It was a movie premiere like no other. The venue, an evangelical church in London, and the film, Once Gay, a documentary that glorifies the discredited practice of gay cure therapy.
The event on February 11 was presented by Core Issues Trust, the only conversion therapy group to publicly advertise in the UK, and comes at a time when the UK government has pledged to ban the so-called treatment.
Central London’s Emmanuel Evangelical Church hosts the screening and is one of the last remaining sanctuaries for the group, which has seen events at secular venues repeatedly cancelled in recent years.
The struggle to find a venue is a symptom of a greater problem: Things are not well in the gay cure therapy movement.
“I don’t think I have experienced a specific connection with a woman.”
—Once Gay‘s Matthew Grech
After decades of operating largely unchecked, governments around the world are starting to take action against the practice. 15 US states have enacted laws banning conversion therapy for minors, while Malta became the first European country to do so in 2016. In the UK, the government is planning new measures to stamp out the practice with broad cross-party support.
In the face of hostility, however, believers vow to go on.
‘Ex-gay’ Matthew Grech admits he is still attracted to men
Once Gay tells the story of Matthew Grech, a singer who appeared on the Maltese version of The X Factor before speaking out about his ‘ex-gay’ lifestyle.
In the film, Grech speaks about his conversion to evangelical Christianity, his decision to stop having gay relationships, and his hope to be cured of same-sex attraction.
But speaking after the film, the gay cure poster boy admits something unusual: He hasn’t really been cured.
Asked if he still feels attracted to men, Grech tells PinkNews: “I do, yes… if I had to put it another way, I don’t think I have experienced a specific connection with a woman.”
Grech adds: “For some people, success is if your sexual orientation literally changes, but for some people, success is literally controlling their own thoughts so they don’t go in a specific direction.
“Just because my flesh has not changed, does not mean I have not changed… I’m simply saying I have moved away from the homosexual lifestyle.”
Grech is still confident that god will change his feelings eventually, however.
“As I stay obedient to God,” he explains, “I believe I will experience a tremendous difference and change in my feelings as well.”
Gay cure therapy has lost supporters
Grech seems assured of his ability to change through divine intervention, but many before him have stumbled.
David Matheson, the architect of the Mormon ”Journey into Manhood” gay cure program, came out as gay in January and said the practice should be banned.
Norman Goldwasser, who performed conversion therapy treatments in Orthodox Jewish faith groups, admitted using gay hook-up apps last year under the username HotnHairy72.
Grech does not seem concerned, however.
“If somebody else’s experience goes bad,” he responds, “it could be for a gazillion reasons.”
“The truth is, we are all on an individual journey, and just because it failed for that guy, doesn’t mean it would fail for me,” he says.
Core Issues Trust director Mike Davidson, who is also the film’s producer, is more evasive about defections from the conversion camp.
Davidson says: “There are people who have been inconsistent in any profession, from any point of view… it doesn’t mean there is not validity in holding a point of view.”
Gay cure therapy and its impact
Between the film, the glossy veneer of the event and a musical performance by Grech, it’s surprisingly easy to get sucked into the world Once Gay and Core Issues Trust promote.
But a rousing soundtrack of Grech’s Coldplay-esque worship music—full of lyrics about breaking chains—does not confront the harmful nature of so-called cure therapy.
Nearly every medical and therapeutic body in the world has disavowed gay cure therapy, with many warning of a potential link between the practice and depression, self-harm and even suicide.
Confronted with the weight of expert consensus, Davidson says: “You know, so what?”
“It’s one ideological point of view… we are going in a different direction,” he adds.
”Folks on a side different to my own constantly talk about potential harm, because they know they can’t talk about harm, they can only talk about potential harm.”
Davidson, who himself is not certified in medicine or therapy, is affronted by the suggestion that his work causes damage.
He adds: “Paracetamol is fatal if you misuse it, but we haven’t banned paracetamol… you don’t ban things, you don’t deny one group of people the right and freedom, and say you are giving rights and freedoms to another.”
Who funds Core Issues Trust?
While Davidson has become the face of the movement through appearances on ITV’s Good Morning Britain and BBC News to debate the issue of gay cure therapy, he is far from alone.
The industry is propped up by a network of interconnected groups rooted in evangelical Christianity. Davidson is the director of Core Issues Trust, while his co-director, Andrea Williams, also heads fundamentalist action groups Christian Concern and Christian Legal Centre.
The film screening also displays banners for the International Federation for Therapeutic and Counselling Choice, set up by Davidson to work on the issue internationally. The group is already lobbying in Malta on Grech’s behalf, claiming that the country’s gay cure ban violates human rights laws.
Once Gay’s slick film production and its swanky white wine-and-canapés launch event also raise questions about the funding for Davidson’s work.
Though it runs frequent events in London, Core Issues Trust is registered as a charity in Northern Ireland, where its accounts show £67,400 in income for the year ending December 31, 2017.
Asked who funded the film’s production, Davidson responds: “Supporters, people like this,” he says, referring to the amassed audience. “There may be some businesses that will give to us.”
Davidson directly heads off questions of funding from the US, denying links to American evangelical groups the Heritage Foundation and Alliance Defending Freedom, which have exerted their influence to campaign against equal rights for LGBT+ people. “We do not have any funding from the United States of America,” he says.
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Core Issues Trust draws in unlikely allies of gay cure therapy
Core Issues Trust’s funding remains oblique, but the private influence of the group is apparent from the estimated 150 people in attendance for the Once Gay screening: A mixture of die-hard supporters, evangelicals, curious strangers, and an unlikely network of allies.
At the reception before the film, a local imam explains that he wants to learn more about conversion therapy to adapt the model for Islam.
Paradoxically close to him stands Alan Craig, the UK Independence Party’s Families and Children spokesperson, who last year outlined the party’s tough new anti-Muslim, anti-LGBT manifesto.
Some attendees seem to genuinely believe the group’s efforts can change policy on the issue of gay cure therapy, but several privately admit that the UK’s ban on the practice seems inevitable.
The government is also increasingly firm on the issue. The Minister for Equalities, Baroness Williams, for example, reaffirms the need for a ban.
“I think it’s really shocking,” Williams tells PinkNews. “It’s obviously more widespread than we first thought, and I think that’s why it’s good to take a proper look at it, and see where it exists.
“We need to make sure that where it exists, it is ended.”
But what real impact a ban would have remains an open question. Investigations across the country have found gay cures offered on the fringes of faith groups, out of public view and away from any accountability.
And, unlike Once Gay, it’s the potential consequences of these treatments—self-harm, suicide and depression among them—that gay cure advocates don’t want you to see on film.