Report from the Soulforce Anti-Heterosexism Conference, Part 2

Today, Dec. 1, is World AIDS Day. Want to help? Make a donation to Partners in Health, which provides healthcare and works for economic justice in the poorest communities worldwide. Also, write to your member of Congress and urge that PEPFAR funding be withdrawn from Uganda unless they scrap the pending “Anti-Homosexuality Bill” which would criminalize outreach to the gay population. Read more at Integrity USA and Father Jake Stops the World.

Now, continuing my report from last week’s conference on gay rights and spirituality, here are some notes on the presentations I attended. Soulforce also plans to make the keynote speeches available on their website in the next couple of weeks.

The conference began Friday night with a series of testimonies from “ex-gay survivors” — people who had gone through traumatic and ineffective programs to change their sexual orientation, and were now on a mission to raise awareness about this form of spiritual and psychological abuse. The program was presented by Jeff Lutes, outgoing executive director of Soulforce, and Christine Bakke, who blogs at Beyond Ex-Gay.

Jacob Wilson, a student at Iowa State, described his experience at Love In Action. When he was 19, his pastor found out he was dating another boy from church, and threatened him that he would no longer be welcome in his church or his hometown unless he went to LIA. The program promised him freedom from the pain of his “deviant choice”, but later they told him that the best he could hope for was a life of celibacy and self-control. (As we heard often throughout the weekend, this kind of bait-and-switch is common in ex-gay ministries.) Jacob wasn’t allowed to talk to his family and friends till he made a list of every sin he’d ever committed and shared it with them. At the “Friends and Family” weekend, LIA counselors blamed their clients’ parents for making them gay. Then, all the clients had to march in silence into the auditorium and one by one share the thing they were most ashamed of, to an audience of 100+ people. Jacob quit Bible college after one semester and has started surrounding himself with more affirming friends who support him in being both gay and Christian. As I watched his poised and matter-of-fact presentation, I also grieved for all the other kids like him who couldn’t face losing their entire community, and who might still be trapped in the closet.

Daniel Gonzales was another survivor in his 20s. His story, video and collage are posted at Beyond Ex-Gay. He also used to blog at Ex-Gay Watch. Unlike Jacob, he lost his faith when he saw through the lies of NARTH’s reparative therapy. As a Baptist, he was taught that the Bible is “all or nothing”, so when he found that Christians were wrong about homosexuality, he couldn’t compartmentalize and preserve anything of his faith. It’s sad, he said, because ex-gay ministries think they’re bringing people closer to Jesus.

Darlene Bogle was formerly the director of Paraclete Ministries, an ex-gay referral ministry affiliated with the Foursquare (Pentecostal) church. All the while, she had to admit to herself that her feelings for women hadn’t changed, but she believed she was not a lesbian if she wasn’t acting out — until she fell in love with someone at an Exodus conference “and Exodus gave me the left foot of fellowship.” She later went to an Evangelicals Concerned conference and realized that her former teachings had harmed people. This prompted her historic 2007 apology to the gay community. She told us that the forgiveness she’s received has been spiritually transformative.

Darlene’s cheerful, humble and humorous spirit contributed to the warm and positive atmosphere of the Soulforce conference. By contrast with other political conferences I’ve attended, overall there was a surprising lack of bitterness and negativity, which I attribute to the fact that many of these folks still have a spiritual practice and have done the inner work of self-acceptance instead of looking to politics for salvation.

Australian life coach Anthony Venn-Brown, also a former Pentecostal preacher, tried the ex-gay path for 22 years before coming out and losing his ministry. His story is documented at A Life of Unlearning. He shared positive developments in gay rights in Australia. Ex-gay ministries, he said, are a symptom of evangelical and Pentecostal ignorance about why they get hundreds of thousands of phone calls from self-hating gays — it’s because of heterosexism, not something inherently damaging about same-sex orientation. Thanks to activism, these ministries no longer say that all gays go to hell, and are more honest that self-control rather than straightness is the best-case scenario. After meeting with Anthony, the Assemblies of God rewrote their doctrinal statement to say that the orientation itself isn’t sinful. A Melbourne megachurch pastor preached a sermon called “Real Christianity: The Accepting Church” and the congregation gave him a standing ovation; they are now officially an affirming church. Anthony was optimistic that we’re on the winning side.

Joining us from Barcelona, Marc Orozco talked about putting together the first ex-gay survivors’ conference there. They began a sociological study based on the participants’ experiences, which became the basis of their lobbying efforts to outlaw ex-gay therapy in Catalonia.

Closing the presentation, Dr. Jallen Rix read a summons to self-acceptance and wholeness, from the ending of his forthcoming book Ex-Gay No Way.

Friday’s events ended with short films and a memorial service for the Transgender Day of Remembrance. Unfortunately we couldn’t stay for these events because we were tired from our early flight. I’ll be looking for the films, “Switch: A Community in Transition” and “Equal + Opposite”, online. Thanks to Virginia Stephenson at New Mexico Gender Advocacy Information Network for setting up these events. She helped lobby the NM legislature to pass civil rights protections for sexual orientation and gender identity in 2003. 

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