The Journey Back: One Man's Life Hollowed Out By Shame

"Eric Smith," is an ex-ex-gay who did not want to give his name for publication because it is still hard for him to talk about how he spent a dozen years of his youth, from 21-33, suppressing his true identity.

"When people come out and say gay is a choice, I know that it is not I've tried everything not to be gay. I didn't want this," he said. Now at the age of 53 he has trouble dating and being intimate, and fears that he may always be alone.

Smith came out at 17, and even had a boyfriend for two years who was training in the seminary. His parents, who he calls "very Catholic," supported him. But at 21 he became "saved," and started going to a Pentecostal church. He hid his sexuality at first, but ended up telling a fellow parishioner.

"I confided to a woman at church and her response surprised me. She said I could change it," Smith said.

The woman told church leaders, who directed Smith to an "ex-gay" therapist, who then helped him get involved in Exodus, a nationwide organization that focuses on irradicating homosexuality by convincing gays that they can be straight.

For Smith the group brought comfort and stability to his confusion over being gay. "I didn't want to be gay. I wasn't happy. Even before Exodus I thought I was going to hell. I didn't like being gay. It was all about partying. I didn't know anyone in a committed relationship. It wasn't what I wanted. I wanted to be loved."

He tried to bury his feelings. The therapist and fellow support group members told him that he had to be strong, and resist the devil's temptations. "Some people have a cross to carry," they would say, and shame on those who weren't strong enough to carry it.

"I was never happy. I was going to church three times a week, plus therapy. I wouldn't go out to the malls because there was too much temptation. I didn't drink. I quoted Bible verses. For fun my friends sat around playing cards and praying, sometimes watching TV. That's how I spent my 20s, and I regret that. I'll never get that time back," Smith said.

Despite the regimen and the support, Smith could not stay straight. "During the whole period, I would be on the downlow. Every six or seven months I would go to the bar and find someone to have sex with. I'd think 'I can't keep doing this,' and I'd feel such shame. I would go back to the group and confess and ask for forgiveness.

"They always felt that I wasn't good enough, that I was a terrible person. I could never make the mark. I got sick of feeling bad about myself."

In his years of therapy, one relapse in particular caused him the scorn of the group. He and a fellow group member began seeing each other on the downlow, and when other members found out they kicked the ostracization up a notch. "My best friend was getting married and I was supposed to stand up in their wedding, but they told me that I wasn't even allowed to go. When the group had outings, I was not allowed to go. Like if people went out for coffee after a meeting, I had to go straight home."

The therapy, he said, was more confusing than helpful. "It put you in a state of limbo in relationships. I'm gay, but sometimes I still think I'm not really gay. That something is wrong with me. That I must have had something happen to make me this way. Even though I know I'm gay, it's hard to get rid of that limbo."

His family tried to help. "Looking back I'm embarrassed about it, but my parents would try to get me out of the closet. They were so loving. My mom would say 'God made you gay, why are you hiding who you are?' As a Born Again, I felt I had more of an understanding of the Bible than they did. I told my mom and dad they weren't true Christians because they hadn't been saved."

The final straw that broke his willpower for living the straight life was meeting a wonderful man and falling in love. They helped each other find themselves, although eventually the other man went back to his religious roots and ended up committing suicide ten years later.

Although it's been 20 years since he walked away from Exodus, Smith is still struggling. He finds it hard to be intimate with guys in a loving way. "I can't find peace. Everything about the world has changed. In the past few years gay people are more accepted. People can find a partner and have stable relationships. That's what I want, but I don't know if I ever can."

Fellow group members have in general not stayed straight either. After re-discovering them on Facebook, Smith said only one that he knows of is still is an ex-gay, married to an ex-lesbian. The rest have embraced their gay nature. One friend in particular used to get angry with him, and chastise him for not having enough faith. He's now living in New York and legally married to another man, Smith said.

The openness of the public in the past few years inspires Smith to keep working on his issues. He said he has found an affirming place in a Unity Church that welcomes everybody. "Faith is important to me still. One thing that really bothers me is that I'm still living on two sides of a fence sometimes. Both sides point their finger at each other. My gay friends say 'how can you be into prayer and stuff,' and some of my religious friends wonder how I can be friends with gays. I feel like I'm in the middle, when we all can be on the same side."

As he still works on coming out and being himself, Smith has found a new source of pain: regret. "I ask God why he had me go through all of this, why I wasted so many years of my life. But the older I get the more I realize that God loves me for who I am."

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