Are your parents divorced? Do you watch pornography? Use drugs? Listen to rock music? Do yoga and meditation? Believe in horoscopes and tarot? These are some of the questions on a form I’m completing in a small Christian church in central San José, the capital of Costa Rica.
I’m here as an undercover reporter, posing as a young gay man who is struggling to accept his sexual orientation, for a cross-border investigation by openDemocracy in collaboration with Interferencia, a show on Costa Rican radio station Radioemisoras UCR. We are looking into how US Christian Right groups are promoting ‘conversion therapy’ in Central America – to try to change people’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
The term ‘conversion therapy’, according to a report submitted to the UN Human Rights Council last year, refers to “interventions of a wide-ranging nature, all of which are premised on the belief that a person’s sexual orientation and gender identity, including gender expression, can and should be changed or suppressed” in order to effect “a change from non-heterosexual to heterosexual and from trans or gender diverse to cisgender.”
In 2019, the World Health Organisation (WHO) removed gender identity issues from its global manual of mental and behavioural disorders. As far back as 2012, the Pan American Health Organization was condemning ‘conversion therapy’ as “ineffective” and potentially “harmful”. It has been condemned by Costa Rica’s official associations of psychologists and psychiatrists.
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I had found out about this church by searching online. The small Christian congregation claims to have “helped” many people leave “homosexuality” for a “normal lifestyle”.
When I rang the number on their Facebook page, a woman answered and identified herself as the pastor. After I explained that I was a young gay Christian struggling to accept my sexual orientation, she invited me to a session with her.
The church doesn’t charge for this “service”, she said. But she did ask if I could bring some change to pay for disposable tissues. “People cry a lot in these sessions,” she explained calmly.
‘Satan is coming’
A few days later, I arrive at the church and the pastor’s assistant hands me a folder. It contains two sheets of paper. One is a list of Bible verses in which homosexuality is described as a sin. The other is a form with questions about my personal life.
I sit down to fill out the questionnaire on one of the many folding metal chairs in the middle of a spacious, dark room. There’s a platform with flower arrangements. On it stands a pulpit surrounded by musical instruments. White and red curtains hang on the wall behind, and there’s also a Costa Rican flag. I am nervous and afraid that they can hear my heart beating in my chest.
The pastor says that she ‘treats’ homosexuality as a personality disorder or an addiction
After a while, the pastor arrives and greets me silently with a smile. It makes me feel uncomfortable, to say the least, but I try to stay composed.
She carefully reads through my answers, then asks blatantly if I was abused as a child. I say “no”. She is quick to respond: “One of the things I have found in some people who have these problems is masturbation. Masturbation and pornography.”
The pastor says that she “treats” homosexuality as a personality disorder or an addiction.
“It involves the same thing, the destruction of the self,” she says. She adds that most gay people “use drugs” and asks me to read out Romans 1:24–32, biblical verses condemning homosexuality. I comply. “They know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death,” one passage reads. My stomach churns.
She is quite clear about the implications of my “sin” – being attracted to other men – and explains that if I have had any “sexual relations with another man”, my body is “contaminated".
The pastor also claims that probably I was conceived after my parents “watched pornography” and therefore I was “born tainted”. But, if there are other LGBTIQ people in a family, there is a greater chance that others will be LGBTIQ people too, she adds.
“Satan is coming,” she says, “and he touches a member of the family and then goes to the people who come next. He will not allow this chain to break.”
The session lasts more than an hour. At the end, she offers a diagnosis: I suffer from a “distortion caused by Satan” that makes me go against God's creation. At this point, I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry.
However, she adds, these “practices” can be beaten, and she promises to stand by me as I undertake the journey to repress my sexual orientation. “With God's help you are leaving this behind, you are going to have a normal home. You are going to marry a woman. You are young; you will be able to have children and raise them well.”
She suggests praying, listening to Christian music and studying the Bible, and avoiding other gay people, pornography and masturbation. I can’t help myself and ask which music bands she recommends.
She also says I should attend weekly sessions at her church and meet other people who have been through the same process and now have “normal” heterosexual lives.
The pastor then summons her assistant and another woman, who introduces herself as a “prophet” of the church. All three pray for my “healing” and “conversion”, the pastor’s voice rising as the minutes tick by. It feels quite intimidating.
“You will be free if you want to be,” the pastor says, looking in my eyes. “Do your part and God will do his.” She asks if I feel better. I don’t know what to say.
When the session is over, they offer me some coffee. I decline, saying I have an urgent appointment. I rush outside without leaving any cash for the disposable tissues that wipe away the tears of those who endure this.
I do not use the word ‘gay’
Months later, openDemocracy sent the church a request for comments on our findings.
In response, the pastor defended her claims about the links between homosexuality and drug use, pornography, sexual abuse, parental sins and masturbation, which, she said, are “conclusions” drawn from her “40 years of experience as a Christian spiritual counsellor” and from biblical verses that she quoted for each of the claims in her reply.
She objected to the use of the term ‘gay’ in our account of her session, as the word is not part of her “vocabulary”. She also said that I took the session voluntarily and, when asked, said I was a Christian. “If he had answered no, he would not have received counselling,” she said.
The pastor also criticised our undercover reporting, labelling it “unprofessional”. She said her services are free, and not just for “people with ‘loss of sexual identity’ issues, but also for people with panic attacks and depression. I have testimonies from people in these situations who, by the power of Jesus Christ, were set free.”
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