DNA Magazine - - CONTENT -

Chris Cs­abonyi put him­self through years of an­guish with so-called gay con­ver­sion ther­a­pies. Now he’s cam­paign­ing to have the prac­tice banned. An­drew M Potts re­ports.

Un­able to rec­on­cile his faith and sex­u­al­ity, Chris Cs­abonyi put him­self through years of an­guish at­tempt­ing to “pray the gay away” with so-called gay con­ver­sion ther­apy. In the end, his sal­va­tion came from an un­ex­pected di­rec­tion, and now he’s cam­paign­ing to have the prac­tice banned na­tion­ally. An­drew M Potts re­ports.

When I speak to Chris Cs­abonyi over the phone he sounds as though he’s beam­ing. A pe­ti­tion he has launched to ban gay con­ver­sion ther­apy in Aus­tralia has been signed by over 40,000 peo­ple, has helped prompt an in­quiry into the is­sue by the Vic­to­rian State Govern­ment, and has just lead the Aus­tralian Cap­i­tal Ter­ri­tory Govern­ment to an­nounce it will out­law the prac­tice.

Yet, life couldn’t have been more dif­fer­ent for Chris less than a decade ago. Hav­ing been lead to be­lieve that reli­gious coun­selling could turn him het­ero­sex­ual, if only he put his faith in God, he had been left feel­ing sui­ci­dal and like a fail­ure af­ter spend­ing years in con­stant prayer.

Chris says his jour­ney into the ex-gay move­ment wasn’t mo­ti­vated by a need to please his fam­ily, rather, it was be­cause he be­lieved he needed to be­come het­ero­sex­ual to save his soul.

“I was brought up as a Bap­tist, but my par­ents weren’t the ones who pushed me into this,” he tells DNA, “I re­ally wanted to go my­self.

“When you’re a kid you hear lots of things at church and for me what I heard was that gay peo­ple were perverted, they were de­mon pos­sessed, that they were dis­gust­ing abom­i­na­tions – all these hor­ri­ble things. So, when I started to work out that I might be gay at around the age of 10 or 11, those things I’d heard about gay peo­ple be­came part of how I saw my­self.”

Be­tween real­is­ing he was ho­mo­sex­ual and de­cid­ing to seek reli­gious coun­selling, there was never a mo­ment in which Chris en­ter­tained the no­tion that he might be any­thing other than bad.

“I was very afraid that maybe I had a de­mon in­side me or maybe I was evil, so when I was a

teenager I was re­ally des­per­ate to fix that part of my­self,” he says. “The church talked a lot about ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity be­ing a bro­ken form of sex­u­al­ity and so I re­ally thought I was bro­ken. The church had taught me I was bro­ken so I wanted to be fixed.”

Chris be­gan look­ing for ways to change. That even in­volved con­sult­ing an ex­or­cist.

“Through be­ing part of that com­mu­nity, I’d heard about peo­ple who per­formed ex­or­cisms so I asked around about that,” he says. “They’d make you fill out this long doc­u­ment, ask­ing ques­tions about your sex­u­al­ity and about all sorts of things you wanted re­solved and then they would pray over you and try to cast de­mons out of you.”

When that failed to have the de­sired ef­fect, Chris came out to a church leader to ask for help. They sug­gested he check out a group called Liv­ing Waters, which, at that time, was the largest and old­est reli­gious gay con­ver­sion ther­apy group – or “ex-gay min­istry” – in Aus­tralia.

The Liv­ing Waters pro­gram was orig­i­nally de­vel­oped in Cal­i­for­nia in the early 1980s by Andy Comiskey, a self-de­scribed “former ho­mo­sex­ual” whose Desert Stream Min­istries formed part of the world’s largest ex-gay um­brella group, Ex­o­dus In­ter­na­tional.

“The man who was run­ning Liv­ing Waters in Aus­tralia was named Ron Brook­man,” Chris re­mem­bers. “I was 17 when I first met with him and I de­cided that when I fin­ished high school, I would go and com­plete this course.

“At Liv­ing Waters they didn’t talk about things in terms of chances of suc­cess, but they spoke a lot about ex-gay tes­ti­monies – peo­ple who had been through the course and were now mar­ried and who had found ‘heal­ing’. It was def­i­nitely mar­keted to me as a course that that could help me to be healed.”

Chris packed his bags and moved from Syd­ney to Can­berra, where Liv­ing Waters was based.

“Liv­ing Waters was run like an AA pro­gram,” Chris re­calls, “We would meet once a week. They’d give us home­work. We had a big text­book that we had to work through – a big man­ual that was full of pseudo-sci­en­tific ideas about where ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity comes from and that re­ally reaf­firmed the idea that ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity is bro­ken and some­thing that’s not okay.

“Each meet­ing would usu­ally be­gin with a talk. We’d all be to­gether and there would be some­one who would do a talk about their feel­ings on ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity or about some other thing and then we would split up into small boy-girl groups where we would con­fess all of our sins for the week and we’d be anointed with oil and we would be prayed for.

“They told me that ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity was caused by lots of dif­fer­ent things that hap­pened af­ter birth; that it was def­i­nitely not some­thing you were born with. They had all these dif­fer­ent the­o­ries about it. I re­mem­ber they told me that it might be be­cause your mother didn’t breast­feed you and so maybe that’s why you’re gay. Stuff like that. Weird things.

“De­spite that, I was very hope­ful, and I re­ally be­lieved that this was go­ing to be my sal­va­tion,” re­calls Chris.

The Liv­ing Waters pro­gram was free to at­tend, but the course text­book was not.

“I had to pay for the man­ual, which was around $110. The ex-gay move­ment is lu­cra­tive for those who have writ­ten books and other ma­te­rial on the sub­ject. Over the years I spent hun­dreds and hun­dreds of dol­lars on other ex-gay coun­selling books and ses­sions as well,” he says.

How­ever, af­ter nine months at Liv­ing Waters, Chris’ same-sex at­trac­tion had not di­min­ished. He re­turned to Syd­ney feel­ing he had failed and even worse about him­self.

“Af­ter Liv­ing Waters, I told my­self that I was go­ing to stay celi­bate and keep pray­ing and keep try­ing all these dif­fer­ent ways to change my­self,” Chris re­mem­bers, “I stayed like that un­til I was 23.

“By that point I’d read all the books, I’d been through all the ex­or­cisms and I had be­come ex­tremely care­ful about the way that I re­lated to other peo­ple. But be­hind the fa­cade I was a com­plete mess.

“I didn’t know how to be friends with other men. I’d been taught how to pro­tect my­self from temp­ta­tion in an at­tempt to starve the ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity out of me. If I was at church and a good-look­ing guy tried to in­ter­act with me I would im­me­di­ately ex­cuse my­self and walk away. It got to the point where I couldn’t re­late to any­one prop­erly.”

Still hop­ing for sal­va­tion, Chris con­tin­ued to read all and any ex-gay ma­te­rial he could find.

“I’d been read­ing books by peo­ple who claimed that they were healed from ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity and I be­gan writ­ing to a few of them to ask them for help,” he says.

“Most of them were older peo­ple but there was one guy in par­tic­u­lar who I was email­ing in Amer­ica and he was young – he was in his twen­ties when he wrote his book. So when I heard about him I just thought, ‘Wow! There’s this young per­son who’s ex-gay and who has been healed. Maybe I won’t be wait­ing un­til I’m 50 to heal my­self!’ I wrote to thank him for writ­ing his book and we be­gan email­ing back and forth.

“Then, at one point, I asked, ‘Just to clar­ify… how long did it take be­fore you ac­tu­ally be­came at­tracted to women? How long were you do­ing these cour­ses and pray­ing be­fore things changed?’

“He wrote back and said that it was much more com­pli­cated than that. He said that he isn’t ac­tu­ally at­tracted to women at all. It was then that I re­alised this guy was still gay.

“So I started look­ing into it and speak­ing to peo­ple and I worked out that a lot of the peo­ple who are ped­dling this ex-gay ide­ol­ogy ac­tu­ally weren’t healed at all. They were still gay but to­tally in de­nial.”

Af­ter hav­ing looked to these peo­ple for hope for so long, com­ing to that re­al­i­sa­tion threw Chris into a very dark de­pres­sion. It was also at this point that the peo­ple around him saw clearly that there was some­thing very wrong go­ing on.

“My friends and fam­ily had be­come >>

At church I heard that gay peo­ple were perverted, de­mon pos­sessed, dis­gust­ing abom­i­na­tions… So, at the age of 10 or 11, those things be­came part of how I saw my­self.

>> con­cerned,” Chris re­mem­bers. “I was pray­ing to God ev­ery day, ask­ing him to ei­ther heal me now or kill me. I re­ally could not face the thought of liv­ing as a gay man and be­ing in sin be­cause I had been taught that I couldn’t do that and be loved by God at the same time.”

Then, help ar­rived from, what Chris thought, was the most un­likely of places – his Chris­tian par­ents.

“I’d as­sumed that my par­ents were al­ways on board with what I’d been do­ing to try to fix my sex­u­al­ity,” Chris says. “Then one day my mum took me out for cof­fee and she told me she was re­ally con­cerned about me. And then she just said to me, ‘Chris have you ever thought that maybe God hasn’t healed you be­cause there’s ac­tu­ally noth­ing wrong with you?’

“I was shocked. My par­ents had al­ways had a very tra­di­tional view of sex­u­al­ity. They cer­tainly started out be­liev­ing that ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity was a sin but, it turns out, that af­ter watch­ing me go through those seven years tor­tur­ing my­self, they started to ques­tion that be­lief.”

Chris ad­mits that he was not yet ready to hear what his mum was try­ing to tell him. “I took out my lit­tle bi­ble and started quot­ing scrip­ture at her,” he re­calls.

I was pray­ing to God ev­ery day, ask­ing him to ei­ther heal me now or kill me.

“But she told me that she and dad had been pray­ing and think­ing and re­search­ing and they’d both come to the be­lief that there is ab­so­lutely noth­ing wrong with be­ing gay and that I can be gay and Chris­tian and that’s fine.

“From that point on they re­ally helped me to see that I was killing my­self and that I couldn’t con­tinue to live that way. It prob­a­bly took me an­other year for me to start to feel com­fort­able with be­ing gay – so thank God for them.”

To­day, Chris says, he’s been able to rec­on­cile his sex­u­al­ity and his faith.

“I’m still a part of a faith com­mu­nity,” he tells DNA, “My faith has changed but I’m still a Chris­tian.

“That can be in­ter­est­ing some­times. The gay com­mu­nity and Chris­tian­ity don’t have the best re­la­tion­ship, for ob­vi­ous rea­sons, so it has been a dif­fi­cult thing to rec­on­cile, and there are times when I feel dif­fi­culty iden­ti­fy­ing as a Chris­tian be­cause the church and I don’t see eye-to-eye on some things.”

Now aged 32, Chris wants to make ex-gay pro­grams a thing of the past in Aus­tralia.

His on­line pe­ti­tion cam­paign has al­ready achieved suc­cess at a state and ter­ri­tory level, but he’s still hop­ing to get a re­sponse from the Aus­tralian Fed­eral Govern­ment.

“I hope that fed­eral Health Min­is­ter, Greg Hunt will act on this and work with the states to make sure we get a na­tion­wide re­sponse. Even if it gets done state by state, there still needs to be fed­eral in­put,” he says.

In past in­ter­views, Greg Hunt has said he per­son­ally op­poses gay con­ver­sion prac­tice but has framed the is­sue as one of reli­gious free­dom of speech for its pro­po­nents. That’s some­thing Chris can’t ac­cept.

“It has noth­ing to do with reli­gious free­dom of speech,” he says, “Peo­ple are ab­so­lutely wel­come to say that they don’t want to be gay. They’re wel­come to say what they like about gay con­ver­sion ther­apy, but Greg Hunt is the Fed­eral Health Min­is­ter and all of the avail­able ev­i­dence tells us that this is an ex­tremely dan­ger­ous and un­eth­i­cal prac­tice that has ab­so­lutely no ground­ing in re­al­ity.”

If Hunt doesn’t act, Chris is hope­ful for a change of govern­ment. “Cather­ine King, the Fed­eral Shadow Health Min­is­ter has made it an elec­tion prom­ise that, should La­bor get in next time, they will take the steps to out­law it na­tion­wide. That’s amaz­ing,” says Chris.

In the nine years since Chris was at Liv­ing Waters there seems to have been a wan­ing de­mand for ex-gay pro­grams. By 2012, around two-thirds of the ex-gay groups op­er­at­ing in Aus­tralia had closed down. In June of 2013, Ex­o­dus In­ter­na­tional an­nounced in Amer­ica that it was clos­ing, send­ing a shock­wave through the ex-gay move­ment around the world. The group’s leader, Alan Cham­bers, is­sued an apology at the or­gan­i­sa­tion’s fi­nal an­nual meet­ing.

“I am sorry for the pain and hurt many of you have ex­pe­ri­enced,” said Cham­bers, in part, “I am sorry that some of you spent years work­ing through the shame and guilt you felt when your at­trac­tions didn’t change.”

Liv­ing Waters and Desert Stream Min­istries founder An­drew Comiskey had al­ready split from Ex­o­dus a year ear­lier to be­come part of an­other ex-gay net­work. But de­spite that, ex­actly a year af­ter Ex­o­dus In­ter­na­tional’s shut­down, Ron Brook­man an­nounced the clo­sure of Liv­ing Waters in Aus­tralia.

In March of last year, the Chris­tian Coun­sel­lors As­so­ci­a­tion of Aus­tralia (CCAA) qui­etly up­dated its Code Of Ethics, stat­ing in a sec­tion cov­er­ing “Un­eth­i­cal Con­duct” that “Coun­sel­lors shall not do ther­a­peu­tic in­ter­ven­tions aimed at mod­i­fy­ing or chang­ing the sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion of clients, as dis­tinct from treat­ing recog­nised sex­ual dis­or­ders.”

Liv­ing Waters no longer op­er­ates in Aus­tralia, but they still have a US web­site, which links to an Aus­tralia and New Zealand branded page. The site states that, “We be­lieve God cre­ated hu­man be­ings, male and female, in His own im­age. Adam and Eve be­longed to the cre­ated or­der that God de­clared to be ‘very good.’ Both male and female were cre­ated equal in worth and value.”

In­ter­est­ingly, though, there are no women in the Liv­ing Waters Lead­er­ship Group of eight, and no women on its board of di­rec­tors. The Liv­ing Waters “Down Un­der” pages al­low vis­i­tors to ac­cess a fea­ture length film called Au­dac­ity in which a po­lite, softly spo­ken evan­ge­list at­tempts to tell gay peo­ple about “what the Bi­ble re­ally says about ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity” in a stand-up com­edy club.

Other fun­da­men­tal­ist Chris­tian groups in Aus­tralia con­tinue to sup­port the gay con­ver­sion prac­tice.

Lib­erty Chris­tian Min­istries of­fers “con­fi­den­tial pas­toral sup­port” for peo­ple ex­pe­ri­enc­ing same-sex at­trac­tion but they don’t elab­o­rate on what that ac­tu­ally means.

Chis says most groups have out­wardly changed their mis­sion state­ments to claim they are just sup­port groups, but he suspects that the ex-gay ide­olo­gies be­hind these or­gan­i­sa­tions hasn’t changed. In re­cent years, as so­ci­ety’s views re­gard­ing LGBTIQ rights have pro­gressed, gay con­ver­sion groups have be­come so un­pop­u­lar that they no longer speak openly, he says.

How­ever, a spokesper­son for the Aus­tralian Chris­tian Lobby said, as re­cently as Septem­ber, that par­ents should be al­lowed to put their chil­dren into gay con­ver­sion ther­apy pro­grams.

“Chil­dren… are un­der the care and re­spon­si­bil­ity of their par­ents, so I think if some­one’s a mi­nor, it is up to their par­ents. And I think parental rights should be re­spected,” then spokesper­son, Lyle Shel­ton told Buz­zFeed.

If a good-look­ing guy tried to in­ter­act with me I would im­me­di­ately walk away. I’d been taught to pro­tect my­self from temp­ta­tion and starve the ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity out of me.

Chris takes his mes­sage to the me­dia: 7.30 Re­port, The Project and Kyle and Jackie O.

Chris aged 5 with his mum Linda, and (op­po­site) aged 9.

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