The following piece was taken from a forty thousand word writing that I did eight years ago. Five years ago, it was condensed down and reworded by a ghost writer who gave me permission to republish it online. Otherwise, it’s available to order and includes other submissions from disabled LGBTQ writers.
They Called It Mercy: Serving Time in an Ex-Gay Camp
From QDA: A Queer Disability Anthology
by Raymond Luczak
Submission: JASON T. INGRAM
My flight from Alaska to Northern Kentucky left late at night, so when I got to the airport I fell into a daze. It was like I was there but not there. I was so overwhelmed with fear, confusion and second thoughts about what I was doing, I retreated somewhere inside myself like a turtle. I tried to remind myself that I thought I was doing the right thing. A part of me was mentally exhausted from fighting my feelings constantly, so when I sat down at my departure gate, my mind was out of control. Every man who caught my eye made me think of taking him to a private place. Then I was afraid of what I would do. That caused more anxiety on top of my lust. I was 31 years old.
I could not sleep at all on my long flight to Seattle but managed a few winks on its last leg to Cincinnati International Airport. That next day, still in a daze, I studied over and over again the complicated pick-up instructions and found the place where I would take a van for the ranch. It was a cold winter Ohio afternoon, and even though I was coming from Alaska, I hadn’t expected such harsh weather. I finally spotted a large maroon van with an adorable older driver, who was my type, I immediately got afraid of my thoughts. Yet in the van, I felt at ease a bit since “Brother Jerry” had a calm presence, but at the same time, I could not look at him. I just looked down or out the window on this new part of the country. He then told me that he was assigned to be my counselor!
The trip to the live-in program site took nearly an hour. We arrived there just at the end of dinner time. They managed to fill a plate of food for me, which was nice, because I was starving. There was a student who was still finishing his dinner, and I was introduced to him. He was mean-looking with a light mustache and lots of tattoos. He just stared at me. That was when I learned I wasn’t supposed to shake anyone’s hands. In fact, I was not to touch anybody!
After dinner I was given a brief tour of the campus, which was an old cattle ranch. The sun was just setting, and the weather was bitter. I was taken into the counseling office for briefing. I was a total emotional mess. I was given a list of a dozen assignments, many of them due the first week including signing legal paperwork. I was to study the live- in manual, remember a long list of written rules, and sign the LEGAL RELEASE FORM. This form protected them from malpractice lawsuits and other legal entanglements. This scared me. This form seemed to give them the ability to do almost anything to me, and it took me quite a while before I read it and signed it.
One of the questions people have about the Pure Life’s residential program is if they do force the students to stay there. The answer is technically no. There are no barbed wires or doors that lock from the inside. Men can leave without being chased by cops with big guns and slobbering barking hounds. The reality, for most of the students and interns and even some of the staff, is that if someone leaves, there is a very large chance of him being brought to financial and emotional ruin.
Later that first evening I was shown my dorm. While I was getting oriented, a pastor gathered up as many of those who were staying in the dorm for a brief meeting in the small commons area. The meeting turned out to be was him just yelling at all of us about how immature we all were. I was terrified. The pastor had these piercing eyes, a thick New York accent, and a very militant forceful voice. He did not need to yell at us packed into such a small room.
While the men were asleep, I was a bit late in getting ready for bed. “Andre,” one of the leaders, took me to the commons area. He told me that he had read my file and that he knew about my “issue.” He explained that I had additional rules, like how I should sit, and I had to keep my gay background a secret. He spoke in a voice very close to a whisper. He was taller than me, and he was very dark and slim. What was strange about him, like so many in the ex-gay movement, was how effeminate he was. You would think, that if he rose to such power over the years in this organization, he would have changed his mannerisms to act “straight.” My bed, number nine, was a droopy old bunk right over a student who had arrived shortly before I entered the program. He was a real “crusty.” When he took his shoes off to lay in bed, his feet smelled so rank that I had to turn around so my head was facing the other way from where his feet were.
Later that first week I found myself unable to sleep. A man, detoxing off crack cocaine, was very vocal, and our stuffy and smelly room, containing 16 men, was at maximum capacity. The sound of men snoring and creaking their old army-style metal bunk beds would’ve driven anyone crazy. On this particular night, though, I snuck out to the next building where the counseling offices were, and I climbed to the top of the stairs where there was a locked door. I curled up into a ball near the landing of the darkened stairway and lay there terrified. I was trying everything I could to hold on and not lose my mind. I felt so cold, despised, and worthless that I wanted someone to take me to a mental hospital.
I learned very quickly to rely on my faith to endure this new environment. I found a place to pray, and one of the other students heard me. He joined me in prayer, and we were both hit with spiritual joy. It was very cold that night but we didn’t care. We were overcome with laughter that we ended up sitting in the driveway near our dorm.
“Brother Mark” worked for the ministry. I found him outside near the parking lot and asked if I could talk. We found a place to sit, and he listened to me as I told him some of the things I had done earlier that same winter before leaving Alaska. I felt so ashamed of having played with a married man who was also a Christian counselor. Brother Mark seemed to listen; he did not judge, correct, or try to punish me in any way. Having that kind of kindness from a staff member made things bearable at times while trying to survive in such a negative environment.
Most of the time when I was in a counselor’s office, the sessions were brutal, confrontational and sometimes abusive. During my first few weeks I had a number of nervous breakdowns, and one night I could not find my counselor. Instead I was offered to talk to another counselor working late in his office. After I began to share, he just looked at me and said nothing, so I nervously kept talking until he finally stopped me and tore into me. It was as if he hadn’t heard a word of what I said, and because I had gone to him in the first place, which was considered wrong, he started insulting me. He told me that no Christian should be acting the way I was and that I was in “the wrong religion.”
I was told that Pure Life Ministries (PLM) chose rural Kentucky because the area had a lot of laws against the sex industry. Cincinnati, Ohio, an hour’s drive away, was the home of Larry Flynt, and by the time I was in that area, politicians had made things very difficult for those seeking out sex-related businesses. PLM also got a great deal buying this beautiful old cattle ranch just outside Williamstown, Kentucky. PLM draws a lot of gay men even though they focus on general sex addiction. Students cannot share whether or not they have had gay issues. We do hear in some of their graduating “testimonies” of some gay attractions and experiences, but then again most men are told not to share that part about themselves. Of course, some men give hints and even disclosures of their pasts while in the program. Then there are those who are—well, you know, “obvious.”
I could not believe how cold Kentucky was in March. There was snow the first week I was there, and I did not have a warm coat. The “warm” coat I had in Anchorage was a very expensive arctic parka that was good in extreme subzero temperatures, but I thought I did not need anything like that in “the South.” Whenever a student, an intern, or a staff member did not need something, they would leave things behind for the new students. They called it “mercy,” something we did not deserve but got for free. Many times men exiting the program left behind all kinds of nice things. I needed a jacket and a shaver, and I felt so blessed to get them.
When I was told that the electric razor and jacket were “mercy,” I soon learned that all kinds of things were called “mercy.” When someone did your chore for you, it was mercy. When someone donated a jar of peanut butter, it was mercy. In fact, there would be the word “mercy” on the jar to show the men that it was up for grabs. I love peanut butter, and I experienced God’s sweet generous mercy in the form of a few jars of organic, unsalted natural-style peanut butter. A student from Detroit did not see it that way and stirred sugar and salt into one of the jars. To avoid this sacrilege, I crossed out the word “mercy” and put my name on the jars I found. I discovered that I had to put my name on just about everything I owned, ate, and bathed with to avoid my stuff becoming someone else’s mercy.
There were not only the written rules; there were also verbal and unspoken rules. They involved how we acted, what we talked about, and what clothes we wore. One time I wore a bandana on my head at work, and three guys in the program were making fun of me. Then I wore it on campus. “Brother Herbert” told me to take it off because he said it was “old man.” What he’d meant was that, coming into the program, I was supposed to act like a new person and not doing things like I did before. The funny thing was that wearing a bandana was one of my attempts at trying to be more tough and not so gay-looking. In fact, it was a new look. But I took it off.
There were rules about facial hair. We were all to enter the program clean-shaven and stay that way for the first few months. If we wanted to grow any kind of facial hair, our counselor had to approve it first, and even then we had to ask what kind of facial hair we could grow. If you were too effeminate, they’d try many times to get you to grow a beard to “butch you up.” But the rules about eggs were the silliest of all, and they were not written down anywhere. Each student was allowed two eggs every weekday. You could not save up yesterday’s eggs and eat them the next day. If there were eggs left over on the weekend, the students had to agree how they would share the eggs.
The pressure to conform was quite intense. I felt like such an outcast because of my humor, the things I talked about, where I was from and other differences I had. Just before leaving Alaska, I had spent most of my time teaching children so I developed a very dry, simple sense of humor which came off as silly. Most people in PLM thought I was just plain stupid, and they let me know of this often. I fell back on my private “stupid tests” that I developed when I felt put down back in middle school. If I said something that someone does not understand, and if they thought I was an idiot because of that, I would add something really stupid to see if they truly thought I was that dumb. I found this especially true of insecure and uneducated men. If I said something that was beyond them, they automatically criticized me. Instead of trying to defend myself, I would say something intentionally ridiculous to see what kind of reaction they would give me. If they really thought that I was that thick and continued to insult me, I knew that I did not want to be with that person. But if they knew I was joking, I felt more comfortable with them.
I felt deep down inside that I had an untreated mood disorder, but I gave up on trying to get help and bought into the old-fashioned idea of just working it off and fighting it. Therefore I had conflicting ideas about work: on one hand, I thought I was indestructible and because of my faith, I could be anybody I thought I should be; but on the other hand, I was terrified of labor work. As I had plenty of years of trying to do labor work, failing that had made me an emotional mess. In fact, when I was getting a ride to the warehouse to my first job after only a few days into the program, I cried on my way there. It was so embarrassing.
My first job was at a distribution center for a swimming pool supply company. I learned how to “pick and pack” using a motorized pallet jack and tried my best to meet the high-pressure time quotas, moving hundreds of boxes of chemicals. In my first week there I hurt myself so I had to go to a clinic. Then the following two weeks I got hurt twice so they fired me. I was moved to another warehouse job, this time in garden supplies. Because of the stress, my lack of sleep, and the way my mind processes information, I couldn’t seem to follow instructions very well. I was moved around to different departments, and I made a lot of mistakes. The more pressure put on me to work faster, the more accidents I had.
In addition to working off-campus, I had a long list of things that needed to be done a regular basis. They included praying with an assigned prayer partner, writing sermon notes, listening to teaching teapes, studying workbooks, and reading the Bible. Those involved in the program either sought out or created messages similar to sermons such as “Longing for Sodom” and Pastor Steve’s “For Those Who Continue in Sin.” One of our teachings was about “The Duty of Man,” and it was all about fearing God, keeping his commandments and that God will bring everything into a judgment based on the end of the Book of Ecclesiastes. One of the most memorable sermons was given by Pastor Josh where he gave the analogy of a rock cutter hammering away at a huge boulder. He gave us the image of how a skilled rock cutter could hit this rock a hundred times and not see it break. He further explained that it was because of many tiny fractures inside the stone that were not visible, but was destroying the huge object from within until it collapsed. He told us not to be discouraged at working at this 99 times because the hundredth time could actually work.
I longed for this breakthrough so I could be free from my attraction toward men. I thought it would come in a form of spiritual experience, or maybe I would just notice that several weeks had passed by with no sexual feelings toward men.
Once, after confessing that I masturbated in the shower before a chapel service, I was brought to Pastor Josh’s office. He confronted me and asked me if I was going to take the program seriously. I nervously agreed, and I felt like a pea getting smashed by an elephant. Getting special “corrective” things to try to stop me from touching myself were also humiliating. They might as well have put a chastity belt on me!
The assignments demanded honest answers about my personal life. A supplemental assignment was called “What’s Wrong with Masturbation” by Steve Gallagher. He stated that it goes against God’s purpose of sex; it’s a form of self-gratification, goes with “lustful fantasy,” “opens the door for the enemy to lead the person deeper into sin,” and it controls a person. While discussing masturbation with Brother Jerry in counseling, he began to preach that I should picture Jesus on the cross and me with my “organ,” masturbating to his face. I tried to keep from squirming in my seat, but even though I was loyal to the ministry, I did question what he said in my mind. As I thought about it later, I wondered who was the pervert? Was it me playing with myself, or some guy who talked about beating off in front of Christ himself?
During my first few weeks in the program, I was constantly getting hurt, but I soon agreed that “tough love” was the kind of love that I needed. When I made out a gratitude list, I honestly thought that the program was the most important thing on Earth. Before my family, those who were praying for me, and a few other things, at the top of my list was “PLM.” I believed that the program saved my life, saved me from going to hell, and was saving me from my dreaded homosexuality.
I believed I had a warped mind. I believed I was deranged, perverted, twisted, wicked, and sick. I believed that PLM was “Spirit-led.” I believed that my mental health issues and even physical health problems were just ways I was trying to get attention. I believed that searching for my father’s love was what I was trying to find in homosexuality. I had a distorted view of my past ministry work, especially of the stressful mission trips I took. As I had acted sexually many times after each intense series of meetings, I saw myself as a fake. PLM pressured me to see my past in this perspective. I did not take into account my lack of self-care, my sexual repression, and a lack of healthy outlets as well as ignoring my mental health issues. Many people use sex as a means of dealing with life’s ups and downs, exhaustion and elation; however, anything sexual in that time of my life was so forbidden that when I would “burn out,” I would lose the extreme control I usually had over myself.
When I entered the program, I did not trust myself to handle my own life. I would not leave the program. I was not only determined to work the program as best as I could, I was also afraid to leave. I was afraid of failure, I was afraid to face other church people from my past, and most of all, I was afraid of being stuck in an unfamiliar place with no money and nowhere to go.
If a counselor was especially abusive to me, I tried to bring it up to another staff member. There was never an apology, and it seemed as if the leadership had no intention of dealing with the problem. In fact, the problem was always “self.” Every time I had a complaint there was some sort of corrective action taken against me. For instance, Brother Andre was particularly mean toward me. I was given yet another assignment to do, which was to come up with an entire page of things that I was grateful about him. One of the things I wrote was: “I appreciate Brother Andre because he is an anointed and caring counselor; that sees a motion all and spiritual needs, and is not afraid to help correct when needed and find an answer.” If I dared to complain about anything, the problem would always somehow be me.
Although many sermons and teachings spoke against being judgmental toward others, the very ones who were telling us not to judge were in fact judging us. They said that we are to live a merciful life toward everyone and yet they could practice their own form of “mercy.” They said that there is a bad side to mercy, that leaders could discipline their followers, so therefore punishment is another form of mercy. One student would joke that when he did wrong to others, he is “bad mercy.”
Somewhere in the middle of my stay at the ranch, I became hardened. I went about my day constantly on guard wondering who or what was going to try and bring me down. It could be my job or other students, but mostly it was the leaders. My fear of them grew to the point that I no longer challenged their authority. I tried to act more like the others in order to fit in, and I kept quiet. I started to have a chip on my shoulder, and I became very sharp to my peers at times. Little by little I started to lose myself in the madness. One time, while I was to drive a new student somewhere and we were about to leave the property, Brother Andre stopped me and began criticizing me. The new student seemed quite shocked at how mean this leader was to me over practically nothing. When he let us go, I told the new student that they were here to break us down and that was an example of it. Within a few days the new student made a phone call to his hometown and told them what was going on. They convinced him that he was in a cult and that he needed to leave so he did.
When a man voluntarily left the program or was kicked out, we were to follow a strange and unusual protocol. This set of rules were never written down. As students in the program, we were to excommunicate them, even if they were an intern, employee, or staff member. We were not to listen or talk to them, and walk away. There was a message given in the chapel mostly about why the person left, often given with very humiliating and slanderous remarks. They would use words like this man was “unteachable,” “deceived,” or “full of pride.” The humiliated man would be escorted or driven off the property; many times he was just dumped at a bus station.
This happened to Brother Mark, who was so kind to me my first few weeks I was there. They said that he broke his five-year commitment so he must suffer the same kind of banishment even though his crime was that he wanted to get married. Even if a student had to leave the program while on the job, all of their personal belongings left behind became property of the ministry. It was another example of mercy.
One night that summer I took a little walk by myself and happened to find an enormous tree filled with thousands of fireflies. Having lived most of my life in the Pacific Northwest, I missed seeing lightning bugs. It was also rare to see so many in one place. I was so elated that I said a prayer, and I felt like I heard the voice of the Spirit again.
After these months of constant introspection, soul searching, and purging of anything sinful from within myself, I actually felt like I was in a place where there was no more sin in me. I was nervous to share this with my counselor. I really felt like a different man. I felt excited that I had attained a new level of purity. I was on better terms with the staff, tolerating my job better, and stopped masturbating for days and even weeks at a time. The old Jason was gone. I was wholeheartedly a Pure Life student on his way to being an ex-gay leader determined to help others in pain.
Whenever I had a day off from work, I spent that day in prayer, worship, and Bible study. I prayed fervently for other students, old friends back in Alaska, and most importantly, direction in my life. Because I had such profound feelings and deep spiritual experiences during prayer, I truly believed that I was receiving pure spiritual direction. While talking to my counselor about my plans after graduating from the program, he insisted that I not go back to Alaska as only sin would be waiting for me there. I pointed out that my car and things were in storage there. But I was willing to make that sacrifice for fear of going into a homosexual lifestyle.
If we cooperated successfully with the program than we would graduate in six months. I had planned it that I would start the program in March and complete it successfully without having to be given the dreaded “extension,” then just in time to start my piano teaching the beginning of September when school started. Yet PLM had other plans for me. It was getting well into August and nobody would give me my graduation date. I wouldn’t dare ask because I believed that if I did, I would get an automatic extension. I had heard of stories like that. One man, within just a few days of his graduation date, treated a few of the guys on their way back from work to a game of miniature golf. As a result, he had to stay in the program at least another month. It was a shameful thing to be extended, and some men got extended up to a year.
One day, in a counseling session, I was given an extension for another month. I couldn’t believe it. All because I confessed that I had a crush on another man earlier that month. I wondered why I was so honest. I felt like I didn’t deserve that kind of punishment, especially over the fact that I had not acted on my gay feelings. He just told me that I wasn’t where I needed to be. He thought it was about where my heart was at. I also was very clear that summer that if I didn’t get back to Anchorage in time to start my piano teaching, I would have to give my career up at least for that school year. Then my counselor kept telling me not to go back to Alaska. He gave me an assignment that I was to write a prayer and a two-page speech; and that they needed his approval. I gave him my first draft, and he read parts of it out loud for me. I found it strange that Brother Jerry, an older man who knew how attracted I was to him, changed this one word: he read that I had been with “other men,” instead of “older men,” which I had actually written. Nevertheless, he made me rewrite the entire speech, removing any piece of evidence that made anyone think that I had even been with men. It had to be vague enough to imply that I was a sex addict who had problems with lust only toward women.
Then it was time: October 2, 2005. We had just finished a half day of fasting and prayer the day before. Often on weekends, some students who had been there longer made a big breakfast for the newer recruits. I felt obligated to wake up early and served them. I felt like I was being a good example. After breakfast, all of the men crammed into the small cafeteria, which had been converted from the downstairs area of the old farmhouse. We had to wait until all of us men were together; then we got a little lecture about how to behave in church, a prayer, and discussions about who would ride with who as well as exchanging cash for gas money.
Grace Fellowship Church, a 45-minute drive away, was one of the few churches in the region that would have much at all to do with PLM. It was the type of church where its pastor Brad Bigney would simply excommunicate a member of his church by telling the entire congregation during a Sunday morning service not to associate with a particular person, and share the man’s first and last name in addition to some disagreeable things he’d done.
I sat there in the service wearing my Sunday best. We were taken to these services on a monthly basis or so, and we had a special place in the front of the church where we were all on display. This particular morning I felt a great sense of accomplishment as I prepared to graduate from the program later that day. I was among the three who graduated that night after their Sunday evening chapel meeting.
After the ceremony, I asked a friend in the program to snap a photograph from my disposable camera of me just outside the chapel. We walked across the parking lot into the main house where we had our regular graduation parties. Students all have to put in a few dollars each to pay for the cake, ice cream, and soda pop. During the celebration I was somehow very downtrodden. I was relieved to finally be out of that place, yet I had so many confused feelings going on inside me. Judy, my counselor’s wife, was there so I tried to start up a conversation with her. I was hoping to get a word of encouragement or maybe even a “thank you” for the fact that I painted and framed an original oil painting of two eagles soaring above a storm for her and her husband. Instead she seemed to pretend I wasn’t there. It was very strange. I was finally allowed to hug people and even shake their hands, yet somehow I still was treated as if I had a plague.
After the party, I heard more encouraging words from other students as I made my way to my bunk for some sleep before my flight out of Kentucky. A one-way ticket to North Carolina, a place further away than I had lived before. A place where I had no history of my struggle between straight and gay. A place where I could start a new life. Perhaps I would find a wife and settle down, starting a family of my own. Yet I had the same feeling I had when I left Alaska: nothing I did seemed to work. If I just got on an airplane and flew far away, I would find something that actually did work. I was gay in every state that I lived in. Finally I got to start over again as a heterosexual.