*This piece originally appeared in The Advocate on November 2, 2018.
BY DEB CUNY
I was brought up in what some people might refer to as a fundamentalist Christian household where church and God were at the center of our home. We would joke that there are Christians and then there are Christians. People who might go to church but that doesn’t mean that they were devout or living and breathing a real relationship with God. It was very much a point of pride in my family.
When you’ve been brought up in such a very strong religious community you know the rules and you know what is appropriate — what gets you love and acceptance. Then you also know what doesn’t. From the get-go, I had issues — what they would say went beyond the appropriate gender norms. I was always extremely athletic and I thought I really wanted to be a preacher one day. I felt a calling to the ministry, even though only men did that.
My sophomore year of high school is when I came out to myself and first came out to another friend. Of course, I can look back and see who I was the entire way but that is when I consciously knew.
I went from being very outgoing to just being really quiet, but I began asking random questions about sex. I knew my parents were very opposed to “homosexuality,” but I was still trying to see how they would handle it. And then it finally came out when I arrived home one day when they were sitting in the family room waiting for me.
They asked me to sit down and just asked, “Are you gay?”
I already thought they knew. I said, “Yes.”
I was in the closet for probably a year before they found out, but after that point, it was very clear my life was forever going to be extremely different.
From the outside, we were just a functioning Christian family. But after that point, I went from an assumed child of God and beloved child to suddenly being under the microscope about whether I was going to go to heaven like everyone else. There are many ways in which I was no longer in the fold in my family dynamic because my parents were trying to figure out how to fix things. Parents are under so much pressure in the church around this stuff. They turned to their pastor and he suggested Exodus International. My parents felt like it was a sign of hope to have an organization that was based on their belief system, telling parents and people like me that it’s absolutely possible to change. That was good news at the time.
Things were rough for me with my family. Our relationships were absolutely falling apart. But while I was watching my parents get involved with this group there were times when I felt moments of hope — that we would all still just be together and figure out a way. I was in at that point still just watching. At one point, I even thought it was a good organization. Half of me was trying to be proud and be gay, and the other half of me was miserable and hated myself and couldn’t believe what was happening. But when my parents started going they warmed up to me a little bit more. There was a softening. That gave me confusing feelings. Exodus had provided something a little bit positive too. It wasn’t the scary outside thing a non-Christian might think. There was still that feeling of love and care that you feel in churches.
I went to my first event with my parents during my freshman year of college, After that, I started getting information from “ex-gay” groups. I was still trying to find a church like my childhood church, not even knowing there were options. I was told I had to enter into conversion therapy before I could attend. I reached this low point around that same time where I just had so much pain and self-hate.
At school, it looked like I was a proud gay person, and then within me, I was so desperate and lonely and depressed. And then I would try to find Christians, and there was so much hatred toward Christianity among the gay community. That inspired me to reach out to my parents in spite of our turbulent relationship. They said there’s this process in the church that can help you eliminate the pain. I didn’t realize that part of it, which ended up being the biggest part and pretty much the only part, was to shift my sexual orientation and gender identity.
I met with the minister, who was the one who told me that. He said you can get it out. Don’t you want to? I was scared. I was suspicious. Then nothing in me could at that moment think of a reason I wouldn’t do it.
I ended up going to an Assembly of God in Arkansas. It was supposed to be a three-hour process. It turned out to be six and a half hours and involved three adults — a woman and two men, including the main pastor. I had fasted for 36 hours. I was only allowed to wear certain clothes and jewelry because there is this fear that somehow evil would be attached to me. I still don’t quite understand that, but they were very specific about the type of clothes.
In a back room in a pretty large church, there were only chairs in a completely bare white room. What began pretty quietly turned quickly into a very violent and abusive situation where I was being held down against my will. My head and my face were being grabbed at, and they were coming at me forcefully, screaming in my eyes with the belief that they were praying away the gay in me. This went on for hours. It was extremely frightening and I felt trapped.
But still, I was very much was trying. I remember thinking, If this is what works, and then simultaneously thinking, This is so freaky. Toward the end, I finally began imagining a wedding. I still don’t even know how that all came about, except for that I was tired. They started screaming “Hallelujah” and saying that it that it had worked. But I was actually having a fantasy or vision of marrying Lauren, who would become my wife afterward for many years.
I started asking questions because it didn’t add up. I asked, “If you got the gay out of me, would that mean I would no longer be attracted to women?”
And they were like, “Yes, yes.” And then, “Well, there is this thing called gaydar.” There was the impression I never actually got rid of gaydar and some implying that evil sees evil passing. It made no sense.
I am not attracted to men, so I was like, “Will this help me become attracted to men, finally?” They said “eventually” and “absolutely” but didn’t sound convinced. I realized what they had done just didn’t work. I’m really surprised I didn’t ask these kinds of things sooner, but I didn’t. And I realized I was really in love with Lauren, even though we weren’t together yet. This just didn’t feel right. I asked them to stop the process.
They got really angry. The main pastor started screaming at me and said I had just chosen hell.
Coming from my background, that’s a big statement. It was devastating for me. Why on earth would I go through something like that? I still had the same theology as in my childhood. I hadn’t shifted on that. I believed in the stuff they were doing on some level. Then family members also said I was choosing to idolize my sexual orientation above my love for God. That still haunts me. It was shattering. I felt immense shame. It was saying that I’d had a behavior that’s wrong. Did I choose this? Do I not care enough? Do I not love God enough? Am I obsessed with my sexuality? Do I just desire sex more than a relationship with Christ?
Now I would say that the church idolizes heterosexuality. None of this would have been a big deal if it weren’t for their obsession with their sexuality in the first place. But this was traumatic.
I walked away from the church. I abandoned my Christianity, even though I never really did. I hadn’t gone through any of the healing or the integration process. I started drinking when I was 16, and I started discovering substances at the same time as the traumatic experience. I continued with it for years to cope and then I got worse. I was numbing myself. I started having anxiety and depression. My now ex-wife brings up moments when I would get really drunk and listen to this Christian singer from my church. It was the only time that felt any kind of connection with this community I loved so much.
There was immense self-hate, which is a major reason that Lauren and I are no longer together. My internalized homophobia was so bad it impacted our marriage. It took its toll, but you know, it’s hard to be a married gay person who hates being gay.
Eventually, I had a reawakening to Christianity. I still believe in God. Some people recommended that I consider the seminary, which I thought was crazy. I’m gay. But then I learned there are some churches that actually accept you. I went back through the Episcopal Church, which ordains gay people, and ended up deciding to go to seminary at Berkeley.
In seminary, I started meeting queer people of faith, but I was also still struggling to find people like me. It was very isolating, actually. Then something happened right before I graduated. I always call this my resurrection moment. It’s by the grace of God based on how I bottomed out that I’m here today.
Out of nowhere, my parents just happened to come to California. My mom worked with an ex-gay group in Kentucky, which was unbelievably painful for me. But now they wanted to see me. I had to admit to them I’d ended up in the hospital. That ended up being a step toward reconciliation with us. They were then at a point in their lives where they could actually support me and help me get out of it. My relationship with my parents now is amazing. It’s now better than it’s ever been and the reason is that they have changed.
DEB CUNY works in restorative justice in the Oakland, Calif., public school system.