How I Became My Own Ex-Gay Therapist (Part 1)
Ed note: This essay was originally written and published in a zine accompanying my site-responsive installation CONVERSION THERAPY, commissioned by Artspace New Haven for the 2018 City-Wide Open Studios Alternative Space Weekend. Since then, I have thought deeper about my connection to religion, queerness, and mental health, and decided to continue to explore this as a series. This essay, while not my definitive experience, serves as a good starting point to understanding who I am and where I’ve come from.
It was the summer between 7th and 8th grade. I was at Covenant Cedars Bible Camp in Hordville, Nebraska. Like every year, there was some sort of bible verse theme for the week that the guest pastor based his twice a day sermons on. It wasn’t called “mass” or “service”; rather “session”. The praise band would alternate between high and low energy worship songs (depending on whether it was morning or evening session), we’d play some kind of crowd games, then the pastor would take the stage.
My hormones were raging. At this point I had spent 2-3 years fantasizing about men, even masturbating thinking about what I wanted to do with these men. It felt as though the pastor could read my mind in the audience every day. His words focused on sexual sins, equating adultery with homosexuality. He described a boy he worked with as “struggling with homosexuality,” words I deeply clung too.
I wasn’t gay, merely struggling with homosexuality. Something wild about my upbringing in the church is that despite everything going on around me, I never thought my feelings were unnatural. I was definitely ashamed and terrified, but I could never define my feelings as “unnatural”. Just wrong; sinful; devious. I wasn’t possessed by the devil, that would be too easy of an out. It made way more sense that it was my behavior and choices and thoughts that were wrong, not any sort of malevolent spirit influencing me one way or another. In spite of the lack of demonic possession over my loins, I still desperately clung to the idea that I needed to stop doing what I was doing and feeling what I was feeling.
I feel this comes from a very Midwestern state of mind, similar to how I never want to be a burden to anyone. It was my choices and my behaviors that led to my homosexual tendencies. I, personally, was upsetting God by touching myself, but it was because of the choice involved, not some kind of evil tempting from Satan or whatever the dogma of the week was. I put the burden on myself.
I never went through formal conversion or reparative therapy. That didn’t stop me from trying it on myself. I spent months trying to pray away my desires. I begged God to change me, to keep me from my fantasies, to help me find a girl I was attracted to. This bled well into after I had started to accept my sexuality in the form of identifying as bisexual (irony being I think I identify closer to bi than gay these days anyway.)
Through prayer, shame, and self-abuse, I became my own ex-gay therapist. The therapy didn’t have a chance to go as far as self-harm, but I hated myself enough to feel like it did. I was terrified. I couldn’t imagine telling anyone about what I was going through. The idea of discussing something so shameful, so sinful, so sexual with anyone involved in the church was mind numbing in how much it scared me. This needed to be a cross I would bear myself.
I continued to develop crushes on youth pastors, camp counselors, and teachers. I would find reasons to email some of them, inane questions about the Bible or whatever, so I could continue to connect with these men who I longed to touch and feel. Trips to the pool or lake were moments for me to fall into a daydream where it was OK to kiss men. When I wasn’t at church camp, I was playing drums in the praise band at First Covenant, going on mission trips and attending multiple weekly events (Sunday school, Wednesday/Friday night youth groups, church outings, etc.) My social life revolved primarily around my church life. I completely engulfed my everything into being surrounded by Christ and His love.
There was a girl at camp I had developed a crush on. My mom volunteered as camp nurse for some weeks when I wasn’t old enough for the programming, so I tagged along and hung out with Grace. Her family were caretakers and lived on the property, her father ready to fix any problem at any moment. Her mom ran the arts and crafts building, where I spent a majority of my free time. Grace was about a year younger than me, and while we hung out during these open periods of summer, we connected. I was still young, but I had never connected with someone like this before.
I thought about the future, asking her out to prom, getting to know her better. But it wasn’t meant to be. As it turns out, Grace and I had more in common back then than I ever could imagine. Grace is a Lesbian. I still believe our connection was deep and real, but it has taken new meaning. We were both struggling with the same thing, being surrounded by gospel and dogma that claimed one thing while experiencing feelings and urges that claimed another. It wasn’t some adolescent crush that made us bond; it was our shared, unspoken queerness that led us to becoming lifelong friends.
Eventually, around Sophomore year of high school, I had an incredibly liberal Social Studies teacher who invited me to a weekend leadership retreat. Through a combination of his class on Civics I took the year before and finding a safety net of friends, I learned to accept my queerness. It would be many, many years until I started critically engaging with how my internalized homophobia deeply affects my personality but hey, baby steps right?
I came out in an incredibly public manner. I wanted to rip the bandaid off no matter how much collateral damage it did to the flesh surrounding it. I was a Junior at Westside High School in Omaha. For National Coming Out Day, I elected to write an opinion article in my school newspaper (I was the Graphics Editor and had absolutely no business writing anything). In it, I came out. I only told a handful of people beforehand I was planning on doing it, none of which were my family. My mom called it the most selfish thing she could think of. “How will this affect your brother? His fiancé? Your grandma?” I remember the conversations that occurred in the days following verbatim, over 10 years after the fact.
I’ve never talked about the effects Cedars had on me to my mom. I worry she wouldn’t understand. She has a tendency to shrug off when I express how things hurt me or make me feel. To her, seemingly, I’m still that kid who exaggerates everything, who is just a little too sensitive and needs to toughen up a bit. But coming back around to my Midwestern tendencies, I still have trouble even beginning to express these feelings around her. Where can I even start?
How can I explain to someone who has learned to accept that something they hold dear, cherished memories of causes me anxiety when I think about it? What about part of my family, who in spite of the majority supporting and accepting me, remain passive and distant? How do I connect with people who are afraid of me, of my husband, of the implications of our life together? How can I assert myself to people who would rather strip away my humanity?
To this day, Christianity makes me uncomfortable. I’m working on it, of course, but it’s a slow process. The idea of going to the church I grew up in gives me dread. Occasionally I’ll plow through it for my mom’s sake, but as soon as I get the chance I get out of dodge. I haven’t been back since marrying a man. Much of my lack of self esteem revolves around being constantly told, implicitly or explicitly, that I wasn’t good enough for God’s love, and that it was through Christ’s sacrifice we were deemed worthy. That is dangerous rhetoric for a young, queer child to grow up around.
I’ve been told that putting it this way takes it out of context or is an unfair assessment. But I know what I experienced, what I was taught, and how it affected me. I know how my thought process surrounding my self worth is still deeply influenced by my experiences in the church.
I have since reconnected with Grace. We shared memories over coffee in while on vacation in Orlando, where she now lives. We laughed at our younger selves, so clueless and scared. But ultimately, we survived. We made it out of there, trauma and all, and not only live to tell the tale, but thrive. Not all of us are as lucky. It’s our job to tell our stories and exist in such a way to give hope to those (young and old) who are still scared to be themselves.
We are queer, resilient, and strong.