Inside the sick, sad world of conversion therapy.
It was half an hour after my approach to True Freedom Trust (tft) when I got an email from Paul Bach. He works in outreach for the charity and asked if we could speak on the phone. In a friendly chat, Paul told me that acting on desires to sleep with other men would make me feel ‘empty and regretful’. ‘We have to watch out and realise that the devil is always trying to entice us, and realise our own potential weaknesses,’ he said. ‘Sin is always lurking at the door, however strong a Christian you are.’
He told me tft aims to ‘help people handle their same-sex attraction, to reconcile that with their faithful Christian living and actually to be a faithful Christian without sinning within their same-sex attraction’. This would happen, he claimed, by treating sexuality like alcoholism.
‘It’s like aa,’ he said. ‘With alcoholics, they can never ever say, I’m free from alcoholism, they say I’m a recovering alcoholic.’ He told me that by ‘starving ourselves’ of our desires, they would apparently ‘wane away’.
He also claimed that some members of tft said they had been able to ‘diminish’ their same-sex desires to the point that they could get married to women and have children.
He said that I would be unable to pursue a relationship with a man and remain a Christian for two reasons: ‘The trouble is that gay relationships don’t really develop in that way. They usually are the wham-bam-let’s-have-sex-kind-of-thing… But even if it was, I don’t see for one moment that that is acceptable by God.’
Our call ended with a prayer. Paul said, ‘Lord, you can change him in the way that you want to change him… Whether that means actually attracted to a woman to get married to her, or whatever, or knowing the gift of singleness and service in that way. I pray that you would help Harry to come to terms with simply wanting your will, and the change that you desire for him.’
I was reporting undercover on conversion therapy, an umbrella term described by the nhs as efforts to demonstrate ‘an assumption that any sexual orientation is inherently preferable to any other, and which attempts to bring about a change of sexual orientation, or seeks to suppress an individual’s expression of sexual orientation on that basis’.
In parts of the usa, where conversion therapy is more common, it can take the form of Inquisition-grade misery which you might have seen in movies like Boy Erased, in which a young man is thrashed by his family with Bibles for being gay. Similar methods were reported in the uk in the 1960s, when gay men were subjected to electric shock treatment or injected with vomit-inducing apomorphine and shown pictures of naked men as a crude form of aversive conditioning.
Nowadays, it’s different, although what currently happens in conversion therapy is not widely reported. But it is still going on in less aggressive forms, co-ordinated or supported by evangelical charities, which led to Boris Johnson’s pledge to ban it this summer, calling it ‘absolutely abhorrent’ and that it had ‘no place in a civilised society’. Though it may be abhorrent, conversion therapy is not yet unlawful.
Wary of growing pressure, pastors have taken conversion therapy behind closed doors, into carefully vetted groups and one-on-one counselling sessions. Curious to find out what they’re doing, I set out in July to look into their world. I was especially interested to see what kind of people were involved – whether the organisers were Bible-bashing zealots popularised by Hollywood and if their audience was made up of teenagers being forced to attend with their parents. So under a pseudonym and a new email address, I started approaching charities to find out.
I was first struck by the number of British organisations and campaigners decrying homosexuality. There’s Carys Moseley of Christian Concern, an evangelical pressure group whose founder has argued in favour of conversion therapy, who says that her friends who grew up with same-sex parents now ‘have a lot of problems’. ‘Too many have swallowed the lie that being gay is nice,’ she has written, claiming that people with ‘heterosexual potential’ are ‘being prevented from marrying’ due to lack of pastoral care.
There’s Lovewise, an advice charity geared to children, that says ‘homosexual activity is a sin,’ and likely to bring ‘dangers to our physical, emotional and spritual health’. There’s Voices of the Silenced, a popular documentary made by Mike Davidson of the Core Issues Trust, a Northern Irish charity that fights against ‘the normalisation of a pansexual worldview’. That film features an interview with David Pickup (whose name counts as a rebuttal against nominative determinism) where he claims with wide eyes and a smile to have induced ‘cathartic’ conversions of gay men in his sessions.
And then there’s True Freedom Trust. It is one of the most active and largest groups of its type in Britain, and it runs a brisk trade. Its members speak at churches and schools, publish magazines, organise conferences and advise parents whose children have come out. They count 1,600 individuals and 147 churches as members, and run in-person and online support groups in more than a dozen cities. They reported an income of almost £150,000 last year, mostly from donations. The charitable status of organisations like True Freedom Trust allows them to benefit from tax-free status and Gift Aid, boosting donations by 25%. tft says it does not practise or endorse conversion therapy, but rather offers ‘mainstream pastoral care’ to Christians.
One of their board members is also a poster child for the charity: Anne Witton, whose story appears on a number of evangelical websites. Anne came out as a lesbian at a young age but began to struggle when she found God in her first year at ucl. As a Christian, she felt caught between her beliefs and her sexuality. God came first, so Anne decided to stay single for the rest of her life, describing her past relationships as taking a ‘wrong turn’. ‘Unless God changed my sexual orientation, I would not get married or have children,’ she wrote in a blog. ‘This was a painful realisation, but the love of Jesus overwhelmed me and I wanted him more than any human relationship.’ Anne is one of many fundamentalist Christians who say they suffer from ‘same-sex attraction’ and eschew relationships because of their faith.
One way tft offered to help ‘ssa’ (as it is called in evangelical jargon), was by setting me up with a counsellor. During our first phone call, Paul Bach said he kept a list of therapists, some of whom belonged to the Association of Christian Counsellors (acc), a professional counselling body that would be able to help.
‘A lot of people won’t touch ssa these days because of the government agenda that people shouldn’t change and should be able to live it out,’ he explained. ‘We’ve got those who we know are in sympathy with the aims of tft. So you could look at the Association of Christian Counsellors, see if there’s anyone near you, and then you could run the name past me and I could tell you what I know.’
He emailed me a couple of names on his list. It included hyperlinked text that took me to a hidden part of the True Freedom Trust website. He appeared to have sent me this by mistake, accidentally revealing the full list of 33 therapists and organisations. I messaged 15 of them (some counsellors did not have web sites listing their contact info), asking for help to ‘get past’ same-sex attraction. Of those, one said they were too busy. Five said either they did not offer conversion therapy or that therapy could not change sexuality. Nine offered to arrange a session. Their websites offered help with ‘sexual identity problems’, or mentioned tft.
One of those counsellors who emailed me offering therapy was Avril Parker, a member of the acc, who works remotely from her home in Devon and advertises her services online. On a free trial session over the phone (normal sessions are £40), she very politely told me she was a decades-long member of tft and that it was a ‘struggle’ to have same-sex attraction and be a Christian. She first described it as a similar sin to premarital sex but later said, ‘Now and again, you may have a struggle if you meet somebody and think, I think he’s gorgeous. Then you’ve got to say, hang on a minute, I’m a Christian and that relationship isn’t going to be right. It’s recognising you could be attracted to men. You’ve got the choice to go down the road or not. If you want to stay walking with the Lord, it’s nipping it in the bud, isn’t it?’
Avril also recommended that I adopt ‘strategies’ to stop myself acting on urges, such as calling friends, going for walks or praying.
‘The one thing you have to do is pray every day to ask God to protect your mind and give you that strength, because you’ve got to live your life,’ she said. ‘You’ve got to go to work and be mixing with people, you’re going to see guys and you’re going to naturally feel attracted to them. And that’s a reality.’
I asked if it were possible to end up living a ‘straight lifestyle’ and she said: ‘It can happen. It doesn’t happen to all men and women. At True Freedom Trust… you will find men and women who have remained single, and men and women who have married and had kids. It varies according to individual.’
I was reminded of the nhs’s definition of conversion therapy, which says it can include seeking to suppress a sexual orientation or making it seem inferior.
I emailed Avril a couple of weeks after our call to admit I was a reporter and present her with some of what she told me on the phone. She said I had taken her comments out of context.
‘I have never offered counselling sessions aimed at suppressing one’s sexuality or for a ssa person to become, as you put it, straight,’ she wrote. ‘I have never believed in or offered “conversion therapy” to anyone.’
The acc, which banned its members from performing conversion therapy, said it would instigate a complaints process against her, and investigate how tft’s list is used.
‘We are aware that clients may wish to explore feelings about their sexuality or gender identity and that the provision of a safe therapeutic space may be of great value in doing this,’ said a representative. ‘However, exploration in a safe, full inclusive environment is very different from the premises on which conversion therapy is based.’
tft denied that the counsellor referral service was meant to offer same-sex attraction therapy but said that it has now been stopped owing to the ‘risk of people in any way thinking that we are recommending therapy that changes sexual orientation’.
During my time with the charity, I was also added into a hidden Facebook group. A trawl through the posts revealed some dark conversations between members. They discussed moments when they had failed to maintain their celibacy and prayed for forgiveness. Others described how they were enforcing discipline on themselves: no movies with gay love scenes, no membership of dating apps. A high-up member of tft wrote that everyone in the group was called by God to deny themselves gay relationships.
But the most surprising experience came after I was invited to join a Barnabas Group, where tft members meet up in churches in King’s Cross and Farringdon to discuss a Bible verse and share experiences of same-sex attraction. Because of coronavirus, they are now meeting on Zoom.
After watching a lot of YouTube clips feverishly denouncing the ‘gay agenda’ lobbying against conversion therapy, the friendliness I found among the group was disarming. The dad jokes and discussion of weekend plans gave off the vibe of a village cricket team or a model railway club meet-up. With a welcoming smile, they described how they had come to the same realisation that Anne Witton did – that their sexuality was incompatible with their religion – and were now living alone, enjoying the solidarity of the Barnabas Group.
Part of me felt guilty for intruding on their group. These men had made a choice, and it is not for me to tell them how to live any more than it should be the role of some evangelical blogger railing against homosexuality. But had they made their own choices to follow a strict faith? Or had they been influenced by their pastors? I found it deeply sad to listen to these men who had put faith before the relationships many of them once had but ultimately decided against, committing to a life of celibacy.
It also brought to mind what psychologists call internalised homophobia, which can present itself as shame at one’s own sexuality. A 2017 government survey polled more than 108,000 Brits who identified as lgbt, finding that 2% had undergone some form of conversion therapy to ‘cure’ them of their sexuality. A 2018 poll by the Ozanne Foundation found more than half of those who had been through conversion therapy experienced mental health issues. Of that group, two in five self-harmed, a quarter suffered eating disorders and a third attempted suicide.
Teddy Prout said he attended regular prayer circles as a teenager which attempted to ‘pray the gay away’. It did not work – today Teddy is an out gay man who campaigns against conversion therapy with Humanists uk.
‘Sexuality is a fact of life and trying to suppress or “cure” lgbt people causes huge harm and damage to individuals,’ he said. ‘Whether it is counselling where you are told your thoughts which are perfectly natural are sinful, or prayer circles where you are told your sexual identity can change, let alone the physical beatings and exorcisms to remove gay thoughts found in the most extreme religious communities, they are all deeply damaging to individuals. Further, they display no evidence they work, only hurt. Things that are harmful and don’t work should be banned and I hope the government will act swiftly to fulfil their promise to do so.’
I approached Paul Bach with the quotes from our conversation which feature in this article and he said he acted in line with tft’s mission of ‘upholding traditional Biblical teaching on sexual relationships’. He claimed it was ‘true’ that gay men were able to reduce their urges and enter into heterosexual marriages, adding, ‘We do not engage in any sort of work which intentionally has removal of feelings of same-sex attraction as an end goal.’ Paul said almost everyone who approaches tft is a Christian who believes gay sex is ‘unbiblical’. He also denied saying that the counsellors on his list would be willing to perform ssa therapy.
Stuart Parker, head of tft, denied that his charity practises or endorses conversion therapy. In a statement, he said, ‘Our work involves mainstream pastoral care practices such as discussion groups, Bible teaching and prayer. Indeed, most of our staff and volunteers themselves experience same-sex attractions, so we always seek to help people with care and empathy.
‘[If] we teach or pray for change in people’s lives, it is for changes of heart, behaviour and mind (e.g. freedom from shame) rather than changing sexual orientation. These are the sorts of changes that any mainstream religious organisation would advocate, to help people grow in their mental and spiritual health.’
Boris Johnson promised to end conversion therapy after a study on the practice. What further evidence does he need?