Once a “repaired” gay man, and a minister preaching salvation from homosexuality, now Tim Rymel just hopes to be heard when he says you are worthy of being loved just because you’re here.
Michael and I shared a rather unique experience with only a handful of other men. We were part of a residential program in the early ‘90s to address our unwanted same-sex attractions. It’s better known as conversion, or reparative therapy. We, the former participants, were called “ex-gays.” I had often wondered how my former housemates were doing. I assumed they were doing better than me.
Life certainly didn’t turn out the way I thought it would.
After graduating from the 12-month conversion therapy program, I joined the organization. For the next five years, as the outreach director of this prominent and world renowned Christian ministry, I and my co-workers appeared on national television and radio shows, in churches, schools and universities across the country proclaiming our message: There is freedom from homosexuality through Jesus Christ.
I even married a woman and we had two children. Yet, as much as I wanted to believe God had changed me, I knew my attraction toward her was forced. So did she. Less than seven years into our marriage, she divorced me. I was devastated. I simply couldn’t match my Christian faith to my circumstances. The incongruence ate at my soul.
For the next six years I isolated myself from family and friends, milking my worthlessness and contemplating my own demise. I had failed as a minister, as a husband and an ex-gay. I spiraled into confusion as doubts about God consumed me.
Too ashamed to contact anyone else, and thinking I was the only one who couldn’t make it, I simply disappeared. Now, so had Michael, it seemed.
But alas, my repeated phone calls and messages must have worn him down.
“How are you doing?” I asked with anticipation when he finally answered his phone.
“I’ve had better days,” he quipped in a monotone, southern drawl. He was guarded.
Over the next few minutes, I coaxed Michael into a conversation and asked that he bring me up to speed on how life had been since we last saw each other. He hit the highs and lows of what it means to be an ex-gay man, navigating two worlds of conservative religion and a society that celebrates or hates you. I knew it well. I never found my place there. Michael hadn’t either.
“I’ve given up the idea that anyone will ever love me,” he said. My heart broke for him. “I know it’s not right,” he continued, “but some days I just hook up with guys to feel a little better.”
Nearly 25 years after leaving a program that was supposed to help Michael reconcile his faith and sexuality, he was more trapped than ever. His guilt and despair was palpable. I wanted to reach through the phone and hug him, but had he stood next to me, his emotional distance still would have made the act hollow. For so many years, I was Michael.
I started writing about my journey as a way to address my own shame and guilt from my past. I needed to tell my story, if for no other reason than to push the massive weight of failure off my shoulders. Like Michael, I believed I wasn’t worthy of love. Going public with my tale couldn’t have done any more harm than continuing to live in the silence of societal exclusion. I purposefully stepped out of the shadows and into authenticity. “Your story is my story,” said one and then another. And then another. With each voice I found the strength to share more hurt, more fear and even deeper pain. The “truth” I once believed had become an entrapment.
With the release of my book, Going Gay – My Journey from Evangelical Christian Minister to Self-acceptance, Love, Life and Meaning I discovered the breadth of those damaged by reparative therapy. The misguided, if not hateful, words of a church community that once embraced us continues to wield its sword at those who cannot reconcile their reality with the church’s literal brand of religion. The cathartic act of writing to soothe my own aching soul became a passion to pull together a group of outcasts, sliced and shredded by devout dogmas.
In the summer of 2014, I was privileged to list my name, along with eight other former prominent ex-gay ministry leaders to put an end to reparative therapy for minors. Two states, California and New Jersey, were the first to outlaw the practice. In some cases, this was too little too late as the stories continue to roll in about religious abuse. There is much more work to do.
I write to speak life and hope into people who have struggled to find it. I write to challenge a religious institution that has historically upheld tradition and legalism over dignity, grace and humanity. I write to give voice to those whose realities clash with their ideals. I write to provoke ideas, raise questions and add to the conversation about what it means to be human, to be worthy, and to be loved just because we are here.
Michael’s journey began under religious zeal and repression. Understandably, the zeal has waned; the guilt has not. We haven’t talked since that day, several months ago, but not because I’ve forgotten about him. I haven’t. He’s chosen to avoid me, and any reminder of his pain and perceived failure. He’s not ready to deal with it.
But there are many others like Michael who reach out to me nearly every day, anxious to share their stories with someone. Not just someone who will listen, but someone who will hear them. After all, that’s what we want as human beings. To be validated. To be free. To be heard.
Photo: Flickr/peter burge