Don’t say Gay but Pray it Away?
Officiating at my first same-sex wedding
(An excerpt from my unpublished memoir “Lost and Found — From Head-based Beliefs to a Heart-Inspired Faith)
Long before “Don’t say gay” became a political slogan “Pray the gay away” was being bandied around in Tribal (Evangelical) circles. The “love the sinner, hate the sin” prejudice and hostility towards the LGBTQ+ community was a trope that I heard again and again.
I did not have a sudden “come to Jesus” experience on my views of a person’s sexual orientation.
But the coordinates of my awakening passed through
Agnosticism (I don’t know what I think)
Denial (My chicken shit for the soul avoidant period)
Advocacy (I’ll be damned if you discriminate against my LGBTQ+ friends and associates).
Jim came for psychotherapy with the mandate from his church for me to convert him from his sexual orientation. He was wary of me. I don’t blame him. Was that because I was also a part of a similar Evangelical church community?
He sat nervously on the edge of his chair. He seemed to be expecting me to be the judge and jury that assigned him to eternal damnation for this core aspect of his person. I did not inform him that I had little understanding of what it meant to be gay. I had never walked an inch in his shoes. Nor did I confess that I was starting to reject some of the dogma and practices of my childhood religion.
Jim’s Evangelical church had referred him for ‘conversion’ therapy. I had never practiced such nonsense but he still was very agitated and distressed.
He could not just blurt out his dilemma. He had to get a sense of whether or not he could trust me with his painful story. He related the easy stuff first about how he was happily married with two young children.
CJ: “Why did you come for therapy?”
Jim: “I came to see you because you head up a Christian clinic. People from my church recommended you.”
CJ: “So if there were to be a successful outcome from this therapy, what would it look like and what stands in the way of you reaching that goal right now?”
A dark cloud crossed Jim’s face and he began to hedge. He talked about what was going well in his life like his family. But he avoided getting down to the real issue as to why he was in my office. Suddenly he asked, “What is your position on gays?” “Are we born that way or do we choose our orientation?
I thought to myself, “this is a test”. He said “We”. Is this going to be a theological discussion? Or is he wrestling with a church bias about a sexual orientation?”
Not wanting to jump into that theological quagmire I answered a question with a question: “What is the position of your church regarding a person’s sexual orientation?” Actually I already knew the answer. He came from a community that had a mission of praying the gay away. Eventually he must have decided that it was safe to reveal his deep dilemma. After a few moments of silence with tear-filled eyes he blurted out,
“I’m gay and I’m scared!”
The floodgates of grief opened. He revealed how tormented he felt every time he heard an anti-gay tirade by his pastor from the pulpit.
“My pastor knows about my gay orientation but accepts me because I’m married to a woman. Also, I don’t talk about still being attracted sexually to men. I know what they will do if I tell them of my current struggle: They will put me through various rituals to try and heal me. They believe that my orientation comes from some hurt in my past, like a broken relationship with my father. It is also viewed and a product of my sinful disposition.
“If I act out my sexual fantasies, I’ll go to hell.”
Some of his gay friends had been through conversion therapy. But Jim could not identify any changes. It all seemed like brainwashing. They still secretly confessed that they did not experience the same sexual ‘whoosh’ with women that they felt with men.
(A friend who read this posting declared with sarcasism “Good luck with Pray the gay away. Truth has nothing to do with such efforts)
0Jim: “Can you help change me and make those feelings go away?”
At the time of my meeting with Jim I had not seen evidence of a true sexual orientation change as a result of psychotherapy. In fact, there were clear ethical guidelines by the American Psychological Association prohibiting licensed psychologists like myself attempting to change the sexual orientation of minors.
We branched out to other painful areas in his life. He reviewed his guilt and shame suffered at the hands of childhood experiences. He was mocked and belittled as a child by other boys who besmirched his name with cruel labels like “faggot” and “girlie.” These bullies teased him for having an interest in fashion and poetry and not in sports like all “real boys.”
Over the next several months his church referred a few more gay men for treatment. But when the pastor learned that I did not espouse conversion therapy the referrals abruptly stopped. In later years when gay men came for therapy I steered them towards gay-friendly churches often with openly gay clergy.
I was eventually able to directly affirm their sexual orientation as a God-given gift.
This practice started on a radio show that I hosted at a Christian radio station in the Los Angeles area. It was a call-in program where listeners would consult me as a psychologist about problems in living.
I had little control over the advertisements that were broadcast on my show at the Christian radio station. One evening during the advertising break a message flashed on the air from a sponsor. It encouraged listeners not to employ anyone who was LGBTQ+. I glossed over this offensive message and willfully ignored the violation of my ethical beliefs. I did not want to raise Cain and jeopardize the future of my show. I chose to be a divided self.
That evening Kris my wife tuned into my show. When I returned home she confronted me. “I heard an ad on your show that advised listeners not to hire anyone who is gay. That is outrageous.” After a heated discussion where I was mostly on the defensive she threw down the gauntlet, “I don’t think you want to be on a radio station that has ads intended to discriminate against others because of their sexual orientation.”
She spoke truth to me. In so doing she snapped me out of my somnambulant state. But I did not act on my conviction right away. I tried a compromise. I asked the engineer at the station to shift these offensive ads to another show before or after mine. Kris did not back off on her challenge. She reiterated in no uncertain terms, “The ads may not be on your show but they are still on that Christian station.” My compromise measure was not good enough.
Eventually I got Kris’ point. Several weeks later I broadcast my last show. But I resigned in what today I consider to be a less than courageous way. I did not object to the Station’s management about their ads. I just slunk off the scene after a clumsy farewell at the close my last broadcast. The reasons I gave the listeners for my leaving were lame. Something about going to a new phase in life to the world of corporate consulting. In the end the only redeeming factor about my quitting the show this way was it represented a definitive break from another part of my childhood religious Tribe.
In June 2008, on the first week when Gay marriage became legal in California, I was asked to officiate at a wedding for the lesbian daughter of one of our African American friends. When it came to the final declaration in the ceremony I called out, “I have been waiting for this day for years. By the authority vested in me by the State of California, I declare you wife and wife. You may now kiss each other.” What I would want to say today is “and by the still higher authority of a loving God, I pronounce you wife and wife”.
The audience stood up and broke into loud cheering and applause before I had even finished my pronouncement. It was a big moment for California when same sex marriage was finally official, for the couple who had been living and loving together for years, and for a migrant from a church that in the old days would summarily have excommunicated him for officiating on such an occasion.
That ceremony was a watershed moment in the validation of what was important to me spiritually — that is, equality of all persons, no matter what their background or sexual orientation. There could be no compromise on my part. It is love as well as a human right that was being validated.
After I officiated at that wedding and posted a picture of the ceremony on my wife’s social media some Tribe people unfriended her. I was hurt but not surprised by this Tribal censure. It was a first for me because way back in South Africa when I was a Baptist minister in the late 1960s I knew next to nothing about homosexuality and gay marriage. (Eventually under the Mandela administration it became an equal right under the South African constitution).
That wedding was an outward sign of my religious metamorphosis. It was also a catalyst for my becoming a Christian in exile.