Ivan Massow: My gay escape from US Christians trying to 'cure' my homosexuality

He is out and proud — but what happened when a US Christian retreat promised to convert financier Ivan Massow from homosexuality? Read his unmissable diary to see if it worked

London Evening Standard/July 6, 2012

I'd be fibbing if I said it hadn't crossed my mind. I doubt there's a gay person alive who hasn't wondered what it would be like to wake up straight. Would I suddenly stride out the house in mismatched colours? Would I start jeering at football and leering at nannies on the school run?

Is "gay conversion" even possible? Christian fundamentalists think so. They recently tried running a poster campaign on London buses suggesting homosexuality could be cured through therapy. When Boris Johnson pulled it, the Christian groups bleated on for days about the curtailment of free speech. It was one of these rants, on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, that got me thinking. Could I, an openly gay man of 44, be "cured" by a course of intensive therapy? There was only one way to find out.

The biggest course of all is the Exodus International Freedom Conference in America. Founded in 1976, Exodus is a global organisation with a mission "to mobilise the Body of Christ to minister grace and truth to a world impacted by homosexuality".

Its annual residential conference in Minnesota attracts up to 1,200 delegates. Speakers include stars of the Christian fundamentalist circuit who provide "powerful days of practical teaching, inspiring testimonies, dynamic worship and tender times of fellowship and ministry". At the cost of nearly $1,000 per head.

Reading the literature, it all sounds a bit like Superman's phone box. Could I really go in gay and come out straight? I'd better pack a cape just in case.


As I prepare to leave, I get a welcome email from Exodus directing me to further online reading. One article asks the question: "Why Would Anyone Want to Change?" The writer describes how he "struggled very much as the world kept telling me that I was gay when all along I didn't believe I was". Until he saw the light.

He cites various examples of famous people who "found out freedom was possible" and promptly switched sides. Actress Anne Heche … film director Stephen Daldry … comedienne Jackie Clune.

Jackie Clune? Hang on, I know her. We nearly had a baby together in our twenties, though she went on to settle down with a straight man and have four children with him.

I know Stephen Daldry too, though I didn't nearly have a baby with him. But I've heard the account of him settling down to heterosexual married life.

I call Jackie with the news. Maybe she's a conference speaker?

"I'm appalled to have been hijacked by the Christian Right as some kind of gay slayer," she says. "Is there a special training camp to turn boring straights gay?"

I guess that's a No then.


I fly into Minneapolis airport a day early and find a hotel in St Paul, on the other side of the Mississippi river. Minnesota is one of the more religious US states, so it's no surprise that there's only one gay bar in St Paul. Still, it seems like a fitting place to spend my last night of homosexuality.

As I arrive, someone's singing Over the Rainbow from a stage in a corner of the bar. The crowd are mainly heavy cropped lesbians and ruddy camp old queens. It could have been anywhere.

An older African-American guy called Vince joins me at the bar. We start chatting and he tells me about his former life. He was raised in a religious home and when he'd tried to come out to his mother, she told him to pray and "God would sort it out".

He was pushed towards the Church where he was assured he could overcome his urges through the power of prayer. He met his future wife at a church singles' evening and they had five children together.

"I knew I was gay throughout," Vince tells me. "I found men attractive constantly but I would just pray and hope it would go away."

It wouldn't. Eventually he confessed all to his wife and they divorced. But he sighs and wishes he could have done it differently. "Without lying and ruining a woman's life." This once devout Christian has even lost his faith.


After a morning run along the banks of the Mississippi, it's finally time to check in for the conference.

The sprawling Northwestern College is a location straight from an American TV show — with perfectly cut lawns, beautiful lakes and leafy trees. There are also dozens of nervous-looking young people pulling suitcases to their rooms.

Registration takes place in the main building. Smiley staff in official Exodus T-shirts guide us towards the check-in desks. Everyone around me is obviously gay but the atmosphere is muted, sober. It feels like a Gay Pride registration, without the pride.

My room is a student dormitory. I'll be sharing it with three others. One is a twentysomething Asian guy called Jimmy, who grew up on the streets of Kathmandu before being adopted by Protestant parents. His handshake is so limp that I wonder if Exodus is charging him double.

We're joined by another room-mate, Bill, an older ex-Marines type with a crew cut and the skin of a man who's spent a lot of time outside.

Bill's not just a Marine veteran — he's been to the Freedom Conference before. He tells us he's one of three generations of men struggling with the same problem. He, his father and his son have all committed "immoral acts" with men. For Bill, it cost him his 27-year marriage.

Of course, like many others here he doesn't want to be gay — it's at odds with his religion. To him, the word of the Bible is absolute. The moment he acts on his sexuality he feels he's broken God's sacred law.

"This is the one place I can find peace and surrender to who I am," he says. "With other guys like you."

We go for an early dinner in the Billy Graham Dining Hall — named after the TV evangelist, a former college president. It's 4.30pm.

Looking around the hall though, I'm surprised. Yes, there are a few fogeys like Bill and me but we're surrounded by beautiful young people in their late teens and early twenties. Furtive glances are exchanged, eyes dart everywhere but usually end at the floor. It feels sad and strange.

We go to the conference hall — Bill's saved us seats at the front. The evening kicks off with singing and prayers with a fantastic live band. Despite my jetlag, I find it amazingly uplifting and start clapping along.

And then the serious stuff begins. Alan Chambers gets on to the podium. The president of Exodus International for a decade, Alan's a well-versed orator. He "abandoned" his gay life in 1991, though it looks like his brain forgot to pass the message on to his body.

He introduces a speaker and the atmosphere changes. It's now more like an AA meeting than a religious extravaganza.

The speaker shares his story, describing his unloving father who created in him a loathing for "masculine values" which resulted in him becoming gay. Not sure I follow the logic but everyone else seems gripped. It wasn't until our man discovered God that he found "freedom". He still suffers same sex attraction (abbreviated, like a disease, to "SSA") but "through Christ our Lord, I have been freed of the need to act on it".

The delegates applaud warmly but the man seems to me like a barely recovering alcoholic. He says he manages to "fight the urges which scream like sirens every minute of every day, 24 hours a day for my entire life".

This doesn't sound like freedom — more like being trapped in a living hell.

The band breaks into song again. It's a welcome respite, with everyone rocking and swaying in the aisles.

Alan's back up on stage again — to drop a bombshell. "There IS no cure," he says firmly. This brings an uncomfortable silence to the hall. That's not what it says in the brochure.

Instead Alan tells us it's all about conditioning not to act as homosexuals. Through this ministry he married a woman and had children. He now sees "20 years of struggle as a gift from God — and I wouldn't have changed a single day of it".

Conditioning, he says, is the secret. Stick with us and we'll help you be something you're not. My mum has a better term for it: brainwashing.


On an early morning jog I notice a slightly creepy phenomenon. Older often pot-bellied men in khaki shorts carrying small brown cases — large enough for a Bible and notepaper — are escorting young, handsome men around the campus.

They're preaching Utopianism and abstinence to impressionable souls before they've had a chance to explore the world themselves. It feels as if they are preying (and praying) on the young.

Back at the dorm, I meet our new room-mate. Rob, a 25-year-old teacher from Delaware, arrived late last night. Like many delegates here, Rob looks so normal. You'd never know he was gay, let alone a Christian. Our first ession today is led by Christopher Yuan, a former drug dealer and homosexual — though it's clear which achievement he's least proud of.

"Being single is a gift," he assures us. "The opposite of homosexuality isn't heterosexuality. It's holiness."

This is the beginning of a theme that will be developed in every workshop: being single isn't that bad. One speaker even calls it "godly" — to rapturous applause. I soon realise today's lessons are designed to prepare us for a life of loneliness — except for once a year when we can all come here and feel a sense of solidarity. I look round the room at the nodding heads and want to burst into tears.

Next up is Ricky Chelette, a pastor whose job it is to convince us nurture, not nature, is to blame for our sexuality. He points to pseudo-scientific graphs showing 3.5 per cent of men are born "sensitive".

The remaining 96.5 per cent apparently fall into a category known as "rough and tumble". As the sensitive children can't form proper relationships with the rough and tumbles in childhood, they look for it in adulthood — and therefore turn gay during puberty.

Later we're told gay people communicate with each other with their eyes. Apparently this is "the devil's work".

But it's not our fault — and there is a way out. Mary DeMuth, a parenting counsellor and author, has a familiar solution: "Parents say, 'I wish my child came with a manual '." She pauses and lifts a Bible above her head. "They do!"


This morning we're due to hear God's word on homosexuality. I think He's a no show but Jonathan Berry, director of the UK's True Freedom Trust, is stepping in.

Jonathan describes slipping many times during the 20 years since he renounced his homosexuality for "a very fulfilled and grace-filled life as a single man".

He launches into a lengthy rant on Creationism. I turn to Bill sceptically.

"It's a well-known fact that the science of carbon dating is flawed," says Bill. "The planet's only 6,000 years old."

"But what about dinosaurs?"

"Must have been killed off by the Great Flood."

Jonathan continues ranting, cherry-picking references from the Bible to support his thesis. He's especially fond of Genesis's term for a woman: "Man's Helper". And he wonders why he's single?

It's time for a sex education workshop entitled "How to De-Eroticise Love Feelings". The answer, says the speaker, is simple: "I imagine the Holy Spirit's shield wrapped around the object of my desire so I that can't penetrate it. Then I cry out to God three times."

Here endeth the sex education lesson.

At evening worship, I now know all the songs. The services are exhilarating and really starting to have an effect on me.

We're asked to draw a picture of how we see ourselves, marking where the "pain" is with a colourful sticker and pinning the picture to the auditorium wall. Nearly all the images are unhappy faces. One has a clown's smile. Another is dangling from a noose.

Walking back to the dormitory alone, I feel overwhelmed by the stories I've heard from my fellow delegates. I understand why so many return every year. For all the homophobic ranting and bonkers propaganda, at least they are told they are not to blame for their sexual urges. I just hope they'll somehow find the strength to live fulfilled lives with a partner. A gay one.


We're reaching the end of the course and I get the sense masks are dropping a little. Late last night I went on Grindr, the gay hook-up site, and three other people popped up in this very location. It would have been impossible for them to hook up because of the midnight curfew where all the doors were locked.

At a workshop I sit next to Tom, a blond 22-year-old South African. He's already spent a year at a residential facility to "reverse" his sexuality, funded by his anxious parents.

For the first time I feel someone's flirting with me but then Tom's quickly back on message. "I believe everything in the Bible," he tells me through his clear blue eyes. "Homosexuality's a sin."

However, sitting with my new friends on the lawn outside, I ask them to be truthful. "Can you really see yourselves remaining celibate for ever?" To my relief, everyone says no.

If nothing else, this conference has served as a gateway to self-acceptance — beyond which they will make their own decisions.

Back in the auditorium the familiar rhetoric continues. Gay behaviour is portrayed as tawdry, transient and unloving. Drug abuse is apparently endemic. "Not all gays are paedophiles," says one speaker, before reinforcing the usual stereotypes.

Again, emphasis is placed on the importance of solitude. We're reminded that "the most important man to have ever walked the planet did so alone".

As we leave tonight's sermon, the minister practically shouts: "You must enter a season of dryness because of your sin and you must repent. Prepare for a lonely time, for a dark time."

Sleep well to you, too.


I wake up feeling oddly liberated and spiritual. Am I cured? Of course not. I feel gayer than ever! This is probably one of the campest weeks I've ever experienced.

But despite all I've heard and seen, I don't feel let down or angry. Exodus is run by people who genuinely believe they're helping fragile souls survive in a tough world. Every lecture has instilled homophobic paranoia and guilt. Not one speaker has come from the "dark side" to introduce any element of balance.

And yet my fellow delegates feel lucky. As we say our goodbyes, some tell me they feel good about their sexuality for the first time in their lives, even if they have been warned they mustn't pursue it. Many in their communities commit suicide rather than accept who they are. Others leave their faith entirely.

I leave feeling there must be a middle ground — a way of channelling the sense of euphoria and community that Exodus creates to a better purpose. The Bible is filled with wisdom and guidance on pursuing an enriching, responsible life. But nothing I've seen will convince me prayer can pervert human nature in search of an ideal.

After all, wasn't it God himself who said "It is not good that Man should be alone"?

*Some names have been changed to protect identities

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