2 Survivors of Christian ’Ex-Gay’ Therapy Tell Their Stories
With his eyes closed and fingers interlaced, Taylor bowed his head and started to pray. "God, please change me," he prayed. "Take this away from me, I don’t want this. Please. I’d rather live the rest of my life without arms and legs than be like this."
At 21, Taylor, a devoutly Christian student at Whatcom, a community college in Bellingham, Wash., had just realized he was gay. "I felt destroyed inside," he says. "I’d grown up believing that homosexuality was a sin, so it was incredibly hard."
The very next day, Taylor met with a Christian counselor. After hearing about the incident at the park, he suggested Taylor quit his job at a local daycare and enroll in Living Waters, a 20-week therapy program in Bellingham that promotes itself as helping "those struggling with homosexuality, sexual promiscuity, and the effects of sexual abuse," according to the organization’s Living Waters website.
Thus began a two-year journey through the twilight world of "reparative therapy."
Sometimes referred to as "ex-gay therapy" or "conversion therapy," reparative therapy is a now-widely discredited type of psychiatric treatment "aimed at changing sexual orientation," according to the American Psychiatric Association (which recently condemned the theory behind such treatments). Many Christian-based programs like Living Waters recommend reparative therapy, not because of any scientific reasoning or research, but because they believe homosexuality is a sin, unnatural or a form of sexual brokenness.
Efforts to change sexual orientation are not only unlikely to prove successful, they put the participant at even more harm for psychological trauma, according to a 2010 APA study. These risks include feelings of emotional distress, depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, self-blame and guilt.
Coming to Self-Acceptance
Taylor (like other names here, his was changed to protect his privacy) was driving when he became fixated on a man jogging along the highway. Taylor recognized -- and he most certainly didn’t like -- the feelings those tiny jogging shorts and what they contained excited in his own private parts.
In these days of gay acceptance from the White House to the upper echelons of the Republican Party, equating same-sex desires with a mental disorder is increasingly being looked on with the same skepticism as witchcraft or the Jewish blood libel. In May 2012, California lawmakers went so far as to introduce a bill to ban so-called conversion therapy. The sponsors stated that participation in such therapy can ultimately lead to suicide.
Across the continent, Ryan Kendall, a 29-year-old Columbia University student, had also volunteered to undergo so-called reparative therapy. When Kendall was 13 years old, his Evangelical parents discovered an entry in Kendall’s private journal in which he wrote about being gay.
They directed him to the National Association for Reparative Therapy of Homosexuality, an organization whose primary goal is to "make effective psychological therapy available to all homosexual men and women who seek change," according to the website. Kendall’s therapy in part consisted of being told that his parents didn’t want him to be gay, he needed to change and that homosexuality was inconsistent with Christian teaching.
After a year and a half of treatment in NARTH, Kendall reached the point where he couldn’t take it anymore. "I knew early on that being gay wasn’t really something I could do anything about," he says now. "It didn’t torture me that I was gay, it tortured me that everyone, including my parents, thought I was evil and that God hated me." Kendall stopped going to reparative therapy at the age of 16, but the issues with his parents still persisted. After therapy, Kendall’s parents emotionally and verbally abused him, he says.
"My mother would tell me that she hated me," he says, "that I was disgusting. Once she told me that she wished she had had an abortion instead of a gay son, that she wished I had been born with Down Syndrome or had been mentally retarded." Kendall legally emancipated from his parents at the age of 16, but still struggled with the negative messages he had received from therapy for many years. He drifted into drugs, went clubbing and even experienced bouts of homelessness.
"It was all particularly self-destructive," he says. "It took me a very long time to rebuild my life." It was not until 2010 that Kendall’s life turned around when he served as a witness in the federal trial of Proposition 8, a bill that sought to eliminate legal same-sex marriage in California.
During his testimony, Kendall shared his experiences in reparative therapy. Kendall says it was a that lawsuit in a federal courtroom across the country that finally saved his life.
"To testify in such a landmark civil rights case, I pretty much owe my life to that experience." Kendall says. "It’s because of [Prop 8] that I found confidence in myself and got my life and happiness back." Kendall is currently a junior at Columbia University, where he is studying political science. After graduating, he hopes to go to law school.
Today, Taylor, now 31, identifies as a gay Christian, but says the church’s unwelcoming view of homosexuality sometimes makes it hard for him to attend church services. "I like to think I am a tough guy and that no one’s going to chase me away from Jesus," Taylor says. "But the reality is that the church does a good job of making sure gay people know they aren’t accepted."
Both men condemn reparative therapy as harmful and unscientific. Kendall points to the movement’s seeming retrenchment in the face of near-universal condemnations from their psychological peers.
"Now they don’t talk about making gay people straight," Kendall says. "They talk about suppressing sexual attraction, but it’s all the same shtick. Suppressing who you are because society doesn’t want you to be that person, it’s damaging. There is nothing wrong with people being who they are."