By Rebecca Drew
THIS FORMER Baptist pastor spent decades hating himself for being gay and hid his sexuality from his family and congregation in the hope that he could ‘pray the gay away’ and underwent conversion therapy in a last-ditch attempt to be ‘godly’ before accepting himself for who he is and marrying his husband.
LGBTQ writer, speaker and gatherer, Joel Barrett (52) who lives in Kansas City, Missouri, USA, grew up in a very religious Baptist home where his religion was based on strict lists of what he could and couldn’t do and being gay was strictly prohibited. Drinking, dancing, rock music, cinema trips, watching TV and swimming were all banned and as he went into his late teens, Joel wasn’t allowed to date girls, wear shorts and was home-schooled, meaning he was increasingly isolated from wider society.
Joel always knew he was gay but considered this a spiritual problem that could be resolved through God, reading the bible, memorising scriptures and praying hard for his homosexuality to be taken away. In church, Joel was taught that God hated homosexuals and shockingly that they were also paedophiles.
He kept his secret to himself out of fear and dedicated his entire life to please God, working as a Baptist pastor for 12-years with his wife of 13-years by his side. They had three children together who are now adults.
As the years passed by, Joel’s secret became harder to keep and he found it difficult to ignore his attraction to men. He explored chatrooms to arrange secret hook-ups with men. After one hook up in 2002, Joel decided to explore conversion therapy but later realised he could no longer hide who he was.
“I spent nearly a decade as an assistant pastor on staff at a large, conservative church in Illinois. Despite the constant conflict inside me, I enjoyed investing in the lives of people. I was a good minister,” said Joel.
“I cared deeply about the people I ministered to. My wife and I had three children. Church was our work, our social life, and our family. Our world revolved around church. In 1999, I moved my family to Northern Indiana to plant a church. It was extremely hard work. For three years my wife and I poured our hearts and souls into the process of creating something completely new. My wife and I did everything together. From all outward appearances we were the ideal ministry team.
“Growing up I always knew I was gay, but I didn’t use that term, in fact I’m not sure I even knew the term until much later in life.
“I can’t count the number of times I cried out to God and literally wept, begging him to forgive me and to take this away. I promised over and over again to not masturbate and not think about men in sexual ways. I would surrender to God everything I possibly could in life.
“I often went to the altar at the end of a church service and prayed to God all of these things. I knelt beside my bed at night and prayed. I always meant it 110% too. I studied my Bible and looked up every passage I could find that preachers had said spoke to the subject of homosexuality. I strove to hate myself. I loathed myself and my sin, hoping that if I could hate myself and my sin enough that it would somehow remove my desires.
“It did not. I continued to only be attracted to men. Never once was I ever sexually attracted to a woman. I remember masturbating as a young man and one day realising, ‘I bet this is what it feels like to have sex with a girl,’ I immediately felt disgusted by this thought and felt guilty for even pondering it. I also lost all sex drive in those moments.
“One thing I did realise was that no one must ever know what was going on inside of me. The only time I heard anything regarding homosexuality was from the pulpit and we were referred to as Sodomites and perverts. I heard that we were doomed to hell.
“I heard that that homosexuality was the unpardonable sin. I heard that God had given homosexuals over to a reprobate mind and blinded them from being able to come to him. I heard that AIDs was God’s judgement on homosexuality and that he would kill us all. I heard that we should be stoned to death. I heard that homosexuals were also paedophiles and that the two were inseparable.”
After hooking up with a man who turned out to be a Methodist pastor, both made a pact to get help and ‘cleanse’ themselves of homosexuality. Joel phoned Exodus International, the most prominent ex-gay therapy organisation in the world to try to understand why he was gay so he could fix it.
A few months into therapy, Joel came out to his wife who agreed to stick by him throughout his therapy, despite initially asking him if he had abused their children, out of fear of what had been taught about homosexuality being a sexual perversion in church.
“One day I arranged a sexual encounter with a guy I met online. As I climbed into the van and laid eyes on the man in the driver’s seat I was instantly struck with an overwhelming message inside my head that said, ‘he’s you.’ I can’t explain what it was about him or the situation, but somehow I knew that when I was looking at him I was looking at me. He was a mirror,” he said.
“There was an unspoken rule about hook-ups. You don’t share any personal information and you engage in as little small talk as possible. A hook-up was not about socialising, it was about sex. That’s it.
“After the sex we agreed to break the rules and get a little more personal. We shared our real names and then came the great reveal. There I was, a Baptist pastor sitting face to face with the man I had just had sex with, a Methodist pastor. It was a sobering reality. We both instantly realised that we needed help.
“My personal experience with both the counsellors from Exodus International is sometimes humorously referred to as ‘pray the gay away.’ Because It started with the premise that involved lots of talking about my childhood, religion, parents, relationships, sexual development, possible abuse, followed by lots of prayer.
“The counsellor that I spent the most time with would often lead me into prayers in his office that involved him asking God to speak to me and rebuking evil spirits that were keeping me from hearing what God was saying to me. It was extremely emotional, intense and frustrating. I gave it my all.
“I was desperately hoping that as a result I would learn why I was gay. I guess I thought that if I understood what had made me gay, I would be able to do something about it. As I explored every dark secret of my life it sent me into an emotional, dark place of depression and fear.
“I often wanted to die. I cried more tears during that season than I thought were humanly possible.
“Within the first few months, it became evident that I needed to inform my wife. I realised I was on the cusp of a very long journey and I couldn’t keep her in the dark about it. At my counsellor’s advice I came out to her in his office one day.
“I was so scared, all I could do was shake and barely speak. When I broke the news to her, she reacted as any woman would when she discovers her husband is not who she thought he was. She reacted in the manner of someone who was angry, confused, scared, and deeply hurt. I’ll never forget the first words out of her mouth; ‘You never touched any of our children, did you?’ I was horrified, but I understood why she asked it.
“She decided she would stay with me in our marriage as long as I was in ex-gay therapy and getting myself fixed. We both agreed that being gay was not acceptable, but we also both believed I could eventually become ex-gay through the therapy I was in.”
After three years of dedicating his life to ex-gay therapy, Joel didn’t feel like he was making progress as none of his counsellors could introduce him to a ‘success story’, so he renounced therapy and took the first step to embracing his true self.
In the following years, Joel focussed on rebuilding his life and career and being a single dad to his children, after his ex-wife moved away after co-parenting for a couple of years. By 2006, he was a manager at a coffee shop – where he met his now husband, David. For months the pair exchanged small talk whenever David visited and a few months later they went on their first date and soon fell in love.
They will have been together for 13-years in February and have been married for six.
“On that day in 2003 I turned and faced the winding road ahead of me, unsure of where it would lead, but confident that it had to be better than the one I had been on. As I stripped away the layers of denial and fear I found a beautiful man underneath that I had never allowed myself or anyone else to know,” said Joel.
“It was a crisp November day when David walked into the coffee shop to order a hot chocolate. He immediately caught my attention with his sense of style and smile. I complimented him on his scarf in order to start up a conversation. Neither of us were looking for a relationship.
“It wasn’t until February when we went out on a date for the first time. We haven’t stopped going out since. David was kind and patient. He came into my life during some very challenging times for me.
“I was a single dad raising my three adolescent children in a small, one-bedroom loft apartment. I was financially strapped and trying to rebuild the world that had been decimated by my coming out.
“We decided the kids didn’t need a second dad, instead he supported them emotionally as my partner. He saw the good in me and encouraged me in my endeavours to rebuild my world. He came to my kids’ games and performances at school.
“He was with me through all the challenges of single parenting. David and I support one another. He is my soulmate, my friend and my loving husband. I can’t imagine life without him.”
Joel’s children are so proud of his story, which has helped other people come to terms with their sexuality and realise that there is no shame to be felt by being their true self.
“My children are now all young adults. We have always maintained good communication even in the most difficult of times. They love David and view him as a parent or mentor. They share my story too and are very proud of who I am and what I continue to do,” added Joel.
“Today I use my colourful story to encourage others to be their authentic self and truly live a life not controlled by fear and shame. My story of surviving religious trauma, and ex-gay therapy resonates with many.
“Every week I receive communications from people who are closeted, or struggling with their religion, or facing challenging decisions in life, or recovering from conversion therapy themselves.”