They are a gay married couple on a mission. Every year since 2005, Rev. Steve Parelli, a former evangelical Baptist pastor, and his partner Jose Ortiz – who are Executive Director and Coordinator for Asia respectively of Other Sheep – spend July and August away from their home in New York City to travel in Africa and Asia. Founded in 1992 by Rev. Dr. Thomas Hanks, an American Presbyterian missionary who was and is currently still serving in Buenos Aries, Other Sheep is an ecumenical, Christian ministry that works worldwide for the full inclusion of LGBT people of faith within their respective faith traditions.
Currently over a month into their two-month tour to India and Nepal, Steve and Jose will be making a stop in Singapore on 14 August at Free Community Church to conduct a forum to discuss the methods and claims of “change” of the ex-gay movement and their experiences within the movement as participants seeking change.
The couple, who legally married in California in 2008, met in 1997 while attending Hope Ministries of Calvary Baptist Church, New York City, a support group for Christians wanting to “overcome” their same-sex attractions. At the time of their meeting, Jose was attending various self-help groups based on AA principles, and Steve was in “reparative therapy” with Joe Nicolosi, author and co-founder of NARTH (National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality).
Ordained in 2008 with the Metropolitan Community Church, Steve has a Master of Divinity (Grand Rapids Baptist Seminary) and an MA in Applied Linguistics (City University of New York) while Jose has an MA in Applied Psychology (New York University). Steve also has four children from a previous marriage.
Fridae catches up with Steve and Jose who were in Goa, India via email and finds out why they have made it their life’s mission to share their journey of reconciling their faith and sexual orientation with gay Christians, and Christian religious leaders around the world.
æ: Yourself and Jose have travelled the world for years to share your personal stories. Why do you do this and what motivates you?
Jose: I want to spare others the suffering that I went through… the years of confusion, self loathing, depression, and thinking I cannot be used of God to help others spiritually.
Steve: What motivates me personally, in part, is the sad knowledge that Christianity, in the area of sexual minorities and human rights, is more often than not, a force for discrimination, exclusion, ostracism, and criminalisation. Uganda – largely an evangelical Christian country – is a case in point. God’s love is universal, inclusive, and non-discriminatory. Unfortunately, religion can be a force for ill-will, division, separation and violence.
Also, what motivates me personally is what I’ve experienced within my own circle of family, friends and life-long associates: complete ostracism from all who have loved me (before I came out as a gay man in my mid-40s). It is my hope that the church will someday put an end to its spiritual persecution of LGBT people so that families and friends will not have to choose between being faithful to their significant others versus their faith. No mother should have to have to deny her faith in order to love her gay son. No young person should have to deny his or her gay father in order to be accepted by the church. The church should unify family members – including LGBT people – not divide, separate and inspire feelings of doubt, rejection and even hate. Unfortunately, the Church’s motto “to love the sinner but hate the sin” does not equate acceptance in the slightest degree for the homosexual: his or her sexual orientation as homosexual is as much a part of his or her personhood as heterosexuality is for the straight person: You cannot “love the heterosexual but hate his/her heterosexuality.” The church is obviously awash and totally without any practical compass, having embraced a traditional so-called Biblical approach, setting the sciences aside along with the clear testimonies of their own LGBT members.
æ: Were yourself and/or Jose involved in the ex-gay ministries? If so, tell us more.
Steve: Only as members of groups; not as leaders. [Steve attended a group in NJ (New Jersey) and in NYC (New York City) over a period of time for more than a year.]
æ: The debate about conversion therapy/ reparative therapy has been going on for decades despite increasing social acceptance around the world and psychological associations condemning such therapy as harmful. What is driving the ex-gay industry and why can’t it be put to rest?
Steve: The evangelical Christian church, which is to a degree an isolated community, is the driving force of the ex-gay industry. Young people who grow up in the evangelical church become a new crop for harvesting by the ex-gay movement; these evangelical young people are “trapped” within an exclusive community that talks about being “born again” and have a “victorious Christian life” over sin. Young evangelical gays (before they even know they are gay) are indoctrinated with a theology of sin, victorious Christian living, and anti-homosexuality, so that by the time they experience their own sexual orientation as homosexual they are already conditioned to believe that it is sinful and that “Christ is the answer.” Couple this with the total ostracism that comes from being openly gay as an evangelical Christian – ostracised by family, friends, the church, status, position, career – and you have the powerful making of the hope that one can, should change. The ex-gay movement, for the above reasons, has the force it has because of the evangelical Christian theological mindset and its mode of exclusivism (belonging via correct doctrine and right practice). Wherever evangelicalism has gone (worldwide), the ex-gay movement has followed.
Jose: As long as society and its religions continue to propagate the idea that to be homosexual is somehow less than ideal, there will be a market for these therapies that offer change. The fact is that it is that is very stressful to have to justify one’s own existence and assert one’s dignity. Who would “choose” to be different when that difference can result in disdain, ostracism, condemnation or even abuse from the greater society and in many cases one’s own place of worship?
æ: What is the potential for harm with reparative therapy?
Jose: The APA American Psychiatic Association, which opposes “reparative” therapies submitted a statement which says, in part: “The potential risks of ‘reparative therapy’ are great, including depression, anxiety and self-destructive behaviour, since therapist alignment with societal prejudices against homosexuality may reinforce self-hatred …” I believe there is also potential harm in the sadness, disappointment and intense frustration that arise when the expected success never comes. These negative feelings can lead to depression, hopelessness and suicidal ideation. The abusive and harmful aspect of such therapy is also manifest when they refer to studies that show that the client’s cooperation and motivation are the determining factors to the degree of “change” experienced. Therefore, when one is not experiencing change, one can begin to think “I am not sufficiently compliant, cooperative, invested, or committed to the “therapeutic” process. I am really messed up’’. What needs to be questioned is the “therapy” not the client. A client should not be subjected to such unnecessary and anguishing self-doubt due the selective use of psychological research. I believe the rate of “success” – which could be the most minimal shift in sexual thought or expression- to be too low and the potential for harm to high to justify reparative therapy.
æ: Some people argue that it is the right of people to undergo reparative therapy should they want to "stop" being gay. What would you say to that? And if it were up to you, do you think ex-gay organisations should not be allowed to operate?
Jose: There are certain practices in the medical profession that are unethical and therefore are not allowed. Similarly, in the area of mental health there are practices that are counterproductive and/or potentially harmful and therefore should be prohibited. In my opinion, reparative has such potential for detrimental effects that it should be banned.
Developing high self-esteem and exploring what it means to live out one’s sexuality responsibly should be the focus of counseling for gays instead of wasting time, energy and resources on changing that which is a natural part of one’s humanity.
Whether ex-gay groups should be allowed to operate depends on how they publicise, I believe. If they claim to be based on solid social science research and psychological practice, then they should not be allowed to operate. If they clearly say that they are intended on changing outward manifestations so that one can appear to fit in, or pass as one of the heterosexual majority, then I think they should be allowed to exist. They just not be allowed to make false claims of change of sexual orientation.
Steve: This is not an easy question. Since the ex-gay movement operates under the auspices of local churches and is primarily a religious movement/ of religious sentiment, it is my view that government agencies do not have jurisdiction to regulate their practices. On the other hand, at some point the government does regulate in matters of health and well being.
Just recently, in June, the New York State legislature legalised same-sex marriage; the bill they passed included church-right protections so that churches, in the case of same-sex marriage, could still teach and practice their same-sex marriage discrimination without penalty under law. Of course, marriage equality and reparative therapy is not the same is – but I’m trying to illustrate that government has to be careful how it may or may not regulate religion or religious organisations.
æ: Have you received hate mail or threats by those who consider you and your ministry to be against the "proper" Christian teachings and how do you handle it?
Steve: Christians from Africa and Asia have emailed us using religious jargon to warn or attack us saying we are “an abomination,” that we “need to repent,” that they “are praying for us” to change. We respond with kindness, telling them we view scriptures differently, that the Bible does not condemn homosexuals, and that we’d be happy to discuss a particular passage of scripture if they wish to continue the conversation. No one who writes to us in this manner responds to our request for further study. It is a sad commentary on the Bible literacy of Christians, and is, a believe, bibliolatry (the worship of the Bible above God).
æ: Tell us more about the forum and if it would be useful to those who aren’t Christian or who have fully accepted their sexual orientation and have no intention of "changing"? Who should come to the seminar?
Steve: Every ex-gay Christian should be there; he or she needs a different perspective; unfortunately, ex-gay Christians, in general, stay within the ex-gay movement out of fear (and not out of love) of rejection and complete ostracism.
Those who aren’t Christian and who have fully accepted their sexual orientation should attend from the standpoint of what influence they may have in organisations (or with individuals) that address reparative therapy. What this seminar offers that may be someone unique is the story from the inside: two evangelical Christians seriously attempting ex-gay therapy, and from that vantage point, evaluating it. Also, I feel the non-Christian activist and the Christian activist need to work together for the human rights of LGBT people.
æ: What’s your advice for someone who is gay but does not want to be, or who is gay and Christian?
Jose: Not everyone in Christianity believes that homosexuality is wrong. There is a “minority report” within Christianity that argues that the Bible has been misused by religious leaders in the Church to condemn that which they do not understand. The majority opinion in the Church has been mistaken before thinking the earth was the center of the universe, that the earth was flat, and slavery was acceptable, to name a few matters. We know through the social sciences and our personal experience that there is nothing inherently evil or flawed in being gay. The Church just needs to catch up. We must patiently, persistently, and graciously tell the Church she is wrong about us. Also, remember that our religious institutions are NOT God. Our Creator loves, blesses and cares for gays as much as the rest of humankind. The rulers of our institutions through their bias, attempt to block the rays of God’s love for the LGBT community but they can no more erase God’s love for us as a person can blot out the fiery sun by blocking it from sight with his hand.
Steve: If you are gay and don’t want to be: Accept yourself as gay; love yourself as God loves you as gay; place your energies and resources not in repressing yourself as gay but in creating the person you want to be as gay (education, career, associates, etc); find the spouse/significant other that completes you as a gay person and build a life with him or her; live life to the fullest as a gay person; live in step with yourself and those who really love you will congratulate you, those who will not accept you as you are you do not need in your life anyway. If you are gay and Christian: For my part, as an evangelical gay man (and theologian), I have had the wonderful experience of re-thinking just about everything that I’ve been taught theologically – not just the gay-part. If you are gay and Christian, don’t just adjust yourself theologically on the mere six passages of scripture that are used to abuse you; but re-think the whole evangelical (Americanised) western, male, heterosexual, Reformation faith. Religion is the story we tell ourselves again and again; perhaps you need a whole different story. For the gay Christian – don’t just tweak your theology around the question of sexual orientation; re-do theology from top to bottom; it is a journey once you start you will find is, perhaps, the spiritual life worth living.
Is There Such a Thing as ‘Ex-gay’?
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