'I wanted rid of my gay demon': The harrowing reality of conversion therapy in the UK
"I was made to undergo praying in tongues, exorcisms, having demons cast out of me, and being anointed with holy oil"
Justin Beck grew up in a small town near Glasgow. His family are evangelical Christians and religion dictated every aspect of his life, from his daily routine, to how he saw the world through the religious looking glass. So, when as a teenager he started to suspect he might be gay, he found himself thrust into conflict with his religion, his family and his idea of what his future was supposed to look like.
“I hated myself; I wanted rid of this gay demon," Justin says, introducing himself at the start of the documentary.
Growing up, Justin says he was “very much in a bubble.” Back then, his weekly routine, which he details on the Ban Conversion Therapy website was dominated by religion. Tuesday and Saturday were the only days not engulfed in religious rhetoric.
Monday was Teen Club, Wednesday Bible study, and Thursdays were discovery group where participants selected a passage in the bible and set out to discover new meanings. On Sunday he had morning and evening services, as mentioning how socialising with Christian families was a must on the holy day.
His life started to change when, aged 13, he first realised he was attracted to men. "You ultimately have to do something about it, you have to ask for forgiveness, you have to go to church every Sunday and pray," Justin says, touching on how the lens of religion altered his perception of himself.
Justin turned to what was then his most trusted source of advice, the Bible. He came across a passage that appeared to confirm his worst fears.
“You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination,” reads Leviticus 18:22.
As far as Justin was concerned, what was written in the Bible had to be true.
Those 15 words played on his mind, plunging him into despair. "That sent a clear signal to me. It became very confusing, very anxiety-driven," he says.
"It was a vicious cycle of knowing what you actually wanted to do, but having that lens over it of 'its temptation, its sin.'"
Two years later, Justin took part in a full-immersion baptism in the hope it could stop his same-sex attraction. The process involves being fully submerged underwater and brought back up with your sins supposedly washed away.
But after the ritual, Justin's feelings were the same as ever.
After moving churches, he began to undergo conversion therapy - a traumatic process that lasted six years.
While most teenagers find themselves partying, having their first kiss, and going to prom, Justin was undergoing something many of us can't begin to imagine.
"Praying in tongues, having exorcisms, having demons cast out of me, and being anointed with holy oil” were sadly regular occurrences for Justin.
Through cinema, we typically associate the idea of exorcisms with head spinning, projectile vomit, and demonic voices. Though this depiction is false, the reality is still pretty harrowing. As shown in the video below, exorcisms are usually done amongst many members of the church, surrounding you, chanting at you, or as Justin says, "Looking for a reaction."
“People are pushing down onto your belly and pushing down onto you. Afterwards, you are left alone, lying there shaking, crying, screaming,” Justin says in the doc.
“At 23 I was completely suicidal,” he says.
The idea of conversion therapy dates all the way back to 1899, when a German hypnotist claimed to have turned a gay man straight. In a speech at a psychiatry conference, Albert von Schrenck-Notzing said that after 45 hypnosis sessions and a visit to a brothel his patient's sexuality was altered.
His speech caused a stir and sparked the growth of the set of pseudoscientific techniques known as "conversion therapy" which attempt to alter a person's sexuality or gender identity.
The practice, which is widely dismissed today, spread through the 20th century - leaving a trail of shame and suffering in its wake. The medical community at that time typically believed that homosexuality was a condition that could be overridden to make a heterosexual lifestyle more preferable. This view was based on misinformation about what made a person gay, lesbian or bisexual.
Though psychoanalysis was generally the preferred method of conversion therapy, other techniques were also been employed, including chemical castration, electro-shock therapy and even lobotomy.
In May, Boris Johnson's government finally announced plans to ban this practice in the UK.
Speaking for the Govt @GEOgovuk Minister Mike Freer says the Govt will #BanConversionTherapy, the question is how and when, not whether/if. Says that "the issue of the role of faith is obviously very difficult." @10DowningStreet @trussliz @BanCTorg @stonewalluk pic.twitter.com/42Ch8IhyqA
— Kieran Aldred (@thekieranaldred) July 5, 2021
The government's decision was sparked by a landmark report in 2018 that anonymously surveyed 108,000 LGBTQ+ people across the UK. It found that 5% of those who responded to the survey had been offered conversion (also known as reparative) therapy in an attempt to ‘cure’ them, and a further 2% had undergone it. Of those who said they'd had conversion therapy, more than half (51%) had received it from a faith group, while 19% said it was from a healthcare professional.
For Ross Adams, who plays gay character, Scott Drinkwell, on the show - Justin’s story was hugely influential.
“Initially, I assumed that Justin was American,” Ross tells us. “What I didn’t realise is that this still happens, that this is still very prevalent now.” Ross highlights just why stories like Justin’s are so important, and Justin himself could not have said it better, “Representation matters.”
Justin's story resonates with Ross not just as a Gay man, but also because of the parallels between Justin's story and that of his characters on Hollyoaks. Mitchell Deveraux's story on Hollyoaks, played by the fantastic Imran Adams, details a young man struggling to find the balance between family, faith, and his own sexuality.
Ross's character Scott was instrumental in Mitchell's recovery and acceptance. Though their relationship was never smooth sailing, fans were devasted to see the pair split up when Imran Adams left the show.
“Thankfully, [Justin] was able to find the help and support he needed,” Ross says.
Justin's help came in the form of a therapist he found online. Through therapy, Justin has been able to begin addressing the trauma from his past. "Still to this day he is my safety net," says Justin, touching on the monumental change his therapist has had on his life.
"At its root conversion therapy is enforced repression, and I was repressing a large part of myself for a really really long time.
"So to be able to be free, and be expressive, and go and dance, and have an absolute gay time, it was amazing."
He now lives with his fiancee and their dog. Now he is on his own journey to his happy ending, he wants to make sure that other young Queer people of faith don't suffer as he did.
He has this message: "You are not sinful. You are not broken. Always know that you can have both - your faith as well as being LGBTQ+"
And he also has advice for parents looking for some guidance on how best to help their Queer children.
"If you are unsure of something - educate yourselves. This isn’t a ‘choice’ they’re making - it’s who they are. Your child isn’t ‘giving into sin’ - they’re loving who they want to love.
"Love your children. UNCONDITIONALLY!"
All five episodes, including ‘I Survived Gay Conversion Therapy’ are available to watch across Channel 4 socials
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