“I was asked ‘What do you think about the blood on your hands?’ Right now all I know is I’m afraid to look down at my hands.” Randy Thomas, former executive vice president of Exodus International.
I heard a story on the Today show on Sunday that caught my ear. It was part of their “Life Well Lived” series and it was about an extraordinary athlete named Joan Joyce. You can watch the story here. Some of the highlights of her career are that she started as a fast pitch softball player when she was just a teenager. During some exhibition games during her 19 year career in softball, she struck out greats like Ted Williams and Hank Aaron. She was also an amazing volleyball player, basketball player, and even a good bowler. She tried her hand at golf and discovered that she was really good at that as well and set records in the LPGA tour. She is considered one of the greatest athletes of all time. Simply amazing. Most athletes excel in one area, but she seemed to be good at whatever she tried.
Some people are just born with natural talent. That’s not to say that they don’t have to work at it, but they can make it look effortless. My daughter is a natural born artist. She has been creating since she was able to hold a crayon in her hand. And she doesn’t just draw…she can paint, sculpt with clay, make jewelry, photography, etc. When she was in kindergarten, they were allowed to play with soft moldable clay called model magic. Sort of like playdough, but doesn’t get crumbly when it dries out. Everyone else had to put their creations back in the container when they were done, but her teacher always let her take her creations home because she didn’t have the heart to destroy them (smile).
Where my son excels without seemingly any effort is music. He took piano lessons when he was very young for a short time. He took lessons again as a teenager…again for a short time and he far exceeded me when I took lessons for years. I have to really work at learning the songs. He can hear a song and pick it up very easily. Don’t get me wrong…he has to practice, but it just seems to come naturally to him.
Well I can say with confidence that I am neither an artist, a musician, nor an athlete (smile). If you have been following me, you have read the stories of my athletic ability…or lack of it. And it wasn’t for lack of trying. I would practice catch with my dad, shoot hoops with friends after school, play kickball with neighborhood friends…as hard as I tried…I just wasn’t any good. I absolutely hated gym class in middle school…especially when we had to play baseball or kickball. There were many times that it was just absolutely humiliating.
As humiliating as it may have been, you know what I didn’t have to worry about? I didn’t have to worry that I would be called evil or disgusting for not being a good athlete. I didn’t have to worry about being called an abomination. I didn’t have to worry about my parents disowning me because I wasn’t a good athlete. I didn’t have to eat, sleep, and breathe learning how to be a better athlete to be accepted.
Last summer Netflix premiered the documentary Pray Away. This is the description: Five evangelicals in the 1970s break away and form Exodus International, a group that claims that gay people can become straight through prayer and conversion therapy. It is still available on Netflix if you didn’t get a chance to see it.
If you have been a follower of my blog, you might remember that when my son came out we were referred to Exodus International. My husband talked with someone from the organization for several hours on the phone. I hate to fly, but I was willing to do anything and go anywhere to help my son. I’ve said it before and I will shout it from the mountain tops THANK GOODNESS we didn’t follow that path. Something in our spirits stopped us.
I am so glad that we didn’t put our son through that. I do wish, however, that at the time I would have had the Christian resources that are available today. The only thing that I could find was information from places like Exodus which means that the only thing I was exposed to was along the lines of conversion therapy. Pray enough, be disciplined enough, deny yourself enough and you won’t be gay any longer. So although we didn’t put our son through it physically I was sharing what I was finding because it seemed hopeful. I mean…they were saying that they changed. I wanted my son to have a life where he didn’t have to worry about being discriminated against…or worse.
Watching the Pray Away documentary was harder than I thought it would be. I had watched the movie Boy Erased and although that was hard to watch, it didn’t bring stuff up for me like this documentary. I thought I had dealt with all of that, but this proved to me that I had not. I had a lot of processing to do afterwards. In fact…I watched it 3 times and it took weeks for me to work through my feelings. I am in no way comparing my journey to the journey of a LGBTQ+ person who has been through conversion therapy. There is no comparison. None. I’m sharing because I have been asked what I thought of the documentary. I’m not going to go into great detail because honestly I would like you to watch it for yourselves (only if you personally have not been through conversion therapy).
What does a parent do when they find out their child is gay? Well 14 years ago, if you were a Christian, the first thing was to not dare tell a soul. Then you google how to help your kid because you feel like you can’t go anywhere else. And this is what the internet tells you (when you only seek out Christian advice – I will say that 14 years later there is much more helpful Christian information out there which you can find on my resource page): Being gay is caused by trauma as a child whether that be child abuse (physical or sexual) or inadequate or toxic parenting. If you can resolve those issues, you won’t be gay.
Well I knew my son was not abused. So…that meant that our parenting was inadequate or toxic. There are many posts on my blog that talk about the torture I put myself through trying to figure out what I or his dad did wrong. In the documentary, they show a room full of men in a classroom with the person upfront drawing a diagram of how this plays out. There are people who have gone through this type of therapy that hate their parents because they were told that their parents made them that way. These leaders had no qualifications by the way. I remember holding books in my hands with these same diagrams.
During the documentary, they showed clips of leaders from Exodus over the years on different talk shows telling how they overcame being gay. I remember back then trying to get my hands on any story of a person claiming to have changed. Stories that ended up being lies. And I shared them with my son…giving him hope that one day he wouldn’t have to hate himself (because at the time he did because of what was said about gay people). Only to later find out that these people didn’t really change. I beat myself up for a long time for doing that to my kid. Giving him hope that was false. Busse (one of the founders of Exodus) left in 1979 because he could no longer pretend that he was changing or that the people he was helping were changing. Exodus unfortunately continued to grow. The organization had weekend conferences where you could go and “learn how not be gay.” They showed a clip of one of those conferences that took place in 2009 the very year that we would have been there with our son had we gone.
What happens to people when they do everything they are told to do and they don’t change? What happens when trusted people have told you that they have changed and you can too? What happens when someone prays to exhaustion and they are the same that they were when they started? They wonder what’s wrong with them. They wonder why they aren’t changing. They have panic attacks. They attempt suicide. They feel guilt and shame because they couldn’t change.
I found Julie Rodgers story to be very compelling in the documentary. I don’t want to give it away here, but it is powerful. I had always known her to be a gay Christian that held the ‘Side B’ position. That you can be gay, but you can’t act on it. And she tried very hard to live that life. When it got to the point where she was burning her body, she knew she needed to do something different.
I personally know people that have been through these types of programs in their churches (not Exodus related). They have married people of the opposite sex because they are told to “fake it to they make it.” They are told that God will bless their decision to deny themselves and He will make them straight. It doesn’t work. They can only do it for so long and they end up hurting people that they love…they just don’t love them “that way.” I always think of Mel White who was married to his wife for about 20 years. He is the author of the book Stranger at the Gate. He was highly regarded in the Christian community. A little bit about him…
Until Christmas Eve 1991, Mel White was regarded by the leaders of the religious right as one of their most talented and productive supporters. He penned the speeches of Oliver North. He was a ghostwriter for Jerry Falwell, worked with Jim Bakker, flew in Pat Robertson’s private jet, walked sandy beaches with Billy Graham. What these men didn’t know was that Mel White—evangelical minister, committed Christian, family man—was gay.
When he could no longer live the lie of being a straight man to the point of almost committing suicide, he came out…and the leaders that thought so highly of him before they found out dropped him like a hot potato. My point being that a person can pretend for a long time…but eventually it catches up with them. One person in the documentary described it as losing their soul trying to do the right thing.
Exodus closed in 2013, but the practice of conversion therapy is alive and well. It is banned in many states, but many churches are still getting away with it. It comes in many forms. Approximately 700,000 (a number from 2018) people have gone through a form of conversion therapy in the US alone. A national survey found that LGBTQ youth that experience conversion therapy were more than twice as likely to attempt suicide.
I’m not saying that trying not to be gay is the same as trying to be a good athlete, artist, or musician. It’s not the same. I am saying that maybe you know what it’s like to want something so bad and no matter how hard you try you can’t achieve it…whatever that might be. Chances are though that it isn’t life or death for you. Why is it life or death for a gay person? Because they aren’t accepted for who they are and to feel loved we need to be fully known. If they have to hide a part of themselves…if they have to check a part of themselves at the door before they enter…if they are welcome to a family gathering, but their partner isn’t…they will never feel fully loved no matter how many times you say it.
A lot of people I know said that they weren’t going to watch the documentary. Some stated that they already knew that conversion therapy was wrong so what was the point. Some said it made them too mad to watch it. I go back to the statement from Randy Thomas that I started with…he is a gay man who hurt his own people…and because of that some of those people are no longer on this earth. I watched it for those precious souls who are no longer here and the ones who are still suffering from the abuse…to bear witness to the people who were part of the movement say they were wrong and they were sorry. I know it’s not for everyone and especially if you went through conversion therapy yourself. But if you haven’t…watch it to educate yourself because it’s still happening out there.
There’s been a lot going on so I’m late getting this out there. It was a long one so if you made it this far thanks for hanging in there with me.
Let’s let the LGBTQ+ community know that they are fully known and loved…because love matters.