The so-called "homosexual conversion therapy" can be condemned by experts but is still allowed in the UK. So what happened when gay podcast host James Barr signed up for a simulated "treatment"?
I'm sitting in a room in Northern Ireland in front of a man who says he's offering a "talk therapy" to people who do not want to be homosexuals. And I can not help but worry – despite all the evidence I've read to the contrary, a tiny part of myself believes that it can to really convince myself that I can choose to no longer be gay.
The man in front of me is Mike Davidson, he is from New Zealand and invited me to his home, about 30 minutes from Belfast. It's in a very quiet neighborhood close to small houses nestled on a street, the kind of place where everyone knows your business. Do his neighbors know what's going on here? I begin to feel a little uncomfortable. It reminds me of my hometown, Eastbourne, and being in the closet to hide my secrets.
Mike greets me by a side door in his tiny office and says, "It's here that we do the work."
It's small but includes a pretty sizeable DVD collection. He tells me that he loves movies about the war and wonders if I feel the same way. I say, "Yes, somehow." We have something in common.
James Barr co-hosts the gay and non-gay podcast with his friend (non-gay) Dan Hudson (right). The couple traveled to Northern Ireland to Of Gay to non-gay? – a series of three-part podcasts on the BBC in which they meet people who have suffered a so-called homosexual "conversion therapy". You can download it here.
Mike and I take our places and it's a pretty tight press. It's a relatively likeable man, glasses, a pretty face – the kind of person who would help you carry your shopping to the car if he saw you struggling. He looks nice.
He also runs a Christian charity called the Core Issues Trust, which he tells me "takes seriously people who say they want to turn away from homosexual practices and feelings." His technique, he says, is to explore past experiences and learn more about their unwanted "attraction to the same sex".
"What we do is replace those feelings," he says.
A little less than half of those he sees are non-Christians, he says, and he only works with adults.
Despite all the certificates attesting to his achievements at the university on the wall of his office, Mike is not a qualified doctor nor a licensed therapist.
The NHS and all the major professional bodies of therapy say that what it does is unethical and potentially dangerous. The British government has said it wants to ban this practice. However, Mike is still allowed to do that, and we are there.
I have not had an "unwanted attraction to people of the same sex" for a long time, as Mike would say. I am a homosexual, a comedian, I co-host the UK's largest LGBTQ + podcast, and regularly discuss sexuality and equality on television, on stage and in front of our international podcast audience – but I am remember a time when I was less confident.
We constantly hear theories about the existence of LGBTQ + people and, at age 13, surrounded by heterosexual people, our predominantly heterosexual planet has sown doubt and shame in my mind about my homosexuality. I realized that my life was about to be much more difficult as a gay man and for a split second I would have really wished I could be straight.
Even in 2019, it is actually quite easy to understand why you might want someone to make you heterosexual. Homophobic hate crimes in the UK are on the rise. A poll recently found that 58% of gay men were afraid to give their hands to a partner in public. A lesbian couple was attacked in a London bus as part of an alleged hate crime that shocked the country.
That's why I'm interested in Mike. Is he motivated by homophobia or is he really thinking of helping people who do not want to be homosexual? And if it is, are you okay?
Mike is therefore simulating one of his therapy sessions with me. He asks me if I had a past trauma.
I answer that when I was younger, I was bullied for ginger and that as I grew older, I was bullied for being gay. I tell him about a time when someone kicked me at the bus stop.
Then I ask him if he has a theory on why that would make me gay.
He responds: "I do not think that one thing can give people the same-sex attraction … but if it's your existence at school, it's intimidation, and I'm not surprised you may become distant from other men. "
His voice is sweet, he's friendly and for the most part it sounds like a normal therapy session, but it's not. I remember that he's not a real psychotherapist. I know I'm here as a journalist but I'm vulnerable – it's all so personal.
In July 2018, the British government released an LGBT action plan in which it says it wants to ban "harmful" homosexual conversion therapies in the UK. According to a national survey, 2% of British homosexuals went through it and 5% offered it.
The government says that more than half of those who propose it are faith-based groups – not just Christians – and although Mike operates in Northern Ireland, it happens everywhere in the UK.
Before visiting Mike, I met a young man on the north coast of Ireland, Josh Lyle. He is gay and Christian – his grandmother was a preacher and the church is an important part of the life he lives in. He tells me that in Northern Ireland, your religion is not just a religion, it is part of your identity.
He remembers the day when, in front of his church, he passed a rack of pamphlets. "There was one who called" Bringing your child back to God "and it was basically a book explaining to parents how to right their gay kids."
He experienced a lot of homophobia. While he walks around town, people regularly shout insults and he's been spit at it recently. So he says he understands, in a way, why a person might want to turn to conversion therapy.
"It can be very difficult to grow up as gay and if someone came to you when you felt worse, to reconcile with who you are and to say:" I have this magic wand that will make you better you want me to sign it? You would be very tempted to say yes. "
However, the consequences can be extremely damaging. The former Christian singer Vicky Beeching has spent most of her life trying to quell her appeal to women and has tried various forms of conversion therapy for gays, ranging from prayer to exorcism going through speech therapy.
One day, she noticed strange white patches on her skin. She went to the doctor and was told that she had developed an autoimmune disease called scleroderma.
"The doctors told me that my body was at war with itself, they said they believed in trauma and stress, and more specifically in my journey of suppressing my sexuality and all the shame that reigned in it. regard, says.
Vicky has sold millions of records around the world, including her hit Above All Else, which, she says afterwards, sums up perhaps perfectly her willingness to suppress her own sexuality for Jesus' sake. Since then she has written a book explaining why she believes you can be both a Christian and a homosexual.
In front of Mike, I realize that we reflect the body language of each. We both have our legs crossed.
I'm curious why Mike ended up doing it.
He explains that he grew up in the church and that when he had homosexual feelings, he was ashamed and wanted to get away from them.
"I always felt different – I always felt different and excluded – I was not good at sport." He says he was emotionally disconnected from his father – a veteran who was good at rugby and cricket. "I thought to myself," Well, if it's a man, "speaking of my father," I do not want anything to do with that. "
For most young men, "it's almost like they were attracted to the mysterious, the otherness of women." Now, for me, men felt the others. that I did not feel like it. "
He says that he himself followed a form of conversion therapy and that it helped him understand why he had these feelings.
It's at this point that I start to challenge Mike.
I am more convinced than ever that I am not gay because I have been bullied – and this is not because I selected to be gay. That's because I was born gay, and no one needs to explain it or ask why. I am fair. I like exactly the same thing that everyone loves.
The NHS and all major therapy organizations say that efforts to change or change sexual orientation through psychological therapies are unethical and potentially harmful. Are they all wrong? "If you do a search from a single point of view and you can only get research money if you have a point of view, you will submit one," he replies.
But the people who come to him are vulnerable, I tell him, and he misleads them by telling them that they can suppress their thoughts.
"I have never used the word" repression, "he says. "What I believe in, is the transformation." He admits that he will sometimes see a man and think that he is attractive. "It may be my age, but I do not have the same deep desire for emotional attachment with a man or sexual relationship."
Then I ask him: What if it's not true that the feelings of homosexuals can simply be replaced? And if, in fact, he is still gay?
He looks in the distance for a moment, and for a moment I wonder if my words have changed his mind. He looks at me and says, "Even if it's true, I have the right and the freedom to identify and live as I see fit."
Hearing this, I'm sorry for him.
I tell Mike that I think he really believes that he is doing the right thing. I hope that while he was high today in a less homophobic environment, he would be comfortable to be what he was.
He offers me a coffee and I decline. I would like to leave as soon as possible, but part of me wants to hug him. I really feel so sad that someone can be so misled by homophobia and incorrect readings of sacred texts thousands of years old – but I'm leaving. I do not remember if we shake hands, even. In the car, I listen to Gloria Gaynor.
The founder of one of the largest conversion therapy programs in the United States, McKrae Game, declared himself gay this year and apologized for hurting generations of people.
After struggling to repress his own homosexuality, Game founded his ministry of truth in 1999 in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and renamed it in 2013 as Hope for Wholeness. The organization operated in at least 15 states.
"I was a religious fanatic who was hurting people," he told the Charleston Post and Courier newspaper.
Seventeen US states have banned conversion therapy for homosexuals – most recently Maine, which took the plunge last May.
We are Sunday and I meet Josh and his grandmother, Marie Hodgen, in front of All Souls Church in Belfast. Josh was afraid to talk to his grandmother, the former preacher. But she has more than accepted it. She came back into the Bible and studied her words.
"When he came out, I could not say it was wrong," she tells her grandson. "I love you, Josh. There is no condition, I will always love you unconditionally."
Their story overwhelms me.
It's the first time they've been to the church together since Josh read the pamphlet "How not to be gay" all these years ago.
While Josh and I walk inside, we both feel anxious. But the minister welcomes us both. It's an inclusive church that believes in love of all kinds. Josh and his grandmother cry. I'm crying.
We sit listening to the words of the minister 's acceptance. He tells us that he is excited for his pride service in the making. Mary looks up and reads aloud a scripture engraved on the idyllic wall of the church: "Sing a new song for the Lord".
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