When Dennis Parker was a young seminary student in the 1970s, doctors strapped electrodes to his scalp and shocked him each time he viewed a photo of a naked man. After his sessions, he would go outside, sit on the curb and weep.
Today Dennis Parker is an openly gay pastor at St. Stephen's Episcopal Parish in Portland.
“I remembered thinking, ‘If they take away my ability to love men sexually and I have no ability to love women sexually, they would make me a eunuch,’” Parker told gay-rights supporters gathered last week at the Kairos-Milwaukie United Church of Christ.
Gay-rights advocates, families and friends gathered to counter a national conference being held three miles away that champions providing therapy and support groups as a way to control a person’s “sinful” attraction to members of the same sex.
Reverend Tara Wilkins, the executive director of Community of Welcoming Congregations and a pastor for Bridgeport United Church of Christ, led a prayer breakfast, where religious leaders spoke out against “conversion” therapy and the Milwaukie-based group promotes it, the Restored Hope Network.
“Conversion therapy is spiritual abuse,” Wilkins told the audience. “Amen?”
“Amen,” listeners shouted.
Exodus International shut its doors last year after criticism from prominent medical and mental health associations declared conversion therapy psychologically harmful.
Now, Restored Hope Network is picking up the mantle -- and other Christian leaders are responding.
The Community of Welcoming Congregations brought together more than 40 religious leaders -- from Lutheran to Episcopal to Jewish -- all united in their belief that conversion therapy is outdated and wrong.
By preaching acceptance instead of rejection, the group hopes to reach people who feel rejected by the religious community because of their sexuality and help them to realize that conversion therapy is not the answer.
“If we can reach them with a message of God’s inclusive love, then the conversion therapy program will die out because no one will participate,” Wilkins said. “We have to help Restored Hope understand that what they are doing is damaging. It forces people to feel shame. It forces them to believe God wants them to change. It’s psychologically and spiritually damaging.”
Conversion therapy has come under intense scrutiny in recent years, from both the World Health Organization and state governments. In 2012, the Pan American Health Organization denounced conversion therapy, often performed by unlicensed counselors, as “a serious threat to the health and well-being of affected people.” It causes unnecessary shame, anxiety, depression and increased risk of suicide associated with the repression of sexuality, it said. This week, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a California law banning its use on children.
Many at Friday’s prayer breakfast spoke about their own experiences with conversion therapy.
Reverend Chris Hyde from Rose City Park Presbyterian attended behavioral therapy sessions after being introduced to fundamental Christianity by a friend. Hyde had wanted to become a pastor. And the only way he believed he could do so was to deny his attraction to men.
“It was appealing because I wanted to lead a 'normal' life,” he said. “I was told if I wanted to be a pastor I couldn’t be gay.”
So, for three years in his late twenties, Hyde attended weekly sessions with a counselor to discuss his attraction to men, where he was told to repair his relationship with his distant father, try to have more fulfilling platonic relationships with men and watch more sports.
“Conversion therapy is a false hope, and when it doesn’t work, it becomes a never ending cycle of ‘I’m not good enough,’” he tells WW.
Although the therapy didn’t turn either man straight, both Parker and Hyde maintained strong ties to their faith.
“Those small electric shocks to the scalp did not change who I loved, but helped me realize I was loved of God,” Parker said.
By speaking out about their experiences, they hope to educate others about the damage conversion therapy can cause.
For Wilkins and others in the community, the Restored Hope Network and its national conference taught an important lesson: There is still a fight to be won.
“As long as our young people are killing themselves because they’re gay and believe they have no hope,” Wilkins said, “we have work to do.”