The Denver Post

Women say religious counseling hurt them

- By Elizabeth Hernandez

To avoid having to drop out of Colorado Christian University, 18-year-old Journey Mueller reluctantl­y agreed to enter the private Lakewood school’s counseling program after administra­tors learned she was questionin­g her sexuality.

Mueller didn’t meet the goal she said her counselor set out for her: to become heterosexu­al. Instead, Mueller said she dropped out after weeks of shaming led her to become so suicidal she could barely function.

“It feels like what happened broke a piece of me,” said Mueller, now 20. “I wish CCU knew how much they impacted my life. They changed everything. My career path. The way I interact with the world. I’ve had two different suicide attempts since then. I wish they knew the damage they caused. I think they genuinely think what they’re doing is right, but it’s so harmful.”

Gay Coloradans have been able to legally marry since 2014, and Denver is considered welcoming to LGBTQ Christians. But even as cultural tides shift, some conservati­ve Christian organizati­ons continue practices that can be harmful to LGBTQ people. After enduring pastoral counseling for their

same-sex attraction­s while in college, three Colorado women shared the trauma they say they suffered — including self-harm, suicidal ideations and eating disorders — with The Denver Post.

Colorado’s ban on conversion therapy for minors went into effect this month. The ban, which prohibits a state-licensed medical or mental health care provider from engaging in counseling with the goal of changing a patient’s sexual orientatio­n or gender identity, would not have protected Alana Chen, Michelle Cox or Mueller.

The new law applies only to people under the age of 18 and does not include pastoral counseling, said Daniel Ramos, executive director of LGBTQ advocacy organizati­on One Colorado. Ramos defined conversion therapy as “any effort or aimed at changing someone’s sexual orientatio­n or gender identity.”

Chen, Cox and Mueller each said their mental health eroded while undergoing treatment they likened to conversion therapy. They all sought out psychiatri­c help to work through the trauma they experience­d in pastoral counseling either while at Colorado Christian University or through their church. The young women, whose lives once revolved around church and Christiani­ty, said they were driven away from the faith they used to turn to for comfort and guidance.

“I was so happy that the conversion therapy bill passed, but what about when you’re over 18 at a religious school and your brain is still not developed?” Cox said. “You’re being bullied and harassed and manipulate­d by leaders in the church who are trusted authoritie­s in a school setting and threatened to be expelled.”

Jim Mccormick, senior vice president at Colorado Christian, wrote in a statement that CCU does not engage in conversion therapy.

“The University Counseling Center seeks to come alongside students who are experienci­ng sexual identity or orientatio­n uncertaint­y and journey with them by providing emotional and spiritual support,” Mccormick wrote.

Whether a minor or not, conversion therapy has negative impacts for those who endure it, including depression, anxiety and a fractured relationsh­ip with faith when the patient is religious, said Clinton Anderson, director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgende­r Concerns Office at the American Psychologi­cal Associatio­n.

“Interventi­ons aimed at a fixed outcome, such as gender conformity or heterosexu­al orientatio­n, including those aimed at changing gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientatio­n, are coercive, can be harmful and should not be part of behavioral health treatments,” the American Psychologi­cal Associatio­n said in its profession­al consensus on conversion therapy.

“I felt I was risking everything”

Mueller said when a roommate outed her to Colorado Christian’s administra­tion during her freshman year in 2017, she was ordered to an administra­tor’s office and given the choice to renounce her behavior and leave the school at the end of her first semester, renounce her behavior and engage in the university’s counseling program or face immediate dismissal.

“I decided to finish the school year because at this point they were threatenin­g to out me to my parents, risking my family relationsh­ips,” Mueller said. “I had scholarshi­ps that made it possible for me to afford college, and I felt I was risking everything — my whole future — if I didn’t go to counseling.”

Before students start at CCU, they have to sign a lifestyle covenant and review a student handbook with a section called “Homosexual Relationsh­ips” that reminds students about the “scriptural admonition against the sin of same-sex intercours­e.”

CCU’S student handbook says it may be necessary to remove a student questionin­g their sexuality from involvemen­t in an athletic team, leadership position or other university activities, temporaril­y or permanentl­y. As long as students can remain celibate, the CCU handbook says gay students can stay at the university.

The handbook encourages CCU students who find themselves questionin­g their sexuality to go to the university’s counseling center for “pastoral resources to help guide and direct them through their struggle.” Students who “engage in a same-sex relationsh­ip” or engage in “same-sex intimate relationsh­ip behavior” will face discipline, the student handbook says, which could result in dismissal from the school.

CCU’S Mccormick declined to answer additional questions about what the university’s counseling for LGBTQ individual­s entails and whether the goal of the counseling is to help the students become heterosexu­al.

“Was I going to hell?”

Chen came out to a priest at Boulder’s St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church when she was in high school around 2009. The priest began counseling Chen informally throughout her high school years, telling her not to tell her parents, she said.

Chen continued attending the church after enrolling at the University of Colorado Boulder in 2013 and sought more formal counseling through her church and Catholic Charities’ Sacred Heart Counseling, formerly known as Regina Caeli Clinical Services. Chen said she was trying to reckon her sexual identity with her dream of becoming a nun.

“I felt a lot of shame and anxiety,” Chen said. “I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Was I going to hell? But I was still extremely faithful, and I felt like the church and the counseling was the thing that was saving me. The worse I got, the more I clung to it.”

Mark Haas, spokesman for the Catholic Archdioces­e of Denver, said it would be improper to comment on the specifics of Chen’s counseling, but added: “We reject any practices that are manipulati­ve, coercive or pseudoscie­ntific.”

Credible counseling allows a patient to establish goals and that every person’s life experience and reason for seeking counseling is “completely unique,” Haas said.

“In general, Jesus Christ has called his Church to love and walk with anyone who is struggling, and that is a mission we strive to live out daily,” Haas wrote in a statement.

In January, the Denver Archdioces­e sponsored a conference by Andrew Comiskey, founder of Living Waters and Desert Stream Ministries, which Comiskey describes as a ministry “healing the sexually and relational­ly broken” with a commitment to “overcome homosexual­ity.”

Catholic Charities offers clinical services at sites throughout the Front Range, including outreach to Catholic schools and archdioces­an ministries.

Chen wound up in a psychiatri­c hospital in 2016 after her family found scars on her arms from selfharmin­g. She distanced herself from the church, stopped attending CU Boulder and started longterm mental health treatment.

“I think the church’s counsel is what led me to be hospitaliz­ed,” said Chen, now 23 and going to college in Arizona. “I was feeling so much shame that I was comforted by the thought of hurting myself. I’ve now basically completely lost my faith. I don’t know what I believe about God, but I think if there is a God, he doesn’t need me talking to him anymore.”

“I thought I could change”

Cox, who started at Colorado Christian in the fall of 2003, said a friend outed her to a chaplain at the university. “The school has this accountabi­lity system where they encourage students to tell on each other,” she said.

CCU’S lifestyle covenant makes students agree to “a commitment to the confrontat­ion of community members when they stray from the values, morals and commitment­s that are set forth by the University … as well as a commitment to involve the University when students, after being confronted, continue with inappropri­ate behavior.”

Cox was sent to CCU’S counseling center, where she said her counselor repeatedly tried pinpointin­g a moment in her childhood that would explain why she was attracted to women, asking if she was abused or distant from her parents.

“There was a lot of coercion and threats that they would expose me to my parents or that I could be expelled over this,” Cox said. “I felt like no answer I gave was good enough. I kept saying I had a really healthy upbringing and was close with my parents, and then they would say how unnatural it was and sinful to have these feelings and that I wasn’t fulfilling my role as a woman in the church. I was really depressed. I thought I could change. I tried really hard to.”

Cox, now 34, recently dug up a pro-and-con list about being gay that she made during that time. Under the con side, she wrote “can’t get married, can’t have kids, I’m going to hell.”

When Cox’s same-sex attraction didn’t go away, she began to hate herself. She said she starved herself, over-exercised and made herself throw up. “Nobody seemed to care about these negative aspects of my life,” she said. “They just wanted me to be straight.”

Cox — who recently bought a house, is getting married in September and has been in eating disorder recovery for 11 years — said being reminded about her state of mind back then broke her heart.

“You’re not alone”

Mueller is left trying to put the pieces of her future back together after she said conversion therapy at Colorado Christian shattered her.

“In those counseling sessions, the counselor explicitly told me the goal would be for me to come out straight,” Mueller said.

She said the counseling sessions drilled into her that her sexuality was wrong and against God’s will. “I wasn’t going to my classes, and I started self-harming and got suicidal,” she said. “I knew what they were saying was wrong, but I didn’t know how to get out of the situation.”

Ramos and the three women who spoke with The Post celebrated Colorado’s ban on conversion therapy in minors, but Ramos said there is still work to be done in improving mental health outcomes for young LGBTQ people.

More supportive adults who assure LGBTQ youths that they are loved and accepted need to reach young people through school programs or health work, Ramos said, to ensure that no young person is told who they are or who they love needs to be changed.

“You don’t have to lose your faith because you’re gay,” Cox said, although she admits her experience at CCU caused her to leave the church. “You’re not alone. You were made exactly the way you are supposed to be, and there’s nothing wrong with being gay. I wish somebody had told me that.”

 ?? Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post ?? Journey Mueller attended Colorado Christian University in Lakewood and underwent what she considered to be conversion therapy after being outed by her roommate to the school’s administra­tion.
Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post Journey Mueller attended Colorado Christian University in Lakewood and underwent what she considered to be conversion therapy after being outed by her roommate to the school’s administra­tion.

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