TW: systemic homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia, mentions of conversion therapy
Imagine a round table featuring 5 pastors and a church member discussing matters related to the LGBTQ community. In a video titled “Heart of the Matter”, this is the exact scenario that plays out. The first few seconds of the video provides some snippets from the rest of the discussion and we hear pastors and church leaders say things like, “They are more than their orientation”, and “we need to repent of our indifference”. Sounds promising? Better than we could imagine, right?
1 minute into the video, we are introduced to the host, Tou Chen- who introduces himself as the person who gave a testimony of his journey to “overcoming the grip of same-sex attraction”; that marks the first red flag in the video.
To provide a little context, the video is the brainchild of TrueLove.Is, a ministry of Singapore-based 3:16 Church led by Senior Pastor Ian Toh. TrueLove.Is “provides stories and resources for Christians who want to know more about LGBTQ issues”. On paper, TrueLove.Is is a safe space for Christian LGBTQ members who wish to be heard and accepted. However, the reality is far more insidious.
The 30-minute video delves into various topics from the efforts by the Church to engage with members of the LGBT community, guiding parents of children who experience same sex-attraction on how to respond when their kids come out and how the church should help its LGBTQ members. Growing up in a fairly religious household, not once had I ever heard the priests in my church ever discuss sex, much less homosexuality. I won’t lie. For a hot second, I wondered, should we be moved by their attempts to be inclusive? But those questions quickly vanish. If you pay close attention, a lot of red flags begin to pop up. While on one hand, they bring in the narrative of love is love and posit that the problem is that people in church are not “engaging” with this subject and that the solution is love, they also continue to address homosexuality as an “issue” that needs to be confronted.
It is interesting how they choose the right-sounding phrases, like, “Don’t see the person for only what we don’t agree with”, while in the same breath telling their viewers to not “go by the letters or words they use, because they are there because of their struggle or need for validation”. Apart from the blatant disregard to the desires and needs of members of the LGBTQ community, their attempt to say that a queer person is more than their identity is an attempt at an erasure of the same. ‘Yes, a person is more than a part, but they are also the sum of all their parts.’ It is almost the same as saying ‘I don’t see race or caste’. While, yes, sexuality does not make up the entirety of a person’s identity, let’s not pretend like it is not an important part of how they navigate the world and its systems today.
I have to say, I almost feel impressed by the level of manipulation that goes into this. When one thinks of conversion therapy, your mind instantly thinks of painful, humiliating and torturous practises like ice-pick lobotomies, and aversion therapy procedures such as shock treatments. Through TrueLove.Is, they actively disengage from ideas like “pray the gay away” and talk about deconstructing the hurtful language and being inclusive. In fact, their entire game plan seems to be to use love and the idea of God’s unconditional love to “help” queer people overcome their “struggles”. The Church is your friend in your time of need, and your helping hand through the dark hours. And, I won’t lie, I can understand why that kind of acceptance can seem welcoming.
So, I did what any rational person would do. I sat and watched all the video testimonials that they have uploaded. To be fair, there were only 29 of them, each between 5-7 minutes long. But they were quite difficult to get through. I don’t think I still have the right words for the feeling, but to sum it up, they made me feel unsettled. As I dug further into their narrative, I kept wondering if it was that they genuinely subscribe to the idea that “love” is the answer or were they being purposefully manipulative. After spending close to 3 hours’ worth of videos, I believe the latter.
Now, the truth is, if you have watched one video, you have watched them all. While the specifics vary, all the stories take the same route. It starts with internalized homophobia. Some stories feature people who have accepted their identity and were out and proud. However, toxic relationships, being on outs with their family, and the lack of satisfaction due to being alienated by their community, leaves them feeling an empty void. The remaining stories feature people who simply cannot come to terms with their identity and are ashamed of this part of their lives. Both groups of people feel a yearning for a better life and their sexuality is the hindrance that holds them back. In a lot of cases, same-sex attraction is not the only thing that the person struggles with. They bring in porn addiction and sex addiction into the fold as well. The internalized homophobia takes them down a very dark path. They are plagued by the belief that they are inferior, undeserving and hence, the idea that they need to purge themselves of homosexual desires to finally be happy.
Somehow, at this point they find God. They join the church. In some cases, they find someone to confide in; someone who tries to guide them down the right path. But sometimes prayer is not enough. They continue to struggle with their desires even though they have found faith. But, the bright light at the end of this very very dark tunnel is “true love”, aka, straight love. They find pleasure, of a spiritual kind, in heterosexual relationships. Interestingly enough, every single video ends on the same note, that even though they are not free from same sex attraction, they now know how to “control” it. And to be honest, this seems a lot crueller and more dangerous than the torturous methods that I listed earlier. Here, the self-flagellation, the need for approval and acceptance becomes so deeply ingrained in their minds, that they themselves become their own abuser. It’s Foucalt’s biopower in play.
Even in the way that they choose to tell the stories they make some calculated decisions. The music is somber, the colours are dark and the general mood seems to represent depression, sadness, and loneliness. Phrases like “unwanted same-sex attraction” are used all through. The second half of the video, post having “overcome” their struggles is represented with a transition to lighter music, brighter colours and a joyful tone. They also indulge in stereotyping and some really negative perceptions about same-sex attraction as well as the larger LGBTQ community. Promiscuity, for example, is portrayed as the norm. In the first ever testimonial shared, Amy is portrayed as someone who had “resigned to a life of homosexuality”. While sharing her story, she talks about being cheated on, and describes it as a phenomenon “common in the circle”. Even the scenes of comradery within the community are depicted using shots of techno music, alcohol and mirth as opposed to the more wholesome nature of the fellowship among the church members, which is depicted using scenes in nature or games night.
The relationships and sexual identities are showcased as stemming from some kind of trauma. For example, Karen, who was abused as a child, decided she wanted to stop wearing dresses to “protect herself” or Tamae, who was sexually assaulted when she was 4. Tamae is pitched as someone who feels “compelled to earn love by altering herself to fit the people she was involved with”. Her craving to be equal to men, but also be loved my men is offered as the explanation for her bisexuality. Or, Mabel, who lost trust in men thanks to an abusive father. She believed she had to become like a man to protect herself. For men struggling with same-sex attraction, they offer porn as the cause. By their rhetoric, porn leads to masturbation, which in turn leads to sex addiction. They make mentions of public washrooms and baths as places of sexual activity, and there is a certain sense of depravation in the way these stories are recounted.
Even in the stories that are not rooted in trauma, their sexual identities are depicted as unfulfilling. Take for example, Gillian, who is portrayed as someone who “wished she was with a boy” and as someone who is not “convinced of my sexual orientation”. She decides to break up with her girlfriend and starts meeting men. She measures her relationship with them against that with her ex. “I could find fulfillment, excitement from things apart from the world Joan introduced me to,” she says, explaining why she could never go back. At the end of her testimonial she concludes that her attraction to Joan wasn’t because of gender but because “she fit the romantic fantasy pop culture sold on love”. She reconciles with her parents, who cut her off after she was outed by a youth minister. She not only reconciles with her parents and even suggests that on reflection, she had “thought wrongly about some of the past memories”. At the end of the video, she concludes that God taught her to love people in a wholesome manner and that “sexuality isn’t a political issue, it is a biblical one”.
The sad thing is, these stories are stories of real trauma. Abuse, addiction and depression are all minimized in the grand scheme of things, and portrayed as things that can be easily “overcome”. The stories of very real pain and hurt are neatly packaged for a rather sinister agenda.
Conversion Therapy: A Common Phenomenon In Singapore
Conversion therapy is not new in Singapore. The outbreak of HIV in 1985 played a huge role in pushing such therapies. In fact, STDs, and the fear of contracting HIV thanks to their ‘life of debauchery’, is portrayed in the videos as motivating factors for making the decision to leave behind the queer identity. The Church started playing a role after the Choices ministry was established by an American ex-gay pastor, Sy Rogers, in 1991. He popularized a 14-week lecture series that was designed to teach people that they could say no to being gay. The crux of their teaching was: Freedom is when you are able to say “No”. Rogers was backed by the government, who thought this would be the best method to combat the issue of HIV.
Over the years, even as conversion therapy was banned in several parts of the world, this ideology has continued to thrive. The way TrueLove.Is has positioned themselves in this world is unique. They have pitched themselves to be a safe, loving space that members of the LGBTQ can turn to. Its core message is simple: “Don’t just come out, come home”. One look at their website and social media channels, and one would easily believe, as Grace Yeoh expresses in an article on Rice Media, that the church is truly welcoming of the queer community.
The people behind TrueLove.is are far from ignorant. They have completely understood their audience”: the well-read and educated Christian millennial. They use the Rainbow flag in their favicon and other brand assets and even use phrases that are associated with the community to position themselves as liberal as well as accepting of the church. And, in a very weird way, their clear departure from the hardline stance of the church is refreshing. It moves past making judgements, and makes the goal clear: you can’t pick and choose the Bible and the Bible does not condone homosexuality. However, they are very careful in how they choose to express this. It is probably best explained in the video, Matters of the Heart, when the pastors reference the parable of the prodigal son. They refer to the story and speak about how the son leaves, but eventually comes back and suggests that sometimes, kids just need to “run the course and they will come back”.
So while TrueLove.Is tells people to “come out, come home”, don’t imagine an image of a group of people standing with their arms wide open to accept people regardless of their gender or sexual identity. No, in fact, they are simply saying that it is okay to have same-sex attraction, but it’s a sin to act on them and to come home to a God, who will accept them and love them despite their tendencies. Through their stories they refute the idea that one is born gay by not only offering back stories to the originating moment to such attraction, but by also depicting that homosexuality is a condition that can be overcome. In all of this they also achieve something else: homophobia is washed away from its hatefulness and given the garb of concern and love instead.
I was warned that this would be a rabbit hole, but I probably didn’t realize that I would be left with a lot of questions that I might never be able to answer. The more you watch their content, the more the questions arise. Are the stories genuine? Are they actors or other Christians who simply banded together with a common goal? Or, worse, are these people living in a world where they have supressed who they are for the illusion of acceptance? Is TrueLove.is truly convinced about their solution or are they very aware of exactly what they are doing.
In a response to an article on Medium, Pastor Ian Toh wrote a post on Facebook. In that, he claimed that there many who experience same-sex attractions that don’t wish to pursue same-sex relationships. “In my time working with Christians with same-sex attraction, I have learnt that they struggle with being told that there is only one way to deal with same-sex attraction. Sadly, we don’t hear much about them because their stories often aren’t told,” he wrote. And, I can’t help but wonder, if it is that this church realized that internal homophobia had created the perfect target audience for them, or they realized that there are people who could not reconcile their faith and sexual identity.
The presence of this ministry is also truly telling of the lack of safe spaces available. In Singapore, gay sex is still illegal under Section 377A of the Penal Code and any ‘male found guilty of having sex with another male’ could be punished with a prison sentence of up to 2 years. The impossibility to survive in a place where they cannot be who they are has pushed people from the LGBTQ community to crave to be a part of a system where they are not looked down upon, even if it means erasing a part of themselves, is my conclusion.
Not Just a Singaporean Issue
It seems that TrueLove.is may be exporting its brand of conversion therapy to India as well. A mirror website that seems to be linked to an evangelical church called New Bridge Community Church exists. They describe themselves as a “vibrant group of charismatic, evangelical, born again, spirit filled, highly relational, family-based church in Pune” that believes that people matter, not rigidity or formats. I reached out to the church, and managed to talk to Pastor Karan and Paresh H, who lead the TrueLove.is India ministry. The church, based in Hinjewadi, focuses on community-based activities and desires to be a gospel-centric church instead of falling back on moralism and legality, according to Pastor Karan. “We are not perfect, but are pursuing to be,” he says.
In 2019, the church crossed paths with TrueLove.Is and decided to open a chapter in India. The effort is fairly new here to have enough stories to share; however, they have already gotten the ball rolling. “People from the community think of pubs and bars as safe spaces because they believe they won’t be judged there, and we strive to become that safe space for them instead,” says Pastor Karan. He even says that in a short time period of 5 months they have been able to get the core members of the group to understand the case in point that none of them would judge another based on their sexual identity. “Many Christians have questions and we want to be able to answer them and help them understand,” he adds.
“We are not a pro-LGBTQ church,” Paresh confirms, “We completely believe in the Word of God and so we are a safe space that is equipped to handle questions about sexuality, gender, gender confusion and more,” he adds. He clarifies that he himself comes from the LGBTQ community. “I have not been a part of the community for 12 years. I no longer identify as a gay man, but as same-sex attracted,” he says. The difference, he says, is that a gay person celebrates their identity and acts on it, while a same-sex attracted person does not act on it. He runs this chapter along with Supriya, who also identifies as same-sex attracted, he adds.
Sometimes people struggle and they need a community and that’s what they claim that they want to be. There are no LGBTQ members, emphasises Paresh. Karan adds, “We are not aware of people’s orientation. But we have noticed members who have shown traits and we have members we are sure have shown the inclination but have not come out.” The end goal, you ask? Make them fall in love with Jesus, which is what TrueLove.Is about, says Pastor Karan.