From Conversion Therapy to Activism: Anthony Venn-Brown’s Story

A personal paradigm shift

Walking home alone, after speaking at my first gay rights rally in 2005, I couldn’t understand why I felt so empty and deflated. 

It wasn’t that I didn’t have the skills to communicate with a crowd. As a high-profile preacher in Australia’s Pentecostal world, I used to preach to congregations in the thousands every weekend. The Hyde Park crowd of 1,500 was not intimidating and had burst into spontaneous applause several times during my speech.

It wasn’t that it was a gay rights rally. Since the release of my autobiography, A Life of Unlearning, I’d had a tsunami of emails from readers beginning with “your story is my story” then detailing the pain and trauma the church had created in their lives. These heart-wrenching stories had created a consuming passion to end this unnecessary suffering and make a difference.

Why wasn’t I on a high and elated?

The rally had marked the anniversary of the 2004 ban on same-sex marriage in Australia’s federal Parliament. Prime Minister Howard saw the growing international movement toward same-sex marriage and, along with the support of Labor, pushed through an amendment to the Marriage Act intended to ensure that “gay marriage” never became a reality in Australia.

Marriage means the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others,” the amendment read. We’d marched down Oxford Street to Hyde Park, responding to the megaphone:

“What do we want?”

“MARRIAGE EQUALITY!!!”

“When do we want it?”

“NOW!!!”

The time leading up to the rally was unpleasant. Different gay rights groups opposed politically and strategically were having it out. The conflict became very public. It was stressful and nasty.

My first experience of gay activism left me confused, seeing groups and individuals discredit and undermine each other. Weren’t we all working for the same cause? Didn’t they see how childish it looked to the outsider? Especially to those opposed to our cause. It made little sense to me.

The troubled emptiness was still with me the next day as I walked to the post office to collect the mail.

As a former Pentecostal preacher, I knew how “gay activists” were perceived. Angry, militant, aggressive were adjectives used to describe them. Could I become any of these? These traits were against my natural way of being. I understood the aggression, militancy and anger and recognised we wouldn’t be where we are today without that… but it wasn’t me. “I can’t be that person. What can I do?” kept running through my mind.

In a moment, a thought came so clearly to me that it was like hearing an audible voice. “Why don’t you be an ambassador for your community?” it said. Honestly, my heart leapt immediately with excitement at the prospect. “Could I really do that?” I thought.

The entire paradigm of my life shifted immediately.

I didn’t know of anyone using that approach. It seemed a little arrogant to be a self-appointed ambassador, but to me it wasn’t about a title or position; it was an approach.

The label “gay activist” would ensure some would never speak with me. I also knew condemnation, accusations, judgment, anger or aggression were not the approaches that open a respectful dialogue. It was a simple “Can we talk?” Questioning the traditional beliefs about sexuality and gender identity was an enormous challenge for them.

The adversarial model of “them versus us” was very obvious. It had been going on for decades. The two sides constantly battling it out in the media. This approach did nothing more than reinforce entrenched perceptions. It was like a boxing match and when the bell rang, each came from their corners with fists flying.

I developed a model, “Creating a space for respectful LGBT – Christian dialogue,” and began knocking on doors. Some Christian leaders came to me privately with questions they were afraid to ask elsewhere.

People needed a space of safety, respect, confidentiality and time. No one moves from being anti-gay to gay-affirming overnight. And no one is going to open up and ask questions if there is no trust or they don’t feel safe and respected. It looked pretty obvious to me.

I’m glad I explored an alternative approach. I’ve had some exciting experiences.

I’ve had the most fascinating conversations with megachurch pastors behind closed doors and been invited to speak to their leadership teams.

I’ve seen Pentecostal congregations become affirming.

I’ve worked with Bible college lecturers, who, in turn, challenged their students to think beyond a few misinterpreted Bible verses.

I became friends with the president of the largest conversion “therapy” organisation in the world and behind the scenes was involved in conversations about closing the organisation down. And I was one of only two gay people invited to their conference to witness it firsthand. When interviewing him at the close of the conference I asked “people will be fascinated to know why I’m here,” he responded simply, “you were kind to me.

I worked with a core group in one of the largest Christian organisations in the world. The Secretary General had seen other Christian organisations split and disintegrate over the “gay issue.” He didn’t want to see this happen to their 150-year-old charity. When the proposal was put to the international conference to accept LGBTQ people, it was accepted virtually unanimously.

Two weekends ago.

If you’ve read my autobiography, you’ll know that in 1972 I was in a residential “Christian” program to rid myself of my homosexuality. This was before the founding of Exodus and the introduction of the terms “ex-gay” and “conversion therapy.” Over the last couple of years I have been working with the church and the leadership.

On Sunday the 27th of March, I returned to the very place of my conversion “therapy” experience when they announced that they are now an LGBTQ-affirming congregation. And 50 years after the event, I received an apology.

Lessons, lessons, lessons

Possibly there are lessons others can gain from this experience:

  1. Be yourself. We hear it so often, but even with the LGBTQ world, there are certain expectations of the way we should be, behave, dress, act.
  2. Be willing to try something new. I had no role models to show me the way I had to create it myself.
  3. Stick with your convictions. People told me I was wasting my time. Some have even publicly ridiculed my approach.
  4. Be committed and patient. Positive change never happens instantly. The tipping-point happens after many simple investments of time and energy.
  5. Finally, listen to your inner voice. Yours might not be as loud and forthright as mine was that day, but it’s there if you take the time to listen and risk following its promptings. That’s where adventure lies.