Waking Up in Memphis: My Escape From an Ex-Gay Ministry

I woke up in a Memphis, Tenn., economy hotel with nothing but my wallet, a pack of Marlboros, and some clothes that were tossed carelessly over a chair. The morning sun peeked through the crack in the curtain and specks of dust hovered in the glow. I looked at my watch, pulled myself up and let my legs drop to the side of the bed. I stared at the dancing specks for a long moment as my mind replayed the recent events of my life.

Two weeks prior I had enrolled in an ex-gay ministry called Love in Action. This was my last resort before I finally gave up on the idea of going straight. I had come out as lesbian in 1991 in a family of strict fundamentalist Christians, and I was overcome with concern about my eternal destination if I didn’t try everything I could to go straight. Now it was the year 2000, and I thought maybe the experts could figure out what was wrong with me, why nothing seemed to work to change my attractions to women.

It didn’t take long to discover that the “experts” were just as clueless as everyone else. The emotional hoops they put me through were far more traumatic than helpful. It was supposed to be a two-year residential program, but only two weeks after I got there, without any planning or forethought, I silently slipped out the sliding glass doors of the women’s residence home. I walked around the pool, through the wooden privacy gate, and slid into my baby blue Olds Cutlass Supreme. The car was almost 20 years old, but it was my only friend that night. I wasn’t allowed to use it while I was enrolled in the program, and the driver’s seat welcomed me back. There were a lot of things I wasn’t allowed to do while I was at Love in Action.

When I first arrived, all my belongings were sifted through and sorted into piles of “acceptable” and “unacceptable,” depending on whether the house leader decided it had any ties to my life as a lesbian. Most of my clothes — and even my socks — were considered men’s clothing, so I had to go out and buy new clothes that fit within their guidelines. At no time was I to be alone, inside or outside the house, with the exception of 15 minutes of shower time in the morning. There was to be no use of alcohol or tobacco while in the program. I couldn’t have contact with anyone from home. Photos were confiscated and I was not allowed to view any sort of media — radio, television, or newspaper. Perfume and cologne were against the rules, and the guitar that my grandfather taught me to play was taken away because they feared I would use it to seduce other women in the house. I had regular group and individual counseling sessions where I would be asked to reveal my innermost thoughts and feelings so that they could be analyzed and discussed. This was a way to “cleanse the mind of impure attractions,” they said, but ultimately the things I said were used against me; the staff at Love in Action informed me that my attractions to women were predatory. That was the last straw. I had to get out of there.

The first place I went after I slipped out of the women’s residence was a gas station where I bought a pack of Marlboro menthols. I pulled a cigarette from the box and jabbed it between my lips, peeled off a cardboard match and struck it sharply against the coarse surface of the envelope. The flame exploded and I drew it into the end of the cigarette, the tobacco glowing at the tip. I leaned against the hood of the car and decided that there had to be a better way to get into God’s good graces. I wanted to block out the last two weeks from my mind, to forget everything that I had been through. I wanted things to just go back to being the way they had been before I enrolled in the program.

It would be 10 years before I ever spoke of my time at Love in Action. But as much as I tried to pretend that nothing ever happened, the trauma I experienced in two short weeks was enough to burrow into my soul like termites, slowly eating away at the lining of my subconscious mind. It seemed that every interaction I had with a woman, whether a close friend or a stranger at the grocery store, was suspect of predatory intent. I checked and rechecked my motives before pursuing an intimate relationship with a woman, not because I considered myself a predator, but because I worried that she might.

In March of 2005, after coming to terms with the fact that I am transgender, I transitioned from female to male, changing my name from Brenda to Brent. I was finally at peace with myself and with God, and I spent the next several years writing about my life and talking to people about what an authentic relationship with God can look like. In 2010 I enrolled in a master of divinity program at Earlham School of Religion in Richmond, Ind., where I graduated in May of 2013.

The apology that comes from Exodus International is indeed a step in the right direction, although I am hesitant to pop the cork on the champagne bottle quite yet. Chambers is still referring to homosexuality as a temptation and a struggle, the same kind of language that has been used to claim that homosexuality can be changed. The only difference I see so far is that they are lowering their weapons; the condemnation still looms heavily in the air. The theology behind the ex-gay movement has not changed; until it does, damage will continue to be done.

My experience with an ex-gay program was brief compared to the years that some people have endured spiritual, psychological and emotional trauma in the hopes of getting on the good side of religious elites by changing their sexuality. But my whole childhood was spent in an ex-gay fundamentalist Christian environment where I was made to feel that something about me needed to be fixed.

It’s time to turn the focus on what’s really broken, which is the theology that demands that people change innate elements of their personhood in order to “be right with God.” God loves us, not in spite of who we are, but because of who we are. Sexual and gender diversity must be celebrated for its beauty and its contribution to society before any apology will begin to make a difference.