Before I started “Pray Away,” the new Netflix documentary about conversion therapy, I dug out my journal from the fall of 2002. I had just come out to my wife and ministry colleagues that spring, and I had started Christian counseling to deal with my “broken” sexuality. My therapist told me about a program called Living Waters that was starting soon in our area. It was a ministry of Desert Stream Ministries, led by “former homosexual” Andy Comiskey. I read his “Pursuing Sexual Wholeness” and loved it. I wanted to be free from my “sexual and relational brokenness,” and I was willing to do whatever it took to be healed. But as the day got closer and closer, I got more and more nervous.
9/23/02 – Living Waters starts tomorrow, and I’m scared of seeing someone I know. I hate that I have to go. I feel like such a loser. Never dreamed I’d be the one who was having to go through counseling and support groups for homosexual sex addiction. Mom? Dad? Where were you? How could you stand there and let me face this by myself? I love you so much – and I want to protect you by keeping all the blame, but you failed me, and you are the cause of some if not most of this struggle. I’ll admit to acting on it, perpetuating it, hiding it… but NOT causing it. What if I go to Living Waters and get a crush on someone? It’s happened before, only this time I’ll know they’re gay and struggling with temptation issues. Father, in the name of Jesus, lead me NOT into temptation but deliver me from evil. May I have healthy, mutually encouraging relationships with Living Waters participants. Forgive me for the little part of me that WANTS to sin in this way, that doesn’t want to give it up. Forgive me. Help me.
9/24/02 – It’s tonight, and I’m pretty preoccupied thinking about it. What a strange day. [My wife] wondered at lunch why I was “dressed up.” I was wearing my new pants. It was more dressy than usual, and I guess if I have to really be honest, I wanted to look nice for Living Waters. Not sure why. Do I want to look attractive to men there? Maybe. Anyway, this afternoon I had this freakish thing happen – I dropped a can of soda on the kitchen floor and it proceeded to blow up all over me and my pants. Ok, God I get it. Oh, I was so mad!! So then I drove to Living Waters. I couldn’t sit in the house any longer. Good thing, because I got there at 6:25pm. I cried on the way over. Just so afraid and nervous and jittery. It was sort of like I expected, but there were only 20 of us with 7 leaders. I was (and still am) disappointed to find that out of 7 leaders, one ONE is a homosexual struggler! I just expected it to be more homosexual-oriented. It was only 2 hours tonight: worship, bible study, administrative stuff and then leader testimonies. I did it. I went to Living Waters and lived to tell about it.
These entries are the tip of the iceberg. I have probably 7-8 journals completely filled with the story of my desperate attempts to destroy an integral part of my identity. You see, I know now that my sexual orientation is a normal, natural, healthy part of who I am. I always quote James Alison here: “We now know something objectively true about humans that we didn’t know before: that there is a regularly occurring, non-pathological minority variant in the human condition, independent of culture, habitat, religion, education, or customs, which we currently call ‘being gay’.” (Read his brilliant article here.)
A little further down, I found these words:
12/22/02 – I am really just a wretch… amazed by God’s grace and love for me. I continue to battle the lust of my body and my eyes. I give in and I stand back up. I am weak; I am strong. I am living in the twilight zone – between victory and defeat. And it’s such a battle! God, you know my heart, and it is wicked and sick and sad. And you know my heart of hearts. You see my desire to walk upright before you… to be your “true and intended son.” But you know my darkness, my shadows, my weaknesses.
I’m struck by the fact that conversion therapy is attempting to fix something that simply isn’t broken. Its practitioners, even now, are committed to a particular worldview that insists, despite all evidence to the contrary, that anything other than cis/het expressions of gender and sexuality are broken, sick and sinful. Pray Away does a masterful job of showing the consequences of pathologizing something that is normal. When you tell a perfectly normal, healthy kid that their natural, God-given desire for emotional and physical intimacy with another human being is abnormal and broken, you are causing great harm. And then when you tell them that they can change those desires if they just believe and do the right things… Well, that causes even greater harm. Because, as thousands of us can confirm, that simply isn’t true. And when we found that we weren’t changing, even after years of believing and doing “the right thing,” we start to believe that there truly is something deeply wrong with us. It leads to depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, self-harm… or maybe just going deeper into denial, lying about “change” so that we, too, can fit in. I mean, if John Paulk can change, why can’t I? If Julie Rodgers or Randy Thomas or Michael Bussee or Yvette Cantu Schneider can change, why can’t I?
Of course, now we know that they didn’t change. John says that he was lying and lying and lying. All to support “the movement.” I remember seeing him on the cover of Newsweek with his wife, “ex-lesbian” Anne Paulk. He was lying there too, and his lies led me and countless others to dive headlong into Exodus ministries so we could be “healed” like he had been.
But the complicated thing is: I genuinely can’t blame him. I lied too, although I wouldn’t have called it “lying” at the time. Many of us try so hard and believe so fervently that we start to fool ourselves. I remember telling people that I wasn’t gay. I was a straight man who “struggled with same-sex attraction.” I remember thinking that little by little, I was actually changing. Of course, I know now that my orientation wasn’t changing. I was simply learning to ignore it, to cut it off and carve it out. To deny that it existed. If I could go for a week without looking at porn, then maybe I could go for two weeks. If I could go for an afternoon without fantasizing about men, maybe I could go a full 24 hours. So I was changing my language and my behavior. And I genuinely believed my orientation was changing. I’ve written about this extensively in other posts here, here and here.
These leaders caused great harm. There is no doubt about that. And.
They were victims too. We were ALL caught up in the larger and more harmful theology of the Evangelical Right. We were ALL part of this system that demonizes (sometimes literally) anything other than cisgender heterosexuality. Just last week I wrote about Lonnie Frisbee, the young gay man who helped launch the Jesus Movement via Calvary Chapel and the Vineyard through his manifestation of the Spirit’s signs and wonders. But the toxic and harmful theology of human sexuality that permeated American Evangelicalism could not see that his sexuality was normal and healthy for him, and so he denied and suppressed his sexuality until he died of HIV/AIDS in 1993. The same year I got married. Sigh.
Of course, there is a remnant of “ex gays” like Anne Paulk, Stephen Black and Andy Comiskey who have never renounced conversion therapy or the role that they continue to play in harming people. Andy, who founded the Living Waters program I attended and who was a hero to me back then, has only become more entrenched in his worldview. His condescending, defensive take on Pray Away is a perfect example of a prideful refusal to acknowledge reality and powerful internalized homophobia. I find is fascinating that most of these “old guard” conversion therapy advocates also tend to be strongly pro-Trump. Their version of Christianity looks less and less like Jesus the further away from it I get.
But it’s not just the “old guard.” Ecclesiastes teaches us that there is “nothing new under the sun,” and so of course conversion therapy is still happening, even if it’s a shiny, new version. I’m glad the filmmakers included the story of Jeffrey McCall, the 31-year-old “ex-transgender” founder of the Freedom March. I recognize my younger self in him, fervently convicted of the rightness of his beliefs, trying to share his story to help others. I honestly believe he is trying to do the right thing. Just like the Bethel #OnceGay people. I feel sad for them. I suspect they’ll end up like most of the others in this film, sorry for their part in harming others, and sad to have missed out on so much real, healthy life.