Bill Prickett’s fourth novel A Double-Minded Man came out last week, timed to coincide with National Coming Out Day. Prickett’s new work is fiction, but draws from his own involvement and leadership in an “ex-gay” ministry in the 1980s, and three decades of research and monitoring these groups since coming out.
“The truth is,” Prickett said, “Coming out is not always easy for those of us in the restrictive community of conservative religion. It would mean denying everything we’d been taught to believe, and going against the church we’d devoted our life to serve. So we turned to programs that promised we can, and must, change our sexual orientation. God knows, we tired. Often with detrimental consequences to our emotional, spiritual and even our physical health. For us, coming out had detours.”
Photo above: Bill Prickett
Conversion therapy, sometimes called “ex-gay therapy” or “reparative therapy,” is the pseudoscientific and often religious practice that purports to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. The contentious practice has been condemned by nearly every major medical association and has been associated with increased rates of suicide attempts.
You may have heard of the practice thanks to the 2018 critically acclaimed film, Boy Erased. Erased was the first major Hollywood film to address the subject and has led to more scrutiny of the practice.
Above, actor Lucas Hedges in Boy Erased.
According to a recent NBC News story, “In 2014, the National Center for Lesbian Rights published an open letter from nine former conversion therapists, including several from the now-shuttered ex-gay ministry Exodus International, who called for a ban on conversion therapy.”
These ex-ex-gay activists wrote that they “once believed that there was something morally wrong and psychologically ‘broken’ about being LGBT,” as per their understanding of Christianity.
“We once believed that sexual orientation or gender identity were somehow chosen or could be changed,” they wrote. “We know better now.”
“Looking back, we were just believing (and sometimes teaching) what we had been taught — that our identity needed mending. We grew up being told that being LGBT was disordered, sick, mentally ill, sinful, and displeasing to God. We grew up being told that loving, same-sex relationships were shallow, lust-driven, deceived, disordered, and impossible.”
“In light of this, we now stand united in our conviction that conversion therapy is not ‘therapy,’ but is instead both ineffective and harmful.”
GayNrd: How long were you involved with conversion therapy? More than eight years.
Did you go through the therapy yourself at all? I did, in the sense I was first trying to overcome my own “temptations” by doing research, reading books, and attending conferences.
I sincerely wanted to please God, was serious about following Christ, and committed to my marriage and my ministry, so I knew my “unnatural” lusts had to go away. Naively, I was confident I could memorize enough Scripture verses—entire books of the Bible, in fact—to “transform” my mind (cf: Romans 12:1-2), and thus eliminate the impulses. I learned about those who claimed to cure, fix or repair sexual orientation, designated as “unwanted same-sex attraction.” I heard compelling testimonies of victory over the sin of homosexuality.
Each voice…every fresh insights on “sexual wholeness”…got my attention. When I came across new information about the (supposed) “root cause” of my urges, I confronted it with ardent hope. Any new “technique” to eradicate the desires—regardless of how irrational it might sound—I was a willing subject. I prayed, fasted and confessed my sins. I even confessed the sins of previous generations, since I was told that my sexual attractions could have been handed down from previous generations. I was anointed with oil, had demons cast out, and went through “inner healing” of past/repressed emotional trauma, including anything that might have occurred to me in my mother’s womb.
When did you realize you were gay? I’ve known since I was a young boy that I was…different. I didn’t have a word for it. This was back in the 60s, in the deep South. We didn’t talk about such things. But all my early sexual experiences were with other boys. And even then, I knew our encounters meant more to me, emotionally, than it did to them.
Once I came into the conservative Fundamental/Evangelical faith, and began reading the materials by those who promised I could have “victory” over these desires, we would not call ourselves gay. That was considered giving in to the sin, and taking our identity from our temptation. We were instructed not to confess that reality.
Did you continue doing conversion therapy after you realized you were gay? If so, what was going through your mind when you, as a gay man, were performing these theories? I thought I was teaching Truth. I truly wanted to help. That’s the thing about being immersed in conservative religion and this theology. It’s a bubble, acting like both an echo chamber and an isolation chamber. Fundamentalism is the ultimate expression of cognitive dissonance. Because we believed the Bible was true, it didn’t matter what science, or biology, or history might say in contradiction. We believed the Bible, and by extension, God.
Honestly, being the leader of an “ex-gay” ministry was never my intention. It just…happened.
I was sharing my own struggles, and what I was learning, which included positive affirmations: in faith, saying what I wanted to happen, not what I was feeling.
I am healed, in Jesus’ Name.
I am a new creation in Christ.
People around me assumed my faith confessions were established fact. Suddenly, I was an example to others wanting to overcome their same-sex attractions, and other Christians who were also struggling began to seek me out for counseling. This evolved to a support ministry to help individuals with (so-called) sexual identity issues. I facilitated our meetings, did individual counseling and wrote the curriculum we used in our workshops.
During that time, churches and conferences throughout the country invited me to relate my experience—my “testimony”—of restoration and healing. I did interviews for popular religious magazines, and radio and TV shows. Several national ministries, as well as local counselors, consulted me as a resource. One well-known televangelist flew me to Chicago to interview for a staff position.
Is there any one person who sticks out in your mind from the therapy sessions? Yes. We had one sweet guy who made a profession of faith, was baptized as a member of our congregation and began attending. Later, he left and (as we termed it) went “back into the lifestyle.” I saw him a couple of times, and tried to get him to return. He moved away, and then I learned he’d moved back home, and had been diagnosed with AIDS. I tried to go see him, but his mother refused to let me come over. She said his sickness was the punishment he deserved. She wouldn’t let me come pray with him. He died, and it broke my heart that he had to listen to her voice of condemnation in his final days. It shook me to the core, and was one of the early breaking points that lead to my “ex-gay” house of cards crumbling.
Have you spoken to anyone you did therapy on since coming out? If so, how did the conversation(s) go? After I left, back in the late 80s, I offered an apology for my involvement. I went on the record that I was wrong, and committed myself to doing what I could to expose the deception of these groups and practices.
I’ve gotten cards and emails from a few of the guys who were in our group. One man told me that he didn’t hold me personally responsible. He saw that we were all doing the best we could. Another, who is still enmeshed in that mindset, sent me a “Get Well” card after my first cancer diagnosis, and told me that my disease was God trying to get my attention, and that I should repent and return to a life of holiness.
Knowing what you know, as a gay man, who has performed these therapies – what is something that you want the public to know? First and foremost, it doesn’t work! Sexual orientation is unchangeable. At best, these groups teach a form of behavior modification. They use shame, and guilt, and fear as Band-Aid methods of impulse control. Not acting on my homosexual desires is not the same as eradicating my homosexuality!
Every major professional medical and mental organization affirms the reality of sexual orientation, and opposes attempts to change. The practices have been debunked, and many of the practitioners do not have mental health training or accreditation. It’s dangerous, and has been shown to increase the chances of negative self-image and even death, especially in young people.
Look beyond the marketing materials, and the nebulous claims of success.
What do they actually promise?
What words and terms do they use as “proof” of change?
- Getting married is not the same as changing sexual orientation.
- Getting off drugs and alcohol, or leaving a life of rampant sexual behavior, is not a change in sexual orientation.
- Celibacy is not changing sexual orientation.
- Self-reporting is not evidence of change. People who claim they are no longer gay aren’t fact-based evidence that sexual orientation can be changed.
When I left the ministry and came out in the late 80s, there were only a few folks who had come to the same conclusions. But our number has grown in the past 30 years.
I am proud to be one of the founders of an Alliance of former “ex-gay” leaders, and together, we represent more than a hundred years of combined experience in leadership in these programs. We are the founders of these groups, and for years, we were the face and voice of these practices. Now we are working to get these practices banned.
We can say definitely that they do not work!
Though your new book is fiction, how much of it is based on real stories or experiences? For years, people have encouraged me to write an autobiography, but I had no interest. That kind of sustained objectivity was too daunting. Plus, I know my tendency for stringent introspection and self-recrimination, and I feared my story, as told by me, would be depressing.
But it occurred to me that I could convey the important lessons I learned trying to change my sexual orientation by filtering those experiences through the life of a fictional character, Nate.
There are many similarities, but Nate is not me, and this is not a veiled retelling of my life.
Nate lives in a world I not only created, but once inhabited.
I can say that when someone in the story is spouting “ex-gay” theology, marketing an “ex-gay” ministry, teaching an “ex-gay” group, using the Bible to condemn homosexuals, or utilizing a practice to bring about change in someone’s sexual orientation, that part is all too real. I’m ashamed to admit that these are things I once said, believed and taught.
There are actual events that happen in the book that are drawn from my life, including the story I told earlier of the young man from our group who died of AIDS.
I can’t say more with giving away spoilers.
And finally, I will say that Nate’s internal conflict is very real, and personal. It almost cost me my life, as I contemplated suicide. It was emotional dredging up those memories to write them; there were time I would sit at my computer in tears, recalling my own inner warfare.
If you have additional questions, contact Prickett directly at: Bill@BillPrickett.com.