FORMER evangelical mega-church pastor Nicole Conner has taken to the airwaves once again to declare her support for LGBTI people of faith.
Conner has finally broken her silence regarding the tremendous controversy and heartache she experienced after her first radio interview on Melbourne’s JOY 94.9 in 2015, which sent shockwaves through Australia’s evangelical community.
The child of German migrants to South Africa who held progressive views, Conner felt that her theological and personal stance on same-sex attraction, inequality, women’s rights and asylum seekers were increasingly at odds with those of her fellow leaders in the Australian Pentecostal movement.
Conner’s values did not align with the homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and ex-gay practices that she witnessed in evangelical churches. After the first interview on JOY 94.9 in 2015, conservative Christian commentators ridiculed Conner, condemning her views.
The now-defunct fundamentalist group Saltshakers published numerous articles calling for Conner to “submit to her husband”, a reference to Mark Conner, the former Senior Minister of Citylife Church in Melbourne.
“I experienced so much anxiety during the awful backlash; however, I would not change a thing. It was such a painful, yet transformational experience. My family and I have grown through it all. Our lives are infinitely richer because of the many incredible [LGBTI] people of faith we now call friends,” said Conner.
It took 18 months of negotiations to get Conner to agree to an interview the first time around. This time, however, Conner jumped at the opportunity to join host Dean Beck for his final episode of Word For Word, before he takes a six month break from on-air duties.
Her interview adds to the ground-breaking radio documentary series and website, Inside Ex-gay: the naked truth, a unique resource for ex-gay survivors and LGBTI people struggling to reconcile their sexuality and faith.
Conner’s 2015 interview has been downloaded 10,000 times by listeners around the globe. The impact it has had is impossible to measure, but Conner has plenty of personal feedback from LGBTI people of faith.
“I now know that lives have been saved because of that interview,” she said.
Conner’s story echoes those of the other guests who have featured on the Inside Ex-gay radio series. The long form interview series kicked off in 2013 and has produced nine interviews with pastors, ex-gay conversion therapy survivors, theologians and LGBTI-affirming Christian allies.
“We wanted to know what happens when the leaders of the leaders—the people who taught the teachers—change their mind about [LGBTI] people”, said presenter and co-producer Dean Beck.
“Does their change of mind trickle down into the hearts and minds of the masses? Or do they get bundled up and marched out of town? Unfortunately, until very recently, we found that the latter has prevailed.”
In 2015 Beck wrote an article for Star Observer on the ex-gay movement.
The Inside Ex-gay series has been produced during a time when major Christian leaders such as Vicky Beeching, David Gushee, Tony Campolo and Eugene Peterson have been experiencing strong opposition for voicing their opposition to the ex-gay or conversion therapy movement.
Evangelicalism has a unique footprint in Australia. A country with a population that identifies as roughly fifty per cent Christian, Australia’s largest churches (Roman Catholic Anglican and Uniting Church) are not strictly considered “evangelical”. This label is more accurately reserved for a small subset of Anglicans, as well as Baptists and Pentecostals.
Despite the strong voice of the staunchly evangelical Australian Christian Lobby, ABS and Church Census data suggest a figure of no more than one million. This is in stark contrast to the US, where figures are so high that some states allow evangelical creationism to be taught as an alternative to evolution.
Recently disbanded American ex-gay organisation Exodus International once held conferences attracting thousands of young LGBTI believers seeking to change their sexual orientation in line with their conservative religious views. The mental health trauma created by groups like Exodus led to conversion therapy bans in the US states of California and New Jersey.
In 2015, the success of the Inside Ex-gay series led to the establishment of a steering group that brought together Victorian Human Rights Lawyers and LGBTI advocates. One pivotal outcome of this group has been a La Trobe University research project investigating the prevalence of the Australian ex-gay movement.
Conducted by another Inside Ex-gay guest, Dr Timothy Jones, the project’s findings are due to be released in the coming weeks. A further outcome has been the establishment of Brave Network Melbourne, a support and advocacy group for LGBTI people of faith.
Natalie Cooper is a straight ally and co-director of Equal Voices in Sydney. Her Inside Ex-gay interview was broadcast in June 2017. Cooper’s organisation is seeking to facilitate a national LGBTI apology, starting with churches.
“I hope the evangelical church learns to truly listen to people, especially [LGBTI] people, and stop talking over the top of them. This will require the humility to accept that we don’t know everything and aren’t always right. That last part will be hard because evangelicals have such a need to be right, but that need is killing others,” she said.
Word For Word with Dean Beck presents Nicole Conner Returns this Saturday August 5 at 4 pm on JOY 94.9, and podcast immediately after.
To download other Inside Ex-gay podcasts and to learn more about the efforts to ban ex-gay conversion therapy in Australia, visit the website.