“For me, femininity had become the other ‘F’ word,” says Christine Sneeringer.
For Tamela Vaughn, an affair with a college sorority sister sent her into the “darkest period of my life.”
Millions of people in this country are gay, lesbian, or bisexual. Most of them, despite prejudice from society, disapproval from churches, and unequal treatment under law, accept and embrace who they are. But a relative few, who tend to hold conservative religious beliefs, attempt to change their sexual orientation, to go from gay to heterosexual. Sneeringer and Vaughn both embarked on that difficult, some say potentially dangerous journey. Now, both women say they have found joy and peace in their relationships with God and with themselves. But though these women took a similar journey, they found their fulfillment in very different places.
Christine remembers seeing her father beat her mother with a tennis racquet. The Tampa, Fla., native admits that while she was growing up, her family was “dysfunctional,” to say the least. Her dad, she says, had addictions to alcohol and pornography, and physically and verbally assaulted her mom. Her older brother would “beat me up.”
When she was 12, her parents divorced and she went to live with her grandmother in Alabama for nine weeks, followed by nearly five months with an aunt and uncle and their family in Arkansas. “I ended up going to three schools in three states in seventh grade; it was a very hard year,” she recalls. The pre-teen Christine dealt with even more that year: One of the cousins with whom she was living, a boy she estimates was 17 or 18, sexually molested her. The mix of tragedy and dysfunction, she says, pushed her away from men.
“I became more distrusting and cynical about them,” she says. “By that point in my life, women were treated one of two ways: as the object of a man’s lust or as the victim of his abuse. I never saw a woman treated very nicely by a man. I made the very wrong conclusion that femininity equals weakness. From that point on, I gravitated toward the masculine.”
Meaning, she insisted on being called Chris — not Christine. (And she often got, “Sir,” “Son,” or “Young Man.”) She wore “boyish” clothing, rode bikes and hung out with guys, and often shone as the first draft pick in neighborhood sandlot football games. Chris was one of the boys, and was seen as one tough customer. But inside, she admits, “I was really quite fragile.”
Tamela, on the other hand, grew up in a Southern California home she describes as “normal, I guess.” She got along well with her parents, went to church on Sundays, and enjoyed generally happy times. The only truly difficult experience she can point to was having been born with a cleft palate that required surgery when she was 2 and speech therapy throughout her childhood years. “As a result, I was picked on a lot [by other kids], but outside of that, there were no traumas in my life.”
By the time she enrolled at Pepperdine University, a conservative Church of Christ institution in Malibu, Calif., Tamela had already discarded her Roman Catholic roots. A trip abroad sealed the deal.
“I ended up studying in Italy for a summer, and while I was there, I learned about Catholicism and the Reformation and followed the footsteps of [the apostle] Paul into Rome. It made [religion] very real for me. That’s when I truly became a Christian,” she recalls.
While visiting Florence, she was baptized into the Church of Christ. “That first year of me practicing my faith was phenomenal. I was a very shy kid, and I ended up becoming a resident assistant in my dorm. I was very involved in the church; everything I did had to do with God. He was very alive for me.”
During her junior year, Tamela’s life changed again. “I was in a sorority, and one of my ‘sisters,’ I’ll call her ‘Jane,’ became my very best friend. Over the course of six or seven months, we spent every second together,” she says. “Right before our senior year started, our friendship became romantic and our physical relationship started.
“At that point, I realized, ‘Oh my god, this isn’t normal.’ Because of my faith, I knew I was going to go to Hell. If there was ever a time when I felt suicidal, this was it.”
Attending a college that teaches that homosexuality is a sin, Vaughn felt she couldn’t share her struggle with anyone, so she suffered silently. “I felt like I was a huge failure to God. I wondered how he could ever love me.”
When Chris Sneeringer was 15, she felt broken and alone. That neediness, she says, led her into a deeply emotional friendship with a girl she met at school. Before long, they fell in love. “I wanted to marry her and spend the rest of my life with her,” she remembers.
She didn’t get that wish. After her mother discovered the relationship, Sneeringer put an end to it. She moved on to sleeping with boys casually to determine whether she really was gay. “It reinforced my homosexuality,” she says, “because I felt used and degraded by these guys.”
During her college years, she became close friends with an unhappily married woman, and the relationship developed into an affair. This served to make her feel even worse about herself: “I was a lesbian and a homewrecker.”
Around the same time, Sneeringer joined a women’s softball team. The team was sponsored by Idlewild Baptist Church, one of the largest Baptist congregations in Tampa, but that didn’t matter — it was a chance for her to play ball. Over time, she looked at her teammates and the way they lived. She looked at her college friends’ lives and noticed that “all they wanted to do was party and get drunk.” In comparison, she perceived her teammates as having more depth, as being people who were loyal to the end, even to a woman they considered a sinner.
“I was seeing a group of people who had a love for each other and a love for me that was profound, that I couldn’t explain and I couldn’t understand. But it was real, and a powerful thing for me,” she says. “I was drawn to God by their example.”
Curious, she started attending Idlewild Baptist’s Sunday services, Wednesday services, and bible-study sessions. She officially became a Christian in November, 1989 — even though she still had a female lover. Leaving homosexuality behind took about two years, but she says the journey started the day she accepted Jesus as her Lord and Savior: “My relationship with God was the impetus for my change.”
Why are some women lesbians? “I think that, partly, it’s because of how sexual identity is achieved,” explains Jeff Johnston, executive director of Baltimore-based Regeneration Ministries, a nonprofit Christian organization that offers counseling and support groups for men and women who seek to change their sexual orientation. “Men start out life attached to mother, and they have to make the leap over to men and say, ‘I want to be like a man.’ A woman starts life attached to mother and then has to embrace her femininity and her sexual identity. It’s a little easier because they don’t have to make the same leap. … But when [a woman’s bond with her mother] has been damaged, that can make it even harder to heal.”
And what can they do if their orientation contradicts their religious beliefs? “The basic Christian doctrines of confession, repentance and forgiveness need to be pursued by all Christians no matter what their struggles and no matter what their gender,” says Yvette Schneider, who, with her husband, Paul, runs Living in Victory, an ex-gay ministry program offered through Grace Covenant Church in Herndon, Va. “The Bible calls us to take up our crosses daily and to crucify fleshly desires. Jesus Christ also tells us to ‘seek first the Kingdom of God,’ [by] studying the Bible, praying, pursuing holiness, and serving others.”
Schneider’s ministry, she says, offers counseling to people who want to seek change, whether they’re looking for help in remaining celibate or hope to lose their same-sex attractions and become heterosexual. “With women, we tend to deal with root issues that have led to emotionally dependent relationships with other women,” she explains. “With men, we deal more with their sexual struggles.”
“There’s nothing in the Bible that says gays and lesbians can or should change their sexual orientation,” insists Dr. Rembert S. Truluck, a former Southern Baptist pastor who, after being outed as a gay man in 1981, joined the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Church, a worldwide Christian denomination that ministers to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people and their supporters. Truluck is opposed to ministries like Schneider’s; his Web site, “Steps to Recovery from Bible Abuse,” exists to refute the literal intepretations of Scriptural passages often used by churches and ex-gay ministries to cast homosexuality into a negative light.
“The ex-gay industry is based on faulty psychology and misrepresented biblical passages that are taken out of context and translated incorrectly to bash homosexuals,” he says. “The Bible nowhere condemns or even mentions same-sex romantic love. The Greek word for romantic love is ‘eros,’ which is not used once in the New Testament. There is no biblical Hebrew word for romantic love.”
Exodus International, a global network of ex-gay ministries, doesn’t keep statistics of how many people have experienced change, however someone defines it, since its founding in 1976. (Some of its ministries estimate a 30 percent success rate.) However, it does promote “freedom from homosexuality through the power of Jesus Christ” in more than 100 ministries in 17 countries. (Both Regeneration and Living in Victory are Exodus-affiliated groups.) But there’s no doubt that some people believe they’ve changed. There are people like ex-lesbian and Exodus board member Anne Paulk and Michael Johnston, a self-proclaimed formerly gay, HIV-postive man who headed Virginia-based Kerusso Ministries and spoke on the subject of change across the nation; both were featured in the 1998 “Truth in Love” newspaper ad campaign, which sought to show people a way out of homosexuality. [Earlier this year, Johnston stepped down from his ministry after admitting having unprotected sex with a number of men in Virginia — allegedly without disclosing his seropositive status . He is now undergoing treatment and counseling in a conservative Christian program.]
Chris Sneeringer believed that she was changing.
“I came to a point, after my conversion to Christianity, when I realized there [I had] some pretty skewed thinking. I had the wrong belief system formed.” She says she once believed that God had made a mistake when he made her female, but learned something different. “As a Christian, I realize that God is all powerful,” she asserts. “When you read Psalm 139, where it talks about, ‘He knit me together in my mother’s womb,’ … There can not be a mistake in light of the omniscience of God.”
Rather than continuing to resent being female, Chris decided to embrace its traditionalist trappings. She reclaimed the name Christine. Over time, she began to enjoy buying pretty clothes and wearing makeup. Not to play dress-up, she says, but rather, to fit in better with the gender roles she’d once rejected. That, and joining Straight Ahead, an Exodus-affiliated support group, gave her a means to get to know other women and to learn what it means, within the community she’d found, to be a woman.
Living in Victory’s Schneider — a former lesbian herself — says Sneeringer’s experience largely aligns with what she’s seen.
“When women desiring to leave lesbianism engage with groups of women who are sharing challenges in their lives and displaying their own vulnerabilities, the mystique of the ‘heterosexual woman’ that [holds] many women who struggle with lesbianism begins to crumble,” she notes. “Some factors involved in each individual case are related to how much a person wants to change, how long a person has been involved in homosexuality and the nature of their involvement, and possible traumatic events leading to homosexual involvement. For instance, a woman who was sexually abused by a man over a number of years may experience a harder time trusting men on a friendship level than a woman who does not have a history of sexual abuse.”
Tamela Vaughn, who says she was never sexually abused, had a much tougher time than Christine. After graduating from college, she moved to Colorado “to escape being gay.” Once there, she tried to date men and, after moving to Denver, joined an evangelical Presbyterian church. After a couple of years, though, cracks began to appear in her facade. “The last guy I dated wanted to marry me, and I realized I didn’t and couldn’t love him,” she says.
Entering church therapy, she convinced herself that she’d never really been gay, that her relationship with Jane had been a fluke, that homosexuality was a sin and a sickness. “I remember spending a lot of time on my knees praying, telling God that if he took it away from me, I’d be the most loyal servant he ever had.” She even became trained as a spiritual counselor. Still, she ended up in the arms of another woman, a friend attending a Pentecostal church. “I walked away from the relationship and worked harder to find out why I was broken so it could be fixed,” she says.
In the guise of helping a male friend in a similar situation, Tamela attended a week-long conference featuring Colin Cook (an ex-gay minister who founded the 12-step Homosexuals Anonymous; in 1986, 1993 and 1995, he was accused of having inappropriate sexual contact or conversation with men he counseled; he is no longer affiliated with Exodus) and attended weekly sessions at Where Grace Abounds, an Exodus-affiliated ex-gay ministry. “The six months I was there, I thought they offered good information,” she says, “but I realized no one was changing. The people came from week to week, and they were more and more distraught because they failed. I’m not saying change doesn’t happen, but I never saw it.”
“When you’ve heard over and over, the whole time you were in the ex-gay movement, that homosexuals are incapable of love, or are part of a ‘death style’ that consists only of lust or emotional dependency, as I did, you can suffer severe self-esteem problems that make you feel unworthy of love,” says Scott Meléndez, an ex-ex-gay man who co-founded a Washington, D.C.-area support group for people who’ve left ministries. “It’s hard sometimes for them to grasp that God loves them just the way he created them. When people spend years giving 150 percent of their efforts and energy to their number-one goal, becoming straight, and are told that they’re not working hard enough or that their faith isn’t strong enough, it can leave scars. Some people, told they can’t be gay and Christian, are driven away from God. Some fall into depression. Some even commit suicide.”
Tamela stuck with it, but her deep depression continued. Finally, in September, 1994, she was walking through a shopping mall. “My life started rushing in front of me. I felt all this emotion. And in a very Ellen sort of way, I said out loud, ‘I’m gay,'” she recalls. “At that point, I started crying and laughing at the same time. If anyone had seen me, I’m sure they would have thought I’d lost my mind.
“After I found Christ, I felt wonderful, like I was in a love affair, but after Jane, a part of me died. Over the years, I’d prayed, wondering why I couldn’t feel close to God again. I was in church five times a week, and I couldn’t get close to him. At the moment I said, ‘I’m gay,’ it all came back,” she says. “I knew at that moment that being who I was was perfectly OK. Jane was a gift, and I totally didn’t see it. It was another part of my identity that God was showing me clearly, and I couldn’t handle it. Suddenly, I felt peace and connection and love, and I felt better than I had ever felt since the time I became a Christian.”
Now, the two women — one heterosexual, one lesbian — live different, but interestingly similar lives.
In 1999, Christine, after working in sales, took a job as executive director of Worthy Creations Ministries, a nonprofit, independent, Exodus-affiliated Christian group in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. There, she leads support groups for people seeking change, does public speaking for the ministry, and handles fund-raising, administration, and bookkeeping. “What we try to provide is a nonthreatening environment, a safe place where people can share about something they, most of the time, don’t feel comfortable sharing about in their church. If the church was doing its job, I wouldn’t have a job.”
Off the clock, she dates men (“I’m looking for someone exceptional”) and enjoys movies, inline skating, listening to gospel music and scuba diving. She enjoys healthier relationships with her parents. And she’s an active citizen who speaks out on conservative causes that matter to her, such as speaking at a local hearing supporting the right of the Boy Scouts of America to bar gay men from leadership positions. Most of her free time, however, goes to fixing up her newly purchased condominium.
Now, embracing what she calls “womanly strength” and her devotion to God, Sneeringer says she’s happy. “I’m more secure and I know what I believe,” she says. “There are a lot of people who are gay who don’t want to be. I think most of the time they don’t know there’s a way out. The prevailing thought in our culture right now is that people are born homosexual and they cannot change. I believe that to be absolutely false, based on my own experience and many others’, and for many reasons.”
At the same time, she says, “I wish people would stop [believing] that homosexuality is the worst sin of all. We’re all people. I have one friend who says, ‘We are all ‘Sinners Anonymous.’ We’re all overcoming something.”
Meanwhile, a happily lesbian Tamela, who works for an international business-communications firm as a call-center manager, has taken charge of her life. She remained with her conservative church at first, but when she began a serious relationship with a woman in 1995 (which has since ended), she was told she could no longer serve as a counselor. Though she says she was treated kindly, “I never went back. Truth is, when everything you have is immersed in the church, and you don’t fit their mold, you lose everything.”
She stayed away from organized religion for a while. “I knew God loved me and I was his kid, but the old tapes were still running through my head.” In 1996, a friend took her to a retreat for a pro-gay Christian group called Evangelicals Reconciled. Tamela was shocked: “I thought I was the only gay Christian out there.” She was so overwhelmed that it took another year for her to return, and when she did, she became very involved. Since then, she’s served in ER leadership and was elected to the national board for its parent group, Evangelicals Concerned Western Region.
“I still don’t have a home church. Churches have too much control over people’s lives,” she says. Instead, she reads the Bible regularly and attends a variety of churches, so she doesn’t get spiritually abused by anti-gay rhetoric. “So many times, I’ll be sitting in a church’s pews and someone will stand up and say all kinds of things about homosexuality, and I’ll wonder, ‘What Bible are you reading?’ Jesus never said anything against loving gay relationships.”
Tamela’s also trying to make a positive difference in the world. “When I was ex-gay, I voted for all the anti-gay initiatives. That’s what I thought I was supposed to do; in the [traditional conservative Christian] church, there is no room to have an open mind,” she says. “Now, I believe in and work for equality.”
She says she identifies with people who believe they’ve changed. “Any time someone can really connect with God, no matter the reason, I sense that they’ll be OK. Sure, I get riled when they go off on an ‘I’ve changed, and so should you’ tangent, but I totally understand what they’re doing. I was there for seven years.
“I’m very curious to see where they end up five, 10 or 20 years from now,” she adds. “I wouldn’t want to say that change is impossible, but from everything I’ve seen, and from knowing how deeply I [had been] convinced, it’s really rare. When you’re really in tune with yourself, there’s a certain peace you feel. I never felt that as an ex-gay. But I do now.”
from mademoiselle magazine, nov. 2001