In the Christmas edition of Hotpress, they feature an interview with an individual who underwent ‘gay conversion therapy’ in Portlaoise.
Back in 2010, GCN journalist Cormac O’Brien went undercover and attended a group called Courage a group in South County Dublin. The aim of this group was to help homosexual men and women who wanted to live within the rules of Catholicism.
In 2011, Cormac won student journalist of the year for his work on this story.
The article was originally published in GCN Issue 249.
On discovering a small advert for a Dublin group dedicated to helping homosexuals live chaste Catholic lives, we sent Cormac O’Brien undercover to check it out.
GCN first became aware of Courage through an advertisement in the Catholic freesheet, Alive!, which is delivered to homes across South Dublin. A group dedicated to living chaste homosexual lives in keeping with the dictates of the Catholic Church had an advertisement on the classifieds page, seeking people to become involved. In essence, Courage is a Christian support group for both women and men who have an unwanted attraction to members of the opposite sex. On the surface, it was formed to lend spiritual, community and psychological support in the face of an ‘unchristian’ burden.
Surprised that such a group was operating in Ireland, completely under the radar, I replied to the Courage advert via email, positing myself as a questioning, young gay Catholic. Eventually emails graduated to phone calls with Duncan, the group’s most long-standing member. He then arranged to meet me for a one-to-one chat at a Dublin hotel bar to help me get a sense of the group’s dynamics.
Duncan, was a tall, ruddy-faced man, an amiable sort who, when not convening and go-betweening for Courage, works in finance. We chatted about a variety of topics, from living in Dublin to our families, work, the crushing pressure of homosexuality, the weather. We even joked ruefully on the fact that Courage didn’t receive any direct financial support from the Irish Church.
Like the majority of Irish people I had a Catholic upbringing. Maybe more so than some – my father is an ex-Catholic priest. When I came out, my family responded with something approaching congratulations, glad that I was happy with the hope I would always continue to be. They didn’t seem to see any terrible conflict of belief and it wasn’t a case of hating the sin but loving the sinner.
Hating the sin but loving the sinner is the surface message of the Catholic Church, but the language used by the current Pope is the vernacular of hatred. “Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered to an intrinsic moral evil, and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder,” Benedict has said. Duncan told me that that Courage was here to help in a compassionate way, but I was to discover that instead the organisation aligns itself with the Pope’s “intrinsic moral evil” teaching.
As a form of induction, Duncan lent me a book, Coming Out Straight: Understanding and Healing Homosexual Wounds by Richard Cohen. On one level it was a laughable tract, full of cringe-inducing therapeutic solutions such as playing team sports, ridiculous hand wringing over homosexual wounds and plenty of amusing acronyms. SSAD (Same Sex Attraction Disorder) being one: “It’s not gay, it’s not bad, it’s SSAD”.
Other statements were less amusing: “Homosexuals are at least 12 times more likely to molest children than heterosexuals; homosexual teachers are at least seven times more likely to molest a pupil; homosexual teachers are estimated to have committed at least 25 percent of pupil molestation; 40 percent of molestation assaults were made by those who engage in homosexuality.”
Cohen is an unlicensed psychotherapist, who has been ejected from the American Counselling Association for ethical reasons. What’s more, his writings have been used to justify Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Law that seeks to introduce the death penalty for gays men and lesbians. Workshop organiser, Stephen Langa of the Family Life Network in Kampala cites liberally from Cohen’s book to whip up storms of anti-gay indignation.
This initial contact with Duncan had already left me wary. His marriage of benign, Christian goodwill with deep-seated homophobia was insidious. Nevertheless, I pressed on.
I arrived early on a sunny Saturday in early May, the first attendee. Greeted by Duncan, I wandered around the small enclosure of the South Dublin monastery where Courage meets every three months or so. Little by little people arrived, eventually reaching a total of about ten attendees. There were two females in the group – one who had travelled from Kerry to attend, the other a practicing psychologist, not present because she was wrestling with her sexuality, but there to help from a professional standpoint.
I didn’t get to speak much to Dr Sheila Nevin, but she did hand me a book called The Courage to Be Chaste by Fr Benedict Groeschel, which told me that that my “homosexual tendencies” are a result of an “accident in childhood”. In later investigation, I found that up until two years ago, Dr Nevin was employed by the HSE in the Child and Adult Psychology unit in Mullingar hospital. Her facebook page quotes a statement by the American-based National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), an organisation that offers conversion therapy and other regimens intended to change the sexual orientation of individuals who are unhappy with their homosexuality.
The day was divided into three parts: first a lecture on ‘faith and prayer’ by one of the priests, then mass, then an open discussion while the same priest took confession. The instruction on faith and prayer relied heavily on tracts from the Old Testament – Abraham’s sacrifice of his son Isaiah, Lot and the pillar of salt etc. In line with the Old Testament, it had the hallmarks of a condemning, masochistic religion with narratives of punishment and damnation.
Some of this masochistic religiosity fed into the open discussion later in the day. Christine, tall blonde and with a handsome face broached a topic that, judging by the collective discomfort of the group, was something she had brought up many times before. Visibly upset, she spoke about her ex-girlfriend – her hair, her skin, her eyes; how in a moment of weakness she met her on an online forum and about their yearlong relationship. She spoke about how the conflict of her religion and her sexuality eventually caused the relationship’s end. How she chose religion over happiness. And how bitter she felt. How isolated, lonely and unable to confide in her married friends she was. No one provided any answers or comfort for her.
Conversation moved on and the recent RTÉ documentary, Growing up Gay became a hot topic. One member, a man in his mid-30s called Martyn, talked about being sexually abused when he was growing up. He added that that nowadays young people were being lied to, being told it was a great thing to be gay. Sage nods and verbal agreement followed from the group en masse about the gay indoctrination of Ireland’s youth. Religious indoctrination was not mentioned.
On one of the breaks I got to speak to another new attendee, Nathan. He said he didn’t understand his homosexual feelings. I asked him if he was happy. He couldn’t say that he was. Instead, he seemed terrified. I asked him about his family life. If he had any support. He came from a large family in a rural area. No one knew he was gay; he was unmarried in his 30s. Then we talked about needing people, support and community. That, I discovered, is what he had come to Courage seeking.
When we went back in, the priest gave another talk, encouraging group members to stay away from saunas and group sex. He spoke of homosexuals as people who would never find happiness, no matter how much they tried. Peppered throughout his speech was the belief that gay men and lesbians are damaged, sexually and developmentally. It left me extremely unnerved and I am a gay man who fully accepts and loves himself. I could only imagine the effect his words were having on the less self-accepting members of the group.
Courage accepts people indiscriminately into its ranks because of a concept of homosexuality as something intrinsically wrong. Its organisers don’t take the time to consider any of the myriad reasons why an individual might feel uncomfortable and unhappy with his or her sexual orientation. Unhappiness, they said, was only rooted in acting on the homosexual impulse.
People like Martyn, Christine and Nathan were isolated, finding their only sense of community in a group of people who felt shame and self-loathing. The kind of ‘compassionate homophobia’ practiced by Courage, I finally understood, sought to further isolate and therefore exert power over the individual.
In ways the group offered its members an outlet, one that allowed them to talk about the feelings they so often kept bottled up while at the same time reinforcing their belief that these feelings were immoral and abhorrent. It sought to reinforce a message that those of us who are living seemingly happy gay lives are instead confused, ill-informed and ultimately following a damaging path.
There’s a line at the end of a Frank O’Hara poem: “It seems that they were all cheated of some marvellous experience, which is not going to happen to me, which is why I’m telling you about it.” O’Hara is talking about about love, arguably one of the most immutable and transcendent experiences one can encounter in life. Some people I met did seem cheated of that marvellous experience; although that’s most definitely the very last thing they would ever agree with me on. And instead of offering compassion for a life with no love – neither from the self nor from the object of affection – the group they found themselves in, offered them chastisement for even considering it.
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