The floor of the hall was wooden and shiny, amplifying the footsteps encircling Anthony Venn-Brown. He sat on a chair in the middle of the empty space as the steps moved closer. The pastor and the pastor’s assistant placed their hands on his head and shoulders.
Venn-Brown was desperate for it to work. “I’d been tormented for so long,” he says.
The pastor held a newspaper in front of him; not to read but to collect the bile that he knew would soon be flying out of Venn-Brown’s mouth. As they cast the demon of homosexuality out of the 20-year-old, the pastor also knew it would not be long before the young man started to hyperventilate.
But it would all be worth it. The devil would soon be defeated.
As Venn-Brown sat there waiting for deliverance he was filled with hope. “Thank God,” he thought. “I’m getting rid of this at last.” His feelings towards men were so overwhelming that he knew he must be possessed. To be gay was, for him and everyone he knew, a sin, a sickness, an abomination. Finally he would be free.
He did not know then that this was just the beginning of decades searching for an end to the torment – for a cure. After the exorcisms he would spend six months in a residential unit aimed at converting him to heterosexuality, at the very genesis of the conversion therapy movement.
What all those who tried to convert him could not have predicted was that, far from creating a heterosexual, they were incubating their worst nightmare: an out gay man who now leads the world in exposing them; a former evangelical preacher who knows their every method, their every lie, and who will not stop training a spotlight on them until all attempts to “cure” LGBT people are eradicated. He has also founded two pioneering organisations to support those affected and forge a dialogue with evangelicals.
This is not about revenge.
Nearly 50 years after that first exorcism, Venn-Brown sits in another chair, thousands of miles from New Zealand where it took place, telling BuzzFeed News why he devotes his life to reversing the damage done by gay “cures”. In a story that spans the entire history of conversion therapy, his whistle-blower’s account offers not only a unique insight into its dark arts but also a key to overcoming the practice for good.
When we meet in London it is just days before the British government announces that it will ban conversion therapy. For Venn-Brown, though, this is about more than the law.
As he writes books, gives speeches, rallies activists, and engages with faith communities across the world he preaches a new message: It is not love that needs curing.
The sickness is something else.
To meet Anthony Venn-Brown is, at first, to be surprised. Many who have endured conversion therapy, exorcisms, or any other attempts to “cure” their sexuality or gender identity are noticeably injured. They can appear stilted, stiff – almost straitjacketed – with shame, as if physically carrying it.
But Venn-Brown, now 67, greets BuzzFeed News loudly, with immediate hugs, gossiping and babbling away as if over cocktails. We have not met before. His accent is deliciously, frothily Australian. He jokes with the photographer, insists on pop music being played while she snaps away, and laughs frequently – eyes flashing with mischief.
It takes hours for the stillness to come, as the memories build, piece by piece.
Born in 1951, he was raised in the middle-class Sydney suburb of Neutral Bay, the youngest child of three. His father worked for a company that sold car parts. The family attended the local Anglican church.
Homosexuality was illegal in Australia – it had been punishable by death until just before Venn-Brown was born and it would only be decriminalised in New South Wales when he was 33, in 1984. But for years it remained despised, taboo, and the target of habitual violence.
Throughout his adolescence, his feelings towards men horrified him. “You’re living with a dark secret,” he says. “In my mind I’m going, ‘God, why aren’t you taking this from me? I don’t want this. You’ve got the power to release me.’” But he was not released. “So then you start going into this [thought process] of, ‘Maybe I am really evil. Maybe I just don’t have enough faith. The problem can’t be with God. The problem is with me.’”
During his teenage years Venn-Brown began to abandon his Anglicanism as his sexuality surfaced and, increasingly, taunted him. “I was cutting my wrists in my bedroom,” he says. “A razor blade.” He motions across the back of his arm. “I was getting so desperate.”
There was only one other gay boy at school, as far as Venn-Brown was aware. His name was Cyril and to the other boys he was so obviously not one of them that he became the prime target of hostility. Cyril killed himself.
Venn-Brown’s misery, meanwhile, was so obvious that his next-door neighbour tried to intervene, insisting he told her what was wrong. “I hoped she might be able to refer me to someone secretly but she said, ‘No, you’ve got to tell your parents.’ I said, ‘I can’t.’” The neighbour told his mother but kept it from his father.
Venn-Brown says he cannot now remember what his mother said to him. “I just remember a terrible sense of shame.” Part of this was a foreboding sense of the repercussions that could erupt.
He had only one outlet for his burgeoning sexuality. He would go to cruising areas – called “beats” in Australia – to meet other gay men for fleeting release. This would remain the prime expression of his identity for decades.
Each encounter would last, he says, only 30–60 seconds. “No exchange of names, no tenderness, no affection. It was like I was driven to go there, I was tempted by the devil, I sinned, I didn’t enjoy it, and as a soon as it was over I had to get out as quickly as possible.” He would then repent, praying for forgiveness.
On two occasions, older men, to whom he was not attracted, raped him. Venn-Brown thought at the time that such traumas would extinguish his feelings for men. They did not.
Instead, going to beats continued to provide both temporary relief and a perpetual stoking of self-loathing.
“The fear of being caught by police, going to a juvenile delinquents’ place – jailed in that way and bringing shame on the family – was always there,” he says. “The times I was growing up in were horrendous for gay men. The terror we lived under, and the consequences. No wonder we were desperate to change.”
His mother sent him to a psychiatrist. At the time, homosexuality was still considered a mental illness. As such, psychiatrists used electric shocks, hormone pills, and nausea-inducing drugs on gay patients in a precursor to conversion therapy called aversion therapy. In this regard at least, Venn-Brown escaped relatively unscathed after a few sessions – but only because the psychiatrist did not take his homosexuality seriously. He branded it a “stage” and offered the young man pills to lift his mood.
God was Venn-Brown’s last hope. Having cast off his Anglicanism, at 18 he was “reborn”, joining the Baptist and evangelical movements. This charismatic branch of Christianity had been ascending in Australia for several years and in Venn-Brown it could have found no more willing disciple. Here was a denomination that believed in demonic possession, in speaking in tongues, and in the power of healing. Venn-Brown embraced it fully, and at 20 felt a calling to preach, leading him to the Faith Bible College in Waitao, New Zealand.
It was an intensive course of prayer, study, and worship over several months. And it was here that Venn-Brown confessed his attraction to men to the principal of the college. There was, the principal said, no option but to be exorcised.
For the next few weekends, a member of staff took Venn-Brown to a huge Pentecostal church called the Queen Street Assembly of God. Its chief pastor, Neville Johnson, was known for his divine visions and invocations of spirits.
Venn-Brown begins to relive what happened. “The minister [Johnson] and his assistant would take me upstairs,” he says – to a hall on the first floor of the church, where the chair was placed in the middle.
Before tackling the homosexuality, there were the confessions. “You had to confess any sins you had,” he says. “It’s about cleansing. I remember I confessed that I’d stolen a Crumble [chocolate] bar from the local newsagents. Anything you could think of. It was a purging.”
Venn-Brown had to confess to his forefathers being Freemasons, who were seen by this church as followers of the occult. He had to confess to masturbation.
Then they began to pray, summoning the spirits out of him.
“They say, ‘Don’t pray yourself, we’ll pray for you; you concentrate on expelling the demon.’” As he continued to confess, now admitting to his attraction to men, Johnson and his assistant began speaking in tongues. They commanded the demon to surface, raising their voices, shouting over the 20-year-old and ordering him to start breathing out. By exhaling heavily, he would help expunge the evil of homosexuality.
“What happens is you start to hyperventilate,” he says. “My hands started to close up, I started to get sensations through my face, thinking, ‘Oh my god, the demon is coming to the surface.’ Then you start to breathe more and expel the demons.” As the hyperventilating accelerated, pins and needles coursed through him as the forced breathing turned to coughing. Overwhelmed and deprived of oxygen, he fell from the chair on to the floor.
The newspaper was placed in front of his mouth as he expelled the bile that had been brought up. He spat it on to the paper.
He was, he says, dry retching. Johnson and his assistant continued calling the devil out of him, voices loudening further. “They were saying, ‘Come out, you foul spirit! Come out in the name of Jesus! Come out, you spirit of homosexuality!’” They began counting each demon as it flew out of him, with Venn-Brown remaining on the floor, coughing and hyperventilating, until every spirit was deemed to be gone.
It took over two hours. But it was not enough. Johnson told him to return the next week for more, and the week after that. “Thinking you have a demonic force inside you is not good for your mental health,” he says. But it is only later that he describes what that meant.
Initially, Venn-Brown thought it had worked. He stopped feeling anything towards men, but he knew he still had no attraction to women. And with hindsight, he says now that when his innate desires waned he wasn’t becoming less gay. He was simply becoming more traumatised.
The following year, back in Sydney, it was clear the exorcisms had failed. “The more I tried to push this thing down, it would always rear its ugly head,” he says. On the instruction of his pastor, he admitted himself to a residential unit designed to make him straight. Surely, he reasoned, this intensive treatment would work.
By now it was 1972, and what would come to be known as conversion therapy (also called reparative therapy) was beginning to emerge. While “healing” and exorcisms had been swirling on the fringes of Christianity for centuries, and while aversion therapy had been practised for decades, conversion therapy would bring together elements of all three, along with techniques bastardised from more traditional talking therapies, to form a practice, an ideology, and an international crusade: the “ex-gay” movement.
While in the US organisations such as Exodus International sprang up, in Australia it was less big business, more small churches, with Venn-Brown’s evangelical community at the forefront.
Moombara House was a large sandstone building nestled on the edge of Port Hacking, just to the south of Sydney, and run by the Bundeena Christian Fellowship.
It is believed to be the first residential “ex-gay” centre in the world, something that would later be copied in similar units across the United States – right up to the present day. But as well as gay people it also took in addicts and sex workers in an attempt to save them, too. This admission policy was also used in evangelical churches in Britain in the 1990s and 2000s: All those deemed broken were lumped, and healed, together.
A woman whom Venn-Brown names only as Shirley ran the rehabilitation unit. She told him exorcism was not sufficient, that his entire thinking had to change. After he arrived at the centre, “She said it would take two years to change me,” he says. “My heart sank. I’d spent so many years trying already.”
There were 20 people living there, including his fellow inmates and the staff of counsellors, workers, and pastors. The house also functioned as a church with regular services and a congregation of over 100.
Venn-Brown was assigned a minder called Patrick who led him to his room, which he would share with four other men. Patrick went through his luggage to confiscate any clothing considered too feminine, too sexual, or too gay. Venn-Brown was forbidden from wearing tight briefs. Only Y-fronts were allowed.
There were other gay residents there but, he says, “We were not allowed to talk to each other.”
The overall approach at the centre was informed by the various beliefs underpinning conversion therapy: that homosexuality is caused by childhood damage, often by an overbearing mother and a distant father, but also by abuse, bullying, or neglect; and that the job of the therapist is therefore to find the “wound” that caused the homosexuality to develop – and then heal it.
Often, during this process, a range of methods are recommended to enforce masculinity in men and femininity in women. For Venn-Brown this meant his daily duties involved working outdoors only, with gardening or odd jobs. “You couldn’t be in the kitchen doing cooking,” he says.
He was not allowed contact with his friends on the outside. If he phoned his family, a member of staff would listen in. He had to rise at 6am every day to avoid the temptation of lying in bed and masturbating. During the day he would be monitored and watched. “There was a guy allocated to look after me. He would stand by the shower when I had one to make sure I didn’t masturbate.”
Those who undergo conversion therapy are often taught to interrupt same-sex fantasies with either prayer or an analysis of what the underlying wound is that’s causing such thoughts. For example, “Am I attracted to that man because he reminds me of my father, who didn’t show affection?” For Venn-Brown, his thoughts were interrupted in two ways. Much of his waking hours had to be spent listening to Bible tapes.
“There would be someone reading the Bible – we’d have our Bibles up and would follow what was meant to be a ‘renewing of our minds’ by getting God’s word in there.”
At other times, he could speak to the Christian counsellors there to ask them what to do with his attraction to men. They would often invoke the evangelical notion that each of Jesus’s followers is, as described in Corinthians, “a new creature”, in which “old things are passed away” and thus “all things become new”. In this belief in renewal, change becomes possible.
And so, after confessing gay feelings, Venn-Brown would recite the Corinthians verse as a mantra. Today, more than 40 years later, he repeats the verse quickly, sotto voce, as if so ingrained as to still be instinctive.
The idea, he says, was that speaking the words means it “becomes your reality” and a way of “getting your mind on to something else, away from temptation of any particular thoughts” and instead thinking “godly, pure thoughts”.
But by this time, there was little need to suppress anything further. Venn-Brown was so stunned by everything he had experienced that sexual desire barely ever surfaced. He had been hijacked.
“It was like I’d had a breakdown, with all the stress of trying to change and the exorcisms. It was constant,” he says. “So when I went there [to the unit] it was like an emotional collapse.” As such, he submitted to everything, unable to resist.
“I just did what I was told. My whole life was planned for me – what time I got up, went to bed, my meals. I just had to hand over control of my life to other people because I was so out of control.”
Just like when he was undergoing exorcisms, at the unit Venn-Brown never once questioned those treating him. “I thought they were well-intentioned,” he says.
Despite this, he knew they could be cruel. He remembers one occasion on which he was allowed out with fellow residents on a day trip. “We were in this street called Queen Street and I just leant up against a post and pretended to be a hooker and someone took a photo.” Shirley found the photo. It was a Sunday, a few months after moving in, and the first time his friends from outside had been allowed to visit – a reward for good behaviour.
“She came at me with the photo in her hand, at the top of her voice, in front of everyone, saying, ‘So you want to be queer, do you? If you want to be queer, we can fix that for you.’ She humiliated me. I just broke down and wept. I ran out to the kitchen and said to my friends, ‘You better go.’”
After nearly six months there, this event finally helped fuel his escape. “It was abusive,” he says, “which was why I left in the end. I thought, ‘I can’t take this any more.’”
Even after he left, however, it would be decades before Venn-Brown was free. He did everything he could to try to change. He married and had two daughters. He became a full-time preacher for the Assemblies of God church, travelling the world, bringing to thousands the message of Jesus in the hope that by doing so he would be released. Throughout the 1980s he continued to pray that homosexuality would leave him. It never did.
In 1991, while married, he fell in love with a man called Jason whom he had met in a park. It would fell the first domino. Venn-Brown’s wife intercepted a love letter he had written to Jason and confronted him.
Shortly after, Venn-Brown came out, told his congregation that he had been unfaithful, left his job in the ministry, left his wife, and left his children. “I thought, ‘I’m probably going to hell for this.’” He stopped believing in the power of prayer. He took himself to a nearby cliff edge and stood there, looking out, contemplating whether to jump.
But instead, he decided to face who he was. He moved to Sydney to be with Jason. It did not last, but the corrosive effects of two decades of conversion attempts did. Even today, when asked what imprint the “cures” left, he replies, “Post-traumatic stress disorder.”
It took years for him to recognise that what he was experiencing was PTSD. “I would drive myself to the point of emotional meltdown or burnout, working.” He has nightmares and flashbacks. Even 30 years after being in the residential unit Venn-Brown was at the cinema watching a film about a gay man who went into a rehab centre and, so similar were some of the scenes, he ran out of the theatre sobbing.
He was left with self-hatred that for years manifested in self-destruction. “I lived a pretty wild life, out on chemicals, unsafe sex,” he says. “It was like, ‘I don’t really care.’”
A pivot appeared in the late 1990s, however. He was volunteering for an HIV charity in Sydney, giving out leaflets when he met a man in the street who told him about all the friends of his who had died of AIDS. “I said to him, ‘It’s really shit being gay, isn’t it?’ And he said, ‘No, I love being gay. I would never change it in a million years.’”
Finally, Venn-Brown had a goal: to be like this man. “I thought it must be amazing to get to that place.” So he decided to connect the fractured pieces of his life: faith and sexuality. His attempts to heal both himself and others similarly harmed developed over two decades to the position he holds now as a writer, educator, and campaigner at the forefront of the anti-gay-cure message.
It began with him starting a Yahoo group for gay evangelicals. “I thought I was the only Pentecostal minister in the entire world who was gay and who had walked away from the ministry.” But hundreds joined it from every continent, many who had been through different “cures”, enabling them for the first time to share their experiences.
This has not been a simple process, he explains: When so many are damaged in similar ways, they can spark one another’s traumas and collide disharmoniously. Some never share anything: Even there they cannot speak.
In 2004 he wrote a memoir, A Life of Unlearning, revealing everything he had suffered. It became a bestseller, prompting an avalanche of emails from around the world from victims of conversion therapy.
“It changed everything,” he says. “These people would pour their hearts out. I used to sit in front of my computer and weep.”
It led to him forming Freedom2b, an organisation for LGBT people from Christian and charismatic backgrounds. They hold monthly meetings and workshops across Australia, helping people reconcile their faith and sexuality. Its members speak out publicly about their experiences.
In 2007 they marched together at Sydney’s LGBT Mardi Gras for the first time. “I will never forget that,” he says. “We were about to march off and I looked at the people in that group and I knew each of their stories, the ones that had attempted suicide, I knew what they’d been through, I remembered the ones we had lost, and I started to cry. I looked around and all of the group were too.”
They march every year. “I used to say to people beforehand, ‘The person you are at the end of the parade is very different from the person you were at the beginning. When you get to that street and you have tens of thousands of people starting to cheer you, every last vestige of self-hatred and shame [will go]. It will be like an exorcism.’”
Ultimately, he says, it is about preventing others going further than he did: “trying to stop people jumping off the cliff”. They also run suicide prevention groups.
But after six years of Freedom2b, Venn-Brow wanted to speak directly with church leaders and begin a dialogue between the church and LGBT people. He handed over the leadership of Freedom2b and founded another organisation, Ambassadors and Bridge Builders International (ABBI).
“It’s about overcoming ignorance and misinformation,” he says. ABBI runs seminars, publishes studies into conversion therapy, and advises on policy surrounding it.
He also approaches individual pastors and meets them, just to talk. “Some hate gay people, but then they can move from hatred to dislike, from dislike to discomfort, from discomfort to tolerance, tolerance to acceptance, acceptance to affirmation – and then, finally, advocacy.”
He tries to move them at least one or two steps along that continuum. One of them, a Baptist minister called Mike Hercock from Darlinghurst, Sydney’s LGBT neighbourhood, witnessed Freedom2b’s marching at Mardi Gras and had an idea. “He said, ‘You know what? Next year I’m going to get 100 ministers to sign an apology to the gay community and they’re going to march in the Mardi Gras parade.’”
And that is what happened. A hundred ministers signed an apology. “Not all of them marched – about 35,” says Venn-Brown, but it was enough for him. It was the first apology of its kind.
He even went to a reunion at the residential unit. Shirley was still there. “I thought, ‘I have to face her.’ So I walked over and said, ‘Hi Shirley, how are you? I’m doing really well these days. I’m really happy being gay.’ She said, ‘Yes, I’ve heard about what you’ve been doing. You know what I think about that.’ I walked out on to the veranda, the very place where she had humiliated me, and said to myself, ‘You will never have that power over me again.’”
Since then, the conversion therapy movement has splintered, losing ground in some areas, gaining in others. Exodus International, the largest gay “cure” organisation, closed in 2013 when its leader Alan Chambers admitted it did not work and apologised for the harm done. Some US states and a clutch of countries have outlawed it.
But last year Brazil overturned its 20-year ban. And prominent politicians in the US from Michele Bachmann to Mike Pence stand accused of supporting conversion therapy. Worldwide, churches and other faith groups continue to offer exorcisms or healings.
And in the UK, libertarians and the Christian right continue to support conversion therapy. Last week, Charles Moore, a prominent newspaper columnist, argued that if people want conversion therapy, they should be allowed it. The column did not examine what forces might lead a vulnerable young person to believe they want it. No single individual forced Venn-Brown.
When Venn-Brown visits the BuzzFeed UK office, he is in the middle of travelling across the US and Europe gathering evidence for a new book further exposing the movement, tracing its causes, and attacking its philosophy. “I’m going to lay it all at the foot of the church,” he says. It is there that the black heart of it all lies: “deception, denial, and wilful ignorance”.
To illustrate what this does, he describes a message he received on Facebook from someone who had survived conversion therapy. “He said of the 20 ‘ex-gay’ people he knew, only six are alive. One died of natural causes, the others committed suicide.”
Venn-Brown supports a ban on conversion therapy but wonders how feasible it is to impose on religious leaders. “Let’s say a Christian believes in a personal devil – does that mean we can legislate to say, ‘Well, you can’t believe in a personal devil?’” It is important, he adds, that “we are very clear what we are talking about when we refer to ‘gay conversion therapy’.”
The problem is, there are no clear divides: There are the formal versions of it carried out by a minority of therapists – despite no evidence for its efficacy and every mental health body condemning it – and the more informal “cures” practised by faith groups. Only last year, Britain’s prime minister, Theresa May, visited a London church called Jesus House, praising it for being “lively” and “growing”. The church had been accused of performing exorcisms on gay people.
Before Venn-Brown leaves, I wonder what he would say to himself at 20, just before venturing off to Bible college. He pauses and looks away as if conjuring the boy he was then. “I would say, ‘You’re going to be OK. You’re going to be OK.’”
And is he?
“Yeah,” he says. “I’m in a good place. I have two daughters who love me, lovely grandkids, an amazing circle of friends.” What about a partner?
He laughs. “I’m chronically single. I have been for over 20 years.”