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The story of the ex-gay refugee

Once part of the ‘Taking the Straight Journey’, said to be a “way out” for those with “gender issues”, Robert Joseph Kleist shares how he became a “refugee” from a movement that wanted to change him.

By Robert Joseph Kleist

If you’re going to survive in this life, you have to have a particular fondness for irony.  I think this is all the more true if you are LGBT.

My story begins and ends with, of all things, a PowerPoint presentation.  I had made them before for school, but this was the first PowerPoint presentation that I made in the spirit of ecumenism.  It was also the first one I made in my desire to be a good son.

The event was called Taking the Straight Journey (TSJ), and it was plugged as a “way out” for those with “gender issues”.  And I was sharing my own experience as a bisexual.  And already the leaders were questioning my presentation.  While most who gave their testimony shared a few slides of themselves in drag or posed with their former lovers, my presentation was festooned with pictures showing just how attracted I was to boys and the occasional girl. They also questioned some of the very frank content.  “What’s the point of me giving my testimony?”  I countered, “If you’re gonna tell me what to say; it’s not my testimony but somebody else’s!”  Eventually the pastor approved it with surprisingly few changes.  I had meant my testimony be much lighter fare than what had been offered the previous year – my first TSJ – more laughter than tears.  Still many told me they were moved by what I shared.

TAKING THE NOT SO STRAIGHT JOURNEY

I had grown up in the States with both a strong mother and father.  My father in particular was a Marine war vet, a pilot, and had spent 20 years in California law enforcement.  My mom was a Roman Catholic with a strict colegiala upbringing here in Manila. I enjoyed sports and even had a girlfriend.  But teenaged angst led me to rebel, and when I had the chance to go to the Philippines, I jumped at it.

I stayed with an auntie who was a domineering presence at home — much more a force to be reckoned with than my uncle. All the time she was taking the money my parents were sending me for food and school supplies and using it for the household expenses and, we would later find out, gambling.  I was an enrolled in an exclusive private school, but I would attend in dirty clothes without having eaten or so much as a centavo in my pocket. I would frequently be absent running errands around the metro for my aunt. I was failing and we were in arrears on my tuition.

Finally my parents rescued me from this situation.  But they noticed some troubling changes.  I went to an all-boys school and I went out for athletics, ROTC and the student council. But soon I began pursuing theater and modeling instead. It was also my first time to make gay friends.  I guess it awakened a hidden desire for members of the same sex.  When I eventually came out, reactions at school and home were understandably mixed.  Mom said it was not a sin to be gay or bi provided I didn’t engage in homosexual activity.  But things around the house weren’t quite the same, especially with Dad.  I regret I came out to some of our extended family, instead of going to them first. They felt they lost face. And when they moved back to the States, I wasn’t invited to join.  I can’t say I blame them.

While all this was going on, I had a classmate who was an intellectual and a staunch Protestant, and we used to have fun debating about religion.  But he was horrified when he heard I had come out.  He even left very frank message on my parent’s answering machine – which I luckily was able to erase.  We ran into each other a few years after graduation and he invited me to his bible study at a well-known mega church in Ortigas Centre.  I’m a Roman Catholic, but I was game for this.

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Once I joined, he told me about something called Living Free Ministry for Christians “struggling” with their sexuality.  I was hesitant to join and be identified in the church as gay.

I have a friend who was a song writer. He taught music and directed the choir in a wealthy Pentecostal church in Alabang.  Then, at an “accountability session”, he revealed to several people that he was gay.  It was not supposed to leave the room, but the pastors’ wives found out and soon everyone in the church was treating him differently.

Needless to say I didn’t want to repeat his sad experience.  But when LFM announced a retreat, I took a chance and signed up.

At the retreat I heard that God loved me, Jesus died for my sins, one of those sins was homosexuality and I could only overcome it with the power of the Holy Spirit.

I met a woman who left her lesbian lover of many years after giving her life to Christ.   I met a man who once had both a girlfriend and a boyfriend, but gave up The Lifestyle – as they call it – to become a pastor.  I thought it was kind of sad they had to give up so much, but they sure seemed happy now. And though I was shy at first, I soon made friends.  After the retreat, I eventually became active in the ministry but with, I thought, the understanding that I would not change my religion or my sexuality.

My parents were appalled that I was in involved in another church.  Ironically, it was for them that I was taking concrete steps toward living a “good, clean life”.  And they were proud that I would be sharing my experience with others after just one year.  They even sent me photo scans from my childhood abroad. I told them I was still a Catholic, and if only the Catholic Church had a program for gays and bisexuals, I would join.  The main thing was my parents were proud of me again, and if I had to keep quiet about my extracurricular activities around our relatives and people back home, then so be it.

So that was my testimony: a Catholic boy in a Born Again community that told us that our sexuality was not pleasing to the Lord but that “He loves us too much to leave us the way we are.”

THE LAST STRAW

The next irony was what brought me to the very thing I had been looking for:  an affirming LGBT ministry in the Catholic Church.  I met Father Richard Mickley Thanksgiving of 2011 at the Long Yang Club, a discrete gay men’s social club. I was immediately impressed. We discussed everything from his roots in Europe – our families hail from the same region – to Queer Theology. We agreed to meet again but it was a long time before we could get together.

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Meanwhile, I was becoming disenchanted with Living Free Ministry. Many people who were my friends had left after a change in leadership. The meetings which had once been almost festive began to lose their warmth. We were being given materials that were being used in other “ex gay” (I hate that word!) in the Philippines like Bagong Pag-asa. This group was affiliated with Exodus International, a US-based organization that practiced “reparative therapy”.   Ironically, Exodus would go on to apologize to the entire LGBT world after their methods were discredited and subsequently banned in several states. I soon learned why.

Our group became obsessed with sexual sin. Never mind sex; masturbation, gay lingo, looking at pictures of attractive guys, or even maintaining friendships with people from our “past life” were suspect.   Our leader would actually spend beginning half of the session in silence waiting for us to confess, in front of everyone, our sins of the flesh. Then he’d spend the other half telling us we all deserved hell.

What would have been the last straw was when someone came out to me as being HIV positive and wanted counseling from LFM. He worked the night shift in a call center. I asked our leader if we could counsel him outside our schedule since he couldn’t attend the regular meetings, but the leader just said that if this person was serious about getting help, he would “make a way”. Was this what living free was all about?

I shouldn’t have been shocked when the mega church announced LFM might be phased out.   It was, after all, the height of a fundraising drive for a multi-billion peso new church building.   LFM could be absorbed by a more intensive addiction recovery program where “life coaches” would help us to deal with our “bondage” to sexual sin. Many of those who had stayed in LFM now got out while they could.

Amazingly, I was the only one who reacted. Disenchanted or not, I still believed we could help LGBTs. I flew to Father Mickley who I had kept in touch with all this time. He had heard the same old story for the past 20 odd years. In America, New Zealand, and now the Philippines, so many young men who had done the “Pray the Gay Away” thing and had to be “put back together” after being messed up, propositioned for sex, or hit up for money by the group leaders. I should consider myself lucky. I wanted to quit at that point.   But Father asked, why not stay in and report on the kind of things they were doing? Maybe we could even learn something! The idea of being a secret agent for His Holy Church appealed to me, and I went back in the belly of the beast.

THIS WAY OUT

At last sensing the deteriorating situation, the mega church decided to change tactics, and let a couple of us teach in LFM and try to draw in new members. As I mentioned, the material they gave us left something to be desired, so I did my own research, and prepared what would be my last PowerPoint. In it I showed that homosexuality is not a sickness or an addiction that can be cured. I showed that Jesus never condemned homosexuality, that many great people where homosexual, and that sexuality and faith can be compatible. I sent it to our leader a week in advance for approval, and incredibly he gave me the green light. In fact he was absent two out of the three weeks I taught. But the audience reacted well, and more and more newbies were asking for copies of my PowerPoint.

But all good things must come to an end. And after a spirited debate with a certain elderly queen, the pastor got word of what was going on and brought our teaching to a halt. He called an emergency meeting which was in fact my exit interview. Remarkably they weren’t so much mad at me as the local leader who had left me to my own devices.   They let me off with a lecture from a (presumably) straight guy from the singles ministry. They even congratulated me on my integrity. They said I was still welcome to attend the mega church and be friends, but I would have to take a break from teaching. I haven’t been back since. The last I heard the group was dissolved.

ALL GOOD THINGS

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I’m now serving with The Well Philippines, an affirming Catholic ministry that reaches out to all LGBTs whatever their religion. We don’t demand seekers keep set schedule but we will work with them to make a personal wellness plan. Like our patron Saint Aelred, we go out of the way to reach all who need a friend. We don’t try to change anyone’s sexuality, but we do help them to deal with the very real problems of heterosexism, internalized homophobia, and unhealthy sexual behavior.

Like me, several of my friends are “refugees” from the mega church, and I pray they can at last be living free.

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