not get it or appreciate it. And the risk that we can get it wrong.
Most recently Pat Boone, the pop singer of old and a white American Christian icon, has spoken out about a parody on Saturday Night Live. The sketch comedy piece reveals the heterosexism that is at the heart of much of the anti-LGBTQ Christian rhetoric. It is satire about how some Christians say they are the most oppressed group in the country (the white Christian woman character says this to her Black friend.)
It is clearly over the top, exploiting and exploding stereotypes that some Christians have about gays and that some liberals have about conservatives, but it makes an important point about the lengths some folks will go to force God and religion to give moral authority to oppression. As I say in the interview, comedy can be a tool to expose injustices.
Many of your performances employ humour and comedy to make serious points about LGBTQ+ inclusion, gender, climate change and other issues close to your heart. How does humour help you tackle these and other issues?
Humour relaxes the body and the brain. When we experience fear and shame, we physically tense up. This tension happens in the brain too – neural pathways close making it harder to reason and retrieve information. This is why when we begin to panic, it’s easy to forget simple instructions. Comedy helps to loosen us up. This is especially important when talking about hot topics like sexuality, faith, gender, climate change, and justice.
Comedy also helps to shed light on issues and expose injustices. While it is true that comedy can be violent, for example when it mocks others, it’s a powerful tool to help us see our own shortcomings as well as to highlight the flaws in systems and in the way the world works. The role of the court jester is not simply to entertain, but to say the things that people are often too afraid to utter. The comic jab can lead to revelation and action.
I agree that comedy can be and has been used to hurt others and dehumanize people and groups of people. It can be rude and crass and disrespectful. But I have found over and over that it is a way to bring people closer to hot topics that desperately need our attention.
Also, feel free to share with me your thoughts about comedy. When does it work for you? When does it cross the line? What are examples of comedy that does social good.