Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — It's 2008. Ben*, an 18-year-old college student, stood in front of a building in Makati with his best friend after coming out to her as a gay man. He was there because he did not want to be one.
Growing up in an evangelical household, Ben accepted the phrase “homosexuality is a sin” as truth, and thus he felt the need to “change” his sexual orientation. He had struggled with masturbating with the masculine form in mind. When his friend led him to this hidden office which sold a promise to resolve issues concerning his sexual desires, Ben felt that he would finally be “cured.”
“At the time for me, it was a beacon of hope,” he said, now that he's in his 30s.
Ben was welcomed by a bald, friendly man named John, the father figure of the male congregation. “He had glasses and he was very trained. Like a counselor, or a psychotherapist,” he said. John told him about the Saturday gatherings, where they sang songs of praise and worship. It was here that Ben met other men who had the same dilemma as his — some his age while others much older — and they were raffled into what he called “accountability groups.”
These groups ran over their members’ daily encounters. And each attendee had to adhere to a specific set of rules: the men cannot share their mobile numbers with one another, they are not allowed to wear shorts, and they are not allowed to be alone together in a confined space.
And then there was a “self-check” session shortly after.
“There is a list of questions that you answer. I don't remember all of them, but some questions that are being asked are: Did you masturbate? Did you have lustful thoughts? Did you have a compromising situation of any member of the same sex? Things like that, as in questions that ask if you had anything to do with acting on homosexuality,” Ben explained. “And at the end of all those questions is, ‘Did you lie to the group?’”
Ben diligently answered the questions every single time. In the course of that year, he had lost his virginity to a man, as he was trying to figure out what he wanted for himself. And when Ben admitted his slip-up to fellow attendees of the program, he claimed it broke everyone's heart.
He started an intensive group therapy after that, which went on for another year.
President Rodrigo Duterte has thrown around the word “gay” a lot — usually as a weapon against his scorned enemies such as Antonio Trillanes, and sometimes referring to himself. But on May 30, the Philippine president said he had “cured” himself of homosexuality after he met his common-law wife, Honeylet Avanceña.
Duterte is no stranger to colorful language, but more importantly, the belief of being “cleansed” of homosexuality is not specific to the President. Heterosexual culture entertains a lot of tropes on an individual's sexual orientation and gender identity shifting gears. Some straight, cisgender women ask out gay men to date them and ask if they could “change his mind.” There's also the assumption that if a lesbian decides to sleep with men, it would automatically press the right buttons to bring them back to the heterosexual life.
There are a handful though, who offer more life-changing services. Through “sexual orientation change efforts” or more popularly known as “conversion therapy” practices, LGBTQ+ can supposedly curb actions and thoughts hinged on their sexual orientation or gender identity.
“When the pastor finds out that you're doing something, you get paddled. It's not like they're gonna hit you ng sobrang lakas, it's the embarrassment. Because then he would gather all of the youth and all of the teenagers that are present.”
That was the case for Stuart Baretto, a trans man activist, whose religious mother hired the services of an espiritista or spiritualist when he was 14. Stuart had been diagnosed with depression, but his parents, who were also devout Catholics, did not believe in mental illnesses. His mother had trouble identifying her child as a boy, and his family had already tried various ways to interfere in his sexual identity.
“Tinatapon nila ‘yung toys ko na panlalaki. Tapos, pinipilit nila na bilhin ‘yung mga clothes ko na pambabae,” he said.
And the ispiritista's diagnosis: there was a spirit of a boy inside Stuart's body which caused him to act like a tomboy.
Stuart was then smoked with incense to ward off the invading entity. “Ang weird ng experience na ‘to kasi... hihilot ka niya, and then ‘yung spirit na sumapi sa akin, sasapi din sa kanya, sasalita ‘yung spirit through the manghihilot,” he said. “Ang sabi noong spirit, he doesn't mean harm.”
The World Health Organization (WHO) declassified homosexuality as a mental health illness in 1990, and in 2019 it also no longer classifies transgender people as mentally ill. The American Psychiatric Association has also opposed any form of treatment against a person's sexuality and gender identity, since there has been no “scientifically validated” methods for converting sexuality, and there is no need to do so.
But in the case of the Philippines, a country with a significant amount of Catholics, it is religion and faith that drives “praying the gay away.”
Members of the LGBTQ+ sector are all too familiar with the anti-gay Bible verses most of the devouts read aloud during mass, fellowships, and even the supposed safe space of Pride Marches. Some of these Christians say their actions are done out of love — as they brandish their pickets and scream at queer people — to lead a person back to Jesus Christ.
For Ice*, a 31-year-old nurse, that love came in the form of pray-overs. Her mother, a Christian who often attends Bible study sessions, had pulled her out from her high school in Caloocan in 2002 and flung her off to a friend in Cabanatuan. This was after she found out that Ice was dating a butch lesbian.
But the friend of Ice's mom did not take too well to her either, and she was kicked out. Her mother did not want her to come back home to Manila until she changed. Ice then found shelter in a town church, where she stayed until she went off to college. During her stay, she confessed to the pastor's sister that she was gay, and she was met with disgust. It was at that moment she knew she had to force herself to like men.
“When the pastor finds out that you're doing something, you get paddled,” Ice said. She remembered having seen two boys paddled. “It's not like they're gonna hit you ng sobrang lakas, it's the embarrassment. Because then he would gather all of the youth and all of the teenagers that are present.”
Out of fear of getting kicked out again, Ice subjected herself to regular prayer meetings between her and the pastor's sister for two years. The anxiety surrounding rejection lingered until she entered college in a university in Manila, because despite the pray-over, she was still a lesbian. So she tried to do SEB, or “sex on eyeball.”
“Maybe if I had sex with a guy it would turn me straight. So I tried, and I tried, and my studies suffered,” Ice said.
After years of trying, Ice gave up on changing her sexual orientation and fled to the United States, shortly after she broke up with a woman she was in a relationship with. Ever since, she has only gone to churches with the rainbow flag — the symbol of the LGBTQ+ community — out.
The WHO has already ruled that “reparative” therapies and procedures are rarely medically necessary, and may even cause injury, loss of sexual sensation, and lifelong depression. The global health agency also said these methods are largely unscientific and that these contribute to stigma. Other studies have also linked conversion therapy methods to an increased risk of alcohol and substance abuse, with some extreme cases prompting people to kill themselves.
Several church ministries have branded their ex-gays as success stories. But the Human Rights Campaign reaffirmed research that has trumped on the efficacy of such methods.
In Ben’s case, he realized that despite submitting himself to the process for two years, he still can’t renounce his sexual urges towards men.
“From that first meeting, tinanong ka na mismo, what is the end goal of people who go here? They eventually became straight? I think that's the whole purpose. That was what my idea of the group was about,” said Ben. “And in the end, ‘yung nakuha ko talaga na sinabi nila was it's rare. It happens na some get married to the opposite sex, but most cases hindi talaga nawawala ang attraction to the same sex. Ang pinaka-focus lang talaga ng group na 'yun was to change the behavior of some who were active in the lifestyle,” he added.
During his group therapy session, group leader John had attempted to psychoanalyze and trace back the roots of Ben's sexuality. In the process, Ben had surmised that his parents’ issues were to be blamed for his sexual attraction to boys, which had put him off.
He added that while some of the secret group’s members have gotten married to women, Ben's group mates were also having illicit affairs with other men.
The WHO has already ruled that “reparative” therapies and procedures are rarely medically necessary, and may even cause injury, loss of sexual sensation, and lifelong depression. The global health agency also said resorting to these methods are largely unscientific and contributing to stigma.
Asked if these groups had a negative effect on the people it invited, Ben said, “It's hard to say kasi the people who are attending really believe in it. For them, I guess it's still a family for these people. Personally, I just came to a realization that it's not for me and that I'm not going to change.”
For Stuart, his mom eventually turned around, especially after he joined an organization advocating the rights of the LGBTQ+ community in college. But he did understand why his parents subjected him to seek help, even though there was nothing about him to change.
“They think they are doing this for what's good for the children. Pero they see it in a religious way,” he said.
Ice will soon be married to another woman from the Philippines. Her mom, although still worried that her daughter will go to hell for choosing her sexuality, has begun referring to Ice's fiancee by name — something which she refused to do since Ice started dating women.
She does not blame her mother for how she left her to the devices of a church, which promised to put her back “on track.”
“It's more important to educate the parents,” she said. “Because they don't understand it. Just the fact that they actually thought of sending their kids to these camps, I think that means that they love them. It's just that they don't understand or they don't know how to love them.”
*Names have been changed to protect their identities.