I have a lot to be thankful for this Pride Month.
When I was a 17-year-old college freshman in Chicago, I wrote a coming out poem to say, “I’m Black, I’m Christian, I’m gay—get used to it.”
My parents initially thought it might be a phase, but, fortunately, were willing to accept me however I was. But I didn’t come out to my extended family. Most lived in other states so I only saw them during holidays. Like many LGBTQ people, I just avoided dating and relationship conversations.
About a year after writing my poem, a friend who struggled with his same-sex desires invited me to his church. The pastor set out to “help” me, assuring me that if I followed his directions and prayed enough, I could become “pleasing” to God. In other words, he promised that my sexual orientation would change from gay to straight so that I could go to heaven.
I was vulnerable to this pastor because of my age. I was figuring out school and the direction of my life and I felt like I wanted to “get it right.” Listening to this strong, charismatic Black man seemed right. Our church did so many good things in the community including running a food pantry and participating in social justice campaigns. Why wouldn’t I trust this authority figure to direct me about what was supposed to be wrong with my sexuality?
As part of my duties in this toxic church, I helped out in the daycare program and the bookstore. Over time, my pastor directed me to quit school so that I could focus all my energy on his instructions. Those instructions included using my own funds to move to Indiana to live in a church basement. Eventually I was given a stipend of $50 per week to live on, a meager amount that made me even more dependent on the church. Throughout my stay, the pastor repeatedly told me that being gay was terrible. I believed that this core part of me was wrong, and that the answer was to, as my pastor said, “get serious with God.”
Also called “ex-gay” or “reparative” therapy, conversion therapy like the kind I survived is ineffective and harmful. This attempt to change the sexuality, gender identity and gender expression of LGBTQ people been has been shown to lead to depression, anxiety, substance abuse and even suicide. A range of major groups including the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics have denounced the practice.
Despite its dangers, nearly 700,000 LGBTQ adults in the U.S. have been subjected to conversion therapy, according to a recent report by the Williams Institute at UCLA’s School of Law. The study also found that an estimated 20,000 children ages 13 and 17 will receive the treatment from a licensed medical professional. Some 57,000 LGBTQ youth will be “treated” by a religious or spiritual advisor.
My faith community was everything to me. I trusted this pastor to be my spiritual advisor, even as the things he said to me became more and more terrible and isolated me from friends and family. At one point he told me that the devil wanted me to be “full of AIDS” as if HIV/AIDS were a punishment for being gay. I spent two years under his strict control in Indiana—one of 37 states without laws to protect youth from this practice.
People often ask me if the pastor himself was closeted. I don’t think so. I think toxic masculinity fueled the ignorance and homophobia that drove his actions. He feared what he didn’t understand so he sought to eliminate it. After about two years of increasingly restrictive demands, I realized that there were many things that I needed to work on in my life, but becoming straight was not one of them. I recognized that no matter what I did, I couldn’t change. And I didn’t need to.
I decided to return to Chicago, where I found a church that accepted me as I was and committed to helping me put the pieces of my life back together. I reconnected with my mother, and she was thrilled to have me home.
Even today, at age 38, there are things I’m still unlearning. There are moments when I’m reminded of the kind of toxic theology I received at 17. In a redemptive way, those debilitating messages trained me to become a grassroots community organizer, to help churches learn how to engage LGBTQ people in their congregations.
I have also begun working with the National Center for Lesbian Rights’s Born Perfect Campaign to end the practice of conversion therapy. To date, according to the Williams Institute report, 13 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws protecting LGBTQ youth from conversion therapy.
I am now an active member of an anti-racist and LGBTQ-affirming church in my hometown. For the first time I feel normal. I no longer feel like I need to downplay pieces of myself to be in community. Finally, I am home. No one can mute a part of themselves. And no one should ask them to.
Darren Calhoun is a justice advocate, worship leader and photographer based in of Chicago. He works to bridge connections between people of differing perspectives through story and relationship. Follow him on social media at @heyDarren or through his blog, DarrenCalhoun.com.
*Post has been updated to correct an error introduced in editing.