Over two decades ago, Tim Rymel was an evangelical minister who believed that attractions to people of the same sex could be stopped — or repaired — by religion and gay conversion therapy. Today, 25 years after first struggling with his own sexuality and becoming involved in the ex-gay movement, Rymel's an out gay man who advocates against the practice of conversion therapy by telling his story.
"I describe myself as free," he said in an interview with BuzzFeed. Rymel, 49, of Sacramento, Calif., condemns the ex-gay movement and gay conversion therapy — or efforts to turn gay people straight.
Rymel said his story is similar to countless other men and women who were affected by conversion therapy, and, like him, have since come to terms with the harm it caused them. He looks back on his own journey — from leaving the notorious ex-gay ministry Love in Action in 1995 so he could marry a woman and have children, and then to 2001, when he fell into a state of depression after his wife divorced him. And then for seven years he grappled with his deeply held religious beliefs and his sexuality.
"Everything changed when my wife divorced me, and as a Christian, I couldn't figure out why that was happening because it goes against what it says in the Bible," he said. "That was the crack in the armor of my faith. I isolated myself for seven years in depression. I had no friends, I didn't go out, and I basically just ate my feelings away."
Rymel later emerged to pursue an education and worked as a corporate trainer, eventually earning a bachelor's degree in business management, and later, a master's degree in adult education. Writing a memoir about his life — Going Gay: My Journey from Evangelical Christian Minister to Self-Acceptance, Love, Life, and Meaning — allowed him to face the shame experienced when he felt like he was a failed minister, a failed ex-gay, and a failed husband — and ultimately helped him reconcile his faith and his gay sexual orientation, he said. He remains close with his ex-wife and they split custody with their two teenage kids.
"It's a very, very different place to be alive," he said. "There is such a freedom to be out from under the ex-gay movement and having my mind controlled by these former beliefs that are so damaging. I'm not living under anyone's watchful eye anymore; God is not hanging over my head." Today he describes himself as a "truth seeker," saying, "I'm not even sure that God exists."
Rymel was raised in a Pentecostal home, in which he was taught to believe the Bible "is the authoritative word of God," and that "if there's something that goes against it, then it must be wrong. The Bible is always right," he said. When he realized he was gay at 14, he prayed to God to change him, and ultimately joined the residency program at Love in Action in 1990, becoming the organization's outreach director in 1991.
"At that time, I understood being gay as living a life of degradation," he said. "It was around the time of the AIDS scare, and all I knew about homosexuality back then is that if you're gay, you get AIDS. I was taught to believe that God was punishing those people for the degradation." That is what he was taught.
Although many of the ministries like Love in Action, and organizations like Exodus International, that practiced conversion therapy in 1990s and 2000s have since shut down, similar efforts continue in many places across the country, according to the National Center for Lesbian Rights. The national LGBT group has launched a campaign, #BornPerfect, to grow a national movement against gay conversion therapy, which has been discredited — and warned as harmful — by leading medical and psychological associations, such as the American Psychological Association.
"You would never send someone to a doctor and put leeches on them because you know it doesn't work physically," he said. "So if we know conversion therapy doesn't work, why would we do that to someone mentally?"
Rymel was among nine former ex-gay leaders to sign onto a letter issued by NCLR condemning conversion therapy as harmful, particularly to minors, on July 31. Currently, conversion therapy for minors is prohibited in California and New Jersey. Other states like Illinois and New York have attempted to enact similar laws, but they failed during recent legislative sessions. Advocates anticipate similar legislation will be proposed in more states when lawmakers return for new legislative sessions next year.
With this, Rymel said he'd like to think that things are getting better for LGBT youth who struggle with their sexual orientation or gender identity. He's working on another book telling the stories of other gay men who were affected by conversion therapy decades ago, who share a similar story.
"I think people are learning more and know more now, but there is still a lot of work to do," he said. "This does have to stop and this is a fight worth fighting."