Rejecting conversion therapy, accepting love

February 2nd, 2015

As a queer theologian, I celebrate my sexual orientation as a beautiful facet of being created in the image of the Divine. Indeed, the culminating moment of coming out to myself was one of the most spiritual experiences of my life. Undoubtedly, I was able to have that moment of awakening (which in many ways felt like the first moment of my life) because of the support network of friends, family, therapists and a faith community that surrounded and affirmed me.  

That said, the process of coming out to myself and then to others was (and in some ways still is) fraught with suffering and struggle. As is true for many queer individuals, I wrestled with implicit and explicit cultural messages about what it means to be a sexual minority – messages that dismissed, denied and pathologized my lived experience, that threatened me with rejection and alienation from my beloved communities, and that engendered fear, disgust, shame, doubt and hatred into spaces where I desperately needed love, acceptance and hope.  

Over time and through this wrestling process, I was able to conclude that I was not the problem and that my sexual orientation was not something unsafe, shameful or wrong. In fact, the tables turned. I was able to see that those shaming messages and their messengers were the true problem. These angels of death were the unsafe voices keeping me from living life abundantly. Theirs were the damaging, hateful words that I unquestioningly internalized.  They kept me at bay and made me believe there was something wrong with me.  

These voices can and do take a variety of forms, and one iteration that has gained recent attention is through the proponents and practitioners of conversion therapy.  Conversion therapy consists of non-evidence-based measures that seek to reorient or “repair” LGBT people to a permanent heterosexual, cisgender orientation. The messages of hate and death ring clearly here: queer sexual orientation and gender identity are shameful problems to be fixed. Sadly, many of my queer siblings deeply internalize that message, believe it and seek to comply even when it runs counter to their own best interests. Indeed, little room exists for the whisper of self-love in a world full of voices shouting threats about your “problem.” And, heartbreakingly, I understand. Remember, I’ve been there.   

The greater medical community has expressed its disapproval of conversion therapy. This brand of intervention has been rejected by the major American medical and therapeutic associations, and has been found to be in breach of the American Psychological Association’s ethical code to “do no harm.” Yet, what are we to do when we are met with parishioners or clients seeking conversion therapy for themselves or for their children? As a pastoral therapist-in-training, I know that therapeutic work toward client well-being must take a holistic approach to mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health. I do not take lightly the goal of the Pastoral Counseling Centers of Tennessee, Inc., where I am currently interning: we seek to embody God’s healing presence with our clients.

I have heard many individuals speak about their “struggle with same-sex attraction.”  Our therapeutic and pastoral response can be to acknowledge that struggle and desire for change as a normal response to the social stigma of being a sexual minority. We can remind our clients that their struggle is just as much external as it is internal. The struggle is wrestling with the dominant voices of a culture seeking to perpetuate the status quo of heteronormativity and sexism. The struggle is also an internal wrestling, a grappling for identity in the face of internalized doubt, hatred and shame. For most, it is the fight for their life. As I’ve written before, pastoral caregivers can offer a therapeutic space that is not of this world, but of the kingdom of heaven and of the Beloved Community – a space of boundless compassion, striving to unmask and consider all of the forces at work in our clients’ lives.  

Some of the most vulnerable in the kingdom of heaven are our queer and questioning children and adolescents. As the least of these, our children (in general) are particularly vulnerable to the messages from greater culture and from their primary caregivers. Queer children and adolescents thrive when they are met with parental acceptance. Unfortunately, many live in a world of explicit parental rejection, or of subtle rejection in the form of well-meaning parents, unknowingly motivated by death-dealing impulses and anxieties, seeking to convert their children away from their true selves. In a world already seeking to convert our queer children into the bearers of shame, self-hatred and fear, we can and must protect them from compounded suffering. We must offer them the life abundant found in acceptance, understanding, safety, pride and delight.  

Our pastoral response must be to refuse to refer our clients and parishioners to conversion tactics in any form. For our queer siblings, that means refusing to replicate the shame-filled messages that have plagued them throughout their lives. It means acknowledging that the attitudes and assumptions at work to justify and protect the implementation of conversion interventions are toxic and sinful. (That is, they separate us from the love of God and from loving one another.)  

Part of my own coming out process was vowing to listen no more to the messages telling me that my queer, female body was wrong, broken, shameful or scary. I vowed instead to live into my own truth as a beloved child of God and to surround myself with the counter-cultural messages of affirmation, love, compassion, acceptance and grace that I always needed. We can surround our queer clients and parishioners with that same sanctuary that silences voices of suffering and death and listens for those divine whispers of life.

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