It was a sunny Saturday morning in California. I was driving up the highway in my freshly detailed Honda Civic. I was on my way to see Ryan. Unbeknownst to me, it would be the last day that we would see each other. For three years I looked forward to Saturday mornings with Ryan. Ryan was a counselor with Exodus International, and I had been assigned to him through my church. Exodus International was an international Christian network that sought to help people who wished to limit their homosexual desires. I was a part of a Pastor Internship for the Assemblies of God church denomination. I was not allowed to identify as gay and remain in the internship—“same-sex attraction” was the euphemism used to describe my condition. The mission statement of Exodus International was to “mobilize the body of Christ to minister grace and truth to a world impacted by homosexuality.” I came to a crossroad when the effort to stifle my same-sex attraction became exhausting. I stumbled on Exodus International one day while listening to a sermon online. My heart began to palpitate as I read the testimonials of other Christian men who had overcome their struggle. Most of these men were now counseling or leading ministries like Exodus. There was hope for me, I thought. I could conquer this thing—all I needed was some guidance and prayer.
The Exodus International website sold straightness like it was the miracle cure leading to a perfect life. The images were like a tropical oasis that awaited you on the other side of gayness. It would show a family portrait of the ex-gay man with his wife. The wife was always drop-dead gorgeous. Makes sense, as the husband’s risk of falling back into homosexuality at any time would require him to have an attractive wife. And why did they always have so many children? It seemed like there were always three, sometimes more. It was as if each child was undeniable proof of straightness, multiple living-and-breathing results of hetero sex. The wives were always blonde. It was what I was supposed to want. I wanted to desire this for my life. I would imagine myself inside these family portraits. Pastor Dante Searcy, slayer of gayness. The prize would be my own blonde wife, along with our seven biracial, caramel-colored children.
Sexual purity was a major focus in the Assemblies of God church. Premarital sex, sex on television, even thinking “impure” thoughts about a woman who was not your spouse were considered sinful in the doctrine. The most egregious sexual sin was homosexuality. The men at church would talk about the difficulty of not thinking about women in a sexually impure way.
I did not have the same struggle as the other brothers in Christ. They mistook my ability to resist temptation by women as a testament of my strength. I was still a virgin at twenty-five. I wore my virginity like a golden shield of honor. Some of the men envied me for being able to give my virginity to the wife that God had for me. Everyone was in my corner encouraging me to stay pure and save myself for marriage. I knew it was all horse shit. I had the strength to resist women because my body did not respond sexually to women. The lack of sexual desire for women scared me down to the core of my spirit. I wished it was as difficult for me to stay pure as it was for the other brothers. I had my own temptations, which I could share with no one, except for Ryan. The chasm between me and the other brothers was vast and wide, and they were oblivious to it. I buried this secret deep within my heart and it ate away at me from the inside. The guilt and shame were unbearable at times. I was tormented by nightmares about spending eternity in hell. I longed for the loving touch of another man. I was content with just that. My desires and urges were wrong, and I could tell no one. I was determined to defeat this. If Catholic priests could dedicate themselves to celibacy, then it was possible.
Ryan and I began to meet on Saturday mornings. We worked through a whole host of issues. I had a lot of resentment and anger toward kids calling me “sissy” and “fag” when I was in school, and toward my father for abandoning me when I was a baby. In terms of dealing with my same-sex attraction, Ryan gave me lots of strategies. He helped me block pornographic websites on my computer. He gave me Bible verses to recite when I was having a lustful thought about men. He even encouraged me to try and fantasize or “lust” for women. He said it would help curb some of my homosexual tendencies. Ryan was the epitome of Christian perfection. I stared at his wedding ring, and I assumed his wife was blonde and had perfect teeth. He was a regular straight man, not an ex-gay straight man, but he was a great counselor and felt that he could help me. I felt dirty and sinful during our sessions. My dark skin next to his was like a reflection of my sin. I craved his acceptance and approval. He was strikingly handsome, which I wholeheartedly believed was Satan trying to get me off course. He had greenish hazel eyes and curly brown hair that went perfectly with a bright and friendly smile. I wondered at times if he was a closeted gay and working for Exodus International was a facade. Maybe he had these desires and kept them hidden the same way I did. Maybe one day he would break that barrier between counselor and counselee. But instead, I would share my most sinful gay thoughts with him, and he would just smile and nod. His welcoming and nonjudgmental demeanor made him virtually irresistible.
I did not know that this particular session would be the last one. In fact, I had never considered how the sessions would end. When would I be considered straight? There was no set point to arrive at. Alfred Kinsey would have found it comical. Would I be cured if I could go a whole day without thinking about men? Or was it two weeks? A year? I assumed that I would always need to rely on a straight Christian man’s guidance to keep me on the path of heterosexuality. After walking up to the church building and knocking on the window, Ryan opened the door to let me in. He always had a look of surprise and delight when he greeted me, even though my appointment time had been the same for three years. He was wearing a navy blue sweater and khaki pants. His pants were just tight enough to where I knew I would be distracted for the entire session. We walked down the long dark corridor to his office. It always felt like his office was in a dungeon where the real sinners had to go in order to get fixed.
The last session began as all the others had. Ryan would begin with asking me how my week was. “How was your week?” actually meant how many times did you picture a guy naked, look at gay pornographic websites, inappropriately touch a man, get a blowjob, have sex with a man, etc. In other words, how many times did you “act out” on your homosexual desires? The goal was to stop engaging in homosexual acts, which meant I had to stop having homosexual thoughts. Each slip-up I had we would analyze and he would give me a strategy to help me for the next time I was tempted to sin. I confessed that I had slipped up that week and looked at pornography. I repented soon after and asked for God’s forgiveness. I mentioned a guy who I was attracted to at work, a stumbling block to my progress. I told Ryan that I made a conscious effort to stay away from him so I would not be tempted. Ryan was happy to see how far I had come. He was excited at how I was taking responsibility for making my environment more conducive to having victory over my struggle. Once our regular introduction was over, I hesitated to share what was on my mind. Normally Ryan did not have to ask me to share, as we had built a strong level of trust over the years. However, something was different on the day of the last session. I wanted to talk about an experience with him, but I was not sure how he would respond. He could tell that I was holding something back, and he assured me that it was safe to talk about whatever was on my mind.
I began my story. I mentioned an incident that happened a few days prior when I had gone for a run in the park. While I was there, I saw two men sitting next to each other on a bench. They were sitting close to each other. It looked like they were holding hands, but I was too far away to see for certain. I slowed down so I could watch them. I had never seen two men be so openly affectionate with each other in public. I stopped running and began to stare at them from a distance. I couldn’t take my eyes away from them. They never noticed me standing there. I fought the urge to run toward them. I immediately recognized what I saw. It was love. These men were in love with each other. I wanted to ask them what it was like. What was it like to be in love? How did it feel? I felt their love for each other radiating toward me, beckoning me over to pick it up and take a bite. A voice, which seemed to be carried by the wind, whispered to me, “That could be you.” I imagined myself sitting on a bench in the park on a summer day with a man. The image made my heart flutter. Something within me shifted; my life was changed. I finished running and went to my car. I sat there and waited for the wave of fear and guilt to wash over me, but it never came. I did not pray or ask for forgiveness after seeing them. The feelings of guilt never came, even as I continued to think about them that evening. Nothing I saw at the park looked like it warranted an eternity in hell. The two men looked like they were in heaven. They were happy. I wanted to be in the heaven of love that they were basking in. As I recounted the story to Ryan, I saw the first glimpse of disappointment on his face. I could always count on his look of focused determination as he was naming off helpful same-sex attraction defeating strategies for me. But in this session, his exasperation had finally settled in. The energy of the room became tense. His tone of voice became heavy. I was not used to him speaking to me this way. He sounded like he was scolding a child, or a dog.
“Dante …” Ryan sighed heavily before he continued speaking. “The devil will never tempt us with something we won’t like. His temptation will always come disguised as something we think we desire. Do you desire that for your life more than heaven?”
I did not respond. I did not know what I wanted anymore. Heaven was seeming further and further away the more I fought with this demon. I let him finish. I was curious to see what he had to say.
“God has a special plan for your life. You have studied the Bible. There is a Godly woman who is waiting patiently for you to overcome this struggle. When you are victorious over same-sex attraction, you can be with the woman who God has intended for you, the one he has hand-selected. God is not going to bless you with her until you are no longer living in sin.” He paused. I remained silent. I wanted to hear more. Ryan fidgeted in his seat as my silence became uncomfortably tense. He then continued, “Those two men you saw on the bench are living in sin. They may look happy on the outside, but deep down their spirits are tormented. Do you really want that, Dante? Or do you want what God has in store for you?”
I continued to remain silent. I didn’t know what to say. What was the truth? What did I really want? Church had trained me to give canned responses to everything. I had learned how to play the game, but in playing the game, I had learned to silence the voice of my inner guidance. I knew all the right Bible verses to quote at the right times. I was accepted in church because of my strict adherence to the rules. I realized that those men I saw at the park were happy, and the only one with the tormented spirit was me. I was the one living in sin, the sin of going against my human nature. I was swimming upstream and trying to become something I could never become. Ryan looked at me as if he were trying to peer into my soul waiting for my response to his original question. Do I want what God has in store for me? I didn’t know anymore. It was my first act of disobedience. There was no drum roll or fanfare at that moment, but I had unwittingly taken my first step in the direction toward true freedom. I caught a glimpse of love, and it was worth risking an eternity in hell. When Ryan saw that I was not interested in talking anymore, he turned to his appointment book and asked me if the following Saturday at 10 a.m. was a good time. I told him it was, as our appointment time was the same every week. We shook hands, and he escorted me out.
As I walked out into the morning sun, I mulled the question over in my head. Do I want what God has in store for me? Another question fought itself into my psyche. These words came from my inner guidance, my soul. What if Ryan doesn’t know what God has in store for me? What if there’s nothing wrong with me after all? It was as if time had frozen and I had entered into another dimension. I looked up at the clear blue sky. The sun kissed my face with its bright rays. I wasn’t quite sure at that moment why I felt so free, but I knew that I had unlocked something within my mind. After three years of therapy, I was just as gay as I was when I began. I decided in that moment I would no longer struggle with my attraction to men. If being myself meant going to hell, then maybe I would find someone in this life to accompany me there. James Baldwin, in The Fire Next Time, states, “The very time I thought I was lost, my dungeon shook and my chains fell off.” I never saw Ryan again after that day. I left my chains in that church parking lot. I was liberated by the notion that true love was possible. I got into my car, pulled out of the parking lot, and drove toward the light of the sun.
Dante Marquis is a freelance translator, writer, and editor based in Santa Cruz, CA. He is a graduate of the Defense Language Institute, and an honorably discharged veteran of the U.S. Navy. He is currently working on a collection of poems and short stories. He works at UC Santa Cruz and lives with his partner.