Gay ’Exorcisms’ Continue--In the U.S.

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Monday June 7, 2010

Science has found several provocative indications that homosexuality is a matter of physiology rather than choice--but some religious factions have another theory: evil spirits make people gay. The cure: "deliverance," known also by an older and more terrifying name: exorcism.

It's nothing new for religious groups to claim that homosexuality is a pathology, or to similarly claim that gays can be "changed" or "cured." 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 contains an article about gay exorcism that recounts 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. Nor was this 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! Loose 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, until being taken down in the wake of the outcry that followed. 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 Coors 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, 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.

Anti-Gay "Exorcisms" an International Phenomenon

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. By the same token, 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. "There are claims that gay teenagers and young adults are being subjected to exorcisms at the insistence of their parents and pastors, in an attempt to rid them of same-sex attraction.

"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."

Noted Tatchell, "United Pentecostal Ministry says it performs four or five exorcisms on gay people each year. It is just one of hundreds of fundamentalist churches in Britain. Gay exorcisms are likely to be performed in many of them. It is possible that dozens or even hundreds of LGBT people could be subjected to exorcism abuse in the UK," Tatchell warned. "Because it takes place behind closed church doors and is kept secret, it is impossible to give an accurate assessment of the numbers involved."

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.

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.