“PRAYING THE GAY AWAY NEARLY KILLED ME”
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.