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Posts for June, 2010

Surviving an Exorcism To Cast Out the Gay

Jim Burroway

June 6th, 2010

In this month’s issue of Details magazine, Matt McAllester delved into the practice among some pentecostal and evangelical churches to perform exorcisms on gay people to drive out their gay demons. Peterson Toscano, a co-founder of Beyond Ex-gay, survived three separate exorcisms:

One took place in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn, another in an apartment on the West Side of Manhattan owned by Joanne Highley, who runs L.I.F.E. Ministry. During the latter exorcism, Highley had him lie down on her bed, then she sat beside him and began to press on his body, commanding the demons to exit through his mouth and rectum. Before the rite was complete, Toscano, who says he felt increasingly violated by Highley’s actions, stopped the ritual and left her apartment. Highley did not respond to requests to be interviewed, but she has previously stated that her process is to “cleanse and bind demonic powers . . . out of genitals, of course out of anal canals, out of intestines, out of throats and mouths if there’s been ungodly deposit of semen in those areas—we cleanse with the blood of Jesus, and we cast out the demonic powers.”

Highley was one of the activists featured in the 2004 ex-gay promotional video “I Do Exist,” which was released as a counter to National Coming Out Day. [Update: For more on this, see the end of this post] Toscano’s recalls his experience as abusive:

“For a young person, being told that you house evil, that you’re basically a mobile home for evil spirits—that is a very, very damaging concept,” says Toscano. “It’s one of the most extreme manifestations of the anti-gay rhetoric within the church.”

Particularly concerning is the story of 20-year-old Kevin Robinson, who has undergone three exorcisms (one by his mother, another by an uncle who was the pastor at his church), bouts of severe depression, was kicked out of his home by his parents, suffered a severe nervous breakdown, and underwent six month’s treatment at a juvenile psychiatry hospital. He’s out now, living on his own in an apartment and going to college. He is also a bit more comfortable with his sexuality. But not entirely. He’s also back at his same church:

He’s back in the choir, attending practice every Thursday. He hasn’t undergone another deliverance, but the dogma is the same, he says. “They want you to change. It’s just a lot of stuff you can’t do. You can’t do this, you can’t do that. I’m getting overwhelmed—again. It just feels like it’s too much, like today I just felt so overwhelmed. There’s no possible way I can be Mr. Perfect Man.”

I ask Kevin whether he would make himself straight if he could. “Yeah, I would,” he says without hesitation. “I’m not going to lie—I would love to just fit in and be accepted.”

But that doesn’t seem likely. Not long ago, after choir practice ended, another singer—a young man Kevin’s age—took exception to the look of Kevin’s slicked-back hair and effeminate manner and accused him of being “the Devil’s child.”

“I said, ‘I’m not the Devil’s child, I’m one of God’s,’” Kevin says. “He was like, ‘Yeah, right.’”

Update: Grove City College professor Warren Throckmorton, who produced I Do Exist, wrote me to explain that when he included Highley in his video, he didn’t know about Highley’s beliefs in exorcisms:

I want to make it crystal clear that the I Do Exist video never took the perspective that homosexuality is related in any way to demon possession. Ms. Highly did not mention these views when we interviewed her. No one associated with I Do Exist had any knowledge of Highly’s views when we filmed or edited the video.