I love Jesus (but not in a gay way)
Core Issues, a Christian initiative that encourages homosexuals to heal their ‘sexual brokenness’ through prayer and therapy is planning a ‘Leaving Homosexuality Celebration’ in Northern Ireland. FIONOLA MEREDITHwrites...
DISGRACED POLITICIAN Iris Robinson caused controversy in 2008 when she offered to put gay people in touch with a “very lovely psychiatrist”, with a Christian background, who could change an individual’s orientation from homosexual to heterosexual. The psychiatrist in question was subsequently revealed to be Dr Paul Miller, who worked for Robinson when she was chair of the Health Committee at Stormont. It was the first public sign of the growing ex-gay movement in Ireland where, through a combination of prayer and therapy, unhappy homosexuals are encouraged to heal their “sexual brokenness”.
At the centre of this movement is an organisation called Core Issues, a Northern Ireland Christian initiative run by Mike Davidson, a married man who describes himself as having been “in conflict with unwanted homosexuality . . . before finally seeing the light”. Core Issues has brought a series of high-profile ex-gay speakers from the US to Ireland, and this week hopes to host a “Leaving Homosexuality Celebration” with Alan Chambers of Exodus International, a worldwide umbrella group for ex-gay organisations – that is, if the “act of God” volcanic ash situation allows Chambers to enter the country.
The author of Leaving Homosexuality: a practical guide for men and women looking for a way out, Chambers – like many in the movement – is unabashedly upfront, evangelical even, about his own struggle to overcome “unwanted same-sex attraction”. He says: “I first realised I had same-sex attractions at around age 11. I did not choose those unwanted attractions and did everything in my power to change them.”
Chambers admits that the faith-based approach advocated by Exodus isn’t a miracle cure: “While some do absolutely see an eradication over time of their same-sex struggles, most see a lessening. Some see no change whatsoever. In my case, I did experience a great shift in my attractions . . . and when I met my wife, Leslie, the connection I felt with her was unmistakable – a deep unselfish love, very different than the selfish, self-focused lust/love I’d had for the men I’d fallen for.”
So doesn’t he ever feel tempted to go back to his old gay ways? “I am human and humans struggle. But the temptation for me is the same as it would be for any husband.” In coming to Ireland, Chambers says he hopes to “share an honest story about a man who once was lost but now is found. There are people in need of the same hope that I found; people who want to put God above their sexuality”.
Unsurprisingly, this upsurge in what its advocates call “sexual redemption work” has not gone unchallenged. In particular, gay conversion therapy, sometimes known as reparative therapy or gender affirmative therapy, has come under intense scrutiny. And now Paul Miller, who is also a close associate of Mike Davidson, has been reported to the General Medical Council (GMC) by gay British journalist Patrick Strudwick.
Having gone undercover to receive treatment from Miller, Strudwick describes the experience as harmful and disturbing. “There is a spectrum in conversion therapy: at the most damaging end you get people performing exorcisms, at the other end you have well-meaning naive types who don’t really know what to do,” says Strudwick. “Then you have people in the middle like Miller ... looking at your relationship with your mother, whether you had a distant father. There’s the assumption that something went wrong in your upbringing. They go on a trauma hunt, trying to find something to pin it on, whether it’s your parents or peer bullying. I was also given advice on how to interrupt and analyse sexual thoughts. And there’s an emphasis on fraternal social contact in order to fulfil your needs so you don’t act out. It’s all about building up your masculinity; the assumption is that if you’re gay, you’re not masculine enough.
In my view, they look for what they already believe is there and then they find it.”
When approached by The Irish Timesto respond to these allegations, Paul Miller indicated through an intermediary that although he wished to speak out he was unable to comment due to the impending GMC hearing.
The website of Miller’s organisation, Abeo – an umbrella group of like-minded mental health professionals who specialise in gender affirmative therapy, addressing same-sex attraction through “enhanced masculinity” – has also disappeared. In an article published in 2008, after his link with Robinson was made public, he insisted he was not trying to “cure” homosexuality. He said that therapists such as himself “do not assume homosexuality is a mental disorder nor do we assume that all patients should seek to change their orientation. We simply treat those who ask for help with unwanted same-sex attraction . . . Our clients are free to retain their homosexual identity or to change in favour of heterosexual identity . . . Despite what our detractors say, based on sound professional ethics, robust scientific research and clear results with our own clients, we are on very solid ground indeed when we say that we can help those people with unwanted same-sex attraction who wish to change.”
PSYCHOLOGIST ROGER BAILEY considers reparative therapy to be “totally out of order. I have faced this situation clinically, and my first response is to find out why the person feels so distressed that they want to change who they are. I had a guy once who said that if you tell me I’m gay I will kill myself. I said, okay, no matter what happens, I won’t say you’re gay. Let’s just try to work out who you are as a human being first.’ As a clinical professional, your religious choices must be quite separate. You can be a priest or you can be a psychologist. You can’t be both.”
Concerned at the growth of conversion practices in the North, gay rights activists in the Republic are working with the College of Psychiatry of Ireland to develop guidelines for practitioners. But there’s disquiet within some gay Christian circles too. That’s why Changing Attitudes Ireland, a network which campaigns for the full acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Irish churches, has organised its own counter-event to protest at Alan Chambers’s visit. They have invited Wayne Besen – founder of Truth Wins Out, an organisation which attempts to debunk the “ex-gay” industry – to give a talk in Belfast this week.
Besen claims that “Exodus is targeting Ireland and other countries because they have been thoroughly debunked and discredited in America. Their antiquated efforts are rejected by every respected medical and mental health organisation and they have left a trail of hurt and suffering. Having failed at home they are now looking for fertile territory abroad where they can exploit desperate and vulnerable people and profit from their pain.” Mike Davidson, of Core Issues, says he welcomes the debate, and he’s happy for those who hold radically differing views to participate in the Chambers event: “This issue has become very strident, polarised on both sides. We need to find common ground.”
Davidson, and his fellow ex-gay activists, seek to portray themselves as offering a non-prescriptive Christian pathway out of guilt and despair. Others see it as an offensive, actively harmful process, rooted in shame and sin, which pathologises homosexuality, and is anyway bound to fail. When it comes to ‘praying away the gay’, the prospect of consensus seems remote.