Published News.com.au May 19, 2015
The bizarre, humiliating, deadly “treatments” some gay Australians were subjected to by so-called “ex-gay” ministries left many of them scarred and confused.
The poisonous messages sent many same-sex attracted men and women into a spiral of depression and self-loathing. Some never came out the other side.
Those who did prefer not to be called victims — they’re “survivors” who witnessed first hand the dark side of Australia’s hidden radical religious ideology.
They say what happened in the 60s, 70s and 80s was deplorable. But what’s worse is that it’s still happening to some today.
‘COME OUT YOU FOUL SPIRIT FROM THE PIT OF HELL’
ANTHONY Venn-Brown was a desperate man in 1971.
Then just 20 years old, he arrived on the doorstep of the Assemblies of God church in Auckland convinced he had found his salvation.
For the early part of his life, Venn-Brown fought off temptation. But he needed help. Unfortunately, he sought it in the misguided preachings of two men who convinced him he was harbouring the devil.
“I’d heard frightening stories about people screaming, contorting and frothing at the mouth when devils were cast out of them but whatever it took to get rid of these terrible thoughts I wanted to do it,” he said.
Venn-Brown told news.com.au he “genuinely believed the exorcism would work”.
“I wanted so desperately to feel normal that I was willing to try anything.”
For two hours, the pastors stood over him and shouted at the devil to show itself.
“They shouted ‘name yourself’ and ‘come out, you devil’. As they grew louder my breathing became heavier which encouraged them further.”
They shouted: “Come out, come out, you unclean, foul spirit from the pit of hell! You have to obey us, we have the authority of Jesus Christ, the Son of God! Name yourself!”.
Venn-Brown says he was so worked up that he “coughed up phlegm” and “fell off the seat onto the floor”.
The exorcism wasn’t the only therapy Venn-Brown was subjected to.
South of Sydney in 1972, the then-22-year-old joined what he says was the first ex-gay therapy centre in the world, the Moombara/Bundeena Christian Fellowship.
In his book, A Life of Unlearning, Venn-Brown says during his time there he had his luggage raided for feminine clothing, was banned from masturbating and was given “manly chores”.
“I was to be up at 6am so I didn’t lie in bed and masturbate,” he said.
“While in the shower, counsellors would be standing by to make sure I didn’t masturbate.”
For weeks he studied the bible and practised abstinence. Later, convinced his years of treatment had worked, Venn Brown married a woman and raised two beautiful daughters. But he was living a lie.
The pair split and Venn-Brown has lived as an openly gay man ever since. Not only that, he has dedicated his life to helping other survivors make sense of the harm they’ve suffered.
‘I WAS THINNER BUT I CERTAINLY WASN’T ANY LESS GAY’
SIMON Tinkler’s outlook on life is remarkably positive given what he’s gone through.
As a gay teen, Tinkler was poisoned by the cruel idea that being gay was evil, that God hated him for it and that he could change. He starved himself, wrote a detailed suicide plan, offered his body to exorcists and even founded at a church that preached: “If you marry and pray every day you’ll be straight”.
He has since apologised to the young men and women who, partly under his guidance, were taught to hate themselves.
“If I had known what I know now, I would not have chosen that path for myself or encouraged others to believe they could become straight,” Tinkler said.
Before starting Ministry One, affiliated with ex-gay affirming Exodus International, Tinkler said he tried everything to alter his sexual orientation.
“I grew up in a liberal family. Basically the deal was I had to change one way or another,” he told news.com.au.
Simon Tinkler starved himself to try to reorientate his sexuality. Source: Supplied
“I went to programs, fasted, went without food. I went 21 days without food at one point. I was thinner but I certainly wasn’t any less gay.”
Like Venn-Brown, Tinkler married a woman. But things got desperate when he realised that not only was he wrong to think he could change but he was wrong to try to change others. It impacted him deeply and he contemplated suicide.
“I knew the church lied to me,” he said.
“I thought killing myself was the best option but I couldn’t just go and fall off a building. I planned the whole thing. I thought ‘I’ll pay off the church’s debt, I’ll find somebody to take over, I’ll pay off the home loan, I’ll take the family on a holiday to Europe then I’ll fall off a building’.”
Tinkler these days lives a happier life in a gay relationship with his partner, Timo. He says he has witnessed ex-gay practices from both sides.
“My view is some of the leaders aren’t that homophobic but [religious tradition towards] gays is what galvanises the whole community.”
He said ex-gay churches still exist but they’re “clever enough not to have ex-gay programs.
“It’s covert, quiet, case-by-case behaviour. There may not be 12-step programs or ministries identifying as ex-gay. It’s still being pedalled but it’s harder to track down.”
‘FOR OVER 30 YEARS I WAS A HOMOSEXUAL’
IN April last year, Australia’s foremost and longest-running conversion therapy program closed its doors.
Living Waters Australia had for three decades in plain sight pitched the idea that people could change their sexuality with a careful mix of prayer and care.
From Waterloo in Sydney’s inner west, the church’s leader Ron Brookman declared he had converted people from gay to straight.
In 2012, before a government inquiry into same sex marriage, Brookman said: “For over 30 years I was homosexual. In the last six months I have celebrated the weddings of two ex-gay men who have married beautiful wives and two couples who have given birth to babies who would never have been born had they not transitioned from homosexuality”.
But the message soured and Living Waters released a statement before closing its doors blaming “change in the church and Christian culture over the last decade, deficiencies in my leadership, wisdom in changing strategy to bring healing to the broken”.
Alan LeMay was a former leader at Living Waters. He told news.com.au he regrets the harm he caused but that at the time he thought he was doing the right thing.
“I would definitely say that our motivations were to help and be supportive,” he said.
“I confess there was a significant amount of ignorance on my part about homosexuality and their struggle.
“I was part of a fundamentalist church group that steered us towards a particular framework. We felt (being gay) was a sin and it was wrong. We wanted to engage people in a spiritual process that would reorientate their sexuality to the opposite sex. Those people were struggling and we genuinely felt that their struggle was based on their sexual orientation.”
LeMay realised the error of his ways and issued a public apology in June, 2013.
“I am sorry that my response was too reject an individual’s sexual orientation, to deny them the opportunity to be fulfilled in love and for the dysfunction and harm that may have caused.”
AMBASSADORS & Bridge Builders International, headed by Venn-Brown, revealed in 2012 that two-thirds of ex-gay ministries operating in Australia a decade ago no longer exist.
Among the churches still pushing ex-gay messages are Liberty Inc. in Brisbane and Triumphant Ministries Toowoomba.
Liberty Inc. charges up to $80 an hour for counselling people seeking help with “unwanted same sex attraction”. It offers a fortnightly support group for men with “unwanted same sex issues”.
Venn-Brown says the church is not outwardly ex-gay but language such as “sexual wholeness through Jesus Christ” is still damaging.
Triumphant Ministries Toowoomba proclaims it specialises in “releasing hearts”. It’s website declares it to be: “a ministry to those who are in the Body of Christ who want freedom over same sex attraction”.
“Yes, you will change,” it reads.
In Australian law, it is still legal to push ex-gay messages.
Independent member for Sydney Alex Greenwich introduced a motion in 2013 declaring therapies attempting to turn gay people straight do not work, stigmatise gay men and lesbians and are fundamentally damaging to mental health.
A NSW parliamentary committee to examine misleading practices under the banner of Christian faith was established and submissions were made. But there is otherwise very little movement at a legislative level.
In the meantime, Tinkler, who has a message for young people considering ex-gay therapy.
“If you’re gay, lesbian, bi, whatever — get the hell out of there. They’re not good for you. Don’t be fooled by the lights and the music.”
Liberty Inc. and Triumphant Ministries Toowoomba were approached for comment but did not respond.