A former Liberty student shares his experiences with conversion therapy on campus — and the profound negative effects it had on his life and the lives of many others.
We’re only a month into quarantine, and already Liberty University, the world’s largest evangelical college located in Lynchburg, Virginia, and its president, Jerry Falwell Jr., are demonstrating why so few respect or take them seriously.
Most recently, Falwell not only revealed his bizarre conspiracy theories about COVID-19, but also decided, recklessly, to allow students back on campus after spring break amidst the pandemic, later filing for arrest warrants (through the LU police department) for two reporters covering the story. This is not to mention how earlier this year, Falwell announced his ardent support for Vexit, a comical plan for several Virginia counties to secede from the state because of proposed changes to gun laws. And before that, Falwell unveiled his school’s new Falkirk Center, an “evangelical thinktank,” which says that turning the other cheek is no longer sufficient when it comes to fighting what they believe to be a “culture war” against the big bad liberal Left.
Needless to say, the foolishness and irresponsibility of Liberty and Falwell don’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon.
I, too, contributed to upholding LU’s stellar reputation when I wrote about my weekly one-on-one meetings with the man on campus who tried to “help” turn me straight: Dane Emerick, a so-called pastor who continues his pseudo-counseling at LU today. However, as anyone with even a basic understanding of psychology might guess, he wasn’t all that successful.
Yours truly is still very gay.
My stories from Liberty, both in gay conversion therapy and beyond, are legion, and to offer them all — in their more-often-than-not absurd detail — could fill an entire book. I am therefore resigned to offering just a few here.
From the time a Resident Advisor casually whispered for me to come to his room for some “fun” after a nightly room check (yes, we were checked nightly to ensure we followed curfew [and, yes, we had a curfew]) to when a Worship Studies professor repeatedly propositioned me to “meet up” off-campus and, after I didn’t, low-key threatened to implicate my cousin into the situation (it was a whole thing), I certainly had my fair share of strange encounters with other Liberty gays. But I was not a major player in the gay underground of LU or in Lynchburg. More often than not, I was too hell-bent on becoming straight.
I had drunk the Liberty Kool-Aid and, for the most part, actively fought against my gay desires, as evidenced by my recurrent meetings with Pastor Dane over the span of my undergrad tenure. And because I was supposedly making such “progress” toward becoming straight — insofar as I went on a few dates with a few lady friends of mine (emphasis on friends and a few) and learned to affect a more straight-presenting brand of “masculinity” (with any aberrant “feminine” behavior being chalked up to me being Canadian [whatever that means]) — Pastor Dane offered me the chance to join his gay conversion therapy group meetings.
Now imagine this: you’re gay and at a school where you’re not allowed to articulate or act upon your sexuality, leaving you with having to guess who might also be gay, with very few clues. Then, your conversion therapist tells you that you have an exclusive opportunity to gather in a small, sweaty room for a secret meeting with about fifteen or so other gay guys.
To put it mildly, conversion therapists aren’t the brightest of folks. As you might have expected, for several of the guys who attended, the conversion therapy group became gay Christian speed dating.
Though I only went to the group meeting once, it both gave me a clearer picture of who else was gay on campus and allowed me to meet one of my campus crushes, a guy I’ll call Mac. My and Mac’s schedules seemed to align, because oftentimes when I went to the cafeteria, he was there, too.
I distinctly remember seeing Mac because I had thought he looked like Ricky Ullman from the Disney Channel’s Phil of the Future, who just so happened to be a major tween crush of mine. Many times, Mac and I used to sit a few tables apart from each other in the cafeteria, and I would let my eyes meet his a few seconds longer than is socially acceptable, furtively signaling to him my hush-hush interest. However, the problem was that I never knew whether or not his sustained eye contact was a returned gesture. Meeting him at the conversion therapy group meeting seemed to clear things up.
When I was in attendance, the conversion therapy group, formerly called “Masquerade,” was dubbed “Band of Brothers” (may the homosocial/homoerotic under/overtones be lost on no one). Now called “Armor Bearers,” the group meeting, led by Pastor Dane, was held in a location on campus that was not disclosed to anyone but the group members in order to ensure secrecy — something with which evangelical gays are intimately familiar.
So, as we all piled into the room, we pressed up against one another and shared our so-called weekly “victories” (times we resisted our gay desires). We discussed the concomitant issues of “struggling with same-sex attraction” (the phrasing used in such evangelical circles). And, of course, we prayed with and for each other after we listened to scripture read aloud.
But the glue that held the group together was the way in which its members constantly performed an affected presentation of pseudo-machismo, an off-brand version of stereotypical “manliness.” “Praying for you, dude!” “Right on, bro!” “Man, Jesus is really working through you!” It was like they were trying to approximate the discourse of a gay locker-room porno they had watched beforehand. Cringe-worthy, to say the least.
But regardless of how I, even then, was repelled by such artificial and poorly executed “masculine” speech, I managed to secure Mac’s number afterwards. Within weeks of texting and Skyping, it became clear that Mac felt similarly to the way I felt about him. There was a problem, though: he had a girlfriend.
I told Mac that nothing could happen between us if his girlfriend was in the picture; I said that until he ended things with her, I was off-limits. And how did Mac respond?
He thanked me.
He said staying with his girlfriend was the right thing to do, and that if he and I had continued down the “sinful” path we were traveling, we would have only found unhappiness, regret, and unfulfillment.
Disappointing, to say the least. Mac and I slowly stopped texting and Skyping as much, and we eventually stopped talking altogether, though we still remain connected on social media. When I last looked Mac up on Facebook, he, like the aforementioned Resident Advisor, had gotten married. To a woman.
Thankfully, unhitched and in pursuit of a proper education, I left Liberty for graduate school in my native province of Ontario, leaving behind American evangelicalism, albeit temporarily. In doing so, I found my vocation in academia, particularly in the fields of literature, religion, and Holocaust studies.
Since beginning my doctorate, though, I have returned to the upside-down world of conversion therapy in evangelical contexts, this time as a scholarly line of inquiry. In fact, much of my work on the unrespected pseudoscience of conversion therapy centers on Liberty’s version thereof as a central case study.
During my last trip to Lynchburg, I saw a couple of gay friends who also went through conversion therapy. One friend in particular, who we will call Gabriel, grabbed a drink with me at a swanky Lynchburg hotel bar. Gabriel and I had first met during our freshman year because at the time, when I was trying to be straight, I was pursuing his best friend, who we will call Becky. Despite things not working out between Becky and me for obvious reasons, Gabriel and I remained pals.
It was to Gabriel that I turned after a freshman year tryst with one of my dorm’s Spiritual Life Directors. But I didn’t tell Gabriel exactly what had happened right away — or at least not directly. Since my Spiritual Life Director refused to speak with me after our “romantic” encounter — most likely due to his heavy burden of subsequent evangelical shame — and because I had, at that point, yet to gather the confidence to reach out to Pastor Dane, I was left with decidedly few people in whom I could confide.
To whom could I turn and tell that I was gay at a school that fined and/or punished students who were caught in “homosexual activity”?
Before I explicitly told Gabriel what had transpired between me and my Spiritual Life Director, I followed in the footsteps of so many angsty teens before me: I wrote a poem. The poem was titled “You Ever Notice How Cold It Gets in the Fall?” My capacity for subtlety was apparently not overly refined.
In an effort to share what happened, in (what I thought was) a stealthy way, I asked Gabriel if I could read to him my poem. He answered in the affirmative, and after I finished, he looked at me with empathetic eyes, eyes that told me he might actually know what I was “covertly” trying to communicate. After a few minutes of awkward, fumbling, back-and-forth conversation, we both blurted out that we “struggle with same-sex attraction.” I asked him if he had ever liked women, to which he said, “No. Never.”
Today, Gabriel is also married. And, like Mac, to a woman.
Thankfully, not all of us Liberty queers ended up married to women. A number of gays from Liberty landed in cities like New York, DC, and Atlanta — far away from their evangelical pasts and at a safe distance from Liberty and its culture of fear. Some have turned their experiences into literary works of art, like Andrew Hahn, who recently documented his experience at LU in God’s Boy, an equally scathing and heartbreaking poetry collection. And some, like me in Toronto, ended up working back in their hometowns, living that big gay lifestyle about which we were emphatically warned.
But many don’t. Many of these “ex-gays” — those who have convinced themselves (and have been convinced by others) that they are not gay — end up living inauthentic lives that become prison cells of unfulfilling existence.
These are the men who act according to the evangelical scripts they have been taught to follow, which they mistakenly believe will afford them meaning, purpose, and ordered lives. These are the same men who, when they hit a certain age, will realize they have wasted precious years that they will never get back. And these are the ones who will show up as faceless torsos on Grindr whilst away on business trips, only to return home to their families, eagerly counting down the days until their next lascivious get-away.
It still boggles my mind to think that I probably would have claimed a similar “ex-gay” identity, had it not been for the actual education that I received post-Liberty. Crazy what a little learning and critical reflection does for a guy.
And it is in the spirit of critical reflection, in concert with the practice that evangelicalism taught me of sharing my “testimony,” that I continue to expose conversion therapy programs for how embarrassingly unsuccessful they are. Despite never having changed an individual’s sexual orientation, this base practice at Liberty and beyond somehow still endures. As someone who underwent conversion therapy, I am doing what I can to speak up for those who have been victims to such psychological, emotional, and spiritual violence.
In fact, if I able to change even one person’s mind about conversion therapy’s legitimacy, I’ll be more successful than the “ex-gay” movement has been in changing the sexual orientation of any single individual in all the decades it has existed — something that is remarkably pitiful given that changing individuals’ orientations is its express purpose.
Call me crazy, but I think the odds are in my favour.
Top Photo via Liberty University