A Fire Escape Out of Hell but with Too Many Steps
It was a cold and grey winter’s day. The grey sky seemed to hang heavy over everything, stripping away what little colour was left in that winter landscape. I had travelled across Merseyside, on my own, that morning to make this appointment. I’d needed to change trains in the centre of Liverpool, changing from one metro train onto another one in one of the few underground stations in the city. That second train took me under the River Mersey and out into the suburban area of the Wirral. Once I had arrived at the station, I left the train and waited outside.
I’d been nervous throughout that journey. I had arranged this appointment, I couldn’t not keep it, not to turn up was not acceptable, but I was so nervous about keeping it. Now, waiting out on the pavement, my nerves had ramped up to another level. Was this going to help me? And what if I was attracted to him? How could I manage that?
I was eighteen and that summer I had left college but without the qualifications for my then planned career (which, with hindsight, I wouldn’t have been happy in). I was unemployed with so much time on my hands (it was the 1980s and with the high unemployment rates in Liverpool I didn’t stand much of a chance of finding a job). I was facing up to so many different things about myself but facing that slow realisation on my own. I’d learnt that people didn’t want to hear my problems, the ones I wasn’t too ashamed to share.
I had seen the advert, months ago, tucked away in the back of a Christian youth magazine in which all the articles were written by adults. I had kept that magazine, securely hidden amongst a pile of other old magazines. The text of that advert was simple:
“HOMOSEXUALITY. There is a positive alternative to the homosexual lifestyle through Christ.”
The wording leapt out at me, there was a Christian answer to my problem, to the thing I would never dare to ask anyone about. Since puberty, I’d had the growing realisation that I was homosexual (back then I couldn’t bring myself to say I was gay, that was going too far). I was in so much denial about my sexuality and at every chance I tried to push it down and deny that it was even there, it was all so tiring.
Since an early teenager I had been a member of an Evangelical Christian church, our local Anglican church. I worked so hard at being a good Christian, and good Christians were certainly not homosexual, or so I believed. I knew being homosexual meant I was condemned to hell, it was there at church, that belief, that certainty, and I had breathed it into my very soul and believed it all. I was a virgin then, I hadn’t even kissed another boy, I had certainly not held another boy’s hand, but I knew that just my desire to do so condemned me to hell. I wanted saving from that, I couldn’t just be sent to hell for something I had no control over, could I?
Then I saw that advert, from an organisation called True Freedom Trust (TFT), who called themselves a “Teaching/Counselling Ministry” and gave a post office box address in The Wirral, not far from where I lived.
It had taken me weeks, and screwing up all the courage I had, to write to TFT, sending them a stamped-and-addressed envelope. When it returned, I read the handful of leaflets it contained cover to cover and all over again before carefully hiding them away, I didn’t want my mother finding them. They came with a letter offering me the chance to meet someone from TFT for counselling.
Again it took me weeks to screw-up my courage, but eventually I wrote back to them and asked to meet for counselling. That was how I ended up standing there on the pavement, outside that Wirral train station, waiting. I was waiting for HM, from TFT. I was meeting him for counselling.
A car pulled up at the curbside there, it was HM. He was a thin, middle-aged man with a five-o’clock shadow so thick on his chin that he looked like he already needed to shave. But the thing that struck me so hard about him was how careworn and miserable he was, no joy came from him. Even when he shook my hand, he seemed so unhappy, the handshake so slight and quick. I had feared that I could be attracted to him, but his joyless personality was so unattractive.
We drove to the TFT’s office, housed in a local Anglican church. There HM told me the TFT theology. They did not believe that being homosexual, on its own, was a sin, but any sexual expression of it was. The sin was in the act. All I had to do to avoid hell was to remain celibate, never have sex with another man. Hearing this was such a relief, this was my fire escape out of hell and I could so easily do it. I was young, a virgin, and had never had a relationship, would I ever miss something I’d never had?
I was so grateful to HM; I was saved from hell and it came at a low price.
We then talked about the leaflets HM had sent me. Three of them were testimonies, short biographies, from men who had “turned away” from the homosexual lifestyle and become heterosexual, all three men finished their stories by saying they were getting married to a woman. When I mentioned these, HM’s face lit up and we talked about them. He saw me as perfect candidate for this change; I was young, innocent and had never wanted to be homosexual. I listened to what he said and drank it all in. The fire escape could lead to paradise, or so it seemed.
I left the TFT’s office believing everything I had been told. It was such a physical relief; I wasn’t going to hell, I just had to follow a few rules and I could change and be free. I had been so terrified of my sexuality, seeing it as something I had no power over but which was destroying me from within. Now there was a way of escaping that damnation.
At first it was all so easy, I’d not had a relationship so being celibate did not seem a great sacrifice, especially as it would save my soul. I was still deeply closeted but I was living in an environment that was not safe to come out into. The Evangelical church I was a member of was homophobic; that homophobia was covert rather than overt, but I could still read it plainly.
I saw HM on a sort of regular basis. At first, we met in the TFT office and we would talk about TFT theology; in reality, I would say something and he would tell me what I needed to do. Like so much of Evangelical Christianity, he always had an answer for me; he always knew what I had to do. It was never him asking me questions and helping me to find out what I wanted to do, he just told me what I had to do.
Then HM offered me “healing of the memories” as a way to “heal” me and turn me heterosexual. I readily agreed. I was now desperate for “change” and “healing” in my life. I still hated my sexuality; I still wanted it out of my life, so this offer seemed like another fire escape, a way out of my own personal hell.
“Healing of the memories” consisted of me lying on a sofa and HM, after he’d prayed over me for God to open my mind and my memories, would sit at the head of sofa, on a wooden chair, and “guide” me through reliving painful/traumatic memories. The first memory he had me relive was my birth. I lay back on the sofa, HM prayed over me for God to open up my memories, I closed my eyes and nothing came into my mind. I remembered nothing about my birth and I panicked. I wasn’t being faithful to God, there was something wrong with me, God wasn’t opening up my memories, I had angered God, and HM would be upset and angry at me. So my wonderful imagination kicked in and I made up a narrative of my own birth there and then.
I imagined that I was a forceps delivery and that I didn’t want to be born, I didn’t want to pulled out of the warm and safe place I had been living in; I was scared and afraid of this bright and cold world I was being pulled into. All very dramatic and all very indicative of my mental health back then. (Years later, I would find out that I was a caesarean birth. What I said back then was just fiction, no miracle of me suddenly finding a lost memory)
I met HM regularly for “Healing of the memories”, about once a month, for the next six months. Always he would have me “relive” a memory where my father had let me down or my mother had taken control of something, telling me what I had to do. Always HM told me that this would “repair” my relationship with my parents and “heal” me. (With the benefit of time and hindsight, I am now deeply suspicious of HM’s motives with which memories he guided me to relive. Always they would be ones where my father let me down, where my father was weak, and where my mother was taking control and telling me what to do, my mother being dominant. There is an old and discredited theory called Learned Behaviour. It states that a man is gay because his father is weak and/or absent and his mother is strong and dominant [Back in 1984, Learned Behaviour just plainly ignored lesbians, bisexual people and trans people, but it is a very pathetic and untrue theory.] I am now almost certain HM was pushing me towards that theory. The irony is that I had two very strong-willed and dominant parents, neither one was weak)
At the time, I didn’t have any of this insight and HM’s “counselling” only reinforced to me that my parents were to “blame” for my sexuality, to blame for the misery I was living in. It drove a wedge between me and my parents, damaging an already difficult relationship. Now I am ashamed of the way I behaved towards them, but back then I was deeply closeted and being told to blame my parents for it, and I did so because I knew nothing else.
But none of this “counselling” was working. There was no change in my sexuality, if anything it was becoming more dominant in my mind. I would see handsome men everywhere and be attracted to them. I had started having crushes on some men I knew. This all left me feeling deeply ashamed and guilty. Wasn’t my sexuality supposed to be changing? Wasn’t I supposed to be leaving behind the temptation of my homosexuality? But I wasn’t. I would lie awake at night and beg God to turn me straight, but there was no change. What was I doing wrong? Why wasn’t God listening to me? Was I to be condemned to this cold and lonely living for the rest of my life? Why had God stopped loving me? Or had God never loved me in the first place?
I now know I was suffering from depression, but at the time it seemed that I was living in my own personal hell. That fire escape had not worked, but I was still struggling to walk up it, it was the only option I thought I had and it was destroying me.
My mother sent me to my GP because of the insomnia and extremely low energy levels I had. My GP said I was depressed, something I couldn’t/wouldn’t hear. Bible-believing Christians didn’t get depressed because that was against God’s will, or so I believed. He prescribed me tranquillisers. I only took them because my mother expected me to.
One morning, I woke up and got dressed and then sat down on the edge of my bed. I was alone in the house, both my parents were at work, and suddenly it was all too much for me. I took my morning tranquilliser and then I took another one. Coldly, I carried on taking them; I would overdose on them and finally stop all this pain. My rather tight gag-reflex stepped in, though, and I choked on the third pill. It caught in my throat and I coughed and coughed and then retched and then I spat the pill back up again. I wept because I had been so stupid and weak, or so I felt.
I had been feeling suicidal for months before that but it had never gone beyond just thoughts. Each time I would dwell on the idea of suicide, the idea of ending all of this pain and misery, and then another thought would jump into my mind. If I killed myself that was a sin and I’d go straight to hell for it, and I was terrified of hell. That fear kept the act of suicide to a mere thought and desire, and not too well of a constructed plan, but that morning I acted on that desire. It terrified me what I could actually do, how much I could physically harm myself, and I told no one. They would think I was crazy, I was mad, I was worse, and how could they understand? They would say it was because I was homosexual. I certainly couldn’t tell HM, he talked so much about change and leaving the “homosexual lifestyle”. But I was also finding it harder and harder to hide my symptoms of depression. Being celibate was such a lonely existence. I was keeping everyone at arm’s length because I feared that intimacy would lead to sin, and I feared they would find out the truth, but I hated being so lonely too.
I saw HM for a little over eighteen months, but it was during the last six months that everything seemed to spiral out of control. Firstly, the organist of my church was expelled for being gay. It was discovered that his close friend was actually his male lover and they were told not to attend our church anymore. When this happened, I told HM about it, I was so shocked and afraid. These people, the people who called themselves my “Christian family”, had Nicholas and his partner thrown out of our church without an apparent second thought. HM told me that Nicholas wasn’t a Christian, he was just someone who enjoyed the social life of being a member of a church, he liked the friends he made at church, so it was an act of Christian discipline to expel him and therefore it was right. (A couple of years later, I learnt that this simply wasn’t true, HM hadn’t been honest with me)
Next the curate, at my church, preached a sermon supporting James Anderton’s homophobia and told me that anyone who was homosexual was condemned to hell for their “choice” to be homosexual. He made no distinction between the orientation and sexual activity, he condemned it all. I didn’t tell HM about this because I felt so betrayed; here was a minister of the church I attended, a man I looked up to, condemning me from the pulpit, and he didn’t even known it was me he was condemning.
Then I was outed at church and quickly after that I had daemons cast out of me, for being gay, at the church’s youth fellowship. The betrayal of those actions cut deep within me. It didn’t stop there though. So many people in the youth fellowship told me they knew why I was gay; they all seemed to have a theory about my sexuality. I was told I was gay because I had a strong-willed mother, because I had a strong-willed father, because I was “confused” about my masculinity, because I was a woman “trapped” in a man’s body, because I was possessed by daemons, because the devil was sitting on my shoulder and whispering “lies” in my ear saying that I was gay, because I hadn’t met the “right” woman … and so many more theories, and none of them based on anything I had said. None of them reflected any element of me, but all of them showed how little those people knew me.
At first all these different theories were almost comical, but soon they started to hurt. No one was offering me acceptance, instead I was seen as a “problem” that needed solving. But quickly people began to pull away from me, drop me and end our friendships because they knew I was gay. Almost overnight, it felt like I lost almost all my friends and was pushed to the very fringes of church life. That hurt so deeply. Now I was physically lonely as well as emotionally lonely.
I turned to the only person I thought would help me. I went to see HM and told him about everything that was happening to me—the daemons being cast out of me, the list of theories as to why I was gay, and about losing almost all my friends. I expected HM to support me, to offer help and advice about what I should do next, to show he cared. I was wrong.
HM started by saying that homosexuality can be caused by demonic possession. He then went on to tell me there was a lot of “truth” in all those theories people had about why I was gay. As I listened to him, it was as if scales fell away from my eyes and I saw HM for what he was. He wasn’t there to support me; he was justifying my church’s homophobia. He was doing that for the wider Evangelical Church too. He wasn’t there to challenge the Church’s homophobia; he was there to support the status quo by presenting the “acceptable” face of homosexuality to the Evangelical Church. He was a sad, sexless, gay man who was punishing himself with celibacy as the price to be allowed within the Evangelical Church, but never to be allowed to be a full member. He was so pathetic, it was horrible and repulsive to realise. And I had followed him.
I made positive noises and said positive things in reply to what he said, but I didn’t believe a word of it. I just wanted to get out of that office as quickly as I could.
I never went back to HM and TFT after that day; I knew they didn’t care about me. They cared about being the “acceptable” homosexuals for the Evangelical Church and they wanted to force me into that mould. They hadn’t cared about helping and supporting me, and I had desperately needed that.
I wish I could say the hurt and damage stopped the day I walked away from them, but it didn’t because so often the damage doesn’t stop when the abuse does.
POSTSCRIPT: At present, the British government has a proposal to ban conversion therapy, though there is still no date for when the bill will come before parliament. There are two exceptions in the proposal. It will not cover anyone over eighteen who consents to have conversion therapy and will not cover gender identify, so trans people at any age can be subjected to it. If this bill had been law in 1984 it wouldn’t have protected me because I was eighteen when I first went to TFT, and I went to them; therefore, I consented to it.
Edited by Drew Payne
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