What Happens When A Gay Man Infiltrates The Sick World Of Online Conversion

The Living Hope online community has been running for over a two decades and requires a lengthy application process and approval from moderators. 

Sitting fraudulently behind my keyboard, I’m asked about my relationship with Christ and the nature of my same-sex attraction. The terms and conditions are cult-like in their span and vigour; banning private communication between members so as to avoid further “relational brokenness” and the potential dangers of “SSA” (their way of making Same-Sex Attraction sound like an illness to be cured).

Founded in 1989, the forum is only one of the many services offered by the Living Hope Ministry. Their mission is to help proclaim God’s truth for those who are seeking “sexual and relational wholeness” through a more intimate relationship with Jesus Christ. In plain English, it’s a gay conversion group gone digital – and it’s growing rapidly. There are currently 8,485 members internationally, surmounting over 1 million posts. As mainstream gay conversion and ex-gay therapy groups are slowly forced underground, more young people than ever are moving online to seek “healing” of their sexuality.

It takes 48-hours for my application (made under a less-than-creative pseudonym) to be approved. I first receive an email from D’Anne Davis, the Director of Women’s Ministry at Living Hope, and an administrator for the forums.

She’s quick to lay down the ground rules.

“Because you assured our gatekeepers of your desire to turn away from Same Sex Attractions and Emotional Dependencies, we expect that you will also be willing to use discretion in how much detail you use when describing the situations surrounding the behaviour and thought life that you are attempting to forsake,”
she writes. 

“In other words, don’t detail your temptations. This kind of detail can potentially intensify the struggle for your fellow strugglers here.”
Phase One complete – I’m in.

Before immersing myself completely in the digital nether regions, I catch up for a chat with openly gay psychiatrist and author, Dr. Mark Cross. I’m interested in learning more about the correlations between mental health and sexuality – as well as gaining some insight into why organisations like Living Hope continue to exist.

“Of course someone who is young and hasn’t had any positive role-modelling will be lured or seduced by the notion that they can be normal, given their non-understanding of what normal is,” he explains.

“Anyone can call themselves a counsellor after a weekend course. This group of whack-jobs become semi-legitimised by the view that homosexuality is an ego-dystonic label – which is an old freudian concept – despite the fact that scientists and psychologists have reached a consensus that sexuality is predetermined.”

Dr. Mark Cross. (Photo: ABC.)
“The problems arise when these people have an agenda. It’s an insidious and incredibly dangerous thing. Everyone with a mind wants to question who they are and what they’re here for. They’re taking advantage of that.”
Lurking on some of the forum’s recent threads, it’s quickly apparent that one of the binding beliefs of Living Hope is that homosexuality is always the direct result of childhood abuse. This appears to be a clear source of relief to most active users, considering it abolishes any personal or biological responsibility for their sinful thoughts, feelings and desires. Somewhat conveniently, this “abuse” can often be so repressed that most members seem completely unable to directly recall their personal experiences, and openly pray for enlightenment.

, the Executive Director of Living Hope, has pinned a list to the top of the message board: “The Keys To Your Success”. The post appears to be the definitive go-to for those needing instant guidance and reassurance in times of temptation. These keys – there are a total of 16 – include the following:

1. Accept that it’s not going to be easy.
Change that challenges our known comfort zone is difficult and painful. You are changing not just one isolated habit, but a collection of thoughts and behaviors that have made up your relational pattern for a lifetime.

2. Pursue the right motivation.
Making your family happy won’t do it; saving your marriage won’t do it; not hurting anymore won’t do it. The only motivation adequate to see you through recovery from same-sex attraction (SSA) is complete abandonment to that aching need to live continually in an incredibly intimate one-on-one relationship with God Himself.

3. Accept that you must make sacrifices to be free and healthy.
Recovery and healing always involve “crucifying the flesh (Gal. 5:24),” giving up things that are dear to you but which serve to prop open doors to spiritual bondage and repeated failures. God may ask you to give up friends, social contacts, your career, hobbies, dreams, and desires.

4. Trust and obey.
There are no shortcuts to these two commands. Homosexual and lesbian lifestyles are built around trusting oneself or depending completely on someone else, not the kind of abandonment to God’s heart and intentions for us that characterise trust. 

It’s troubling to read, especially when considering the age of members (some claim to be as young as fourteen), that the community so actively encourages the severing of all relationships that stand in the way of sexual salvation. The responses are those of overwhelming gratitude, just as one might expect to find in an online support group for alcoholism or quitting tobacco. The only difference is that these people aren’t battling life-threatening addictions or illnesses.

They’re just gay.

A screenshot of the Living Hope community board.

“You have kids who have been traumatised, who do actually have difficulty working out their own identity,” says Dr. Cross. “These are the ones who can get caught up in organisations like this. They want to belong somewhere and have difficulty with emerging sexuality issues. It’s not surprising that these places flourish. Who doesn’t want to fit in? Young people are completely traumatised by rejection and bullying on social media – there’s a huge pressure to be normalised.”
Scrolling through a few more posts, I can’t help but think of how much these young people would’ve gained from having access to a program such as Safe Schools; a place to learn about sexuality and gender away from familial pressures and religious influences. Instead, they’re now turning their backs on society, typing up long winded monologues detailing shameful slip-ups with “P” (pornography) and “M” (masturbation).

“My attraction to the opposite sex is about as close to zero as you can get,” writes one new member in his introductory post.

“I’ve fantasised about guys but don’t have the desire to have sex with one or be in a relationship with one. I’m hopelessly confused. It’s only by the grace of God I’ve never actually been physical with a guy. I think He knows that with my all-in personality, I’d be speeding down that highway to hell in gasoline soaked underwear.”

“The fact that you can be here is already a miracle and a part of God’s plan,” replies one member with 110 posts to his name. 
Some hours later and there are dozens of responses – ranging from short welcomes, to personalised prayers and long-form inspirational success stories. To my disgruntlement, it’s suddenly a little easier for me to understand the forum’s broad appeal: this bizarre group of mouse-clicking Bible-bashers truly present as accepting and supportive towards one-another in a way all humans instinctually crave. New recruits are caught at their most frightened and vulnerable; often living in strictly religious households with nobody else to confide in. 
And with that, it’s finally time for my very own introduction post – something I’ve been eagerly anticipating and quietly dreading simultaneously. My chosen name is John Teddy Davis – although to them I’ll simply be known as “John”.

The message, which is part creative-writing and part lazy-composite of the dozens of posts I’ve already read like it, went just like this:

Hello everyone.

So after a day of nervously reading through the forums (easing myself in, I suppose) I finally feel ready to introduce myself. My name’s John, I’m 24 years old and from Australia (so pretty far away and isolated)!

I’ve been struggling with same-sex attraction since my teens. These urges were only made worse when my parents divorced unexpectedly, which sent me into a bit of a tailspin. I stopped going to Church – I even stopped praying. Even though I hated myself for it, I regularly succumbed to my SSA feelings and began engaging sexually with a number of men. Men became like a drug; they made me feel incredible for a night, but left me feeling sick to my stomach the following morning. Recently I decided enough was enough. I’ve started to develop romantic feelings for a guy I once slept with… Which obviously left me feeling more confused and conflicted than ever…

I’m so sick of feeling like this and want so desperately to reconnect with my faith and overcome this, the steepest of hills.

Any thoughts, prayers, advice or encouragement would be so greatly appreciated. I’ve been feeling incredibly lonely throughout it all and am not really sure where else to seek help. Having recently moved, I’m no longer familiar with the local church community and am terrified of their possible judgements.

I sit back and wait for what I figure will surely be an onslaught of responses, anxiously hitting “refresh” in boozy five-minute intervals. An hour passes – still nothing. Were they somehow onto me? Was I not repressed enough for the repression club?

But then came the first reply, which was soon followed by a second and third:

“Welcome, John!!!! I’m glad you found us! We’re here to support you and love you as we walk together towards Jesus. I understand the confusion that comes with having romantic feelings for a guy. This is hard, but the God of the universe is on our side. Cheer up, John. This is just the beginning of something beautiful ( Isaiah 43:18-19)!!!!!!”
Aside from the forum, live sidebar chat-room, and clear penchant for exclamation points, the site also holds ticketed events. Their annual Youth Retreat costs $240 (“Blessed bargain!”) and is exclusive to members of the Living Hope community. Forum moderators suggest that members book in advance to avoid disappointment – apparently allocations are often exhausted. The emoji-filled excitement that ensues could really only be likened to a 14-year-old girl securing front-row meet-and-greet tickets to a Taylor Swift concert, and I’m immediately reminded of the ever-expanding cash-machine I’ve found myself caught-up in.

These people are providing a service, and you better believe they mean business.

Now, if there exists living proof of an alternative to Gay Conversion Therapy, New York-based writer and digital activist Wade Addison might just be it. I met Wade in the Brooklyn offices of Hello Mr magazine several years ago, and have since followed his blogging efforts keenly.

“My parents were born, bred, and educated in a very conservative environment – a form of protestant Christianity called the Churches of Christ – which some, such as myself, would label as a cult.” He tells me via email.

“There are a thousand nuances and lessons they originally taught me – or at lest interpretations of scripture – that resulted in me having negative relationships with not just my sexuality, but also with my money, my body, my time, my energy, and with men.”

Wade Addison being openly gay and dreamy in New York. (Photo: Nate Poekert.)
So what advice does Wade offer to those who are currently participating in (or considering) Gay Conversion Therapy?

“Move on and tackle other issues. I don’t mean to dismiss your hurt and pain – it’s valid and must be recognised – yet those elements cannot define you. Trying to heal or cure your sexuality is useless, because it’s not something that needs healing or curing.”

“Once you realise you are worthy and loveable just as you are, you’ll see that your sexuality cannot hold you back and that it can no longer suppress you. It’s just another beautiful, complex and purposeful element of your being.“
I’m sorry (albeit slightly relieved) to report that my impulsive venture into the digital quicksands of Gay Conversion Therapy ended as abruptly as it began. I was banned from the Living Hope online community less than five days after being initially accepted. Soon after posting my introduction, I was notified of another long-term member who lived in Sydney and – despite being aware of the group’s strict policies surrounding private contact – messaged him directly with hopes of eventually meeting face-to-face.

He didn’t respond to my message. Instead, he promptly reported me to the forum moderators – who issued an immediate ban on my username, email and IP address.

Living Hope? More like Living Nope.

Apparently this group of self-confessed sinners can’t afford to break any more rules.

(P.S. I’m still pretty fucking gay.)

This article has been republished with permission from HeapsGay.com
Samuel Leighton-Dore is the Editor of Heaps Gay. He’s a writer interested in sex, dating and mental health, particularly within the LGBTQI community. His children’s book “I Think I’m A Poof” was released earlier this year, and we had a chat to him about it.