Driving home from a date with another man, David Lograsso was tormented by a recurring thought: ''I'll be going to hell for this.''
As a born-again Christian, he ''knew'' that being gay was wicked, sinful and wrong. Desperate to change, the 27-year-old vowed to exert more self-control. To pray even harder. To do whatever it took to become straight.
Lograsso was undergoing three ''conversion'' programs in Melbourne, lured by claims that he could rid himself of his homosexuality.
There are five such programs in Melbourne and at least 10 interstate. Modelled on America's ''ex-gay'' groups, all have fundamentalist Christian roots. Many view homosexuality as an illness that can be cured - an approach some describe as ''pray away the gay''.
Religious groups, particularly in the US, have been using them since the 1970s to try to turn gay men and women straight. But most Australians would be shocked, former group leaders say, to learn these programs exist here in 2012; that they're ''not just a crazy American thing''.
Lograsso found his three programs on the internet. Two were support groups - Living Waters and Roundabout Ministries - and the third, Mosaic Ministries, involved prayer sessions and counselling. He also attended a weekend retreat in Sydney run by Liberty Christian Ministries.
The Sunday Age understands that none of these programs are run by accredited psychologists or psychiatrists. Critics, including medical professionals, say they can and do cause severe psychological harm.
Returning from his date, Lograsso began dreading his next Living Waters meeting, especially the ''accountability sessions'' that left him feeling shamed. Each week, the 10 participants were required to confess to the group how many times they had masturbated, watched pornography or fantasised about other men. Having seen what happens to other ''fallen'' members, he knew what to expect: everyone in the room would surround him, bow their heads and pray.
He also feared telling his peers at Roundabout Ministries, where ''you get [reprimanded] if you even exchange your number with another guy''. But it was the reaction of his counsellor at Mosaic Ministries, Carol Hardy, he was most anxious about.
Her attempts to attribute his homosexuality to his father - whom Lograsso describes as affectionate and loving - had upset and disturbed him. ''Carol kept examining my childhood and asking if I'd been abused,'' he says. ''There are all these things that are supposed to have made you gay; you're supposed to have been abused or raped or have a father who doesn't care about you. I ended up really confused and thinking, 'Was I actually abused? Have I blocked it out?' It plants ideas in your head.''
As his car neared home, he fleetingly fantasised about having a relationship with the man he'd just kissed - ''Someone to hold my hand'' - then he cursed his ''naive'' dream.
Lograsso was in crisis. Anxious and depressed, he'd spend entire weekends in his bedroom. His self-esteem was in pieces and his faith was crumbling. ''I kept thinking, 'God must not love me because he's not answering my prayers','' he says.
At his worst, he considered suicide.
Helen Kelly, producer of a new documentary about ''ex-gay'' therapy called The Cure, says her research uncovered many participants of ''reparative'' programs struggling with depression and self-harm. ''These groups never take responsibility for the fact that some people who've been through them commit suicide,'' she says. ''They're not registered and they have no duty of care.''
While some group leaders describe themselves as ''counsellors'' or ''therapists'', such titles require no training and critics say many do not have the expertise to counsel emotionally vulnerable people.
As a young gay man, Paul Martin spent two years in the early 1990s with Exodus and Living Waters in Melbourne. After quitting, he became a psychologist and has treated many former reparative therapy participants.
''I've worked with maximum security prisoners in Pentridge, yet the people who've been through ex-gay programs are some of the most psychologically damaged people I've seen in my life,'' Martin says.
''I have a client who went through 35 years of these programs … One of the most crushing moments was when he said, in tears, 'I've just realised that I've never known what it's like to love or be loved'.''
Martin is especially critical of groups that point to the disproportionate rates of depression and anxiety among gay people. ''The irony is that they're actually creating the terrible emotional damage that leads to these statistics,'' he says.
Three years ago, Lograsso realised the programs were not working. He quit the groups, came out to his family and embraced his sexuality.
The turning point was a simple realisation: of the 40 or so men he'd met in the three programs, none had become heterosexual. There was, however, a group leader - a married father - who claimed the program worked for him. ''But he was camper than any queen at Mardi Gras,'' Lograsso says. ''He kept telling me, 'You can change'; then he'd tell me that when a muscly delivery man turned up to his house, his mind started racing.
''In the end, I'm like, 'These are your success stories? These are your poster boys?'''
He now attends a support group for gay Christians called Freedom2b and is a convener of Young Bucks, a secular social group. He's in a new relationship and is close to his parents. He says his faith is stronger than ever. He is also at pains not to attack those who run the ex-gay groups. They're not bad people, he insists, just misguided.
The three groups that Lograsso attended - and similar Melbourne groups EnCourage and Exodus Asia Pacific - all refused multiple requests for interviews, or to provide evidence or examples of their effectiveness. None are explicitly linked to or funded by specific churches except for Mosaic Ministries, which is attached to the Destiny Church in Dingley. None appear to be driven by profit; relying only on donations or token fees.
And most insist they don't run ''ex-gay'' or ''conversion'' programs. They claim they help those with ''unwanted same-sex attraction''. Haydn Sennitt, the pastoral care worker at Sydney's Liberty Christian Ministries, said in an email: ''We do not offer 'fixes' or 'cures' for homosexuality but we do believe that it can be healed over time.''
This is merely semantics, according to Kelly, who found 15 such groups in Australia when making her film. Only the Sydney representative of Living Waters agreed to be interviewed on camera. ''You can get into a never-ending debate with these groups about what they do,'' she says. ''But when push comes to shove, they're saying that if you have same-sex attraction, you can't be a Christian. So your same-sex attraction becomes 'unwanted' and then you put yourself through one of their programs.''
In an email, former Roundabout Ministries leader Adrian Rowse said his group was aimed at young men with a variety of sexual problems. At times, many members expressed a wish to rid themselves of same-sex attractions. ''I can see how someone new to the group may have felt that this was an aim,'' he wrote, ''[but] I have never promised anyone that they can be 'free' of homosexuality.''
While local ''reparative'' programs generally avoid attention, their American counterparts have been hampered by the public renouncements of dozens of former leaders and participants. Exodus International, one of the world's biggest ex-gay groups, was established in 1976. Three years later it was rocked when two of its founders left to be with each other.
In 2000, Exodus chairman John Paulk was ousted by the board after being seen in a gay bar. Five years ago, current president Alan Chambers appeared uncomfortable when confronted with claims he took nine months to consummate his marriage.
''There was a learning curve,'' said Chambers, who has admitted ongoing same-sex attraction. ''It had nothing to do with the struggle with homosexuality … It had everything to do with, 'I'm not quite sure how this all works'.''
In a statement, the Australian Psychological Society said that ''reparative therapists have not produced any rigorous scientific research to substantiate their claims of cure … APS recommends that ethical practitioners refrain from attempts to change individuals' sexual orientation''.
Recalling the attempts of Exodus and Living Waters to turn him straight, Paul Martin laughs. Men, he says, were taught how to speak in a monotone and walk ''without swishing'' while women were encouraged to ''wear the Laura Ashley look''. Gay fantasies were to be suppressed by envisioning a stop sign. Both programs involved workbooks and prayer sessions.
Martin also helped lead an Exodus group but after a life-changing trip to Thailand in the mid-'90s, he decided to leave. Nervously, he told his co-leader, Wendy Lawson - who stunned him by revealing she was quitting too.
Lawson, who married her long-term girlfriend in Britain in 2007, tells The Sunday Age she was suicidal during her Exodus years, living in ''constant fear'' and feeling like an ''abomination''. Since accepting her sexuality, she says, ''life is one of fulfilment and satisfaction''.
Like most who enter reparative therapy, Lawson and Martin were, at the time, conservative Christians. ''There's usually a fundamentalist, Pentecostal or evangelical background,'' says Rachel Goff, a Monash University researcher who studied ex-gay participants for a thesis. She found the vast majority were men. ''They place their Christian identity above all other aspects of their identity, including their sexuality.''
Damien Christie entered reparative therapy in Melbourne in 2006 after splitting with his long-term boyfriend. Having recently joined a Pentecostal Church, he sought help from Carol Hardy at Mosaic Ministries.
Hardy, he says, seized on the sexual abuse he suffered as a child, blaming it for his ''sickness''. In a prayer session, she pleaded for the ''spirit of Jezebel'' to leave him, suggesting he may have been cursed in the womb. Ashamed, Christie spiralled into alcoholism.
''I would drink to pass out,'' he says, his voice cracking. ''I acted out sexually, I was doing drugs and my self-worth was destroyed. I had no sense of self-love or care.'' He even attempted suicide.
Yet his faith remained. In 2010, he confronted Hardy in her Dingley office, telling her he believed that Jesus loved and accepted him. ''She banged her Bible down on her desk and said, 'You do know what this says about being gay, don't you?''' Christie says. ''She just wouldn't take any responsibility for the damage and hurt her counselling had done to me.''
Hardy has refused to comment.
Christie and Lograsso, who are friends, say they're sharing their story to help others. Both urge gay Christians to contact Freedom2b, a support group co-founded by former Pentecostal leader and ex-gay therapy critic Anthony Venn-Brown, who detailed his own struggle with such therapies in his 2004 memoir A Life of Unlearning.
But they also see this as a public declaration of self-acceptance. ''I'm not some broken person,'' Lograsso says, a flash of anger crossing his face. ''I don't need to become straight. I'm now living a life I never dreamed I could have. This is freedom.''
Interview by Jonathan Swan
1. If a person comes to Liberty with ''unwanted same sex attraction'', what do you do to help them?
We only provide support to those [who] actually want to overcome homosexuality. We do not evangelise the gay community, either. If people do seek support out of a desire to overcome homosexuality, we offer one-to-one meetings as well as support groups and occasional conferences. If people do not want this support they are under no obligations to make them do it. If they desire to stop we respect their wishes.
2. I've interviewed a man who went through the Liberty program years ago ... he described a three-month program with weekly ''support group'' sessions, where they watched videos that explained the causes of their homosexuality, did group confessions about homosexual thoughts and actions and then closed with prayer. Is that [the current structure]?
Yes ... we follow, generally, the same structure. But it is (and has always been) much more than this. It involves people having an ongoing connection with God through Jesus, ... and being connected with other Christian believers. People need to take responsibilities for their own journeys, and Liberty can facilitate that. If people need help in more professional settings, then we can refer them onto a professional Christian counsellor or psychologist.
Going through a program alone is not enough to overcome same-sex attraction or any other unhealthy form of relationship: [a] personal relationship with God is a must, as well as healthy expectations and a long-term approach to help.
Many of our opponents claim that our programs cause people to be suicidal and depressed. I have never personally experienced that ... Some people give up, while others keep going and it's different for every individual. However, many people [do] successfully deal with their unwanted homosexuality.
We do not offer ''fixes'' or ''cures'' for homosexuality, but we do believe that it can be healed over time.
3. In the US, Alan Chambers reportedly told a conference: ''The majority of people that I have met, and I would say the majority, meaning 99.9 per cent of them, have not experienced a change in their orientation.'' What is your response to that claim and could you talk about any of your success stories?
Putting a percentage figure on something like this is not particularly helpful, and I cannot answer for Chambers. Success is varied and it depends a lot on a person's personal commitment.
I have seen in myself and others an ability for people to overcome same-sex attraction by persistence, prayer, and patience ... It's not easy and it often involves lapsing, disappointment, and frustration.
In one study, Ex-Gays? A Longitudinal Study of Religiously Mediated Change in Sexual Orientation by Jones and Yarhouse, who studied a number of people who had overcome homosexuality over a long-term period, noted that about six in 10 were able to do so and that suicidal tendencies and depression were not necessarily connected to these efforts.
4. Your newsletter from July last year mentions several NSW churches and universities that you were engaging with. How have those relationships been going and what churches do you now partner with?
I am not comfortable naming those churches who are partnering with us because of the sensitive nature of what we do at Liberty Christian Ministries.
5. Anthony Venn-Brown and psychologist Paul Martin have said many people have been psychologically damaged and even suicidal after going through programs run by groups such as Liberty and Living Waters. Do you believe that has happened or is a risk of happening?
No. If anything, the psychological damage can occur when expectations and motivations for change are unhealthy or unrealistic (e.g. I will stop being gay in a year so I can get a girlfriend and get married). Often people get depressed when they realise that the journey is going to take longer than they had anticipated and when it gets hard. Some give up entirely because it's so hard and it's actually their disappointment with themselves that gets them undone.
To be honest though, some programs have been unhelpful. Those that have made unrealistic promises, like making people ''straight'' in a certain period can, I believe, set people up for much disappointment.