I came out to my mom on Valentine’s Day of my junior year of high school.
When I walked through the front door of my house that day, my mom was sitting on a love seat in the living room with a worn Bible open on her lap.
I stared at the off-white carpet on the floor and opened my mouth to speak before I had decided how to position what I was going to tell her.
“Well, I’ve been wanting to talk to you about something for a while. I don’t really know how to say it. I guess I’ve thought for a long time that I might be gay, or bisexual, or something. I don’t know. I’m attracted to other girls, and I can’t do anything about it. I don’t really know what to say. I’m sorry.”
She leaped up from the love seat and threw herself down next to me. She wrapped her arms around me and wailed, rocking me back and forth. I wanted to break out of her arms and breathe. I needed space. But at that time, I didn’t think my needs were allowed to be as important as my mother’s. So I let her hold me. I let her tears wet my cheek as she mourned the death of the daughter who lived in her imagination.
“I’m sorry, Mom,” I said after a minute. “I’m so sorry.”
I escaped to my bedroom as quickly as I could and waited for my dad to get home. I hadn’t thought much about how he might respond, but I knew his presence would relieve some of the tension in the house. After an hour or two, I heard a knock at the door.
“I’ve got to run to the store to pick up some things for dinner,” my dad said. “Why don’t you come with me?” He wasted no time once we got in his car. He pulled away from the curb, turned down the radio, and gently patted my knee as he started to speak.
“Mom says you told her you’re gay.”
“Yeah, I think so,” I said, surprised that he just said “gay”—not bisexual, or confused, or struggling with my sexuality.
“Now, you listen to me,” he said with an intensity I rarely heard in his voice. “Whatever happens, you remember your daddy loves you no matter what.”
“OK, thanks,” I said.
“Do you understand me?” He started again, speaking slowly, careful to articulate each word. “Your daddy loves you no matter what. Don’t ever forget it.”
I was too withdrawn to match his vulnerability then, but his words made a lasting impression. My dad’s words conveyed a sense of impending doom, as if one of us was about to embark on a treacherous journey from which we might not return. He spoke with a sense of urgency, his words both comforting and foreboding.
The next day, my mom dropped me off at my brother’s house. Michael was eight years older than me, and he had done everything he was supposed to do: He graduated from Texas A&M University a year early with a degree in finance, got married at twenty-one to a girl he met working at a Christian camp, attended a conservative evangelical church several times a week, and voted Republican.
We sat on the curb outside his apartment so we could have some privacy while his wife did chores inside. I only remember one thing he said: “Well, Julie, I hope you don’t choose to be gay, because I want you to be able to come around my kids as they grow up.”
Bringing my knees into my chest, I wrapped my arms around my legs and rested my chin on my knees, making myself as small as possible as I sat with his words. “That makes sense,” I said, looking down at the ground.
Meanwhile, my mom was back home, calling everyone who might be able to help her find a biblical answer to the problem. Within days, she learned there were others like me. She heard about people who experienced same-sex attractions and, through the power of the gospel, changed.
A few days later, my mom pulled me out of school early to meet with a minister who she heard could help me become straight.
That morning, with the meeting in mind, I chose to wear my varsity letter jacket, baggy jeans, and sneakers. This pastor needed to understand that I was not feminine. I was not interested in trying to appear to be anyone other than my lesbian self.
My mom and I hurried into the office building where First Baptist Church of Arlington rented space. We gave our names to a receptionist and waited to speak with the minister who my mom believed would save me.
“You must be Julie.” A stocky, middle-aged man with black hair and wire-rimmed glasses stretched his hand out to shake mine. “Ricky Chelette. I’m the singles minister here at First Baptist, and I meet with young people like you in my free time.”
Within the first few minutes, I learned that Ricky, who would later become the executive director of an ex-gay organization called Living Hope Ministries, was himself attracted to men.
“I struggle with same-sex attractions,” he admitted up front. “But God has been so faithful to me. I’m happily married to a gorgeous woman named Merlinda. She’s an ICU nurse. She’s got bright-green eyes and hair that’s as red as a fire truck, and I’m madly in love with her.”
I learned that they had two dogs, a southern chic home, and a kitchen table that seated twelve people. They believed it was their responsibility to welcome people who weren’t wanted elsewhere.
Ricky used dry-erase markers on the glass tabletop in the conference room to illustrate his theory about why people experience same-sex attractions. The gist of his theory was that we hadn’t connected with our same-sex parents the way we were supposed to in childhood, and our desire for intimacy with our same-sex parent was sexualized at puberty.
“We’re drawn to that which is mysterious,” Ricky said. “For children who develop normally, they connect deeply with their same-sex parent, and their opposite-sex parent is mysterious; they’re different. When a boy who develops normally hits puberty, the intrigue he felt about his mother is eroticized, and he develops normal, healthy attractions to other girls. For those of us who experience same-sex attractions, the opposite happens. The good news is that if we develop healthy relationships with people of the same gender now, we can demystify them and, over time, start to feel desire for the opposite sex.”
Then he launched into a neurological explanation of how exactly our attractions change. He sketched objects that looked like wiry starfish on the glass table as he continued. “These little things here are called neurons. Our brains have billions of these neurons, and every time you orgasm, it creates a synaptic connection that associates whatever was in your brain with pleasure. Orgasms obviously feel really good! So your brain makes a positive association with the object you were thinking about when you orgasmed. Over time, you’ve created a pathway in your brain that’s reinforced thousands of times through things like porn, masturbation, and acting out with another person—which can almost seal your fate.”
“Are you still with me?” he asked, looking up from the table.
“Um, I think so.”
“OK, because now we’re getting to the good news: these synaptic connections work both ways. Just like we can sort of program ourselves to be attracted to the same gender by reinforcing the pleasure pathways in our brains when we think about people of the same sex, we can literally rewire our brains to feel that same desire for the opposite sex over time. Isn’t God amazing?”
“How do you explain people who have great relationships with their same-sex parent and still end up gay?” I looked at the drawing as I asked.
“Ah, you’re getting ahead of me. Almost every struggler I’ve met over the years tells me I’ve just drawn their whole entire life out when they see this diagram,” he said as he colored clothes onto his stick-figure drawings. That’s how he referred to queer people—strugglers.
“But there’s one wild card,” Ricky continued. “Sexual abuse. God knew the power of sex when he created us. In God’s original plan, we wait until we’re married and then we only have sex with one person in that sacred union for the rest of our lives. When a child is exposed to sex, it blows everything up, and the brokenness comes out in all kinds of ways, including same-sex attractions.”
According to Ricky, if you had a great relationship with both of your parents and you told him you weren’t sexually abused, then you were likely lying to yourself about your so-called great relationship with your parents or you had buried your memories of sexual abuse. Every “struggler” fit into this diagram.
His argument implied that I was not actually gay. I was a straight person who misfired from time to time.
“Honestly, I think this is bullshit,” I said firmly, slouching back into my chair. “I’m gay. I’m just gay. And I’m totally cool with it. I just need everyone else in my life to be okay with it.”
I had planned on having that kind of response to him prior to even meeting him—I simply wasn’t interested in the ministry he offered. But after hearing his spiel, I quietly wondered if he might be right about some of the psychology behind my attractions. After all, my relationship with my mom was unhealthy. I felt closer to my dad and brothers, and I’d always been “one of the guys.” Plus, my “education” as a homeschooler didn’t include science, so I spent all of high school trying to catch up and still didn’t understand the basics. His explanation of how we end up gay made sense to my teenage brain.
The next week, I was taken back to Ricky’s office. I didn’t have any good options. My mom had been frantic since I came out, and my dad appeared to be doing what he had always done: yielding to my mom’s wishes. I still had another year and a half in my parents’ home. I needed someone who understood what it was like to feel like a foreigner in their home and faith community, even if they identified as “same-sex attracted” and believed gay love was sinful.
I didn’t have access to any wise gay Christian elders who, by their existence, communicated to me that you could tell the truth about yourself and have a positive future. At the age of sixteen, I had two options: leave my home and the only life I had ever known or try to become straight.
Over the next few months, Ricky tried to create a safe place for me to work through my baggage. He was an adult who was interested in my childhood, my questions, my crushes at school, and my dreams for the future. I felt like Ricky saw me. He didn’t see the version of myself I felt I was supposed to be in order for people to accept me; he saw my grief and cynicism and the soft heart beneath it all. More important, my mom seemed optimistic when I met with Ricky. Living Hope was a stabilizing force in our family. As long as I was trying to change, we were OK.
My mom was eager to give God the credit when we realized my club basketball team had a tournament in Orlando that ended the day before Exodus International’s annual conference started in, of all places, Orlando. “This is such a God thing!” she marveled.
Exodus was the largest organization in the world that advertised “freedom from homosexuality” through a relationship with Jesus. They were a hub that connected smaller ministries like Living Hope all over the world, and every summer, their national conferences drew thousands of people looking for hope and community. These conferences were like church camp for people who struggled with same-sex attractions. For one week out of the year, no one had to hide the thing that always made them feel different and ashamed. When we looked around the auditorium at all the clean-cut men and women in button-up shirts and wide-legged jeans, it was one of the rare moments when we knew we weren’t alone.
It was July 2003, the summer before my senior year in high school, and I was seventeen years old. Minors weren’t allowed to attend Exodus conferences unless they were accompanied by their parents, but Ricky was taking a group and offered to look out for me.
After my tournament ended, my mom and I drove to a hotel, where we were supposed to meet some of the twentysomethings from Living Hope, who would escort me to the conference safely. I had interacted with some of these new friends through the online forums Ricky moderated. There were more than five thousand people on Living Hope’s message boards from more than seventy-five different countries.
The youth forum, which included everyone under twenty-seven years old, had several hundred active members. We were forbidden from sharing personal information for fear that we might connect with each other offline and have sex, so we only knew each other’s first names. We typed hundreds of pages about our families and sexual fantasies—for accountability, we were encouraged to tell each other when we masturbated—but we didn’t know each other’s last names. Those who were caught sharing identifying information about themselves were kicked off the forums and disconnected from the community. The only exception to the no-contact rule was at ex-gay conferences where Ricky chaperoned.
At a Red Roof Inn somewhere in the shadows of Disney World, my mom and I knocked on the door of a room where I would meet some of these online strangers face-to-face.
At the age of seventeen, I thought the people in our Living Hope group were as cool as humans came. A guy named Seth had just returned from nine months in Thailand. Casey from the Northeast had spikey blond hair with multiple piercings. Jake was a football coach from the West Coast, and James was a fashion-forward sweetie pie from Georgia. Most of my new friends had already graduated from college, so not only were they the first group of not-straights I had ever been around, but they were infinitely cooler than everyone my age.
I was surprised to find that, like Ricky, most of the leaders of the other ex-gay ministries at Exodus also “struggled” with same-sex attractions. There were hundreds of leaders and therapists doing the same work Ricky was doing in states across the country, and I can count on one hand the ones who said they had never struggled with homosexuality.
For most of the week, I kept my guard up: I sat stoically during the peppy worship songs and made fun of everyone who cheerfully proclaimed hope for “healing.” I mocked the teachers of the “embracing your true femininity” workshop. It was at that Exodus conference that I smoked my first cigarette, and I said “fuck” as often and loudly as possible. Who I was, I didn’t know, but I was not about that shit.
And yet, on the final night, as the worship band played, I found myself weeping. The closing keynote speaker had just made us howl with laughter and choke up with heart-wrenching stories. All the speakers said they were happier now than they had been in the days when they embraced their same-sex desires and lived as openly gay people. Sure, they still struggled with same-sex attractions, these heterosexually married men said, but those attractions were like flies they had to swat away from time to time. They had Jesus now. They weren’t at war with themselves. They had undivided hearts.
I wanted an undivided heart. I wanted a relationship with Jesus. And I wanted to share in the community of Christians, especially the Christians I met that week. It seemed as if only one choice had to be made and a whole world would open up to me: a world where my parents and Ricky would be proud of me, where God would be pleased with me, and where these new friends would become my family. In a wooden pew at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Orlando, after forty-five minutes of crying while the band played and Ricky held me in a warm embrace, I said yes to Jesus again. I said no to my flesh, no to my sexuality.
When I boarded a plane to go back home, I was returning as a senior in high school who was sold out for Jesus.
Excerpted from Outlove: A Queer Christian Survival Story by Julie Rodgers © 2021 Julie Rodgers. Published by Broadleaf Books. Used by permission.