Daring to Dream in a time of Donald Trump: An ex-gay survivor speaks out

A Gay Dream Realized then Dashed

I grew up post-Judy Garland. As a kid I only knew about her from the Wizard of Oz movie that played every year on TV, and had no idea she was a gay icon. Before I was born, the song “Over the Rainbow” was the anthem for some American gay men enduring the drab and dangerous times of the 1950’s and early 60’s. They longed to flee into a technicolor world where troubles melt like lemon drops. These gay men had dreams—full inclusion, equal rights, and acceptance from all. It was a dream they only dared to dream.

For a time the dream actually began to become a reality. In the 1970’s white gay men were more visible. Lesbians, bisexuals, transgender people, and LGBTQ people of color struggled though to find a seat at the table in the fledgling liberation movement. Still it grew and gained speed. Then in 1978 openly gay politician, Harvey Milk, was assassinated in San Francisco right on the cusp of the HIV/AIDS Crisis.

As a gay teen in the early 1980’s I did not dare dream of being out and proud. The future looked grim with G.R.I.D., the Gay Related Immune Deficiency, as HIV/AIDS was first called, spreading like wildfire decimating gay and transgender people. The Religious Right rose in political power with presidency of Ronald Reagan and the influence of anti-LGBTQ groups like Focus on the Family.

Dreaming A Heterosexual Dream

I could not imagine being happy and safe as a gay person in America. So I dreamed an alternate dream; I grabbed onto the fantasy that God was going to cure me of being gay. If I could just be a fully functioning, masculine-presenting heterosexual, the world would value me. I dreamed a dream of being “normal.”

But some dreams turn into nightmares. As I pursued various gay conversion therapies and sat under the watchful eyes of ex-gay ministries, the very types of programs promoted on the 2016 Republican Party platform and advocated by soon-to-be Vice President Mike Pence, my life grew bitter. After 17 years searching for the elusive magic formula to make me straight for Jesus and the USA, I became isolated from family, depressed, self-hating, suicidal, and more and more confused.

Weird and Dangerous Ex-Gay Methods

Lots of people are curious about the methods used to change or at least curb my gayness. They worry that under a Trump Administration we will see these flourish once again. I admit some of it was pretty outlandish—exorcisms in Brooklyn broken up by the police, a week of fasting in order to destroy the power of my flesh (and the healthy operation of my kidneys,) and two years holed up in a house for wayward homosexuals on a backroad outside Memphis, TN. I experienced wacky and dangerous treatments, cruel and unusual punishment perpetuated in Jesus’ name to please others who want a 1950’s myth for America.

I believe today we need to bear witness to ex-gay harm and denounce conversion therapy as this new administration comes to power to safeguard they do not put this dangerous agenda on American families with LGBTQ kids.

Why on Earth did I try to De-Gay Myself?!?

Beyond the methods, what I find more curious though arethe motivations that held me to this futile and ultimately damaging ex-gay path.

Fear had a lot to do with it. I felt so much fear about the consequences of coming out gay. I felt terrified I would lose things that were precious to me: my parents’ love and support, society’s approval, physical safety, job opportunities, the possibility of having children, respect, membership in the church I loved, the love of God, and eternal salvation. I also feared for my life. HIV/AIDS had a 100% fatality rate, and at first people were unsure how it was transmitted. I lived in terror that I would get AIDS, die a horrible death rejected by my family, then spend an eternity of punishment in hell. That was a lot for a teenager to bear. So I caved under the pressure of it all.

Along with all those fears was another. In a world where rich, white, Anglo-Saxon straight, heterosexual masculine Protestant males ran everything, I was a gay, Roman-Catholic, Italian-American sissy boy from a working class family. I felt the fear of being powerless in a world that was so unlike me. In reaction to these fears I attempted to assimilate. I became a born-again Christian, enrolled in a conservative Christian college, and determined to decimate my gayness. Having felt the cabin pressure of power and privilege drop, I scrambled to win back as much as I could.

In my pursuit to become straight, I was a total failure, the greatest failure of my life, one that I celebrate daily. Still it has taken years to recover from the harm I experienced.

Today we live in a world with many risks for LGBTQ people. These increase for LGBTQ immigrants, for LGBTQ people with disabilities, for gender non-binary folks, and particularly for transgender people of color. While the risks have remained even as marriage equality became the law of the land, suddenly they have increased with a Trump administration that may well bring us back in time instead of moving forward.

What can I do in this time of Donald Trump?

First I will continue to look back on history and the fierce and fearless actions of our ancestors—like the trans people of color who stood up at Stonewall and inspired people to come out of the closets and onto the streets. I will research the relentless, creative, and loving responses of LGBTQ people and our friends during the HIV/AIDS Crisis. I will also consider the mistakes they made and who got left out, so that we don’t repeat that history.

Second, I will dream. My partner, Glen Retief, grew up a white gay kid during Apartheid in South Africa. As a college student he took part in the anti-Apartheid struggle and the Queer Liberation movement. He was also a draft dodger in a country that forced all white males into military service to uphold state-sanctioned racism.

He tells me about the African National Congress rallies he attended and how the speakers rightfully railed against the tyranny of the state and outlined the daily atrocities experienced by Black South Africans and anyone who opposed the government. In their speeches they did not sugarcoat anything.

Still they ended the rallies with those who spoke of the future and the dreams they all held dear and pursued. They talked about the New South Africa and how it would look and how people would be treated. They talked about happier times to come with peace, stability, and access to power with an eye towards justice. They left people with something worth fighting for, not simply an ugly, crude force to fight against. They stirred up dreams with the outrageous hope that sometimes the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true. They achieved a lot, and the work still continues in the new South Africa to fulfill their dreams.

So today we stand as witnesses. We watch and record any and all injustices. We focus on policy and not just personality. We seek to have as many people as possible at the table to develop strategies and goals. And we hold up ideas for the future we want for all of us. We use our imaginations to create worlds that do not yet exist, and we fight for them with all of our hearts, minds, and bodies as we look after each other.

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