’Gay Exorcist’ Targets Youths in Alabama

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Tuesday June 21, 2011

Anti-gay clerics who view homosexuality as a "sin" sometimes declare that gays are "possessed" by "demons." In Africa, as a gay British radio host recently discovered, witch doctors shill a ceremony designed to "cleanse" gays of such evil spirits. What may surprise some is the fact that essentially the same thing goes on in the United States.

The most recent example to hit the gay press is Alabama preacher Damon Thompson, who targets GLBT teens -- and outs them to their community in the process.

A June 21 posting at Ex Gay Watch reports, "Thompson, who heads up fiery youth ministry The Ramp in Hamilton, Alabama, employs every trick in the spiritual abuse playbook to coax his young congregation into outing themselves as gay and then stepping forward to be exorcised of their demons."

The posting includes a YouTube video of teens being coaxed by the preacher, who tells them. "God has not, nor will he ever, coexist in the same house with the Devil. And God's not gonna come live in there with you and your homosexual devil."

"You will not go anywhere at any time and find a harder altar call that the one we're about to give," Thompson tells his audience of teens, going on to invite gay youth to step forward if they are "serious about being free."

Thompson tells his teen onlookers not to worry about what their peers might think if they effectually out themselves by stepping forward, saying that the opinions of others who might later bully or harass them are "deemed irrelevant."

"Nobody's here to judge you," Thomson declares, "just Jesus!"

The preacher coaxes his young charges to come forward, telling them, "come to the ramp and fake it until you make it!" Adds the preacher, "Come on, just stand right here. It's gonna happen for you."

Ashton Elijah, whose description of the meeting was re-posted at Ex Gay Watch, posted the video.

"He and members of The Ramp began to work the crowd into a frenzy as they labored to draw people out of the closet and onto the altar," Elijah wrote. "At first, only a few guys and girls came forth. But, aided by music, the ministry leaders continued to pluck at the heartstrings of every struggling gay kid in the audience, promising that if they would only make themselves known, God would grant them the deliverance they so longed for."

Going on to note that some of the gay teens who stepped forward were disclosing their sexuality for the very first time, Elijah added, "Some fell to their knees in brokenness, rocking back and forth as they prayed for absolution; others stood with their arms spread out as tears spilled from their eyes. By the end of the morning, dozens had approached the altar hoping to lay their burden down."

Proponents of so-called "reparative therapy" tell gays that they are living in sin and that their sexuality is a "choice." They also insist that innate romantic and sexual urges focused on members of the same sex can be surmounted and replaced with sexual attraction toward the opposite gender through prayer and counseling. Often, the model offered is an antiquated Freudian one that blames homosexuality a weak or distant father and a dominating mother.

At one "conversion camp," heterosexual writer Ted Cox wrote in an essay published last year, the "gay cleansing" rituals took on distinctly homoerotic overtones, as in one exercise that entailed men laying back into one another's arms. Cox -- who has never identified as gay -- was nonplussed to realize that the man into whose embrace he had surrendered himself had an erection that dug into Cox's back. Other exercises involved imaginary acts of violence targeting fathers who had "failed" the participants by "allowing" them to become gay.

Cox described his reaction to the camp's narrative that gay men are not naturally predisposed to be sexually attracted to members of their own gender due to physiological reasons, but rather are seeking to heal some deep-seated psychological injury from childhood. Cox declared that at various points throughout the weekend, "I want to stand up and scream, 'Are you fucking kidding?' "

Mental health professionals reject "reparative therapy" as a valid therapeutic avenue and warn that gays who attempt to "convert" to heterosexuality may be overcome by shame and guilt when the promised "cure" does not manifest itself.

For youths from a religious background, the failure of such "cures" and "exorcisms" might be taken as proof of their own weak and sinful nature, increasing their sense of dejection, shame, and isolation to an even greater degree.

The author of the Ex-Gay Watch posting, Dave Rattigan, wrote, "Thompson's display is like a tutorial in spiritual abuse. I experienced a similar religious atmosphere time and again during my days in the charismatic movement."

Rattigan went on to add, "Thompson hardly tries to hide his manipulation, audibly encouraging the worship band to 'pick it up' in order to heighten the atmosphere and get more troubled gay teens to come forward."

The writer went on to recollect, "I wasn't exposed quite like these young people, many of whom appear never to have admitted their sexual orientation until they were manipulated into coming out in front of video cameras and a live audience of hundreds." Rattigan goes on to call the pubic "exorcisms" "Not only terrible but disgusting, shameful and abusive."

"More Harm Than Good"

While there is evidence that some people who have identified in the past as gay have "changed" to become heterosexual, what is not clear is whether people who have "converted" to heterosexuality have really altered their fundamental sexual orientation. It is not uncommon for young heterosexuals to experiment with same-sex relationships; it's also possible that at least some of those who say they were once gay, but no longer are, are predisposed to bisexuality and have simply chosen to ignore same-sex attraction.

Even those who say they have "left homosexuality behind" often acknowledge that their sexual feelings have not shifted to members of the opposite gender; rather, some "ex-gays" suppress their sexual attraction to the point of feeling that they have become "asexual." Many times, "ex-gays" note that dealing with sexual attraction toward individuals of the same gender is an ongoing "daily struggle" with which they contend.

Many religions and even ex-gay groups recognize that homosexuality is a complex issue. But the phenomenon of exorcism--which relies on a belief that evil spirits inhabit a person and drive him or her to same-sex attraction--persists. Gays who have been brought up in religious traditions may seek exorcism as a last resort; but like other forms of so-called "conversion" or "reparative therapy," gay exorcism may do more harm than good to those who undergo it.

The June, 2010 issue of Details Magazine reported in its June, 2010, issue on how a young man named Kevin allowed himself to be subjected to a humiliating session of exorcism in a public ritual at a church in Massachusetts. Kevin became so distressed during the exorcism that he wept and passed out; his sexual feelings remained unchanged, but the attempt to drive out evil spirits "causing" him to be gay left the young man traumatized.

This was not the first time Kevin had attempted to "overcome" homosexuality through exorcism, though the article said that the experience was so traumatic that Kevin finally determined it would be the last time he underwent an attempt to drive out "gay" demons.

GLBT youth seem to be hardest hit by the current wave of anti-gay spirituality and so-called "exorcisms." The Details article noted that, "youth workers say they regularly deal with the aftermath of these rituals." Moreover, GLBT youth growing up in religious environments are targeted with shaming anti-gay messages; Peterson Toscano, a gay Christian who is active in seeking to reign in the damage being inflicted to gay youths, told Details that, "For a young person, being told that you house evil, that you're basically a mobile home for evil spirits-that is a very, very damaging concept," says Added Toscano, "It's one of the most extreme manifestations of the anti-gay rhetoric within the church."

The article reported that religious traditions that promote exorcism promote the discredited theory that being sexually assaulted makes a young person gay; some exorcisms seek to induce vomiting or diarrhea in the belief that oral or anal sex with a man has led to the subject's "possession" by gay demons. L.I.F.E. Ministry's Joanne Highley, who performs gay exorcisms, told Details that her rituals focus on forcing evil spirits "out of genitals, of course out of anal canals, out of intestines, out of throats and mouths if there's been ungodly deposit of semen in those areas," so that vomiting or diarrhea is seen as a physically manifestation of evil; spirits being forced from a subject's body.

The article noted a Connecticut case from a year ago in which a 16-year-old boy fell to the floor of a church with seizures and vomiting during an exorcism; footage of the rite was posted to YouTube, where it created a sensation. The Associated Press reported in a June 25, 2009, article that onlookers and participants cried out for the "gay demon" they believed had possessed him to be forced out.

"Rip it from his throat!" the article quoted a woman who was present at the exorcism crying out. "Come on, you homosexual demon! You homosexual spirit, we call you out right now! Lose your grip, Lucifer!" the woman continued.

The video ran for about 20 minutes, showing the youth writhing and vomiting as the ritual continued. The footage was posted by Manifested Glory Ministries, which was later taken down in the wake of the subsequent outcry. Reverend Patricia McKinney claimed that the ritual did not reflect anti-gay animus, saying, "We believe a man should be with a woman and a woman should be with a man." Added McKinney, "We have nothing against homosexuals. I just don't agree with their lifestyle."

GLBT youth advocacy group True Colors reported the exorcism to the Connecticut authorities, but the law does not protect gay minors if their parents seek to "de-gay" them for religious reasons. Once case in point cited by Details: a gay teen taken against his will, in handcuffs, to a religious "reparative therapy" facility in Tennessee. Though state authorities looked into the incident, they said they had no legal recourse in the matter. At gay blog JoeMyGod.com, an article on the Details article noted, "As many of these 'exorcism' abuses are inflicted upon children, some have demanded that the government intervene. But child welfare agencies and prosecutors have cited freedom of religion protections and have done nothing."

The AP article cited Robin McHaelin, the executive director of GLBT youth advocacy organization True Colors, as saying that she knew of numerous instances of gay exorcism. "What saddens me is the people that are doing this think they are doing something in the kid's best interests, when in fact they're murdering his spirit," she told the media.

International Scope

Rev. Ogbe-Ogbeide of the United Pentecostal Ministry in Harrow, England, offered just such a justification, saying that in one case a young man desired his "gay demon" to be cast out so that he could marry and have children of his own. Ogbe-Ogbeide said that there is no lower age limit for such rituals, because demons could strike at any time. Similarly, it isn't only the young who are subjected to exorcism at his church; people at any stage of life might be possessed by demons that could make them gay, the pastor believed.

But youths, and other vulnerable populations, are being targeted, suggests UK GLBT equality advocate Peter Tatchell. "The exorcism rituals involve the casting out of alleged demons and witches that supposedly possess a gay person's soul and turn them away from heterosexuality," Tatchell said in a press release last summer.

"The exorcisms can include traumatic emotional scenes where the victims are surrounded by a group of church elders who scream at them to drive out the evil spirits and who sometimes shake their bodies." Added Tatchell, "When this is done to youngsters under 18, it is a form of child abuse and the police should intervene to stop it."

Not all people who undergo the ritual are completely willing, Tatchell charged. "Some gay adults have been pressured into exorcisms by their family members or faith communities. Other victims are people with learning difficulties or mental health problems," said the equality advocate. "They have been preyed upon when they are in a vulnerable state and are not capable of giving fully informed consent."

Tatchell called for the intervention of the authorities in order to ensure that people were not being abused and injured by the churches that carry out the anti-gay "exorcisms." Said Tatchell, "There needs to be a thorough police investigation of all the churches that are doing these exorcisms."

The Details article noted that no studies have been done to determine the amount of harm that such attempts at exorcism might inflict. But the article recounted the experience of a young man named Vincent Cervantes, who was subjected to an exorcism ritual by two men; though the men and Cervantes spoke in tongues, and Cervantes described his body "thrusting" in the course of the ritual, his attraction to men remained unchanged.

The psychological toll was considerable, however: Cervantes told Details that, "I felt I had failed God." Added the young man, "Nothing, not even an exorcism, can fix me. In my mind I was going to go to hell. I became very suicidal. I absolutely hated myself." Cervantes still suffers nightmares of the ritual he endured. Even so, Cervantes -- now living happily as an openly gay man -- recognizes that the ritual was performed out of a genuine, if misplaced, desire to help him.

"He was acting out of love," Cervantes told Details, speaking of the cleric who led the ritual. "He did this because he cared about me. But he did more harm than good."

The Details article noted that for some people of faith, a plethora of things can be explained by a belief in -- or attributed to -- evil spirits, from adulterous conduct to substance abuse.

In the notoriously anti-gay African nation of Uganda, another, not entirely dissimilar, option is available courtesy of the local witch doctor. That's what British radio personality Scott Mills discovered while filming a TV documentary on Uganda. The doc is titled "The World's Worst Place To Be Gay," and shows various encounters, such as Mills speaking with the editor of a newspaper that calls for the killing of gays, or confronting lawmaker David Bahati. The latter individual is the sponsor of the internationally denounced ""Kill the Gays" bill, a piece of legislation that would impose the death penalty on homosexuals and provide severe punishments for heterosexuals who know about gay relationships but do not report them to the authorities.

Indeed, when Mills advised told Bahati that he was gay himself, the Ugandan lawmaker tried to have Mills and his film crew thrown in jail, reported Celebrity Confidential on Feb. 11. Mills and his film crew narrowly escaped arrest.

Bahati has connections to American anti-gay evangelicals, but what Mills endured at the hands of a witch doctor seeking to "cure" the openly gay radio personality of his homosexuality bore little outward resemblance to Christian rituals designed to drive away purportedly "sinful" sexual urges. British newspaper The Sun reported on Feb. 14 on the "treatment" that Mills received.

The Sun reported that Mills told his radio audience, "They have these witch doctors who claim they can cure people. I went to see one and I knew they were just fleecing people for money."

The Ugandan witch doctor's methods involved thwacking the shirtless Mills with chickens, spitting upon him, and dousing him with water. The witch doctor then proposal to drive an evil, homosexuality-causing spirit from Mills' body and into a cow.

"But I said, 'You'll end up with a gay cow,' " Mills told his radio audience.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.