The Irishman who claims to help people with ‘unwanted same-sex attractions’
Mike Davidson has been heavily criticised for his approach to sexual orientation
Mike Davidson of Core Issues Trust: ‘I don’t hit people over the head with the Bible.’ Photograph: Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker
On the evening of Valentine’s Day in February this year, a group of gay rights activists gathered outside Townsend Street Presbyterian Church in North Belfast, holding banners saying “self-hatred is not therapy” and “love needs no cure”.
The activists were there to protest about the Irish premiere of a film to be shown at the church that night. The name of the film is “Once Gay: Matthew and Friends”. Produced and promoted by a Northern Ireland-based Christian charity, Core Issues Trust, it tells the story of a young singer-songwriter called Matthew Grech, a contestant in the Maltese version of the X Factor, who caused outrage when he announced his personal renunciation of homosexuality on national television.
Gay conversion therapy, which aims to change the sexual orientation of non-heterosexual people, or to reduce their attraction to others of the same sex, is probably one of the most controversial therapies in the world right now. Indeed, many experts take issue with the word “therapy” itself, in this context, since the practice is considered unscientific, unethical and potentially harmful by all major professional bodies.
Nobody is ashamed of being straight, are they? Nobody is kicked out of their family homes because they are straight. But it does happen to people because they’re queer
Malachai O’Hara, an activist who attended the protest, says that the film is deeply damaging because it is based on the assumption that being LGBTQ is wrong, and that being heterosexual is right.
“Nobody is ashamed of being straight, are they? Nobody is kicked out of their family homes because they are straight. But it does happen to people because they’re queer.” O’Hara says that people who are troubled by their sexual orientation should access non-directive counselling to help them work through their internalised homophobia.
That’s also the message from Anita Furlong, a psychotherapist with the Irish Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy (IACP), who specialises in gender and sexual diversity issues. “It’s not sexual orientation that causes distress, it’s society’s view of it,” she says. “Conversion therapy doesn’t work and it causes harm.” Furlong is scathing about Senator Rónán Mullen’s recent claim that such counselling should be an “individual choice” unless it can be proven to be harmful: “That was an insidious, disturbing and very irresponsible thing for a person of influence to say.”
Following the release of “Once Gay”, the IACP released a statement condemning conversion therapy as “barbaric”, saying that young people are particularly vulnerable to this dangerous, discredited practice. And soon it may become illegal in Ireland: the Prohibition of Conversion Therapies Bill 2018 has now passed its second reading in the Seanad. The UK government is also bringing forward a ban as part of its LGBT equality plan.
But Mike Davidson of Core Issues Trust insists that there are vital issues of personal freedom at stake. He rejects the idea that sexual orientation is innate and immutable. He claims that sexual identity is a private matter, and that individuals must be free “to leave unwanted homosexual practices” and that they have a right to seek professional assistance to achieve that.
Davidson says that there’s already a de facto ban on the kind of counselling he does. In 2014, he was removed from the British Psychodrama Association’s register and since then he has operated independently, “providing counselling for people with unwanted same-sex attractions”, as he puts it. He doesn’t use the term conversion therapy.
Davidson says that if he sees more than 20 people in a week, that would be a lot for him. Although the ethos of Core Issues Trust is explicitly Christian, he claims that just under half of his clients come from a no faith or other faith background. He mentions a Muslim man he has been working with for a long time. The work is very intense, he says, and he considers it a big responsibility: “It’s people’s lives.”
For me, this viewpoint discrimination that we are experiencing is just unhealthy for society
Sitting in the small office of his Co Down home, with books on homosexuality in ancient Greece and Rome piled up around him, Davidson describes the challenges he encounters. “You can’t get professional indemnity insurance when you’re pushed out of a professional body,” he says, which means that clients are not charged fees. “You can’t get training. For me, this viewpoint discrimination that we are experiencing is just unhealthy for society.” Davidson’s voice is quiet, restrained, with a soft South African accent, but a sense of controlled frustration is evident.
He has been married for almost 40 years, and he does not describe himself as ex-gay, despite having had homosexual experiences as a younger man. Why? “Because I never identified as gay at all. This is the semantic quagmire we’re in. For me, the bedrock of sexual politics is the whole construction around orientation – it now carries a notion of a fixed, unalterable category of existence. But new neural pathways can begin. I have some experience in terms of my own homosexual stuff. That’s there. It’s like your hard drive: you can’t remove everything from your hard drive, but you work with your hard drive. You clean it up, and new ways develop.”
He claims – highly controversially – that many of the clients he works with are suffering from “attachment hunger”: a desperate need to connect with others of the same sex on an emotional, rather than a sexual level, because of negative early childhood experiences. “A man may fantasise about another man, and you could say that’s his orientation, that’s how he is and that’s the end of the story,” says Davidson. “Or you could say – ‘actually I’m kind of objectifying that person’. So then the work is – how do I connect with that person in a healthy way so I’m not sexualising or objectifying him?”
To suggest that being gay is a manifestation of “sexual brokenness” which can be treated, diminished and perhaps even cured is profoundly offensive to many people. Can Davidson not see the hurt that causes? “I would hold to an orthodox Christian position. If you asked me a theological question, then yes, I believe that [homosexual practice] is sinful, though I don’t hit people over the head with the Bible when they arrive at my door.”
Davidson proactively seeks publicity for the cause he promotes. Under the banner of Core Issues Trust, he takes part in media debates, makes films, produces pamphlets, lobbies politicians. In 2012, Core paid for advertisements to appear on London buses, saying: “Not Gay! Ex-gay, post-gay and proud. Get over it!”. The ads were banned by Transport for London, a decision which Core challenged and ultimately lost in the courts.
The stress of the internal conflict left my body in extraordinary pain. I ended up having a complete breakdown
All of this must take money, and a great deal of it. So how are Davidson’s many projects funded? He says that he is self-supporting, and that most of the money comes from supporters. “As with any voluntary organisation, it’s probably 10 per cent of our followers who provide 90 per cent of the money. Some businesses contribute.” Does he receive any funding from groups in the US? “From the US, I would say we had about $500 in the last 10 years.”
According to the most recent figures from the Charity Commission for Northern Ireland, the income of Core Issues Trust is £67,400, for the year ending December 31st, 2017. The trustees’ report for that period lists £64,660 under the category of donations and legacies. One of Core’s three trustees is Andrea Williams, the co-founder and chief executive of the British conservative evangelical organisation Christian Concern, which campaigned against same-sex marriage.
Davidson has many critics, and the fiercest of them believe that it is morally wrong, and actively dangerous, even to discuss his activities publicly. Jayne Ozanne, a Christian LGBTQ campaigner who underwent conversion therapy which left her suicidal, is highly reluctant to speak about him at all. She has previously expressed her desire for the British government to criminalise Davidson. “If you name him and his business, you’re driving business his way,” she says.
Ozanne recently published a UK survey on faith and sexuality, with 4,613 respondents, of whom 458 people said there had been attempts to change their sexuality. A total of 193 said they had experienced suicidal thoughts and 91 said they had attempted suicide. Twenty-two people reported that they had been forced to undergo sexual activity with someone of the opposite gender.
Ozanne describes how, in her 20s, she decided to seek conversion therapy. “I believed God would heal me. When you believe you’re wrong and an aberration, you believe there must be a way through that. But you’re left feeling a failure, it always ends up your fault, because you don’t have enough faith. I had no idea of the harm I was doing. The stress of the internal conflict left my body in extraordinary pain. I ended up having a complete breakdown. That’s why the level of suicidal thoughts is so high, because you cannot keep going through the pressure you are carrying.”
Since the very idea of being “ex-gay”, or even trying to be, is an extremely contentious and disputed category, there are few people who will admit to identifying themselves in this way, especially in public. Darren (not his real name) is a married father of several young children. He is in his early 40s, but he looks much younger. “I have struggled with same-sex attractions since I was 17,” he says. “My wife knew about this before we got married. Four years ago, I had a crisis of faith, and it derailed my reason for trying to move away from same-sex attraction. I thought ‘this is who I am, there’s no God, we’re all just accidents’. I was headed for a marriage breakup.”
You’re effectively wanting me to break up my life with my kids. There’s tolerance for people who affirm a gay identity and intolerance for anyone who chooses a different direction
During counselling with Davidson, Darren was encouraged to examine his early childhood relationships, and now claims to be feeling more comfortable in both his faith and his marriage. He vehemently opposes the idea of conversion therapy being banned. “For me, that means you’re preventing someone from choosing the direction of their own life. You’re effectively wanting me to break up my family, my life with my kids. There’s tolerance for people who affirm a gay identity and total intolerance for anyone who wants to choose a different direction.”
But an anonymous account of another Northern Irish man’s experience, passed to Ozanne following the publication of her survey, paints a radically different picture. “I was a Christian, and the last thing I wanted was to be gay,” the unnamed man writes. “But despite my fervent, heartfelt prayers, begging God to remove my feelings for men, they remained”.
The writer describes how, in 2010, he joined a group led by Davidson for men struggling with unwanted same-sex attraction, and was also counselled by a volunteer from a Christian charity called True Freedom Trust. But by 2013, overwhelmed with shame and misery, he came to realise that his efforts were futile. “That same year, Alan Chambers, the president of the largest ‘ex-gay’ ministry, Exodus International, closed down his organisation, making an apology for the harm it had caused. I had to grieve my misplaced hope and the years I spent trying to change something that is both immutable and intrinsic to the way I have been made.”
THE PAIN OF TRYING TO SQUARE THE CIRCLE
There are few easy answers. The pain of a life spent trying to reconcile his faith and his sexual orientation is written into Colin Nevin’s face. Celibate for the last 10 years, and now terminally ill, Nevin lives alone in a small flat in Bangor, Co Down, in which framed Bible verses vie for space with Abba and Nana Mouskouri posters. He likes to dress all in white, from top to toe: hat, suit, shirt, shoes.
When I’ve fallen, I’ve had to fall on my own. They don’t know what it’s like to walk a mile in my little white shoes: the sorrow, the isolation, the forced secrecy
“I’m still same-sex attracted but I don’t practise, because of my Christianity,” he says. “Spirituality comes first. Other Christians have shunned me, blanked me, because of who I am. When I’ve fallen, I’ve had to fall on my own. They don’t know what it’s like to walk a mile in my little white shoes: the sorrow, the isolation, the forced secrecy. I’ve tried to square the circle and I can’t, so this is the path I find easiest to manage. But I am lonely.”