From Exodus To Exile: My Ex-Gay Therapy Story
The following story was published in our 2013 issue of G Magazine – GayRVA’s print publication. Check out the entire magazine here. (Top sketch by Allie Hodges)
There was a distinct moment when I knew that my quest to be straight was over. Having already attended an ex-gay ministry, I now led one every Monday night. I taught about the value of strong, healthy relationships, good boundaries, and learning to replace my sexual identity with my religious identity to please God. I participated in highly emotional activities geared around confession, seeing each other through God’s eyes, and gaining the strength to suffer the life of celibacy or chosen heterosexuality. We broke mirrors, burned the names of those who had hurt us and those who we were tempted to sin with, and physically nailed our attractions and brokenness to a wooden cross. We cried together, prayed and sang through our tears, desperate for God to change us. We built community–strong and intense bonds with those like us from which we derived support and solace. But when we were about halfway through the 16 week program, I began to realize that I could never do what I was teaching others to do.
Our ministry was geared towards 18-25 year olds who were experiencing what we would call “emotional or relational brokenness.” These terms meant that participants struggled to enter into and maintain healthy, godly relationships due to damaged ways of relating. Poor boundaries, long term effects of childhood abuse, absent mothers and fathers, mothers and fathers whose expectations were too high, drug/alcohol/pornography use, and same sex attraction (SSA) all fit into the category of things that might contribute to broken ways of relating. The ministry existed as a mixture of education, counseling, and the building of a community of accountability, to help the participants learn to relate in healthy ways. SSA was not the primary focus of the group, but those of us who professed it were quickly focused on as needing intense intervention.
Since our ministry was geared toward younger participants, we endeavored to be dynamic and fresh. For instance, we wrote the names of people who had hurt us and who we thought had caused our brokenness on pieces of rice paper and immersed them in water to watch them disappear. We wrote misnomers given to us by people who were intentionally or unintentionally hurting our image of self on mirrors (mine were things like “tomboy,” “unladylike,” and “too strong to be loved by a man”) and then put the mirrors in a burlap bag and crushed them with hammers. Many of these things had a cathartic effect. Some of them even felt empowering. All of them upped the intensity of the experience and forced the participants to focus deep within themselves to work out their supposed areas of weakness.
An integral part of ex-gay programs is to build a quick and powerful community through emotional worship and small group mentoring. This concentrated community ideally becomes the participants’ source for support and encouragement. Building of accountability through confession was key. No one was forced to confess, but the pressure to live authentically did exist, and the most direct way to an authentic life was to practice confession. As a participant, I confessed sexual acts, sexual thoughts, anger at God for creating me with SSA, and even frustration with the process of the ex-gay ministry. When I failed in my quest for celibacy, I had to confess to multiple people. I did most of this voluntarily because I believed I could be cleansed of the sin I’d just committed through confession. Most often, these confessions were met by kindness, forgiveness and love. There was no need for chastisement as the structure of the program naturally encouraged self-chastisement. Those moments of confession were preceded by hours and days of anguish and self-hatred at my own weakness. Self-imposed shame and guilt over my failure followed. I had grown accustomed to this cycle. As a participant and then a leader, I struggled to stay emotionally positive when I failed to show the healing that I thought I’d received. Dealing with these failures led to some of the darkest nights of the soul that I have ever had.
Failure cycle – hatred for letting God and my community down, confession, guilt and shame, shaky freedom, failure
The moments where I understood my life would most likely be the above cycle on continuous repeat were the ones where I did actually wonder if life was even worth living. I was 25 at the time, and had been grappling with my sexuality and faith for years. I was exhausted. Things changed for me, however, when I began to watch one of the participants that I was responsible for try to grasp her future struggle in light of her SSA.
Ashley was a 17-year-old kid whose father had suggested that she enroll in the program because he recognized that she had homosexual tendencies. She had not fully opened herself up to her same sex attractions. In my mind, this would be the factor that saved her. My journey had been so hard because I had experienced relationships with women and had, undeniably, felt the emotional/spiritual connection that had been missing from my relationships with men. I poured myself into “saving her” and, as I had been taught, pressured her into coming to the realization that to be spiritually pure she needed to pursue relationships with men or, at the least, work through her SSA and be celibate.
I was telling a 17-year-old kid to be celibate for the rest of her life if she couldn’t make it work with a man. The same message had been given to me as a 23-year-old. Because I’d been born with SSA, my life could still be spiritually pure through celibacy. I faced a life with no emotional/physical affection or intimacy. The church and Jesus would meet these needs in a holy way and I would feel the void less and less. Though I continued to grieve about it, I forced myself to swallow this reality. I wrestled with it at night, at holidays, in times of extreme loneliness. I cried out to God and leaned on my co-leaders at the ex-gay ministry. Even after the program was over, I begged to be heterosexual, as I could not imagine never being able to experience a normal love relationship. I had set my mind to the idea that this was my life, and hoped my faith would sustain me. Yet, when I began to verbalize this message to Ashley, something inside of me started to well up with anger. I found myself asking, “If we’ve had these feelings since we were young, and we believe we were created this way, why would a loving God create us this way only to deny us the joy of a loving relationship with another human being?”
I had dismissed this question with the typical Christian answers: being born with SSA is like being born with the genetic tendency to be an alcoholic, so you must work to deny it any power in your life. As a leader, it became increasingly difficult for me to transmit this message to a 17-year-old. She continued to reaffirm that she wanted to be free of SSA and I counseled her accordingly. But it felt like I was condemning her to life of loneliness and struggle—the same kind of life I was living.
Truly, that was the beginning of enlightenment for me. It just felt wrong to paint this picture of life to a vibrant kid. These feelings and realizations continued to grow over the remaining weeks of the program. Of course, they brought with them intense feelings of guilt and self-hatred. Though ex-gay programs aren’t intentionally designed to make you hate yourself, it is an inevitable by-product. I hated the natural part of me that was a sin. I hated the fact that because I was “defective” and could not envision having a deep relationship with a man, that I would be lonely for the rest of my life. Watching Ashley start to develop that same self-hatred at an even younger age sealed the deal for me.
The program ended. Ashley went off to school and I left for six weeks on a mission to Serbia. There, away from the community of the ex-gay program, I made my peace with who I was and with my spirituality. For me, it was a simple realization: The God that I knew was not a torturer. He wouldn’t create me this way only to pull the proverbial rug from under my feet and leave me starved for human connection and companionship—a need that is inherent in all human beings. By experiencing another culture that loved God as much as I did, but lived their lives far outside the tightly constricted and confining definitions of western Christianity, I realized that the God I knew was bigger than the subjective rules I’d been taught. In the fields of Serbia, surrounded by sunflowers as tall as me, I connected with the God I knew outside of those confines, and it was a beautiful thing. It changed everything about my spirituality—not just in the area of SSA.
That was the beginning of my enlightenment; the beginning of a journey out of darkness and self-hatred into a journey of struggle of a different kind. I was rejected by many of the Christians who had loved me, but I had started my journey to freedom and authentic love. The first year was the roughest. In one fell swoop, I went from being an insider in the Christian community to a distant place on the outside looking in. Many weren’t able to engage with me on my questions about the Christian religion, and those that could quickly distanced themselves when they realized I was actually going to pursue same sex relationships. Some people lashed out in anger and said horrible things. Mostly, I think people couldn’t reconcile who I was evolving into with their beliefs. This included Ashley.
One of the hardest post-enlightenment conversations I had came four months after the program had concluded, when I told Ashley that I was in an amazing relationship with a woman. It was a heartbreaking conversation. I know the hurt that comes when a leader has let you down, and I knew there was a chance that she would never speak to me again. However, months later, she did reconnect with me, and told me that she had found her own peace. She is now happily married to her wife of five years, Hannah.
Almost ten years after my experience with an ex-gay ministry, I am free. When I look back on the years I spent in turmoil because of the conflict between my religion and my sexuality, I feel regret and anger. The ex-gay program was a huge part of that. I am grateful to have had that experience, as it ultimately led me to freedom–just a different kind of freedom than it advertises. From the recent apologies by leaders like Alan Chambers and Randy Thomas of Exodus International, I recognize that they have acknowledged the pain that their programs inflicted. However, neither has truly grasped the message of freedom for those in the church who have same sex attractions: You can love who you were created to love and still be a spiritual person. LGBT living does not equal a dark life of struggle and unhappiness. Yet an ex-gay life guarantees these things! My hope is that the progression of belief and acceptance (not just tolerance) that has been occurring in the brave factions of religion who have asked the same questions I did will become pervasive in the religious community. Truly, so many years of conflict and darkness could be prevented with a message of acceptance.
As for me and Ashley, we stay in touch. We don’t speak of the program very often due to the pain it brings back, but we are grateful to have been through it together, and to have found our freedom.
Apryl Prentiss is a right wing dropout. Born and raised in Virginia Beach, VA and heavily involved in the evangelical Christian community for her entire life. She lives in Richmond, VA with her partner, Adrian, and enjoys trying to dialogue with those in the evangelical community about sexuality.
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