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  • By Shelbi R. Ankiewicz

SAGE held discussion panel for LGBTQ community to share their experiences with religion

Students Advocating Gender Equality (SAGE), one of CCU’s organizations, held a discussion panel on Oct. 16 in the Student Union. Students and community members on the panel shared their experiences with religion as being part of, or working with, the LGBTQ community. This panel focused on the experiences these individuals have had with regards to religion and conversion therapy.

SAGE president, Meredith Persin, said that the organization focuses on individuals' gender inequalities as well as social justice topics in the LGBTQ community.

“We need to work together as a community to raise awareness of the horrid things that happen in religious communities, like conversion therapy, in order to make a change and put an end to it. We will never be able to change something if we stay silent, no matter how hard it might be to speak up,” said Persin. 

Persin started the event with a video which explained conversion therapy and its history in the United States. Conversion therapy is a type of treatment which attempts to change someone’s gender identification or sexual orientation. This therapy can be employed by enforcing one’s religious beliefs onto another, emotionally manipulating the individual, or even resorting to violence. Those who resort to violence, to “convert” the LGBTQ member, have the intention of creating, for the LGBTQ member, an association with pain and their gender identity, as well as shaming them into compliance. The inducing nausea and hypnotization are also used for conversion therapy. In the U.S., 40 states are in the process of making conversion therapy illegal. South Carolina is one of 31 states where this process is still legal.

The panel was comprised of five individuals who shared their stories. The first to speak was Mars Castro, a CCU sophomore.

Castro was raised in a religious family. For two summers, his parents forced him to attend Bible camp on Miracle Mountain in Pennsylvania.  During his weeks there, he experienced discrimination and isolation from the other campers because he did not wish to engage in religious activities. His roommates were all female (as Castro’s sex is female and gender is male) and would pray for their friends that were gay in hopes that God would heal them. Castro remained in the closet during those times, forcing him to lose confidence and his religious faith.

From childhood, Xan Lutsky was active within their church through the choir, daycare, and technical board work. At 17 years old, they realized they were attracted to a female. After confiding in the choir’s director, who they considered to be a confidant, the director admonished them, suggesting they consult the head pastor for guidance. The pastor said Lutsky either had to announce their “sinful” sexuality to the congregation in order to be prayed over and healed or leave the church. Lutsky left.

Their parents, particularly their mother, avidly disagreed with Lutsky’s sexuality. At both the ages of 11 and 14, Lutsky attempted suicide. After the second attempt which ended in Lutsky being hospitalized, their parents came to visit. Lutsky’s mother said she wished they would have succeeded in killing themselves, for then she would know Lutsky’s was “in hell.” Lutsky’s mother became abusive and grounded Lutsky for their entire senior year of high school.

Andi Sullivan spoke next. Growing up Roman Catholic, they enjoyed attending church services every week. They consider themselves to have been the ideal altar boy and usher. Sullivan attended countless youth events and one summer was invited to attend a summer-long retreat.

At the retreat, campers were required to attend mass three times a day. If they were to miss a session, they would not be fed. The mission of the camp program was to illicit confessions of sin and remorse from members of the LGBTQ community. During their stay at camp, Sullivan was forced into a shower where a priest took a wire grill scrub brush, washing their back and repeating “this will wash the gay away.” This experience ruined Sullivan’s trust in authorities and led them to be diagnosed with PTSD and anxiety their freshman year of high school.

Garry Hanna spoke after Sullivan. Hanna did not make his homosexuality known to others until he was 35 years old. Hanna remained “in the closet” until he attended his first gay bar in which he met and fell in love with a man with whom he was in a relationship with for many years.

When Hanna wished to introduce his partner to his family, Hanna was faced with overcoming the stigma propagated by his mother. Hanna’s sister, however, validated his feelings, saying she knew he was gay from a young age. The sister volunteered to tell the family about Hanna being homosexual, so as to alleviate the burden off her brother. The parents still accepted Hanna as part of the family, but his mother was upset since she believed she would not see him in heaven.

Hanna had been active in numerous community, church, and school choirs, even as he had moved from South Carolina to California. Luckily, despite the discord between homosexuality and the church, he was accepted to be the director of the Sheperd of the Sea’s choir.

Brad Bellah, preacher of Sheperd of the Sea, was the man who hired Hanna to direct the church’s choir. Bellah believes all people should be loved and accepted by God, so the church should do the same. When Bellah attended a seminar from which he became an attendant to much larger congregations, Bellah noticed a strong discord which was fueled by the church members’ intolerance of the LGBTQ community. Ironically, he was invited to dinner by two men who he discovered were partners. To no surprise of Bellah, the men were of the nicest people he had met.

Bellah is strongly motivated by his mission of inclusivity. He has declared to his church that they will be accepting of all people “because love wins.”

The individuals on this panel are inspirationally strong-willed to have triumphed over their, for most, grievous histories. SAGE continues to promote the sharing of personal stories as the connections made work to actively break down barriers for individuals who are looking to help promote equality, regardless of sexual orientation and gender.

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