ULS Student Shares Harrowing Experience with Conversion Therapy

By Carla Christopher
TW for anti-lgbtqia+ so called “conversion therapy,” spiritual-sexual abuse, suicide

I was 18, a Michigan girl who had flown to New York City for college, the dire warnings of “If you don’t leave now, you never will” still ringing in my ears. My nearest family was 3 states away and the comfort and stability of my church family felt like a million miles distant. A hallmate, also rather lonely and seeking community, asked me to go with her to attend an introductory meeting for a campus Christian group. The banal and pop-tinged music was played by a ruggedly handsome boy with a mop of curls, an earnest smile, and an acoustic guitar. There were hugs and warm smiles and free pizza. It felt…nice.

The carb-laden sing-a-longs became Bible study group, Sunday night gathering, worship team rehearsals, and hang-outs. School, even the Big Apple itself, was becoming more comfortable to me. So was spending time with my judo sensei, a strong and charming tomboy-ish woman from sunny California. I enjoyed spending time with her so much, that I mentioned it to the curly-haired crooner, who was also now my Bible study leader. He listened thoughtfully, hugged me with affection and seeming understanding, and encouraged me to attend a winter gathering of fellow students from a few other schools. It would be good to get away, he insisted, to experience some great prayer and praise, and to gain some clarity.

Clarity was apparently waiting for me in the knee-deep snow of a middle American state. A place I was transported to in someone else’s car, long before the days of cell phones being affordable to broke college students. I was assigned a metal bunk bed in a room of several other strangers. Breakfast came before dawn, the next day and for several days after. Days of hours of long prayer in crowded rooms with uncomfortable chairs. Days of repetitive music on speakers louder than thought. Days of testimony of “changed lives” and “surrendered sin”. The talk was vague. I was separated from my friends and anyone else I knew, except for my group leader checking in on me each day at dinner. I was cold. I was hungry. This place made me uncomfortable. I wanted to go home. Instead, I was told I was ready for “the prayer room”. A special seminar, he said. Sexual Healing.

A small group of us, indicated by group leaders and pointed fingers and hushed whispers. A darkened room with a concrete floor. Frigid cold, empty of furniture except for metal chairs and crosses. A circle of murmuring humans surrounding us. A laying on of hands that pushed me to the floor. Pressing that became restraint, then pain. Cries of prayer that became louder with every ‘no’, with every ‘stop’, with every ‘please stop, just let me go’. A separate, even smaller room for each of us. Still-near-children, now alone, cries of prayer that continued long after our very real tears had stopped.

They prayed in shifts. There was no one to relieve me. I broke in less than 12 hours. To this day, my weakness shames me. I begged God to take away whatever had made me deserving of such shaming, needful of such prayer. I ate, slept, spoke like a robot, moved slowly and mechanically throughout the strange space throughout the next day. I was allowed back to my metal bunk, to the mass sessions of prayer and song. My group leader smiled approvingly at me from across the room. I rose without conscious thought. I walked without feeling or intention. I knew I was dirty. I was aware only of an uncontrollable compulsion to get clean. I made it back to my bunk, to the industrial, open showers. In the metal stall, under scalding hot water, I suddenly realized I was fully clothed. And still gay. That’s when I wept. The kind of slack jawed, snot-releasing, hiccup-causing, soul-deep howls that reveal a broken soul.

I had prayed. I had obeyed. I had surrendered. Hadn’t God promised that if I prayed, if I believed, that I would be heard? I must truly be beyond hope, beyond saving, outside of God’s grace. All the pain of my childhood, my broken family, the weight of my every failing, real or perceived, fell upon me at once. Because hope died in that shower stall. There was no heaven for me. No relief that would ever end this pain, even in death. There was only this life, and an aloneness I hadn’t known since praying the prayer that made the Holy Spirit my best friend at 5 years old.

The rest of that night is blurry for me. I know my mother and uncle drove through a snowstorm on New Year’s and found me in a diner with a pay phone after a 5 hour drive. I know I left the church for more than a decade, punishing my body and my spirit every way I knew how, until God reminded me that if this was who I was, it was who God created me to be, knit together with the beauty of Psalm 139. I know that I made it out alive, barely, but my duet partner did not. He turned to drugs and needles and HIV then AIDS. I know that my first “boyfriend” did not. He took a fistful of sleeping pills and duct taped a plastic bag around his neck rather than live to see his disappointed family. I know that this is the cold, chest-gripping fist I feel on the rare nights I still wake up in a sticky sweat, 20 years later. I know that, as a proud and unapologetic queer person, this is a memory I must carry with me into board rooms and court rooms as very public and very media-accessible fights for conversion therapy bans, and non-discrimination protections, and adoption rights are being fought in America, in Pennsylvania, in 2018.

So many broken souls at the feet of the church. Souls you would have to dig six feet into hard-packed earth to make reparations to. And mine is just one of the thousands of conversion or “repairative” therapy realities still healing, still being prayed through, within our repenting and rebirthing church.

Carla Christopher
Carla Christopher is a culturally Jewish, Episcopalian-raised, Lutheran AF, Black/German/Hint of Mexican queer community organizer and cultural educator turned first-year seminarian at United Lutheran Seminary – Gettysburg.

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